Biblical theology without unity

Goldingay’s recent work is impressive but riddled with unbiblical assumptions

Review by Richard M. Blaylock

The past two decades have proven to be a fruitful time for the field of biblical theology. Even as scholars continue to discuss the precise nature of the discipline, both the church and the academy have remained invested, even excited, about its potential. This momentum has resulted in the publication of several whole-Bible biblical theologies –– an impressive feat when one considers that a “pan-biblical theology” was thought to be an impossibility not so long ago. In his most recent work entitled Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures (IVP Academic, 2016), John Goldingay furthers this trend by seeking to answer the question, “What understanding of God and the world and life emerges from these two Testaments” (13)? But does he succeed in capturing the Bible’s own message?

John Goldingay is the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a prolific author and an influential voice in Old Testament scholarship. Despite his focus on what he calls the “First Testament,” Goldingay informs readers that writing a biblical theology has long been on his mind. The opening of the book gives this impression, as Goldingay spends little space discussing methodology and hurries to explore the Scriptures’ witness regarding God, the world, and life (13). Unfortunately, this means that he provides hardly any explanation or justification for his particular approach. Given the debates surrounding the nature of biblical theology, Goldingay’s work would have been strengthened by a more robust discussion at this point, even though he has written on this subject elsewhere.

At his best, Goldingay leads readers to a fresh confrontation with the biblical texts and evidences the strengths of biblical theology as a discipline. Goldingay provides an edifying articulation of the Bible’s teaching regarding believers’ relationship to the Law and the freedom found in Christ (440–47). His overview of Yahweh’s demand for worship functions as a needed corrective for Christians who focus solely on matters of morality when thinking of how one may live a life pleasing to the Lord (463–81). He nicely rebuts Christian perfectionism, the prosperity gospel, and antinomianism (402–22). He balances the Bible’s interest in both community and in individuals (362–63), which is significant given that many have tended to overemphasize one at the expense of the other. These are a few examples of the exegetical and theological gems that can be found scattered throughout Goldingay’s Biblical Theology. Sadly however, these bright spots are sullied by the book’s significant shortcomings.

Despite its strengths, Goldingay’s Biblical Theology exhibits several grave problems. First, Goldingay fails to approach the biblical texts inductively, as his 21st-century concerns make repeated intrusions into his work. This is especially evident whenever Goldingay turns to the Bible’s witness regarding men and women. So for instance, he suggests that men (as opposed to women) particularly need further discipleship in the area of self-giving (183), that Jesus’ female disciples were “better followers than the men” (170), that violence is a feature of masculinity according to the Old Testament (180), that “patriarchal power” is behind evil superpowers like Rome (172), and that the roles afforded to women in the Scriptures show that the biblical authors (and Jesus by extension) did not comprehend “the implications of men and women together being made in God’s image” (180). These statements seem to reflect the perspectives of modern Christian feminists rather than those of the biblical authors.

Second, Goldingay does not always successfully navigate areas of biblical tension. While instances could be multiplied, his description of divine sovereignty may serve as a prime example. Though Goldingay does say that God is behind all history in a particular sense (46–47), he unpersuasively argues for a self-imposed limit to God’s exercise of authority (46–49). Accordingly, Goldingay denies that all things actually work out according to a divine master plan (71–72) and he seems to suggest that creation (137–38) and redemption (216, 257) move forward by a form of divine trial-and-error. In my opinion, this is a significant misrepresentation of the biblical testimony.

Third, Goldingay does not always express his views clearly, as demonstrated for instance by his discussion on the atonement. Goldingay denies that Jesus died as a penal substitute because “another person cannot be punished for you; that doesn’t work” (328–32); yet, he also states that “Jesus’ death was the means whereby the penalty for our offenses was paid” (335) and that “the penalty for rebellion was death. … So in Jesus, God personally paid that penalty” (336). While his section on Jesus’ death has weaknesses in-and-of itself, it also illustrates a more fundamental problem: Goldingay does not always adequately clarify his position on crucial matters and as a result, readers can be left confused by his ambiguity.

Finally, Goldingay’s emphasis on the discontinuity between the two testaments seems to undermine the Bible’s own witness to its coherence. He doubts the existence of substantial consistency between the testaments and he denies that the canon as a whole contains “a simple unity of doctrine” (16, 125–27). He seems to say that the “First Testament” can be rightly understood without reference to Jesus (99–100). He alleges that the New Testament authors were revisionist interpreters (101, 325) who gave Old Testament passages a “new significance that can be unrelated to their original meaning” (283). In my opinion, these statements do not adequately account for the unity that obtains between the Old and New testaments, as other biblical theologians have shown.

So, has Goldingay succeeded in writing a biblical theology that captures the Bible’s own message? Sadly, I do not believe he has. John Goldingay has written an original and provocative biblical theology, one which at times is quite insightful. But despite the presence of several genuinely illuminating sections, the book’s shortcomings outweigh its benefits. For this reason, I do not believe that Goldingay’s Biblical Theology stands among the better representatives of the discipline.

Richard M. Blaylock, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary