A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New
A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor William W. Klein
G. K. Beale. A New Testament Biblical Theology. The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011. 1072 pp. $54.99. ISBN: 9780801026973.
Endorsements on the dust jacket employ the phrases tour de force and magnum opus in commending this volume from Dr. Beale. While we expect publishers’ blurbs to be effusive, this volume certainly merits those descriptors—and more. Those who work through this substantial tome will be richly rewarded. In it, Beale, professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, exhibits his extensive research (some six hundred books in the bibliography), his own expansive publication résumé (the bibliography lists twenty-six of his own publications), as well as his exegetical acumen in this rather unique and important contribution to both biblical studies and biblical theology.
The subtitle explains the central focus of the book, for this is not a New Testament theology in the usual ways that genre is understood—and that is one of the central strengths as well as a possible weakness (some would say) in how the book unfolds. Not content to unpack how the early Christians understood their experience of the Christ-event—and thereby explaining how they understood things author-by-author (some NT theologies) or topic-by-topic (other NT theologies)—Beale seeks to show how emerging Christian theology was an outgrowth of a storyline already centuries old as it began to unfold in the OT. For this reason, Beale insists that he has written a biblical theology, not a NT theology. His goal is to read the NT through the lens of the presuppositions and perspectives of the biblical writers themselves (i.e., solely the Protestant canon) in an intertextual way such that earlier Scripture sets the stage for and sheds light on what follows, while later portions of the Bible illuminate the meaning of earlier parts. Beale alleges that the biblical writers creatively interpret earlier Scripture in light of what they see as the ongoing development of redemptive history, the Bible’s “storyline,” or what some call the “grand narrative” of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. Inevitably, Beale’s endeavor focuses on the unity of the NT (and the entire Bible) while minimizing its diversity, a limitation that he readily accepts.
After several chapters that explain the “redemptive-historical storyline” of the OT, the remainder of the book traces how this OT narrative structure unfolds throughout the NT. There’s the genius and possible flaw in what follows. The alternatives to consider: has he rightly understood the OT story? And, if so, has he successfully shown that the NT writers’ theologies legitimately grow out of that storyline? Or, has Beale shoehorned the evidence in the NT to fit his own rendering of the storyline and the specific examples in the OT that he cites? To be sure, Beale is well aware of this potential objection, and he mounts a spirited defense of his understanding of the storyline (see pp. 161-184). My own judgment is that he has largely succeeded, but he has also succumbed in various places to the latter. Each reader will need to assess at each point whether Beale’s case holds up.
Another limitation that Beale has accepted follows from his pointed objective of seeing how each NT book develops the Bible’s historical / eschatological narrative. To wit, the book ignores, or at least minimizes, those parts of the NT writers’ presentations that are not captured by this filter. Thus, of necessity, we don’t find a survey of the theological contributions of all of the NT books, or even all the themes that the books might present. The “grand narrative” focus excludes other worthy topics or issues. That means, also, that Beale does not assess some of the NT books on their own terms—i.e., how the authors compose their messages to respond to their own readers’ historical issues. This has regularly been a key stipulation of biblical theology as it is normally understood.
A large question then surfaces: despite Beale’s assertion, is this book really a “systematic” theology after all? I don’t mean to minimize Beale’s use of the Bible in his book (in fact, it is extensive and foundational to his project). But this may really be a systematic theology rather than a biblical theology, and in this case the systematizing thread is Beale’s take on the “grand narrative” rather than some other philosophical rubric (as may shape other self-confessed systematic theologies). Beale’s commitment to Reformed theology (of the Calvinist variety) is also in evidence in the book (and virtually all of the endorsers of the book fall within that camp as well). Neither of these is lamentable; indeed all interpreters come to the biblical text with their own preunderstandings. Beale embraces his upfront.
Lest readers of this review accuse me of condemning with faint praise, let me say in uncertain terms how useful, convincing, and challenging I have found this book. My praise is not faint at all! I find Beale’s rendition of the OT storyline and its subsequent NT makeover thoroughly convincing. Here’s the NT version in his words: “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” (p. 16). I can’t but say, “Amen!” In Christ Christians now experience the reign of God in an inaugurated way, but that will be consummated in final form in the new heavens and earth. And Christians must embrace the missio Dei of spreading this eschatological, salvific message. Again, Amen.
The book is meticulously organized; the reader knows at each point what Beale sets out to do in what follows, followed by a summary of what he has accomplished at each point, with frequent reminders of what has preceded and what awaits further explanation. This results in some redundancy, but I suspect that in a book so large Beale wants to do all he can to help readers follow his argument. Several tables and excurses provide explanations along the way. Another important component of the book is Beale’s repeated inclusion of Judaism’s perspective on various components of his argument (where he mines relevant non-canonical data, e.g., from the Jewish Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Targums, Mishnah, Talmuds, et al.), as well as appropriate references from the Apostolic Fathers.
Given the limitations of a book review, I will provide a sampling of some intriguing or suggestive quotes along with a few observations along the way. I hope these give readers of this review some tidbits to chew on that will give a flavor for Beale’s comprehensive undertaking.
“Thus, by allowing the snake entrance into the garden, Adam allowed sin, chaos, and disorder into the sanctuary and into the lives of both himself and his wife. Rather than ruling over the serpent and casting it out of the garden, Adam allowed the serpent to rule over him” (p. 359). Beale sees that God put Adam in charge, that he succumbed to idolatry by failing to kick the devil out of the garden, and that this failure allowed Eve to be beguiled by the snake.
“It is plausible that Adam’s decisive defeat of the evil force [which did not occur] on the perimeter of the garden would have resulted in him experiencing unending eschatological ‘rest’” (p. 39). Beale develops many corollaries from this possibility that, apparently, the fall was not inevitable, including implications for the creation, marriage, and eschatology. I wonder how this squares with his understanding of free will and predestination. He does not discuss the implications of this unrealized Edenic potential for these theological issues.
“Even if Adam had never sinned, his prefall existence still needed to be transformed at some climactic point into an irreversible glorious existence, which Paul identifies as resurrection existence” (p. 45). This, and many others, are intriguing conjectures, but they have marginal textual support. Is his theological system driving these, rather than biblical texts?
“Eschatology is protology, which means that the goal of all redemptive history is to return to the primal condition of creation from which humankind fell and then go beyond it to a more heightened state, which the first creation was designed to reach but did not” (p. 178).
“Consequently, Christ has inherited that for which humanity was originally destined but failed to reach. Jesus’ body was not only a renewed physical body, but it had become a transformed ‘heavenly,’ ‘spiritual,’ and ‘imperishable’ body” (p. 263). In fact, “All the major notions of the NT are facets of the diamond of Christ’s resurrection, which is the beginning of the ‘already-not yet, end-time, new-creational kingdom’” (p. 354). His ruminations about the nature of resurrection are very perceptive and illuminating.
“Belief in the inaugurated end-time tribulation and antichrist should cause the church to be more vigilant about making sure not to be torn away from trust in Christ and his word” (p. 224). This is a very important observation and a valid warning that grows out of the biblical texts about perseverance.
“Why is the new creation a basis for being able to follow Paul’s commands to live godly? It is because without the resurrection power of the new creation, people are unable to obey God’s precepts” (p. 280). Again, this is a wonderful conclusion. Beale recognizes the crucial Pauline structure of ‘corporate solidarity.’ The virtues and inheritance that believers obtain all come through their incorporation into Christ. Beale appeals to the construct of corporate solidarity frequently in the book.
“Perhaps one of the most striking features of Jesus’s kingdom is that it appears not to be the kind of kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by Judaism” (p. 431). For Beale, this is the reason Jesus (and the Gospels) refers to the “mystery” of the kingdom. Clearly, he sides with George Ladd here (e.g., The Presence of the Future and other writings) and against most dispensationalists.
But unlike Ladd, Beale adopts an amillennial view of eschatology. In keeping with this, he argues “… that Acts 2 portrays the descent of the heavenly end-time temple of God’s presence upon his people on earth” (p. 606). Israel’s physical temple was an earthly model of God’s heavenly temple that Israel was to employ to spread God’s presence over the whole earth, but which Israel failed to do. Thus, “Christ and his followers are a temple in the new creation” (p. 632) whose purpose is to spread God’s glory openly to the world in Christ and his subsequent dwelling through the Spirit (p. 643). In this way, “the church can be viewed as the inaugurated fulfillment of God’s promises of Israel’s end-time restoration from captivity” (p. 651). Two presuppositions undergird this: the notion of corporate solidarity (the church is one with Christ) and Beale’s belief that Christ is the true Israel, that is, the continuation of true Israel from the OT (p. 652). “The church is not merely like Israel but actually is Israel” (p. 653). Importantly, Beale insists (and I agree) that what he finds is “not an allegorical or spiritualizing hermeneutic by which the predominantly gentile church is to be identified with Israel” [sic.] but it is what we might call a ‘legal representative’ or ‘corporate’ hermeneutic that underlies this identification of the church” (p. 655). In fact after his extensive survey of OT prophetic texts he concludes, “The above texts indicate that the OT prophesied at various points that when gentiles would be converted in the latter days, they would come to Israel and become Israelites” (p. 665). That is, “… gentiles in the end-time will become Israelites by believing [in Christ]” (p. 731).
“[I]t was never part of the restoration prophecies that the majority of the ethnic nation would return to God in the land” (p. 743). Again, dispensationalists will recoil, but Beale’s defense is formidable.
“[T]he observance of a Sabbath at the end of each week is an end-time sign. This weekly Sabbath sign is grounded in God’s creation rest and is still to be observed by the church until Christ’s final coming, at which time the weekly observance will cease” (p. 789). If he is right, do we take Sabbath seriously enough in the contemporary American church?
“That means that 2 Cor. 5:10 is not about Christ distributing differing awards to Christians, all of whom are ‘saved,’ according to the differing works. Rather, some will be found to be true, resurrected, fruit-bearing believers, while others will not” (p. 510). Are there degrees of awards and punishments on judgment day?
Correctly, in my view, Beale explains an important point that is widely misunderstood on the popular level. He says, “It is crucial to clarify here that Paul is not saying that both an ‘old man’ and a ‘new man’ exist together in a person, so that there is a battle between the two inside each Christian” (p. 845).
“We could picture Christ as a hermeneutical filter through which the law must pass in order to get to the new creation” (p. 875). Christians can’t apply the OT law on its own terms any longer in this age of inaugurated fulfillment.
In Beale’s concluding chapter, he very helpfully sums up his study by dividing the storyline of the Bible into three components that he then uses to expound what he has uncovered in his massive study. He lists the key identity markers of the story and shows in each case: (1) their OT reality (largely instances of prophetic expectation never realized within ancient Israel), (2) the corresponding inaugurated end-time reality (what we find in the NT as the church in Christ begins to fulfill that feature), and (3) the corresponding consummated end-time reality (how that feature of the story will be accomplished at the final coming of Christ).
Forgive my long list here, but these phrases do capture the salient features of his study. He develops each of the three components under the following headings: “The Latter Days,” “The New Creation and Kingdom,” “A King and Kingdom,” “Israel’s Return from Exile,” “God’s Deliverance as a Second Exodus in Relation to the Restoration from Exile,” “Reconciliation as a Return from Exile,” “Salvation and Justification,” “The Spirit’s Gifting Role,” “The Resurrection as Regeneration or New Creation by the Spirit,” “The Temple and the Church’s Mission,” “Christ as the Image of God: The Last Adam, Son of Man, and Son of God,” “The Image of God: The Adamic Sonship of Christ in Relation to Believers,” “The Covenant,” “Distinguishing Marks of the Covenant Community” (with subheadings: Jesus, Sabbath Observance, Circumcision and Baptism, Communal Meal, Elders, The Biblical Canon), “The Ongoing Nature of the Genuine Believer’s Life (Sanctification) in Connection with New Creation,” “The Law in Both Testaments in Connection to the Believer’s Life,” “Marriage in the New Age,” “Deception, Trials, Persecution, and Cosmic Breakup as Tribulation” (he understands Matthew’s prophecy in 24:21 to have been fulfilled in AD 70), and “Judgment.”
Kudos to Professor Beale for this substantial contribution to NT theology. Often biblical scholars focus on the bits and pieces of the Bible, with minimal concern for seeing the big picture. Ordinary readers of the Bible are very sketchy in their understanding of it as well. The overall storyline of the Bible is more palpable because of Beale’s work. We see more clearly God’s grand and glorious plan of redemption as the essential message of Holy Scripture—both OT and NT. Creation, fall, redemption, transformation, and consummation: Beale has helped us understand in more depth how the Bible presents the Grand Narrative. Put alongside OT scholar C. J. H. Wright’s equally monumental work, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, we have two superb explications of the biblical story that complement each other well.
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament