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Biblical Theology

Wayne K. Forkner

A New Testament Biblical Theology, by G. K. Beale. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011, xxiv + 1047, $54.99.

A New Testament Biblical Theology (NTBT) is a product of much study and teaching on the New Testament by Dr. G. K. Beale. Begun in 1989, it is a wealth of biblical reflection. Within its pages are twenty-eight chapters distributed among ten parts. This review will attempt to provide an overview, highlighting its strengths and some weaknesses. All of these are offered to help the reader gain a better understanding of biblical theology and encourage informed discussion of important issues in our denomination.

Structure and Overview

Chapter 1 discusses and defines New Testament (NT) biblical theology, especially as it is used in this book. The approach to biblical theology is in the tradition of Geerhardus Vos and Richard Gaffin, regarding the Bible’s “storyline” as the unifying concept. The book holds that, in order to understand New Testament theology, we need to understand the canonical storyline from creation to consummation from which the major theological ideas flow.

The storyline is defined in the first six chapters, comprising Part 1. In chapters 1 and 2 the Old Testament (OT) storyline is defined:

The Old Testament is the story of God, who progressively reestablishes his eschatological (all underlines in original text) 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 this kingdom and judgment (defeat or exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory. (116)

A key to understanding this storyline is the study of the phrase “latter days” found in the Old Testament. Chapter 4 looks at the eschatological themes found in Jewish writings focusing on the phrase “latter days,” and Chapter 5 discusses the New Testament’s use of this eschatological theme of the “latter days.” It is pointed out that the New Testament presents eschatology in a two-stage process. This two-stage process is commonly known as the already-not yet aspect of eschatology. Chapter 6 looks at the methodological questions that pertain to proposing a central storyline for biblical theology. The section ends with the proposed New Testament storyline:

Jesus’s 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. (182)

In addition to defining the storyline, Part 1 discloses ten eschatological expectations unfulfilled in the Old Testament that will later be addressed in the bulk of the book. These expectations are parsed for explanatory purposes, but are here presented in paragraph form:

(1) A final unsurpassed and incomparable period of tribulation for God’s people by an end-time opponent who deceives and persecutes, in the face of which they will need wisdom not to compromise; afterword they are (2) delivered, (3) resurrected, and their kingdom reestablished; (4) at this future time, God will rule on earth (5) through a coming Davidic king who will defeat all opposition and reign in peace in a new creation over both (6) the nations and (7) restored Israel, (8) with whom God will make a new covenant, and (9) upon whom God will bestow the Spirit, and (10) among whom the temple will be rebuilt. (115)

The bulk of the book (Parts 2–9) shows how the above expectations commence in the coming of Jesus Christ and are consummated in his second coming, thus applying the already-not yet storyline to the eschatological expectation. In each of these parts, the themes are regarded in light of the relevant OT text, various Jewish writings (contemporary to the NT), and in the NT (usually in canonical order).

The concluding chapters look at new creational realities discussed in the book and show first how they relate to the OT saints and then discuss the continuity and discontinuity of the two-stage fulfillment. In the final chapter, the author presents the material’s application—showing how these truths bring glory to God and how the new creation’s transformative power should affect our Christian living and preaching.

Strengths

This work argues persuasively for the already-not yet redemptive historical understanding of redemption and the establishment of the kingdom which Christ inaugurates. The strongest part of this book is the way it exegetically interacts between the New and Old Testaments, showing how all of Scripture speaks of Christ and his work. Beale shows himself to be a master exegete and theologian. It is in the vast application of biblical theology to the exegesis of New Testament texts that the reader will spend many enjoyable hours.

Weaknesses

My primary criticism of this book is the Old Testament storyline as developed in chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 2 begins by looking at the commission given to Adam. Positively, this chapter does a good job of showing that Adam needed to be obedient to receive escalated eschatological blessings, thus exegetically defending the covenant of works.

The Adamic commission as found in Gen. 1:28 is summarized as follows:

The commission of Gen. 1:26–28 involves the following elements, especially as summarized in 1:28: (1) “God Blessed them”; (2) “be fruitful and multiply”; (3) “fill the earth”; (4) “subdue” the “earth”; (5) “rule over . . . all the earth.” (30)

This commission included God’s specific command of Gen. 2:16–17 not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (33). Adam failed to obtain the eschatological blessings by being disobedient to this commission.

Now, in developing an Old Testament storyline, Adam is portrayed as a prototype, followed by other Adam-like figures, culminating in the last Adam, Jesus Christ.

As we will see below, after Adam’s failure to fulfill God’s mandate, God raised up other Adam-like figures to whom his kingly and priestly commission was passed on. We will find that some changes in the commission occurred as a result of sin entering into the world. Adam’s descendants, like him, however, fail. Failure would continue until there arose a “last Adam” who finally fulfilled the commission on behalf of humanity. (46)

This passing on of Adam’s commission to a number of Adam-like figures seems to flatten the biblical theological story of the Old Testament and blur the distinctives of the covenants. As stated in Rom. 5:14, there were just two Adams, the first and the last (eschatological). The first Adam is a type of Christ. The entrance of sin made it impossible for any of Adam’s descendants by ordinary generation to be given the Adamic commission. I would argue that the execution of the Adamic commission waited until the second, eschatological Adam arrived.  

According to Beale, the basic covenantal structure of the OT is that, after Adam’s sin, God gave the promise of the redeemer who would come in judgment (Gen. 3:15). Then God gave the covenant of common grace to Noah. In the Abrahamic covenant we see explicitly the covenant of grace ratified (Gen. 15). Even in the Mosaic covenant where we see a republication of the covenant of works, (with explicit commands) it is given within and for the furtherance of the postlapsarian covenant of grace.

Not only does this explanation flatten the covenantal structure of the OT, it assumes a repetition of the Adamic commission that is not found in the text. Noah and his sons are blessed and told to be fruitful and multiply, the same command given in Gen. 1:22, “And God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’ ” There is, however, no command to rule or subdue. Further, there is no mention of any failure on Noah’s part to act on God’s commands. Instead, after Noah exits the ark, God maintains the common grace covenant.

Beale does see a change in the repetition of the Adamic commission to the following Adam figures. First there is an expansion of the commission. “After Adam’s sin, the commission would be expanded to include renewed humanity’s reign over unregenerate human forces arrayed against it” (53). This is nowhere evident in the patriarchal period. There is a sense in which Israel as a nation defeated its enemies, but this was not a worldwide reign as was to be Adam’s. Its reign was limited to the land of promise.

Within that reigning there was to be a witnessing aspect. “Abraham’s descendants were to be a renewed humanity. They were to bear God’s image and ‘fill the earth’ with children who also bore that image, being beacons of light to others living in spiritual darkness” (53). However, Abraham and his descendants were never told to “fill the earth,” weakening the view that the Adamic Commission was in any way passed on. There is one more difference Beale explains:

Another difference in the repetition of the Gen. 1 commission is that whereas 1:28 and Gen. 9:1, 6–7 are expressed only as commands, the restatements beginning with the patriarchs are now stated formally as a promise. Even in these reiterations, however, parts of the commission usually are retained and are explicitly reiterated in an inextricable way to the restated promise. That the aspect of the commission is retained is apparent from the imperatives introducing the commission in Gen. 12:1–3: “Go forth from your country. . . . You shall be a blessing.” Likewise, the Gen. 35:11–12 promise includes the statement with imperatives: “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply.” The implication is that humanity cannot carry out this commission on its own, but God will enable humanity in some way to perform it, which he promises to do. (54)

There are two problems with this. First, in the Genesis 12 passage, we have the promise of God to Abraham, not a commission. While it is true that God calls Abraham to leave his country and go to the land he will show him, this is not a command as those given in the covenant of works. Second, in order to show continuity to the Adamic commission, there are two underlined phrases in the above quote. However, the first “You shall be a blessing,” is not a statement made about Adam. Genesis 1 says that God blessed Adam but does not give the promise that Adam would be a blessing. The second, “be fruitful and multiply,” does have the sense of command similar to that of Genesis. However, this imperative given to Jacob follows the promise that God would multiply Jacob’s descendants (Gen. 28:13–14), and follows a multitude of similar promises to the patriarchs. The time of the patriarchs was replete with promises from God. As Meredith Kline writes:

But the title of the present work [Kingdom Prologue] assumes a later stance at the Abrahamic Covenant, and the kingdom as promised in that covenant was not established even in its preliminary, prototypal form until the mediatorial mission of Moses inaugurating the old covenant, as narrated in Exodus.[1]

To speak of the Adamic commission as being handed down to a number of Adam-like figures who fail does not do justice to the covenantal structure. Abraham is not presented as failing, for he was called not to do something Adam failed to do, but he was called to faith. In the Abrahamic covenant you have the promise of the “seed” who will bring in the blessings of the covenant (Gal 3:16), and it is he who will do what Adam failed to do.

Though some elements of ruling and subduing are evident in the Mosaic period, and there is republication of the covenant of works, Israel is not given the Adamic commission. The similarities between Adam commission and Israel’s commission are that they are both types of Christ (the eschatological Adam, the true Israel). Christ is the diamond from which all the OT types find their commonality.

Since both Adam and Israel are a types of Christ, and the bulk of this book unpacks the work of Christ typified in the Old Testament, the error of the Old Testament storyline does not adversely affect the bulk of this book.

Justification

Chapter 15 examines the doctrine of justification: “This chapter will discuss the redemptive-historical story of salvation primarily through the lens of the ‘already and not yet’ notion of justification” (469). Here we see an interaction between what is known as the historia salutis and the ordo salutis. What is the relationship between the two? How do we apply the already-not-yet concept of the history of salvation accomplished to the individual? Now it must be said that Beale holds to the biblical view of justification. Applying the “lens of the ‘already and not yet’” to justification, however, does not bring it into focus, but confuses it.

The chapter begins by giving the definition of justification found in Chapter 11 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, and defends the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. Then it attempts to apply the already-not yet scheme to the doctrine. It correctly ties justification to the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and its forensic nature. There is an allusion to Christ’s resurrection as his “vindication.” “Jesus’s own resurrection was an end-time event that ‘vindicated’ or ‘justified’ him from the wrong verdict pronounced on him by the world’s courts” (493). 1Tim 3:16 is furnished as proof of this vindication. In this section it is also said that the unity of believers with Christ brings them the vindication of his resurrection. “All those who believe in Christ are identified with his resurrection that vindicated him to be completely righteous, and this identification vindicates and declares them to be completely righteous.” Here “vindicate” seems to be synonymous with “justify.” For Beale this vindication of believers in Christ is their inaugurated vindication.

The next section of the chapter goes on to speak of the not yet justification that happens at the final resurrection. Three aspects of this not yet justification all seem to be public demonstrations/announcement of their justification, just as Jesus’s resurrection was a public demonstration of his justification. This is not what we typically mean by our doctrine of justification.  Justification is what God declares before his judgment seat.

Here is the confessional language as found in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

33. What is justification?
Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.

Here we see that justification is an “act” of God’s free grace.

32. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which, in this life, do either accompany or flow from them.

We partake of justification in this life.

38. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?
At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.

At the resurrection we are “openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment.” Notice that what will happen at the resurrection is not justification. In discussing this question, G. I. Williamson writes: “But all who have been justified, adopted, and sanctified in Christ will be openly acknowledged and acquitted by him. That is, the Lord himself will declare that they are his, and that they are accepted in his sight, because they have found their righteousness in him alone.”[2]

Final resurrection from the dead is a benefit given to all believers. It is their being “openly acknowledged and declared.”

The confusion of this proposed not yet justification is also seen in the following paragraph:

On the other hand, there is a sense in which this vindication in not completed, especially in that the world does not recognize God’s vindication of his people. Just as happened to Jesus, the ungodly world has judged the saints’ faith and obedience to God to be in the wrong, which has been expressed through persecution of God’s people. As was the case with Jesus, so with his followers: their final resurrection will vindicate the truth of their faith and confirm that their obedience was a necessary outgrowth of this faith. That is, although they have been declared righteous in God’s sight when they believed, the world continued to declare them guilty. Their physical resurrection will be the undeniable proof of the validity of their faith which had already declared them righteous in their past life. (498)

First, notice that this paragraph says that this vindication is a vindication before the world.  Justification is what happens before God’s judgment seat, not the world.  Second, it says that the sense in which a believer’s vindication is not yet complete is “especially in that the world does not recognize God’s vindication of his people.” Jesus’s vindication is not yet complete in this sense as well.  Yes, Jesus’s resurrection is an undeniable proof of who he is and what he has accomplished, but the unbelieving world continues in their sinful denial. Jesus’s resurrection is also the undeniable proof of the justification of believers. Third, notice that this paragraph speaks of believer’s resurrection as being undeniable proof of “the validity of their faith.”

The confusion of speaking of a not yet justification of believers is compounded by the theological discussion in the church today, which in some ways mirrors the discussion of our forefathers. As the church defends the doctrine of justification before proponents of the New Perspective, it should seek to be as clear as were the Reformed fathers in defending it before the Roman Catholics.

In closing, I would like to say that the deep mining of so many biblical texts made the reading of this book a devotional refreshment, giving much to savor and examine. I look forward to continuing my study of this massive work, and recommend that it be read and re-read by any who wish a fuller understanding of God and his revealed will for his people.

Endnotes

[1] Meredith G. Kline; Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 1.

[2] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2003), 79.

Wayne K. Forkner is pastor of Covenant Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, California

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