Exploring God's Plan for Life on Earth
T Desmond Alexander
The author of this book is on a mission: He believes that "biblical scholarship as a whole has not articulated clearly the major themes that run throughout Scripture" (p.11)- and he intends to put this right. The fact that he has succeeded in doing this to a significant degree in a book of under 200 pages aimed at a popular audience, while incorporating solid scholarship, is a measure of the remarkable achievement this book represents. Using Revelation 21-22 as a starting point, the book picks up several themes contained there and a takes a rapid panoramic view of their significance through Scripture. This does not mean, however, that the book is merely a compendium of Bible passages, despite the considerable amount of Scripture quoted. Rather, the themes chosen work well together to produce a book that feels coherent and insightful — almost a mini-'biblical theology'.
After a brief introduction there is a longish chapter (around a third of the book) that traces the theme of God's presence on earth, paying particular attention to the tabernacle/temple as the key biblical symbol for this concept. The biblical narrative is presented as being essentially God's project to re-establish his dwelling place on earth, framed by Eden as the unperturbed original state and the New Jerusalem as its final restoration and enhancement. This is really the key chapter in the book, since much of what follows is related to the concept of God's presence in the world. Subsequent chapters look at how God's sovereignty is actualised through human 'vicegerency', both in the Israelite theocracy and in the New Testament conception of the kingdom of God (chapter 3); at the cosmic battle raging between God and the forces of evil, again in both Old and New Testament aspects (chapter 4); at the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin, projecting the concepts of atonement, purification and sanctification back onto the Passover event (chapter 5); and at holiness of life, looking from the Old Testament forwards to the promised social and ecological transformation of the eschaton (chapter 6).
T. D. Alexander is well known as an author, editor and Old Testament scholar and this scholarship is evident here, notwithstanding the book's popular approach. The author's own expertise in the area of the Pentateuch forms the background to much of it, while in other areas he draws extensively on a collection of essays he co-edited: Heaven on Earth: The Temple in Biblical Theology. Another key source is G K Beale's The Temple and the Church's Mission, with which he shares the interesting and slightly unusual conception of the tabernacle/temple being a microcosm of the created universe, and a picture of God's planned new creation. This is actually a good example of how the book often lifts itself well above a mere catalogue of biblical references to be a stimulating and even provocative read. It is perhaps in the nature of a book like this that builds on a commitment to the consistency and unity of the biblical canon that the author himself displays a clear conservative evangelical stance. Actually I can't imagine that most potential readers will have a problem with this, even if there are occasional giveaways.
In the penultimate chapter there is a distinct sense of Christian mission and ethics, as a contrast between the 'two cities' of Babylon and the New Jerusalem turns into a pointed critique of modern consumerism. This, together with a brief reference to the evils of racism in a previous chapter, enhances the book quite considerably, since it demonstrates that biblical theology, while an academic discipline, has clear practical implications. Anything that builds an effective bridge between solid theology and pastoral ministry is potentially a great blessing to the church. I was just left wishing that Alexander had perhaps done a little more of this.
Of course, a book of this size is limited in what it can achieve. The approach all the way through is to give pointers rather than exhaust the subject. But these pointers, often in the form of references in the copious footnotes and bibliography, are just what the interested reader needs in order to go further. The only place the abbreviated treatment left me feeling really frustrated was in the chapter on Christ's death. Perhaps it was the author's concern to draw out the parallels with the Passover that resulted in my feeling that something about the central significance of the cross and the resurrection for God's whole new creation project had been strangely under-emphasised. Indeed, resurrection — a cornerstone of new creation — is almost absent from the treatment. Did the author perhaps feel that others had already covered this particular area quite adequately?
Despite these criticisms, the book does a good job of presenting a bird's-eye, meta-level view of key themes in the biblical narrative. A wide range of readers — lay Christians, theology students, and practising ministers who wish to strengthen their grasp on the overall shape of the Bible's story — will profit from reading it.
Jeremy Kirby, September 2009
Jeremy Kirby teaches at Calvary Chapel Bible College in Siegen, Germany, and is a Distance Learning student on London School of Theology's MA course in Hermeneutics. He is married with three young sons.IVP | Comments? Feedback?