Review of Hafemann and House, Central Themes in Biblical Theology

Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, eds., Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007. 330pp. $29.99, paper. 

Two leading evangelical biblical theologians, Scott Hafemann and Paul House, have edited a collection of essays that include their own contributions as well as key treatments from five other scholars, all in the prime of their careers. The participants met together twice to present their work to one another, so these essays have benefited from significant interaction from leading thinkers. The topics were not assigned but chosen by the contributors. These essays are not presenting arguments for the center of biblical theology, nor even claiming that the themes discussed are more central than others. Rather, this collection is a sampling of central themes. 

The introduction, penned by Hafemann and House, describes the kind of whole-Bible biblical theology that traces “themes and overarching structural ideas through the whole Bible” (15). This introduction sets forth a robust, evangelical approach to biblical theology—what it is and is not. The rest of the volume is comprised of the seven essays, a scripture index and an index of ancient sources. 

Hafemann’s essay on “The Covenant Relationship” opens the volume. Hafemann stresses the covenant relationship as “the structure that serves to integrate the interrelated themes developed throughout the history of redemption delineated in the Scriptures” (23, emphasis original). Approaches such as Hafemann’s, which read the whole Bible through the lens of THE covenant, have recently been critiqued by one of Hafemann’s colleagues at Gordon Conwell, Jeffrey Niehaus (“An Argument against Theologically Constructed Covenants” JETS 50.2 [2007], 259–73). Reading both Niehaus and Hafemann is instructive, as each presents a clear and well supported thesis. It will be interesting to see the next installment in this discussion between Hafemann and Niehaus, as Niehaus has presented a trenchant critique of Hafemann’s proposal. 

Thomas R. Schreiner has written what has to be the best essay on the law to be found in print today. His essay, “The Commands of God,” is a masterpiece that holds all of the biblical material together and shows great sensitivity to currents in scholarship. Schreiner helpfully distinguishes between the way the law functioned under the old covenant and the way that the coming of Messiah has altered the situation, pointing out that in most instances the law in the NT refers “to what is demanded in the Mosaic covenant” (68). Frank Thielman’s essay on “The Atonement” demonstrates the “common currency” of the notion of substitutionary atonement in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East. Especially helpful are the connections Thielman establishes between the references to “the many” in Isaiah 53 and NT texts such as Mark 10:45. 

Stephen Dempster walks through the canon in just the way he suggests one should in his OT Theology (Dominion and Dynasty), tracing throughout the theme of “The Servant of the Lord.” As with his other writings, Dempster’s essay is a stimulating, well organized, beautifully written, insightful treatment. The essays of Dempster and Schreiner will repay careful reading and re-reading. Paul House points to God’s judgment, a neglected theme, in his treatment of “The Day of the Lord.” He helpfully shows the connections between such instances of judgement as the flood and the destruction of Sodom with the announcements of the coming Day of the Lord in the prophets and the future day of reckoning pointed to in the NT. 

Elmer Martens pursues the topic of “The People of God” to illustrate the unity of the two testaments. He discusses the theme theologically, sociologically, ethically, and missionally. Roy Ciampa presents “The History of Redemption” as an outworking of a Creation-Sin-Exile-Redemption schema. He sees a national version of the pattern embedded within a global one, such that the national is the key to the resolution of the global. 

These essays are fine examples of biblical theology. They are up to date, strong articulations of seasoned scholars, and at the same time this volume serves as an excellent starting point for anyone engaging these issues for the first time. It is exciting to read these essays, as they helpfully establish a wide angle view of the whole canon that is focused through careful interpretation of texts in context. We applaud the editors, and may their tribe of biblical theologians increase!

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