According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible

By Graeme Goldsworthy
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2002). 251 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
17.1 (Spring 2006) : 115-117

The majority of American evangelicals were first introduced to Graeme Goldsworthy, former lecturer in Old Testament, biblical theology, and hermeneutics at Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia, through his book, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Eerdmans, 2000). The volume had a great impact, including being named book of the year for 2000 by Preaching magazine. In the words of its author, the book aimed “to provide a handbook for preachers that will help them apply a consistently Christ-centered approach to their sermons” (ix). Goldsworthy bemoaned the fact that very little was said about biblical theology in books on expository preaching. For him, biblical theology was one implication of the evangelical view of the Bible, and he believed that seeing the big picture of Scripture was necessary for effective biblical preaching. He wrote, “To the evangelical preacher, then, I would address one simple but pointed question, . . . How does this passage of Scripture, and consequently my sermon, testify to Christ?” (29). The answer was for the preacher to know salvation history as the context for the biblical text at hand. The context of salvation history is found through the study of biblical theology. The latter half of the book gave the practical application of biblical theology to preaching (133-256). However, the foundation of effective expository preaching was not only the preacher’s knowledge of biblical theology, but also his hearers’ understanding of the same. Thus, Goldsworthy encouraged expositors to train their congregants in biblical theology as he had done, using a course of study that had subsequently been published in 1991 in Australia and Great Britain as the book, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (132). Because of the impact of Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture among American evangelicals, the earlier work, According to Plan, has been published for the American market.

Goldsworthy introduces According to Plan as “a biblical theology for ordinary Christians” (7). The work is a beginner’s guide, and the author has kept the terminology simple, with many charts, summaries at the beginning of each chapter, and study guide questions at the conclusion of each chapter. The book divides into four parts. Part One asks why Christians should be concerned with biblical theology (15-25). The writer introduces some of the practical situations and problems in understanding and applying the Bible that are answered by relating them to the one message of the Scripture which is the concern of biblical theology. Part Two is a discussion of how biblical theology is done (27-78). The author shows how God has made Himself known through Christ and Scripture. The proper presuppositions (see list on 45) and methods of interpretation one uses in approaching the Bible as God’s revelation are special concerns addressed in these pages. Part Three is the heart of the book where the what, the content, of biblical theology is described (79-234). Here, Goldsworthy spells out what for him is the major theme of the Bible, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the other significant themes associated with it. These themes are developed progressively as they are in Scripture from creation to the consummation in the eternal state. Part Four is a short introduction to where the content and method of biblical theology can be applied (235-44). The subjects of knowing God’s will and life after death are used as examples of how study of the Bible can be enhanced once the big picture of Scripture has been grasped. The book concludes with a subject index (345-46) and a Scripture index (247-51).

Goldsworthy’s presentation has a number of noteworthy features. First, the importance of and presentation to the ordinary Christian of basic biblical truth must be emphasized. The volume is a model of how to educate the beginner in good theology in a simple way without ‘dumbing down’ the content. Second, the writer’s commitment to the authority of Scripture and the reader’s need to receive it by faith as God’s Word are well stated. Third, the centrality of the gospel to proper biblical understanding and a firm statement of the subject matter of the gospel can be affirmed as foundational for the Christian. Fourth, the reminder of the Christocentric nature of the scriptural revelation is helpful. Finally, the challenge of isolating the major themes and their development throughout the Bible is a needed emphasis. The author’s simple, yet profound, statement of his understanding of the content of biblical theology will be helpful to all Christian believers, even those who may disagree with him at points.

Nevertheless, some statements made by Goldsworthy need to be questioned. First, as to the basic method employed in biblical study, the writer states, “In doing biblical theology as Christians, we do not start at Genesis 1 and work our way forward until we discover where it is all leading. Rather we first come to Christ, and he directs us to study the Old Testament in the light of the gospel” (55). The grid of biblical understanding, for this author, is developed from the NT and the OT is then read through this grid. Second, a result of this type of reading of the OT is a denial of literalism in the interpretation of OT prophecies (67-69). This is affirmed because Jesus and the NT writers understood the OT prophecies through the principle of “typology.” Although such terms as land, exodus, and temple have specific correspondence to literal realities in the OT, they are seen in the NT as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, not literally, but typically. In the words of the author, “Literalism involves the very serious error of not listening to what the New Testament says about fulfillment. It assumes that the fulfillment must correspond exactly to the form of the promise” (67). In contrast to Goldsworthy, the present reviewer would affirm that biblical theology should proceed from Genesis 1 and OT prophecies should be understood literally. The resulting content of biblical theology will be premillennial in orientation instead of the amillennial approach that Goldsworthy states. Much in the areas of God’s authority, man’s rebellion, God’s redemption of believing sinners, and the blessings of union with Christ is profitable. Yet along with the agreement, the fundamental difference as to the present spiritual inauguration of kingdom and its consummation in the new Jerusalem being the totality of biblical fulfillment of OT prophecies is inevitable.

Along with Goldsworthy, the affirmation that both expositors and hearers should have a big-picture understanding of the Bible can be made. However, for this reviewer, The Greatness of the Kingdom by Alva J. McClain, which begins at Genesis 1 and works forward and takes the OT prophecies literally, is a better starting point for both expositors and congregants than According to Plan.