The following interview features Patrick and Tony of Cave to the Cross and authors Dr. Andreas Kostenberger and Dr. Gregory Goswell. In this episode, Patrick, Tony, Andreas, and Greg discuss Andreas and Greg’s book Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach, with special emphasis on the relevance of Biblical Theology for apologetics and issues such as presuppositions, ethics, and the distinction between Biblical and Systematic Theology.
00:00 – Introduction
02:25 – A Quick Review
02:53 – The Division of Labor and Working Together
06:13 – Biblical Theology vs. Systematic Theology or Partnership?
10:31 – How Biblical Theology Helps Our Presuppositions
15:40 – You Too Can Do Biblical Theology
17:30 – Ethics in Focus in Biblical Theology
27:07 – Theologians Share Surprises in Biblical Theology
31:28 – How to Use the Biblical Theology Book
36:10 – Other Points about the Book
38:57 – Conclusion
What was the inspiration for the book and working with each other?
Andreas Kostenberger: Well, writing a BT is a crowning achievement, I think for both of us, culminating over 30 years of studying and teaching the Scriptures. I had dreamed of writing a BT for quite some time but knew I could only do it with a congenial OT co-author. When I came across Greg’s work, especially on book order in both Testaments, I was very impressed and approached him to see if we were sufficiently compatible in our theological beliefs to work together on a BT, and I was pleased to discover that we were. So, we worked up a proposal, submitted it to Crossway, and they enthusiastically commissioned the volume. Greg?
Greg Goswell: First of all, we both believe in the value of BT, and we both saw a need for a BT that would approach things differently than is often done. Of course, we also build on all who went before us. Andreas and I have never met in person, but we know of and respect each other’s earlier work, and thankfully, anticipated we could work happily together, and so it proved. With Andreas having a NT focus and I having a focus on the OT, this made an ideal partnership, though we have both written and published on the other Testament as well, so we could both usefully comment on each other’s work.
What did you think needed to be added most to the discussion and works of BT?
AK: In terms of our contribution to the field of BT, there are several things. First, we are convinced that a proper definition of BT and a proper method of carrying it out are vital. We define BT as the theology of the biblical writers themselves, and we see our method to be one of patient listening to the text and of drawing connections between the various books of Scripture in our 66-book canon. So, properly conceived, BT is historical, descriptive, and inductive. It’s very important to be clear on this, because sometimes writers presuppose a given theological system and then engage in what they call BT to validate that system. In our view, that’s not BT.
GG: What we consider to be our contribution to the field of BT? Several things, in fact: first, a more convincing exegetical base; second, we pay attention to the individual books of Scripture as well as the Bible as a whole; third, many BT rush quickly through the OT in an effort to get to the NT and do not do justice to the OT in the process; fourth, we wanted a BT with lots of ethics, so have an entire biblical ethics embedded in our volume; fifth, we take account of biblical book order, namely, let the structure of the canon feed into BT, as it should; and sixth, we take a multi-theme approach.
What’s the difference between systematic and biblical theology and why orient the book in a BT way?
AK: Well, we’ve just defined BT as the theology of the biblical writers themselves, which we discover by a close study of the text. By contrast, ST is a schematic presentation of the biblical teaching on all the major doctrines following the dictates of logic, order, and need. BT is descriptive; ST is prescriptive. BT is historical, ST is abstract. BT is inductive, ST is deductive. Both have their place, but we believe BT is the proper place to start before engaging in ST. We believe biblical theologians and systematicians should collaborate in such a way that systematicians take up the insights of biblical theologians as they work at presenting the teaching of Scripture in a systematic fashion. Collaboration, not competition.
GG: Yeah, that’s right. Well, you know, we wrote a BT, because we’re not capable of writing a ST. Biblical theologians get in trouble when they think, maybe I ought to write a ST. Of course, all that Bible input is needed in ST, and Andreas and I deeply believe in ST. But ST is often using our own categories, or categories from our time, or the classic topics of ST, soteriology, Christology, and so forth. It’s more applied to our present time and our present concerns. But BT, as Andreas said, is the theology of the Bible writers themselves, and so is absolutely foundational for anything we want to build upon that.
On this show, we like to talk about presuppositions as apologists. We’re always saying, what am I bringing to the table here that either helps us or hinders us? D. A. Carson’s quote is pertinent here: “Everyone does that which is right in his own eyes and calls it biblical theology.” How can BT help us form or change our presuppositions?
AK: Well, yes, we love that quote, too, and it’s so true. That’s why an accurate definition of BT is so important. BT is not just a modern academic discipline whose origin most attribute to J. P. Gabler in the late 1800s. BT is already found in the pages of Scripture itself. As you know, the NT writers quote the OT many, many times, and in this way draw connections between God’s previous acts in history and his work in and through Jesus Christ. Even later OT writers already quote earlier OT texts, so that there is an entire fabric of intertextual connections right there in Scripture that we as biblical theologians can trace and describe as we try to present a BT.
In our view, the best way to do that is to start with a book-by-book approach because every book of Scripture has its own major themes, its ethical teachings, and a unique place in the canon. After this, what we do in the book is to synthesize the teachings of individual books corpus by corpus and ultimately Testament by Testament and all of Scripture, and we do that in relation to the overall biblical storyline or metanarrative. So, it’s a huge task to do that, and to our knowledge no one has ever done this in as methodical of a fashion as we’ve attempted to do in our volume.
It’s true, we all have presuppositions and bring a certain preunderstanding to our study of the biblical texts. But what we try to do is hold those presuppositions with an open hand, and, through inductive study, allow Scripture itself to inform, and, if necessary, alter, our understanding. Grant Osborne has called this the “hermeneutical spiral,” I call it the “hermeneutical triad.” If our presuppositions are too rigid or even unalterable, our theological work becomes simply one of proof-texting, citing Scripture in support our preexisting beliefs. In our view, that’s not what BT should be all about.
GG: Yes, in our volume we have introductory content for each book. So we do take some time actually exploring these issues. We did try to deal with these issues, and Andreas and I have genuinely tried to put presuppositions aside, at least to some extent and, of course, that’s always the case, we can’t get out of our own skin. We do look at things through certain eyes, but we’ve honestly tried to see what the Bible writers are saying, and that’s a distinctive of BT. And because we spent so long in the text, and the healthy discipline of going book by book, so that every Bible book was allowed to make its own contribution. So we have to take into account things that aren’t always taken into account when people are writing a BT, I think that really assisted us both to read the Bible with fresh eyes. We did a lot of Bible study, but in this book we tried to look at the whole Bible again with new eyes. And that was a helpful experience for us, and we hope that our readers will also find it very helpful and enlightening.
AK: Let me add one more thing. Practically, what that meant was that we spent most of our time in the biblical texts themselves. Because, as you can imagine, the secondary literature is just vast, all the commentary literature, and all the monographs. So it was very important for us to prioritize the texts of Scripture themselves.
Your subtitle says your approach is canonical, thematic, and ethical. Why the focus on ethics and what makes this a key theme in BT?
GG: I think that was one of the suggestions I made, and Andreas all too happily took this up. Yeah, lots of BT tends to be pretty ethics-free. But a BT that describes God, his character, his ways, and his purposes and therefore what we as human beings should be and do. Then we’re not just talking about the ideas that we have and our biblically informed convictions about who God is and what he is doing in the world and his plan of salvation. Of course, that’s the bread and butter of BT. But we’ve got to essentially go to the ethical area. And even in ST, properly understood, ethics is part of theology.
So with every book in our BT, we’re not just asking about themes and how does this book fit into the storyline and the salvation history plan, but what are the ethics of this particular book. Now of course it’s the role of ST and preaching to go into the messy detail of application in daily life and so forth, but it is the role of BT to accurately describe what are the ethics being taught in different Bible books. So, yes, this is a distinctive. And at the end of the book, when we talk about the future of BT, without having a crystal ball and not being prophets, we can say at least what we would like the future to be, but one of those things with a bright future for BT is, let’s have BT with lots of ethics in it.
AK: Yes, and I think Greg had the harder task here, to show how various OT books are still relevant for today. But, clearly, we both agree that Scripture was not just given to inform, or to increase our Bible knowledge, but to change our lives. And so I think our book is infinitely more practical and relevant for people in the churches, including for pastors and for preachers, because we have an embedded biblical ethics throughout.
Can you give us some of the highlights of things that you haven’t seen before? Things you were excited to write about and share?
AK: No question, for me my most favorite book or books to work through were the Gospels. The reason is that the Gospels are at the very heart of the biblical canon, Old and New Testament. They show the fulfillment of Scripture in the life, work, and ministry of Jesus in a plethora of ways. I found Richard Hays’ work on this very helpful in his book Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. In our volume, we have an entire chapter on the Gospels, which is almost 100 pages long, where we discuss the major themes, ethical teachings, and place in the storyline of Scripture for each Gospel individually and then for all four Gospels jointly.
I was particularly excited to discover several allusions to OT narratives, characters, and texts in Luke’s Gospel that I had never seen before, such as to the ministry of Elijah. Take the beginning of the Lukan travel narrative in Luke 9, which opens by saying that Jesus would be “taken up” like Elijah. Immediately after that, James and John ask Jesus if he wants them to call down fire from heaven, like Elijah did, and immediately after that Jesus tells prospective disciples who first want to say goodbye to their families that “no one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” yet another allusion to the Elijah/Elisha narrative. But unlike Elijah, Jesus does not allow his followers to first say goodbye to their families, so there is an interesting twist here (1 Kgs 19:19-21).
GG: Yes, in terms of what I discovered, whenever students ask me what is my favorite book, my answer always is, “The one I’m studying at the moment.” Every part of the Bible is just as fascinating and helpful. But a few things I discovered along the way.
The Psalms and Chronicles, each in their own way, pull the whole OT together in terms of theology and teaching. I kind of knew that, but I discovered it in a deeper kind of way. So it’s not like the psalmist is saying something different from the prophets who is saying something different from the historians, but there is so much coordination in what are key concerns. These books are so different from each other, and yet they both have a kingdom theology that brings them together.
I made lots of discoveries along the way, so I had to, since writing the book, I’ve spun off various articles. I worked out a few things about Jeremiah’s new covenant in chapter 31 that I hadn’t quite put together. A big Bible theme I discovered afresh was the goodness of God. There were a number of really helpful discoveries that blessed me but I hope will be helpful for others as well. So it’s not just like Andreas and I just made revisions. We did that, too, but we discovered a lot of things along the way as well.
What is the best use you’d suggest to Bible readers for using your book?
AK: Well, there are at least two ways to use our book. First, one could read it slowly and steadily, cover to cover. Personally, I think that’s what I would have tried to do as a reader, because I love BT and would have wanted to trace BT through the entire Scriptures from beginning to end. We realize, though, that for many, reading through 750 pages of quite a bit of detail may not be feasible.
So, the second way to use our book would be to use it as a reference tool and to turn to our treatment of whatever book people are currently studying or teaching on or preaching on. Either way, we hope our BT will be helpful and illuminating and helpful as our readers study Scripture inductively. BT is a great way to study the Bible, so hopefully we whet people’s appetite and maybe even introduce some to study the Bible in this way for the very first time. We both have a heart for the church, and we don’t look at this volume merely as an academic work. And one of my greatest joys is to see some of the Amazon reviews, for example, by people who had never even heard the term “BT” before.
GG: Yeah, those are the two main uses. Feel free to read it cover to cover. I think that would be a great task for a pastor who has an official or unofficial little sabbatical, you know, just to refresh themselves. I think that would be really helpful, because, who knows, what part of this book may be most helpful to an individual reader.
But not just pastors, but also people leading a Bible study group in their home. You’re going to study Ruth, read our chapter on Ruth, just to give you an orientation, just to supplement the Bible study notes that you’re basing your study on.
So the book is designed with both kinds of uses in mind, and from that point of view is pretty user-friendly. You don’t have to be daunted by size. As I’ve been telling people, a great book for a windy day to keep the door from slamming. It did turn out to be a sizeable volume. It’s well indexed, it’s cleanly divided, people can find the particular book that they’re most interested in at the present time.
AK: Let me add one more thing. We want to be whole-Bible Christians, and we want to help others to become whole-Bible Christians. It’s so easy to pick and choose our favorite books. But there is a reason why we have 66 books in our Bibles. So maybe one thing our book can do is fill some of those gaps of books we’ve maybe never read and discover the significance of those books for our lives for the very first time.
Note: This interview was originally posted on April 17, 2023 on the Cave to the Cross podcast.