The better we see the big picture, the better we see Jesus: Schreiner talks The King in His Beauty
EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary, discusses his new book, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, with Towers contributor Josh Hayes.
JH: For our readers who might be less familiar with the term, what is biblical theology?
TS: Biblical theology focuses on the historical timeline of biblical revelation and the distinct contribution of each author. There are different facets, of course, but the focus is on the timeline as a whole and the unfolding of God’s plan. Systematic theology takes the timeline into account, but in biblical theology we focus on redemptive history and what the each biblical author has to say, whether we are reading Leviticus, Lamentations or Luke. So, biblical theology is more historically focused and based. It’s not seeking, necessarily, to answer contemporary questions as systematic theology does.
JH: With so many evangelical scholars publishing “whole-Bible” biblical theology texts in recent years, why did you write one with The King in His Beauty?
TS: When I wrote this book, I thought, “How could I write a biblical theology that would help pastors, students and lay people?” I hoped scholars would get some benefit from it, but I didn’t write it fundamentally for scholars; I wrote it fundamentally for people who love the Scriptures and want to know the Scriptures, but they also want to have an understanding of how all of Scripture fits together. I think there’s a pastoral slant to my book. I’m not trying to advance a new or novel scholarly theory really. I am trying to discover how the Scriptures fit together. There is a lot of good biblical theology out there, and there is certainly much interest, which is encouraging because ultimately it shows that people think the Scriptures have something to say to our generation in a coherent way, especially in terms of biblical scholarship. Greg Beale’s work is outstanding. Charles Scobie has written a whole-Bible biblical theology. Jim Hamilton has written a whole-Bible biblical theology as well. We also have the recent work from Peter Gentry and Steve Wellum. My work is probably closest to Hamilton’s in terms of the audience it reaches. I did not intend to write the kind of scholarly biblical theology that we have in Beale, Scobie, or even Wellum and Gentry.
JH: Did you envision a particular way that people might use the book?
TS: I think you could use the book in your own private reading. I also think in an Old Testament survey class or a New Testament survey class, the book could be used as a different kind of text to read. In a lot of those types of classes there is a lot of focus — and helpfully so — on the structure of the books, the author, setting and date. But sometimes there’s not as much focus on how the message coheres with the rest of the Bible. We focus so much on the parts that we don’t see the whole. One of the contributions of my book is that I look at the Scriptures in terms of a book’s historical setting, but I also look at a book in terms of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
For example, we look at Leviticus in terms of its historical context. But we’re Christians, and Jesus Christ has come. So, how should we appropriate and understand theologically the message of Leviticus in light of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ — in light of the divine author of Scripture? The problem with many Old Testament biblical theologies is that they only look at it in terms of what it meant within the Old Testament itself, but I think we should do both: we should look at Leviticus in light of its historical setting and in terms of the fulfillment we have in Jesus Christ.
JH: What do you consider the biggest challenge in writing a whole-Bible biblical theology?
TS: Since I’m a New Testament scholar, the Old Testament was more of a challenge, and more specifically, the question of how the Wisdom literature fits, such as, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. The Wisdom literature doesn’t advance the storyline, so how does it fit in the narrative of the King regaining the kingdom? I argue — and I think there’s a lot of canonical evidence for this — that the Wisdom literature is tied in with the fear of the Lord. We see that in Ecclesiastes, we see that in Job, we see that in Proverbs. The Wisdom books show us what it looks like in the particulars of everyday life to live under God’s lordship.
Job and Ecclesiastes teach us that life under God’s rule is not simple but complex and sometimes confusing and even baffling. For every situation, we don’t have a nice, neat formulaic answer in terms of the problems we face. Job and Ecclesiastes teach that we are to fear the Lord, even when we don’t understand what God is doing. In Proverbs how we live under God’s reign is tied to the particulars, to the details of everyday life. We don’t only have a cosmic plan; God relates to us as individuals as we await the consummation.
JH: Since you alluded in the response to the previous question to the book’s thesis about the “kingdom of God” as central to the biblical storyline, could you describe your thesis for our readers?
TS: I took the title of the book from Isaiah 33:17, where he says, “You will see the king in his beauty.” The story of the Bible is that God, as Lord and creator, is king, and he created us to rule the world for him. Human beings rejected God’s rule and sinned. God is king, but he doesn’t treat human beings as he did fallen angels. He promises in Genesis 3:15 that victory will be won (the world will be reclaimed) through the offspring of the woman who crushes the serpent.
So that’s the narrative: how will God reclaim his rule over the world through human beings? Scripture’s storyline reveals that God’s kingdom will not come through the work of human beings. Victory is God’s work, and thus he deserves all the glory and honor and praise. The story of the Flood indicates the natural bent of human beings: we rebel against God and build our own kingdom. But God promises to preserve the world until he brings in full redemption, and he promises to reclaim the world through one man, and that man is Abraham and his offspring. It’s one man against the world.
One of the interesting features in the OT account is the enormous amount of time it takes for the promises to be fulfilled, showing the coming of God’s kingdom is a miracle, that it’s contrary to human beings because we are rebellious against God. The coming of the kingdom is narrowed down, in the Davidic covenant, to one offspring of Abraham and to the offspring of David. In the New Testament, that one offspring is clearly revealed to be Jesus Christ. So, the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 is Jesus Christ. Another way of putting it is this: fundamentally, the church throughout its history has read the storyline rightly. That storyline, however we explain it, has been understood from the earliest times, from the earliest church fathers, because God made it clear. We have to be reminded in each generation what that storyline is. There’s a depth here for the most profound intellect, and there are areas of disagreement among scholars. At the same time, the basic story is accessible for the ordinary person.
JH: Why is biblical theology important for the Christian life?
TS: We don’t understand our lives in isolation. We have to understand our lives in light of all that God is doing. We all want a big picture. It’s not enough just to have a small picture of our lives. What are we here for? What’s life about? This means asking about what God is doing, in the world and in the universe. That’s relevant to every Christian. We can’t understand our lives if we don’t understand the larger storyline.
One of the things that struck me as I wrote the book is how slowly God works to fulfill his promises. He promises Abraham land, offspring and universal blessing. Yet, Abraham’s whole life is spent trying to have not just many children, but one. Abraham dies with no land, barely any offspring and no universal blessing. So when we come to the New Testament, aren’t the readers still struggling with the same thing? They’re still suffering; life is tough. And what does the Book of Hebrews remind them of? Abraham, Moses and so forth. The saints who preceded us persevered because God’s purposes ripen slowly. We’re impatient people. It’s hard to wait. But we see that God’s plan unfolds very slowly. When we consider the history of Israel, things unfold slowly, and amazingly enough after 1200 or 1500 years, they’re in exile. Nothing seems to be happening. We must learn to trust God to work out his purposes in our lives even when we don’t see them working out in our contemporary experience in the way we would hope and expect.
JH: How can Christians become better biblical theologians?
TS: We tend to read our Bibles in little bits. I remember meeting a person who said he reads a verse a day for his devotions. Reading a paragraph or chapter is helpful, but I think we’re not as good at reading the big segments together, chapters and books. So, biblical theology helps us to think, “How does the Bible fit together?” We should ask ourselves, “Why is Leviticus after Exodus?” “What is the message of Leviticus as a whole?” “What is its message in the Pentateuch?” and then, “What is its message in all of the Bible?” Too many believers haven’t been taught the bigger picture, and biblical theology helps us ask what is happening on a larger scale.
JH: Are there any forthcoming projects that you can tell us about?
TS: I’m working on a commentary right now on the Book of Hebrews, and I’m excited about it. It’s a new commentary series from Broadman and Holman. The first part of the commentary and the last part of the commentary examine the biblical theology of the book. Working on this has been enjoyable and challenging.