Finding the Gospel in the Whole Bible

Graeme Goldsworthy
Friday, December 17th 2010
Jan/Feb 2011

Graeme Goldsworthy, a now-retired lecturer in Old Testament, biblical theology, and hermeneutics at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, is the author of many books, including the popular According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (IVP Academic, 2002)’one of the best and most accessible overviews of the Bible's basic plot. His latest is Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (IVP Academic, 2010).

We hear wonderful things about the Sydney diocese and the witness of Reformation Christianity in Australia through many of the graduates of Moore College. Do you think it takes effort to get a good understanding of the Bible, or is it a book you can just pick up and basically understand without any effort?
That's a complicated question. The Bible is not uniformly simple; I think that's easy to demonstrate’just show people one part and show people another part. Obviously, stories are easy to understand. The narrative areas are much easier to understand in the sense of getting the thread of the story. But it's putting it all together that takes some guidance and help. Now, I have said that my own personal experience is that if you can show people a fairly simple schema of how the whole Bible fits together, it really brings them alive to it. But it does take some effort.

Do you think part of our problem is that just as worship in many of our churches today is merely entertaining and doesn't demand very much, we also don't encourage Christians as much today to become serious readers? That we only offer shallow studies about God's will for our finances or our marriage and so forth, and that we don't really go to the Bible for how it's meant to be read?
Once again, it's very hard to generalize there. My wife and I are at the moment attending a little church, in the state bordering Queensland, which we stopped at when we moved up onto the Gold Coast, because the preacher was an expository preacher. He's very demanding in how people should read the Bible, and I share his approach. But many preachers aren't, and in many churches Bible reading just doesn't happen the way it should. You just hope and pray that if you train your people and your clergy well, they will go out and stick by what they're being taught: that is, to get people reading the Bible properly.

Reading the Bible properly, as you point out in all of your books, begins with understanding the plot. It's all connected from Genesis to Revelation, despite the diversity and twists and turns and different genres. There's one unfolding plot, a history of redemption. One great example that you explore is the kingdom of God. Today, the "kingdom of God" idea is exploited for all sorts of enterprises. What would you say, as an example, of how only within the plot it makes sense?
This goes back to my first publication, Gospel and Kingdom, where I was trying to help people understand what to do with the Old Testament as Christians, and I looked for a concept that sort of bound it all together. And although the term "kingdom of God"’and I've been criticized for this’doesn't appear in the Old Testament (it explains God's kingship and kingdoms and so on, but not the phrase "the kingdom of God" like you get in the New Testament), the concept is there. So I attempted to derive a concept that would encompass the whole progression of biblical revelation, and I, for better or for worse, put it under the sense of God's people in God's place under God's rule. I maintain this sort of reductionist approach, which is a bit like an X-ray photo: you've got to put the meat onto the bones, but the bones, nevertheless, are important for understanding the structure. I've tried to help people understand how the concept of God ruling over his people in the place that he makes for them is the ongoing theme of the Bible, from beginning to end.

A lot of people, when they pick up the Bible, start reading where they open it. But in doing this, they may tend to think it's merely a collection of timeless wisdom or truths. How important is it for us to understand the history of redemption and the progress of revelation in order to interpret the particular passages we're reading in light of the history of revelation?
I think it's absolutely vital. At a meeting once, I said that nobody starts reading the Bible by opening up at Genesis 1 and reading through until suddenly light dawns when they get to the Gospels. A young fellow in the front row put his hand up and said, "I got converted like that." I responded, "Well, there's one in every crowd." But what I try to do when I'm asked to talk about the unity of the Bible and so on is to say: we begin by becoming Christ-ians; it's our conversion and our faith in Jesus Christ that is at the center of it all, so let's go there. I like to start them off with passages such as the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus in Luke 24, where he points out that the whole of the Old Testament is about him. You can look at passages like John 5 where Jesus says to the Jewish leaders, if you believed Moses, you'd believe me, because he wrote about me.

It's very clear from the way the New Testament sets it all out. You can go to Stephen's apology in Acts 7 where he gives a progressive account from Abraham through to the present day. Peter does it in his Pentecost sermon, Paul does it in Acts 13, and so on. This redemptive history thing is obviously the structure the apostles learned from Jesus. And if that's the way they do it, then essentially that's the way we need to do it. So my approach is to say: Look, as Christians we read the Old Testament and we need the Old Testament to under-stand it in relationship to the gospel, because that's what Jesus and the apostles teach us to do.

So we should interpret the Old Testament the way the apostles did.
Broadly speaking, yes. I know that some would say that's impossible to do, but it seems to me if we don't get our approach to the Old Testament from Jesus and the apostles, where do we get it from? Jesus is God's final word and final authority to us, so he should be the one who dictates to us how the Old Testament is to be read.

In American evangelicalism, a lot of us grew up with a sort of Aesop's Fables approach to the Old Testament. We didn't quite know what to do with it or how to read it with Christ at the center. So, many of us go to the Old Testament for character studies: how to be a Joshua, how to dare to be a Daniel, how to fight the Goliaths in our lives, and so forth. What do you say to that approach to reading the Old Testament?
It's not true to the way the New Testament deals with the Old Testament. Let's read the Old Testament as Christians. I've tried to point this out in According to Plan in the introductory chapters. As Christians we come to the Old Testament and read it through Christian eyes. Christian eyes are formed by what Jesus says and does in the Gospels and by what his apostles say and do in their writings and their preaching, and that the Old Testament is a book that testifies to Christ.

How does a Christian grow as a Christian, become more mature as a Christian? By becoming more like Christ’not by becoming more like David, Abraham, or Moses. So if these characters in the Old Testament are part of the way God forms us as Christians, then it must be by the way they help us to understand who and what Christ is and what he did.

Even by their failures, by pointing beyond themselves to Christ.
Absolutely. I think the failures in the Old Testament are addressed by the gospel. The failures of Israel's history lead it to the invasion under judgment with the exile and so on, and we see at the cross the severity of being in rebellion against God and not obeying his will. There the wrath of God is visited on the one who knew no sin and was made to become sin for us. Once again, it's the gospel that shapes our understanding of what's going on in the Old Testament.

It's tough enough when the gospel is obscured by an individualistic moralism, but what happens when we go to the Old Testament’especially to the book of Joshua, for example’and look at the holy war that God called Israel to wage against the enemies of God? You have on the right those who invoke those passages today for our enemies, whoever they may be; and those on the left who say this represents an immoral God we can't believe in’which is different from Jesus meek and mild. Either we have to deny those "texts of terror," or they are timeless principles we can invoke today for the United States or Australia or the West and so forth. Is there a danger in draining the Old Testament of its historical ebb and flow, and is the difference between the relationship between Israel and God and the relationship between nations today and God an important factor in the way we interpret the Old Testament passages?
Absolutely, and here again I think you have to come back to the redemptive history structure of the Bible. I remember a passage in a book by John Bright, my supervisor at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In it he points out that many people are offended, that their Christian consciences are offended, by such stories as these in the Old Testament. But, he says, I wonder why Jesus' conscience wasn't likewise offended by them? Why is it that Jesus and the apostles don't have that kind of hang-up about those stories that people have today? The answer I think lies in the progressive nature of revelation and where these stories fit into the scheme of things. The book of Joshua isn't just the story of a people who are winning a war against enemies. It's the story of God bringing people into the fulfillment of his promise that he made to Abraham. If you don't put it in that covenantal context, and the restoration of the sanctuary of God in the Pro-mised Land and so on, then you are left with that dilemma.

What do you mean when you say that every Christian is a theologian?
I suppose I'm betraying my Calvinism here. As Calvin said, every human being, by virtue of being created in the image of God, has a sensus divinitatis, a sense of deity. We are all religious people. Being a human being means we are religious people. And even an atheist who wants to deny that is making a God statement. Of course, the closer application of this is that you get the Christian who says, "I'm no theologian, but…" and then launches off into a theological exposition. By saying "I'm no theologian," what they're trying to do is just say, "You can't criticize me. You're a theologian, but I'm not." But we're all theologians; it's just that some are better theologians than others.

What is biblical theology and how does it relate to systematic theology?
I've described biblical theology in various ways. A biblical scholar looks at the way a particular book or corpus in the Bible, or even a section of a book, unfolds its theological message. Then the question is: If the Bible is the one Word of the one God about the one way of salvation through the one Savior Jesus Christ, how do all these different parts hold together? In doing biblical theology, you do a close study of your text, but you've not answered the question, "What is all this about?" until you've put it into its wider context. And that wider context is the paragraph of the verse, the chapter of the paragraph, the book the chapter is in, and then the entire canon of the whole of Scripture’because there is one message that leads us to Jesus Christ. My way of describing biblical theology is: It's a study of the Bible that enables us to show how every text in the Bible relates to every other text. And since Jesus is at the heart of it, you can rephrase that as: Biblical theology is the study of the Bible, which shows us how every text of the Bible relates to Jesus Christ.

Why do you think our way of interpreting all of Scripture should be gospel-centered and Christ-centered?
I've sometimes referred to what Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:5: There is one God and there is one mediator between God and mankind, Christ Jesus the man, or the man Christ Jesus. Now I know he uses that in a slightly different context. But the principle, it seems to me, is the principle you find throughout the New Testament’which is that Jesus Christ is the mediator. When you look at the great cosmic passages such as Colossians’that all things were created in him and through him and for him’then it's inescapable: It's not just every part of the Bible but every part in this universe that God has made that finds its ultimate meaning in reference to Jesus Christ. He is the mediator of all meaning. If that is so, then it is impossible to find the real heart of the meaning of any passage of the Bible if you have done it without reference to who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Do you think we get that right if we interpret the Bible in a Christ-centered way, if we think of him primarily in terms of an example or a prototype for a humanity or an individual who is pious’that is, the "What Would Jesus Do?" approach?
The "What Would Jesus Do?" approach, I think, is misplaced because what it tries to do is to leave Jesus here sort of as the example walking around the world. He doesn't do that anymore. If you follow the redemp-tive history structure, you will see that the heart of it all is the death and resurrection of Jesus’and the resurrection of Jesus, of course, includes his ascension to the right hand of God from where he rules. That comes out loud and clear in the apostolic preaching. The punch line in Peter's Pentecost sermon was to let all of Israel know that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom they crucified. That provides a very different framework from the sort of tame "What would Jesus Do?"’let's try to think about the ethics of Jesus. Those Jewish people who were listening to Peter were cut to the quick. This is the only evangelistic sermon where the appeal came from the congregation, "What must we do?"

You write a good deal about how the gospel has been eclipsed in various traditions throughout history. You address this especially in your latest book, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics. How do you think the gospel-centered hermeneutic has been eclipsed in contemporary evangelicalism?
Contemporary evangelicalism is a many-colored beast in some ways. It's a very diverse thing, and once again, I can only speak from my own experience of it. But I think a lot of the problem with modern evangelicalism is that it doesn't learn from history. One of the reasons I put that second section in my book on hermeneutics about the eclipse of the gospel and these various things was to just show that we are so ready to allow alien ways of thinking. I suppose this is part of the human problem’even when people get converted, their mindsets also need converting. Paul says this in Romans 12: Don't be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. John Stott wrote a little book called Your Mind Matters. I've recently received a manuscript of a book by a gentleman, who teaches at Union University in Tennessee, about the Christian mind and how the gospel affects the way Christians think. So often, particularly evangelical Christians grow up with a level of feeling and being carried along by the enthusiasm of the subcultural group, rather than really coming to grips with what the gospel implies for the way we think. What I've tried to do in my book is show that the common denominator is the allowing of alien philosophical views or mindsets or worldviews to invade the gospel framework that was adopted when we became Christians and therefore distorts it.

Could you give us some examples of that in modern evangelicalism?
I was talking to our home group last night, and I was reading a chapter from a little book by Jim Packer on concise theology. We were talking about the effectual call of the Spirit of God. I suppose the deep divide in evangelicalism is between the more Arminian position and the more Calvinistic position. As a convinced Calvinist, I say that Arminianism has been affected by non-biblical ways of thinking, concepts of freedom and free will and so on, which I just don't find in the Bible. You can probably find philosophical names from these, and I suppose it goes back to Pelagianism that the great Augustine had to deal with in the early fifth century.

You also talk about quietism and Docetism. These are very big words from the history of theology. Could you unpack those terms a little bit?
I use the word "quietism" probably not in the full technical sense, but there has been in evangelical circles for some time this view that you sort of "let go and let God." Somebody once said to me, "Isn't it marvelous that I don't have to make any decisions?" I asked, "What are you talking about?" This person responded, "The Holy Spirit makes my decisions for me." I then said, "Well, that's very interesting. I don't think the Holy Spirit makes my decisions for me. He might guide me, but I don't expect him to make decisions and wear them." I think that's what the wisdom literature's all about.

Quietism was in one of the holiness movements, and there was one particular writer who said that we are just a suit of clothes that Jesus wears. I remember a colleague of mine saying, "Who commits the next sin?" It's that sort of thing that takes away from us the responsibility we have. That kind of quietism is "docetic," which is the term in its christological sense where Jesus was seen as just divine spirit and not human. A docetic Christian is one who allows human responsibility to be cancelled out in favor of this Spirit-led idea that we don't do anything and it's all of the Spirit of God. You can get docetic Christians with their docetic Bible: a person who opens their Bible at a whim, sticks a pin in the page, and that's God's guidance. Whatever the verse means to you, you're expected to know what it means in its context. So what you've done is you've taken away the humanity of the Bible. There is an analogy between the humanity of Christ and the humanity of the Bible.

You clearly address the whole problem of reducing Jesus to a moral example in the hermeneutics of Protestant liberalism. Do you see any evidence of that in broader evangelical circles today? Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, has pointed out that even in evangelical circles the theology of Oprah seems to be seeping in wherever good sound teaching hasn't been as present, and now we have a whole generation of evangelicals who are used to going to the Bible to find out how they can be happier, healthier, wealthier, better parents, nicer friends, and how to live their best life now.
I think in the end it undermines what you mean by "evangelical." The definition of the term is wide open once you get to that point. While I suppose most of us would see the common denominator in the way people define "evangelicalism" in terms of the authority of the Bible if that authority is not allowed to operate. The authority of the Bible must operate in the way the Bible is, not in the way we would like it to be or in the way our subculture has taught us that it is.

When my wife and I started going to this little church, somebody mentioned that there were some Bible reading notes at the back, so my wife grabbed one and brought it home. I was appalled to find that on Monday, you read a passage out of the Psalms, and on Tuesday, you read one out of 1 Kings, and on Wednesday, you read a passage out of Luke's Gospel, and there was no rhyme or reason. It was just every day's happy thought. That sort of thing might go under the guise of evangelicalism, but the term "evangelical" doesn't have any meaning at all if it's come to that. We have to allow the Bible to be what it is.

When we say that the whole Bible is about Christ, a lot of people ask about Proverbs. What about wisdom literature? How do you find Christ there? What do you tell people about a book like Proverbs?
I've written two books on this, and I've done the Bible study notes on Proverbs in the Reformation Study Bible; but my book Gospel and Wisdom, which was actually the third book I had published, grew out of my study when I spent three years at Union Seminary in Virginia looking at the wisdom literature. I did my doctoral dissertation on it, and I did a master's dissertation on it. And, of course, my interest is exactly that question. I don't think it's really a problem’not the sort of problem that many biblical theologians have said it is. The problem with the wisdom literature, according to many biblical theologians, is that it doesn't talk about the covenant; it doesn't show any sort of redemptive history framework within the book of Proverbs or within the book of Ecclesiastes.

What they forget is that you've got a whole pericope in 1 Kings 3-10, where the wisdom literature in Proverbs and the Song of Songs and parables, and all those sorts of things, are tied in very neatly to the covenant fulfillment as expressed in Solomon's first part of his reign’in the building of the temple, and in the way the Gentiles, such as the Queen of Sheba, come to visit him. Then, of course, when you get to the New Testament’particularly to a passage like 1 Corinthians 1 where Christ is the wisdom of God, or 1 Corinthians 1:30 where God has made him to be our wisdom’then you ask yourself: What does it mean for Christ to be our wisdom? You go back to Proverbs, and you find that the rubric, the ruling principle for the whole collection, has been put together under Proverbs 1:7: it is the fear of Yahweh; that is, the reverent submission to the God who has revealed himself as Yahweh. This is the covenant God.

The idea that the wisdom literature has no link to the covenant and to redemptive history, I think, is nonsense. It's in the narrative and it's in the Gospels; it's in the New Testament. My answer to the general question of what to do with Proverbs is that you learn to understand what Proverbs is teaching you, which is to use the brains that God has given you, to make responsible decisions, all the time knowing that when you do make a real mistake, God has made Christ to be our wisdom, and our full wisdom at times, because sometimes we become utterly foolish. We make some terrible decisions, even with the best of intentions. Our wisdom has been justified by Christ who is our wisdom. Set the whole thing into a gospel framework.

In other words, we shouldn't at all be afraid of the genuine moral wisdom we find in Proverbs, and we should unpack that wisdom for living but also not fail to interpret it within, as you say, a gospel framework. Otherwise, it becomes one of those thoughts that eventually weigh us down until we finally feel as if this isn't a life we can live at all.
Yes, and I think some people treat it as sort of the small print of the Sinai Law, which it isn't. In my view, it's very different from the law. The law is that God said to Israel what it meant to be the people of God. It is related, obviously. But one of those aspects of living as the people of God is not obeying individual laws, but learning what is in life and how to respond to it. Hence in Proverbs you get two apparently quite contradictory sentences next to one another, such as, "Answer not a fool according to his wisdom, lest you become like him," and then, "Answer a fool according to his folly lest he become wise in his own eyes." Now, which one do you do? It seems to me what this is teaching us is that you will find yourself in a situation where somebody is mouthing off like an idiot, and you ask yourself, given the context that I'm in, is this one of those situations where I ought to rebuke the man, or is it one where I just walk away from it? Part of being wise is learning how to do that.

It's not so much about timeless principles that can be applied in exactly every way and every instance, but rather your point earlier: think for yourself; apply the wisdom God gave all human beings, not just Jews, to concrete specific circumstances.
Yes, most Old Testament scholars recognize that part of the book of Proverbs was taken from the Egyptian Amenemope. Now, how has it been baptized? There are a couple of references to Yahweh in that section, but it comes under the general rubric that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. What do we do as Christians? We see that the fear of the Lord translates, when you get to the New Testament, to faith in Jesus Christ. So you have the clearer light of the gospel to help you to decide what the wise thing to do is. Proverbs tells us that the world we live in is a world in which, despite human sin, God in his grace has maintained a certain orderliness that we can learn to understand and to live according to.

Friday, December 17th 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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