Christians today are blessed with a wide variety of resources for studying the Bible. In America, it seems that every few months some must-read theology book hits the press and promises to revolutionize our understanding of God’s Word. And many of these books truly are helpful. We really have no excuse for not understanding Scripture more and being more conformed into the likeness of Christ, given the endless resources meant to help us do just this.
At the same time, however, this abundance of resources can serve to puzzle us and leave us lost in an ever expanding maze of theological conundrums. The specialization in biblical studies doesn’t help. Specialists write on the Gospels, or on Paul’s letters, to the virtual exclusion of the input from other New Testament, or Old Testament books. OT specialists develop their understanding and grow in their study completely apart from their NT counterparts. And with the study of God’s Word being so cranial, simple insights and the role of the Holy Spirit’s illumination tend to be ignored. And then today’s scholars often ignore the insights of previous generations, who found Christ throughout the Old Testament, but weren’t versed in the latest scientific insights from form and redaction criticism or literary theory. Many have seen this widening gap, between academia and the church pew, and yearned for scholarship that matters: academic insight for average individuals. And some have hoped for a whole-Bible, biblical theology that would span the differing worlds of OT and NT scholarship and put the entire Bible back together again.
G. K. Beale may have given us just this. His magnum opus is an ambitious project that seeks to integrate the storylines of the Old and New Testaments, and unfold how the New Testament unpacks the promise of the Old as it unfolds for us the glories of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, Beale displays a masterful grasp on the academy as well as an expert understanding of the second temple Judaistic literature, Ancient Near Eastern writings, and the latest scholarship on both biblical testaments. He is a humble servant of the church, however, and seeks to answer questions the average churchgoer will face and remains ever practical even as he explores a wide array of various topics. And while his book requires careful and (at times) strenuous reading, it truly integrates the entire canon of Scripture in a way that has promise to bring together Old and New Testament scholarship for the service of the church.
The Storyline of the New Testament
The task Beale sets out for himself is huge, and his book is too. With over 960 readable pages, this book will take the average reader some time to conquer. It took me about a year to wade my way through it, although admittedly I tend to be a fickle reader and so left the book for seasons at a time. Beale sets out to explore the unifying center of the New Testament and finds this in a storyline. Each part of the following storyline gets developed in detail and by the end of the book he has adequately proven his thesis. Here is Beale’s NT storyline:
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. (p. 958, italics and underlining removed)
Recapping the Old Testament
One of my favorite sections in Beale’s work was his few chapters spent detailing the Old Testament’s own storyline. He uses the first three chapters of Genesis as a key for unlocking the story of the entire Old Testament. Adam was to be a vice-regent of God, extending His rule throughout the world. But Adam failed, and was exiled from the Edenic paradise of fellowship with God in a garden-temple. From this wilderness, God called out his people Israel, referred to as God’s firstborn son, and they received an Adamic calling to be vice-regents of God extending the glory of His name as a beacon of light to the nations, centered in their garden-like promised land of paradise – where God would have His name dwell. But they too failed, and were exiled from their special place of fellowship with God. For those unfamiliar with Beale’s extensive work on developing the theme of the Temple throughout the Scripture (cf. Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission, IVP 2004), it is touched on in this section and more fully developed later as Beale turns to the New Testament.
The Role of Eschatology
Beale’s emphasis on the already-not yet, new-creational kingdom, has led many to dismiss his book as one long extensive defense of amillennialism. I would contend that such a dismissal is short-sighted and a biased misreading of his work. His eschatology doesn’t neatly fit into any one theological system, and he prefers the description “inaugurated eschatology.” His discussion of the key terms for “the end times” in both the Old and New Testaments goes a long way toward proving his contention that “in order to understand the NT in its full richness, we must have a keen acquaintance with how the biblical authors viewed the ‘end times’” (p. 16). He argues that the New Testament sees the end times as here in one sense, but not yet fully here. And that the entire New Testament cannot be understood apart from realizing the role eschatology plays. The NT authors understand themselves to be living in the last days, in the beginning fulfillment of what the Old Testament foretold.
New-Creation and Kingdom
Perhaps Beale’s most distinctive contribution to NT biblical theology is his emphasis on the role new-creation plays both in how one understands the kingdom, and in how one understands everything from justification to judgment in the New Testament. Christ’s resurrection was the promise and presence of the new creation, invading our world of space and time. The uncreating of evil has begun, and the recreation of a new world has commenced – and our very spiritual lives with the progress we make in sanctification, is part of God’s making all things new (2 Cor. 5:17, Rev. 21:5).
The Church as End-Time Israel
This is where many people will stumble over Beale’s approach. Some will point to his embrace of the Sabbath and paedo-baptism as errors flowing from his fundamental misunderstanding of the distinction between Israel and the church. I would ask those who will differ fundamentally here to take time to read Beale as there is still much to be gained from his work. But I am convinced his unpacking of the biblical development of the church as end-time Israel is worth the price of the book. He continues his approach of reading Scripture from a grammatical, historical approach – treating the books as the original recipients would have, understanding the genre and tracing out the history of intertestamental biblical interpretation (as an insight into possible ways the NT authors would have understood OT Scripture), and methodically builds an air-tight case for the NT as presenting the church as the heir of the promises made to OT Israel.
Beale’s basis for seeing the church as true Israel lies in two of the hermeneutical presuppositions he claims underlie the exegetical approach of the NT authors: corporate solidarity (or “the one and the many”) and Jesus being identified as “the true Israel.” Since Israel was a corporate Adam — God’s firstborn — living in its own “garden of Eden,” tasked to do what Adam had failed to do, it follows that Christ as the Second Adam, actually fulfilled what both Adam and Israel was meant to do. Christ as such, is the New Israel – and Beale shows how numerous themes in the New Testament attest to this fact. Christ represents us, as we are joined to him by faith. So it is not so much the church replacing Israel as Jesus embodying and making up in himself the true restored Israel - and genile believers finding their place in restored Israel as we find ourselves connected to the head of the body - Jesus Christ. Beale points out that it is thus the “legal representative” or “corporate” hermeneutic which under-girds this identification of the church as true Israel, rather than an “allegorical or spiritualizing hermeneutic” (p. 655). Beale then goes on to systematically demonstrate that the OT prophecies that Gentiles will become part of the Latter-Day True Israel, using such passages as Is. 49, Ps. 87, Is. 19, Is. 56, Is. 66 and others. He also shows how the New Testament repeatedly claims that it is in the church that specific prophesies about the restoration of Latter-Day Israel are coming to pass, paying special attention to the variety of specific names and descriptors of Israel being applied to the church. With the land promise, Beale again unpacks how the Old Testament itself leads us to expect that the land is typological, pointing to a greater reality, and that it will become greatly expanded and universalized. And the New Testament shows us just this, as it also brings the church in to the recipients of that very promise (see Rom. 4:13, Matt. 5:5 and others).
Beale’s work covers a host of additional themes my review cannot cover in detail. He highlights how the expected tribulation of Israel was being experienced by the New Testament church, and still is in most parts of the world today. He gives space to the new-creational marks of the church such as Sabbath observance (although his view on this finds it radically altered through Christ’s work), worship, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church office and the NT Canon. He looks at the work of the Spirit as part of the inaugurated end-time new creation as a chief theme in the NT story. He also gives space to the Temple and to idolatry and the image of God being restored. He also explores questions such as how much the Old Testament saints would have enjoyed this same experience we do in the NT. And he concludes his book focusing on the glory of God as the purpose for the very storyline itself.
I was told that you don’t pick up a book like this and read through it. You just use it as a resource. And for many that is going to be how they will encounter Beale’s work. Thankfully, it is organized in a very clear way with helpful indexes and a detailed table of contents that is sure to help such a reader. Those who want a taste of Beale’s work could read the first few chapters, and chapter 27 – which recaps the entire work giving each theme a brief yet fairly detailed overview. Others might find it more useful to read through Beale’s section on resurrection or justification, or the question of Israel and the church as they study that topic out further. The footnotes will point you to other important discussions in the book so that you won’t miss something you need in getting Beale’s take on a given subject.
I differ with Beale on a few matters, most notably baptism, but I found the exercise of plodding my way through his work to be immensely helpful. My copy of the book has numerous notes, underlines, and countless dog-eared pages. I have already turned back to parts of this book for the second or even third time now, and know I’ll be returning to this book for many more years in the future. This truly is a monumental work, and one that even a layman like me can appreciate. Granted, I have had some theological training, and at times this book does go deep. But for the most part, Beale’s work is accessible and has takeaways that pastors and teachers as well as students, will benefit from. More importantly, Beale helps one find a compass through the maze of the two testaments of Scripture. And his work is detailed enough to stand the test of time. It carefully explains how the New Testament authors arrived at the conclusions they did, and follows their thoughts after them, reading the Old Testament in a careful and ultimately Christ-centered way. I encourage you to find some space on your shelf for Beale’s A NT Biblical Theology. Dip your toe in, get wet, then take the plunge and bask in the beauty of a fully developed Biblical Theology. You won’t regret it.
About the author
G. K. Belae (PhD, University of Cambridge) is professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is the coeditor of the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament and the author of numerous books, including the Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament and commentaries on Revelation and 1 and 2 Thessalonians.