Recovering the Unity of the Bible: One Continuous Story, Plan, and Purpose, by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. 252 pages.
Walter C. Kaiser Jr. (PhD, Brandeis University) is a distinguished professor emeritus of Old Testament and president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA. Dr. Kaiser has written over forty books, including Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching; The Messiah in the Old Testament; and The Promise-Plan of God.
Recovering the Unity of the Bible is the result of sixteen lectures delivered at the Cambridge Summer School of Theology in July 2008. In his preparations for these lectures, Kaiser discovered that “most scholars wanted to celebrate the diversity of Scripture, but few were willing to stretch their necks out to lay any claims for the Scripture’s coherency” (9). Although the (appropriate) use of literary criticism has led to increased appreciation for the unique emphasis of Scripture’s various genres, it has also led some conservative biblical scholars to minimize the Bible’s essential unity. In this volume, Kaiser seeks to present a reasonable defense for believing that the message of Scripture “has formed a whole cohesive unity while employing a wide variety of supporting details” (24).
This argument begins with a brief historical overview of attempts to reconcile apparent discrepancies in the biblical text (36-38) and a close examination of seven common examples of such supposed discrepancies (38-46). The most helpful of these is Kaiser’s treatment of differences based on the transcription of large numbers (e.g. the difference in reported military strength recorded in 1 Chronicles 19:18 and 2 Samuel 10:18).
In chapters 4-5, Kaiser describes the unity that exists within each testament. In the section on the Old Testament, he argues for the importance of “a recognition of the forward movement, or historical character of the Old Testament revelation” (58). Instead of viewing the major divisions of the Old Testament as presenting competing theologies (e.g. the sacrificial system of the Pentateuch and the personal piety prescribed by the Prophets), Kaiser argues that we should be “satisfied that a number of strategies have been mapped out that direct us to legitimate ways that the Old Testament text can be seen as possessing a unifying plan from start to finish” (58). Similarly, in the section on the New Testament Kaiser rejects critical attempts to pit the Synoptics against John’s Gospel or the theological emphases of the New Testament epistles against each other. Instead, he argues that the New Testament (and, indeed, all of Scripture) has a theological “center” that unites it from beginning to end.
After a brief chapter discussing the unifying influence of Old Testament messianic promises and their New Testament fulfillments (69-84), Kaiser addresses objections often raised on “moral” grounds against regarding the Bible as a coherent unit (e.g. God orders the complete extermination of the Canaanites, God’s saints sometimes lie, kill, commit adultery, etc.). While none of these issues is treated in any great depth, they do provide the reader with some basic ways of responding to these so-called “problems” raised by negative critics.
Chapters 9 and 10 present Kaiser’s arguments for the unity of the Scriptures on the basis of the continuity of the “people of God” (111-125) and the “kingdom of God” (127-140). While there are occasionally insightful comments and arguments, Kaiser’s premillennial dispensational theology is most evident in these chapters. For example, Kaiser proposes that our view of the kingdom of God should allow “for both a present realization in the life of the church as well as a future fulfillment of the kingdom in Israel, in real space and time” (135). Confessional Lutherans will often find themselves uncomfortable with Kaiser’s eschatology and the conclusions he reaches about the “people of God” and “kingdom of God.”
Chapter 11 (141-155) is a short presentation of Kaiser’s attempt at finding the unifying concept of the Bible, which he calls the “Promise Plan of God.” This plan advocates a diachronic focus of the text in which the Edenic promise made to Eve about a seed who would crush the serpent’s head is explained, enlarged, and expanded upon through consequent revelation. The chapter very briefly traces the fulfillment of the gospel promise throughout biblical history. A significantly more detailed presentation of this proposal can be found in Kaiser’s The Promise-Plan of God.
The volume concludes with three chapters (157-193) presenting arguments for the unity of the Bible on the basis of God’s law, the doctrine of salvation, and the mission of the church, followed by two chapters (195-219) focusing on hermeneutics and expository preaching. Throughout these chapters, Kaiser encourages the preacher to remember the overarching “metanarrative” of Scripture. If – as Kaiser suggests – there is an essential unity of the Scriptures, then an important part of treating any given text is to put it in the wider context of the biblical narrative.
With many conservative biblical scholars overemphasizing the diversity of the Scriptures, this book is a welcome reminder that the Scriptures present a unified, coherent narrative of God’s saving activity in history. There are several places where the confessional Lutheran will disagree with the particulars of Kaiser’s arguments and conclusions. Despite these weaknesses, the volume provides the Lutheran pastor with many compelling, well-researched arguments supporting the essential unity of God’s Scriptures.