God’s Relational Presence: The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology

Written by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays Reviewed By Drew N. Grumbles

Biblical theology has long faced a dilemma in the quest to find a unifying center. On the one hand, the center must be broad enough to include every part of the Bible. On the other hand, it must be specific enough to be of substance (e.g., to say that God is the center of the Bible does not contribute much to the conversation). In God’s Relational Presence, two well-respected scholars, one of the Old Testament (Hays), the other of the New Testament (Duvall), combine their efforts to present an excellent pan-biblical theology arguing that “God’s relational presence” is the cohesive center of Scripture and makes the best sense of all the biblical material. Duvall and Hays present this theme as a “spider web” rather than the center of a wheel (pp. 4–5). The latter image requires that all parts of the Bible directly connect to the main theme, while the former more helpfully implies that, in some way or another, different parts of the Bible ultimately connect to the main theme. Thus, the authors claim that the theme of God’s relational presence best explains other themes such as covenant, kingdom, justification, and the many other proposed “centers” of the Bible. “God’s relational presence” is both specific enough to be of substance and broad enough to include most of the biblical material.

A tremendous benefit of this work is its method of proceeding exegetically through each book of the Bible (in the order of the Protestant canon). Biblical theology, after all, should be rooted in exegesis of the texts. Duvall and Hays touch on nearly every one of the sixty-six books (excluding Obadiah and Philemon), and spend significant amounts of time in each. Some books, of course, have more to say about the theme of God’s presence than others and the authors do not try to force a book into their theme. For example, the authors admit that Song of Songs is not about the relational presence of God (p. 110) and give only one paragraph to Esther (p. 90). Ezekiel is an example of a book with much to say about God’s relational presence and the authors provide a substantive treatment of the text, highlighting the importance of God’s departure from the temple (Ezek 8–11) and the ultimate promise of his presence in the city “YHWH Shammah” (Ezek 48:35). Unfortunately, although they write of YHWH’s glory returning (Ezek 43:1–7), they do not explain how this vision will be fulfilled.

The authors make a convincing exegetical case that the relational presence of God is a major theme through the Bible, expressed in the OT in phrases like “before the face/presence of YHWH,” and in the NT by language of union with Christ, for example. The work offers many new insights into how God’s presence provides an important theme in many books. For example, the authors demonstrate that Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s presence is a major theme in Matthew, as indicated by the inclusio, “God with us” (Matt 1:23) and “I am with you always” (28:20). Additionally, Ephesians speaks of the church as the “fullness” of God’s presence (Eph 1:23).

The exegetical method, however, also has a downside. Sometimes the book appears to belabor certain points while not giving enough attention to major points of the Bible’s storyline. In the discussion of Mark’s Gospel, for example, the authors examine Jesus’s conflict with religious leaders (pp. 185–88). They write about accounts which do not appear to say much about God’s relational presence, like plucking grain on the Sabbath. On the other hand, they could have spent more time developing major themes such as the temple. While the temple is discussed extensively, it is not always clear how the different biblical perspectives fit together. How do the tabernacle and first temple fit with Ezekiel’s temple? The second temple never saw God’s presence return, but was that specifically pointing towards Jesus? If so, why the encouragement by post-exilic authors to rebuild a temple? What exactly does Jeremiah 3:16–17 mean when it says Jerusalem will be the throne of YHWH (pp. 130–32)? How does Jesus as the new temple fit with the church as the new temple? The final vision (Rev 21:1–22:5) receives only five pages (pp. 318–22), yet surely this is the culmination of God’s relational presence and should influence how we understand the theme throughout Scripture. Similarly, “covenant” is mentioned in the books which speak of it, but the book-by-book method makes it appear that covenant is just one of many themes rather than an explicitly major one. While a book-by-book exegesis is important, it could also have been helpful to present the material thematically, examining concepts such as tabernacle/temple, covenant, kingdom, and Spirit/church across the canon, noting how they show God’s relational presence developing. In other words, Duvall and Hays’s work focuses more on exegesis than synthesis.

God’s Relational Presence provides a valuable contribution to biblical theology and the question of the Bible’s center. The analogy of a spider web shows promise in thinking of the Bible’s unity and diversity. Duvall and Hays make an excellent case that the theme of God’s relational presence can be that spider web. The work also presents a wonderful example of uniting the two testaments and of a biblical theology rooted in exegesis. While scholarly, this book is not overly technical and can be enjoyed by both academic scholars and church leaders. A pastor would be helped when beginning to teach a book to consult this work to see how the theme of God’s presence flows throughout each particular book. For Bible college or seminary students, this book provides a stellar example of responsible biblical theology.

Drew N. Grumbles

Drew N. Grumbles
Central Valley Community Church
Hartford, South Dakota, USA

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