Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Book Review: According to Plan

My apologies for not posting much lately. Taking a summer class has utilized virtually all of my free time. The review that follows is a lightly edited version of what I wrote for my biblical theology class at seminary. Hopefully my posting frequency will increase soon. :)

Graeme Goldsworthy formerly was professor of Old Testament, biblical theology and hermeneutics at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible is one of many monographs that Goldsworthy has published, which also include Gospel and Kingdom, Gospel and Wisdom, The Gospel in Revelation, and Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.

Why do we need the discipline of biblical theology? This is the question that Goldsworthy tackles in part one of the book. Correctly interpreting the Bible is a difficult task, and the meaning and significance of nearly every passage of Scripture is contested. The goal of biblical theology is to adjudicate some of these disputes by, ‘looking at one particular event in relation to the total picture’ (21). Biblical theology assumes the unity of the Bible and attempts to help us see how a specific passage fits into that unity (23).

In part two, Goldsworthy explains how to do biblical theology. He begins in chapter two by outlining the four major approaches to theology; systematic, historical, pastoral, and biblical theology (30-2). As he notes, biblical theology is a subset of exegetical theology (32). Exegesis can be understood as seeking to answer four basic questions; ‘what is the text,’ ‘what is the source of the text,’ and ‘what is the meaning of the text,’ and ‘how did the text come to be recognized as uniquely revelational and authoritative’ (33-5).

The next chapter discusses how we know, by comparing and contrasting three different kinds of knowing; secular humanism, theistic humanism, and Christian theism (37-44). Goldsworthy comes down squarely in the third camp. ‘Either we work on the basis of a sovereign, self-proving God who speaks to us by a word that we accept as true simply because it is his word, or we work on the basis that man is the final judge of all truth’ (44).

In chapters four and five, Goldsworthy builds off of chapter three, examining the goal (knowing Christ) and source (the Word of God) of theological knowledge. Part of the work of the new birth is to renew our minds so that we can correctly think about and draw conclusions from God’s word (48-9). Thinking correctly about the Bible means that we will recognize that the whole Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – is the word of God and reveals Christ, the Word of God (52-4). Goldsworthy sees the christocentricity of the Old Testament being far more pervasive than just a few proof texts, the Old Testament as a whole is about Jesus (53). It’s not about Jesus as clearly and obviously as the New Testament is, but that’s because revelation is progressive. Not everything about God’s plan of redemption was revealed at once. God unfolded it in stages through history (57).

The sixth chapter and seventh chapters delve into the question of the nature of the word of God and the method of biblical theology. In some respects these are the most important chapters in the book. A misstep here could skew all of your results (that includes missteps on both the left and the right). Goldsworthy begins in chapter six by identifying the relationship between Jesus and Scripture. Jesus, ‘sums it up, brings it to fulfillment and interprets it’ (59-60). Jesus and the Bible are both the word of God, but in different senses. Then Goldsworthy goes on to explicate the similarities between Jesus and Scripture via the incarnational analogy. Both are the divine-human word of God (61-3). The Bible is inspired and infallible, but, at the same time, it is a product of particular human cultures (63). Next Goldsworthy explains that Jesus is the climax of revelation. Revelation in the Old Testament is only partial (63-6). The chapter ends with a discussion explaining how Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament works. Old Testament promises are not fulfilled in a literalistic manner, nor are they merely fodder for ahistorical allegory (67-9). Christ’s fulfillment is typological where, ‘fulfillments correspond to and develop the promises’ (68).

Chapter seven, the last chapter in part two, delineates how one does biblical theology. Biblical theology starts with the gospel, which he defines as, ‘the word about Jesus Christ and what he did for us in order to restore us to a right relationship with God’ (73). From that starting point, Goldsworthy suggests attempting a three step approach to each passage. We must examine the literary form, historical record and the theology of each passage we study (73-75). Since Christ is center of God’s revelation, he must be kept at the center of our approach to Scripture. He closes by introducing some framework to help guide us through the rest of the book, a framework which helps us see how the Bible finds its unity in Christ.

In part three we see biblical theology in action. Goldsworthy begins by unpacking the gospel. From there he moves through the plot line of the Bible covering creation, the fall, redemption in the Old Testament, different aspects of life under God’s rule in God’s land, the exile and return, and finally the new creation. Most of the chapters are synopses of what happened at that point in redemptive history integrated with a discussion of how God’s redemptive action was shown. At the end of each chapter is a brief summary, a chart showing the progress of redemptive history thus far, a study guide, and a select bibliography.

Because of constraints of space I will select just one chapter to outline at greater depth as representative of the way Goldsworthy does biblical theology. In chapter twenty one, Goldsworthy covers the return from exile. He begins the chapter by giving a very brief overview of what happens in Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and a brief description of the prophetic hope of Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and Daniel: The people are coming back into the land, but they do not get what they long for. The promised new covenant has not yet come into effect and the temple is embarrassingly poor so they continue to look to the future (195-6). This drives Goldsworthy to make a keen observation, namely, that the Old Testament is an unfinished story (197-8). The chapter is concluded by rehashing the main plot from the beginning of Old Testament history to here, stressing the lack of fulfillment in the Old Testament but also with an eye towards the fulfillment of these themes in Christ in the New Testament.

Part four gives us a brief snapshot at how one might attempt a biblical theological approach to studying two themes; knowing God’s will and life after death.

Goldsworthy’s work has much to commend to it. I will highlight a few items that were particularly helpful for me and note a couple of minor criticisms. The discussion of the nature of Scripture in chapter six was especially balanced. Goldsworthy avoided the pitfalls of liberal skepticism which sees the Bible as unreliable and a conservative fundamentalism that insists upon a literalistic approach to Scripture. I have long found the incarnational analogy to be a very helpful tool for understanding why the Bible looks very human on one hand and so clearly God breathed on the other (even if Goldsworthy and I would perhaps work out the details differently).

His biggest strength is his ability to unify the entire message of the Bible under one umbrella of the themes of promise and new creation (77). While those are not the only themes that he develops or that tie together the whole Bible, they certainly do deserve the priority that he gives them. God’s relationship with individuals and Israel as a whole is consistently centered around covenants. New creation is an end of God’s for all of creation. While new creation is not the ultimate goal of what God is doing, I do not think that he developed that theme enough in relation to the Old Testament. Discussion of the creation/new creation theme in the sections dealing with the Old Testament would show more clearly how the story of Israel and the story of the church coheres. This weakness does not mean, though, that Goldsworthy was not successful in showing the unity of God’s purposes as revealed in Scripture. He was successful on many levels. I think that a useful book could have been made even more useful with greater attention paid to new creation.

One element of his end of chapter summaries in part three that was especially beneficial to this reviewer was the charts. These diagrams show, at each stage of redemptive history, who God is, who his people are, the sphere of God’s saving activity, and the manifestation of the kingdom of God at that point in redemptive history. They enable the reader to easily grasp the progressiveness of God’s plan and form a good summary that can be used for quick reference.

Part Four could have been a bit more detailed. The sketches Goldsworthy presents would probably aid the pastor or someone with at least some formal theological training. I do not believe that the average lay person (who certainly is part of the intended audience of this book) would find it practically useful. It’s a little too difficult at times. Most lay people I know, for example, would have a hard time with point two under his suggested approach for ‘Knowing God’s Will.’ Goldsworthy does realize that it’s hard, but the method he suggests requires a fair amount of training in exegesis.

Overall, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible is an excellent introduction to biblical theology. The book bypasses technical jargon and never weighs down the reader with unnecessary detail making it truly introductory. At the same time, the breadth of material covered in such a short space is vast, making it truly a biblical theology. These two strengths should enable it to have a long life in the classroom. If one were to teach an adult Sunday school course on biblical theology, she or he would be wise to consider Goldsworthy’s book for that setting as well. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible should be in the library of every church and on the shelf of every serious student of Scripture.

2 comments:

  1. Like you, I've been wicked busy and can't find time to post. Oh well, welcome to blogging.

    Are there any other books on biblical theology written at this level you'd recommend?

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  2. I can't think of any. Most works of biblical theology are narrower and more technical (or narrower and worse).

    This was the only book of this type that we read in that class so I assume that means Graham Cole would recommend it over its competitors.

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