Foundations: No.62 Spring 2012

Book review

Gareth Williams, Pastor of Bala Evangelical Church, North Wales, UK

Christ-centred Biblical Theology, Graeme Goldsworthy, Apollos (IVP), 2012, 250pp, £14.99

Graeme Goldsworthy, and those through Moore College who have developed the kind of biblical theology it has become known for, owe a considerable debt to their mentor Donald Robinson (p.14), former vice-principal of Moore (1959-73) and, later, Archbishop of Sydney (1982-93). This book is a personal tribute to him, and aims, as Robinson apparently did, to inject biblical theology, and his particular notion of it, into our veins.

Whilst there is repetition and recapitulation in the book, especially with regards to Donald Robinson’s ideas, the book is nevertheless fresh and stimulating. For those familiar with the subject, the repetition could suggest that some of the chapters might have been more clearly arranged; for those less familiar, the repetition will help to enforce and clarify central concerns. The book builds on Goldsworthy’s previous works, most notably his According to Plan and Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics and, like those works, opens gates further into contemporary fields of biblical theology.

For Goldsworthy and many others, biblical theology presupposes the unity of Scriptural revelation and understands that revelation to be progressive. It purports to provide ‘a ‘big picture’ that makes sense out of the ‘…bulk and variety of the biblical literature… [and seeks] to view the whole scene of God’s revelation from the heights… and allow God to show us his one mighty plan from creation to new creation’ (p.19). This ‘plan’ is what biblical theology seeks to understand. Is there one principal theological message within it, or are there several messages? Goldsworthy leans to the former, but recognises that others see, rather, a multiplex progression of irreducible theological themes. He is aware that his own position is open to the charge of reductionism, and therefore, of being simplistic, and acknowledges the dangers inherent in seeking to ascertain a biblical centre (p.102f, p.196), or, perhaps, an organising principle – knowing that one ‘small’ piece of textual evidence can ‘throw the system’. Notwithstanding, he is persuaded that the whole Bible has one over-arching theological theme, or message. His aim in the book is to open out the question of the nature of ‘the Bible’s unity in diversity, and the role of Jesus Christ as the centre to which all Scripture leads’ (p.32, p.40). Connecting the narratives of Israel with the Gospels, he seeks to point out revelation’s progression from creation to new creation, by focusing on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He believes that this biblical theology is ‘at the heart of evangelical hermeneutics and is absolutely indispensible in expository preaching… the heartbeat of effective pastoral ministry’ (p.23, and some excellent practical points, p.193f).

Biblical theology’s premise is that the Bible must be allowed to speak for itself, from within its own genres and structures. There is likely to be a distinction, then, between the study of the Bible in its own terms (p.22) and the church’s doctrinal formulae of it. Compared with the traditionally more familiar systematic theology, biblical theology (it claims) more evidently allows Scripture’s own theological emphases to emerge and makes theological interpretation less prone to philosophical encrustation; Goldsworthy seeks a theological framework which maximally off-loads unbiblical baggage.

Robinson’s system was not entirely his own. A. Gabriel Hebert (an Anglo-Catholic), based on an earlier work by W. J. Phythian-Adams, was simultaneously developing a threefold structure, such that Goldsworthy properly sees a Robinson-Hebert model (p.21f). Both were influenced by O. Cullman and C. H. Dodd (pp.21, 78f). The ‘big picture’ in this model is the outworking of God’s promise to Abraham (pp.22-23). Its threefold structure is

(a) the historical experience of the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham through the Exodus to the kingdom of David’s son in the land of inheritance, (b) the projection of this fulfilment into the future of the day of the Lord, by the prophets, during the period of decline, fall, exile, and return, and (c) the true fulfilment in Christ and the Spirit in Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, exaltation and in his parousia as judge and saviour in a new heaven and new earth’ (pp.22-23, 170).

Simplified by Goldsworthy, this is ‘biblical history from creation, and especially from Abraham, to Solomon; the eschatology of the writing prophets; and the fulfilment of all things in Christ’ (p.25, detail on pp.111-169).

Such an understanding of biblical theology was predated, however, by Geerhardus Vos (p.80f), whose approach was taken up by John Murray (p.112), and more recently by Edmund P. Clowney (pp.84f, 111-114ff). This Westminster approach sees the progression of revelation more evidently in terms of epochs (with their ever-expanding horizons of context), whereas Moore generally sees the theological theme(s) running longitudinally, with greater fluidity, through the epochs. The question Goldsworthy and others wish to answer is, which of these two or other systems most accurately reflects and conveys the Bible’s own revelation?

There seems little doubt that writing either a New Testament theology or an Old Testament theology is easier than writing a comprehensive and coherent Biblical theology (p.94), but, as Goldsworthy argues, a New Testament theology cut loose of its Old Testament moorings is of questionable value, as also is an Old Testament theology not coalescing in Christ (so pp.225-227). A satisfying biblical theology, he argues, embraces both. Goldsworthy acknowledges warmly the recent efforts made, amongst others, by Charles Scobie (who does not see a single over-arching theme of the Old Testament, pp.93-96), Sydney Greidanus (who has a multiplex approach, pp.92-93 and pp.104-108, typo. p.104), William J. Dumbrell (who holds a covenant framework yet with multi-themes; pp.90-92) and Willem VanGemeren (developing Westminster’s redemptive-historical approach, pp.89-90). N. T. Wright receives somewhat cursory treatment but is represented, Goldsworthy believes, by Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen (who see the Bible as a six-act story, narrative or drama, with the kingdom of God its central theme, and the covenant a subsidiary one, pp.97-98). In a helpful discussion on biblical typology, Goldsworthy shares particularly G. von Rad’s conclusions: whilst typology has to do with an intensification of essential truths contained within persons, events and institutions, it is better to see the whole Old Testament as a developing typological repository, all themes finding their ultimate fulfilment in the antitype of the person and work of Christ (pp.179-184). Hence, for Goldsworthy, at least, biblical theology is Christ-centred.

It seems to this reviewer that whilst an ‘inductive’ approach to ascertaining the theology of the Bible is entirely appropriate, it becomes increasingly difficult, once a particular schema has emerged, not then to look for it in every nook and cranny of Scripture, and even more difficult not to impose it on the interpretation of the text. And the perennial presuppositional problem remains: Is the Bible essentially Theo- or Christo-centric? Is God in the Old Testament clearly Trinitarian or do we see this only with New Testament hindsight? And given the New Testament’s clarity, to what extent to do we then read Christ in (or into) the Old Testament, and how ought we to read him so? Goldsworthy is fully aware of these questions. He respects V. Poythress’ God-centered Biblical Interpretation, for example (p.44), and embraces Calvin’s ultimate presuppositional start-point in the Institutes (p.41). Instead of the threefold structure, arranged around the centrality of Christ, however, some may prefer to see the organising paradigm of Scripture as ‘covenantal,’ others ‘redemptive,’ based on an ‘Exodus-new Exodus’ motif. And given God’s revelation through both of these, and set within a creation-new creation framework, a theocentric approach may lead some to seeing the attributes of God as having centrality, which could, of course, attract the imposition of systematic criteria. For a comprehensive biblical theology, some systematic input is unavoidable (cf. p.42). Just as evangelicals believe both Creation and Scripture to have the same Author, we take it that pure biblical and systematic theology ought, ultimately, to present the same truth – but at least one of them will need to bend for this to be achieved.

From the point of view of a completed canon, and the use the New Testament makes of the Old Testament, there are clear grounds for reading Christological significance back into the Old Testament. For Goldsworthy, preaching the Old Testament’s testimony to Christ takes precedence over preaching its testimony to authentic Christian life today (p.30-32), despite Paul’s having stated ‘these things were written for our instruction’ (1 Cor 10:11). Whilst favourably citing VanGemeren as saying, ‘Christian students of the Old Testament must pass by the cross of Jesus Christ on their return to the Old Testament, and as such they can never lose their identity as a Christian’ (p.89), Goldsworthy emphasises more the centrality of Christ’s Person than his work (although it is taken that his frequent use of ‘Christ’ subsumes Christ’s ‘Person and work’, cf. p.184). His, ‘Thus I stand by my initial suggestion that the central theme of Scripture is the kingdom of God defined simply as God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule,’ (pp.71-75) jars somewhat with the christocentricity underlined elsewhere in the book (e.g., p.80). The reader has to make the connection between the kingdom ‘theme’ and Christ as ‘the centre to which all Scripture leads.’

No-one is likely to agree entirely with Robinson’s insights on ‘Israel and the Church’ (pp.201-206) and ‘Baptism’ (pp.208-213), but they provoke response in a refreshing manner. The book closes with two examples of biblical-theological themes worked through the Old Testament and into the New Testament within the threefold structure, namely the temple (esp. p.220) and prayer (esp. p.222).

There is plenty here for everyone to muse upon, to reflect upon and maybe to re-think through, such as the place biblical theology should occupy in a college curriculum (pp.33-37) – there are, apparently, some 5,000 students in Latin America alone presently studying these methods through Moore.