Sunday 1 February 2009

Graeme Goldsworthy on Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture

Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Leicester: IVP, 2000), xv + 272pp., ISBN 085110539X.

[The following post began life as a book review in Anvil, probably sometime in 2001.]

This work by Graeme Goldsworthy demonstrates the strategic place of biblical theology in Christian interpretation and appropriation of the Bible, and although it has the particular task of the preacher in mind, all concerned readers of Scripture will find it full of insight and relevance.

The bulk of the book is divided into two equal parts. Part 1 seeks to answer the sorts of questions that might be asked about biblical theology and preaching (e.g., What is the Bible? What is biblical theology? What is preaching?). Biblical theology has to do with the big picture of the Bible as it describes the unfolding of God’s purposes of redemption, culminating in Christ. Along with a high view of the Bible (as the one written word of the one God about the one way of salvation – and so as a book about Christ) goes a high view of preaching, which is rooted in God’s own proclamation to human beings, and exemplified in the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles. Jesus’ own teaching (e.g., John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44-45) and the testimony of the early church to the gospel of Christ should shape our approach to Scripture.

Part 2 seeks to apply this biblical-theological method to the various biblical genres (narrative, law, wisdom, etc.). Each chapter here follows the same format: the setting of the literary type in the biblical-theological context, with some illustrative treatments of texts; general literary and historical considerations; reflections of a more practical nature on planning sermons on the genre under consideration. Among many other points deserving mention, Goldsworthy frequently expresses concern that preachers not moralise from the biblical text (whether with narrative, law, or the prophets) without regard for the framework of the gospel of grace.

All in all, then, there is much here to profit from, and any criticisms are of the ‘friendly’ kind from one who is in agreement with the broad agenda of the work. Goldsworthy repeats the formula from his earlier works (e.g., Gospel and Kingdom: A Christian Interpretation of the Old Testament [Exeter: Paternoster, 1981]) that the ‘essence of the kingdom is God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule’ (87). But the formula may pose problems. A little like the jewelry shop owner who sets the clocks in the window by the clock on the town hall over the road, not realising that the clock keeper sets the town hall clock by those in the shop window, it’s not always easy to see what’s establishing the agenda! It also means that some material can be overlooked. For instance, Goldsworthy arguably marginalises the exile, which in his treatment tends to be swallowed up in prophetic eschatology. One doesn’t have to be at all swayed by the current interest in the motif of exile in contemporary theology to acknowledge its significant place on the biblical landscape, not to mention the New Testament’s descriptions of believers as those in ‘exile’. The book of Esther, for instance, is set entirely in the Jewish dispersion, and provides a glimpse of the dangers God’s people might have to face in exile, a pertinent point (from a biblical-theological perspective) for contemporary Christians to acknowledge.

Furthermore, for all the emphasis on following the flow of redemption, one wonders whether Goldsworthy actually neglects the significance of salvation history in some cases. The first page of the New Testament is explicit in linking Ruth to Christ, and we need to read the book which bears her name in the wider biblical context; but to reduce it to a ‘missionary text’ (146) might put the cart before the horse. When one places Ruth within the flow of salvation history as a whole, how do we account for the seeming newness of what comes with Christ and the church? How does Ruth as a ‘missionary text’ relate to Jesus’ ministry to Israel, and then the sending out of the disciples to all nations in the power of the Spirit, and the portrayal in the early church of just how radical a notion this was to some, even after embracing the gospel for themselves? The concern is that we run the risk of making the Bible say things before it really says them, of flattening out salvation history.

Of course, all biblical texts are embraced by the gospel, and Goldsworthy does a great job reminding us that Wisdom and Psalms (for instance) are connected with Christ – because Jesus has been made our wisdom, and he is the king and the faithful Israelite who prays. Once again, however, those with a high view of Scripture will want to do justice to the celebration of sexuality in Song of Songs (say) as much as to Christ’s love for his church.

Finally and significantly, there’s very little wrestling with the theological significance of the Bible’s literary forms. These are made ‘the vehicle for the theological truth of biblical revelation’ (p. 135), which sadly gives the impression that the lorry of the literary form can be ignored once we get our hands on the theological freight it is carrying. Indeed, the nature of the various literary types is largely reduced to the salvation-historical contexts in which they occur, thus begging the question as to why the material is organised according to genre in the first place.

Such points aside, however, it would be difficult not to recommend this book. It’s surely difficult to imagine any person engaged in any form of Christian ministry who would not want to do proclaim the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is declared in the pages of Scripture as a whole. Anyone interested in the place of biblical theology in the tasks of theology and ministry will benefit from this strong exhortation to pay attention to the shape of the Scriptures – Old and New, New and Old – with Christ at their centre.

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