ARTICLES

Volume 39 - Issue 1

A Systematician Reviews Tom Schreiner’s Biblical Theology

by

Abstract

Theology is first and foremost about who God is and then about what he has done. But if we follow the approach of biblical theologians like Schreiner, most of the time we are forced to begin with what God has done and work back from there to who he is. . . .

*******

Abstract: Tom Schreiner has attempted to write a systematic theology based on the canonical order of the books in the English Bible. This review article argues that the method is faulty and that the conclusions are therefore wrong. A systematic biblical theology is possible but must be based on different principles and developed in a different way.

*******

It is an honour to respond to Tom Schreiner’s important book The King in His Beauty.1 I have long known that Tom Schreiner is an authority on the NT, which I am not, and I feel both surprised and inadequate to comment on such a weighty tome. I must say that I am gratified to discover from the title that Tom, whom I suspect votes Republican at election time, is actually a closet monarchist, as indeed all Bible-believing Christians must be. For the Lord our God is sovereign. He brooks no rivals, but neither does he shut down the universe when he fails to get his way with his unruly creatures. His power in sustaining his creation and his love in redeeming it are the great themes of the Scriptures, and it is good to be reminded of this in such a comprehensive and reverent way. We are standing here on holy ground, and Tom never lets us forget the beauty of that holiness.

I also admire him for his spirit of self-denial in writing this book. For a NT scholar to devote two-thirds of his biblical theology to the OT and to refrain from recycling his already-published material in the remaining third is truly commendable. Furthermore, he has undertaken the very difficult task of trying to turn what is essentially an analytical approach to the Bible into a synthetic one. Biblical scholars are experts in taking the engine of Scripture to pieces, but they seldom show much interest in putting it back together again. They often see their task as tracing the source and meaning of every word and pericope in the text, and when they have done that, they rest from their labours. Tom has not done this. He has taken things several steps further by attempting to make coherent sense out of the bits and pieces, so that we do not become so obsessed with the details that we lose the overall picture. Schreiner focuses on the unfolding storyline of Scripture and argues that ‘the “kingdom of God,” if that term is defined with sufficient flexibility, fits well as a central theme of the entire Bible’ (pp. xii–xiii).

Tom does not underestimate the difficulties faced by this biblical-theological project. It is by no means clear in what order the various pieces of the scriptural story should be taken, nor can we easily say that they conform to a single master plan. As he points out, many people would question his preference for the English order of the OT books, as opposed to the Hebrew one which they see as more authentic and meaningful.2 Others doubt whether the wisdom literature can be integrated into the same theological framework as the rest of the OT, which has a more obviously historical orientation. Schreiner and other biblical theologians hold that the Bible proceeds logically from the first to the second creation, from Genesis to Revelation. However, biblical theologians have difficulty knowing what to do with material that could fit almost anywhere along that timeline because it is essentially unconcerned with developments in the time-and-space universe, such as God’s Trinitarian nature. These difficulties are real, and Tom knows as well as I do that many aspects of his work will be questioned for reasons like these. But in fairness to him, I think that we ought to allow him the way he has taken, rather than critique it and suggest some other road, whether it is more or less travelled than his has been.

I am also deeply impressed by his wide mastery of the secondary literature. Reading both his text and the accompanying footnotes is a reminder of the wealth and variety of modern evangelical biblical scholarship in particular. I have to confess that in some cases I have discovered for the first time what longstanding friends and colleagues of mine actually think. I suppose that when you know people personally, you tend to guess what goes through their minds and seldom think to ask them specifically about it. How Tom has found the time to plough through the vast and ever-growing store of information on the Bible that pours from the presses I do not know, but I can say that he has convicted me of the depth of my own ignorance by comparison. I only hope that one day I shall find the time, or be given a competent research assistant, so that I can do this too. I know that if I had had his book to hand when I was writing mine it would have been much improved, not least by drawing attention to the many cross-references that in my case went unnoticed because I could not recall them at the time and my copy-editor got fed up trying to fill in the gaps in my erudition.

I have learned a great deal from reading this book, and am grateful to the editors of Themelios for putting me in a position where I have had to read it in some detail at least twice, and in some parts more than that. So I hope that Tom will forgive me if I say that, on balance, I think that his ambitious project has failed. What he has given us is a comprehensive and generally reliable introduction to the contents of the Bible. Tom does not intend The King in His Beauty as a technical work for scholars, but he writes mainly for students, laypersons, and pastors (p. x), and these readers will likely benefit from his biblical survey. Even long-time believers sometimes find it hard to get a handle on parts of the OT, in particular, and many of the chapters in this volume will help them achieve that goal. This is good and useful. Where the book has failed is not at that level, but in its wider purpose, which is to construct a biblical theology organized around God’s kingdom.

Theology is first and foremost about who God is and then about what he has done. But if we follow the approach of biblical theologians like Schreiner, most of the time we are forced to begin with what God has done and work back from there to who he is. Tom ably unfolds what God has done, but in my view he stops short of clearly synthesizing the biblical teaching about God’s nature and purposes. The narrative of the text does not easily lend itself to reflective meditation on the nature of the one it is about. It is not that the signs are not there but that they do not appear in any logical order. The world saw what God had done long before anyone came to know who he is in the way that Christians now do, yet we cannot understand the meaning of his acts unless and until we know him in a personal way. In other words, the key to understanding the Bible does not lie in the narrative but behind it. Tom concedes this at the outset of his project when he writes, ‘Scripture unfolds the story of the kingdom, and God’s glory is the reason for the story’ (p. xiii, emphasis original). It cannot be recovered by stringing events out one after the other, but only by following the clues that those events provide to the being of the God whose acts they were. These clues are not ordered in a systematic way, nor are they all equally revealing. We have to pick and choose, ordering and sometimes reordering the material to facilitate this process. This is what a narrative approach cannot do and is one reason why this book is not really theology at all. It is rather a prolegomenon to systematics, which is a different thing.

To illustrate what I mean, Tom begins by telling us that Scripture’s unfolding storyline may be summed up under the heading of the kingdom of God. To his mind the love of God is part of that kingdom, a manifestation of the way he behaves in relation to it. The trouble with this is that the kingdom of God is essentially external to him: it is something that he has created and over which he rules. The love of God, on the other hand, is something internal, which is not revealed to us before the coming of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Until that happens, we may see the love of God at work in his creation, but we cannot know that love as it is in his inner being and that we customarily express in the doctrine of the Trinity. Unfortunately, but again not surprisingly, Tom mentions the Trinity only once, in a brief comment about Gen 1:26 (p. 5). He says it is revealed in the NT, which is good and true, but his method means that it is not actually mentioned anywhere in the main body of the text. Even Matt 28:19 does not cut it, which is (to say the least) surprising. But from a narrative perspective it is possible to see why the Trinity would not be considered a NT doctrine because it is not revealed as such: it has to be worked out from the data, and the data are not presented in a conveniently systematic way. Thus, what we end up with is a confession of the doctrine in principle but with no sign of it in practice—an odd and ultimately untenable situation from my perspective as a systematic theologian.

Yet when we are united to Christ in the power of the Spirit, we come to see that the Son is co-creator of the universe with the Father and that all things have their being and purpose in him. Of course, we cannot say that the ancient Israelites had no idea what Gen 1 was about, but although they understood it in one way, they had no theology in the sense that we understand the term. Theology is essentially a Christian discipline, not a Jewish or Islamic one, although Jews and Muslims have taken to using the term in modern times and mostly under Christian influence. There is no exclusively Old Testament theology—the very concept is a Christian one that has been retrojected onto the Hebrew text. This is not because there is no God in the OT—there quite clearly is—but because the people’s understanding of him had not been integrated into that experience of the divine love that is unique to the person and work of the Son.

As Christians we feel that we are entitled to read the OT in the light of Christ because he taught us to do that, but we must be very cautious about how we go about it. For example, Tom considers that there may be a reference to the Trinity in the creation narrative because there God speaks in the plural both to himself and to others (Gen 1:26). There may be some ground for saying that Israelite monotheism was not as pure as it was to become in later times, particularly in reaction to Christian claims, but there is no reason for claiming that it presupposes a Trinity. The main reason for this is that the plural is not limited to only three, whereas the Trinity is. Moreover, the doctrine of the Trinity was the solution to a problem posed by the revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God, a revelation that does not occur in Gen 1, except perhaps by Christian sleight of hand. Reading back into the text from hindsight, a practice justified by Tom as a “canonical” approach to biblical interpretation, is an unsteady guide at best. Perhaps it is justified in certain cases, but it cannot become a general rule for hermeneutics without falling into allegory and speculation. Of this, alas, there is rather more in this book than I am comfortable with. The early Christians undoubtedly had a concept of canon, but it was not used as a theological principle until very recently—even Calvin, for example, never mentioned it!

Let us begin at the beginning, with Adam and Eve in the garden. Tom is right to point out that the narrative conceals as much as it reveals, if not more. We are not told why God made the world, nor how evil entered into it, but both those things were givens by the time we get to our first parents. At the risk of being condemned by some, I would say that the creation story is a historical event told in a symbolic way. The Garden of Eden was not a place because if it were it would still be there. The trees of life and of the knowledge of good and evil are not known to biological science and never have been. As for talking serpents, they have never existed either. This does not make the story untrue but means that we have to read it in a different way. Tom writes,

[T]he serpent is most unusual because he talks with Eve, and talking is not normal for animals! The serpent is strikingly different from the other animals, for it is quite clear from 2:19–20 that Adam’s naming of the animals symbolized his dominion over them. . . . The other animals are not ‘crafty’ (3:1) and are unable to converse with Adam and Eve. Presumably, Adam and Eve were to evict the serpent from the garden by obeying the Lord. (p. 9)

What is going on here? Tom practically tells us that the serpent was not one of the animals, but then assumes that Adam and Eve were supposed to evict him from the garden as if he were some kind of squatter. It is an approach that manages to be literalistic and yet highly speculative at the same time, all because the true meaning has been overlooked or denied. What we are really dealing with here is a spiritual struggle between good and evil for possession of the soul of man, and it was Adam’s surrender to the latter that broke his relationship with the former. Yet this point gets obscured in speculation about the nature of the serpent!

It would be nice to think that this was just an unfortunate aberration, but sadly it is not. It is foundational to Tom’s whole approach to the Bible. For no sooner do we read about the fall than we come to the promise that the seed of the woman will bruise the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15). There is a long tradition that says that this is a prophecy of the coming of Christ, which Tom accepts though without elaborating on it. But he goes on to add that the world is now divided into the children of the serpent and the children of the woman, who are engaged in a kind of dualistic warfare that will last until the end of time, and this theological construct becomes one of the main themes of his exposition, if it is not the main thread that ties his whole project together.

The first example of this spiritual warfare comes in the story of Cain, who is presented as the child of the serpent, and Abel, who is supposed to be the child of the woman. In what sense can such a contrast be understood? It cannot be literal since if Cain were the child of the serpent in that sense, he would be a serpent too. But nor can it be figurative because Cain and Abel were brothers: they were both children of the woman, and they both inherited the fall into the serpent’s clutches that had driven their parents out of the garden. The serpent does not have children; he has slaves whom he has ensnared by temptation, but for some reason that does not enter into Tom’s account of the fall at all. The difference between Cain and Abel was not that one was intrinsically wicked while the other was righteous. Rather it was that Abel understood that without the shedding of blood there could be no remission of sin, whereas Cain did not. When his sacrifice was rejected, he responded by resorting to a blood sacrifice in the form of his brother Abel—a wicked act but one by which he unintentionally foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ in a way that surpassed even Abel’s efforts. Little though he realised it, Cain revealed the truth that the blood sacrifice of an animal was insufficient: it was only by the shed blood of an innocent man that human beings could be saved. There is a deep and tragic irony in this story that is missed by a simplistic division of humanity into two basic types. Like Cain, those who crucified Jesus did not know what they were doing, but it was by their sin that the purposes of God were brought to pass.

This misinterpretation of Cain and Abel is repeated throughout the text as a kind of leitmotiv. Noah appears as the child of the woman, the only one left in his generation. Later Pharaoh is called the child of the serpent, a role subsequently adopted by such diverse figures as King Saul and Haman. I am afraid that this is all fantasy, tied together by a fundamental error of interpretation. To go no further, Saul remained the Lord’s anointed even in death, which was certainly not true of either Pharaoh or Haman. Furthermore, even if the latter two were enemies of God’s people, the nature of their hostility was not the same. Pharaoh wanted to keep the Hebrews as his slaves and not lose them to the desert, where they were liable to perish, whereas Haman could not wait to get rid of them. The Israelites wanted to reject Moses and go back to Egypt where they felt safe: they were ‘children of the serpent’, if I can borrow the phrase, far more than Pharaoh ever was.

Equally odd, in my opinion, are the so-called glimpses of paradise that Tom tells us we get from time to time—in the story of Ruth, for example, or in the consecration of Solomon’s temple. No doubt these were happy occasions, but although the history of Israel was gloomy in the long term, it was not a story of uninterrupted decline. Indeed, from another point of view, we might argue that it was not a story of decline at all. God was purifying his people, preserving them and preparing them for the coming of the Messiah. As Paul would later say, the outward body was wasting away, but the spirit was growing stronger. Solomon’s reign may have looked good on the outside, but it was deeply corrupt. How a wise king could have married 700 women and been led astray by them Tom never properly explains, but it is clear that Israel’s prosperity was not solidly grounded even in its golden age. David was a forerunner of Christ, who was known to contemporaries as his son, but Jesus was greater than Solomon and greater than David too. Furthermore, the Jewish people were more prepared to accept his coming when he appeared than they would have been a thousand years earlier. By the time he was born, Israel had expunged paganism from its midst and was consciously living as God’s chosen people in a way that it had not done before the exile.

The story of Israel as God’s chosen people is a complex one, but surely it is taking things too far to claim, as Tom does, that ‘Like David, Jesus suffered and was later glorified. . . . David’s obedience was remarkable, but it was not perfect, and thus it pointed forward to a king who surpassed him in righteousness’ (p. 153). The difference between Jesus and David was not one of degree but of kind, an essential point that is overlooked in his analysis. The reason for that, I would suggest, is that Tom’s narrative approach finds it almost impossible to accommodate theology in the true sense of the term. The result is that key differences are glossed over whereas things that are relatively insignificant are magnified and made to bear a weight that is beyond their capacity.

Tom’s book is very long, but to my mind at least, it is surprisingly uneven in its treatment of different parts of Scripture. The historical books of the OT are outlined in great detail, with special attention being paid to odd incidents in the lives of men like Elijah and Elisha. In contrast to this, the twelve Minor Prophets are run together and it is sometimes hard to know which one of them he is talking about. The prophetic books present an unexpected challenge to his framework in that they are historical in one sense but not in another. Should Isaiah be slotted into 1–2 Kings, for example, in the chapters on Hezekiah? Should Jeremiah be regarded as an appendix or perhaps as a sequel to those same books? The minor twelve stretch in time over several centuries and are divided by the exile; does this not make a difference? In the NT, Tom deals with each of the Synoptic Gospels individually but then rolls all the Pauline epistles into one. How does this work? Another problem that is simply not addressed is that the epistles were generally earlier in date than the Gospels, even though the Gospels recount events that were earlier than either. What should we do about this, if there is a progressive revelation of God’s sovereign purposes throughout the texts? The irony is that the earliest witness we have to Jesus is Paul, who in some cases was writing to people like Andronicus and Junia in Rom 16, who had known Jesus in a way that Paul never did. What does this mean, and does it matter?

The information that Tom gives us about the content and theological significance of individual books and sections of the Bible is interesting and important, but it can be properly understood only if there is a framework to undergird them. That framework cannot be historical narrative because the Bible does not come to us in that way. Tom senses this, but his approach makes it virtually impossible to penetrate more deeply into what is written and come up with a viable alternative. Instead, we have to rely on insights and extrapolations that lead us from the particular examples of God’s dealings with people that are recorded in the narratives to the universal principles that lie behind them, but the method is tedious and unnecessarily repetitive. Do we really have to wade through pages of detailed commentary on the kings of Israel and Judah only to be told at the end that their failure proves that God is sovereign? Could Tom not have condensed that observation and others like it into a paragraph or two?

The wisdom literature, as Tom rightly remarks, is a challenge to any narrative approach, but he takes the position that it can be integrated into the bigger picture, even if it must remain somewhat anomalous in certain respects. There is not the time to examine the results of this in detail, but I cannot resist making some comments on the Song of Songs. That book is famous for the long tradition of allegorical interpretation that has been associated with it. Even today, congregations that sing, ‘He brought me into his banqueting house and his banner over me is love’ make the christological connection almost automatically and would be astonished to be told that it comes from a seduction scene in Song 2:4. Tom rejects this approach, as we would expect: ‘Song of Songs is not an allegory; it describes in poetic terms the love between a maiden and King Solomon.’ In a quotation from Duane Garrett, he adds, ‘Song of Songs celebrates a woman’s loss of virginity. Hence, the theology of the book differs dramatically from the view of many believers in history who have seen the path of asceticism as the path of holiness’ (p. 317). He goes on to describe the Song as a paean of praise for the joys of married love and a glimpse of the coming Edenic Paradise, though I am unconvinced. Interestingly, although he rejects allegory, he cannot resist the lure of typology and reaches out to the ancient tradition in seeing at least some allusion to Christ and his bride, the church.

The Song of Songs is admittedly very hard to interpret, but somehow we seem to have found ourselves here in the ‘happy ever after’ world of middle-class evangelical morality, whose mythical character is betrayed by the rising incidence (and disgraceful toleration) of divorce inside the church. What the Song tells us is that human love is a powerful but bittersweet emotion (8:6). The semi-Paradisiacal interpretation given here ignores one of the major themes of the Song: the fleeting nature of human love, the disappointment that will end in death, and the endless repetition of the cycle with no escape from it. In that respect it is closer to Ecclesiastes than many would want to acknowledge and light years away from both the historical Solomon (on the one hand) and Christian marriage (on the other). The Song obviously has nothing to do with Solomon or any one of his 700 brides, though Tom does not make this as clear as he ought to. Such an interpretation makes no sense and is contradicted by how the historical books present Solomon. But neither is it related to Christian marriage in any meaningful way. To go no further, Christian marriage is characterised by the interplay between sacrifice and submission, neither of which figures at all prominently in the Song of Songs and whose proto-Edenic qualities are unlikely to be appreciated by those called to put those principles into practice. To think that the Song is some sort of handbook for Christian sexual love is a fantasy, the tragic consequences of which are only too obvious in some evangelical circles. We have to conclude that the Song still awaits its interpreter and that an evangelical Christian will find it harder than most to come to terms with it.

There is not the time today to go through every theme in this very rich book, but one or two items call for comment. The first is Tom’s repeated assertion that God was somehow leading his people back to the garden from which Adam and Eve had been expelled, intimations of which we have already remarked on. Tom explains this clearly: “Jeremiah teaches that a new covenant is coming, a covenant that is irrevocable, a covenant by which sins will be fully and finally forgiven, and by which a new David will sit on the throne. This king will be Israel’s righteousness and will bring about a new Eden” (p. 364).

Related to this is the theme of the new temple in Ezekiel, of which Tom says,

The chapters on the new temple, which should not be interpreted literally, indicate that the glory of Yahweh will return to Israel. They will see the King in his beauty. When the Lord dwells among his people, the covenant of peace will be established, and a new creation will arrive. We have another hint here, which is picked up in Revelation 21–22, that the new creation and the new temple are two different ways of describing the same reality. (p. 386)

Unfortunately, when we turn to Rev 21–22, we discover that this is not the case at all. There is indeed an Edenic reference in those chapters, but it is to the tree of life, which now flowers in the midst of the city, not in the original paradise (22:2). Furthermore, the same passage tells us that there is no temple in the new Jerusalem, because ‘its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb’ (21:22). Not the creation, but the Creator is the temple, and between the Creator and his creatures there is a great gulf fixed.

The attempt to make the imagery of the OT carry over in this way to the final consummation of all things does not work. There is no return to the garden of Eden or to the innocence that prevailed there. When Adam and Eve fell, the knowledge of good and evil remained with them, and it is not taken away in Christ. The defeat of Satan is not his eventual expulsion from the garden but his dethronement and effective destruction (Rev 20:10).

It seems to me that the basic problem here is that the origin of evil is not explained in the Bible but is fundamental to our understanding of what God’s revelation teaches us. The rebellion of Satan, mysterious as it was, was a spiritual phenomenon that occurred in the heavenly places before the creation of the world. Adam and Eve were created to be children of God but were tempted by the evil power of Satan, whose relationship to God is complex and in some ways unfathomable. Why does Satan continue to exist? Why does he wield such power over God’s creatures? Here we are dealing with mysteries that are never clearly explained in the Bible but that are fundamental to understanding its meaning. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ were the central acts in a cosmic struggle against this spiritual power just as much, and in some ways perhaps even more, than they were an atonement for the sins of human beings. This contrast is not an either-or, of course; it is a both-and, but our relationship with God in Christ cannot be properly understood without referring to our changed relationship with Satan: we have been delivered from his clutches and therefore become enemies of the world that still lies in his power.

The events that are recorded in the Scriptures, the promises that are made to God’s people, the ups and downs of their earthly pilgrimage and the transformation of their identity brought about by Jesus Christ are all part of a spiritual drama that cannot be seen by the naked eye. When the Son of God came into the world, he was not recognised. The people of Nazareth chased him out when he told them who he was, and he had lived among them for three decades. Peter confessed the truth about him, but was immediately told that he was able to do that only because God the Father had revealed it to him. None of this invalidates the historical and earthly realities of the biblical stories, but it forces us to look through and beyond them to the underlying spiritual principles that they manifest.

This is ultimately why theology cannot be simply a running exposition of the biblical text, in whatever order it is taken. It must penetrate that text and reveal the foundations on which it is built, the principles that underlie the revelation that it contains. This search for meaning is not a departure from the Bible but an exploration of its hidden depths that will enable us to understand it better. Just as we look at how other people behave and try to work out from that what really makes them tick, so we read of the great acts of God among his people in order to understand better who he is and what his purposes are. The end result will be a systematic theology built out of the evidence culled from many different parts of the revelation and not simply an account of that revelation’s contents. It is here I think that biblical scholars need to rethink their discipline, recognise what its limitations are, and accept that not only is a systematic theology necessary, but that it can be constructed only by using the evidence of the narrative and going behind it in ways that do not contradict but illuminate it better. I hope and pray that evangelical biblical scholars will come to appreciate this and that their magnificent efforts in analyzing the Scriptures may bear fruit in a deeper synthesis of what their message and their ultimate purpose is.

Response to Gerald Bray

Thomas R. Schreiner

I am grateful to Gerald Bray for his careful reading of my book and the questions he poses. Anyone who reads my review in this issue of Themelios knows how much I appreciate his own work. But space is limited, and I must get to the point. The fundamental problem with Bray’s review is that he misunderstands both my book and biblical theology. He seems to think that I am trying to write a systematic theology, for he emphasizes that biblical theology is only a prolegomenon to a systematic theology. Here’s the rub: I agree! Systematic theology is a culminating discipline that includes exegesis, biblical theology, historical theology, and philosophy. Bray critiques me as if I were attempting to write a culminating work, a systematic theology, and by doing so he veers off course from the outset of his review. I agree with Bray that Christian theology reaches its apex in systematics. I didn’t think anyone would read my book as if I were trying to compose an alternative to a systematic theology.

Nor is it evident that Bray understands what biblical theology is in distinction from systematics, or perhaps he believes there isn’t any place for biblical theology, because he doesn’t commend it in his review. We need both systematic and biblical theology, for in the latter the story of scripture is rehearsed, the narrative of scripture is unfolded for the reader. Such attention to the historical outworking of God’s plan (the establishment of his kingdom!) ensures that we are reading the scriptures contextually and canonically. For instance, Bray doesn’t devote much attention to the historical unfolding of God’s revelation in his book. But it is clear in reading the NT that the Mosaic covenant was an interim covenant, that it was meant to be in force for a limited period of time. We learn from this that it is imperative to read scripture epochally. We don’t offer sacrifices or wear clothes with only one kind of fabric since such regulations are part of the Sinai covenant, and we aren’t under that covenant since the new covenant has arrived in Jesus Christ.

To put it another way, systematic theologians need biblical theology, for otherwise they may make claims that violate the intention and purpose of the texts cited. Biblical theology as a mediating discipline supports systematics. Systematics may stray from the scriptures in constructing doctrines, and biblical theology serves systematics by tying us to the biblical text and by ensuring that we interpret the scriptures in its epochal framework. The structures and themes unpacked in biblical theology undergird (or should undergird) the work of systematic theologians. Biblical theology, like systematics, plays a vital role in our understanding of the scriptures. Let’s take one example of what concerns Bray. He complains that I don’t unpack the Trinity, but he misconstrues my book and biblical theology. The Trinity is central to Christian theology, and any systematic theology that doesn’t make the Trinity prominent is woefully deficient. But I didn’t write a systematic theology, nor am I claiming that the work of biblical theology is a culminating discipline. Still, biblical theology provides the raw materials for the doctrine of the Trinity by showing that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all divine, while also emphasizing that the scriptures teach that there is only one God.

Let me address some of the specific criticisms of the book. Bray takes issue with the notion that the serpent has children. Genesis 3:15 says there will be enmity between the offspring of the woman and the offspring of the serpent, and I conclude from this that the serpent has offspring. Obviously, the offspring of the serpent aren’t snakes! The language used isn’t literal but figurative. I believe it is legitimate to conclude that Cain is the offspring of the serpent. Nor do I argue that some (like Abel) are automatically the offspring of the woman, for such a status is the result of God’s grace. Bray rejects the notion that the serpent has offspring, but Jesus himself says to some of the Jews of his day, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44). Apparently, they were sons of the devil, children of the serpent. And Jesus clearly alludes to Cain in this verse, for he says the devil “was a murderer from the beginning,” which almost certainly recalls the story of Cain murdering Abel. And in the parable of the wheat and the weeds (or tares), Jesus says that the weeds “are the sons of the evil one” (Matt 13:38). So I am unrepentant about saying that some are the offspring of the serpent, for it accords both with the OT and the teaching of Jesus.

Bray questions whether people are the children of the serpent because they act in different ways, but I don’t think this objection logically follows. Why would we think that those who are the offspring of the serpent (which we are all by nature and birth [e.g., 1 John 5:20; Eph 2:1–3]) would display their hostility in the same way? Some like Pharaoh both enslave and try to destroy the people of God. Others like Haman or Herod try to wipe out the Jews or to kill the Messiah, respectively. Pointing out that Saul was the anointed doesn’t contradict the point, for being anointed doesn’t mean that one truly belongs to God. We know from the kings of Israel and Judah that all too many of them didn’t truly worship Yahweh. Bray seems to think that pointing out that the children of the Israel were the offspring of the serpent like Pharaoh contradicts my point. I don’t see how it does so. The story is complex and can’t be reduced to simplistic formulas. Yes, many in Israel showed they were on Satan’s side ultimately. Paul tells us in Rom 9:6–13 that there was always a winnowing process in Israel, that only a remnant is saved.

Bray also criticizes me for saying that the new creation to come is a new Eden. He doubts how this can be so, for the world to come is a city not a garden. I never imagined that anyone would interpret the language of a new Eden literally. After all, the book of Revelation describes the world to come as paradise (Rev 2:7; cf. Luke 23:43), and so in that sense what is coming is a new Eden! Many texts in the OT also portray the world to come with paradisical language of a new creation. It is imperative to see that the vision of the heavenly city in Rev 21–22 is itself not literal language. We have apocalyptic images galore. One of the images is of the tree of life, but that doesn’t mean we have literal trees of life in the new creation, but neither is there a literal city with golden streets! The evocative images and pictures of a new creation in Scripture (the language of a new Eden) point forward with symbolic language to the new world that is coming. What is coming is indescribably beautiful and beyond our capacity to imagine or portray. I would suggest that biblical theology helps us at this very point. The OT (and some NT texts as well) describe the world to come with Edenic language, with descriptions that resonate with paradise. But when we read the whole story we see that the fulfillment isn’t literal. So also, the temple in Ezek 40–48 isn’t a literal temple but points to a new creation where the Lord and the Lamb are the temple, where the whole universe is the Lord’s dwelling place.

Let me make a comment about the structure of the book. I am the first to say that other structures may be preferable. On the other hand, I still think there is merit in putting the Minor Prophets together because, even though they were written at various times, they share central themes. It seems even more natural to put the Pauline letters together since they were all written by the same author, for the goal is to set forth the theology of Paul.

Bray worries about my canonical reading, thinking it could lead to allegory and speculation. These are excellent cautions that must be heard. At the same time, the Bible is a unified book and story with a divine author. We must read the biblical text in both its historical context and its canonical context. We must pay heed to human authors and the divine author and read from front to back and from back to front. The task isn’t easy, but we shouldn’t eliminate the role of the divine author in reading the OT. Hence, I believe, as I explain in my book, that there is canonical and NT warrant for seeing the Trinity in Gen 1:26 and for interpreting the OT in light of the NT. There is the danger of reading the NT into the OT, but there is also the danger of reading the OT as if the NT doesn’t exist.

Many more things could and should be said. May I again express my thanks to Professor Bray for his response and for his scholarship, which has taught me so much over the years.


[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 714 pp.

[2] See for example Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Biblical Theology of the Hebrew Bible (New Studies in Biblical Theology; Downers Grove: IVP, 2003); James M. Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010); Jason S. DeRouchie, ed., What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013).

Other Articles in this Issue

Too often people think of the Reformation in terms of an abstract theological debate...

Abstract: Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, edited by Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry, argues that evangelical scholars have failed to embrace historical criticism to the extent that they could and should...

Thomas Prince, editor of The Christian History—the first religious periodical in American history—could hardly have invented the Great Awakening, as Frank Lambert argues...

I would like to consider several elements in reviewing Bray’s work...

What is the task and focus of Christian theology? What are the distinctive contributions of biblical theology and systematic theology? In this issue of Themelios, a distinguished systematic theologian (Gerald Bray) and biblical theologian (Thomas Schreiner) address these and other questions...