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Book Review: According to Plan

Book Review of Graeme Goldsworthy's According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the BibleGraeme Goldsworthy is one of the major figures in the discipline of biblical theology. He has become a must-read for the student of biblical theology. In According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible, Goldsworthy has three goals. First, he seeks to expand the scope of his earlier works to encompass the entire Bible. Second, he wants to counteract the trend in biblical theology toward biblical skepticism by maintaining a high view of scripture. His third goal is to make the book accessible to the layperson.

Structure and Organization

The book is divided into four sections, answering the four primary questions of biblical theology: why, how, what, and where. Section 1, the “Why?” section, consists of a single chapter, and is essentially an introduction. The reason we study biblical theology, says Goldsworthy, is to properly interpret the Bible. Biblical theology helps us deal with problem passages, such as the meaning of Proverbs 30.15, from which the chapter takes its title, “The Leech Has Two Daughters.” Similarly, it illuminates difficult stories by placing them within the context of the entire Bible, and it helps illuminate the entire Bible by placing it in the context of its main character: Jesus Christ.

Goldsworthy devotes an entire section, Section 2, the “How?,” to laying out his methodology. Discussing the relation between biblical theology and other theological disciplines, he concludes that it is easiest to think of biblical theology as providing the connection between exegetical theology, which it draws upon, and systematic theology, which draws upon it. Epistemologically, Goldsworthy is a presuppositionalist, which means that he chooses to take the Bible as his initial presupposition and does not feel compelled to have to defend this decision. He believes all knowledge comes to us through God, so all knowledge must be examined in light of the Bible. Alternate epistemologies, in contrast, take reason or “natural knowledge” as their starting point. Goldsworthy rejects these epistemologies as humanism and, therefore, sub-Christian. Because sin infects all aspects of the human condition, Goldsworthy argues that only born-again believers can properly do biblical theology. The entire bible must be understood as God’s Word, and Jesus is the interpretive key for the entire project of biblical theology.

Section 3, The “What?,” is the largest section and the one that Goldsworthy calls “the heart of the book.” He begins with a discussion of Jesus as the interpretive key to biblical theology. Next, He traces each major epoch in the biblical story. Beginning with the Old Testament, he works his way through creation, fall, flood, Abraham, Moses, David, and the prophets. Goldsworthy is particularly interested in the place of the story in the Kingdom of God, what it reveals about God and humanity, and the physical location where God’s presence dwells.  Where there is a connection with the gospel, he is careful to note how it should affect our interpretation.

Goldsworthy then looks at how the New Testament continues or modifies the preceeding story. Jesus is the antitype for which, in retrospect, Adam was the prototype, and the entire story is seen to be a progressive revelation of the Kingdom. In Acts, the church becomes the new temple and God is revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit. In the Epistles, the story is now seen to be a progressive revelation of regeneration. Finally, in the book of Revelation, we are given a picture of the end of the story, with God’s people in His presence in a new heaven and new earth.

Section 4, the “Where?,” functions almost as an appendix, briefly sketching two topics of importance to modern Christians that are illuminated by biblical theology: God’s will, and life after death. These two chapters provide a model for how one might construct a biblical theology of any particular issue: first defining the problem to be studied, and then tracing the theme through the biblical narrative and drawing conclusions. He concludes with further questions to consider about the particular theme covered.

Analysis

It would seem that Goldsworthy has completed his goals. He has (1) analyzed the entire bible theologically, (2) from the perspective of inerrancy, (3) and made the work accessible at the popular level. The book’s strength is its stimulating discussion of the nature of the gospel and its centrality in biblical theology. Yet the effectiveness of the book is blunted by two weaknesses, a flawed epistemology and inadequate introductory material.

The first weakness, a flawed epistemology, results from his Calvinistic presuppositionalism. The arguments both for and against presuppositionalism are well-worn, so just a few comments will have to suffice. It is difficult to understand how Goldsworthy thinks we can have unmediated access to God. Our knowledge of God and the world, including our knowledge of the Bible, comes to us only through our five senses. But the real problem with presuppositionalism is that it is ill-equipped to deal with our religiously pluralistic society. Presumably a Muslim, Sikh, or monotheistic Hindu would fully endorse his epistemology, but would put the Quran or some other authority in place of the Bible. By presupposing the authority of the Bible, one’s faith is relegated to opinion, and is left with nothing to commend Christian theism over any other faith.

But the biggest problem with Goldsworthy’s presuppositionalism is that it creates a straw man of alternate positions. In one fell swoop he labels all competing epistemologies as humanistic. Certainly a Christian theist can construct a case from reason and nature for a belief in the authority of scripture, but under his schema, any attempt to filter scripture through reason is “humanistic.” This approach is misleading and is inequitable toward many fellow evangelicals.

As a result of his presuppositionalism, Goldsworthy often seems to flatten the biblical text, turning a blind eye to tensions or difficulties. Each biblical author must be allowed to speak for himself, even when, on first reading, it appears to contradict another biblical author. An approach that starts reading synthetically before doing the hard work of exegesis is in danger of misinterpreting the texts themselves. Critics often speak of contradictions in the Bible, but from reading Goldsworthy, one would think that the Bible contains nothing but a single, coherent narrative. For his insistence on being biblical, it is puzzling that exegesis, which he calls “exegetical theology,” is paid little more than lip service.

The second weakness is the book’s inadequate introductory material. In an introduction, one would expect to gain a broad overview of the entire field of biblical theology. Granted that his purpose is to present his own biblical theology rather than to introduce the reader to the entire field, one would still expect to see at least minimal interaction with other scholars. Who are the other primary authors in the field, and how does Goldsworthy’s vision fit in or contrast with theirs? Goldsworthy offers a helpful recommendation of Vos’ Biblical Theology (p. 13), and the reader would benefit from more recommendations, positive and negative, in the form of an annotated bibliography.

For the student who is already well-versed in biblical history (p. 80), there is little to learn here. Most of the discussion is simply a summary of the texts, and even his theological reflection is generally summarizing what is explicitly emphasized in the text itself. The summaries and charts at the end of each chapter do not always seem to reflect the contents of the chapter. For instance, it is confusing that until chapter 14 each chapter adds a line to the summary chart at the end of the chapter. Chapters 13-16 reprint the identical chart with no changes, leading the student to ask what was added in chapters 14-16. Also, the points made in the section summaries at times do not reflect the point made by the section itself. For instance, in the description of Noah and the Covenant (pp. 114-15), the focus is on how God showed His faithfulness in saving Noah, but the summary statement generalizes this as, “God’s commitment to creation,” without further discussion.

Goldsworthy’s strength is his focus on the centrality of the gospel. He rightly promotes the gospel as the lens through which the rest of the Bible must be read and understood. He demonstrates that the gospel is “the gospel of the Old Testament” (p. 82), but the student should not conclude that the gospel is therefore comprised of the entire biblical story, from Genesis to Revelation. The gospel is “about the Son in a way that it is not about the Father, or the Holy Spirit, or the believer” (p.82). Chapter 22 has a refreshing discussion of how Jesus is the fulfillment of all of biblical theology, revealed to us as true God, true humanity, and true dwelling place of the Spirit. Through His Spirit, we can share in His restored humanity as the dwelling place of God (Ch. 23).

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