Book(s) Review: God’s Big Picture, Gospel & Kingdom, and According to Plan, by Vaughan Roberts and Graeme Goldsworthy
I wanted to start this review with a great quote from Calvin, or Edwards, or Spurgeon on the importance of understanding how the entirety of Scripture teaches Christ and His work of redeeming sinners. I found a few lines, but none of them seemed to say it just right. Then I thought, why not quote Jesus himself? “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Or maybe one of the evangelists: “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; cf. v. 44). Or Peter: “What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18; cf. vv. 21, 24). Or Paul: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3f). In all of these cases, the speaker or writer quoted is saying that the Old Testament teaches the gospel. This is encouraging for those of us who are committed to teaching the full counsel of God, but are somewhat overwhelmed by the size and difficulties of the Old Testament. It’s encouraging because we are told that that vast and ancient collection of books teaches the gospel. Thus, we can (and should!) look for the gospel in it. Now, it can also be an intimidating thought; it is sometimes difficult to see how the gospel is being taught in the Old Testament. We don’t want to deal unfairly with any given text, and force Christ into it in a way foreign to the original author, but at the same time we do want to teach Christ from HIS Bible.
Whether my comments above ring true to your experience with the Bible, or are completely novel ideas to you, I have at least one of three books to recommend to you : Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture, Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom, and Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan. The concise reviews and comparisons below will help you discern which is most fitting for you at this time.
Each of these books is an introduction to the science and art of Biblical Theology. In short, Biblical Theology can be defined as the discipline of understanding how the person and work of Christ are the center of all of God’s works in redemption and the end to which all of the Scriptures point.
My love for Biblical Theology tempts me to say more about it, and why it’s important, but that is not my goal here. (That Mark Dever highlights it as the second mark of a healthy church is a strong affirmation of its crucial importance.) My goal is simply to introduce you to a few books that could either greatly help you to understand the Christ-centeredness of the Bible or to deepen your understanding of the same. No matter where you are in your Christian development, and no matter what your role is in your church, I have at least one book to recommend to you. Each book is written at a slightly different level, with a slightly different audience in mind.
The format of this review will be to:
- Compare the three books and recommend each one for different audiences
- Briefly review Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture
- Briefly review Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom
- Briefly review Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan
- Recommend some further reading in the field of Biblical Theology, along with some Scripture for consideration
Each book attempts to give a map of the whole of the Scriptures. The authors believe that with a bird’s eye aerial view of the whole, smaller individual texts will become clearer and more properly understood. They all use the motif of “the Kingdom of God” (defined as God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule [and blessing]) as the paradigm to understand how the Bible fits together around Christ. The authors show us how “the Kingdom” and its various themes are progressively revealed and developed throughout the pages of the Bible until they converge on the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, then finally in Christ’s triumphant return in power and glory. Basically, each author argues that understanding how this Kingdom develops in the Bible, and understanding the themes of the Kingdom and how they all point to Christ, is the key to understanding the Bible itself.
If you are a young Christian, or even an older Christian, who gets frustrated with how confusing the Bible can sometimes be, then let me recommend Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture. It is written at a very introductory level, in an easy and clear manner that attempts to avoid too much technical, philosophical, and theological language. It is also a great book to use as a discipling tool. If you’ve already studied Biblical Theology in some depth, it would be great to read, nonetheless, for the value of being able to pass it on to others and follow up with discussion. If you do, I bet you’ll also learn something from it. It’s one of those rare books that is simple enough for the novice, yet still has something for the veteran as well. It has something for everyone! I can’t recommend it enough.
Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom is a little more in depth. In fact, Roberts says in his preface that his is a “slightly less technical” retelling of Goldsworthy’s insights. Nonetheless Gospel and Kingdom has not been replaced in its importance. I recommend it to anyone who teaches the Bible in any capacity. One of the major strengths of this book is that it gives a lot of attention to how to read and interpret (what we call hermeneutics), and to understand and teach (what we call homiletics) the Old Testament. Basically, Goldsworthy is trying to clear up our confusion about the Old Testament and encourage us to use it as it was meant to be used, pointing forward to Christ at every turn (what we call Biblical Theology). If you teach the people of God in any way, you cannot go without a confident familiarity with the Old Testament—what it says and how to exegete what it says. Even if you never teach the Old Testament and stay only in the New Testament (which should never be done, and Goldsworthy can cure you of this), you still need a handle on the Old Testament and its basic message. You can’t go a half a paragraph in the New Testament without coming across a quote from, or an allusion to, the Old Testament. Understanding the context of that Old Testament quote or allusion will only deepen your teaching of the New Testament. And one last word on this: please, do teach the Old Testament. Jesus did. The apostles did. God’s people need the whole counsel of God.
Finally, if you are a deacon, elder, or pastor you will be greatly helped by reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan. It’s a little more involved in its presentation of “the Kingdom of God,” but being in a position of leadership, I trust you already have a theological base upon which this book can build. That being said, the book is also valuable for another reason. It has a great section on hermeneutics and epistemology. How should God’s people read and interpret the Bible? How should they think and learn? What distractions from the world press in on us to adopt less-than-Christian reading and thinking and learning habits? These are important issues. Your understanding of them will greatly strengthen your exegesis, which will improve your teaching, which will enhance your usefulness and expand your ministry.
Now, onto a more thorough description of each book.
VAUGHAN ROBERTS’ GOD BIG PICTURE
Roberts begins God’s Big Picture introducing us to some preliminary issues: how the Bible is structured with its groupings of different genres, and how to read (and how not to read) biblical texts. He argues that it is an all-too-common phenomenon that people can quote the Bible with some regularity and accuracy, while misunderstanding the point of the Bible. He says that “The Bible does not contain isolated sayings” but that “Each sentence is meant to be understood in the light of the whole” (18). To combat such tendencies, Roberts wrote this book. Simply put, he wants to “help Christians to find their way around the Bible and to see how it all holds together and points us to Jesus” (14). He says that “If we want to understand any part of the Bible properly, we must consider where it fits in that great plan and how it contributes to it” (19).
As mentioned, Roberts shows us that the Bible is, summarily speaking, how “the Kingdom of God” has developed through history to prepare the way for, and teach about, Jesus Christ’s person and work for sinners. “The Kingdom of God” is defined as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.” The format of the book follows the development of this Kingdom through the various stages and genres of Scripture. In that regard, the format of Roberts’ book mirrors the layout of the Bible itself.
He teaches us how God’s kingdom was established in the Garden of Eden where God’s people lived in fellowship with Him in His creation, obeying Him and enjoying His blessing. But that kingdom perished when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They no longer enjoyed fellowship with God nor were they blessed by Him anymore. Roberts then goes on to make the case that the rest of the Bible is God’s plan to restore His people to that original kingdom in Eden, which now serves as a pattern for what God is out to achieve in the rest of the Bible. He promises this kingdom to the patriarchs, and partially fulfills it in the exodus, conquest, and king of Israel. But then, just as Eden was lost, so was this partial kingdom. Again, the reason is sin. Therefore, the prophets of Israel prophesy a greater kingdom to come, which becomes a present reality in Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection. We now live in the proclaimed kingdom, which the New Testament epistles particularly speak of, while we wait for the perfected kingdom when Christ delivers us back into that wonderful Edenic relationship with God at His second coming.
One of the many strengths of this book is how clearly it is written. It is also full of helpful drawings and charts that reinforce the progressive aspect of how the Scriptures were written and the developmental way the story of the Bible unfolds. Also, Bible studies at the end of each chapter lead readers through key biblical-theological texts; these further emphasize the chapter’s content and familiarize readers with the high points of redemptive-history.
I heartily recommend the book without reservation. Enjoy!
GRAEME GOLDSWORTHY’S GOSPEL AND KINGDOM
Gospel and Kingdom has proven to be a very influential work in this field of Biblical Theology. Since Goldsworthy first published this work in 1981, many authors have noted its substantive impact in their studies. Personally, I have benefited tremendously from his faithful scholarship. It was the first book I read on the topic of Biblical Theology and it entirely revolutionized my approach to the Old Testament. Therefore it revolutionized my understanding of the Bible as it fits together into one book with one message. I used to allegorize much of the Old Testament without realizing it. Goldsworthy helped me understand that such an approach has misinformed me as to what the Bible is all about, because the Old Testament was not written as an allegory and should not be treated as one. It was written as narratives, poems, proverbs, and prophecies which were all rooted in history. The texts are theological commentaries about how God has sovereignly moved this history toward its intended goal: consummation in His Son.
In case you haven’t noticed, what I’m saying is that hermeneutics (methods one uses to interpret a text) and Biblical Theology are inseparable. Your hermeneutical approach to any given text will greatly influence your interpretation of that text. And conversely, your understanding of the message of the Bible as a whole, will impact the hermeneutical method that you come at texts with. Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology are brothers in arms. If you want to properly exegete a text, you’ll need some Biblical Theological awareness. And to get a Biblical Theological awareness you need to properly understand the biblical authors’ original intent in writing. Confused? Well, Goldsworthy’s work can help you.
He begins with a great story about a Sunday school teacher who is teaching on David and Goliath. The teacher believes that the events are real and historical, but can’t figure out how to apply it to his audience. The necessary skills this teacher will need are what the rest of this book is about. It basically falls into two parts: hermeneutics (mainly of the Old Testament), and Biblical Theology.
The first chapter takes us on a quick tour through the history of hermeneutical methods, and makes a case for why a proper hermeneutical method for both the Old and New Testaments is important for all Christians. In short, the necessary hermeneutic is one that understands the historical characteristics of the texts, and how they have always, in God’s sovereignty, been intended to teach the gospel.
He also stresses how impoverished we are if we don’t read and understand the Old Testament. “The New Testament presupposes a knowledge of the Old Testament…One estimate is that there are at least 1600 direct quotations of the Old Testament in the New, to which may be added several thousand more New Testament passages that clearly allude to or reflect Old Testament verses” (18f). But also, the quotes of the Old Testament in the New aside, there is a value to knowing the Old Testament in and of itself. Goldsworthy argues that a knowledge of the Old Testament gives Christians a theology of God’s sovereignty over history which helps them understand the importance of the objective elements of the gospel (the historical life, death, and resurrection of Christ). This emphasis on the objective content of the gospel will in turn help guard us against strictly subjective understandings of the gospel (like “invite Jesus into your heart”). At the same time, it will give us a reliable underpinning for our appropriate (biblical!) subjective experiences of the gospel (like the new birth).
Chapter two gives us more on hermeneutics for the Old Testament, encouraging us to steer away from “character studies” and to find, rather, the unity of the whole Bible and understand how those characters fit into that larger whole. Basically, we should find out what the characters and events of the Old Testament tell us about Christ, and then what they tell us about ourselves in light of who Christ is and what He did, does, and will do. This is a Christian way to read the Old Testament.
Chapter three is a very brief Old Testament Introduction. He summarizes what the Old Testament is, how it is structured, its basic story, and its basic theology.
Chapter four then tells us what Biblical Theology is. In short, he says: “Biblical theology is not concerned to state the final doctrines which go to make up the content of Christian belief, but rather to describe the process by which revelation unfolds and moves toward the goal which is God’s final revelation of his purposes in Jesus Christ” (45). That’s a very helpful definition.
Chapters five through nine are then the content of the Bible, as it progressively reveals Jesus Christ. It’s this material that by and large makes up Vaughan Roberts’ book. (See the third paragraph in the above section for this). Nonetheless, I don’t think either is a substitute for the other. Go ahead and read both. The two compliment each other very well.
Chapter ten then gives a few more hermeneutical pointers for seeing Christ in the Old Testament. And chapter eleven closes the book with a few Old Testament examples of where we see Christ in texts we would otherwise be tempted to allegorize.
If you haven’t read anything by Graeme Goldsworthy yet, read Gospel and Kingdom. I am very confident that you will agree that it’s a must read for anyone who teaches the Scriptures in any capacity.
GRAEME GOLDWORTHY’S ACCORDING TO PLAN
According to Plan is the most advanced book of the three, assuming a degree of knowledge that the others do not. After reading Gospel and Kingdom though, you should be well equipped for the challenge—it’s well worth the effort. It will enhance your hermeneutical skills, and provide you with another method to understand the big picture of the Bible.
Part one deals with why Biblical Theology is important and how it is applicable.
Part two is especially useful for its teachings on hermeneutics. Here, Goldsworthy deals more extensively with the issues developed in Gospel and Kingdom chapters 1-4. It’s a fitting next step if Gospel and Kingdom leaves you hungry for more.
Part two’s particular strength is Goldsworthy’s treatment of epistemology (an issue the other books don’t touch). Epistemology is the science of understanding how we gain knowledge. His chapter called “But How Can We Know” is rich. Oh, how many Christians unknowingly adopt a less-than-Christian approach to learning (even if they never think about what epistemology is). Goldsworthy exposes various humanistic tendencies that creep into our minds, gives due weight to the reality of sin in our world and in our lives, and reminds us of the influence our presuppositions have in everything we do.
Part three makes up the bulk of the book. Here Goldsworthy teaches the actual content of Biblical Theology. While the message of this book is the same as the other two (God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule), it adopts a different format in teaching it. This distinct format is helpful in providing breadth and depth to our understanding of Biblical Theology. Instead of taking the different genres of Scripture and showing us the development of the Kingdom in each genre, Goldsworthy instead shows us those moments in redemptive-history that are especially crucial to understanding the rest. The other books take a high aerial view over all of redemptive-history, thus providing a larger context for understanding individual texts. This book adds a dimension to the discussion; it takes the same aerial view, but then drops us into some selected texts to give us more details of what makes the Kingdom what it is. He then shows us how those significant details about the kingdom reappear and develop throughout the rest of the Scriptures. This approach allows Goldsworthy to look individually at various themes that run throughout the Bible, developing from Genesis to Revelation. These themes are like threads that hold the diverse aspects of the Bible’s story together. Of course, they all converge on Christ. Some examples of these details/themes/threads are creation and re-creation, sin, Abraham, exodus and exile, wilderness wanderings, the promise land, faith, and regeneration, to name a few.
Lastly, in part four Goldsworthy explains how understanding that all of God’s purposes have always revolved around Christ should affect the way we live our lives today. He gives two examples: finding guidance and understanding life after death.
If you are a leader in a church, this book is a must read. It will greatly inform your exegesis, preaching, and teaching.
If I had to come up with one weakness of the three books reviewed it would be that they don’t tell us much about how to preach these great truths. That can be tricky. But then, that’s not the aim of these books. For that, and for other related issues spinning out from these ideas, I’ve added some suggestions for further reading below.
I love Biblical Theology. And I love it for one reason. It helps me know Jesus Christ better. If you want to know the Christ, if you want your people to know who He is, what He did, what He’s doing, and what He will do, then become familiar with the discipline of Biblical Theology. Goldsworthy and Roberts can help you get started.
FOR FURTHER READING
One’s experience with Biblical Theology is like one’s experience with the Bible. You never feel like you’re done. Once you’ve tasted, you want more! The more you search the more you realize how much more investigating there is yet to be done.
Of course the Scriptures should always be our primary guide. Below is a list of various texts grouped together. What I recommend is that you read and meditate on these texts together, and consider why each successive author is using the same language and themes as the previous one(s). This will help you get a grasp on how the biblical authors themselves understood and used Biblical Theology. (The lists are by no means exhaustive!)
Let me recommend just a few more books. Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology has to be mentioned—it is a seminal work in the field. Though a difficult read, it is well worth it if you will make the commitment and have the time to read it slowly. Many owe a great debt to Vos. Mark Strom’s The Symphony of Scripture develops those themes/threads that run through the Scriptures. O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants and The Israel of God deal with two of the more controversial themes. Mark Dever’s two books, The Message of the Old Testament and The Message of the New Testament, will help you see what each individual book of the Bible adds to the larger story. Dever also provides thoughtful application to both church members and to the local church as a whole. Another book by Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, will help you to preach these glorious truths in a way that is faithful and not overwhelming to your people. InterVarsity’s The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology will also help you with all of these issues; it’s divided into various sections according to the different methods of coming at Biblical Theology. Finally, if you are really ambitious, Don Carson is editing a series of books called “New Studies in Biblical Theology.” The series, a work still in progress, devotes an entire book to a different Biblical Theological theme. New titles are coming out regularly.
SCRIPTURES FOR CONSIDERATION
Creation & Re-Creation
Genesis 1-2; Genesis 6-9; Isaiah 24:1-13; Matthew 8-11; Romans 8:18-25; Revelation 21-22
Death & Resurrection
Psalm 90; Ezekiel 37:1-14; I Corinthians 15:20-28
Genesis 3:15-21; Genesis 8:20-9:17; Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 15; Exodus 24:1-8;
2 Samuel 7:1-17; Jeremiah 31:31-34
The Glory of God
Exodus 5:2, 6:1-9, 7:5, 8:10, 9:14-16, 12:12; Psalm 19:1-2; Psalm 23:3; Psalm 86:8-10;
Isaiah 48:9-11; Ezekiel 36:22-23; Matthew 5:16; Romans 11:33-36
Exodus 3:7-8; Psalm 130; Isaiah 11:11-16; Luke 9:31; Revelation 15:1-4
Israel of God
Exodus 3:7-10; Exodus 4:22-23; Matthew 3:16-4:11; Romans 9-11; Galatians 3:26-29
Exodus 20:8-11; Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Matthew 11:28-12:13; Hebrews 3:16-4:10
Exodus 29:38-46; 1 Kings 8:56-61; Ezekiel 8-11; John 1:14; Ephesians 2:14-22; Revelation 21:22
Priesthood & Sacrifice
Leviticus 16; Luke 22:19-20; I Corinthians 11:25-26; Hebrews 9:23-10:18
The Spirit of God
Numbers 11:16-30; Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:16-22; Acts 1:8; Galatians 5:16-26
Deuteronomy 18:9-22; Acts 3:19-24; Hebrews 1:1-3;
2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2, 16, 18, 22, 72, 89, 110, 132; Isaiah 7-12; Matthew 1
The Day of the Lord
Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:1-21; I Thessalonians 4:13-5:3; II Thessalonians 1:5-10