Far as the Curse is Found:
The Covenant Story of Redemption
Michael D. Williams (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2005)Blurb Review by Dr David Gibson
Review by Dr David Gibson
Including a review of The Story of Israel
These two recent books on biblical theology deserve praise for a number of reasons. The first volume - a testimony in itself to unity in diversity! - aims to be a comprehensive textbook treatment of the biblical story as one coherent whole. The introduction provides a brief but helpful outline of the history of biblical theology. Every chapter is linked to supplementary reading in IVP's New Dictionary of Biblical Theology and is also accompanied with study questions. Any student who actually took these suggestions for further reading and thought seriously would be substantially immersed in key aspects of evangelical biblical theology. This kind of ambitious vision for the place of biblical theology on the ministerial and theological curriculum cannot be valued too highly, especially if it leads first and foremost to better preaching on Sunday morning. The second and more attractively titled volume is also a very welcome addition to Reformed approaches to biblical unity through the lens of its traditional covenant focus. Williams is no mere traditionalist however, and a recurring theme of his book is the classically Reformed (but largely contemporaneously absent) joyful grasp of the goodness of the physical world. Here creation and re-creation surface constantly as central biblical-theological themes which beat at the heart of the covenant.
Both books operate with a high view of Scripture and with scant regard for claims of confusion, disunity or contradiction between the biblical writers. Both, in different ways (and with varying degrees of appropriate emphasis), offer a Christological centre to the biblical storyline. I will outline their approach and content, and offer some critical comment on each book in turn. I will suggest that for all their merit and usefulness, neither volume in my opinion actually marks a significant advance in evangelical biblical theology beyond what is already available. This is not to damn with faint praise - the more books in the theological world which adopt this kind of approach to Scripture the better, surely. It is merely to argue that they are good, but not definitive. Both books find their value in being supplementary to more satisfactory statements of the overarching unity of biblical theology.
As its title promises, The Story of Israel is an attempt at a biblical theology which uses Israel as ‘a single idea that is pervasive enough to establish unity within the Bible while at the same time encompassing diverse motifs such as people of God, new covenant, promise/fulfilment, wisdom, Kingdom of God and new creation' (pg 278). With this as its fundamental premise the book is a well-conceived and well-worked argument for understanding the heart of the story of Israel to be a repeated pattern of sin-exile-restoration. At the outset (pg 18) the authors state their debt to a particular understanding of Deuteronomistic history (that of Odil H. Steck) for the validity of the sin-exile-restoration pattern and this pattern is the true key to the book. Eleven main chapters trace its recurrence through the Pentateuch, the Historical Books, The Psalms and Wisdom Literature, the Prophets, Second Temple Judaism, The Synoptics, John, Acts, Paul, the General Epistles and Hebrews, and Revelation. Along the way there are numerous very helpful treatments of the biblical story as its different events and characters are seen in the light of this paradigm. Often the most simple of sentences have the capacity to point towards unlocking the whole: ‘The question echoing at the end of Judges is, ‘Who will deliver Israel from the terrible situation that they are in?' The answer, of course, is David. The book of Ruth introduces David into the story' (pg 60). The arrival of Jesus is seen as the climactic entrance of the kingdom and the whole of Jesus' ministry is connected in point after point to the preceding story of Israel. The authors make the suggestion that the traditional ‘already/not yet' way of describing the Kingdom of God is better understood as ‘already/not fully' to do justice to the reality of God's present reign in Jesus.
At the same time, there are things to quibble with. In the helpful chapter on Paul I was uncomfortable with the discussion of Paul's attitude to the law. Following Seyoon Kim, this argues that Paul viewed the law as mistaken in its curse of the innocent Jesus and that the law itself, personified, was guilty of miscalculation (pg 210). This language strikes me as more than a little odd. It seems to point away from more dogmatic concepts of substitution (which is there in Galatians 3:13) and corporate solidarity. If it is morally acceptable for the innocent to die for the guilty (given an account of corporate or covenantal solidarity), then surely the law was precisely right in its calculation. Also, the book did little to convince me of the need to include extra-biblical Second Temple Judaism writings in an account of biblical theology. Doubtless these texts are invaluable for the kind of biblical exegesis that is illumined by careful historical study. But are we not exhibiting at least some lack of confidence in the chosen paradigm for biblical theology when apocryphal writings are required to show that sin-exile-restoration is indeed a thematic bridge between the Old and New Testaments? The Story of Israel is well written and accessible while assuming a basic familiarity with some theological concepts and terms. It will certainly work well in a classroom setting yet would not be the first book I would hand to someone completely new to biblical theology.
However, I have one main criticism of The Story. It did not do enough to convince that Israel merits the place given to it here as the main overarching motif in biblical theology. There are two reasons for this.
First, I noted above that the methodological justification for the approach to biblical theology comes largely from a particular understanding of Deuteronomistic history. The insights here seem constructive and helpful in themselves but I am unsure about this material being taken to form the heartbeat of a biblical theology which is then used as the lens to read earlier biblical material i.e. Genesis-Numbers read in the light of the Deuteronomic sin-exile-restoration pattern. Of course, this is not to say that the pattern is not present in Genesis-Numbers but it is to raise a fundamental question of method in biblical theology. Taking our biblical theology paradigm from Israel arguably means we've turned up at the party a bit late - we may have got the dress code right but we've missed the jelly and ice-cream.
This is connected to my second point. The approach of sin-exile-restoration as paradigmatic necessarily weights interpretation of the story away from creation and towards Israel, away from act one and towards act two. This makes creation itself subservient to the paradigm, to the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 and to the ensuing story of Israel. We get a hint of this in the preface when we are told that, because of Jesus, the story of Israel is transformed into the story of the gospel for the whole world (pg 9). This is not wrong but it is truncated - because of Jesus it is the story of Adam that is transformed into the story of the gospel for the whole world and my one fundamental gripe with this book is that creation is not interpreted as substantively paradigmatic for biblical theology. On pg 29 the authors tantalisingly point out that the events of primeval history in Genesis 1-11 are more than simply a prologue to the story of Israel. However, Genesis 1-2 is then treated in less than two pages so that it is the beginning of the sin-exile restoration paradigm in Genesis 3 that provides the real shape for biblical theology. This means that when we are given a brief recap in Chapter Five (The Prophets, pg 88) we are told that we have seen just two major cycles in the story so far: Genesis 3-11 and Genesis 12-2 Kings 25 (although cf. pg 255 where Genesis 3-11 is actually referred to as the second act in the biblical drama). This general approach bears on numerous particularities. To give one example, when we are treated to an insightful handling of the Synoptic temptation narratives in Chapter Seven (pg 127-129) we are pointed back to parallels with Abraham, Moses and Israel but the specifically Lucan connections to Adam are missed. All of this is because a later-player on the stage (Israel) is controlling the shape of the whole story.
This kind of approach raises at least two important theological questions. First, is creation there to realise the purpose of Israel - to provide a platform on which Israel can take centre-stage, if you like - or is Israel there to realise the purpose of creation? I would suggest the latter has to be the case and I am pretty sure the authors of this volume would also hold this to be the case, but the reader does not come away from this book clearly seeing that. Second, it is not at all clear to me why we would want to start from sin, from the point of everything going wrong, to offer a coherent paradigm for the whole! One of the book's overall aims is to bridge a gap between biblical and systematic theology but sadly this founders because its biblical theology holds out virtually nothing to systematic theology in terms of a doctrine of creation. Our systematicians are not offered a lot of grist for their mills to enable them to confront the contemporary world insightfully analysed by Lévy: although modernity is predicated on the belief that the fissures of the world can be repaired and that the world can be healed, ‘it expects the creation of paradise at the end of history and denies the expulsion from it at the beginning of history'. The recurring sin-exile-restoration pattern is extremely helpful but is at its best when every repeated ‘mini'-exile is seen as dependent on the archetypal meta-exile from the perfect creation and Eden. There are numerous suggestive hints of this throughout Chapter Two (see the comments on getting back to the garden on pg 30; on Abraham, pg37; and footnote 13, pg 38) but none which actually show why Eden itself, not the exile from it, is the true paradigm for biblical theology. The way the sin-exile-restoration pattern is used here also tends to undermine a truly analytic interpretation of the Bible's story: what we have is repetition after repetition without any crystal clear explanation of how a further event ties into a progressive unfolding of the greater reality. This is because there has been no paradigmatic statement of what that Edenic-type greater reality is from the outset. Some comments from Graeme Goldsworthy in his review of The Drama of Scripture apply here too. He argues that biblical theology needs to reflect on the structures of the theological message that lie behind the narrative structure and that drive it: ‘Biblical theology is, I believe, more than simply relating the events of the story in order, even if accompanied by theological comment in the process .... It needs to be analytical of the theological dynamics within the story. What is the nature of the progressiveness of revelation? Is it a gradual dawning of the light, or is it a series of discreet steps?'
Far as the Curse is Found is written in a more popular style and this time it is covenant which is offered as the overarching motif to unite the biblical story. I have to confess to a few quibbles during the opening chapters which eventually subsided. While the overall structure and chapter headings make the big picture of this book very clear indeed, parts of individual chapters are less well structured and in places seem to jump from thought to thought so that the argument is not always kept right up front. For example, Chapter One opens by arguing that Jesus is connected to the early chapters of the story (with ‘early chapters of the story' here referring to the Old Testament), but on pg 7 the incarnation is confusingly referred to as the beginning of the story. After re-reading, I think I know what Williams means but it is not crystal clear. This opening chapter which argues for the resurrection as our starting point in biblical theology seems to approach the resurrection from a variety of different angles so that it is not clear what the real argument actually is here other than to stress its physicality. There is a questionable interpretation of Thomas as the disciple who really got the point more than the other disciples so that in some way we are called to mirror his actions (pg 7). Williams argues that Thomas only wanted what the other disciples had already received and that he was therefore right to insist on first-hand experience of Jesus' physical resurrection. This misses the issue at the heart of John's account. Williams correctly points out that all the other disciples had seen and believed but the point of the narrative is precisely that their sight should have been enough for Thomas because one day the apostolic testimony about Jesus is all the rest of the world will have (John 20:31). What is driving Williams' interpretation here is his desire to stress the physicality of the resurrection - and therefore the goodness of creation - and the light this sheds backwards on the whole of biblical theology. But it creates both an unnatural interpretation of Thomas that cuts against the admonition grain of John 20:29 and does not really take us analytically into the biblical theology of the restored creation. What is the content of the restoration of creation? For Williams, at this point, it seems to be simply its sheer physicality. We arguably need a more theological account of how the content of creation - people, place and rule - comes to a climactic head in Christ's resurrection and is given a new Christological shape while retaining all its core components.
Like The Story of Israel, this book does not begin its biblical theology right at the beginning of the story but chooses a later event in the story as the lens through which to see the whole. This cannot be deemed wrong in principle if we are approaching the whole Bible as Christian Scripture, and I think the Christological paradigm offered here is potentially more fruitful than the kind of late-entry point suggested in The Story. But the way it is done does not actually shed any substantial light on the story once we go back to the beginning other than to stress the goodness of the physical world and that we are heading towards a restored creation. The fact that the second chapter is then on the Exodus before we get to creation is again a worthy attempt to discern patterns and motifs that shape the whole but this too is done in a slightly confusing way (see the rationale provided on pg 21 and pg 41-42). In short, the attempt to approach the whole Bible from explicitly Christian and Christocentric principles needs to be presented more clearly.
Having said all this, once you work through the early material and into the substantive heart of the book the rewards are great. Williams provides a largely compelling account of creation in covenantal terms and the rest of redemptive history as organically connected to this covenant structure. Far as the Curse is therefore more successful than The Story of Israel in being analytic of the story in a way that discerns structures that are not merely chronologically repeated but theologically progressive towards an ultimate reality. The unpacking of the whole of Genesis is rich and insightful and in fact we do not leave Genesis until Chapter Eight, by which time a number of key facets of the biblical storyline are clearly in place. This aspect alone ensures the book fills in a lot of the gaps that exist in The Story. Chapter 12 on Jesus is the best in the book with Williams' covenantal presentation of Jesus' person and work making clear links back to every other part of the story: creation, fall and redemptive history and it operates with a clear Adam-Christ typology. This chapter provides helpful clarity on what is, and what is not, new in the new covenant, and in its discussion of the similarities and differences between the testaments is a very good model of how to integrate some of the classic categories of Reformed theology into a biblical theology. The following chapter contains excellent reflections on the relationship between church and kingdom and the book ends with a clear exposition of the renewal of all things and the restoration of a new heaven and new earth.
In this light, to argue that neither book marks a significant advance on what is already available in evangelical biblical theology might be deemed more than a little harsh. However, for all their many merits I am not convinced that the main themes put forward here are the best way to describe the unity of the Bible in overarching terms. I would argue that in terms of the big picture they fall short of what Graeme Goldsworthy has argued for in < ahref="gospelandkingdom.htm">Gospel and Kingdom. For instance, in relation to The Story of Israel, Goldsworthy's kingdom understanding of biblical theology provides a richer and more integrated understanding of Genesis 1-3 - it models God's people in God's place living under God's rule - which is then taken up and recapitulated in the Abrahamic promises and the story of Israel. In this way exile and restoration are not just connected to Israel's story, but to creation's story, and the biblical reader adopts an approach to the unity of the bible which really does start at the very beginning. Fundamentally, I think there is a major theological problem with trying to group concepts like kingdom of God under the more encompassing theme of Israel - which really serves which? Is the rule of God instrumental for the sake of Israel, or is Israel an instrument in the rule of God? Which, ultimately, is ultimate? It seems a lot more plausible that it is the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus that transforms the understanding of Israel so that actually it is this former conceptuality that encompasses the latter, and not vice-versa.
In relation to Far as the Curse arguably the same can be said with covenant (despite its superior benefits) - which serves which? Is covenant a way of God establishing his rule, or is God's reign something he executes to establish his covenant? Here I think the issues are more complex than with the theme of Israel and even, perhaps, my way of putting the question is inadequate. However, Williams actually provides a very helpful treatment of the kingdom theme on pg 241-247 and approvingly quotes S. G. De Graaf's assertion that in the beginning God created the kingdom of God: in Genesis 1 ‘we are told not just that God created all things. What is revealed first and foremost is the kingdom of God' (pg 242). He further suggests that in the New Testament the covenantal elements that appear there actually serve the kingdom theme (pg 243). None of this is far from Goldsworthy's suggestion that the content of the covenant is the kingdom of God. If Goldsworthy's definition of the kingdom of God is granted in Genesis 1-3 then there is room for a kingdom of understanding of creation which requires structural consideration in biblical theology. At the very least there is room for more work to be done here on the relationship between these concepts. (Indeed in Goldsworthy's account, while best known for its kingdom motif, there is actually space for a multi-thematic approach understood in relation to a unified centre).
I am glad to have these books on my shelf and will refer to them again. I think their value will lie in being biblical theology-oriented reference tools for trying to think through the big picture of individual biblical books or sections of the plotline. (In this their use probably parallels William Dumbrell's The Faith of Israel). Until persuaded otherwise, I will still be turning to Goldsworthy for a sense of the big picture and using these volumes to help fill in the details.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature