Biblical Theology In Depth
I really enjoyed this interview about our new book, Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach. Here is the original introduction that was posted along with the interview: “Pastors, thoughtful Christians, and students of Scripture must learn how to carefully read and understand the Bible, but it can be difficult to know where to start. In this clear, logical guide, Andreas J. Köstenberger and Gregory Goswell explain how to interpret Scripture from three effective viewpoints: canonical, thematic, and ethical.
Biblical Theology is arranged book by book from the Old Testament (using the Hebrew order) through the New Testament. For each text, Köstenberger and Goswell analyze key biblical-theological themes, discussing the book’s place in the overall storyline of Scripture. Next, they focus on the ethical component, showing how God seeks to transform the lives of his people through the inspired text. Following this technique, readers will better understand the theology of each book and its author.”
We’re excited to be joined by prolific author Andreas J. Köstenberger, am I right in saying this is the 60th book you have worked on?
That’s about right, yes, my goal is to publish 66 books, just like there are books in the Bible. I’m saying this tongue in cheek, of course, David. It’s been my joy and privilege to work on various books on a number of subjects, since I have a variety of interests. Thanks so much for having me on.
Welcome and thanks for joining us, Andreas. Andreas, before we get stuck into the questions, please feel free to take a moment to introduce yourself.
Sure. I grew up nominal Roman Catholic in Vienna, Austria and was converted at age 23 toward the end of my first PhD in economics. I came to the US at age 27 and earned my second PhD in New Testament at Trinity under Don Carson. My dissertation was on John 20:21, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” For the last 30 years, I’ve been teaching New Testament at various seminaries and churches. I currently serve as theologian in residence at Fellowship Raleigh, and my wife and I head up our own ministry, Biblical Foundations.
Your new book, Biblical Theology has been designed to help people better interpret Scripture. Tell us how you have gone about doing that.
Certainly. We start out with an introduction of almost 100 pages where we lay out our methodology and definition of Biblical Theology. In short, we define biblical theology as the theology of the biblical writers themselves that we seek to uncover inductively, historically, and descriptively. In the body of our book, my Old Testament collaborator Greg Goswell and I use a book-by-book approach and cover all 66 books of the Bible. Specifically, we discuss 3 things for each book in Scripture: (1) their major themes, (2) their ethical teachings, and (3) their place in the storyline of the Bible as a whole. A hallmark of our work is that we attempt to connect the books canonically, with special attention to book order. We close with a synthesis in the final chapter, where we tie all our findings together and discuss about 10 or 12 major themes in each Testament.
How does Biblical theology differ from Systematic theology?
As I briefly mentioned, Biblical Theology is inductive, historical, and descriptive. By contrast, Systematic Theology is deductive, ahistorical, and prescriptive. Biblical Theology, in its very essence, is aiming to uncover the expressed convictions of the biblical writers themselves. This follows from the need to interpret biblical texts in keeping with the author’s intent as we can determine it by way of responsible exegesis following proper principles of interpretation. Such careful study involves listening to the text and drawing out from the text what was the message the author meant to convey to his original readers. It also involves drawing inner-biblical connections between passages in both Testaments such as intertextual connections, narrative connections, or theological points of contact. Essentially, Biblical Theology is concerned with connections, while Systematic Theology is concerned with construction of theological systems based on logic, order, or need.
This is a big book, 977 pages I think it is. How do you go about starting and getting through a project of this size?
Well, including the bibliography and various indices, the book is over 1,000 pages long, but the actual text is closer to 750 pages. We’re actually quite disciplined and even concise in our writing, considering that our book-by-book approach requires that we cover the 3 areas I mentioned in all 66 books of the Bible: major themes, ethical teachings, and place in the storyline of Scripture, not to mention the synthesis at the end, so obviously that’ll take up quite a bit of space. You may be interested to know that before we started our project, we got together (virtually) and put down word lengths for every section and subsection in our projected volume to help us stay on target with the overall word count. That said, the project still ended up being quite a bit longer than we anticipated because we found that even though we wrote a whole-Bible theology, we came to realize that people would likely compare our work to volumes that cover only one Testament, that is, Old or New Testament theologies. So, we felt we had to be sufficiently thorough in our coverage of each book so as not to come across as unduly survey-ish or only scratching the surface.
To help highlight the importance of interpreting Scripture properly, what are some of the common mistakes people make and where can this lead?
Well, none of us is perfect, and I’m sure Greg and I have plenty of work to do to improve our scholarship ourselves. But since you asked, let me mention two things.
First, people sometimes are imprecise in their definition and method. They claim to do biblical theology, and even think they do, while in fact being guided by their underlying theological system. As a result, the product of their work is more like a hybrid between biblical and systematic theology rather than a truly inductive study. The problem with this is that such a hybrid product can be confusing and unhelpful for those who expect a genuinely inductive work that listens to the biblical texts themselves while keeping our presuppositions at bay as best as we can.
Second, there is a danger of flattening the biblical material by reading later developments into earlier passages of Scripture. This has the tendency of diminishing the genuine progression of biblical revelation and of unduly streamlining the material so as to eliminate any meaningful diversity. But biblical theology is a historical discipline that needs to respect development in Scripture, and we shouldn’t be afraid of diversity where it doesn’t conflict with the underlying unity of Scripture. So, in our work, we try our best to embrace the legitimate diversity of Scripture.
In our postmodern culture, it has become popular for some people to believe that truth is both individual and subjective. Why must Christians hold the line on this and maintain that the Bible is not a book that can be read in this way?
Well, Christianity has an inexorable historical core and stands or falls with the veracity of the biblical message on topics such as the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, or Jesus’ resurrection. This is why it’s so important that we affirm, for example, that the Gospels represent apostolic eyewitness testimony. As you know, critical scholarship, and even some so-called evangelical scholarship, denies the apostolic authorship of Matthew and John and the Pauline authorship of up to half of the NT letters attributed to him, not to mention other departures from a high view of Scripture. So, in our biblical theology, we adhere to Matthean and Johannine authorship and affirm the Pauline authorship of all 13 epistles, in keeping with the New Testament introduction I co-authored, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown. As you can imagine, a Biblical Theology written on the basis of those premises will look very different than one that questions the accuracy of authorial attributions of much of the New Testament, and I could say similar things with regard to the Old Testament.
What is the origin of the discipline of biblical theology and what is its relationship to hermeneutics?
Those are great questions. I can give two answers to the first part of the question regarding the origins of biblical theology. The origin of the modern academic discipline of biblical theology is commonly assigned to J. P. Gabler and his inaugural lecture at a German university toward the end of the 18th century where he urged that a distinction should be made between Biblical and what he called “Dogmatic Theology.” While we wouldn’t agree with everything Gabler said, we do agree that his address helped launch a movement that gradually morphed into what we today know as biblical theology.
That said, and that is my second answer, in truth biblical theology is as old as the Bible itself, because you already see the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament and thus making the kinds of inner-biblical connections that we’re after as well. In fact, you can see biblical theology already when an Old Testament author such as Isaiah refers back to the Pentateuch by speaking of a new exodus in relation to the first exodus under Moses.
You also asked about the relationship between biblical theology and hermeneutics. Of course, the two are closely intertwined, but they’re not the same. Simply put, hermeneutics supplies us with the theory of how to properly interpret the texts of Scripture that in turn serves as the foundation for doing biblical theology. In my book Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, I speak of a hermeneutical triad of history, literature, and theology and argue that as we study the various genres in Scripture, we need to investigate the historical setting, literary features, and theological message of a given passage. In our Biblical Theology, therefore, we put that hermeneutical method and theory into practice as we draw canonical connections between the various writings of Scripture in their original historical setting.
You see the Hebrew and Greek ways of ordering the Old Testament books as significant for interpretation. Can you give a couple of examples of the way in which this works and why do we have it in the order we do today.
The order of books with which we are familiar is due to the influence of the Greek OT, the so-called Septuagint, which through the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) has influenced the order of the books in our Bibles. Studying biblical book order helps us learn from the way in which past readers have read and interpreted the Bible. Now I hasten to add that the book order in our Bibles is not inspired; only the individual books are. Greg, my co-author, calls book order, the “paratext” of Scripture.
Let me give you a couple of examples how paying attention to book order can be very helpful as we read Scripture. Take the book of Ruth, for example. Ruth is put after Judges in the Greek tradition (the position it has in our modern Bibles). It is placed after Proverbs in the Hebrew canon and before the book of Psalms in the later Jewish Talmudic tradition. What does that tell us?
Well, Ruth between Judges and Samuel suggests a messianic reading, for it describes God’s work in the family that produced King David. Ruth after Proverbs suggests that Ruth is an exemplar of the virtuous woman in Proverbs 31, an ethical reading where Ruth serves as a model of godly behavior in a time of family crisis. Ruth before Psalms suggests that the book of Ruth is read as a prehistory of David, who wrote many of the psalms and who is shown in the Psalms to be one who “takes refuge” in God just as Ruth his great-grandmother did.
Moving on to the New Testament, we find two different kinds of canonical arrangement. The one familiar to us in our English Bibles, which can be traced back to the Latin order in the Vulgate, is Gospels / Acts / Pauline epistles / General epistles / Revelation. But there is a second, Greek, order, that is older and could be considered primary. In this kind of arrangement, the order is Gospels / Acts / General epistles / Pauline epistles (including Hebrews) / Revelation. In the latter, Greek order, the New Testament letters are placed in the same order in which the authors are featured in the book of Acts, namely James, Peter, John, and Paul (though of course Jude is not mentioned in Acts). This lends the entire arrangement an organic dimension and binds the whole New Testament together harmoniously. It can also make a difference in how we read the books individually and in relation to each other.
For example, we’re accustomed to reading Paul’s letter to the Romans first in terms of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith apart from works. Then, we struggle to harmonize Paul with James, who, as you know, points to the indispensable requirements of works to provide evidence for a person’s faith. Luther even called James a “strawy epistle” and wanted to throw it out of the canon! How would things be different if, according to the Greek order, we read James FIRST and started out with his insistence that works must of necessity accompany faith and THEN read Paul and his teaching that we are justified by faith, not works? Perhaps in this case we would have less of a problem relating the two documents to each other.
In what sense are the historical books, Joshua to Kings, also prophetic books?
Joshua through Kings (not including Ruth) are called “Former Prophets” in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps because the view it reflects is to a large extent that of the early prophets who sought to teach the ways of God. The history recounted in these four books then becomes the basis for appeals to covenant loyalty by the later prophets. The so-called “Former Prophets” include references to a series of prophets or prophetesses, such as Deborah (Jdg 4:4), Samuel (1 Sam 3:20), and Nathan (2 Sam 7:2; 12:1), and the book of Kings provides a historical framework for the Latter Prophets, including Isaiah and Jeremiah. All this indicates that the classification of Joshua to Kings as prophecy is quite warranted.
What can we learn from the ways that the New Testament authors quoted from the Old Testament books of the Bible?
Yes, that’s an important subject, and we devote an entire chapter in our book to the New Testament use of the Old Testament. To start with, the favorite books of Jesus and the apostolic writers were clearly the Pentateuch (esp. Genesis and Deuteronomy), Psalms, and Isaiah, though they cited or alluded to a very broad range of portions of the Old Testament. Clearly, for the New Testament authors, the Old Testament was essential for an accurate portrayal of the person and work of Christ. Let me just illustrate this with two passages that are cited multiple times in the New Testament. The first is Psalm 110:1, which says, “The LORD says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” Jesus himself cited and explained that passage with reference to himself, and so did New Testament writers such as the author of Hebrews. Another key Old Testament passage quoted repeatedly in the New Testament is Daniel 7:13, the vision of “one like a son of man” who came to the “Ancient of Days” on the clouds of heaven. Again, Jesus applied this passage to himself and his glorious return at the end of time, and the New Testament authors, including Revelation, picked up on that passage as well. Both of these passages are quoted or alluded to many times.
I should also point out that the New Testament writers use the Old Testament for ethical instruction as well, such as Peter quoting the Levitical holiness code in 1 Peter, where God says, “Be holy as I am holy.” In 1 Corinthians 10:11, Paul writes of things that happened to Israel in Old Testament times that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” That clearly shows that the Old Testament continues to be relevant for New Testament believers today as a source of instruction and ethical teaching.
The law plays a significant role within scripture, what are the key things we need to know about law and its implication to us today in 2023?
Great question. There is a huge difference between legalism and an appreciation of the Old Testament law. Clearly, as Hebrews teaches us, the new covenant in Christ has rendered the old covenant obsolete, but that doesn’t mean the law is irrelevant. I think what is key here is that the usual English rendering of the word “law” has a legalistic ring that is not present in the underlying Hebrew word (Torah), whose meaning is closer to “instruction.”
You can see this in the opening sentences of the book of Deuteronomy (1:5), and the description of this book as “instruction” is broad enough to encompass the content of the entire farewell speeches of Moses. Similarly, we should read the Ten Commandments (really, “Ten Words”) of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 as ten wide-ranging moral principles that apply, in various ways, to all of life and that can be summed up in the requirement to love God and neighbor.
So, today, our primary responsibility as believers continues to be to love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, just like Jesus taught.
How would you want readers of the Bible to see Jesus in and through the Old Testament?
Well, clearly Jesus is predicted and anticipated prominently in the Old Testament, but that doesn’t mean that every verse in the Old Testament is about Jesus. So, let me register a word of caution here: Don’t try to find Jesus everywhere, or at least, don’t try to find him in the wrong places!
The Old Testament as a whole points forward to Christ, which we know on the authority of Jesus himself (see Luke 24). But that doesn’t mean that talking about Jesus is all the Old Testament does. So I believe a high view of Scripture doesn’t demand that we see Christ everywhere in the Old Testament. In fact, a high view of Scripture demands that we interpret the Old Testament fairly and responsibly, and in proper context.
For example, Jesus’ claim in John 5:39 that “it is they [= the Old Testament Scriptures] that bear witness about me” refers to the OT as one among a number of “witnesses” to him, which include his own words (5:31), his Father (5:32, 37), John (5:33), Jesus’ works (5:36) and Moses (5:46). It doesn’t assert that all the Old Testament does is point forward to Christ.
Similarly, Luke 24:27, which says, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself,” as well as Luke 24:44, where Jesus says that “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled,” doesn’t say that every verse in the Old Testament is about Jesus. So, we need to be careful and nuanced here. I really appreciate the work of my co-author Greg Goswell here, who is very nuanced and judicious in letting the Old Testament speak in its own historical context while at the same time giving proper due to the many types of Christ and messianic predictions of Christ in the Old Testament.
What is the relationship between the “Synoptic Gospels” (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and John’s Gospel, and why is John’s Gospel so different from the others?
In a nutshell, the Synoptic Gospels were written fairly closely together, while John was likely written a couple decades later. So, I believe it’s highly probable that John had knowledge of these earlier Gospels and wrote to supplement them in various ways. For example, in John 13, he covers the Last Supper, but totally omits mention of Jesus’s institution of the new covenant. Instead, he focuses on the foot-washing and the exposure of Judas the betrayer. This is a good example of how all 4 Gospels complement one another and why we should read them together to get as complete a picture as possible. Another example is that the opening words in the resurrection narratives in Luke and John are exactly the same, which suggests that John had read Luke.
Another reason why John’s Gospel is different is because John chose to be highly selective and to include only a few events and conversations and to develop them in greater detail. For good reason, his is known as the “theological Gospel,” by which people mean that John is very reflective and probes the theological significance of a given sign or teaching of Jesus. Finally, John was not only an apostle but one of three men in Jesus’s inner circle, so he can draw on eyewitness testimony unlike some of the other Gospels. For example, he alone includes the raising of Lazarus in chapter 11 or the Farewell or Upper Room Discourse in John 13–17. In my Johannine theology, I talk about John’s theological transposition of Synoptic material, i.e., his further development of Synoptic themes without repeating them.
How should we read Paul’s epistles in light of their biblical-theological contributions?
Paul wrote almost half of the New Testament, or 13 out of 27 letters, and is one of the main characters in the book of Acts, so obviously his contribution to the theology of the New Testament is massive. In our book, we call Paul’s teaching the “meat and potatoes of the New Testament’s teaching on what it means to apply the saving benefits of Christ’s work to the lives of believers.” People know Paul for his incredible theology, such as in the book of Romans, but Paul is very practical and wrote out of a deep concern for believers to grow in Christ.
In the section on Paul, I divided his letters into 3 groups: (1) Romans–Galatians, which are foundational in clarifying the gospel of justification by faith; (2) the Prison Epistles–Thessalonians, which mark the flowering of Paul’s ministry and the establishment of organic communities of believers; and (3) his letters to individuals, namely Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, which are concerned with safeguarding his legacy and passing on the gospel to the next generation.
The book of Revelation is known for many highly speculative interpretations. What difference does it make to read the book with regard to biblical theology?
You’re right. I think reading Revelation in its canonical context is really helpful. The book is obviously the capstone volume, not only of the New Testament, but of the entire Bible. It is the corresponding bookend to the book of Genesis at the beginning of Scripture. That said, there is movement in the biblical story as well, as humanity starts with one man and one woman and ends up with an innumerable multitude. It starts in a garden and ends in a city, the new Jerusalem. So, if we didn’t have Revelation, we’d be missing a great deal. We’d be missing the proper conclusion to human history and to the way in which God wraps up human history with the final judgment of Satan, his demons, and unrepentant humanity and the eternal state. This is the proper biblical-theological framework within which we should interpret Revelation.
The Bible is one grand story, a meta-narrative. What, would you say, is at the heart of the biblical narrative, and why?
As you know, the history of biblical theology is full of proposals regarding what is the center of biblical theology. We don’t believe there is just one center of Scripture, because there are many important themes that are interrelated. That said, we believe that at the heart of the biblical narrative is the affirmation, as John puts it so well, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We believe this love underlies many other important major themes in Scripture, such as God’s covenants, his sending of the Messiah, the crucifixion, and even God’s creation. Jesus said that the entire Old Testament is summed up in the command to love God with all our hearts, minds, strength, and soul, and Paul calls love “the greatest of these” and “the most excellent way.” John, too, is rightly known as the apostle of love. In fact, he calls himself “the disciple Jesus loved.” So you see that God’s love for us in Christ and his desire that we respond to that love can rightly be considered to be at the heart of the biblical narrative. Sorry, we simply can’t improve on John 3:16!
What are some other key themes running throughout Scripture?
In addition to love, we discuss topics such as Messiah, kingdom, covenant, exodus, and creation and the idea of a new covenant, new exodus, and new creation, the cross, the Spirit, the gospel, the church, remembrance, mission, and the last days. We relish the diversity in Scripture that cannot easily be reduced to just one overriding theme or single center. Like any good story, the Bible is full of major and minor characters, plots and subplots, and themes running through from beginning to end. I highly recommend that you get the book and read chapter 13 closely, which is where we provide a discussion of all these themes, and of course we had to be selective, as there are other themes we could have included as well.
The Bible isn’t a book of theory, it calls for a response from its reader. How can we be confident in knowing what parts of the Bible we should apply to our lives today in 2023?
Well, the Bible calls us to a relationship with the true and living God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit. So that’s the fountainhead, the source from which all blessings flow, a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus said that if we abide in his word, we are truly his disciples, so the main thing we need to do is spend time reading his Word and talking to God in personal prayer. Everything flows from that. Peter writes in 2 Peter, and that’s my paraphrase, that in our relationship with Jesus Christ, we have everything we need to lead a godly life. That’s an amazing thought.
Of course, I would add that we need good hermeneutics. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” So we need to be willing to work at it, to acquire good Bible study skills, so we can discern not only the meaning of a given passage but also the significance of that passage for our lives today. If you’re interested, I’ve written several books on this, one simply called Inductive Bible Study and another, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation.
Do you have any closing thoughts?
Well, I just want to say thank you for having me on your show. Every blessing in your ministry, and thanks to our audience for listening. I hope you check out our Biblical Theology and find it to be a helpful resource in your personal Bible study and ministry.
How can people follow your work?
I’d love for them to check out our website, biblicalfoundations.org, where they will find an abundance of resources and a complete list of publications, plus many of my writings for free download. In our ministry, my wife and I especially focus on marriage and family, parenting, biblical theology, and other abiding biblical and theological topics. There is also a contact page on our website where people can request me and/or my wife to come and speak at their church or event or ask me a question. Finally, people can go to my Amazon author page, where they’ll find a complete listing of all the books I’ve written.