Is There a Single Center (primary theme) of the Bible?

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Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
Greetings,

Personal Note: I have been away from the PB for a month or more due to business matters including a potential lawsuit. But I think everything will work out. I never got anxious through it all. God is so good to me.

The book I am reading, by James M. Hamilton Jr., says YES! The title is, God's Salvation Through Judgment—A Biblical Theology. I will send a PDF of the title page, contents, and first chapter. (pardon my highlighting) I had to cut out about 15 pages due to the PB file size limit.

Everything he said so far rings true to what I have believed for some time. What was new to me is that so many scholars do not agree with his thesis.

Here's what the author claims is the Center of both testaments: (he repeats it over and over–maybe to a fault) This story of salvation history is a story of "God’s glory in salvation through judgment."

Below is a paragraph or two of many different views of the Bible's Center. This is what was new to me. I would appreciate your thoughts.

3. Mere Anarchy Is Loosed upon the World: The Plethora of Proposed Centers

Scholars have proposed an almost bewildering array of themes each of which contends for the claim to centrality in Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, and biblical theology. These include: God’s self-revelation, God as the Lord, the holiness of God, God’s steadfast love, the sovereignty of God, God’s name, God’s rule, God’s kingdom, God’s presence, God’s design, God’s election of Israel, the organizing principle of the covenant, promise-fulfillment, the new creation, God himself, and Jesus.74 The criticisms of these proposals come down to the objection that they are either too broad or too narrow.75 D. A. Carson, for instance, objecting to the proposal that Jesus is the center of New Testament Theology, writes, “Although at one level that is saying everything at another level it is saying almost nothing.”76 Too general. On the other end, Hasel writes, “Any center of the NT (or the Bible) is not broad, deep, and wide enough to do justice to the whole canonical NT.”77 Too narrow. The validity of these criticisms is attested to by the multiplication of proposals. Unsatisfied scholars continue to search for an adequate center. Joining them, I contend that there is a theme that has not been seriously considered, a theme broad enough to encompass all the data while also being focused enough to help readers of the Bible organize what they find in all the texts they read.

Some conclude that the very fact that so many “centers” have been proposed proves that there is no center. Carson writes: “The pursuit of the center is chimerical. NT theology is so interwoven that one can move from any one topic to any other topic. We will make better progress by pursuing clusters of broadly common themes, which may not be common to all NT books.”78 Andreas Köstenberger concurs: “The quest for a single center of NT theology is misguided and should be replaced with an approach that recognizes several themes as an integrated whole.… The search for a single center of the NT should be abandoned. It seems more promising to search for a plurality of integrative motifs.”79 Elmer Martens writes similarly of Old Testament Theology: “One must speak, therefore, of a unity forged via interlocking traditions; the language … of trajectories and boundaries rather than ‘center.’ By the end of the twentieth century, a consensus of sorts emerged questioning the viability of a center.”80 And Charles Scobie writes regarding biblical theology: “It is difficult to understand the obsession with finding one single theme or ‘center’ for OT or NT theology, and more so for an entire BT. It is widely held today that the quest for a single center has failed.… It is the multithematic approach that holds most promise.”81

In spite of the judgment of these respected scholars, it must be observed that their statements do not seem to have taken into account one theme that has only recently been put forward as the center of biblical theology: the glory of God.82[1]


74 For documentation of who proposed these centers and where, see Hamilton, “The Glory of God in Salvation through Judgment,” 65–70.
75 So also Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion: A Theology of the Old Testament (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 20, 27. Merrill’s own proposed center is something of a short exposition of Gen. 1:26–28: the sovereign God glorifying himself through man, the agent through whom God will fulfill his purposes (ibid., 27, 647).
76 D. A. Carson, “New Testament Theology,” DLNTD, 810.
77 Hasel, New Testament Theology, 164.
78 Carson, “New Testament Theology,” 810.
79 Köstenberger, “Diversity and Unity in the New Testament,” 154.
80 Martens, Old Testament Theology, 57.
81 Scobie, The Ways of Our God, 87.
82 Virtually everything that John Piper has written argues for the centrality of the glory of God, and Thomas R. Schreiner presents the glory of God in Christ as the center of Paul’s theology in Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 15–35. Bruce Waltke agrees: “The ultimate theological truth that unifies the whole of Scripture is the irruption of the merciful King’s rule to his glory” (An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007], 61, cf. also 144). As this study was in preparation, Schreiner’s New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) appeared, also arguing for the centrality of the glory of God in Christ. Systematic theologians have long recognized the centrality of the glory of God, but in summaries of the discussion of the center of Old Testament, New Testament, Pauline, or biblical theology, the proposal does not appear. See, e.g., H. G. Reventlow, “Theology (Biblical), History of,” ABD, 6:483–505; Werner E. Lemke, “Theology (OT),” in ABD, 6:449–73; Robert Morgan, “Theology (NT),” in ABD, 6:473–83; R. P. Martin, “Center of Paul’s Theology,” in DPL, 92–95; Joseph Plevnik, “The Center of Pauline Theology,” CBQ 51 (1989): 461–78.
[1] Hamilton, J. M., Jr. (2010). God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (pp. 51–52). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
 

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TheInquirer

Puritan Board Freshman
I've thought about this often over the years and I think the glory of God is absolutely correct. The hard part is what you put after it to make it more specific/less broad without leaving out other major themes or subordinating one theme to another that shouldn't be subordinated (e.g. - which is more primary - salvation and judgment or the formation of God's kingdom? Or do they equally inform one another?)

I think it was Bavinck that had a "kitchen sink" approach where he stated the main theme with several of the popular concepts together but I am having difficulty finding it right now.
 

Ryan&Amber2013

Puritan Board Junior
That's a very interesting topic. I do think the glory of God is the ultimate eternal theme, but when I read the Bible front beginning to end, here and now, I would have to say the main theme would be humans going astray from the Lord, and God in His love making a way to have peace with them and forgive them of their sins, in order that we may be in relationship with Him as His people. Of course there are so many other themes, but that's the biggest theme I see in all the Scriptures, and it will result in the glory of God.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
I think it was Bavinck that had a "kitchen sink" approach where he stated the main theme with several of the popular concepts together but I am having difficulty finding it right now.

That may be but the Author doesn't mention Bavinck in this book that I could find. He does talk about Vos Seven times in the book.

Geerhardus Vos is regarded as something of a pioneer by many North American evangelical students of biblical theology. In a sense, Vos salvaged the tool from the damage done to it by the Enlightenment. Vern Poythress suggests that biblical theology had a “checkered history before Vos redefined it.”35


35  Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Kinds of Biblical Theology,” WTJ 70 (2008): 132 (129–42). See especially Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948). J. V. Fesko, citing Richard B. Gaffin and Richard Lints, refers to Vos as “the father of Reformed biblical theology” (“On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church, ed. Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington [Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008], 443).
 

JimmyH

Puritan Board Senior
The first thing that came to my mind when I began reading the OP was a 3 volume outline of the Bible by W. Graham Scroggie, 'The Unfolding Drama of Redemption.' In a sense that seemed to me to be a definition of a center for a BT.

I also think of Acts 26:18, our Lord's answer to Paul on the road to Damascus.
To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.

Not that either of my examples answers the OP, greater minds than mine have been noted in the text furnished. Just what came to my mind on the topic.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
I also think of Acts 26:18, our Lord's answer to Paul on the road to Damascus.

I agree as far as you go. But is there a "why" in that verse in isolation of the greater context of the whole Bible?

Even the most famous Psalm on the protection and comfort of God to his chosen there is a "why." Psalm 23:3
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

I'm not much of a grmarian, but what is the subject of this verse?

This, I say, is a concept that permiatesthe whold Bible from beginning to end.
 

JimmyH

Puritan Board Senior
I agree as far as you go. But is there a "why" in that verse in isolation of the greater context of the whole Bible?

Even the most famous Psalm on the protection and comfort of God to his chosen there is a "why." Psalm 23:3
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

I'm not much of a grmarian, but what is the subject of this verse?

This, I say, is a concept that permiatesthe whold Bible from beginning to end.
Yeah, I would agree, if I understand your point, it is all finally to/for the glory of God.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
I liked this paragraph from page 43 of Hamilton's book. He is discussing Vos and God's revelation.
Here it is in my own words:
The Bible is more than solely a history of God's revelation to man. It is the revelation of God to man.

For Vos, biblical theology was a kind of exegesis that studied “the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” Biblical theology is “the study of the actual self-disclosures of God in time and space which lie back of even the first committal to writing of any Biblical document,” and it “deals with revelation as a divine activity, not as the finished product of that activity.”36 In the years since Vos wrote, some less conservative scholars—not necessarily following Vos—have pitted “what happened” against “what the text says,” and some have suggested that Scripture is merely a record of God’s revelation rather than itself being revelation from God.37 This is probably not what Vos meant to articulate,38 but because of what has happened since he wrote, his description of biblical theology might be confusing in today’s context.

36 Vos, Biblical Theology, 4–5.

37 I have in mind here the way that the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) has preferred the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message over the 2000 version. See the commentary on pages 9–10 of the “1963 and 2000 Baptist Faith and Message Statements: Comparison and Commentary,” available online: accessed July 10, 2008. The 1963 version described the Bible as “the record of God’s revelation of himself to man,” and the 2000 version states that the Bible “is God’s revelation of himself to man.” The commentary explains that the phrase “ ‘the record of’ has the effect of centering the revelation of God in God’s mighty acts, i.e., in the events of salvation history, rather than in the words which describe these events. The words of scripture record the faith community’s witness to these events, but the self-revelation of God is manifest in the events themselves.” This is followed by the assertion that locating the revelation in the words of the Bible rather than in the events exalts the Bible over Christ. Against this, we only know Christ through the Bible’s revelation of him. Moreover, the book of Revelation, for instance, claims to be “The Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:1). See further Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859–2009 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 244–46 passim. Brueggemann is obviously not engaging in this dispute, but I agree with his assertion: “The Bible is a revelation” (Theology of the Old Testament, 3).

38 Poythress notes regarding Vos’s The Pauline Eschatology and The Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews that “Vos in these works appears to move past the boundary that he himself earlier put in place in his definition of biblical theology” precisely in that he dealt with the “ ‘finished product,’ namely the Pauline corpus and the Letter to the Hebrews” (“Kinds of Biblical Theology,” 136).
 

greenbaggins

Administrator
Staff member
I don't think I agree with Carson's take on the center of NT theology. If Jesus is correct in John 5 and Luke 24 in saying that the entire OT is about him, when the OT points to him in types and shadows, how much more clearly is the NT about Jesus when the antitype has arrived! Now, one can't say that the Bible is about Jesus without immediately connecting that idea with a whole host of other ideas (Trinity, salvation, judgment, glory, covenant, presence, communion, etc.). The problem comes if we say exclusively "The Bible is about Jesus," while hinting that therefore there is nothing else to be said. The center is Jesus, but picking up that center is like picking up a tight ball of yarn woven into the center of a hooked rug: you pull up a lot of other stuff when you pick up the center. I don't think any discussion of the center ought to come up with an absolutely exclusive claim ("it's about X, so therefore it can't also be about Y").

The issue I have with Hamilton's formulation is two-fold: 1. it focuses on the acts of God at the expense of the persons in the Godhead. 2. the glory of God, while it is the purposive end of all things, does not, in my mind describe the content of the Bible so much as the reason why it was given. The Bible was given to create and make mature the worshipers of God, so that they will give him glory. But I think that is the purpose, not the content.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Professor
For its intended purpose, I suppose the statement is an admirable achievement. It identifies themes from which the Bible seldom strays very far, so it can be helpful to keep in mind.

I agree, though, with Lane's assessment that the answer Jesus was dismissed too quickly. Granted, in one sense it is a broad answer that doesn't focus us on a single theme very easily. But in another sense, it is a wonderfully specific answer that focuses us on a singular person. Any brief answer requires much unpacking. Would we rather focus coldly on unpacking an admittedly good statement, or would we do better to focus on getting to know the intricacies of a warm-blooded person? And which will be our joy in heaven?
 

TheInquirer

Puritan Board Freshman
I think this might be what I was thinking of - from Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Editor's Introduction (p.18):

"Repeatedly in his writings Bavinck defines the essence of the Christian religion in a trinitarian, creation-affirming way. A typical formulation: 'The essence of the Christian religion consists in the reality that the creation of the Father, ruined by sin, is restored in the death of the Son of God and recreated by the grace of the Holy Spirit into a kingdom of God.' Put more simply, the fundamental theme that shapes Bavinck's entire theology is the trinitarian idea that grace restores nature." (John Bolt)

I think Greg Beale develops his theology along similar lines of the movement from creation to new creation.

Personally, I think these debates, while at times illuminating, get into splitting hairs pretty quickly that can artificially divide the master plan of God and obscure and subordinate other important themes. One could argue what "center" means and whether or not that should include the motive of God behind all things or the means by which he accomplishes that ultimate motive. You could argue Jesus is the center and then turn around and complain that only one member of the Trinity is represented, or you could say Jesus is just going to hand everything back over to the Father in the end anyway (1 Cor 15:24) so the Father is the true telos of all things. You could look at this issue from all different kinds of perspectives and get different answers.
 

Filter

Puritan Board Freshman
I was once suggested by a Romans instructor that the central theme of the Bible is "the glory of God manifest through His redemptive purposes consummated in His Son the Lord Jesus Christ."
 

Bill Duncan

Puritan Board Freshman
I would have to defer to Calvin in that justification is the "main hinge on which religion turns."
If by judgment as the central theme of the bible Hamilton would permit that the act of justification is primary to the history of redemption I would agree. Not simply the forgiveness of sins was sufficient to restore the covenant bond which man was created for. Rather the imputation of an alien righteousness was required for there to be this sonship in adoption. Servants were forgiven. Sons must be righteous. The legal justification must be applied for the familial relation to occur.
 

Ryan&Amber2013

Puritan Board Junior
I just read this this morning from Horatius Bonar:

The cross is the summary of all the Bible--the epitome of Scripture Revelation!
 

Bill Duncan

Puritan Board Freshman
I just read this this morning from Horatius Bonar:

The cross is the summary of all the Bible--the epitome of Scripture Revelation!
Ryan, I really like this post as it makes me think even more about the cross as the tree of death and the tree that provided life. Just yesterday I heard Jeff Waddington and Camden Bucey speak to the revelatory function of trees and the rivers, both naturally and specially. When you mentioned Bonar's quote it really helped me see the centrality of the blessing/cursing covenantal function of the tree/cross and the water/blood dichotomy all throughout scripture. Life and death both being offered by the rivers and trees in the Garden, the cross(tree) and the blood(water) at Calvary, the river and tree in John's revelation, and all in between.
 

Ryan&Amber2013

Puritan Board Junior
Ryan, I really like this post as it makes me think even more about the cross as the tree of death and the tree that provided life. Just yesterday I heard Jeff Waddington and Camden Bucey speak to the revelatory function of trees and the rivers, both naturally and specially. When you mentioned Bonar's quote it really helped me see the centrality of the blessing/cursing covenantal function of the tree/cross and the water/blood dichotomy all throughout scripture. Life and death both being offered by the rivers and trees in the Garden, the cross(tree) and the blood(water) at Calvary, the river and tree in John's revelation, and all in between.
Great stuff! That is some serious biblical theology.
 

Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
The cross is the summary of all the Bible--the epitome of Scripture Revelation!

I agree that the centrality of the cross is the focal point of the history of redemption. But the cross is not the goal of God in Creation and redemption. Instead, the cross is the highest demonstration of God's Glory in both judgment and salvation. The cross lets us see how great and good and wise and beautiful glorious and gracious etc. our God is.

Psalms 85:10
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.​

The cross and in the context of Paul explaining the end of salvation–that all Israel will be saved–was driven to high praise for the whole of God's wonderful revelation of His glory.

Romans 11:33-36
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 "For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?"
35 "Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?"
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.​

Amen and Amen
 
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