A New Testament Biblical Theology

Talk to any New Testament professor in any evangelical seminary and they'll all say the same thing: PhD programs are packed with students who want to explore the New Testament's use of the Old Testament. But beyond PhD programs we find this interest elsewhere. Pastors everywhere are motivated today to preach through Old Testament books in order to point to Christ. Not long ago many would have felt uneasy or ill-equipped to do so.

Part of this growing interest can be credited to schoars like G. K. Beale of Westminster Theological Seminary, who has labored to show that every book of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is organically related. Beale's new book, A New Testament Biblical Theology, might be the most celebrated of his distinguished career, which includes publications such as We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, and The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Com.)He also edited with D. A. Carson a Commentary on the New Testament's Use of the Old Testament.

Beale corresponded with me about his most recent book, but this no ordinary Q&A. As with many of Beale's books, you'll read some of his most interesting comments in the footnotes—yes, this is the first TGC author interview with footnotes. Before you begin reading, let me offer some encouragement. There are points in the interview that can get a bit dense, which will excite some and incite a nose bleed for others. But Beale provides encouragement throughout to the scholar, the seminary student, and the pastor. 


Several scholars have contributed a New Testament theology or a whole Bible theology. I'm thinking, for example, of Thomas Schreiner and I. Howard Marshall. How is this project different?

In the introduction to my book, I discuss the commonalities between my NT biblical theology and other NT theologies that have been written (see pp. 1-5). On the other hand, I also discuss how my project differs from that of other NT theologies (pp. 5-25), especially those written in more recent times (e.g., as you mention above, Marshall and Schreiner). I can only focus here on the major differences, and I will focus only on evangelical NT introductions (though in my book I include reference to other NT theologies). 

While there are a variety of ways that New Testament theologies are organized,[1] the habit of a number of classic New Testament theologies is to conduct a consecutive theological analysis of each New Testament book within its corpus,[2] usually in the canonical order of each corpus, and then draw up a final comparison of each of the theological emphases of each of the books.[3] In so doing, at the end of the project sometimes a major theological thrust is attempted to be found.[4] Others who do New Testament theologies set up certain major themes for the whole New Testament and then trace those themes consecutively through the books of the New Testament, usually in the order of the canon (e.g., Ladd[5] and Schreiner[6]).[7] The challenge with these thematic approaches is in validating the probability of whether or not the major themes chosen are, indeed, the major themes of the New Testament. The themes chosen according to this approach are sometimes derived from systematic theology (e.g., Guthrie[8] and to some degree Morris[9]).

In contrast to these typical NT theology approaches, the title of my NT biblical theology includes the word biblical, because its major focus is to understand the theology of the NT, not only by studying the NT itself, but also by studying at every point how the OT forms a background to the theology of the NT. What this means is that I first formulate a storyline for the OT early on in the book. I then propose how I think the NT transforms this OT storyline by unfolding and unpacking it in the light of the inaugurated end-time coming of Christ. Then I let each of the major parts of the NT storyline form the major subjects, so that the outline of the chapters for the remainder of the book is structured by the main parts of the NT storyline. The NT storyline that I propose is the following:

Jesus’ life, trials, death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit has launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already and not yet new creation reign, bestowed by grace through faith and resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new creation reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God’s glory.

In that my book tries consistently to see how the OT relates to NT theology, of course, much of this connection has to do with Christ’s first coming as a beginning fulfillment of end-time prophecies. Accordingly, my work attempts throughout to try to see how the different aspects of NT theology are facets of inaugurated eschatology.

The scheme of this book is generally closer to a couple of German works that also style themselves as New Testament biblical theologies: both Hans Hübner[10] and Peter Stuhlmacher[11] have written such books with the identical title of Biblische Theologie des Neuen Testaments (= Biblical Theology of the New Testament). Both books try more than any others heretofore to understand the NT theology in the light of the OT (though Stuhlmacher does this more than Hübner). Nevertheless, their works are still organized closer in line to the typical NT theology projects noted above.

Another unique feature of my biblical theology of the NT in contrast with other New Testament theologies is that it is concerned with how important components of the Old Testament storyline are understood and developed in Judaism. This is significant, since it is important to see how the major biblical-theological notions in the New Testament develop these same Old Testament components and whether they do so in dependence on Judaism in line with Judaism or in contrast to it. The results from such a comparison and contrast should shed interpretative light on the New Testament’s development. Accordingly, most chapters in this book have discrete sections on how Judaism developed the Old Testament notion under study.

All the distinctives that I have attributed to my NT biblical theology can be found here and there in other NT theologies. When I say they are distinctives of my work, I mean that I try to carry these things out consistently at every point in the entire book. However, what is truly distinctive is the formulation of the NT storyline and organizing the book according to the parts of this storyline. My different methodology from such New Testament theologies as Stuhlmacher’s, Ladd’s, Guthrie’s, Marshall’s, Thielman’s, and Schreiner’s, among others, does not indicate a weakness on their part but only the different nature of the projects. There are, in fact, some ways in which I build upon their works.

What contribution are you hoping to make with this book?

Actually there are not many whole-Bible biblical theology books. One thinks often of Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology. However, his book is mainly a biblical theology of the OT, with only about 100 pages dedicated to NT theology (though he did write some significant articles on biblical theology and NT biblical theology). I consider my work to be an attempt to develop what I think Vos might have done, if he had written a thorough section on the NT in his original Biblical Theology.

The other very notable whole-Bible biblical theology is Charles H. H. Scobie, which is closest in this respect to my approach, since he is much more synthetic and does not trace themes in the Old or New Testaments consecutively book by book or corpus by corpus. On the other hand, his work is different in that it is structured by themes and not by the elements of a formally postulated storyline, though I think he would say that ultimately he has derived these themes from a biblical storyline.[12]  He does try to see how the OT is related to NT theology and to the notion of fulfillment. While the advantage of his work might give one more of an overview of the whole Bible and how the OT and NT fit theologically in broad manner, the advantage of focusing more in my book on the NT in light of the OT helps one to see more deeply the nature of NT theology. Thus, my own work would be more detailed in how each of the major aspects of NT theology relate to the OT and not only to fulfillment but more specifically to inaugurated eschatology. Again, these differences in methodology and scope do not indicate a weakness on Scobie’s part or mine but only the different nature of the two projects. Mention of N. T. Wright’s two volume work should also be made here.[13] This is a very creative work, which tries to see the gospels and Paul primarily through the lens of an ongoing exile and inaugurated restoration in Christ. I think, however, that the notions of ongoing exile and beginning end-time restoration are part of a larger NT storyline, which I have noted above. I suspect that Wright would not see his two volume work as a full-orbed NT biblical theology, and it is likely why he did not title it as such.

No doubt there are several themes that run throughout the storyline of the Bible: temple, rest, sonship, covenant, king, etc. But some argue that there is a central theme to the Bible. For example, James Hamilton argues that “deliverance and damnation leading to glory” is the center, and N. T. Wright argues for “exile and exodus.” However, D. A. Carson and Andreas Kostenberger both object to finding a “stable center,” since too many themes are interwoven and integrated into the whole. Do you think finding a central theme to the Bible is possible? And if so, what is that central theme? Or should the task be abandoned?

I have an entire chapter in my book dedicated only to this methodological debate (chapter 6). I do not attempt to see a central theme in NT biblical theology. On the other hand, I don’t think the NT is composed of multiple themes that are merely unrelated to one another. I try to sail a middle course between these two perspectives. The legitimacy of trying to search for some kind of unifying thread to the Bible appears to be grounded in Acts: 20:26-27. There Paul says to the Ephesian elders that he “is innocent of the blood of all men” because he “did not shrink from declaring . . . the whole purpose of God.” Paul summarized God’s purposeful activity in salvation history over a three-year period and called it “the whole purpose of God.” Exactly what was his summary of that “purpose” is not clear, but he does call his summary “profitable” (Acts 20:20), “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) and the “kingdom” (Acts 20:25). Thus, Paul appears to see a basic deposit (a heart, a core, a center?), which does not nullify but serves the other variegated details of the Bible. This deposit provides an order and illumination of the various biblical details such that when Paul leaves, the Ephesians can reflect further on those details and gain greater clarity of them through the lens of the summarized deposit.[14]

As noted above, I try to discern and formulate a NT biblical-theological storyline, which is a development of the OT storyline. This storyline does not have only one theme, but it is composed of a number of themes that are like different strands woven around a storyline thread. This NT storyline (as stated above) is the following:

Jesus’ life, trials, death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit has launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already and not yet new creation reign, bestowed by grace through faith and resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new creation reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God’s glory.

Having formulated the above storyline, one may well be able to discern a major movement or stepping-stone in the storyline that culminates in a goal. The notion of new creational kingship would appear to be that stepping-stone or the core of the New Testament storyline, and may be conceived of as a doctrinally thematic skeleton giving shape to the outer “skin” of the storyline. New creation rule is the New Testament’s hermeneutical and eschatological center of gravity. In fact, a refinement of what “eschatology” means might be understood as the march toward the kingdom of the new creation. I am not maintaining that the storyline revolving around “new creation rule” is the key to explaining exhaustively why all features appear as they do in the New Testament, but I believe it is the best lens through which to understand the major theological ideas of the NT.

The storyline consists of various other elements not so closely related organically or thematically to the skeletal biblical-theological structure of the new creational kingdom.[15] The goal of the entire storyline is God’s glory. In the light of the stepping-stone and skeleton-skin metaphor,[16] the conclusion of the book contends that the most comprehensive idea of New Testament theology is best formulated through the previously stated storyline.

So I have tried to meld together the search for a central theme to the NT and the recognition that there are a multiplicity of themes. I think trying to formulate a storyline is the middle road between the former two antithetical traditional approaches. However, it must be said that to formulate an adequate storyline is a major task in itself. Whether or not my proposed storyline is sufficient will have to be judged by others.

You’ve spent a major portion of your career laboring over the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. How does the belief in the ultimate authority and inerrancy of Scripture affect how we put the Bible together?

In the introduction to my biblical-theological books on The Temple and the Church’s Mission, We Become Like What We Worship, and, my most recent book, A NT Biblical Theology, I explain that the basis for being able to relate one portion of Scripture to another is the presupposition that all of Scripture ultimately has one divine Author, who has communicated in an unswervingly true manner through many human authors. The only way consistently to interpret Scripture by Scripture is to maintain this belief. If Scripture is filled with different human authors who do not agree with one another, then one cannot explain one author by another. To be able to explain Scripture by Scripture is the crucial task central to doing biblical theology.

You end your 1,047-page book with, “The upshot of this book is ultimately this: To God be the glory.” For young scholars or pastors who are digging deep into the inter-canonical themes running through the Bible and trying to keep up with the latest scholarship on any given issue, how would you counsel them to maintain this God-glorifying posture?

To maintain the posture of “To God be the glory” is to ask ourselves at every point (in preparing sermons, Bible studies, lectures, articles or books, etc.) why am I doing what I am doing? Am I doing the present task to bring attention to myself and to honor myself or to bring attention to God, Christ, the gospel, and to honor the Trinity? Am I doing what I am doing to make a reputation for myself or for God? These are very convicting questions for all of us. The entire process of sanctification is ridding ourselves of our idols, especially of worshiping ourselves. If we are authentic Christians, we will progress in doing this, perhaps slowly but nevertheless surely. Only at the end of our journey will the idol of self be completely destroyed, and we will all be caught up in the glory of Christ.

1 On which see D. A. Carson, “New Testament Theology,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, ed. R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove/Leicester: InterVarsity, 1997), 799-804.

2 Typically the books in each corpus are arranged by date.

3 E.g., Marshall, New Testament Theology, and Thielman, Theology of the New Testament.

4 E.g., Marshall, New Testament Theology, finds that the major thrust of New Testament theology is that of mission, which I find very helpful but not ultimately comprehensive enough.

5 G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), though he sets up relatively different themes for each major New Testament corpus (including Acts and Revelation) and conducts only a general survey of the Johannine epistles without setting up themes.

6 New Testament Theology.

7 This is also the procedure of the whole Bible biblical theologies of Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) and Charles H. H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), though he does not proceed book by book or corpus by corpus.

8 D. Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1981), though he does integrate biblical-theological topics into his broad systematic scheme; he also provides brief introductory sections on Old Testament and Jewish background for number of the major themes that he studies, which give his book a biblical-theological flavor.

9 Leon Morris, New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), who while structuring his work corpus by corpus (with Paul first), tends to organize the themes within each corpus by systematic topics, though he also integrates biblical-theological themes into his organization.

10 Biblische Theologie des Neuen Testaments (3 vols.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1990-1993)

11 Biblische Theologie des Neuen Testaments (BThdNT; 2 vols.; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991-1999).

12 See Scobie, Ways of Our God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 91-99, where he proposes the broad fourfold framework of proclamation, promise, fulfillment, and consummation, though the specific themes that he traces through each of these four categories he derives from “an extensive study of the numerous proposals that have been made by biblical scholars, especially for a so-called center or focal point of BT” (ibid., 93).

13 The New Testament and the People of God, Vol.1: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), and Jesus and the Victory of God, Vol. 2: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996). He has added a third volume to this series: The Resurrection of the Son of God, Vol. 3: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), which is primarily an excellent apologetic for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

14 I am grateful to my research assistant Dan Brendsel, “Plots, Themes, and Responsibilities: The Search for a Center of Biblical Theology,” Themelios 35, no. 3 (2010), 400-412, for this significance and explanation of Acts 20:26-27 with respect to the potential of finding a unifying thread to the Bible.

15 Or, one could think of an umbrella in which the metal radial ribs provide the basic form which are covered by the fabric.

16 The aptness of this analogy was suggested to me by Philip Towner at a Tyndale Fellowship meeting in 1997.