The following introduction and accompanying interview was first posted on April 26, 2023. Many thanks to Zach McCulley for the opportunity to talk to him about our new book, Biblical Theology. “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. Kostenberger and Gregory Goswell explain how to interpret Scripture from three effective viewpoints: canonical, thematic, and ethical.
Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach (Crossway, 2023) is arranged book by book from the Old Testament (using the Hebrew order) through the New Testament. For each text, Kostenberger 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.”
Zach McCulley (@zamccull) is a historian of religion and literary cultures in early modern England and PhD candidate in History at Queen’s University Belfast.
NBN: Welcome to the New Books Network. I’m Zach McCulley, and I’ll be your host. Thank you for talking with me today about your new book, Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach. First, why don’t you introduce yourself, starting with Dr. Goswell?
Greg Goswell: Zach, thank you for your invitation. I am the Academic Dean and Lecturer in Old Testament at Christ College in Sydney, Australia. I was a missionary and a pastor of both a rural and city church for 20 years, and am now involved in training future generations of men and women for a range of ministries. I am married to Mignon, and we have four adult children and three grandchildren.
Andreas Kostenberger: Thanks so much for doing this interview, Zach. We really appreciate it. I’m a native Austrian and grew up nominal Roman Catholic. I trusted Christ toward the end of my time in college at age 23. I came to the US in my late 20s to study New Testament first at Columbia International University and then at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I’ve taught at various institutions in the past 30 years and currently serve as theologian in residence at Fellowship Raleigh. My wife Marny and I have four grown children, two girls and two boys.
Definition of Biblical Theology
New Books Network: What does the term Biblical Theology mean, first of all?
GG: BT is the theology of the biblical writers themselves, what they say about God, his character, his ways and his purposes, with each inspired author contributing to an overall theology of the Bible, that we believe is connected, richly varied and also compatible. It differs from exegesis, in that, building on exegesis, and our Biblical Theology has a strong exegetical base, for we look closely at key biblical passages, but adds the essential element of synthesis.
The Story behind This Book
What is the story behind this book? Why have you written a Biblical Theology?
AK: I would think many biblical scholars dream of writing a Biblical Theology one day as a capstone work at the culmination of their teaching and writing career. But not often do those dreams come true. In my case, I knew it could only happen if I were to find a compatible and congenial Old Testament co-author. Now Greg and I actually never met in person, but I got acquainted with his work while serving as editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society and publishing several of his articles. I was very impressed with his scholarship and sent him an exploratory email to see if he was interested and to explore whether we were sufficiently compatible theologically. After a few email interchanges, we decided to go for it. We crafted a proposal and sent it off to Crossway, and they enthusiastically accepted it.
Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical
NBN: Can you discuss the subtitle of the book, that is, what is the importance of these terms canonical, thematic, and ethical with regard to your book?
GG: Yes, each of these three terms have been carefully chosen and each is significant for how we wrote our Biblical Theology. By “canonical,” we mean that we seek to take account of how the Bible is structured, into Old and New Testament, that is obvious enough, but also the way in which the individual books are placed in order, what their canonical neighbors are, so to speak, or how they are found in a particular grouping of books (e.g., the Pentateuch, the General Epistles), for this has an influence on interpretation. Most Biblical Theologies have not taken much or any account of biblical book order as a guide.
By “thematic,” we mean that we seek to uncover and trace the main themes in the Bible, and we take a multi-theme approach, not leaning too heavily on any one Bible theme, but allowing various themes to take their proper place in the overall teaching of the Bible. That also sets our book apart from some others.
Finally, “ethical” refers to the fact that we examine the moral guidance provided in each Bible book, believing that ethics is part of theology, and that BT is not only concerned with God’s character and ways, but also with the implication of these for how we live.
Comparison with Other Biblical Theologies
NBN: How does this book relate to other biblical theologies?
AK: There are actually only very few evangelical Biblical Theologies on the market, like the ones by Greg Beale, Tom Schreiner, Craig Blomberg, Ben Witherington, and Frank Thielman. What makes our Biblical Theology distinctive, I believe, is its methodological clarity and rigor, our focus on ethics, and our comprehensiveness. As mentioned, we use a book by book approach and discuss the major themes, ethical teachings, and place in the storyline of Scripture for all 66 books of Scripture. Also, we wrote our book not merely for the academy but primarily for people in the churches, for pastors and teachers and really for all serious students of the Bible.
Old Testament Themes
NBN: Can you discuss some of the Old and New Testament themes you’ve drawn out in the book?
GG: Yes, we have taken a thematic approach in seeking to elucidate the biblical-theological dimension of the Old and New Testaments. The identification of themes can help safeguard and guide the interpretation of a given book so that the interpreter can properly bring out what the author—both the human author and ultimately God—meant for people to understand. A theme is a central idea or topic explored in a book; it is an organizing center of the author’s thinking; it is guide to what is important to an author, what he really wants to say and what he wants to say about that. Key Old Testament themes include creation, covenant, kingship, messiah, sanctuary, God’s Spirit, Israel and the nations, prophecy, the kindness of God and the love of God. Our synthesis is found in chapter 13. Each is important, but no one theme can say everything that needs to be said. The themes identified are by no means unconnected, rather they interact and intertwine as the warp and woof of the fabric of the Old Testament story.
New Testament Themes
AK: My discussion of NT themes in the final chapter is based on inductive work in all 27 books of the NT in chapters 8–12 of our volume. So I don’t come to the NT already with a list of themes made up but first study each and every book with an open mind as to what a given NT author says is important to him and only then compile a cumulative list of themes that are found in many, if not most, NT books. That said, major NT themes that I cover in our concluding synthesis are the love of God, the person and work of Christ, the Messiah, Jesus the king and his kingdom, the new covenant, new exodus, the new creation, the cross, the Holy Spirit, the gospel, the church, remembrance, mission, and the last days. So I guess you’ll find some of the usual suspects but also perhaps a couple surprises. I think that’s the beautiful thing about BT, that it can serve as a corrective to our theological systems and presuppositions.
Let me also say that our openness to multiple interrelated important themes in Scripture is one of the hallmarks of our Biblical Theology. In other words, we don’t allow any one theme to dominate the entire landscape of biblical theology. We don’t have to choose between covenant, or kingdom of God, or Messiah, or creation and new creation; all of these, and several others, are important themes pervading the entire Bible. That said, we do talk about the love of God for the world and God’s desire that we reciprocate his love as being at the heart of the biblical story, but not in such a way that it becomes the single center of Scripture. Rather, we think of the canon of Scripture more like a family discussion around the dinner table where everyone is welcomed and has a voice, even the authors of shorter Bible books like Obadiah or Jude.
Hebrew Book Order
NBN: Can you please comment on the importance of order of the Hebrew and Greek texts?
GG: Maybe I should say something about Old Testament book order, which we argue is highly significant. Whether we realize it or not, it affects how we read the Bible. The Hebrew ordering of the Old Testament books has a three-part structure. The first part (Torah or Pentateuch) centers on the making of a covenant between God and Israel. The second part (Prophets) offers instructions and warnings about violating the covenant. This section is further divided into Former and Latter Prophets. Putting books that Christians usually view as “Histories,” books like Samuel and Kings, in the same section as collections of oracles (by Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) tends to make all these books prophetic in orientation. It suggests that books like Samuel and Kings not only recount events, but they also offer a critique of the behavior of God’s people. The third part of the Hebrew canon (Writings) contains a wide variety of works and hence the general title given to the section. The Writings provides wisdom for typical situations of life (e.g., Job, Psalms, Proverbs). The section also includes what look like historical works, such as Chronicles,
but the tone of Chronicles differs from Kings for the author regularly extracts a moral lesson from events.
Notice that by talking in this way about how the Old Testament is structured we are speaking about Biblical Theology. The Bibles we use, however, arrange the Old Testament books a little differently, for the Greek Old Testament tradition influenced the book order we are familiar with.
Again, the Old Testament starts with the Pentateuch, telling of the origin of the world and of Israel. This is followed by the Historical Books, Joshua through to Esther. Next, we have the Poetic Books, mostly wisdom in character, suggesting that the book of Psalms, which is placed between Job and Proverbs, also teaches how to pray, how to live wisely. Finally, there are the Prophetic Books, major prophets and minor prophets, which, each in their way, look forward to the dawning kingdom of God, and of course, as Christians, we know that God’s kingdom drew near with the coming of Jesus Christ. Both ways of ordering the books are helpful for those who want to understand Biblical Theology. It would be a mistake to view these arrangements as Jewish versus Christian, for both orders really come from Jewish sources, and both ways of organizing the books of the Old Testament can assist us to see the biblical-theological meaning of the inspired books.
Greek Book Order
AK: Yes, with regard to the order of New Testament books, it is not as widely known that there is alternative order to the standard English sequencing as well. The English book order is based on the Latin Vulgate, but an older, Greek, order, exists as well, in which the Pauline letters follow, rather than precede, the General Epistles. That is, the order is Gospels / Acts / General Epistles / Pauline Epistles including Hebrews / Revelation. In that alternative order, the General Epistles feature the authors of those letters in the order in which they are mentioned in the book of Acts, namely James, Peter, John, and finally Paul. In the book, I consistently address what difference it makes if we read, say, James before Romans rather than after it with regard to the respective teachings on faith and works.
Utility for Pastors and Preachers
NBN: How do you both foresee this book benefitting Christians? Or, why should Christians and pastors in particular seek to understand Biblical Theology?
AK: Biblical theology is a great way to study Scripture. It looks at the big picture, at the contribution a given book makes to the canon, as well as at the distinctive themes of a given book and its unique ethical teachings. Biblical theology also seeks to draw connections among the biblical books, especially between the Old and the New Testament. Pastors and preachers, we highly recommend that you consider adding biblical theology to your repertoire and incorporate it in your sermon preparation.
You’ve heard it said, “Engage in expository preaching,” but I say to you, “Engage in biblical-theological preaching.” Because exposition only discusses a given text word for word and phrase by phrase, but biblical-theological preaching shows how a given text or Bible book fits within the biblical storyline and message of the Bible as a whole.
So, for example, if you preach on Galatians, make sure to go to Acts where much of the background for the book is found, such as Paul’s conversion story or the Jerusalem Council. Also make sure you go to Genesis and the patriarchal narratives, which Paul cites extensively in chapters 3 and 4 of Galatians, especially the narratives featuring Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. In this way, the whole Bible will come to life, and you will help your congregation see the parts in light of the whole, beautiful tapestry of the Word of God.
Benefits of Whole-Bible Theology
GG: We all listen to sermons, based on a particular Bible passage, but how do all these passages fit together, and see the big picture. There is also a storyline that runs through Scripture, and the books of the Bible have been put in a certain order by earlier generations of readers, which is intended to help later readers like us to make sense of the Bible as a whole. We live in a time of soundbites, tweets, and the Bible on the smartphone. These technologies run the danger of atomizing the Bible, leaving Scripture passages without context and connection to other Bible passages.
Again, this is where biblical theology becomes so important. There is a storyline running through the Bible, as reflected in passages like Nehemiah 9, Psalm 78, Daniel 9, Acts 7 and 13. Likewise, in terms of the structuring of the canon, the books are found in blocks, such as the Pentateuch, the Former and Latter Prophets in the Hebrew canon, or the fourfold Gospel and Pauline Corpus in the New Testament. In Biblical Theology, we don’t play the biblical storyline off against the canonical framing of the books, for both frameworks are vital for a proper reading of Scripture.
NBN: What books or articles are you working on, or planning to work on, that our listeners may look out for next?
AK: I’m working on a major new commentary on John’s Gospel for the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series with Lexham Press, as the culmination of 30 years of studying John’s Gospel. Also, if I may, I’d like to refer listeners who are interested in what I’ve written to a complete list of all my publications on my website, biblicalfoundations.org. Again, Zach, many thanks for doing this interview. We hope our listeners will be inspired to learn more about biblical theology and to put it to use in their study of God’s word.
GG: I have been commissioned to write a commentary on the book of Daniel for Kregel, and again, like our present Biblical Theology, I do not plan just to repeat what others have said and done! Some people see the book as difficult, and indeed it has taken me many years to come to an understanding that I am happy with. I teach it regularly in classes.
NBN: Thank you, Dr. Kostenberger and Dr. Goswell, for this helpful conversation.