A Denver Journal Review
The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments
Thomas R. Schreiner. The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013. $44.99. xix + 714 pp. ISBN 978-0-8010-3939-3
Very few New Testament scholars can write major commentaries on multiple Pauline and Petrine epistles, an entire Pauline theology and a comprehensive New Testament theology. Tom Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the first in a long time to do all of that. Now he has added to his portfolio a detailed biblical theology of both testaments. If readers are hoping to learn about the major, competing syntheses of the theology of a given book, corpus or testament, they will be disappointed. Whether or not the Triune God as “the king in his beauty” is the most unifying theme of the Bible will be up to readers to decide, but then Schreiner acknowledges that his is just one of several ways to integrate the biblical material with a central topic. If readers are looking for the largely inductive observations of a seasoned scholar and theologian about the most theologically significantly portions of each biblical book, they will be treated to a delicious feast, with enough footnotes to suggest where they can go for dessert.
Schreiner opts for a canonical sequence, proceeding book-by-book through the Protestant English ( = order if not contents of the LXX) canon. He believes similar conclusions would result if he followed the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament. God’s creation of humanity in his image to be his vice-regent of creation suggests kingly functions from the outset of Genesis. Human sin quickly required a plan of redemption, with God’s covenant with Abraham (and then Isaac and Jacob), with both conditional and unconditional elements, moving that plan into high gear. Genesis 49 prophesies that the new king will come from the line of Judah.
Despite many portions of God’s promises to Abraham seemingly thwarted when the children of Israel languish in Egypt, they are multiplying Abraham’s seed considerably. Exodus 6:6-8 stresses God’s faithfulness to his covenant and Moses leads Israel to experience their “Independence Day.” Their salvation precedes the giving of the Law, which contains the stipulations of their responsibilities in the conditional covenant God has initiated at Sinai. The immediacy of the Israelites’ disobedience in making the golden calf is stunning, but even after the faithlessness in response to the spies’ report about Canaan, Number 24:7 points to Yahweh’s faithfulness to his promise to raise up a righteous king.
Deuteronomy calls on God’s people to obey the Law in order to enter and stay in the Promised Land. In Joshua they enter the Land as a foretaste of Paradise. God shows himself to be divine Warrior and sovereign King. Judges discloses the people’s progressive moral deterioration and the need for a king, who will come from Ruth’s descendants. All of 1-2 Samuel highlights how the Lord exalts David as king and casts down Saul. 1-2 Kings begins with the appearance that all of God’s promises will be fulfilled under Solomon, but his disobedience leads to the divided kingdom and its debacles so that the work ends with the Israelites in exile. 1-2 Chronicles re-covers much of the same material but with an even greater focus on kingship and priesthood. It also ends referring to Cyrus’ decree allowing repatriation, giving hope for the future. Ezra-Nehemiah begins to unpack that hope with a return to the Law and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls, while Esther discloses God’s hidden but still sovereign protection of Jews remaining in Persia.
Every wisdom book emphasizes the fear of the God as the way to live under Yahweh’s lordship. Yahweh as king also dominates the Psalms, with a few functioning specifically as Messianic. Proverbs proves striking for wisdom literature with how much focuses on God’s sovereignty and on an ideal king. Ecclesiastes focuses on the anomalies of life but still concludes with the command to fear God. Kingship’s importance continues with the Song of Songs involving Solomon, also offering another foretaste of Paradise.
Space prevents our itemizing key contributions of each of the prophets, but the themes and sequence of judgment followed by salvation recur consistently. “What is notable is that the promises of the new exodus were not fulfilled when Israel returned from exile. Nevertheless, those who received the OT as Scripture did not conclude that [the prophets were] mistaken” (p. 341). Christians were not the first to believe there was still more to be fulfilled and that God would be faithful to his promises. The new covenant was first prophesied by Jeremiah. The temple depicted in Ezekiel will be fulfilled in the new heavens and earth. Jesus’ characteristic and distinctive self-reference as Son of man will mine the imagery of Daniel 7 to denote someone who is far more than merely human. Those who find the prophets’ repeated stress on judgment hard to understand should heed Abraham Heschel’s words: “Is it not because we are only dimly aware of the full gravity of human failure, of the sufferings inflicted by those who revile God’s demand for justice? There is a cruelty which pardons, just as there is a pity which punishes. Severity must tame whom love cannot win” (p. 407).
The Old Testament clearly ends with an unfinished story. The New Testament sees what remained unfinished as fulfilled in Jesus. Of the four Evangelists, Matthew emphasizes fulfillment the most and distinctively stresses the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. Mark and Luke likewise highlight the kingdom with Jesus as the king. John substitutes “eternal life” for the kingdom, but the two are something of functional equivalents. Paul’s theology can be summed up under the rubric of “the end of the ages has come.” Schreiner subdivides this overall theme into the new David, new creation, new life and new covenant, new people of God, and new world coming.
Hebrews focuses on Jesus’ superiority to previous heroes and institutions, especially to the Jewish priesthood. James 2:5 shows that for all the differences from Paul in this little letter, God’s goal is still to create heirs to the kingdom. First Peter demonstrates that the church is now the new and true Israel. Glory, majesty, dominion and authority (Jude 25) belong alone to Jesus in Jude and 2 Peter. The new heavens and earth in Revelation fulfill the land promise to the patriarchs, but extend it to the entire cosmos. God’s sovereignty and the supremacy of Christ the king dominate the entire Apocalypse.
These brief summary statements scarcely do justice to the rich supporting detail Schreiner offers in every chapter, along with countless Scripture references replete with commentary. I am better qualified to assess his treatment of New Testament than of Old Testament texts and themes so will limit my evaluative remarks to that arena. I suspect promise-fulfillment might be a better rubric than God’s kingship for uniting the testaments. It is hard to see kingdom of God as a distinctive emphasis in either Mark or Luke and as a major theme at all in Acts. The organization of John’s themes under the headings of life, truth and way seems forced, and Schreiner’s repeated comments about recognizing alternative schemes suggests he realizes it. Kingship hardly dominates Paul and the book doesn’t attempt to claim it does. Regal imagery is even less prominent in James.
These criticisms, however, should not be seen as diminishing the significance of Schreiner’s accomplishment. While he would be the last person to ever want anyone to read his book instead of the Bible, someone with no more than a superficial knowledge of Scripture’s contents and significance could read just The King in His Beauty and come away with a substantial understanding of both. We can be very grateful for Schreiner’s ambitious projects and wonder what he has left to tackle. Maybe he can improve on Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time!
Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament