Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A New Testament Biblical Theology - Book Review

Considering my less than favorable review of G. K. Beale's Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, I felt I should follow it up with his stupendous work, A New Testament Biblical Theology.  Let me say up front that I whole-heartedly agree with Thomas Schreiner's review on the back cover calling this book Beale's "magnum opus."  This work represents years of research from a fantastic teaching and writing career.  Beale has captured his thoughts from creatively reading Scripture (especially intertextuality of OT in the NT) and unloaded them into this tome. 

First the good points (to name only a few).  Where do I begin?  I think Beale has unfolded a method of not just doing NT theology but rather NT biblical theology, an important distinction that needs to be emphasized (cf. "Intorduction" for more details about the distinction).  Beale sees the storyline of kingdom, new creation, covenant and other major themes carried over, continued, and retold in the NT.  What I appreciated is his emphasis not on a theological or thematic center throughout the Bible but rather multiple themes that when woven together make a plotline or storyline of Scripture. 

The subtitle of this book states much of Beale's theology and methodology: "The unfolding of the Old Testament in the New."  What I would call good biblical theology must be done this way.  Unfortunately, systematic theology lacks in this process, usually allowing the NT to supersede or unfold the OT.  I think John Sailhamer was dead on the mark when he said, “The Old Testament sheds a great deal of light on the New Testament. Our primary objective should be to read the New Testament in light of the Old Testament, not vice versa.”  This is exactly what Beale does.  Even though this book is called A New Testament Biblical Theology, it could rightly be considered a "whole-Bible" approach with more space or emphasis on the NT than the OT.  But he never addressed a biblical theological theme in the NT without first examining and developing it in light of the OT storyline (and even in 2nd temple Judaism).  And much of the way Beale interacts with the OT in the NT demonstrates how this unfolding of the OT in the NT is so vital.  Thus I stand by my statement that Beale is, in my opinion, a virtuoso in doing theology and relating the OT in the NT rather than explaining how to do it or giving his methodology as in his Handbook. 

Thirdly, I think his emphasis on new creation and kingdom brings to light how the NT picks up and continues the storyline of the OT.  One thing I felt lacking, however, was an appeal to the theme of covenant in that storyline.  For example, there is one major difference between Beale's OT storyline versus the one he offers for the NT which is to be a continuation of the OT's plot.  The OT storyline is, "The Old Testament is the story of God, who progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his word and Spirit through promise, covenant, and redemption, resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this kingdom and judgment (defeat and exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory."  Then he went on to give the NT storyline that continues the OT's, "Jesus's life, trials, death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit have launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already—not yet new-creational reign, bestowed by grace through faith and resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new-creational reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God's glory" (both definitions found on p. 16).  Where is "covenant" in the NT's "transformation" of the OT plotline???  Also, the latter definition mentions "unto the triune God's glory," however Beale failed to make this point in his theology.  Why the emphasis on the "triune God" I wonder?  Nevertheless, Beale does make mention of covenant throughout in the NT storyline.  I just would have liked to see it in his definition of the NT storyline.   Regardless of these matters, these definitions help to keep the storyline of the OT and NT in proper focus.

The other criticism I have is that though he tries to avoid thematic or theological "centers", he nevertheless falls back on the theme of new creation and kingdom (linked) repeatedly with the already/not yet thrown in the mix.  I would argue that by extension, this is for Beale the center of the theology of the Bible.  Others, like Schreiner and Craig Blomberg, mention Beale's emphasis on new creation in their blurbs on the back page.  So others are seeing this as well.  This is not necessarily a big issue, except it seems to be in conflict with what he explained at the outset (and in ch. 6).

Perhaps a major inconsistency of a minor issue concerning the outworking of Beale's theology is his view of the Sabbath changing from Saturday to Sunday (ch. 23) in contrast with baptism unchanging from circumcision for infants (p. 815-816).  If applied to the baptism/circumcision issue, his arguments for the Sabbath changing days would negate completely his paedo-baptism view.  Nevertheless, this view of baptism was hardly a focus of the book, and so I cannot be overly critical here because it was mentioned more or less in passing.

One final pro and con: parts of this book were fleshing out of Beale's biblical theology that has never been seen or elaborated on before.  Other parts, however, were rehashings and revisions of many of his previous works.  For example, many occasions the footnotes were references to other works he had already done in greater detail on the issues.  Thus at times I was riveted at Beale's thoughts.  Some chapters were so outstanding, that I had to re-read them (i.e. chs. 2-6 or Part 1 of this book was all about Beale's whole-Bible theology).  Other times, I was bored since it was simply a condensed version of what he has written previously (that I had read).  To demonstrate this further, if you ever need a bibliography for Beale's writings, you can find it on pg. 964-965, since he cited nearly all of his previous works in NTBT.  Yet at the very least he is taking all of his research and putting it into a well arranged theology.

This book is outstanding and receives 2 thumbs way up!  Those wanting to study biblical theology, NT theology, and/or especially NT biblical theology need to soak this volume up like a sponge.  It is a long book eclipsing the 1,000 page mark, but it reads rather quickly.  Its audience is from the lay person who is serious about theology or the student on up to the scholar (he stated as much on p. 25). 


Scott said...

Excellent and very helpful. Thanks. Not only did you give me some insight into Beale's book which I look very much forward reading. But you gave some helpful categories both pro and con to use as I process his book.

I'm interested to see if Beale deals with the "Wilderness motif" as another of those recurring themes. Reading the Song of Songs I have to wonder if there is something in even this Book that speaks to that or should at least be an indication of how to read the Song. "Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness leaning on her beloved" or "Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant?"

Timothy L. Decker said...

I don't recall him address the Song of Songs. But he does deal much with wilderness and chaos to land and restoration as a major part of his whole-Bible theology from creation to the flood to the exodus to the exile and so on.

No matter what, I believe you will love this book. Beale is fast becoming my favorite writer/theologian.