Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic & Ethical Approach

Book Review | Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic & Ethical Approach

By James Jeffery 


Biblical Theology


Caveat: I cannot help but show a degree of partiality in this review. After all, I have had the privilege of having Gregory Goswell as one of my teachers at Christ College. For the record, I can testify that he not only has a theological brain, but also a pastoral heart. Therefore, I was genuinely excited to delve into this work. 

In Biblical Theology: A Canonical, Thematic, and Ethical Approach, Goswell and Köstenberger seek to build on the work of scholars such as Graeme Goldsworthy and Vaughan Roberts by addressing neglected areas of the discipline: namely, the canonical, thematic, and ethical dimensions of Biblical theology. Their purpose is stated in the Preface:

“We take a canonical, thematic, and ethical approach and follow the canonical order throughout (the Hebrew order for the Old Testament), as we believe students of Scripture have much to gain from such careful biblical-theological reading. For every book of the Bible, we discuss the themes, ethics, and place in the storyline of Scripture” (p. xxv)

Structurally, Biblical Theology is divided into Old and New Testament, with sub-sections in each (i.e., The Law, The Prophets). In each sub-section, the ethical, thematic, and canonical features of each Biblical book is provided. While the formatting makes it challenging to navigate at times, the arrangement of each chapter in a threefold division makes for straightforward reading.

Here are the key reasons Biblical Theology is such an important work:


The Significance of Paratextual Features

It is rare to find a biblical theology that addresses paratextual features. That is, ‘elements that are adjoined to the text but not part of the text per se,’ including canonical book order, book titles, and paragraphing within a manuscript tradition (p. 47). They argue that paratextual features have been much neglected in contemporary scholarship due to the academisation of the Bible since the Enlightenment (p. 55). While the authors recognise these features are not the final authority, they assist in an understanding of how ancient readers understood the text, aiding in interpretation. 

On the issue of canon, they argue that ‘…consciously or unconsciously. The reader’s evaluation of a book is affected by “the company it keeps” in the library of Scripture’ (p. 67). For example, ‘The four Hebrew book titles “Joshua,” “Judges,” “Samuel,” and “Kings” give the Former Prophets a distinct focus on leadership. The focus on kings and prophets in the book of Kings is, therefore, in line with the thematic orientation of the canonical grouping of which it is the climax’ (p. 74). 

Similarly, ‘The premier position of the Gospels in the New Testament underscores the foundational importance to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for all the writings of the New Testament’ (p. 347). Again, ‘The treatise-like character of Romans as the head epistle means that it functions as the de facto theological introduction to the Pauline corpus’ (p. 691). These canonical insights offer valuable insights into the particulars of each book, whilst recognising their contribution to the grand narrative of Scripture. 


Ethics in the Old Testament

Goswell and Köstenberger address the tendency of evangelical scholars to discount the ethical teaching of the Old Testament. For some, this is driven by the fear of being ‘legalistic’ (p. 60), while other pastors have called Christians to ‘unhitch’ from the Old Testament altogether. This ethical teaching includes the moral, social, and political implications of historical narratives. This addresses a vacuum in the modern age, where ‘an illegitimate separation has been made between the study of what God does and says (theology) and prescriptions of what humans are to do and say in response (ethics)…Ignoring the ethical dimension of biblical revelation is not an option’ (p. 761)

Contrary to popular belief, the authors show that ethics and biblical theology are integrally connected, and thus seek to show this relationship throughout the redemptive history of Scripture. They write, ‘Too often, biblical theology is an ethics-free zone, so that the important “So what?” question is not raised, much less answered’ (p. 17). 

Far from being a merely intellectual enterprise, they show the ‘essential relation between ethics and biblical theology, and the theological appreciation of Scripture includes an exploration of the ethical implications of Old Testament narratives as a resource for Christian formation’ (p. 58). At times, this is a complex task given the ‘ambiguity of its characters, so that sometimes we do not know whether to praise or blame them’ (p. 62). Thus, the authors warn against simplistic ethical readings of Scripture by acknowledging the humanity of its characters. 


Exegesis-Driven Biblical Theology

Goswell and Köstenberger recognise that the tendency of systematically studying Scripture is that the dominant biblical voices can suffocate the lesser voices (p. 1). In practice, this can manifest itself in the flattening of Biblical texts to fit a preconceived framework, and always results in an undermining of the unique place each book plays in redemptive history. Through their engagement with each book on its own terms, they avoid the temptation to draw a beeline to the cross too quickly. Among other things, this is a product of their devotion to — and employment of — the Biblical languages. 

They write:

“…before turning to the secondary literature, or even primary literature outside the Bible, we developed our understanding of the theology of a given book…by reading that book repeatedly, both in its own right and in its canonical context.” (p. xxvi)

Again, they write:

“[In contrast to systematic theology], biblical theology tries to bring us closer to Scripture by helping us see what the biblical writers themselves believed, so that we can conform our beliefs to theirs. In this way, we submit to the authority of Scripture and allow it to set the agenda rather than domesticating Scripture and conforming it to our agenda, ideology, or culture.” (p. 38)

This does not detract from a Christ-centred approach to Scripture. After all, as Spurgeon emphasised the necessity of preaching Christ from every text of Scripture, writing that a Christless sermon is:

“A brook without water; a cloud without rain; a well which mocks the traveller; a tree twice dead, plucked up by the root; a sky without the sun; a night without a star.”

Biblical Theology contributes to this aim, not by offering Christian clichés, but by conveying the unique contributions of each book to redemptive history. Properly understood, this leads to richer and more meaningful connections which magnify the gospel and its implications for Christian living. 

The Bottom Line

There’s no question Biblical Theology is a heavy-duty work. While it is not unsuitable for laypeople, I suspect it will be most beneficial to pastors, academics, and other serious students of Scripture. 


Alongside Crossway’s Covenant Theology (2020), Biblical Theology will play a crucial role in the pastoral and theological development of Christian leaders in our generation. Not to mention, it is one of the most aesthetically pleasing books I have seen, and thus which would be a welcomed addition to any library.