An Author Interview from Books At a Glance
The discipline of Biblical Theology has made great strides in our generation, and Greg Beale has been one to help make the advance. I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and today we’re talking to Dr. Beale about Biblical Theology and about his massive and very important book, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New.
Greg, welcome back – always good to talk to you.
Yes, thank you.
What is Biblical Theology as distinguished from Systematic Theology? And how has Biblical Theology been variously understood?
Well, if we had to give the most basic difference between Systematic and Biblical Theology, the most basic I suppose would be to say that Systematic Theology is concerned with studying Scripture logically, its logical connection, studying the doctrines of God or the doctrines of salvation logically, as they occur at various points in Scripture. And in doing so, including a study of the history of theology and being aware of the contemporary intellectual categories and questions. But ultimately, rightly considered also, Systematic Theology has its ultimate authority in Scripture. So: logic, history of doctrine, contemporary awareness, but ultimately deriving everything understanding the authority of Scripture. Biblical Theology, of course, has in common with Systematic Theology the authority of Scripture. But, rather than focusing on connections between logical doctrines and history of theology, contemporary awareness, Biblical Theology looks at what I like to call the organic progress of God’s revelation in the way it happened historically.
So, if you were, for example, to study a passage from Isaiah 6, let’s say, which is Isaiah’s call and then speaks of the blinding deafness of Israel, logically, the first thing you would do is understand Isaiah 6 in the context of the book of Isaiah, but then to study that, especially biblically theologically, you’d want to see how this passage relates to the previous revelation that’s been given up to that point. And then you want to see how it relates to the revelation that follows that. So, you’re studying revelation in terms of its unfolding aspect, in fact, that’s the subtitle of my book. The book is A New Testament Biblical Theology, but the subtitle is The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New.
And this very much relates to preaching, as well; I think that, I’m probably jumping to things a bit here, but if you’re going to preach properly, with the proper context of the Bible, you want, if you’re preaching on Isaiah 6, you’d want to be aware of what precedes that, and then how does that relate, for example, to the rest of the New Testament. In the case of Isaiah, there are actually allusions back to Deuteronomy and then the New Testament quotes Isaiah 6:9-10. So, to properly preach that, you’d want to have some awareness of what precedes and what follows, even if that’s not the emphasis of your sermon because you want to have an exposition of Isaiah 6.
So, those are some reflections on the difference between Systematic and Biblical theology. I’ve been in churches where sometimes the catechism is preached or the Westminster Confession. Well, that would be Systematic Theology preaching; whereas, expositional preaching, I think, would incorporate and focus more on the meaning of the text itself that’s chosen for the morning, and then how that relates to what precedes and follows.
People have approached Biblical Theology in various ways. What is the distinctive approach you take in your book?
Well, I suppose, if we were to look at the major distinction – a lot of Biblical Theologies, a number of them, especially of evangelicalism, have been thematically oriented. For example, you start with God and then you trace through the biblical books what these books say about God. Or, take the doctrine of Jesus Christ – if you wanted to do a New Testament theology of Christ, you would go from Matthew to the end of Revelation and you would just focus on Christ in those books, as he appears in those books, and assess Christ in those books. Or the doctrine of justification, the same thing.
What I’ve done is to try to not so much focus on themes, in fact, another difference is that some people will try to find a major theme in the Old Testament or a major theme in the New Testament and see everything else in the Old or the New through that theme and say that that’s the major theme of the Old Testament or of the New, and everything else is subordinate to an explanation of it. What I’ve tried to do is to look carefully at what I think is the Bible’s storyline. And what is that storyline? What’s going on? And, of course, traditionally, and very well-known is the storyline of Creation, Fall and Redemption. I tweak that a little bit and see Creation, Fall, and then New Creation/Redemption and /Glory. Especially, what I’ve tried to do is to show central to the storyline of the Bible is the expectation of the Old Testament and how that begins to be fulfilled in the New Testament. So there’s this end time expectation in the Old Testament, in fact, if you study the phrase “latter days” or “end times,” “last hour,” synonyms in the Old Testament, they are always prophecies about what will happen in the future, not what’s happening or even will happen in the Old Testament epic. It’s always about what’s going to happen in an end time epic which the New Testament sees as beginning to happen in its own time. My contention actually is that every major notion, every doctrine in the New Testament is what I call an already and not yet eschatological notion. They are best understood through the idea of how the end times have begun to be fulfilled, because that’s what the Old Testament is mainly looking toward – the fulfillment of many things in the New, like New Creation or Resurrection, the Coming of the Holy Spirit, and so on.
Probably the main difference in my approach is that I try to look at a storyline and not one thematic center. Now, of course, one could criticize me and say, “Well, all you’ve done is put a number of the themes together into a storyline.” To one degree, that’s true, but what I’ve tried to do is to show how that storyline actually arises out of Genesis 1 to 3 and then develops throughout the Old Testament, and then, finally, begins to be fulfilled in Christ, the last Adam, in the Gospels and is consummated in the book of Revelation.
Let’s talk about the Bible story. This is a huge question, but can you summarize the biblical story for us? What are the major trajectories of the Old Testament?
Well, it’s a mouthful. I’m looking at my New Testament Biblical Theology as we speak here and here’s what I have for the storyline of the Old Testament. It’s about God who reestablishes his end time new creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his Word and Spirit. And he does that through promise, covenant, and redemption. The result of that is worldwide commission to the faithful to advance the kingdom, and then judgment for the unfaithful, but all to God’s glory. That’s quite a mouthful, but then I see that fulfilled in the New, through Christ’s life and death for sinners, and especially his resurrection by the Spirit. And that ends up accomplishing – his resurrection is actually new creation, he has a new creational body. And at the resurrection, of course, he is proclaimed as messianic King. And the result of it is that his followers are to advance that new creational kingdom and yet there will be judgment for the unbelieving and yet glory for all.
I suppose if we really had to really narrow it down, what I do is I begin with Genesis 1 to 3, early in the book, and try to show what the major themes are, there, and that those begin to be worked out in the Old and are really worked out in an escalated way in the New, and then are seen to be consummated at Christ’s final coming. What are those themes? Well, with Adam, if he had been faithful, and here I’m really referring to what some refer to as the covenant of works. There is some debate about that, but that is what I contend for in the book. Well, what is the covenant of works? Essentially this – that if Adam had trusted God and been faithfully obedient, then he would have received what I call escalated blessings. In fact, I put it this way – escalated, irreversible blessings. Because, before the Fall, while Adam was not sinful, he clearly was not irreversibly unsinful. He could become sinful. I think that if Adam had been faithfully obedient, there would have come a time in which: 1. There would have been no more threats from evil. I think he would have defeated the Satanic serpent. 2. He would have had an eternal and incorruptible physical and spiritual life. He would have had an unending kingship, because that’s what he was commissioned to do in Genesis 1:26-28. He would have had unending physical and spiritual rest. He would have lived in the context of an incorruptible, that is an irreversibly incorruptible creational environment. And he would have had eternal life, because he would have ultimately eaten from the Tree of Life. All of that is to say he would have been in an irreversible glorious position.
I see the New Testament working that out. Of course, when Jesus Christ comes – you see, the difference between Old and New is really eschatological. What do I mean by that? Well, really, the covenant of works is eschatological. In fact, one of the terms you’ll find in some reformed theology is that eschatology precedes soteriology. That is the idea of the end times precedes salvation. If Adam had been faithful, he would have achieved eschatological glory and there would have been no soteriology. But, since he did not, then enters the Fall and the need for salvation which then is inextricably linked, you see then, to the recapitulation of New Creation. That is, getting back to where Adam should have been, which the last Adam, indeed, does. So, mainly, the difference is in the Old Testament you get ideas of New Creation, for example. For example, with Noah’s flood, it’s very clear that it looks like New Creation is beginning to happen again. As the waters begin to recede, Noah is a priest; he offers an offering. There are a number of New Creation themes. Even the book of Exodus has New Creation themes as Israel goes through the water into the promised land, which the Old Testament refers to as another Garden of Eden. Then the Old Testament prophesies in Isaiah, for example, that there will be a New Creation that’s going to come whereas there really wasn’t a New Creation with Noah. That didn’t come about – it looked like it was; it looked like there would be a New Creation with Israel, but it didn’t come about. Finally, there will be a time when New Creation comes about. It comes about in Christ, especially in his resurrection. That becomes irreversible. You can’t reverse Christ’s resurrection. Whereas, in the Old Testament these things were reversible. Now, you can’t reverse Christ’s resurrection. So that when we are identified with him, we also come into an irreversibly blessed and glorious position in his resurrection. So, those are some reflections on the storyline and how it really does, in my view, derive out of Genesis 1 to 3.
That gives us a lot of understanding as to why Christ, as the last Adam figure, not just in 1 Corinthians 15, which is looking at the consummation of when Christ finally does everything that Adam should have done. It’s looking at the reward of his irreversibly glorious body and those who identify with him. But even, and this is a uniqueness of New Testament Biblical Theology, in the section on the Gospels, I argue that Christ in his ministry, and I’m looking at Matthew, Mark, and Luke, especially, in his ministry, was a last Adam figure. He was beginning to accomplish what Adam should have accomplished. In fact, my colleague, Brandon Crowe, at Westminster Theological Seminary, has written a book called The Last Adam, where he goes into much more detail on that notion. And that makes sense that you would have Christ presented as a last Adam figure, not just in 1 Corinthians 15, at the consummation and end of things, but at the inauguration of things he is beginning to do. This is why he does all of these miracles. Why does he do all of these miracles? He’s beginning to reverse the effects of the Fall. What are those miracles? Most of them are healings, resurrections, giving sight, causing people to walk. He’s beginning to reverse the physical damage of the Fall; and, of course, that is but a parabolic sign of spiritual reversal. The Fall brought about, obviously, not only physical curse, but spiritual curse.
Can we say, then, that you let the Old Testament set the agenda, but then you let the New Testament show us just what that agenda is?
Well, in an unfolding way. In my view, and I would contend for this, I don’t believe there are any completely brand-new thoughts. Now, but there is a man called Jesus Christ – you’re not going to find the identification of the Messiah in the Old Testament as a man named Jesus from Nazareth. Well, in that sense, yes, there’s a new thought there, but it’s really within the well-worn and expected coming of the Messiah. And, of course, you would expect in those Messianic expectations in the Old Testament, of course, that when the Messiah came he would have a name. In fact, the subtitle was going to be A Transformation of the Old Testament in the New. But, as I began to think about it, and as I began to talk to some of my colleagues about it, it sounded like the Old Testament was going to be transformed, there would something brand-new in the New Testament and I didn’t want to say that. I wanted to say that what the New Testament has is but an unfolding of what is in the Old. Even if what’s in the Old is somewhat hidden, it’s still there as a seed. In fact, that’s probably one of the best metaphors Geerhardus Vos has given us, the metaphor of the seed. You have the seed of early revelation in the Old Testament that begins to grow. Let’s say it’s an apple tree, it begins to grow, a tree appears in the Old Testament and further other Old Testament passages begin to reflect on earlier ones, that tree grows.
Finally, you get to the New Testament with the coming of Christ who inaugurates the end times, you get an apple tree, and then at the very end of time you get the fruit and the harvest of the fruit. Well, that’s organic. It’s what we like to refer to in biblical theology as organic – it’s all developing from earlier revelation and there is no hiccup, there’s no discontinuity, radically. In fact, I’ve written a book with a former student of mine named Ben Gladd. It’s called Hidden but Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Mystery where we show that when a mystery is revealed in the New, whether that word is used in the Gospels, or Paul, or Revelation, it’s not a brand-new revelation; but it is an unveiling, significantly and radically, of something that was already in the Old Testament.
B. Warfield gives us the example: the Old Testament is like a room full of furniture. You go into it, the lights are off or very dim; you can make out the shape of the furniture, but you’re not sure exactly what kind of style it is, what kind of fabric it has, and so on. In the New Testament the lights are turned on in the room. You can see whether they are antiques or whether it is modern furniture. You can see the kind of fabric. And I think that’s the kind of newness. We do have newness, but it’s a newness of unveiling or unfolding, not of something completely new. And this is a bit of the debate, quite frankly, not only in evangelical circles, but reformed circles. About a decade or so ago we had a debate at Westminster Theological Seminary in which some, reflecting an argument in Evangelicalism in general, that when the New Testament authors quoted the Old, they were preaching the right doctrine but from the wrong text. So that they weren’t good interpreters, but God salvaged their bad interpretation by the Holy Spirit and gave them right doctrine. And that’s too much discontinuity for me.
Give us a sense just briefly of how some of the Old Testament trajectories and themes play out in the New Testament, particularly with regard to the “already and not yet.”
As I say, I would contend that every major notion in the New Testament is an already and not yet notion. For example, take, well, I already gave New Creation. It looks like you’re beginning to get New Creation with Noah, with Israel’s Exodus, and then Isaiah says, no. And it’s clear from those narratives that New Creation didn’t come. There will come a time, Isaiah 40 to 66 says, when there will be New Creation. The New Testament shows us that that begins to happen in Jesus’ ministry and it’s especially escalated in his resurrection. He begins to get a resurrection body that will never – there will be no reversal in that body. And then, when we identify with him in our lives now, we are spiritually identified with him as a New Creation – that will never be reversed. And that will inevitably lead to our bodily resurrection with him in our consummation. That’s one example of New Creation, and another would be the Holy Spirit. In fact, the Holy Spirit’s a very end times doctrine. In the Old Testament it’s the prophets, priests, and kings who were gifted with the Holy Spirit; and other people were not gifted with the Holy Spirit. Now, there appear to be some exceptions like the 70 elders in Numbers 11. Saul, for example, in 1 Samuel 11:18-19. It’s very rare, and in those cases it’s very intriguing, by the way. It is said that those people prophesied, and they stopped, and didn’t do it anymore. So there were some redemptive, historical reasons for the exceptions. Generally, you have the notion that only prophets, priests, and kings are gifted and the priests, of course, especially, their gifts revolved around the Temple. So when you get to the New Testament, Acts 2, for example, you get a quotation of Joel, Chapter 2. There’s what we might call a democratization of the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is now poured out upon all people. Why? Because all of us are priests and kings and prophets. So that would be an example of how you get a progression, an advancement, of something from the Old into the New.
There are other examples as well. Take the return from exile that’s prophesied in the Old Testament. Isaiah prophesies that Israel will return from Babylon. Well, they do. Ezra and Nehemiah tell us this. But, intriguingly, in Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 it says we are slaves in the land. Somehow, they are still in captivity. How can that be? Well, they’ve left the location of captivity, but they haven’t left the spiritual location. In fact, even the physical location of captivity is still true because they are ruled over by foreign powers. That continues, of course, under the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. So, with this continuation of exile, the prophecy is not fulfilled. When is it going to be fulfilled? All of a sudden, the gospel’s involved. You get all of these Old Testament quotations quoted by Jesus and Paul and what are they? They are prophecies from the Old Testament about Israel’s restoration and they are now being quoted as beginning fulfillment. It’s in Christ that the return from exile begins fulfillment. How so? Jesus Christ is true Israel. He sums up Israel in himself. Babylonian captivity was but a physical shadow of what true captivity and exile was to be. It was to be the Son of God exiled from his Father and he takes that exile upon himself; he overcomes it in resurrection, which is his restoration and is our restoration when we identify with him. It’s a beautiful notion. And that return from exile and restoration will not be reversed. And this gives you, in my opinion, an amazing view of reading the prophets. Whenever they talk about exile and restoration you can apply it to yourself. When Isaiah 40 says you’ll mount up with wings like eagles, and this is not allegory, you’re being identified with Jesus Christ. We are on his coattails. We died with him and we have risen with him and that is our overcoming of exile and restoration to God as the true Israel.
I love it! Good preaching.
Oh, absolutely! In fact, I was just going to ask you what bearing does all this have on the Christian life and Christian living? And you’ve already begun that.
I think when you read your Bible, number one, read it biblically theologically. Understand what precedes and what follows. One of the ways that people can practically do that, is get a Bible that has a lot of marginal references in it, in the Old and the New Testament. And, even when you’re doing your Bible reading, look at some of those marginal references. Those references often will be connections of that passage with something earlier in the Old Testament or later in the Old or later in the New. In fact, in the New Testament it’s the same thing. And if pastors want to preach biblically theologically, which I think they should, then you’re focusing, let’s say, on Colossians 1:15-20, that great poem about Christ as the firstborn and image of the invisible God. And as you’re explaining that passage, you should be aware of some of the verses in the margin, some of the Old Testament versus that talk about the Messiah as the firstborn, that talk about Adam as the image of God. So, you get Jesus presented as the Messiah who is to be firstborn, as Adam who is the image of God and who was also, intriguingly, called the firstborn. So all of a sudden you begin to get an Adam view, a last Adam view of Jesus that you might not pick up on when you’re preaching and studying that passage just looking only and solely at the text of Colossians. So, that’s very important.
Practically? I think there are some other practical considerations that have to do with Christ’s resurrection as a New Creation and our identification with him as a New creation. And, by the way, why is Christ’s resurrection a New Creation? Well, his new creational body will continue forever on into the new heavens and earth, and so, when we’re raised from the dead, how do we enter into the new heavens and earth? Through a resurrection body in a consummated resurrection spirit. And so, that’s a New Creation. That’s how we get into the New Creation.
So what difference does that make? Well, I think it makes a lot of difference in many different ways. I’ll just choose one small way. I had a neighbor, when I lived in Wheaton Illinois, who was a plumber. He was a friend, and did our plumbing, but when it would snow he would be right out there on his driveway with the snowblower, dealing with the snow. I wouldn’t. It would have to snow…Let’s say it was snowing a couple of feet, I would wait until about midnight and finally the implicit command from my wife would come. When are you going to get out there? Because we’re not going to be able to get out of the driveway tomorrow. And so, finally, I would get out there. What’s the difference between me and my neighbor? I just had an old rusty snow shovel and my driveway, furthermore, was gravel. It was a nightmare to shovel. He had a driveway that was asphalt, but especially he had an amazingly new snowblower that perhaps even his wife had given him. So, he had all the motivation in the world. Why? He had the power to take care of the snow. Why didn’t I have motivation? I had no power, no motivation at all. And so, when the law comes, we have all of these commandments. It all of a sudden becomes sensible why 1 John 5:3 says that God’s commandments are not burdensome. And then the next verse says, why? Because we have been born again. We have been regenerated. We are part of the New Creation and we have new creational power. We above all people shouldn’t be discouraged by the fulfilling of God’s commandments, even when we fail, because we know that slowly but surely God is going to give us the power to overcome these things. It’s unbelievers who should have no motivation to fulfill the Word of God, because they have no power. They are dead in sin as Ephesians 2:1and following says. I often hear a response to the reformed doctrine of predestination, “Oh, that should make you sit back and do nothing.” No. God is for us and he’s regenerating us and increasing that regeneration. We should psychologically have all the motivation in the world, every day, to come and do God’s commands, because it’s not of us, it’s of him.
I love to tell people that there are lots of reasons that we should obey God but one of the big emphases of the New Testament is: we obey him because now we can. We’ve been enabled.
Yes, there are a lot of reasons. He’s our father and he’s redeemed us. We should obey him out of gratitude, as you say we could give a number of reasons.
We’re talking to Dr. Gregory Beale, author of A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. It’s big, and it will take you some time to digest. But it is one of those unusually important works that more than repays the effort. If you’re involved in teaching or preaching ministry, it’s a resource you don’t want to miss.
Greg, thanks so much – for your good ministry and for your time today.
Thank you, Fred.
Buy the books
A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New