by Justin Dillehay
Do you regularly preach or teach God’s Word, perhaps in a Sunday School class? Are you a new Christian who wants to get your bearings when it comes to reading the Old Testament? Or are you simply a normal Christian who wants to understand the Bible better?
If so, then Graeme Goldsworthy’s book According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
is written just for you. What follows is a summary of the book, followed by my own personal thoughts. If this review moves you toward reading the book for yourself, then it will have done its job. If not, I hope it can serve as a helpful summary in its own right.
In his book According to Plan
Graeme Goldsworthy gives us an introduction to the discipline of
biblical theology (that disciple which helps us understand how the Bible fits together as one unfolding story of redemption). The book contains four parts, entitled Biblical Theology—Why?…How?…What?…and Where? These four parts collectively contain twenty-seven chapters, the bulk of which (8-25) are contained in Part 3—Biblical Theology—What?
Part 1: Biblical Theology–Why? (Chapter 1)
Here he explains why it is necessary for Christians to have a working knowledge of biblical theology. All Christians believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, but we often still disagree about its meaning. How can we hope to resolve our differences? We all encounter problem passages that seem to contradict other texts. How do we reconcile them? How do we tell Bible stories, particularly those in the Old Testament (OT), to children? Are they intended mainly as moral lessons, entertaining tales, or something else? What about Old Testament laws? How do we decide which ones—if any—still apply to us as Christians in the New Testament?
While Goldsworthy doesn’t pretend that biblical theology is the magic bullet for answering all of these questions, he does believe that, by giving us a bird’s eye view of the whole Bible, it will help us answer them more effectively.
Part 2: Biblical Theology–How? (Chapters 2-7)
Part 2 deals with the question “Is it possible to know God?” and if so, how and where do we obtain that knowledge? He begins by arguing that we can know God because God knows us and has revealed himself to us in Scripture. Furthermore, since ‘theology’ is simply what we think about God, all Christians are theologians. We all engage in theology, either poorly or skillfully. Different ways of ‘doing theology’ include systematic, historical, pastoral, biblical, and exegetical theology.
He then deals with the issue of epistemology (how we know what we know). He outlines three epistemological views: atheistic humanism, theistic humanism, and Christian theism. Biblical theology, to be done properly, must be done upon the presupposition of Christian theism. We must strive to be consistent with this presupposition, though our remaining sin will no doubt affect our thinking to some degree.
Chapters 4 and 5 are crucial chapters. In them, Goldsworthy introduces the idea that Jesus Christ is the center of biblical theology.
Paul says that all things were created in Christ, through Christ, and for Christ (Col. 1:16). This signifies that the meaning of the universe is found in the gospel. God created all things with a view to their redemption in Christ. The gospel is God’s forethought, his blueprint to creation, not a mere afterthought because of sin (49).
Jesus makes it clear on numerous occasions that the Old Testament testified about him (John 5:39-40; Luke 24:25-27, 44-45). Christ and the gospel are the fulfillment of all the messianic hopes and prophecies of the OT. Therefore, “the one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel.” (50)
In other words, Christ fulfilled the OT, not simply by following an already complete and perfectly clear OT revelation–rather, Christ himself was the final revelation that completed and explained all previous revelation. Practically speaking, this means that as Christians reading the Bible we must allow the New Testament to interpret the Old, and not the other way around (54-55). We must not simply read the OT prophecies autonomously–assuming that we can understand them clearly without regard to the NT fulfillment in Christ.
This means that when we think of how Christ fulfilled the OT, we must avoid both literalism
. Literalism assumes that history is “self-evident” and doesn’t need God’s revelation to interpret it. Thus it says that the fulfillment must match the historical promise exactly
(i.e. literally). Allegory discards history as unimportant, and thus leaves nothing historical to be fulfilled. The biblical alternative to literalism and allegory is typology
. Typology allows the clearer NT fulfillment in Christ to interpret the true meaning of the OT promises as they were originally given and progressively clarified.
Goldsworthy again stresses the necessity of beginning and ending with Christ, and announces that the central themes he will be tracing Part III will be the covenant
and the new creation
Part 3: Biblical Theology–What?” (Chapters 8-25)
This is the “heart of the book” (10). In these chapters, Goldsworthy traces the themes of covenant and new creation through the biblical storyline, showing how they are fulfilled in Christ. As promised, he begins by explaining the gospel; it is God’s way of saving sinners in manner consistent with his holiness and justice. It is rooted in the OT, and has the person and work of Jesus as its centerpiece.
Having begun with the gospel, he then
goes back to Genesis (the order is important). There we learn that God created and sustains all things by his word, making man in his image to rule the earth under his authority. In the garden, we also see the pattern of the kingdom of God being set for all of Scripture as
“God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule”
(a delightful phrase that every Christian would do well to memorize). This peaceful state is short-lived, however, as Adam and Eve rebel against God’s rule by obeying the serpent (later revealed as Satan).
Thus the fall establishes the need for redemption by Christ. In God’s curse on the serpent, we hear the first hints of the gospel (Gen. 3:16). God’s response to the fall also establishes his commitment to his creation.
Goldsworthy seems to view Genesis 4-11 mainly as preliminary revelation leading up to Abraham. Nevertheless, it is not without its contribution to biblical theology. In those early chapters, we see the doctrine of election by grace in seed form, as God divides mankind into two groups and establishes a line of people for himself through Seth then Shem and finally Abraham, distinguishing them from Cain’s line. And there we first encounter the idea of covenant
in the wake of the flood, with God promising to preserve the earth.
It is with Abraham, however, that Goldsworthy see the first main stage of redemptive revelation commencing. The first stage of redemptive revelation will be the history of Israel from Abraham through David and Solomon and the second will be the prophetic promises of a future kingdom (197-198).
The history of Israel from Abraham to Solomon shows the pattern of redemption. It begins with God’s gracious election of Abraham, and his promises to him. Abraham’s descendents will “possess the [promised] land, be God’s special people, and be the instrument of God’s blessing for all nations” (128).
Paradoxically, shortly after Abraham’s death we see God maneuvering his people out of the Promised Land and into Egypt, where they eventually become captives. This captivity is also a necessary part of the pattern of redemption. It must be plain that God’s people are by nature captives to sin like everyone else, and that only God can deliver them. In the Exodus, we see this pattern of redemption, as God’s people enter his place by his saving work, complete with a bloody sacrifice (Passover) and the destruction of their enemies (Red Sea).
At Mt. Sinai, a further pattern is set. Only after choosing and redeeming his people by his grace does he regulate them by his Law. From the tabernacle God’s people would learn that they could only approach him through a mediator and through a sacrifice of blood. Israel’s chronic covenant-breaking postpones the entrance into the land, but cannot forever hinder it. In bringing Israel into the land, God demonstrates his plan to work miraculously (Jericho falls flat) and yet through human beings (Joshua). This is seen as God subsequently works through judges to deliver his rebellious people, but even more so when God fulfills his long-held plan to rule Israel through a godly king (Deut. 17:14-20).
David becomes an important type for the Messiah as he rules God’s people. God’s covenant with him is very important, as God promises to establish David’s throne forever. “All the hopes of Israel now focus on the prophecies of Nathan to David” (167).
When Solomon builds the temple, Israel reaches its high point. God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule is seen more clearly than ever. But like Eden, it doesn’t last
. After Solomon’s death, Israel divides into two kingdoms, and begins a steady decline into idolatry and covenant-breaking that culminates in a second captivity and calls forth a new breed of prophets (e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.).
The key lesson from the exile and the new prophetic message is that the redemptive events of the past (the exodus, the Promised Land) are only shadows of the future reality of salvation (184). The prophets predict a new David, a suffering servant, and a second exodus. When this exodus occurs, however, the people return to the land to experience disappointment, as the new temple and kingdom are but a pale shadow of what is promised. Thus the OT ends without resolution. God’s people still await the fulfillment of his promises.
When Jesus finally comes, he fulfills all the OT promises and types by his birth, life, death, and resurrection. He is the true God, the true people of God, and the new creation for us. He is the true prophet, priest, king, and wise man.
He brings the kingdom of God, but surprisingly, he only remains on earth for a short time. The new creation begins in Christ himself, but it does not end there. After his ascension, he sends the Holy Spirit to apply that regeneration to his people, thereby beginning the new creation in us (2 Cor. 5:17). The Spirit does this by uniting us with Christ, such that all that Christ has done is credited to us. Thus the new creation has begun both in Christ and in those who are in Christ.
In this way, the new age has invaded the old. Yet paradoxically, the old age continues to coexist with the new, with both “overlapping.” The new creation has not yet extended to the entire cosmos, nor are we as Christians completely free from sin. This overlap of the ages results in conflict between Christians and the present age. The universal regeneration will occur with the second coming of Christ, which will bring with it new bodies (for us), new heavens, and new earth.
Part 4: Biblical Theology-Where?” (chapters 26-27)
This final section contains two brief chapters, which apply the methodology of biblical theology to the practical issues of personal guidance (whom to marry? etc.) and life after death, respectively.
The strengths of AtoP are legion.
. At 244 pages (many of which are largely taken up by charts), the entire book is brisk reading. Its brevity should keep it from being too daunting for the beginner. [Though for an even briefer–and in my opinion, even better–primer on biblical theology, see Vaughan Roberts’s God’s Big Picture.
. Goldsworthy usually avoids technical jargon, but when he does use it, he always explains it well. Furthermore, the layout of the book makes it ideal both for beginners and for a continual reference. Every chapter begins with a helpful introduction and every chapter in Part III also ends with a summary that connects the chapter with the theme of new creation (188). Moreover, the book is packed with useful charts that help etch the central ideas in your memory.
But perhaps AtoP’s
greatest strength is its clear presentation of how all Scripture points to Christ in one unified story. As Christians who hold to the authority of Scripture, we know that in some sense the Old Testament testifies to Jesus, because Jesus tells us so (John 5:39). But how it testifies to him, beyond the obvious Messianic references quoted in the New Testament, may not always be clear to us.
This is where AtoP proves invaluable. Goldsworthy helps us move beyond individual Messianic verses and see the bigger picture of how the entire OT storyline points to Christ again and again. This is something we need to be be taught repeatedly. Because despite constantly hearing preachers vaguely say “The Old Testament is all about Jesus!” it is still easy to default toward reading the OT as a collection of unrelated stories. And toward that end, AtoP pushes us to ask questions like “Why did the OT writer include this event?”, “Why did God ordain and arrange history this way?”, and “How does this OT story function as a pattern for what comes later?”
In this regard, one of the most helpful chapters to me personally was the chapter on the exodus (Chapter 13: The Pattern of Redemption). It was instructive and encouraging to be reminded that Israel’s captivity in Egypt was no accident. Indeed, God had specifically prophesied to Abraham that his descendants would be captives in a foreign land for 400 years, and that he would bring them back at the right time (Gen. 15:13-14).
Furthermore, this captivity was necessary because “some graphic and unmistakable experience of redemption from an alien power” was needed to illustrate how human beings enter into God’s kingdom. In a post-fall world, all of us are
born in captivity to sin. To enter God’s kingdom, we must be born again,
and that new birth requires God to rescue us from the kingdom of darkness by defeating our enemies and covering our sin. This is just what we see illustrated in the exodus.
So, my overall assessment of the book is extremely positive. I would recommend the book to anyone without hesitation. I should mention, however, a couple of weaknesses. These are both relatively minor points. But they still bear mentioning.
First, while the book does a wonderful job of being Christ-centered, it seems to do so at the expense of neglecting the whole trinity. Now make no mistake; Goldsworthy believes in the trinity (82), and he discusses the Holy Spirit in his treatment of the new creation (chapters 23-24). But on the whole, neither the Father nor the Spirit seem to get much airtime. I suspect that this neglect of the trinity stems more from the nature of biblical theology as a discipline than from a willful neglect on Goldsworthy’s part. Simply put, the trinity is a doctrine more naturally arrived at through systematic theology
than biblical theology. This should serve as a gentle reminder to continually supplement a healthy biblical theology with a robust systematic theology. Carl Trueman, in an article
mildly critical of Goldsworthy, said it this way: “Christianity is Trinitarian at its very core, and it is my suspicion that biblical theology on its own is inadequate to protect and defend that core. We need ontology as well as economy if we are to do justice to the Bible’s teaching on who God is and what he has done.”
Second, I am uneasy with Goldsworthy’s emphasis on OT characters as types of Christ, to the near exclusion of their use as moral examples. This is mostly a matter of emphasis. Goldsworthy doesn’t completely deny that OT characters function as moral examples for us; he simply says that moral example is not their primary significance (132). This may true–but then again, it may not. In any case, we need to beware of becoming one-sided in our use of biblical theological insights, particularly in preaching. The New Testament clearly holds up OT characters as moral examples for us (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-14; Hebrews 11; James 5:10-11, 16-18; Luke 17:32), and not simply as types of Christ. Yet I have known more than one preacher gripped by biblical theology learned from Goldsworthy, Greidanus, and others dismiss this practice as “moralism.” And while I don’t blame Goldsworthy for the abuse of his writings, I can see how his emphasis could give rise to such abuse. For a healthy and balanced corrective, see Bobby Jamieson’s review of Jason Hood’s Imitating God in Christ.
But these are both minor issues with the book. On the whole, I overwhelmingly recommend According to Plan.