A Book Review on According to the Plan: the Unfolding Revelation of God in the BibleI. Introduction
In his book According to the Plan (IVP, 2002), Graeme Goldsworthy, former lecturer at Moore Theological College (Australia), introduces a biblical theology for ordinary Christians. His previous work, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Eerdmans, 2000) addresses his conviction that evangelical pastors must attempt to preach every passage in the Bible, and locate their sermon within the context of redemptive history. The aim is to testify Christ within a consistent, pertinently framework (29-30). While that volume generated a positive impact on those who have sermon preparation in mind, According to the Plan appeals to a wider audience. To serve this goal, the book is formally structured like an introduction to biblical theology, with four parts dedicated to answering questions of « why? », « how? », « what? » and « where? » about biblical theology respectively.
II. Summary of Idea Flow
The book begins with a chapter entitled “Biblical Theology—Why?”, in which Goldsworthy voices his conviction that “every Christian is a theologian” (29). In order to show that theology is an essential part for believers, he raises relevant issues about Christian experiences in their attempt to understand God’s revelation. Since even Bible-believing Christians disagree (and may subsequently divide) with each other over major themes of the Bible (such as baptism, millennialism, predestination, Sabbath, the relevance of the Old Testament to today, etc), serious questions should not be evaded by the church. Goldsworthy audaciously concludes that either the Bible is errant in part, or we fail to appreciate and apprehend the Scripture when we confess to the authority of Bible. Indeed, Christians are theologians not only because they think about God and make statements that relate to Him, but also because their relationship with God has certain preconditions: a recognition of the revelation in His Son Jesus Christ.
In the next section, Goldsworthy answers the “how?” question. On the one hand, it is evident that God makes his Truth known through His divine word, which is the Scripture. But on the other hand, there is no direct word coming from God the Father. Goldsworthy points out that there are a number of ways that Christian can do theology (e.g., historical, systematic, pastoral), just as different views about knowledge are held by distinct ideological groups (atheistic humanism, deism, Christian [Calvinistic] theism). Therefore we can rightly understand God’s word only when we see the scripture’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ (57; cf. ch.7). Seeing the big picture in the Bible through the lens of Christ is the key.
The third portion of this book deals with the « what? » question. It consists of eighteen short chapters (ch.8-25) that attempt to cover the entire sweep of Scripture by outlining major theological themes in both testaments of the Bible. Key epochs and events in the biblical storyline are highlighted in turn: the creation, the fall, the redemptive covenant with Noah, the call and promise for Abraham, the exodus, the promulgation of the Decalogue, the wilderness temptation, the conquest of Canaan, the monarchy, the exile, the prophetic promises, the Advent of Christ, the Pentecost, and the Eschaton. Theological motifs such as God’s kingdom, covenant, regeneration, and pattern of redemption are fleshed out succinctly in their relevant chapters. The author employs helpful charts and diagrams for illustration, as well as summaries and study guides for his classroom lesson wrap up. At the end of part three Goldsworthy presents the New Creation in four chapters (ch.22-25), through which he explicates the tension between what we experience now and what we will possess in the future by faith.
It is noteworthy that instead of progressing page by page from Genesis, Goldsworthy starts from the gospel of Jesus and establishes it as the pivot for the interpretive task of biblical theology. He emphasizes that if “we start from the gospel as witness to Jesus Christ and then move back in to the OT we will be able to see what lies behind the person and work of Christ (83)”.
In the same vein, part four then addresses the application question of « where? », that is, where does biblical theology lead us? Two illustrative issues are covered in this section, “knowing God’s will” (guidance) and “life after death” (the hereafter). Its aim is to demonstrate a normative guideline to apply the biblical-theological approach to our detailed study of the Scripture and hence relate the Word to our life.
III. Personal Response and critique
Goldsworthy’s presentation has some noteworthy features. His opening call that every Christian must be a theologian makes his biblical theology a compelling offer for all believers. The underlying pedagogy is worth commending, too, as he models a way to educate the beginner with a simple and robust theology. The volume is valuable for common believers who have never been exposed to any unified framework of theological interpretation,. This is particularly evident in the beginning and closing chapters of the Part Three where the theological significance of the entire biblical history is uncovered according to the redemptive-historical pattern (i.e., creation-fall-new creation).
What logically follows is a motif on the integration of both New and Old Testament. Previously in evangelical Christianity an interpretative framework for the OT was largely in want. Preachers often viewed the OT as either a commentary on the NT- put the old in subject to the new, or simply moralized its meaning when they have to preach it. This split is manifested not least in the fact that OT and NT studies have been placed under separated departments by most theological seminaries, with different hermeneutic assumptions and without serious mutual engagment. However, it is Goldsworthy’s belief that “while the gospel will reveal the final significance of all God’s promises to Israel, the redemptive revelation in the Old Testament will deepen our appreciation of what it means for Jesus to be the Christ” (198). Although the recent decade has displayed a resurgent evangelical awareness of the continuity between Testaments, neither the plethora of scholarly literature on the NT’s use of OT nor the meticulous construction of the so-called Christocentric theology has really benefited the majority of lay Christians. According to Plan endeavors to amend this deficiency as the author delivers his keynotes with simplicity and clarity. Simple introduction and section summaries make each chapter easy to comprehend. His charts and diagrams are illustrative devices that could come in handy for preachers and writers. This book has been a tremendous success in contributing an essential piece to the Christian thinking about the Scripture.
Now as an introductory guide for beginning Christians, According to Plan is undoubtedly successful. But for serious students of Christian Bible and highly educated seekers, some of the caveats about the book must be laid out here. For those who read this book hoping to bridge their knowledge of the Bible with deeper scholarly level of theological investigation (like I once was), I am going to address five reservations, which I hope can be viewed as positive suggestions rather than a negative debunking of Goldsworthy’s present volume:
Some of the strengths in this book are also the hidden weaknesses. A few inconsistent statements made in this book must be pointed out and called into question. Goldsworthy lists a number of hard sayings in the Bible ain his “why?” section as he ddresses the need for Bilbical Theology (BT) (20). He suggests that tackling these difficulties is a major task of BT (19). Yet, none of these listed examples are tackled in his interpretative work (Part 3). Careful readers must wonder if his Christocentric methodology is applicable to these perplexing passages. It would be helpful and relevant to demonstrate how his Christocentric hermeneutic would shed new light on some of those passages. In addition, I suggest that a bibliography would satisfy inquisitive readers, as well as also add academic weight to the discussion without unloading tons of information at once. Helpful literature should be included for each study section, alongside the list of hard sayings that he leaves in the air, and especially for the book’s part four, where two briefly-outlined motifs (guidance and life after death) seem not forceful enough to knock open the door of promising possibilities for BT to be applied to our various life situations.
A similar problem can be perceived in his other assumptions. He assumes that many historical accounts recorded in the Bible cannot be attested to by evidence from outside the Bible and can only be accepted by faith (74-75). But some passages in the OT are indeed hard to interpret because they contradict the evidences we obtained through historical studies. Instead of rejecting those secular methods of historical investigation as invalid, the issue should really be one of doubleness: how harmonize both accounts within a meta-framework of Christian epistemology. Since it’s the author’s conviction that puzzles in the Bible should not shunned, that he shies away from addressing the inconsistencies with
historical evidences could leave his critical readers in bewilderment.
Furthermore, Goldsworthy makes arbitrary statements at times that override the boundaries he set for his methodology. In chapter eight, he tries to validate his gospel-initiated BT approach. He refers to the self designation of Christ as the “Alfa” and “Omega” in Revelation 22:13 and concludes that “Jesus is our starting point for all true knowledge, and therefore for theology” (87), which is problematic. To be accurate, Jesus [of Nazareth] is the earthly representation of the second person of the Godhead, who is also called the Son, the Messiah, and the Word of God. On the other hand, the designation of “Alfa” and “Omega” refers to God’s involvement in the work of creation and consummation (final judgment) beyond the earthly ministry and fleshly presence of Jesus Christ. Hence “the Word of God” rather than « the gospel witnesses of Jesus » should be the legitimate terminus a quo for doing biblical theology if Goldsworthy wants to be consistent and radical about his Christocentric approach . I perceive my suggestion will contribute to reconcile the apparent oddity between the proverb that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7) and Goldsworthy’s statement that Jesus and the gospel is “our starting point for all true knowledge” (87), since the Proverbs and fearing the Lord can both be related to the “Word of God” in the broader Christological sense.
Another related issue pertains to the author’s intent of writing this book. Goldsworthy admits he has made a selective decision to arrange the themes because “time and space do not permit us to explore in detail all the different themes that might be regarded as the basis for Biblical unity. Most of them will appear in some way or another in our examination of Biblical Theology, but we need to focus on one in order to highlight the fact of unity” (77). The overtone here is a recognition of the plurality of the text. Namely, Christocentric framework is a way to look into the Bible as a united whole, but not the only strategy to spotlight the unity of scripture. It may not be Goldsworthy’s intention for this book, but several important motifs are consciously or unconsciously left out (e.g., kingship of God, revelation of God, image of God, spiritual warfare, Christ and the church, covenantal promise…). We must recognize that marginalized texts exist whatever and however our interpretive approach is. No one single unified approach (even BT) can do full justice to the Bible in its plurality of texts and hence exhaust the whole counsel of God as is revealed in the Scripture. As long as the Bible is received as an integral revelation from God, starting from the genesis, the covenant, the law, the wisdom, the kingdom, or the apocalypse can be equally valid methodologies. A good biblical theology shall invite us to see those possibilities.
Goldsworthy constructs his biblical theology with many presuppositions which he does not validate for the reader. His presuppositions regarding the fallen condition of non-believers convinces him that they cannot see a “self-evident” God as He is. He leaves all the responsibilities to the unbelievers to comprehend God as He says that God is self-evident in creation (94). Instead of pigeonholing believers and unbelievers into two distinct ideological camps, I believe that we should find middle ground to discuss and contemplate this self-evident God, as this is already made possible when God extends His common grace and electing grace to all human beings.
According to Plan is both an introduction to integrated biblical theology and an attempt to present the whole message of God’s revelation. Goldsworthy’s commitment to full inspiration and authority of Scripture as God’s Word is well expressed in Part One. His methodology in Part Two is clear but leaves something to be desired. His bold statements concerning divine revelation and epistemology are not well supported either by sophisticated arguments or surveys of scholarly literature (which is certainly outside of his writing plan). On this very topic Anthony Thiselton’s New Horizons in Hermeneutics (Zondervan, 1992, 1998) and Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text (Zondervan, 1998) are considered to be a more thoughtful treatise. According to Plan needs more philosophical circumspection despites its intended niche. Part Three is a success. While Christ-centered approach does not exclude other valid ways of doing biblical theology, the writer goes out of his way to make his meaning plain, and to achieve a level of language and simplicity of structure he assumes most of his intended readers will feel at home with. The coherence and clarity of his presentation of the Bible story are undeniable. Part Four is about two succinct chapters that I wish could have been fleshed out more. Having completed these two chapters the reader is left thinking that there is a great need to address more issues of life with the rich tools of Biblical Theology. Since there have already been a considerable amount of scholarly efforts invested in study of this very topic at the time when Goldsworthy wrote According to Plan (1991, 2002), the book would be greatly added by an index of helpful literature or bibliography rather than remaining silent about these great resources.