Book Review: Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles, by Graeme Goldsworthy

Review
11.13.2012

Graeme Goldsworthy’s name is rightly associated with the discipline of biblical theology (BT). Through many years of teaching and pastoral ministry, and especially in his many publications[1], he has challenged preachers, teachers, and indeed all Christians to grasp God’s big picture for the life and health of the church. Further, Goldsworthy has repeatedly reminded us that BT is at the heart of evangelical hermeneutics and is thus indispensable to our preaching, doctrinal construction, and pastoral ministry.

EXPOUNDING A VISION FOR BIBLICAL THEOLOGY     

In his new work Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles, Goldsworthy returns to the subject of BT with a twofold focus. First, it is obvious throughout the work that Goldsworthy wants to honor Donald Robinson, his former professor and colleague at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, who was so instrumental in the development of his own thinking on BT.

Second, he wants to explore and defend Robinson’s approach to BT, along with Gabriel Hebert’s contribution, which he labels “The Robinson-Hebert schema,” as the best way to structure the Bible on its own terms (22). Goldsworthy rightly notes that among those who practice BT there is not universal agreement concerning methodology. So, he spends the first three chapters explaining why BT has been neglected in the church and the academy (33-37), how he defines BT (38-42), and the theological presuppositions which undergird the discipline (42-55), and providing a robust defense of the Bible’s conception of salvation history (56-75) and a restatement of what he believes is the central theme of Scripture, namely “the kingdom of God defined simply as God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule” (75). He then devotes the remainder of the book (chapters 4-11) to defending what he believes is the Bible’s own internal structure over against other evangelical approaches to BT.

Goldsworthy rightly contends that BT consists in more than simply relating the events of the biblical story in order. Instead, BT must first grasp the Bible’s own internal structure and then draw conclusions based on how the Bible unfolds on its own terms. Given the lack of consensus among evangelicals on how the Bible is put together, Goldsworthy proposes that the “Robinson-Hebert” scheme best reflects the Bible’s structure. The rest of the book defends this scheme. In chapters 4-5, Goldsworthy sets the context for his discussion by summarizing the various methodological proposals of leading evangelical biblical theologians such as Geerhardus Vos, Edmund Clowney, Dennis Johnson, Willem VanGemeren, William Dumbrell, Sidney Greidanus, Charles Scobie, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Gerhard Hasel, and Elmer Martens. He spends most of his time critiquing the Vos-Clowney approach which divides redemptive history into various epochs. Goldsworthy’s main critique is that their epochal divisions are not consistent to the way the Bible structures itself (111-132). Thus, for example, the last great epoch of the OT in addition to creation, the fall, the flood, and the call of Abraham is the period from Moses to the coming of Christ. But Goldsworthy rightly questions whether this is how the OT divides redemptive history and whether this does justice to the watershed revelation associated with David and Solomon, let alone the later prophetic eschatology which focuses on the return from exile, the restoration of the people, and the anticipation of the renewal of all things.

Goldsworthy’s Proposal: Three Stages of Revelation

What does Goldsworthy suggest is a better proposal? In chapters 6-8 he argues for the threefold structure of Robinson-Hebert as best reflecting how the Bible itself moves from creation to new creation. He proposes that God’s plan unfolds in three main stages: 1) the basic biblical history from creation to Abraham, and then from Abraham to David and Solomon; 2) the eschatology of the later writing prophets; and 3) the fulfillment of all things in Christ.

As Goldsworthy develops these three stages, he argues that the first stage of biblical history not only provides the rationale and backdrop to the calling of Abraham and the covenant with Israel, it also establishes the typological patterns which are later developed in the prophets and fulfilled in Christ. In addition, he argues that the high point of the first stage is found in David and Solomon and in the building of the temple which represents God’s presence among his people, an echo of Eden of old.

The second stage begins with Solomon’s apostasy. Biblical history from this time on primarily features judgment overlaid with the prophetic promises that the Day of the Lord will come and bring ultimate blessing and judgment. In this stage of revelation, the typological patterns laid down in the earlier history are now recapitulated as they project a greater future fulfillment.

In the last and final stage, the fulfillment of the previous stages now takes place in Christ who fulfills all the previous patterns in himself in an “already-not yet” fashion (170-174).

Macro-Typology

Viewing the structure of the Bible this way not only leads us to read the entire Bible Christologically, it also allows for what Goldsworthy labels “macro-typology.” Instead of restricting typology to certain persons, events, and institutions, Goldsworthy proposes that whole stages of revelation are typological and, as such, “there is no limit to types in Scripture other than Scripture itself, which embraces the whole of reality” (185).

Yet in making such a sweeping statement Goldsworthy does not want to open the door to allegory. He writes that the “removal of limits to typology does not mean that anything goes, or that we take a cavalier attitude to finding types of Christ in every little detail on the basis of some association of ideas” (186). For example, he rejects the redness of Rahab’s cord as a type of Jesus’ blood since this represents “fanciful, non-contextual associations that avoid the real theology behind these things” (187). Rather the entire stage of revelation is the context of typology and the “typological value of a person, event or institution is governed by the role that each plays in the theology of the redemptive revelation within the stage of revelation in which it occurs” (187).

Unpacking Robinson, Drawing Conclusions

In chapter 10, Goldsworthy pays tribute to his mentor Donald Robinson by unpacking what he believes are some of the more seminal points of Robinson’s work, such as his understanding of the Israel-church relationship, eschatology, and baptism. In regard to the latter, Goldsworthy agrees with Robinson that in the NT water baptism signifies nothing more than what it signified in John the Baptist’s mission: a person’s gesture of repentance toward God in hope of forgiveness and the fulfillment of the promises of the covenant (212). Goldsworthy then concludes that Scripture gives no indication that baptism is considered an initiation into the church, nor is it essential to the apostolic mission. Ultimately he thinks that baptism should be viewed as a matter of indifference which may be applied to believers and the children of believers. This is a very unfortunate conclusion and it is hard to see how this follows from his entire discussion, much less how it follows from Scripture itself. This certainly is the weakest point of the book despite Goldsworthy’s intent to honor his mentor.

Chapter 11 finishes the book with a helpful chapter on how to do BT. In it Goldsworthy illustrates his method by sketching a BT of the temple and prayer.

ASSESSING GOLDSWORTHY’S APPROACH TO BIBLICAL THEOLOGY

Overall this is a helpful work on BT and a careful study of it will pay rich dividends. Goldsworthy is on target in seeking to describe the Bible’s own internal structure and thus how the Bible fits together on its own terms. In this regard his discussion of the three stages of revelation is helpful for thinking through how redemptive history is structured. Unfortunately this discussion is often neglected in BT. Too often the practice of BT leads people merely to work out broad themes across the canon without ever asking whether those themes are being structured the way Scripture structures them.

Progression of the Covenants is a Better Backbone

However, even though I am sympathetic with Goldsworthy’s proposal, I think a better case can be made for thinking that the progression of the biblical covenants is the backbone of the biblical storyline and that a proper unpacking of the covenants will make better sense of the three stages of revelation that Goldsworthy rightly notes.

So, beginning in Genesis 1-11, what frames these chapters is God’s covenant with creation first made in Adam and then in Noah. As God’s promise of redemption from Genesis 3:15 is given greater clarity and definition through the respective covenants tied to Abraham, Israel, and David, we can make better sense of how God’s grand plan of redemption progressively unfolds in promise, prophecy, and type. As the covenants develop and unpack the various typological structures, and especially as the prophets recapitulate and project forward the typological patterns developed in those covenants and look forward to the arrival of a new and better covenant, the developing revelation Goldsworthy rightly draws attention to is better structured along the plotline of Scripture in terms of the progression of the covenants.

Is Everything Typological?

In this light, I do not find persuasive his discussion of macro-typology and the unlimited number of types, despite the restraint he places upon this discussion. If types are unlimited in number then it seems difficult to argue that something is or is not a type. A better way to proceed is to argue that typology is indeed limited and that it is through the biblical covenants that typological structures are developed, clarified, and projected toward their eschatological fulfillment in Christ.

A SERVICE FOR THE CHURCH

In this book Goldsworthy has once again done a service for the church, despite the caveats I raise. May the Lord use this work to sharpen our thinking and enable us to become those who “correctly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).

[1] E.g., Gospel and Kingdom (1981), now published in The Goldsworthy Trilogy (2000), Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (2000), According to Plan (2002), and Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics (2006).

By:
Stephen J. Wellum

Stephen J. Wellum is a Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.