Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture

In Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, Graeme Goldsworthy is concerned primarily with a return to a Christocentric understanding of the whole Bible.  He feels that this understanding will ensue with the recovery of biblical theology and a renewed understanding of salvation history.  He argues that the scriptures must be read within the context of these two frameworks and that, subsequently, our preaching must reflect their influence as well.

In many ways, Goldsworthy’s concerns are imminently practical and pastoral.  They arise out of a conviction concerning the popular misunderstanding of the nature and place of the Old Testament within the greater framework of scripture as well as a crucial misunderstanding of the nature of the gospel and its relationship to the greater framework of scripture.  These misunderstandings have manifested themselves not only in the presuppositions of the laity, but, more tragically, in shallow homiletic moralizings of the Old Testament as well as the New which divorce the ethical mandates of the scriptures from the framework of the gospel and thereby reduce them to legalistic pieties.  As such, the modern Evangelical neglect of salvation history and biblical theology has resulted in preaching that is focused on man and his own efforts at self-reformation.

Goldsworthy’s theological foundation upon which he builds his argument is the assertion that Christ is the center not only of the scriptures, but of theology itself (33).  This means that all of our theological pronouncements as well as our expositions of scripture must point to and be grounded in the gospel, not as a strained homiletic ploy but rather necessarily.  Specifically, he appeals to two scriptural concepts:  Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 2:2 that he had “determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified,” and Jesus’ own attestation in passages such as John 2:39-40 and Luke 24:27 that all of the scriptures point to Himself (1, 21).  These two concepts reflect Goldsworthy’s two major concerns, the former dealing with the importance of the gospel in all of our preaching and the latter with biblical theology itself.

Before considering Goldsworthy’s remedy, it must be asked whether or not his diagnoses of the problem is sound.  His charge that the Evangelical church has either misunderstood the Old Testament, ignored it, reduced it to mere character studies or pietistic moralizations, or all three, is the easiest to assess.  He is absolutely correct.  Perhaps he hits closest to the mark in trying to understand this when he points to the division of the studies of the testaments in our formal education structures as a possible reason why pastors and lay people alike seem to have such confusion over the nature and place of the Old Testament (xii).  It is truly not surprising that such misunderstandings persist when Christian ministers quite likely go through college, seminary, and beyond studying the testaments in different classes, and possibly in different semesters or years with little or no conversations in either class about how they relate.  His assertions are also verified by the day by day experiences of any pastor who frequently encounters lay, and even personal, confusion over this crucial matter.

Directly related to this is the charge that Evangelicals have neglected biblical theology (32).  He is also correct in this assertion.  Perhaps formal education shares some of the blame in this as well.  More likely, however, the Church is caught in a cycle.  It is producing what it teaches.  Evangelicals are inundated by calls to be “New Testament Christians,” preaching that largely neglects the Old Testament or uses it, as Goldsworthy laments, for teaching only moral lessons, and Sunday School and Bible study literature that does not itself integrate a truly biblical theology in its presentation of the scriptures.

The charge concerning the Evangelical neglect of salvation history is also true.  It must be argued, in the North American Evangelical context, that the mass and often blind acceptance of dispensationalism has and is contributing to this problem.  There seems to be an assumption that the gospel was God’s “Plan B,” once the children of Israel rejected the “Plan A” offer of salvation through adherence to the Mosaic law, or that Christ was sent in and for a particular dispensation as opposed to all of them.  Furthermore, the radical distinctions drawn between Israel and the Church in dispensationalism lend themselves to the erroneous assumption that God is dealing in some sense with two different groups of people in almost two different ways.  It could be argued that classical dispensationalism is not inherently opposed to salvation history.  This is true.  However, the popular dissemination of dispensationalism has resulted in these assumptions.  Regardless, the problem is certainly not germane to and, in fact, expands well outside the borders of any particular school of prophecy.

Goldsworthy hits upon a crucial point later in his work in noting that the Evangelical aversion to salvation history is merely symptomatic of a larger aversion to history itself (72).  That is, coming to see how God’s works through history have typified and culminated in Christ’s coming would require a study and appreciation of history.  Goldsworthy rightly assesses that such a study is not in vogue in churches which are fixated primarily on bringing its members into an existentialist experience with Christ through the moment of “decision.”  We might say, then, that the Evangelical neglect of salvation history is part of the larger issue of the neglect of the mind in many churches.

Later, Goldsworthy offers a proposal for a Christian education plan that will responsibly teach the people the fundamental truths of salvation history and biblical theology (129).  He also offers a proposed outline of biblical history that will help people understand the basic movements of biblical history (101).  This is not only admirable, it is important.  Goldsworthy is correct in his apparent belief that it is not enough for the pastor alone to understand biblical theology.  The challenge is to bring the people to the point where they will understand how to correctly understand the scriptures themselves.   The great challenge will be in trying to communicate the verities of biblical theology and church history in a church climate in which little is expected on the parts of the parishioners.

What, then, of Goldsworthy’s proposed solution?  To begin with, his call for a return to biblical theology and, more generally, to a hermeneutic which sees the reality of Christ and the gospels in all that the scriptures teach and point to, is sound primarily because it is itself scriptural.  As mentioned above, Christ did Himself claim that all of the scriptures point to Himself and Paul did, in fact, assert that all proclamation ought to be of “Christ and Him crucified.”  Thus, Goldsworthy is not grasping at straws or proposing a merely academic solution to the problem.  It is founded in the scriptures.  Furthermore, whatever disagreements might exist about the interpretation of these passages and their implications on biblical theology, it must be agreed that the modern Church, by in large, is not adhering to what Paul and Christ both say.  The Old Testament is frequently expounded upon with no reference to the gospel, and preaching has been reduced to the dissemination of pithy maxims.

Thus, the crucial issue concerning the validity of biblical theology is that Christ Himself believed in it.  Goldsworthy is right in this regard (48).  Furthermore, he is right in believing that Christ understood His coming and work and nature to be the consummation of God’s plan of salvation.  That is, Christ believed in what we have come to call “salvation history” (51).  Goldsworthy makes his argument primarily on the basis of the tremendous focus on “the kingdom of God” in the New Testament and on Christ’s fulfillment of it.  “The kingdom of God,” argues Goldsworthy, is the rightful theme of the entire Bible and Christ’s proclamation concerning its arrival in His coming would have been understood by His Jewish audience to have been a “salvation historical” statement (52).  We are right to heed Goldsworthy’s warning about trying to find in the New Testament or Jesus a precise articulation of our own theological systems, but we are also right to claim that God’s mighty works throughout history have reached their apex in Christ and that, most importantly, Christ Himself acknowledged this fact.

Goldsworthy’s movements are methodical and logical.  Once he has grounded both biblical theology and salvation history in the scriptures themselves, he develops a thoroughly biblical justification for suggesting that preaching that does not proclaim Christ in all of the scriptures and point to Him as the fulfillment of God’s works from Genesis onward stands in violation of the biblical pattern and spirit of proclamation.  It stands to reason that the only way of refuting Goldsworthy’s central argument is to attack its hermeneutical underpinnings.  These underpinnings, however, are well argued and firmly grounded in the biblical text.

When he moves to the specifics of how to read the Bible from the perspective of biblical theology and the vantage point of salvation history, Goldsworthy rather surprisingly argues for the restoration of typology as a valid hermeneutical construct.  This is surprising because there does seem to be fairly widespread uneasiness about typology in many Evangelical circles.  Goldsworthy knows this and realizes that this uneasiness is a result of the frequent abuses of typology that denigrate into allegory (76-77).  Therefore, he more than once addresses the topic and the proper uses of it.  Interestingly, he argues for a “macro-typology” which seems to simply be a recognition of the overall movement of salvation history in the Bible which is affirmed by the New Testament’s use of the Old (111).

In truth, Goldsworthy’s treatment of typology is refreshing insofar as it is a well-reasoned attempt at turning back what is perhaps an undue skepticism in some quarters concerning its validity.  The strength of his argument is in the idea that typology is a natural and organic implication of salvation history itself.  If all of salvation history points to, leads to, and finds its fulfillment in Christ, then all of its events must rightfully point to Him.  The key, here, is not to force a connection between the Old Testament event and Christ or to allow interpretation of the Old Testament to decay into an eisegetical allegoricalism which pours meaning into details which are not germane to the text.

Goldsworthy turns next to the main movements of salvation history.  He proposes that there are three:  from creation to Abraham, Abraham to the first part of the reign of Solomon, and Solomon to Christ.  He finds the foundation of this structure within the Matthean genealogy (89). He further argues that salvation history advances through the history of Israel even when the society of Israel declines (107).  It does so through types: in the movement from Abraham to Solomon through Israel’s history, and in the movement from Solomon to Christ through the voice of the prophets.  Christ and the new creation stand as the antitype to which all of the preceding types point (139).  Goldsworthy next moves, most helpfully, through a consideration of how to preach from all of the major divisions of the Bible as they relate to and stand within the major movements of salvation history.

The implications of Goldsworthy’s proposal are tremendous.  First of all, by arguing that we must first see how and where the text we are approaching stands within the movement of salvation history and what their biblical theological implications are, he is arguing that all preaching is gospel preaching just as all of the scriptures point to Christ.  Thus, Goldsworthy concludes, there can be no direct application of a text to modern hearers without recourse to the gospel to which it stands in direct relationship (117).  To do so would be to introduce a new legalism into the church, for the teaching of the ethical mandates of scripture outside of the context of the gospel implies that the gospel is nothing more than a mere starting point after which we may pursue the difficult business of living.

Goldsworthy’s arguments in this regard are not only compelling, but convicting.  His frequently-stated claim that there is an inherent danger in preaching the ethical mandates of an epistle without a frequent and consistent assertion of the gospel framework in which they stand must be heard by modern Evangelical preachers, especially those preaching “through” certain books.  Furthermore, it has direct bearing on preaching about ethical issues on the basis of these portions of scripture alone.  Goldsworthy’s arguments suggest the compelling notion that the household codes of Ephesians 6, for instance, cannot be proclaimed without the theological gospel foundation of Ephesians 1.  The question seems to be one of how to articulate and re-articulate this gospel foundation throughout a series in a natural way.  Perhaps the answer to this lies not so much in the employment of specific hermeneutical means as much as in the creation of an overall homiletic climate in which the pervasiveness of the gospel and the schema of salvation history is established as an a priori to all proclamation.  This is not to suggest that we reach a point where we try to create the assumption of a gospel foundation in our people.  Clearly, any text’s standing within the framework of salvation history must be asserted again and again.  But it is to be hoped that the theme of salvation history might in time come to be naturally used and heard through a consistent pattern of preaching in this way.

There are also implications in Goldsworthy’s proposals for evangelism.  He rather movingly points to these himself when he notes that many modern evangelistic tactics do not appear to appreciate the power of the gospel insofar as they seem to strive for a decision rather than to allow the gospel message to convict (95).  Goldsworthy is correct that it is the gospel itself, not our emphasis on a person’s need to respond to it, that convicts.  This is crucial, for Goldsworthy’s high view of the power of the gospel stands in direct contrast to the man-centered philosophy which has come to dominate the Church and which is itself a product of the wider shift in the Church from theology to anthropology.

Goldsworthy’s survey of how the preacher might choose to approach the various genres of biblical literature bears the mark of consistency in its application of the principles he espouses up to that point.  His divisions of these texts suggest that preachers must understand the characteristics of these various genres if they are to understand the texts’ place within salvation history and biblical theology and especially if they are to effectively communicate it (137).   He suggests that preachers intentionally plan to preach from these areas with an eye towards leading the people to understand how each text relates to the theology of the book as well as biblical theology in general.  He proposes that the minister lead his people to ask, “How does this event (or character) testify to Christ?” (151).  He then shows how this might be done.

The strength of Goldsworthy’s proposals concerning the examples he gives is not only that their consistency to the framework which he suggests rests at the heart of all true interpretation, but also in his humble approach to these texts.  Quite often, as in his treatment of Ecclesiastes or the Song of Solomon, he suggests that a book’s place within salvation history is not always readily apparent (190-191).  This is yet another example of how preachers are going to have to rise to the occasion and be willing and able to grapple with the text in an effort to understand it.

One of the strength’s of Goldsworthy’s propositions is that it challenges preachers to know more and delve deeper than a mere surface reading and, most tragically, a mere surface preaching of a text.  Goldsworthy suggests throughout that not only preaching, but reading the Bible, is going to require greater care than is often times given to these acts.  One wonders if preachers who preach within church settings in which congregations are used to brief, moralistic sermons will be convicted enough to go about the further study required for a truly effective reading and proclaiming of the text.  It is to be hoped that preachers will be, for nothing less than an accurate proclamation of the gospel is at stake.

Goldsworthy’s discussion of prophetic literature and preachers’ uses of it is more than pertinent today.  Our modern church context presents ministers with serious temptations to try to interpret prophecies as applicable to modern society in just the same way that they were applicable to Israel so many years ago.  Goldsworthy offers severe warnings about this and asks preachers to make sure their applications are valid.  Furthermore, he more generally warns ministers about falling into certain traps concerning preaching on prophecy, such as trying to find modern fulfillments for all of the prophecies of the Old Testament and the New (181-182).  He tellingly warns preachers about the temptation to become “second-coming gurus” (221).

It simply cannot be overstated that these warnings desperately need to be heard today.  In the aftermath of the momentous calendar change into the new millennium as well as the presence of best selling prophecy novels with staggering sales, it is abundantly clear that the Church wants desperately to find the fulfillments of all the details of prophecy in our current setting.  Furthermore, many within the Church are titillated by the more exotic pictures within prophetic and apocalyptic literature and are not afraid to ask the minister to preach on them.  Goldsworthy’s proposals concerning the reading, understanding, and proclamation of scripture mean that ministers must be willing to keep Christ and the text’s relationship to Him as preeminent.  It seems as if the great temptation concerning preaching on prophetic and apocalyptic texts is to preach with the goal in mind of satiating the people’s curiosity.  This should never happen.  If all of the scriptures are about Christ, this means that prophetic and apocalyptic texts must proclaim Him as well.

It is more than evident that Goldsworthy has adequately pinpointed and diagnosed the problem behind much contemporary preaching.  The problem is not that ministers are not sufficiently trained or that our pulpits have too many unskilled ministers.  Rather, the problem of shallow, ineffectual, and legalistic preaching is a result of a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the scriptures themselves.  Goldsworthy’s call for a renewed understanding of biblical theology and the place of the scriptures within salvation history should be heeded by the Church.  For if it is, then Christ will once more be proclaimed as the head of His body and our parishioners will be freed from the delusion that adherence to the ethical teachings of the scripture, independent of the gospel, will usher us into the kingdom.  Furthermore, if his call is heeded, the gospel will be seen for what it truly is:  the thread that runs throughout the entire scriptures, the proper subject of all proclamation, and the hope of God’s people not only since the incarnation, but in the past ages as well.

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