In the closing chapter of the Bible, faith vanishes into sight and the “age of the ear” yields to the “age of the eye” as God’s people see his face (Rev. 22:4). Isaiah’s ancient promise—”Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty” (Isa. 33:17)—becomes concrete, glorious, endless reality.
Thomas Schreiner, who has already written a Pauline theology and a New Testament theology, has now gifted the church with a whole-Bible theology titled The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Baker Academic). With scholarly care and pastoral clarity, Schreiner traces the storyline of Scripture through all 66 books, demonstrating that the goal of God’s kingdom is to see the king in his beauty and be enraptured in his glory.
I corresponded with Schreiner, professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary and pastor of preaching at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, about the scriptural significance of “place,” how grasping the “already but not yet” can help you slay sin, and more.
In terms of structure, why did you opt for a book-by-book rather than a thematic approach? What are the benefits and drawbacks of going book by book?
I opted for the latter because I wanted to focus, as much as possible, on the specific content of each of the books in the Bible. A thematic approach helps us see more clearly the overarching storyline and unity of the Scriptures. On the other hand, though, a thematic approach may squeeze out or domesticate themes or emphases that don’t accord with the chosen theme. I don’t believe there is “one right way” to write a biblical theology, for the Scriptures are investigated with profit and delight from a number of different angles. So thematic and book-by-book approaches are both useful. I pursued the latter approach in an effort to attend to the warp and woof of the Scriptures while remaining constrained by the content of each book.
In the book you emphasize three interrelated themes: (1) God as Lord; (2) human beings as God’s image bearers; and (3) the place in which God’s rule is exercised. Could you elaborate on the meaning and significance of this third idea of “place”?
God didn’t create us as ethereal beings to float in some kind of spiritual netherworld. He created us as flesh-and-blood creatures to live in the world he formed and to rule that world for him. Adam and Eve as God’s vice-regents, dependent on him, were to rule the garden for his glory. They failed, of course, and the story of God reclaiming the world began (Gen. 3:15).
The story begins with baby steps and progresses at an incredibly slow pace. When God calls Abraham, he promises him universal blessing but begins by pledging the land of Canaan. But Abraham and his immediate heirs never possess the land. They live as exiles and sojourners in it (Heb. 11:13). Hundreds of years pass before Joshua conquers Canaan and the promise of the land is realized. Finally, Israel is poised to extend God’s kingdom to the world. I don’t have time to tell the whole story here, but Israel fails miserably and ends up going into exile. The promise is going backward!
Hundreds of years pass before Jesus comes, proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God. Jesus now reigns at the right hand of God in heaven and ultimately the entire universe will be under his reign. We’ve seen in the last 2,000 years as well that God’s purposes ripen slowly. His timetable isn’t ours. We’re called to be patient and to trust him.
What contribution are you trying to make to biblical theology and hermeneutics with this work?
I’m not attempting to break any new ground in this book or to propound any new scholarly theory. My hope is that the book would help those who read and teach the Scriptures to gain a better understanding of the whole counsel of God.
Can you explain the basic hermeneutical approach used in this book?
I attend to the storyline of the Bible as it unfolds, trying to listen to the voice of each author. What contribution to the story is made by Leviticus, Lamentations, and Luke? But at the same time I read the story canonically. In other words, I consider the voice of the divine author as well.
Let me give a specific example. We read the Song of Solomon in its historical context, as it it unfolds the delights and joys of marital love between a man and a woman. At the same time, however, there’s canonical warrant to read the book in terms of Christ’s relationship to the church. I’m not advocating an allegorical reading of the Song of Solomon, but I am suggesting the historical context isn’t the only level at which we should read the book.
To give another example, we read what Ezekiel says about the temple (Ezek. 40-48) both in its historical context and also in light of what John tells us about the heavenly temple in Revelation (Rev. 21-22).
Why is understanding the tension of the “already but not yet” so crucial to rightly understanding the Bible? How might grasping this practically help a Christian struggling with sin?
If we don’t understand the already but not yet, then we simply won’t and can’t understand the Scriptures. For example, when the kingdom comes in Jesus’ ministry, the dead are raised, demons are cast out, and the sick are healed. Satan’s kingdom is overthrown! The Gospel writers clarify that victory over sin and Satan are due to Christ’s death and resurrection.
But what does this mean for us today if the kingdom has come? After all, sickness is rampant, death seems to reign over all, and Satan is alive and well. The answer is the already but not yet. The kingdom has arrived in Jesus and, among other things, the gift of the Spirit demonstrates that the kingdom has come. And yet there’s an eschatological proviso. Christ is risen, but we await the day of our resurrection—the final day when disease, demons, and death are no more.
How does this perspective relate to our continuing struggle with sin? The already/not yet teaches us that we won’t obtain complete and final victory over sin during this life. Perfection won’t be ours until the day of resurrection, and so we’re called during this present evil age to wage war against sin, realizing at the same time we won’t be entirely free from it. The “already” warns us against passivity: we have the gift of the Spirit and therefore must walk in the Spirit, be led by the Spirit, march in step with the Spirit, sow to the Spirit, and be filled with the Spirit. The “not yet” reminds us we are not all that we want to or will be.