Presbyterians of the Past

Review, Palmer Robertson, Richard Gaffin Books

The year 2022 is an important one for students of Scripture. Biblical interpreter O. Palmer Robertson has published The Testimony of the Four Gospels which is the first of a projected four-volume set titled Christ of the Consummation (P&R); Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., has brought together class lectures, previous writings, and new work for In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul (Crossway). The two authors are not strangers to each other because they were on campus together at Westminster Theological Seminary working for their divinity degrees, then later they were colleagues at the seminary with Robertson teaching Old Testament and Gaffin New Testament. After ministering in seminaries (Reformed, Covenant, and Knox) and pastoring churches in the United States, Dr. Robertson was a missionary to Africa and is currently serving in Consummation Ministries; Dr. Gaffin retired from Westminster in 2010 and is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology Emeritus after serving in a progression of teaching capacities since 1964. Both have been active churchmen within their respective Presbyterian denominations, but importantly for this review both authors approach interpretation of Scripture through Biblical Theology as expressed in the work of Geerhardus Vos, Herman N. Ridderbos, and for Robertson particularly, Brevard S. Childs.

For those unfamiliar with the term Biblical Theology a description is helpful. Instead of turning to one of the authors under review or their mentors’ publications, provided instead is my understanding of Biblical Theology and how it affects understanding Scripture. Rightly used Biblical Theology sees Scripture to be the supernatural, unique, authoritative word of God that is necessary to know Him, and it interprets the Bible as a unity of sixty-six books constituting the Word of God. In the context of the Westminster Confession of Faith as it affirms the necessity of the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit to believe the Bible is God’s word, chapter one makes the case for the perfection of Scripture with one attribute being “the consent of all the parts”—Scripture is united in its message even though the composition dates of its books are distributed over many centuries. God worked out His redemptive purpose that was prophesied in Genesis 3:15 through successive generations of ordinary people who were used in sometimes extraordinary ways to fulfill through the line of Judah the promised Messiah that would crush the serpent’s head. The continuum is also seen in the Covenant of Grace and the Kingdom of God; the Covenant unites true Israel under the loving benevolent rule of King Jesus as the Kingdom is already but not yet at the end of its eschatological perfection in heaven with its citizens gathered around the Throne. Biblical Theology involves application of the analogy of Scripture, which the Westminster Confession of Faith defines in 1:9.

The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. (Free Church ed.)

The analogy of Scripture means that if one knows nothing of the Bible nor its doctrines and reads for the first time “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” in John 1:36, it is obvious that Jesus was not a lamb, and the word must have other significance. How would the novice understand this unusual statement? Hopefully, a Philip would be there to show him in Scripture the Passover, its sacrifice of a lamb, and the blood on the doorposts to show that Jesus is the only efficacious sacrificial lamb. Gaffin and Robertson made manifold use of the analogy of Scripture with the former having more than twelve pages of Scripture references to nearly 1200 passages with some passages referred to a few dozen times; the latter has over sixteen pages with more than 2100 references. The references show copious use of the Bible to present the respective passages’ teaching and to interpret the meaning of other selections. It is clear, that Scripture interpreting Scripture is essential to their method.

Biblical Theology can be likened to an Impressionist painting. If one stands too close to the canvas, one wonders how the spots of paint fit together. Each spot is lovely with its texture and color created by a skillful master, but they are all a jumble that somehow must join to make a painting. Though lovely, what do all these spots mean? If one then steps back from the painting, it comes together beautifully. Biblical Theology steps back from the books and passages of Scripture to see the unified masterpiece painted by God to glorify himself as he brought redemption to His people. Scripture is united to show the Christ and His supernatural redemptive work accomplished in history.

I would like to briefly consider some aspects of each author’s book. Pointing out differences between their works is not intended to be critical or say one way is better than the other. Each book is different with its own design, but each author has the goal of explaining the Bible.

In the Fullness of Time brings together Dr. Gaffin’s study of Paul not only historically in combination with Acts and the epistles, but also theologically as he emphasized the centrality of the resurrection of Christ, the resurrection of believers, and the believer’s union with Christ in the resurrection. The last four of the fourteen chapters of the book show how the resurrection relates to “Christ and Christians,” “Christ and the Holy Spirit,” “The Christian Life: Indicative and Imperative,” and “The Christian Life: Christian Suffering.” Three important aspects of the author’s work are his emphasis on the context of a passage for proper understanding, the importance of carefulness in interpretation, and the coherence or unified message particularly of Paul. Another aspect of Fulness is it provides a commentary on 1 Cor 15 with a few hundred citations to the chapter. A reviewer who had classes with Dr. Gaffin commented that as he read the book, he could hear his former professor emphasizing the difference between historia salutis and ordo salutis, as well as his stressing the importance of recognizing the already-not yet for exegesis and life. Some portions of the book are challenging to read as the author presents his case, but once the more difficult has been comprehended it provides light on what follows. Fulness was over forty years in the making and to have so much study and knowledge summarily available in a four-hundred-page book is appreciated by this reviewer and undoubtedly will be by Bible students for generations to come.

Christ of the Consummation: The Testimony of the Four Gospels celebrates the incarnation and work of the Son of God. Just as gospel means “good news,” Dr. Robertson emphasizes the synoptics and John’s testimony to the accomplishment and application of redemption. His book addresses the life and work of Jesus in the first six chapters, then the remainder of the text looks at the synoptics and John as individual books as well as their relationship to other New Testament writers. Terminology used to refer to Jesus such as Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God, Servant of the Lord, Son of David, Savior, and others have their meanings explained with their importance for Jesus’ work. As the four gospels are interpreted the author notes their similarities and differences with the concern for context, carefulness, and coherence characteristic of Gaffin’s work, but Robertson leans more towards presenting his conclusions without the detailed explanations provided by Gaffin. Portions of Testimony read like a sermon as he explains the good news and calls the unbeliever to faith and Christians to growth in sanctification. If exegesis of the Bible is likened to digging into a rich trove, Gaffin shows more of his spade work as he gives explanations and conclusions for Acts and Paul, but Robertson provides conclusions from his excavations and keeps the spade work in the background much like a preacher does by not footnoting sermons. However, this does not mean Robertson’s work is superficial or lacking in scholarship as can be seen in his defense of the Virgin Birth (22-24) and his critique of the idea developed early in the twentieth century that Jesus did not believe He was the Messiah, his disciples did not think so, and He really conformed himself to the Messianic idea (within 48-61). This debate was over the Messianic Self-Consciousness and one book written to defend Jesus the Messiah was Vos’s The Self Disclosure of Jesus. In Robertson’s conclusion he makes the following appeal.

You may thank God for his grace in allowing this gospel and its good message to come to you. The time is now for you to seize this opportunity to experience God’s grace for yourself, and then to share it in other parts of the world where it is not known. Carry it to your next-door neighbor as well as to a nation foreign to you in its language and culture. (320)

This is the good news call of the Gospels, Acts and the Pauline letters, and it is the message that drives the exegetical-theological work of both authors reviewed.

Barry Waugh


Notes—Previously reviewed on Presbyterians of the Past is Danny E. Olinger’s book, Geerhardus Vos: Reformed Biblical Theologian, Confessional Presbyterian, Reformed Forum, 2018.

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