Yet another weighty tome has appeared expounding the ‘biblical’ theology of the NT, but this one is certainly far more than sufficiently distinctive to merit publication, although it could have been pared down with advantage.
We would naturally expect that, regardless of specific mention in the title, any exposition of NT theology would be biblical in that it needs to show how recognition of the use and influence of the OT is essential for explaining what the NT says. But Greg Beale goes much further in tracing and expounding with considerable detail: (a) the salvation-historical story to which the OT and NT both testify; (b) the ways in which the origins of NT thinking lie in the early Christian use of the OT; and (c) the resulting continuity, harmony, and development.
It is therefore not too surprising that the biblical index contains far more references to one OT book (guess which one!) than to any other biblical book!
Some seven key convictions of the author govern the exposition. The first, which is taken for granted, is the role of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of the human authors, so that there is ultimately one author of the whole Bible who originates a harmonious, developing revelation.
A second feature, which (like the others to follow) Beale expounds and defends at length, is the stress on the ‘already . . . not yet’ character of Christian experience whereby what God will bring about in the future is already happening in principle and in reality here and now but in a partial manner. Thus believers already partake spiritually of the future resurrection of the body, even though they do not yet experience the promised victory of Christ over physical death.
This means, third, that the NT is concerned largely with ‘eschatological’ events. This adjective appears to signify that they will occur on the last day or in the last times and are thus the final events in world history before the dawn of the eternal state. Nevertheless, there is this ‘already’ experience of what will happen in the age to come, an anticipation here and now in a partial manner of what is to come then. Beale can thus state that the last days have already begun; in particular the ‘great tribulation’ that Jesus prophesied is already the context of Christian living. Second Thessalonians 2 is the clearest evidence that events of the kind described in the Synoptic apocalyptic discourses are already in full swing. (There is perhaps a tension here between the events that anticipate the time of the End and the events that are actually part of the End.) Consequently, virtually everything that happens, or is prophesied to happen, in the NT can be described as ‘eschatological’. The term recurs incessantly; indeed Beale has a field day with ‘inaugurated eschatology’, ‘semieschatological’, ‘eschatological-like’, ‘prototypical eschatology’, and the like! Not since An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament by Alan Richardson (1958) has there been such a deluge of eschatological expressions. It may be worth remembering that the term ‘eschatological’ is not biblical; Jesus and Paul actually got along without using it; and it is confusing to use a noun that strictly refers to ‘the study of the last things’ to mean ‘the last things themselves’. Has Beale paid proper attention to the caveat that he mentions (p. 177n48)?
Fourth, rather than talk of a possible ‘centre’ of NT theology, Beale prefers to think in terms of the basic biblical storyline found in the OT and continuing throughout the NT.
Fifth, Beale gives central importance in this storyline to the resurrection of Jesus as the source of new life (salvation), but this is also closely tied to the two key features of new creation and the kingdom of God, which are aspects of the same event.
Sixth, a further central feature is the motif of the temple, familiar from Beale’s earlier writings, beginning with Eden as the garden-temple and culminating in the people of the Messiah as the new temple which is his body. This implies the supersession of the Jerusalem temple and what goes with it.
Seventh, throughout the telling of this story Beale is at pains to show how the NT authors generate their theology out of a profound use of the OT . (Did you guess the chief source correctly? Yes, it is especially Isaiah, with roughly 5 index columns of references to Isa 1–39 and 11 columns for Isa 40–66). All the current tools of the trade are used to trace influences and echoes alongside clear citations and allusions.
What results from this approach? After a comparatively modest Introduction, Part 1 depicts the biblical-theological storyline of Scripture with the focus on the last days in the OT being continued in the NT. Then Part 2 focuses on the now-begun ‘great tribulation’; that is to say, Mark 13 is the key to understanding the Gospel of Mark rather than something to be ignored because we can’t see how it fits in alongside the rest of the story. In Part 3 the already-inaugurated resurrection of Jesus and believers (in the latter case real but not yet physical) and the coming of the Kingdom are shown to be the framework for what is going on in the NT. This leads up to the oft-repeated summary:
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. (pp. 16, 23, 182, 297 et al.)
Beale’s aim is to prove that this storyline is the generative source for most of Paul’s important notions and indeed those of the NT generally. This, then, is to be ‘a Pauline theology of the New Testament’. But even more at the same time it will also be ‘an Isaianic theology of the NT’ with Isaiah seen as the source of NT language and ideas.
Having established the framework, Beale turns to details. In Part 4 the discussion shifts back to the state of the world before redemption. This is interpreted in terms of sinful behaviour that stems from idolatry: Adam is said to be presented as an idolater who loses the image of God (understood in terms of action like God), and idolaters take on the image of their idols. God’s response is to bring about the restoration of the image and hence of human rule over creation. This is accomplished through the Son of Man (Dan 7), who represents humanity and in Jesus embodies humanity as renewed in the image of God (the Adamic Son of God). The kingship of God is inaugurated in his mission. Here the argument is based on the Synoptics but then developed from Paul. There is thus a selectivity in what is expounded, with several references to material (presumably less important) being omitted for reasons of limited space.
We are now about half way through the volume and may need to pause for breath as we enter Part 5, which starts to look at the salvation process in the light of this framework. The first area is ‘justification’, which receives detailed treatment, but I gain the impression that the agenda is directed by the need to show that Paul teaches the same doctrine as Reformed scholars have done subsequently. There is certainly a powerful defence of the role of participation in Christ leading to clothing with his active and passive obedience, in a way that seems to me to be rather too analytical and anachronistic; I strongly welcome, however, the recognition of the central role of the resurrection that Dick Gaffin, Michael Bird, and others have rightly identified in Paul. The problem of justification by faith now alongside final justification by works is solved by arguing that the works are the necessary evidence of faith rather than the basis for justification.
The treatment of justification is followed by reconciliation, which is unwrapped in terms of new creation and restoration from exile: although the name of N. T. Wright does not occur in this chapter, those who are deeply suspicious of some of Tom’s creative insights should note how frequently Beale is prepared to appreciate and learn from him (e.g., 47n55; 624n23). Of particular importance here is the unfolding of an OT basis for a concept that is often thought to lack one.
In Part 6 Beale moves on to the role of the Spirit as the present agent of new creation through the bestowal of resurrection life. Here he picks up the evidence compiled by Walt Hansen for an OT basis for the fruit of the Spirit and also returns to the theme of the temple throughout Scripture. The church is now that temple, and this leads Beale to speak of ‘supersessionism’ with the church replacing Judaism as the end-time Israel. The term may not be ideal and is liable to misunderstanding, but the motif is surely there. The promises to this ‘new’ Israel of a ‘land’ will be fulfilled physically and not just spiritually in the new creation. David’s ‘throne will find its ultimate place of real estate in the consummated new cosmos’ (p. 765). Such a distinctive mark of Israel as Sabbath observance must be expressed in the church, though Beale struggles a bit over the nitty-gritty. Other marks of Christian living are treated to show how they demonstrate new-creational life. Here there is a glorious concluding section where Beale forgets that he is writing an academic account of what the NT says and bursts into sermonic style as he summons his readers to new-creational living (cf. ch. 25).
The concluding Part 10 juxtaposes the lives and experiences of ‘Old Testament saints’ and the church, and the final note expresses the underlying and ever-present motif of the glorification of God that John Piper and James Hamilton have highlighted.
It has taken most of my space to summarise the contents with a minimum of comment, simply because of the sheer length. But this points directly to one of the strengths of this book, namely, its in-depth treatment of many passages and its helpful summaries of the author’s earlier works. Even so, however, the treatment is selective (as the author is fully aware; see pp. 950–51). This book is arguing for a thesis that may not be widely held, so it requires its detailed discussion. Time and again Beale qualifies his conclusions with ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’, but not all his points need to be ‘almost certainly’ for the general thesis to be plausible; the reader must check up that there is sufficient strong evidence for each main affirmation.
There are three areas for discussion: The first is the interpretation of Scripture; this area includes both Beale’s own interpretation of what OT passages would have meant for the original authors and readers, and also what meaning was seen in them by the NT authors who cite or allude to them. Beale is influenced here by the kind of research stimulated by Richard Hays, which attaches lots of significance to verbal coincidences that may or may not be significant. There may be a tendency to assume that the author of one passage shares the thoughts of another author without actually referring to them.
Another area that needs clarification is the new creation and the nature of the resurrected saints. Beale wants to uphold a physical resurrection of the body, but surely Paul speaks of a spiritual body. Would a physical body be eternal and incorruptible? Likewise, with regard to the physical universe.
I have difficulties with the way in which the original act of creation is followed so soon by ‘the last days’ and no ‘middle earth’ type of period. To be sure, any account of why God does not act more swiftly to save the sinful race definitively and to make known his salvation to the ends of the earth is surrounded by insoluble problems, and maybe this account of the matter is no worse than any other.
So if you want a survey that will tell you what are the characteristics and distinctive contributions of the individual authors or books of the NT, you will not find it here (although you will be able to find what many of them say or imply on the selected theme of the book), and you will need to turn to such as Frank Matera and Frank Thielman. Similarly, if you want synthetic summaries of the teaching of the NT on the various motifs that it discusses, you will need to turn to such as Donald Guthrie or Tom Schreiner. And if you want a critical discussion of the varied understandings of contemporary scholars, you will need to turn to such as Peter Stuhlmacher. This volume focuses essentially on the biblical basis for NT theology, and I found so many fresh ideas (well, fresh to me) in it that I have read it with excitement and shall need to keep returning to it for fresh stimulus.