Book Write-Up: Biblical Theology, by John Goldingay

John Goldingay.  Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures.  Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

John Goldingay teaches Hebrew Bible at Fuller Theological Seminary.  Before that, he taught at St. John’s Theological College, which is in Nottingham, England.

Overall, I agree with what the description of the book on the inside flap says about it, with some reservations.  To quote from the description: “While taking the New Testament as a portal into the biblical canon, he seeks to preserve the distinct voices of Israel’s Scriptures, accepting even its irregular and sinewed pieces as features rather than problems.  Goldingay does not search out a thematic core or overarching unity, but allows Scripture’s diversity and tensions to remain as manifold witnesses to the ways of God.  While many interpreters interrogate Scripture under the harsh light of late-modern questions, Goldingay engages in a dialogue keen on letting Scripture speak to us in its own voice.  Throughout he asks, ‘What understanding of God and the world and life emerges from these two testaments?'”

Here are some comments on this description, based on my own reading of the book:

—-The early part of the book has more of a Hebrew Bible emphasis, while drawing occasionally on the New Testament.  This was particularly the case when it was discussing God’s attributes.  In talking about the atonement and justification, there was a balance of emphasis between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.  The book came to have more of a New Testament focus, though, as it discussed such issues as the church and being in Christ.

—-In exploring biblical diversity, the book focuses more on themes than on sources and authorship.  If you want a book that, say, discusses the Deuteronomist and the Holiness Source, their distinct ideologies, and how they reacted to their historical contexts, then this book will disappoint you.  But this book does probe different perspectives and complexities in the Hebrew Bible and, on some level, in the New Testament.  For instance, its discussion on God seems open to the insights of open theism (which disputes that God can know the future), while noting biblical passages that coincide with a more traditional view of God.  Overall, in interacting with the Hebrew Bible, the book tends to note diverse concepts, without attributing those concepts to specific biblical authors.  Its interaction with the New Testament diverged from this tendency, though, as it discussed concepts and thoughts that appear in the synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John, and Paul’s epistles.

—-Overall, the book recoils from artificial attempts to harmonize complexities and tensions.  In many cases, it allows tensions to stand.  On the one hand, that allowed Goldingay to be refreshingly honest about what the Bible says, as opposed to harmonizing it forcefully and seeking to conform it to orthodoxy.  On the other hand, there were times when coherence got sacrificed.  For example, Goldingay notes that the Greek word often translated as “justification” in the New Testament usually does not occur in a judicial context, so he pursues another interpretation of justification, one that focuses on God’s covenant commitment.  Yet, in other places, Goldingay’s discussion of justification tends to fall back on judicial language.  On the atonement, Goldingay appears to reject penal substitution, while also embracing it.  My impression is that Goldingay wants to create an alternative model, but he finds that the model is inadequate in accounting for all of the biblical data, so he falls back on conventional models.  At the same time, Goldingay does well to show that conventional models, themselves, have limits and are not the only way to interpret biblical passages.  His discussion of justification and the atonement may be inconsistent, but it was rich as it highlighted different dimensions of these topics.

—-Goldingay’s discussion of Paul and the law was remarkably coherent, as Goldingay integrated Paul’s pro-Torah and anti-Torah (if that is the right term) sentiments into a coherent package.

—-Although Goldingay explores the diversity of Scripture, the book does read as a narrative of God’s activity in the world.  And, in some cases, the book takes a rather harmonizing approach.  For instance, in addressing pro-Temple and anti-Temple voices, Goldingay states that God was initially hesitant to dwell in a Temple, then became gun-ho Temple once Solomon built it.  In terms of Christology, the book seems to privilege or emphasize the voices that believe in Jesus’ pre-existence, or divinity.  Goldingay argues that I Timothy 2:15’s statement that women shall be saved through childbearing is consistent with justification by grace through faith alone, as he argues that good works are an expression of faith.  My impression is that Goldingay was searching for coherence.  This may go back to what I said above about the dearth of source criticism in this book: Goldingay may recoil from seeing the Bible as a composite of different human voices, preferring instead to regard it as a divine revelation that is ultimately coherent, notwithstanding its tensions.

—-Whether Goldingay’s big picture is ultimately coherent is a good question.  On the one hand, Goldingay seems to portray God as one who has forsaken wrath, due to the work of Christ.  On the other hand, Goldingay’s God still appears to judge people’s behavior.  Perhaps Goldingay’s narrative can only be as consistent or coherent as the Bible allows!

Here are some other thoughts about the book, unrelated to the book’s description:

—-I liked how Goldingay phrased things.  Personally, I tend to recoil from Christian exclusivism, the idea that everyone needs to convert to Christianity to avoid going to hell.  Goldingay managed to phrase exclusivist or potentially exclusivist concepts in an appealing manner, however.  Rather than saying that non-Christian religions are wrong, Goldingay says that the Bible is clear that there are things that non-Christians need to know.  Regarding Jesus’ statement that he is the way, truth, and life (John 14:6), Goldingay states that “Dying is his way to the Father, and his dying is the only way they will get there” (page 547).  Goldingay seems to express agnosticism about the eternal destiny of adherents to other religions, but he effectively conveyed that Jesus’ death was necessary to provide people a way to the Father.

—-Goldingay’s discussions of communitarianism stood out to me.  Goldingay, with some empathy, noted the individualism of Western culture, while saying that people are still part of a community, whether or not they desire or recognize that.  Later, Goldingay contrasts the early Christian church with the voluntary societies of its ancient context: according to Goldingay, the church was intentionally organized to be like a family, not a voluntary society that people can join and leave as they wish; that discussion was unnerving, yet informative.  In a few places, Goldingay seems to say that relationships in church should take precedence over natural family relationships.  That last concept rubs me the wrong way.  Not only does it sound rather cultish, but it also strikes me as unrealistic in the Western world, where people are rather individualistic.  If I ran into financial trouble, for example, I would expect my family to be more helpful than any church!  Still, the sentiment that the church is a family, one that should take precedence over natural family connections, does appear consistent with certain passages of Scripture (Matthew 12:46-50).

—-The prose of the book is accessible, yet reading the book required focus and concentration.  I did not want to miss any gems, and there were many!  As a result, reading this book could be time consuming and even exhausting.  Still, it was worth the effort, on a spiritual and an intellectual level.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest!

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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