Biblical Theology at a Glance

Zaspel: Greetings, I’m Fred Zaspel, and welcome to another Author Interview here on Books at a Glance. Today we’re talking to Drs. Andreas Köstenberger and Greg Goswell about their new book, Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach. It’s their magnum opus, and it is a winner.

Andreas and Greg, welcome to Books at a Glance, and congratulations on a major accomplishment!

Köstenberger:
Thanks, Fred. Looking forward to our conversation. 

Goswell:
Yep. Lovely to be here.

Zaspel:
Why don’t you guys introduce yourselves to our listeners? Andreas, they may know you already because you used to work with us here. Greg, this is your first time with us, but both of you now tell us where you are and just introduce yourself briefly.

Goswell:
I’ll go first. Yes. Well, I’m in Australia. I’m actually in Melbourne at the moment, which is where I live. But I teach in Sydney, married to Mignon with four adult children. And yes, I try to usually fly under the radar mostly writing journal articles rather than books. But it’s been a wonderful experience writing this book together with Andreas.

Köstenberger:
I currently serve as theologian-in-residence at a church in downtown Raleigh called Fellowship Raleigh. I’m also the founder of Biblical Foundations, a ministry devoted to restoring the biblical foundations for marriage and the family, together with my wife. We also have four grown children, and as I mentioned, we live in North Carolina.

Zaspel:
I have to ask you first how this book came about. It’s a collaborative effort—whose idea was it, and how was the work divided?

Köstenberger:
Well, yes, I dreamed of writing a biblical theology for quite some time, but I knew I could only do it with a congenial Old Testament co-author. And when I came across Greg’s work, especially on book order in the Old Testament, really in both Testaments, I was very impressed and I approached him to see if we were sufficiently compatible in our theological beliefs to collaborate on a biblical theology, and it turned out we were. So we worked up a proposal, submitted it to Crossway, and they enthusiastically commissioned the volume. 

Zaspel:
Before we talk about your book in particular, for the sake of those who may want some clarity, let’s begin with definitions: Just what is Biblical Theology? 

Köstenberger:
Yeah, we expect that there are some who are new to biblical theology, and that’s awesome. We think biblical theology is a great way to study the Bible. So in a nutshell, biblical theology is not just theology that’s biblical. Of course, all Christian theology should be that, but we look at it as the theology of the biblical writers themselves. So, for example, when we read John’s Gospel, we are after John’s theology. What are his convictions, his beliefs? When we read Romans, we get an important part of Paul’s theology, though of course, to get all of it, we’d have to study all 13 of his New Testament letters. What I might add is that we see biblical theology already in the pages of the Old and the New Testaments because when Matthew, for example, quotes Hosea, he’s engaging in biblical theology because he draws connections between the coming of Christ and Old Testament prophecy. Greg, would you like to add to that?

Goswell:
With biblical theology, we’re trying to capture the richness of the Bible. So with the individual theology of the Bible writers, we’re trying to put our presuppositions aside, at least to some extent, as much as we can, so that we’re seeing the unique contribution of each of the Bible writers, but then tying the whole thing together. Indeed, we do believe you can do that. The authors are not contradicting each other. There’s also a theology of the Bible as a whole, and that’s a very important part of the biblical-theological presentation. 

Köstenberger:
And within that, there’s a progress of development as well that has to be recognized.

Zaspel:
Okay, our generation has seen an explosion of really good literature in the blossoming field of Biblical Theology. Your book is the latest contribution to the study. Describe for us the approach you have taken in your book and the contribution you hope to make with it. 

Köstenberger:
I’m convinced our book is very unique. We basically have a threefold approach where we first look at each book of the Bible individually because each book has its own unique message and contribution to make to the library of the 66 books in our Bibles. And as we study each, we determine major themes, the book’s ethical teachings, and also the place of that book in the overall storyline of Scripture. We go through these three steps for all 66 books, and then we synthesize our findings, first for the given corpus, like the Pentateuch or the Pauline epistles, and then for the entire Testament and ultimately for the entire Bible. I know of no other book that does this, as comprehensively and thoroughly with a special focus on ethics and application. 

Zaspel:
Give us just a brief flyover of your book—a bird’s eye view of how it progresses and what the reader can expect.

Köstenberger:
In our opening chapter, which is almost a hundred pages long because we believe definitions and method are so vital, we define biblical theology. We describe our method, and after this, we proceed in two simple parts, Old and New Testament, where Greg covers the Old Testament in the Hebrew canonical order: Law, Prophets, and Writings. And then before moving to the New Testament, we have a transitional chapter on book order in both Testaments as well as on the New Testament use of the Old. Part two covers the New Testament, the Gospels, Acts, the Pauline and Non-Pauline Letters, and Revelation. Chapter 13 is a grand synthesis of our findings. The book is about 750 pages long. There’s a detailed table of contents and very thorough indices. So for those who are looking for our take on a particular book of the Bible, they can find it no problem. Or they can read the book cover to cover.

Zaspel:
Greg, would you like to add anything to that? 

Goswell:
Just a couple of thoughts about what makes our biblical theology special. We focus on ethics as Andreas has said. Also, our approach is multi-thematic, so we’re not leaning too heavily on any one theme in the Bible, but the various themes each take their proper place in the overall presentation of the Bible. And we’re looking then at every book as well as the Bible as a whole with these three foci. The themes, the ethics, and how it fits into the plan of salvation as a whole.

Zaspel:
You certainly give attention to big themes like the Kingdom of God and creation to new creation and all of that. But that’s not the focus of your book.

Köstenberger:
Yes, because we think of biblical theology as being inductive. And so we believe that there’s a reason why every one of the 66 books is in the canon. And so we use the metaphor of a family conversation. We have the whole “family” and the children around the dinner table. And when it comes to biblical theology, we as biblical theologians moderate the canonical conversation where everybody has a legitimate place around the table and should be able to speak with their own voice.

Goswell:
And it is possible to make too much of even a wonderful theme, for example, “covenant.” So every theme has its place, but no theme is allowed to take greater attention than perhaps it really deserves. So yes, our multi-theme approach is quite deliberate. 

Zaspel:
One thing that I think is very distinctive about your book is how you spend a lot of time discussing the ordering of the books of the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament. Greg, I’m suspecting that that’s more your focus. Talk to us about that. How is that significant and what is the “missing factor” in recent studies within biblical theology on this front?

Goswell:
Yes. I better say something about that, shouldn’t I? This is a very special part of our volume. Biblical book order is highly significant whether we realize it or not. And so that may be perhaps the experience of a number of our readers that their eyes are opened to a new way of looking at how the Bible is organized. The Hebrew ordering of the Old Testament books has a three-part structure. First of all, Torah or ” Tanakh” centering on the covenant between God and Israel. The second part is ” Prophets,” offering instructions and warnings about violating the covenant. And it’s in this section that we also have books that we often think of as histories, books like Samuel and Kings. They’re in the same section as collections of oracles like Isaiah and Jeremiah. So that’s indicating that there’s an important prophetic aspect to the history recounted in Samuel and Kings, and in these books, we should expect that the writers are critiquing the behavior of the people that they’re depicting. The third part of the Hebrew canon, the Writings, has a whole variety of works, and hence the general name given, and includes wisdom-type books like Job and Psalms and Proverbs, but also works which look like historical books. They are history, but books like Chronicles, where the writer regularly extracts a moral lesson from the events that he’s describing. And so when we are looking at the structure of the canon, in this case, the Hebrew ordering, we’re already talking about biblical theology when we talk about these things.

Now, of course, the Bible we’re familiar with has been more influenced by the Greek Old Testament tradition of how the books are organized, and so the Old Testament starts with the Pentateuch, of course, telling about the history of the world and the origin of the world. Then we have the historical books, Joshua through to Esther, next to the poetic books, and we noticed that, for example, Psalms is placed between Job and Proverbs. That’s suggesting that this is not simply a book of prayers. It’s not only teaching us how to worship God, but also how to live wisely. So in other words, we’re arguing that where a book is placed is giving insight into what the biblical theology of that book might be. Finally, we’ve got the prophets who look forward to the kingdom of God. And of course, that very naturally leads into the dawning of God’s kingdom in the coming of Jesus. So yes, biblical book order has been, to some extent, something missing from common presentations of biblical theology, and we’ve sought to fill that gap and meet that need.

Zaspel:
Well, you certainly have. It’s something that deserves more exploration than we’ve seen. I thought that was a great contribution.

Köstenberger:
Yeah. You know we don’t believe that book order is inspired. Greg refers to it as ” paratext,” meaning that those are various ways in which ancient readers have read and interpreted those books. And so they can help us interpret them canonically in connection to each other. So I think that’s an important clarification in case some people are wondering, you know, on what level we see that ordering take effect in our interpretation.

Goswell:
And that’s why we’re quite seriously taking account of both the Hebrew book order and the Greek book order. Neither is inspired, but each order contains a lot of biblical-theological insights. That’s what we’re suggesting.

Zaspel:
We can say though, that there is some recognition given to it, at least broadly with what Jesus says, the Law and the Prophets and the Writings. Right?

Goswell:
Yes and no. When Jesus talks about the Law, Prophets, and Psalms, people have often said that is a reference to the three parts of the Hebrew order. Yet there’s nothing in the New Testament that requires us to “baptize” one particular ordering of the Old Testament and say, “That’s the order we have to use!” Some people take that approach. But a careful look at the material really indicates that that’s not the best way forward.

Zaspel:
I started to ask a second ago whether we follow the Hebrew or the Greek ordering of the books. What is the story that the Old Testament tells and where does it leave us?

Goswell:
Maybe the easiest way to address this is to look at how the Old Testament ends. Where does the Old Testament story leave us when we’re about to then jump to the New Testament? What, in fact, we discover is that there are four candidates as the final book of the Old Testament, depending on the canon. There’s Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Daniel, and Malachi. And each of these books in its own way looks to the future and to the fulfilling of God’s kingdom purposes. And so we argue that each of the four books can be viewed as a viable bridge between Old Testament and New Testament. So if the Old Testament ends with Chronicles and the hope of the return of God’s people and the rebuilding of the temple, well, that provides a wonderful segue to the New Testament, the coming of Jesus who views his death as the means to gather God’s people and his resurrection as the raising of the new temple. So we can go straight from Chronicles to what the New Testament then tells us about Jesus and the importance of his coming.

Ezra-Nehemiah is not particularly used in the New Testament, maybe because it doesn’t have explicit messianic teaching, but in its own way this book also is hoping for a brighter future, the dawning of God’s kingdom, and that’s what takes place in the ministry of Jesus. So the Old Testament ending with Ezra-Nehemiah very much works as well.

If we’re thinking in terms of biblical theology, Daniel is the last book of the Old Testament often in the Greek ordering of the First Testament. Its prominent kingdom theme, of course, feeds into and is essential if we’re to understand Jesus’ teaching about the Son of Man and to interpret many of these kingdom parables.

And finally, we have Malachi in last position. People may not know that that’s quite a recent development. It’s only with the Protestant Bible of the 16th century that we are getting rid of apocryphal books and that Malachi becomes the last book, and of course, that’s universally recognized, a very good segue to the New Testament. Malachi predicts the coming of an Elijah figure who’s fulfilled by John, who’s preparing for the coming of the Lord. And of course, the Lord does come in the person of his divine Son. So what we’re saying is that, however the Old Testament is viewed as ending, it is pointing to the need for helping us to understand the New Testament.

Zaspel:
Andreas, maybe a brief word would be helpful too on the ordering of the New Testament books. 

Köstenberger:
Absolutely. Some of our listeners may not realize that there’s actually not just the one monolithic order, there’s actually a second order, the Greek order, which actually is more ancient than the Latin order that then was taken over in our English Bibles. Essentially the order of the Pauline and non-Pauline letters is reversed in the Greek order. You have the Gospels, Acts, and then not Paul’s letters, but instead the General Epistles first, and then Paul, together with Hebrews and then Revelation. And so the interesting effect of reading the New Testament in the Greek order is that the letter writers are featured in the order in which they’re first mentioned in the book of Acts: James, Peter, John, and then Paul. And so it makes for a very organic reading experience that I got a lot out of. And so in the New Testament portion, I constantly entertained the question of “What difference would it make if we, say, read James first and Romans second, as opposed to the way we’re accustomed to reading Romans first, and then having somewhat of a problem fitting James in once we already have Romans set in concrete.

Zaspel:
I think it’s particularly helpful that you give attention to the role of each individual biblical book in the Bible storyline. This seems to be an area that many overlook in their Bible reading and study. Talk to us about that, and maybe highlight an example or two. The most obvious in broad terms is that Genesis begins the story and Revelation brings it to consummation. But there is more to it, and each book plays a part, right?

Goswell:
Let me start. Our Testament comes before the New Testament, so I’ll just pull rank at this point, but let me give you a couple of examples from the Old Testament. Lamentations. We’re familiar from our Bibles that it comes right after the prophecy of Jeremiah and that might be an indicator that Jeremiah is the author. But certainly, if Lamentations is read in that context, one of the voices heard lamenting seems to be that of Jeremiah who is identifying with the suffering of God’s people. Here’s the prophet who has condemned them, also feeling for them in their suffering. And that’s very helpful because it indicates that the message of judgment is not at all inconsistent with God’s yearning love for his wayward people. So our context makes a difference. On the other hand,  in the Hebrew Bible, the position of Lamentations is towards the end of the canon, and it has a liturgical use. It’s one of the five scrolls that are read each year at a Jewish festival, and this placement indicates that the suffering described in Lamentations is not to be tied too closely to any one historical crisis, but it affirms the ongoing usefulness of this material in future times of crisis for the people of God.

Just one other example from the Old Testament, Daniel again, which has two quite different positions in the Old Testament canons. We think of Daniel as a prophetic book, and indeed, in the Greek canon, it comes after Ezekiel. And it has similar themes. Now the two different positions given to Daniel seems to be because of the different character of the two halves of the book. First half: stories, second half: visions. So in the Greek canon, Daniel is a prophet, that seems to be influenced by the visionary character of chapters 7–12. On the other hand, in the Hebrew Bible, it comes between Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah, and most likely it’s the narrative character of the court tales in chapters 1–6 that causes it to be placed in that position. And so the focus is more on the ethical stance of Daniel and his friends, as an example of faith and courage in times of stress. So both positions of these books are helpful and they provide a different perspective on the book, obviously not contradictory but complementary. And that leads to a much richer biblical-theological reading of these books.

Köstenberger:
Well, if I may just continue in the New Testament, I think it’s helpful to reflect for a moment on the big building blocks that make up the 27 New Testament books. First, they’re the four Gospels. The early church called it the “fourfold gospel,” the one gospel according to four witnesses—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and those Gospels together formed the foundation of the entire New Testament, as well as having an important hinge function binding the Old and the New Testament together because they showcase the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy in Jesus the Messiah, especially, but not limited to the Gospel of Matthew. The function of the Book of Acts, which is a fifth narrative, is similar to the Old Testament Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. So the four Gospels plus Acts also make up a five-narrative corpus, if you will. The Book of Acts then shows the activity of the risen Jesus and the exalted Jesus in the power of the Spirit, and then Acts provides a sort of template for the New Testament letters. In those letters, we see how the gospel is practically applied to every believer. And then finally, as Fred alluded to, the capstone is the book of Revelation, which brings closure both to the New Testament and to the entire cannon, as it connects both with the first book of the entire Bible and of the Old Testament, Genesis, in terms of beginning and end, and it also connects with the first New Testament books, the Gospels, in terms of Jesus’ first coming and his second coming.

Now, a quick New Testament example. Let’s say you’re studying Galatians. What’s the contribution of Galatians to the canon? In other words, what would we be missing if we didn’t have Galatians in our Bibles? Well, we’ve seen in the first two chapters, Paul includes an autobiographical section where he talks about his former life in Judaism, how he persecuted the church, and how he received the gospel directly from the risen Christ, not any mere human. Now here, of course, we can go to Acts 8–9 to fill in the background regarding Paul’s conversion. We can also go to chapter 15 for background on the Judaizers who thought that unless anyone is circumcised they cannot be saved as it says in Acts 15:1. So what we see in Galatians is how Paul clarifies the gospel early on in his ministry as the first letter in our canon: the gospel of salvation by grace through faith apart from works. That’s an incredibly vital contribution for the book of Galatians to make. So that would be one example of how we can go about assessing the place of a given book of the New Testament in Scripture and how we can draw connections with other parts of the canon.

Zaspel:
I think that’s very helpful. Shifting gears here just a little bit, you’ve given attention in your book, not just to theological themes or even progressive revelation themes, but also specifically to ethics, and that made it into your subtitle as well. Now ethics is, of course, a subset of theology. But it doesn’t usually make its way into biblical theology discussions. So talk to us about your work here and particularly why you thought it was needed to give that attention.

Goswell:
Well, let me say a couple of things, and, Fred, you’re absolutely right. Ethics is part of theology. People often forget that; we haven’t forgotten it. And so in our presentation of biblical theology, we want to answer and address the all-important “So what?” question. Scripture is not only inspired; it’s authoritative. It’s designed to shape our understanding of God, but also to reshape our lives. And so, how do we live in a way which is consistent with the plan of salvation outlined in biblical theology? We wanted to give a lot of attention to this. Biblical theology is about what we believe, but also how we live. It tells the story of God’s purposes, but then it also calls for human moral action in response. And so a true presentation of a biblical theology requires this important ethical component to be included. We come to the Bible not just as scholars and students seeking information but guidance about how we should live. So each of the biblical writers in their own way provides important instruction and guidance on how to live in God’s world.

Let me just give a few running examples. The preaching of Moses in Deuteronomy, the moral demands of the prophets, the wise sayings collected by Solomon in Proverbs, the Sermon on the Mount, the ethical portion of Paul’s letters, often the second half, for example, Romans chapters 12 to 14; the practical ethics of James. All this is important, and we’re really only presenting half the content of biblical theology if the ethical component is ignored.

Zaspel:
If that’s the case, if what you say is true, and I think it is, that a study of biblical theology actually requires some attention to ethics, how did we miss it for so long? Why have biblical theology books missed that?

Köstenberger:
I think compartmentalization. You know, people are each mining their own specialty and there’s ever-increasing specialization on more and more narrow fields of study, with analysis trumping synthesis. And I think one of the strengths of biblical theology is synthesis, drawing connections. From our standpoint, it’ll make our volume much more practical for pastors, even for any serious Bible student, because as Greg said so well, the Bible is not just given to increase our Bible knowledge, but to show us how to live as well.

Goswell:
We are actually hoping that ethics becomes a feature of future biblical theologies. I suppose we’re throwing out a little challenge there to those who will make their own contribution. We need to start including ethics. Biblical theology is not just a beautiful scheme; it’s also about how it then shapes our understanding of the world in which we live.

Zaspel:
In your final chapter, you affirm that it is right to ask the question, “So what?” of Biblical Theology – and that we should expect an answer. So, your book—so what? How does this serve the church and contribute to Christian life? And then specifically, how can this book be useful for the pastor in his weekly sermon preparation?

Köstenberger:
Well, I’ll let Greg have the last word in a minute, but let me just say a word about biblical theology and preaching because I have the privilege of being a member of a local church where the pastor knows biblical theology and he just finished preaching a 50-week sermon series on the book of Genesis where I learned so much because he drew connections tying the Joseph narrative back to the Abrahamic promise and then showing later allusions to earlier promises and so forth. So I’m just thoroughly convinced from practical experience, not just academically, that preachers have a lot to gain from learning more about biblical theology. As a matter of fact, I believe we ought to go beyond expository preaching to biblical-theological preaching. And what I mean by that is that in addition to engaging in close reading and interpretation of our text, we’ll also want to connect our text with other parts of Scripture. We believe that’s only a natural thing to do because no book exists in a vacuum but is part of our library of 66 books. So that would be an encouragement, especially to preachers, to give biblical theology a try if they haven’t already.

Zaspel:
I’ve said to my students that in our generation we’ve had a reemphasis on expository preaching, which was really needed. It was a corrective that was overdue, and it was very much needed, but we need to go the rest of the distance and say that after we’ve investigated the text, our sermon is really not mature until we’ve seen the connections in both directions in the rest of the canon.

Goswell:
Those who listen to preachers, whether they say this to their pastor or not, they want those connections to be drawn. They want to know how all the different parts of the Bible fit together. The whole thing makes sense. And also they want to go away each week with, ” Well, what does that mean for how I’m going to live now Monday to Friday?” And that’s where the ethical component fits in. Now we’re only doing half the work, because it’s the job of systematic theology and also preachers to go into all the messy details about now how exactly do we apply this in our daily lives. But what we’ve sought to do is to give preachers and all who love the Bible some idea of what’s the basic ethical teaching of each of the Bible writers. Teaching them that then has to be put into practice.

Zaspel:
Before I let you go, one more question. Do you guys have more books in the pipeline that we should be watching for?

Köstenberger:
Well, I mentioned to Greg a minute ago, I’m working on a major commentary on the Gospel of John after spending about 30 years researching, studying, and teaching the Gospel of John. I think I have one more big commentary in me. I’ve already produced a fairly serious draft of it. It’ll be published in Lexham’s Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series.

Goswell:
I’m writing at the moment a commentary on Daniel for Kregel. People don’t realize how important it is in the New Testament for the “Son of Man” sayings and so forth. So we all know that Isaiah and Deuteronomy and that books like that were terribly important to Jesus and the apostles, but Daniel surprisingly has not gotten the recognition, and I’ve got certain things to say about Daniel that I don’t think the commentaries have been saying. So I’m hoping this will be a useful volume for the people of God. I’ve got to cough that up by the end of next year. So I’m well on the way!

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Drs. Andreas Köstenberger and Greg Goswell about their new Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach. It’s a major tome and an excellent contribution to the study of Biblical Theology. We will provide a link to the book here so you can see what it’s all about and get a copy for yourself.

Andreas, always good to talk to you. Greg, it’s great to get acquainted. Thank you both for talking to us today.

Köstenberger and Goswell:
Thank you.

Note: You can go to the original post containing the interview here.


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