I clearly remember it like it was yesterday. My systematic theology professor in seminary, Dr. Howard Griffith, with a huge grin on his face, said in the middle of a lecture, “The coolest subject in the world to talk about is biblical theology!” Since systematics and biblical theology (redemptive historical studies) have been and sometimes still are pitted against one another, this was really saying something. At the time, he didn’t awaken in me something new, but just confirmed what I had discovered early in my seminary studies. I also clearly remember having lunch with the dean of students at RTS DC way back in the summer of 2002. He asked what really got my excited about the prospect of academic study in the Bible. I didn’t hesitate: “Systematic theology!” I blurted out. He calmly took a bite of his sandwich, chewed a little bit, and then mumbled with his mouthful, “Your new favorite will be biblical theology.” I didn’t believe him. I was certain he was wrong about me.
He was right.
It wasn’t long before I discovered Graeme Goldsworthy, Meredith Kline, Geerhardus Vos, and Edmund Clowney. All but Goldsworthy are now dead and gone to heaven. Carrying the torch now in the land of the living are others, including T. Desmond Alexander, who published a little paperback back in 2008 called From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology. Weighing in at less than 200 pages, I figured it would be a refresher. A little light reading.
I was wrong.
Alexander’s book packs a big punch in a small space. His writing style is tight but not trite; deep but not dense. So much wonderful information is squeezed between the covers of this volume. It is hard to describe how delightful a study this is. Recognizing that the best biblical theology explains the Bible narrative by emphasizing the grand thematic stories of Scripture (the meta-story), the author succeeds in telling the biblical story of redemption from six (seven would have been perfect!) complementary and interrelated angles. His method is to approach the biblical stories through the lenses of the book of Revelation. Starting and the end of the Bible, he identifies the several concluding biblical themes that emerge from Revelation, then looks for the contours of that theme as it is worked out from the beginning of Genesis all the way through redemptive history, culminating in Revelation. From Eden to the new Jerusalem. From the first heaven and earth to the new heaven and earth. This is the way Alexander explains his method.
Given the complexity of the Bible as a literary anthology, outlining its meta-story is not easy. The approach adopted here is to begin at the end. As is often the case, a story’s conclusion provides a good guide to the themes and ideas dominant throughout. By resolving an intricate plot that runs throughout a story, a good denouement sheds light on the entire story. While recognizing that there are limitations to this approach, it is nevertheless one way of attempting to determine the main elements of the meta-story. The final chapters of Revelation, which form the starting point for our study, contain visions that look to the future and anticipate the creation of a new earth and a new heaven. As we shall see, this brings to fulfilment a process that started with the creation of the present earth, as described in the opening chapters of Genesis. The very strong links between Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 20-22 suggest that these passages frame the entire biblical meta-story. (p. 10)
In this book, the author asks the Bible questions like “Why does the earth exist?” and “What is the purpose of human life?” From his study of the Scriptures, he offers the thesis that “as we move from Genesis to Revelation, a consistent and coherent pattern emerges, centred on the idea that God created this earth with the intention of constructing an arboreal temple-city. This unique metropolis, as God’s abode, will be inhabited by people who display the holy nature of God himself.” (p. 188). He explores the thesis by focusing on a particular biblical theme for each chapter:
- Chapter 2. “From sacred garden to holy city: experiencing the presence of God.” By tracing the theme of temple, the theme of Emmanuel is traced from beginning to end.
- Chapter 3. “Thrown from the throne: re-establishing the sovereignty of God.” Here the theme is the Lord of the Kingdom and his viceroys.
- Chapter 4. “Dealing with the devil: destroying the source of evil.” Alexander investigates the Bible’s story of sin, evil, and opposition to God.
- Chapter 5. “The slaughter of the Lamb: accomplishing the redemption of creation.” The story of sacrifice is the theme that explains redemption, atonement, purification, and sanctification.
- Chapter 6. “Feasting from the tree of life: reinvigorating the lives of people from every nation.” The story of life and peace (shalom) on earth reveals how holiness is related to wholeness, which has ramifications in the physical, spiritual, social, and even ecological spheres of life.
- Chapter 7. “Strong foundations and solid walls: living securely among the people of God.” Community and fellowship among God’s people are the thematic elements that tells the tale of two cities (the City of Man and the City of God), personified in throughout Scripture (both OT and NT) as Babylon and the New Jerusalem.
One of the things I appreciate about Alexander has been offered as a criticism of him from the evangelical world. Alexander is a reformed and evangelical churchman (he serves as a ruling elder in his home church). But by trade he is an academic OT scholar. Thus as a scholar he reads broadly, interacting with higher critical scholars and frequently incorporating their research into his biblical studies. This method does not sit well with some evangelicals, and there are obvious dangers and drawbacks to it. But there are also benefits of dialoging and learning from others from outside one’s own tradition. This is what I appreciate. Alexander is adept at mining critical scholarship for the best insights. For example, he shows how temple construction in the various ancient Near East nations was purposefully designed to both serve as the deity’s house in the midst of his people and as a model for the entire cosmos. Temple studies shed light on the biblical story of God’s purpose to build a temple-city that will fill the whole cosmos. The garden of Eden is pristine but undeveloped. God has in mind progress as his people who function as priest-kings rule the earth, guarding and keeping it as God’s glorious home and meeting place with us.
Another thing I enjoy about Alexander’s treatment of the six biblical themes is he doesn’t absolutize them. What I mean is he doesn’t think his telling of the Bible’s meta-story is comprehensive. Again, on page 188 (fn. 1) he writes,
I am aware that other themes could have been added to those explored in the preceding chapters. For example, the related concepts of rest and peace are closely coupled with temple-building. Moreover, much more could have been said about the intimate link that exists within the biblical meta-story between the Davidic dynasty and the divine temple. However, to do justice to this latter subject would have expanded this study considerably and moved it well beyond the parameters initially chosen to determine what should not be included. This is a subject I hope to explore in a subsequent volume.
While there are many good books written at a popular level to introduce biblical theology, this is not one of them. From Eden to the New Jerusalem is published by an academic imprint—Kregel Academic. Thus it is not exactly easy reading. I would put it at a college level in terms of its format, vocabulary, concepts, bibliography, and extensive footnotes. But it is readable. And it is not dry. And it is O so worth the effort. The author is careful to share points of life application where applicable. This prevents the book from feeling coldly detached from the living Word of God. “Good theology always has pastoral implications. Doctrine and praxis ought to be closely related. For this reason, our study of the main themes of the biblical meta-story occasionally moves into the area of application. The truths revealed are extremely important for shaping the lifestyle choices we make” (pp. 11-12).
As is often the case, books written as an introduction to a subject have good bibliographies. This book doesn’t disappoint. For exploring biblical theology in more detail, the reader may want to consult the following books that contributed to From Eden to the New Jerusalem.
- Alexander, T.D. From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch.
- Alexander and Baker (eds.). Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch.
- Alexander and Gathercole (eds.). Heaven on Earth: The Temple in Biblical Theology.
- Alexander, Rosner, Carson, and Goldsworthy (eds.). New Dictionary of Biblical Theology.
- Beale, Gregory. The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God.
- Dumbrell, William. The End of the Beginning: Revelation 21-22 and the Old Testament.
- Hawthorne, Martin, and Reid (eds.). Dictionary of Paul and his Letters.
- Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach. Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution.
- Kostenberger and O’Brien. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission.
- Ortlund, R.C. God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery.
- Ryken, Wilhoit, and Longman (eds.). Dictionary of Biblical Imagery.
- Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God.
Alexander has given a gift to the church in explaining how the Bible tells a unified, grand, sweeping, and wonderful story that ends—for all the toil and trouble that comes to pass—happily ever after. Best of all, unlike the fairy tales that only offer a vestige of truth about life, this story is true because it is God’s story. It’s the coolest thing to talk about in the world!
Here are some resources related to the author T. Desmond Alexander, biblical theology as a topic of study, and the book From Eden to the New Jerusalem in particular.
- An interview of T.D. Alexander on the subject of biblical theology at The Gospel Coalition
- Blog posts about the work of T.D. Alexander, by Nicholas Batzig at Feeding on Christ
- A preview of the book From Eden to the New Jerusalem
- Listen to a lecture by Alexander on From Eden to the New Jerusalem
- Listen to an episode by the Reformed Forum on From Eden to the New Jerusalem