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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  1. Thanks for the review, Jim. I found the book very helpful, too, and hope that more works from this big-picture, meta-narrative perspective will be forthcoming in the future. My reaction to Hafemann was that he was trying to erase distinctions between many of the covenants in Scripture by drawing such a wide, broad canvas that they all come out looking the same in the end. I haven’t read the critique in JETS, but I look forward to it. I did thinkt that Ciampa’s essay was worth the price of the book! What a great piece of biblical theology.

  2. Thanks for the review. I have only read Hafemann, Schreiner, and Martens. I was disappointed with Martens’ chapter. Schreiners was excellent! Hafemann’s was insightful but I agree with Niehaus that he flattens the covenants out too much. I am looking forward to the BT that Niehaus is working on!

  3. Jim, I am very interested in getting started in Biblical Theology. I haven’t really read anything in this realm. What would you recommend for someone who is just getting started? I have heard good things about Goldsworthy’s According to Plan…

  4. Goldsworthy is a good place to start. The evangelical classic has long been Vos’s Biblical Theology, but you might be better off to start with Tom Schreiner’s Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ. From there, go to Ladd’s NT Theology (unless it takes you until April, when you can buy Schreiner’s NT Theology).



  5. This is one of the best edited volumes on BT available. The BT: Retrospect and Prospect by ed by Hafemann is equally substantive, with essays that take a slightly narrower focus. As for Hafemann’s monocovenantal view, it is exegetically tight but for some theologically problematic. Enter Niehaus.

    Niehaus insists that these scholars (Hafemann, Dumbrell, etc) have imposed a “theologically constructed covenant” upon the Bible as a whole. Instead, he argues for an interpretation of the biblical covenants in terms of special and common grace. The problem with Niehaus’ alternative is that it, too, is theologically constructed. The notion of common and special grace, though arguably biblical notions, are in fact theological constructs. What we need is more exegetically driven BT, especially on the topic of covenants.

  6. With regard to Jdodson’s comment, I would like to note that I have no problem with theological constructs per se, and have not written against them per se. Certainly the concepts of common and special grace are old theological constructs, or perhaps better, concepts, which, I believe, do a good job of capturing some essential truths in two brief phrases. When applied to biblical covenants this ought to be obvious. It is surely beyond dispute that everyone lives under the Noahic covenant, for example, since the terms are such in Genesis 9, so the Noahic covenant is a good specimen of God’s common grace – his grace extended to all people. By contrast, it is equally obvious that not all people lived under the Mosaic covenant, so that covenant is a good example of God’s special grace, or special revelation, extended to a people whom God himself called chosen or elect out of all peoples.

    There is a big difference, however, between such a restating of the biblical data, on the one hand, and the attempt which unicovenantalists make, on the other, to make all of the biblical covenants into one. It is rather like comparing apples and oranges, and to lump them together as “constructs” that vie on the same grounds for our approval seems to me to border on obscurantism.

    I certainly agree with my good colleague Scott Hafemann when he says that what we want is the most biblical way of construing the data. The difference – or one difference – between our views is, that I have portrayed a distinction between the covenants which God has extended to all people, on the one hand, and those which he has extended to his elect on the other, whereas, so far as I can make out, and as I quote him in my article, Dr. Hafemenn maintains that “one covenant relationship” exists in all of these covenants. But, this is at best an unfortunate choice of wording. We all recognize, I hope, that the same (”one”) covenant relationship does not characterize the relationship to God of a non-believer, who lives under the Noahic covenant, and a believer, who has entered into the New Covenant relationship with God through faith in Christ. Another difference between Dr. Hafemann and myself has to do with the idea that a covenant confirms an already existing relationship. I would hope that what I have already written in the JETS article makes it clear that this cannot be an adequate description of what newly initiated covenants do, either in the ancient Near East or in the Bible.

    I hope these comments contribute some clarity to the conversation.

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