Interview with Greg Beale
Greg Beale, professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, was interviewed recently by Towers’ editor Josh Hayes on his new book, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. (By the way, you can order Beale massive volume here for %40 off!) We are pleased to make that interview available to you below.
What is “a New Testament biblical theology”? How is your book different than other NT theologies and “whole-Bible” biblical theologies?
There’s some who might think that my book, A New Testament Biblical Theology (hereon referred to as ANTBT), is just a matter of emphasis as to why I’m calling it “a New Testament biblical theology” as opposed to “a New Testament theology,” like other recent major evangelical NT theologies (published since 2004). I would contend that theirs are apples and mine is an orange. That is my work and the others are merely different projects, all of which are very valid enterprises.
Number one, I’m dealing in a thoroughgoing way with the Old Testament (OT) roots for every major NT theological notion, which includes how Judaism developed those notions and how those are bridged to the NT. For example, I was just comparing ANTBT with some more recent evangelical NT theologies, and just to give you an idea, I have in my Scripture index 22 and one-half pages on the OT and Jewish references that I make in my book, whereas the other recent NT theologies have 5-6 pages of OT and Jewish references. That gives you an idea. It’s so much of an emphasis that ANTBT is really a different thing. These other NT theologies are very good. I’m not saying that there’s something lacking in them, but my project and their projects are merely different. Their aims are different and my aims are different, so I think they’re beautifully complementary. In fact, in some ways I build on those NT theologies.
Secondly, I’m dealing with finding the fulfillment of the OT in the NT, which is the end-time eschatological fulfillment, and so the “already-and-not yet” idea that the latter days are already here but are not yet consummated saturates the whole book from beginning to end. You’ll find that in the other evangelical NT theologies (one even has up to about 100 pages dedicated to this topic). On the other hand, my book has 1,000 pages dedicated to it. Again, I’m aiming for something different and so were the other NT theologies.
The third major difference is ANTBT is structured according to a storyline of the NT that actually is built off of the formulated storyline from the OT. Most NT theologies in one way or another will either set out certain themes in the NT and then attack those themes book-by-book canonically or corpus by corpus, or they will start with the Gospels and move into Acts and epistles, etc., and try to work inductively and at the end of analyzing each NT book or corpus, an attempt will be made to summarize the main theological thoughts in that book. ANTBT is not organized book-by-book or theme-by-theme so much as it’s organized by the parts of the storyline that I formulate. I take each part of the storyline and it becomes a chapter. So, maybe one way to differentiate it from thematically organized NT theologies is that usually they attempt to establish what the theme is and then elaborate on it. What I do before I set things out is establish a storyline in the OT, show how it is transformed in the NT, and then each part of that NT storyline becomes a chapter in the book. Of course, each part of the storyline is a theme, but the way I come up with the themes is quite different from former NT theologies. Now the difference between ANTBT and a “whole-Bible” biblical theology is that I’m mainly looking at the OT to set up the themes for the NT. All these whole-Bible theology works have different aims and they’re also all complementary. My hope is that my work and theirs will all make a contribution to the kingdom of God and to pastors and students and others who want to understand the development of NT theology, especially against the OT backdrop.
Why did you see the need to write ANTBT?
I had not seen a NT theology that in a thoroughgoing way attempted to see the roots of every NT notion as having its roots in the OT and as also being a facet of already-not yet eschatology – which I define further as a movement toward a new creational kingdom. In the introduction, I say I’m specifically building on some articles and parts of books by authors Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, Richard Gaffin and others especially within the Dutch Reformed tradition, though George Eldon Ladd has also been influential upon me. I hadn’t seen a book written like this, and the concept for it all started in a course I taught at Gordon-Conwell Seminary in the late 1980s and later at Wheaton and that I now teach here at Westminster Seminary. In fact, ironically the course is called “New Testament Theology” (without the word “Biblical” in it!). ANTBT is a big expansion of my course.
What structure does ANTBT follow?
Basically, I give a storyline for the OT and then the NT storyline that builds on it. Here’s the OT storyline as I present it in the book: “The OT 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 his kingdom and judgment (defeat or exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory.”
The NT storyline I argue organically transforms the OT storyline. This storyline then forms the succeeding chapters of my book: “Jesus’ 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 those storylines are a mouthful and perhaps a bit German-sounding, but at least they’re one sentence. I divide the book according to the various parts of the above NT storyline. I have a chapter on the latter days in the OT and then I address the latter days as discussed in Judaism and then in the NT. So I begin the book focusing on the eschatological already-not yet aspect of that storyline. Then the first distinct chapter after that is about the end-time tribulation. The reason for this is that tribulation precedes kingdom and new creation typically in the OT. In the NT, the tribulation overlaps ironically with the inauguration of the new creational kingdom. After that, I talk about how resurrection is central to the NT. But a problem immediately arises because it doesn’t look central in the OT, so you have to deal with that and I talk about the notion of resurrection in the OT and how it relates to how permeated the NT is with the notion. Then I talk about idolatry in my chapter on sin. Idolatry is the spring bed, the origin of all kinds of sin where people turn from God to some idol. And finally, I talk about salvation, justification (how Christ’s death, as well as resurrection relates to this), reconciliation, the work of the Spirit, the church as the end-time Israel, Christian living, etc. At the beginning of each chapter, I show how what I’m talking about in that chapter is derived from a part of the storyline. I’m trying not to be too long in my answers, but I want to give a reason for the hermeneutical and biblical-theological hope that’s within me.
What’s your assessment of the current evangelical church’s understanding of biblical theology and already-not yet eschatology?
Many evangelicals and Christians in general hear the words “eschatology,” “end times” and “latter days” and too often think that this only refers to the future. One of the first things that I do in ANTBT is to show that the OT uses the phrase “latter days” all the time and indeed it’s about the future. But when you get to the NT, you find again and again that the phrase “latter days,” “last hour,” “consummation of the ages” and other synonyms indicate that the endtimes began with the first coming of Christ, continue to proceed during the church age and will culminate at the final end of all things at Christ’s last coming. We want to be careful however of becoming reductionistic. We want to be careful of universalizing from our experience that the majority of the church indeed is really not integrating these things into their preaching and into their Sunday school curriculum, etc.
But it seems to me that inaugurated eschatology does not play a major role in the preaching and teaching of the NT in most of our churches. It is one of my emphases to train pastors and to show them how this should be integrated into the Sunday-after-Sunday preaching when it occurs in the text. That’s the purpose of my book – to show people how permeated the NT is with this notion.
What steps would you recommend pastors take to integrate “already-not yet” eschatology into their teaching and preaching?
I would recommend that if this has not been part and parcel of their preaching when they’re preaching the NT that they should look at my book. They should look at the other authors and books that I talk about in the introductory chapter: Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, Richard Gaffin, George Eldon Ladd and Tom Schreiner (i.e., his 100-page introduction on inaugurated eschatology in his New Testament Theology). That’s where I would begin, but they need to acquaint themselves with the right lenses. If you don’t have on green sunglasses, then you’re not going to see green. If you don’t have on “already-not yet, end-times” glasses, you’re not going to see the end times in the NT adequately. That illustration breaks down in the sense that when you wear green sunglasses, you’re imposing green on the outside world. In the case though of wearing inaugurated endtime lenses, I think these lenses actually unlock what is there in the Scriptures and help you see what is really there.
How is biblical theology conducive to moving toward an appropriate kind of ecumenism among theological traditions?
Maybe we can use the term “ecumenism” to refer to those who really take the Bible as their authority – and we know there’s a lot of diversity in this group. I would say that the notion that every major NT idea has its roots in OT and the idea that the latter days have already started helps shift undue focus from consummated eschatology. For example, you have amillennialists, historic pre-millennialists, dispensational pre-millennialists, progressive pre-millennialists, preterists and post-millennialists. In my book, I don’t even talk about those issues. The point is that inaugurated eschatology is less speculative than future eschatology because we know what’s happened. We know the latter days have begun and what doctrines they affect and I think we can rally around that much better and have a common agreement on that and agree to disagree on how things are going to happen and culminate in the future. I have a feeling that all of us to some degree will be a little surprised when the consummation of history occurs. That’s not to say that one position perhaps is not more probable than another, but I think we’ll all be a little surprised. By saying this, I do not mean that it is not worth studying Scripture to try to decide which of the millennial views is preferable. But I think that inaugurated eschatology does help us to rally around the decisive events of Christ’s first coming and the decisive event of his final coming, about which we are all more certain. We all believe in that, except for some consistent preterists. In that sense I think there’s legitimate biblical ecumenism.
What are some of your forthcoming projects?
I’m presently working on a commentary on Colossians and Philemon for the Baker Exegetical Commentary series. After that I’ll be doing a commentary on the Pastoral Epistles for the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series. I’m currently working on condensing my Revelation commentary to about 350 pages to make it more accessible. That should come out in a year or two. I’m doing the same thing with The Temple and the Church’s Mission (IVP Academic). I’m condensing that down to about 200 pages to make it perhaps more accessible. With a former doctoral student, I’m working on a book called Hidden But Now Revealed: A Biblical Theology of Divine Mystery (InterVarsity) in which we look at the use of mystery in the NT, both with respect to the use of the term “mystery” itself and the concept in the NT.