According to Plan (Book Review)

according-to-planWhen I was in seminary I distinctly remember something my professor said.  It was an off-hand comment (aren’t they always the ones we remember?), but one I’ve been able to verify over the years.  It was a class on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), and a student sitting at the back of the class raised his hand to ask a question.  It was a little unusual, because he built his question from the text of a book not on the syllabus.  The question was forgettable, but my teacher’s comment stuck.  “Is that a Graeme Goldsworthy book?  Read everything he writes.”  As a first-year student still wet behind the ears, that exhortation sunk in and is still lodge somewhere in my brain.  And after reading several Goldsworthy books, and leading study groups through them as well, I can attest to the wisdom of that recommendation.

Certainly not his most well-known (that would be Gospel and Kingdom which is the first of three books compiled in The Goldsworthy Trilogy), but probably his most influential book is the author’s introductory Biblical Theology.  According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (ATP), is the next step to understanding the Bible as God’s revelation after the simpler Bible Overview by Steve Levy.  ATP is a book that attempts to find unity in the massive diversity of material found in the Bible.  It succeeds by organizing the main plot of the Bible around the theme of the kingdom of God.  Goldsworthy argues that every other biblical theme—whether major or minor—rightly fits into the overarching theme of Kingdom.  That means macro-subjects like covenant, temple, creation, Israel, sacrifice, and sin are all connected through the lens of God’s kingdom.  The kingdom theme itself can be helpfully summarized as God’s people, living in God’s place, under God’s rule. (I think this saying came from Goldsworthy, but I haven’t been able to locate a reference.)  The organizing principle of kingdom makes Goldsworthy’s account of the Bible’s story significantly different than most other arrangements of biblical theology in one respect.  Whereas the high point for many is Moses and the Law—thus contrasting Law (OT) and Gospel (NT)—Goldsworthy argues that David’s kingdom is the apex of the OT.  This has the effect of subsuming the theme of covenant underneath the kingdom theme, and therefore he reads the Bible as one unified story about the kingdom of God rather than two competing stories about the Mosaic covenant vs. the New covenant.  Such a difference is important because it moves the covenant theology discussion forward and away from the sticking point of the Mosaic law in relation to Christ’s salvation where theologians often get entangled in heated debate.  A kingdom-centered story provides some relief from this tired controversy that sometimes feels mired in minutiae at a theological Maginot Line.

ATP is divided into four Parts, with Part Three containing the main body of the book.  Part One explains the distinctive discipline of “biblical theology” and makes the case why it is necessary for properly interpreting and applying the Bible’s message.  Biblical theology has two aspects.  The first is a coherent recounting of the Bible’s content as one unified and unifying narrative.  A metanarrative if you will.  Just like any other grand story, the Bible’s story unfolds progressively from beginning to end.  And just like any other great story, the flowers that we see blooming at the end of the story are planted as seeds at the beginning.  The second aspect of biblical theology is the discipline of tracing a particular theme from the beginning of the story to the end.  If God’s kingdom appears at the end of the story as a beautifully diverse flower garden, then this second aspect pays carefully attention to the way a single flower grows from seed, to root, to shoot, to bud, to glorious maturity.

Part Two of ATP lays out the interpretive grid for doing biblical theology.  Goldsworthy argues the gospel must be the key to reading the rest of the Bible.  In other words, the Old Testament must be read in light of the fullest revelation contained in the Bible (the New Testament).  Many evangelicals employ an interpretive strategy exactly opposite than this, insisting that the Old Testament must be allowed to speak for itself, and ruling out of bounds any reading of the OT that has in mind what the NT says.  The problems with this alternative interpretation strategy are many, but the primary issue is that it stands in judgment over the method that Jesus and the apostles read the OT.  Goldsworthy, attempting to follow the Reformation tradition of the NT illuminating the true meaning of the OT (it’s all about Jesus!), and building on the insights of the biblical theologian pioneer Geerhardus Vos, lays out a 6-point case for the gospel being the key to unlocking the whole Bible.  The chapter titles in Part Two function as succinct and logically sequential theses for this hermeneutic:

  1. God makes himself known
  2. But how can we know?
  3. Christ has made him known
  4. And we know him through Scripture
  5. The Bible is the divine-human Word
  6. We begin and end with Christ

In Part Three, the author tells the story of the whole Bible through the lens of the gospel around the theme of kingdom.  This section is heavily weighted toward the OT (14 of 18 chapters) without neglecting the NT.  How can this be?  By interpreting the OT narrative through the gospel, the NT does not need as much space because it has already been utilized and pointed to over and over in the OT section.  Part Four is only 2 chapters, which point to a method of utilizing biblical theology and showing how to employ it in Bible study and life application.  Each chapter demonstrates the surprising relevance of the biblical theological method of reading Scripture by exploring the important questions of (1) how we many know God’s will, and (2) life after death.

There are many strengths in the way ATP is laid out.  First, every chapter begins with a couple of pertinent quotes from the Bible and an outline statement of the biblical history contained therein.  Chapters are subdivided into sections that begin with a descriptive heading (no biggie) but also conclude with a brief summary statement to aid the reader grasping the main point.  At the end of each chapter there are several textbook-like helps, including a chapter summary, and a cumulative tabular presentation of the biblical stage of history in the categories of Kingdom, God, Mankind, and World.  Main themes and key words are highlighted to suggest connections in the subject matter to broad biblical themes.  The Path Ahead feature points the way to the consummation at the end of the Bible.  For example, in the chapter on Creation, the path ahead traces Adam to the New Adam (1 Cor 15:45); creation to the new creation (2 Cor 5:17); and the heavens and earth to the new heavens and earth (Isa 65:17; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1).  The end of each chapter also list study guide questions and suggestions for further reading.  All these features allow for easy use in group or one-on-one discussions.

One of the unique benefits of reading Goldsworthy is his insistence that the OT wisdom literature must be accounted for in the biblical narrative.  Many summaries of the Bible give little significant attention to Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.  And even if they do, they fail to adequately situate these books in the framework of the Bible’s story.  Unfortunately, ATP fails in this regard as well.  But it is not due to the author’s lack of ability to weave the wisdom books into the narrative.  He gave them the attention of an entire book in Gospel and Wisdom.  I just wish he had added one chapter show how Jesus is not just Prophet, Priest, and King (as the traditional triad teachers), but also God’s consummate Wise Man.  It’s a missed opportunity for the reader to see how the wisdom literature fit into the overarching theme of kingdom as instruction for living wisely in God’s world.

Based on the suggested reading lists for further study, it is obvious that Goldsworthy is heavily reliant on the Reformed tradition for his biblical theology method and content.  He repeatedly recommends Vos’s seminal work Biblical Theology published almost 100 years ago (and still worth reading!).  Dumbrell’s Covenant and Creation, Robertson’s Christ of the Covenants, and the author’s own Gospel and Kingdom are also frequently recommended.  Yet writing as an evangelical and reformation Anglican, there were a few instances where it seemed he was unwilling to take a clear position on controversial issues such as God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, or predestination and free will.  Reading ATP as a Presbyterian, it appears that Goldsworthy is a committed Calvinist who doesn’t want to make these dividing issues.  I would even go so far as to say he aims for just enough clarity so as to navigate Anglicanism’s tenuous “middle way” between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  Still, I think he lands in the Reformation camp so I’m willing to tolerate his few gentle attempts to not rock the boat.

In the end, I agree with the book’s cover when it states Goldsworthy’s According to Plan is “an enormously useful book for understanding how the Bible fits together as the unfolding story of God’s plan for salvation.”

Resources

From The Gospel Coalition:

  1. Intro to the book
  2. Book summary (Part 1, Part 2)
  3. Strengths of the book
  4. Questions for further thought
  5. The author’s Outline of Biblical History

Help Me Teach the Bible: Graeme Goldsworthy on Biblical Theology

The Gheens Lectures at Southern Seminary:

  1. The Necessity and Viability of Biblical Theology
  2. Biblical Theology in the Seminary and Bible College
  3. Biblical Theology and its Pastoral Application

Various articles by the author on biblical theology

Goldsworthy audio messages

Goldsworthy’s books

Reviews

Academia

Amazon

Goodreads

Gospel Centered Musings

The Renewed Church

Seeking the Truth

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