Today is the launch day of Andreas Kostenberger’s and Gregory Goswell’s book Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach (Crossway). In the following interview, Andreas Kostenberger answers questions such as: Why did you decide to write a whole-Bible Biblical theology? What was the most difficult part in writing the volume? Can you describe your canonical, thematic, and ethical approach? How did you pick the most relevant themes? Were there any other biblical theologies that influenced you in writing the book? As you look at the current state of the field of biblical theology, what encourages you? and more.
Why did you decide to write a whole-Bible Biblical theology?
I’ve had a desire to write a Biblical Theology (BT) for a long time but wasn’t sure if I’d ever have the opportunity. I always knew that if I did so, I’d want an Old Testament (OT) collaborator, so part of the question was, would I find a congenial partner in such a project? Then, as JETS editor, I came across the work of Greg Goswell. Greg is teaching at Christ College in Sydney, Australia. After publishing a half dozen of Greg’s always excellent articles in JETS, the thought occurred to me that he might be just the collaborator I was looking for.
I floated the idea in an initial exploratory email, and after several email interchanges we determined that we were sufficiently compatible in our overall approach and method to tackle such a task together. I had written several pieces on the nature of Biblical Theology (such as my Themelios article on “The Present and Future of BT”), and Greg liked my basic approach and method. I liked his focus on book order, especially in the OT, and his non-dogmatic approach in this area, which is refreshing, as I’ve found that many OT scholars are rather categorical on these matters.
So, we crafted a proposal and sent it on to Crossway, and they responded enthusiastically. The process of writing a BT was very smooth. Greg wrote his material on the OT first, and then I wrote my part on the New Testament (NT). We divvied up the first and the last chapter, though I wrote most of chapter 1. Also, we collaborated on the middle chapters on the NT use of the OT, chapters 6 and 7. Throughout the process, we interacted with each other, so that in the end, we could both stand behind everything written in the volume.
What was the most difficult part in writing a whole-Bible biblical theology?
The sheer volume of secondary literature! Fortunately, Greg and I could both draw on the scholarly work we had done in 30+ years of study and teaching, so that helped. Also, because we conceive of BT as primarily inductive, we both started with the biblical material itself before interacting with the secondary literature.
When it came to the secondary literature, we had to be selective, of course. But because we think of introductory matters and exegesis as prolegomena to BT, we didn’t interact, for the most part, with OT or NT introductions or commentary literature but primarily focused on monographs and specialized articles or essays.
For the NT, of course, I presupposed our volume, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, when it came to introductory matters. Other than that, we didn’t run into any major difficulties. In fact, it was a joy to write on the theology of each of the 66 books in the canon and then to synthesize our findings and draw the thematic and intertextual connections between the various books.
Your approach is described as canonical, theological, and ethical. Can you describe the process?
Certainly. What we decided to do in our book is to cover three areas for each of the 66 books in the Bible: (1) major themes; (2) the ethical teaching; and (3) the place of a given book in the storyline of Scripture (its canonical contribution). In addition, we included summary discussions of entire corpora of Scripture, such as “The Ethics of the Pentateuch” or “Major Themes in the General Epistles,” and so forth.
In my case, I had already written works on Johannine theology and on the theology of the letters to Timothy and Titus, so that gave me a head start. To use John as an example, I first surveyed the major themes in the Gospel, especially those that are distinctive when compared to the three Synoptic Gospels. Then I moved on to Johannine ethics, where I covered John’s love ethic, which is present especially in the footwashing narrative in chapter 13.
Finally, I discussed John’s place in the storyline of Scripture. Since we argue that God’s love for humanity is at the heart of the biblical narrative, I made a case that John 3:16 is really at the heart of the Bible’s overall storyline: “God so loved the world ….” In this way, we cover the major themes, ethical teaching, and place in the storyline for all 66 books of the Bible.
Your text follows the order of the Hebrew text. Do you also follow the Greek canonical order for the NT?
We discuss the NT books in the order in which they appear in the English (Latin) order, that is, Gospels / Acts / Paul / General Epistles / Revelation, primarily for the convenience of our English readers. That said, we actually argue that the Greek order, which has the General Epistles immediately follow Acts and is followed by Paul’s letters, is in some sense primary. As you know, the Tyndale House edition of the GNT has recently followed that order.
So we are well aware of the Greek NT order and discuss implications of reading the NT books in that order throughout our volume. For example, we ask the question, What difference does it make if we read James first and then Romans rather than other way around? We also have an entire chapter on book order in the Old and the New Testaments (chapter 6) where we discuss these matters in some detail. I’d argue that we are the first, if not the only, BT that pays close attention to canonical book order in both Testaments.
How did you pick the themes most relevant to each biblical book?
Through inductive study. In chapter 1, we talk about the practical matter of how anyone can determine inductively what the major themes in a given book are:
(1) by reading through a given book multiple times and taking notes as to what the author himself seems to emphasize as important; this will often by done by repetition of a given topic or by strategic placement, such as in the introduction or a purpose statement;
(2) the second step will be to consolidate smaller themes that we observed in our readings of the book into overarching categories;
(3) the third step involves separating themes into major and minor themes, which may seem subjective but will often emerge rather organically from careful study;
(4) finally, we will prepare a presentation of a theology of a given biblical book in such a way that hopefully the author of that book would endorse it as a fair representation of their own convictions and emphases.
In researching and drafting this book, were there any previous biblical theologies that influenced you?
I’m not sure how Greg would answer this question and am reluctant to speak for him in this regard. As to myself, I certainly read and was aware of most of the English and German-speaking Biblical theologies and NT theologies of the past, say, 25 years, including Beale, Schreiner, Thielman, Marshall, Blomberg, Witherington, and so forth, not to mention studies such as Biblical Theology according to the Apostles.
As you might imagine, though, my approach doesn’t fully match any of those, and if we had time, I could elaborate on how I assess each of those volumes in terms of strengths and weaknesses. The work that I probably found most helpful overall is Richard Hays’s Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels and his earlier work Echoes of Scripture in Paul. I appreciate Hays’s narrative approach and his close attention to intertextuality, as you’ll be able to see when you read the chapters on the Gospels in our BT.
Other than that, as you can probably guess, I’m greatly indebted to Adolf Schlatter, whose 1,100-page BT I translated from German into English a while ago. I love Schlatter’s overall description and understanding of the nature of BT as careful listening to the text. I also love his ability to draw connections between the various NT writers and his approach to the NT as the historical unfolding of the apostolic teaching about Jesus.
So, I’d say, Hays and Schlatter were probably the scholars who were most influential on my thinking.
As you look at the current state of the field of Biblical Theology, what encourages you?
Overall, I’m very encouraged. BT is an extremely vibrant field, maybe the most vibrant and promising. You can see that already by the series that have recently been launched in the area of BT. Of course, there is the NSBT series edited by Don Carson, also the BTNT series edited by myself, with 5 of the 8 volumes now complete and the other ones currently in production.
There is also the Lexham EBTC (formerly B&H’s BTCP), with a total of 40 volumes of which less than 10 have appeared so far. There is also the very popular SSBT series published by Crossway (my wife Marny has a forthcoming volume on Sanctification that we’re very excited about) and the ESBT (Essential Studies in BT) edited by Ben Gladd and future volumes by Morales.
All of this makes me very hopeful for the vibrancy of the discipline. And hopefully Greg’s and my volume can contribute to the viability of the discipline as well.
How should preachers implement biblical theology in preaching?
They should give biblical-theological sermons and use a biblical-theological approach! I happen to be member of a church that is blessed to have a pastor and preacher who excels at BT, and, let me tell you, it’s a huge blessing. He has been preaching through the book of Genesis week after week lately and has consistently drawn connections between later and earlier passages in the book and other parts of Scripture, which has been hugely helpful and instructive.
People often talk about the need for expository preaching, phrase by phrase and line by line, but I think expository preaching can still be lacking if it is not biblical-theological, that is, fails to draw connections with other parts of Scripture.
So that’s my challenge for preachers: Don’t just pay close attention to the words and phrases in your preaching portion, but relate your text to the canonical context in a way that reflects authorial intent and reveals God’s character in the way he has dealt with his people over the course of salvation history.
Note: I originally addressed some of those questions in a biblical seminar taught by my former student and colleague Dr. Scott Kellum.