Graeme Goldsworthy | Interview by: Collin Hansen
Graeme Goldworthy has already given us a shelf of indispensable books that help us discover the God who works in mysteriously diverse but unified ways from Genesis to Revelation. Works such as According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible and Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture have helped readers delight in God by seeing him a whole new way through the lens of biblical theology. The retired lecturer in Old Testament, biblical theology, and hermeneutics at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, Goldsworthy has recently published yet another work designed to reveal Jesus Christ across the whole of Scripture. I corresponded with him about Christ-Centered Biblical Theology (now available from Inter-Varsity Press UK and releasing this spring in the United States), the prospects of this still-emerging discipline, the practical application of his work for preaching, and the peculiar Australian affinity and gifting for biblical theology.
How does Christ-centered biblical theology help people sit up and take notice of what God has done and is doing?
I have entitled my book Christ-Centered Biblical Theology because I believe that is the nature of a valid approach to the theology of the Bible as a whole. In other words, to treat seriously the Christian claim that the ultimate author of the Bible is God himself is to recognize it as God’s complete word about salvation through Jesus Christ. Since Jesus and the apostles clearly regard the Old Testament as preparing for, foreshadowing, and finding fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus as the Christ, biblical theology enables us to work toward understanding the whole Bible as about Christ.
You've been thinking and writing about biblical theology since the 1960s. Are you encouraged by the prospects for this discipline in coming decades? Why or why not?
I think there are many encouraging signs. Biblical Theology as a distinct discipline got underway in Moore College, Sydney, through the ministry of Donald Robinson in the early 1950s. I believe Moore College was for some time the only theological seminary teaching BT in Australia. I propose reasons in my book for the lack of BT as a distinct core subject in theological curricula. Unfortunately, it seems that it is often assumed that teaching Old and New Testament introduction and exegesis means that BT is automatically included. In my experience, this is not usually so. For quite good reasons the Old and New Testaments are usually treated separately, but the result can be that questions of their relationship and, in particular, the Christian significance of the OT easily escape attention. However, on the positive side, there are signs that BT is gaining ground particularly in conservative seminaries where the unity of the Bible is accepted and taught. Sometimes it comes under department of practical theology and preaching. I have been encouraged by the growth of interest in the study of biblical theology in many parts of the world, including the UK, the United States and, through Spanish translations, in Latin America.
What does it mean to study the Bible "in its own terms"?
This is a phrase that Donald Robinson used in describing what he aimed to do in his early formation of a course in BT at Moore College. I understand him to mean at least two things:
First, we make a clear distinction between BT and other theological disciplines, especially systematic theology and liturgy. Historically, BT was often treated as a topical-doctrinal organization of proof texts from the whole range of Scripture. We have long since moved beyond that approach.
Second, we recognize that there is a progressive dynamic to the “metanarrative” of Scripture, and we allow this to dictate the structure of our BT. In layman’s terms, we allow the “big picture” that the Bible itself presents to be the guide. BT, then, seeks to understand the dynamic unity of the Bible while, at the same time, taking full account of its rich diversity. For most of us, this means that a redemptive-historical framework will structure our BT.
The Bible “in its own terms” means allowing the individual books or corpora to yield their distinctive theological perspectives, and then seeking the unity of the whole canon of Scripture as God’s word about Christ.
What do you mean when arguing that biblical theology "is the heartbeat of effective pastoral ministry"?
A sound BT should prevent the misuse of Scripture, such as when texts are relieved of their biblical context and allowed to mean something quite other from what they mean in that context. When Scripture is treated as a lucky-dip of texts that assumes Christians stand in one, flat, undifferentiated relationship to all biblical texts, it can be made to mean anything we like. This is no basis for a sound and faithful pastoral ministry. I understand pastoral ministry to be the valid application of biblical truth to the various situations that arise and affect individuals and whole congregations. BT provides the means for understanding every part of the Bible in its final canonical context. BT, then, is at the heart of the pastor’s correct understanding of how Scripture can be thus applied to people’s lives. I also believe that the main emphasis in preaching should be the regular exposition of Scripture. Expository preaching, as the norm, really requires BT in the preparation of sermons. Ideally, everyone who has the task of teaching the Bible to others should understand something of biblical theology.
Why has Australia produced so much cutting-edge teaching and writing about biblical theology?
I think it goes back to the Christian roots of this comparatively young nation. When the first European settlers arrived in 1788 the first fleet of 11 British ships carried crew, soldiers, and convicts. With the fleet came also the first chaplain, an evangelical Anglican minister, Richard Johnson. He was followed by another evangelical chaplain, Samuel Marsden. As free settlers began to arrive they included a devout Christian layman, Thomas Moore, the ship’s carpenter on Brittania. He arrived in Sydney in 1792 and became the colony’s boat builder. Later he established a prosperous pastoral lease at the new settlement of Liverpool, now a suburb of Sydney. When he died he left his estate to the fledgling Anglican Church. The second bishop of Sydney, Frederic Barker, was a convinced evangelical and, in 1856, he applied part of the Moore legacy to establish Moore College for the training of clergy. The evangelical roots of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney were consolidated by a number of evangelical leaders, not least being Howard Mowll (archbishop of Sydney, 1934-58) and Thomas Hammond (principal of Moore College 1936-53). Subsequent archbishops and principals have built on this heritage.
This ethos meant that many evangelical leaders came from Moore College, including Donald Robinson. Robinson’s BT grew out of a number of influences. These included his evangelical upbringing in Sydney and his theological studies in Cambridge under C. F. D. Mould and C. H. Dodd, among others. The focus of these studies was on the doctrine of the church at a time when the ecumenical movement was confusing church unity with denomination amalgamation. As a lecturer at Moore College, Robinson was given the task of teaching a special course on the doctrine of the church, which led him to study the biblical theme of the people of God. This formed the foundation of his distinctive approach to BT, which I learned from him as a student at Moore.
I believe that whatever cutting-edge teaching and writing may have come from Australia, it owes its existence to the foundations laid by Donald Robinson. It is for that reason that my latest book is an attempt to describe and defend the Robinson approach to BT. A succession of teachers at Moore has ensured that the compulsory core subject of BT has influenced many from all over the world who have gone on to teach and write about the subject. Among the Moore College faculty who have been part of this we include Bill Dumbrell, Barry Webb, Richard Gibson, Peter Bolt, and Paul Williamson.
It is impossible to say with certainty why Australian biblical theology, if indeed there is such a thing, has made its mark. I can only surmise that the Robinson approach, which I seek to defend in this book, has shown that BT is viable and productive of a God-honoring, Christ-centered, and practical approach to the Bible as a whole. To see the Bible as a coherent whole for the first time is a real “turn-on” for many people.
Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir. You can follow him on Twitter.