The Whole Counsel of God: God’s Mighty Acts in the Old TestamentWritten by Richard C. Gamble Reviewed By Matthew Barrett
The Whole Counsel of God by Richard Gamble is a groundbreaking work that treads upon territory that theologians have been talking about for decades but have been reluctant to venture. Gamble presents a different approach to theology, namely, one in which the redemptive-historical framework of Scripture sets the agenda for systematic theology. Gamble begins by outlining his methodology, admitting his indebtedness to Calvin, Owen, Witsius, and especially Vos (p. xxxii). Gamble explains how he is seeking to wed biblical theology with systematic theology, and this first volume, which focuses on the OT, aims “to develop the theology of the OT within the framework of the organic, progressive, historical development of the Bible” (p. 1). Such an aim is obvious in how Gamble works through the OT: Part 2 is from Adam through the flood; Part 3 is from Abraham to Moses; Part 4 covers the prophetic and wisdom-poetic eras; and Part 5 is on how God’s people should respond to God’s mighty acts. Gamble states, “It is the thesis of these volumes that the Bible itself provides a model for exegesis, and can also supply a model for theological arrangement” (p. 53). Therefore, as Gamble works his way from Genesis to Revelation, theological issues arise in the text that warrant discussion. For example, in Part 3 (Abraham to Moses), Gamble addresses certain topics as they arise in the text such as God’s revelation, God’s covenant faithfulness, the sinfulness of humanity, the role of the law for believers and unbelievers, the Trinity, and justification by faith alone.
Gamble’s volume has several strengths. First, Gamble seeks to utilize biblical theology for the purpose of systematic theology. Too often biblical theology, with its redemptive-historical framework, is neglected by systematic theology. Consequently systematic theologians can fail to deal with each epoch of redemptive history and thereby fail to show how the entire Bible speaks to any given topic. Gamble avoids such a problem. For instance, in Part 2 (Adam to Noah), Gamble treats the revelation of Scripture, the image of God in creation, God and the problem of evil, the imputation of Adam’s sin, trichotomy and dichotomy, and the covenants. Such an approach not only allows Gamble to faithfully expound upon the redemptive-historical context of each book but also allows the reader to see how each book of the Bible is theological in nature. Furthermore, Gamble never hesitates to incorporate future revelation into his present discussion. When Gamble addresses, for instance, the debate between trichotomy and dichotomy within the context of Gen 1, he also brings to bear pivotal NT texts that are decisive on the issue, exemplifying the analogy of Scripture.
Second, Gamble is not afraid to criticize those within his own Reformed tradition. For example, Gamble criticizes Frame’s “practical” approach, which defines systematic theology as the application of God’s Word to all areas of life (p. 32). The “practical” approach of any text is in fact the “meaning” of that text, or stated otherwise, the meaning of the text is the application of the text. While noting many positives to such an approach, for instance, its rejection of foreign philosophical systems or its rejection of some Reformed authors who raise confessions to the status of Scripture (pp. 34–36), Gamble criticizes the “practical” approach for its indebtedness to John Dewey. Gamble argues that the practical school’s belief that meaning is application sounds very similar to Dewey, who says, “Ideas are statements, not of what is or has been, but of acts to be performed” (p. 52). For Dewey there is an “indissoluble connection between learning and doing” (p. 52). Gamble seems to imply that such an approach concedes too much to the practical methodology of Dewey and consequently does not allow the Bible itself to provide the model for theology, the approach Gamble himself seeks to appropriate (p. 53).
Third, Gamble’s theology is evangelical in character, as demonstrated in a variety of ways: (1) Gamble readily affirms the historical reliability of events and persons in the OT, a rarity within OT scholarship. (2) Gamble finds seeds of Christ and the gospel in the OT, whether it be God’s promise to crush the head of the serpent or to establish the throne of David forever. (3) Gamble looks to OT figures such as Abraham to affirm justification by faith alone.
Gamble’s volume is not only evangelical but also an excellent example of robust, God-centered Reformed theology (pp. 632–65). Gamble has a high and exalted view of God, just as the OT writers did, in which God is holy, sovereign, and self-sufficient. Gamble is indebted to the Reformed tradition, arguing for divine simplicity and immutability as well. Such affirmations are refreshing since a majority of evangelicals today reject such attributes in God, which Gamble shows to be inherently biblical. Moreover, concerning salvation, God is not conditioned by the will of man, but God’s sovereign will unconditionally elects and effectually calls sinners to himself.
However, there are a couple of weaknesses to Gamble’s volume. First, Gamble does not preserve the discontinuity that exists between the covenants. Several examples illustrate such a problem. (1) Gamble assumes that the church not only was in existence with Abraham (where most Reformed theologians begin) but existed before Abraham (perhaps with Adam and Noah). Gamble’s definition of the church is broad and he never explains how the assembly in the OT differs from the assembly in the NT. Nevertheless, there are differences between Israel in the OT and the people of God in the NT, especially racial, political, and geographical, that warrant discontinuity. (2) Gamble argues that the Mosaic Law, specifically the Ten Commandments, is still binding today. However, on the issue of the Sabbath, Gamble never supports his claim from Scripture (p. 411). No doubt, those who hold to a Lord’s Day instead of a Christian Sabbath will be deeply disappointed with Gamble’s treatment. (3) Gamble fails to discuss the role of the Spirit in the OT as compared to the NT. Is there a qualitative difference (e.g., permanent indwelling) or is the difference merely quantitative?
Second, Gamble overlooks important topics and at times even fails to interact with opposing scholarship. For example, when he comes to the book of Jonah (p. 608), he does not mention the issue of God repenting. Likewise, when commenting on Ezekiel (p. 585), he fails to comment on the new covenant as promised in Ezek 36. Moreover, when Gamble treats God’s knowledge and omnipotence (pp. 659–60), there is not one footnote citing open theists. Furthermore, when commenting on creation in Genesis (pp. 161ff.) Gamble lacks any discussion on the complementarian-egalitarian debates that rage over Gen 1. And again, when discussing the doctrine of justification (pp. 669–74), Gamble never interacts with the New Perspective on Paul and how this movement interprets OT passages in their favor. Such omissions are surprising and unfortunate for an otherwise exhaustive volume.
Despite its weaknesses, volume one is a needed contribution to the field of systematic theology. Gamble’s effort to write systematic theology within the parameters of the redemptive-historical context of Scripture is commendable, and future volumes are eagerly awaited.
Matthew Barrett is tutor of systematic theology and church history at Oak Hill Theological College in London and executive editor of Credo Magazine.
Other Articles in this Issue
Bearing Sword in the State, Turning Cheek in the Church: A Reformed Two-Kingdoms Interpretation of Matthew 5:38–42
Among the many biblical passages that provoke controversial questions about Christian non-violence and cooperation with the sword-bearing state, perhaps none presses the issue as sharply as Matt 5:38–42...