T. Desmond Alexander is senior lecturer in Biblical Studies at Union Theological College, and received his PhD from Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Though the subtitle is “An Introduction to Biblical Theology,” the means used to introduce biblical theology is to note, in the brief, three-page introduction, that the Bible contains a meta-story and to then explore one major theme and a few supporting themes of that meta-story. This volume does not serve as a comprehensive introduction to the area of biblical theology, as it does not contrast biblical theology with other areas of study, nor does it attempt to provide a survey of the most commonly studied themes in biblical theology. Also, rather than tracing select themes through the Bible book-by-book, Alexander introduces a few themes by examining select passages from both the Old and New Testaments.
As stated in the introductory chapter, Alexander’s purpose is to answer the two biggest questions faced in life, namely “Why was the earth created” and “What is the reason for human existence”, and to do so by identifying and analyzing a few of the primary themes that run throughout the Bible (10-11). In addition to answering these two questions, Alexander posits that a deeper understanding of the Bible’s meta-story can considerably change our reading of any given book of the Bible by granting us a clearer picture of the biblical author’s worldview (11). He chooses the themes discussed by focusing on the content of the first three and last three chapters of the Bible, contending that the strong links between these passages indicate that they frame the broader meta-story (10).
The primary theme to which Alexander gives attention is that of “divine presence”. He frequently refers to “God’s original blueprint for the earth,” asserting that, “from the outset of creation, God intended that the earth would become a holy garden-city in which he would dwell alongside human beings” (74). Following the rebellion of Adam and Eve, which is said to have “introduced major obstacles to the fulfilment of God’s plan for the earth” (99), the rest of history recounted in the Bible can be seen as God’s “process of recovering the earth as his dwelling place” (74), progressing first from the garden of Eden to the tabernacle, then to the Jerusalem temple, and now to the New Testament church, with final culmination in the New Jerusalem.
A complementary theme to divine presence is the theme of the “divine throne,” as God seeks to establish and then “re-establish” his unchallenged sovereignty over the earth through the obedient service of human beings (75). In Genesis we see that “the fulfillment of God’s creation project requires the existence of priest-kings who will extend God’s temple-city throughout the earth” (80). Then, with the enslavement of the descendants of Abraham in Egypt, the theme of “divine deliverance” is introduced, for in the exodus we see that God rescues his people from the consequences of their sin, and that he does so “with the intention of establishing both his sovereignty and dwelling place on the earth” (85).
Before exploring the elements of the paschal lamb theme introduced in the exodus, Alexander examines Satan’s dominion over this world and opposition to God’s divine presence and throne. In briefly tracing the account of Satan’s influence in the world from Genesis to Revelation, the theme of a spiritual war between “the children of God” and “the children of the devil” (1 John 3:10) quickly emerges. The contrast between the line of Cain and the line of Seth introduces “the idea that human beings may by their actions be perceived as belonging either to the unrighteous ‘offspring of the serpent’ or to the righteous ‘offspring of the woman’,” (107) namely Jesus Christ who will defeat Satan through his suffering as the paschal lamb (106).
Turning again to the exodus, we see that restoration of the priestly status of God’s people required three acts that are then “associated with the death of Jesus Christ at Passover,” namely
atonement, purification and sanctification (129-130). This leads to a discussion of the “people for God from every tribe” (Rev 5:9) progressively being made holy through the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit. With this preparing of a people to populate the New Jerusalem in view, attention turns to the eventual sanctification of the earth itself in the lifting of the curse and transformation
into a sanctuary-city “like the garden of Eden” (160). Until that day, “we have to choose between being a citizen of this world’s godless Babylon or a citizen of God’s future New Jerusalem” (175). Relating this theme of citizenship to the broader theme, we see that “Babylon is the antithesis of the city that God himself desires to construct upon the earth” (181).
In the longest chapter of the book, “From sacred garden to holy city: experiencing the presence of God”, Alexander effectively explains and demonstrates from the Scriptures what he sees as the primary theme of the Bible’s meta-story. Compelling arguments for this being God’s overarching plan are made by identifying the parallel pictures of God making his abode in the world through the garden of Eden, the tabernacle, the temple, Christ’s incarnation, the church, and finally the New Jerusalem. Particularly persuasive is the examination of the descriptions of the Holy of Holies and the New Jerusalem. For example, noting that both structures are golden cubes in which God dwells, Alexander asserts that “we may reasonably conclude that the entire New Jerusalem is an expanded Holy of Holies” (20). Not only are the descriptions of the New Jerusalem in Revelation examined, but also those of the future “Zion” and “Jerusalem” found in the prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, thereby strengthening Alexander’s case.
Also convincing is the picture of God’s rule and abiding presence being spread by filling the earth with his people, noting the similarities between the commission given to Adam and Eve and the words spoken to Noah, Abraham, and finally to the disciples standing before the resurrected Christ. However, in discussing God’s design to spread his kingdom through human agents, it seems that Alexander feels there needs to have been an unbroken succession of what he calls “priest-kings” from Adam to the descendants of Abraham who are freed from captivity in the exodus. I find Alexander’s identification of both priestly and royal status indicators in the accounts of God’s dealings with Adam and Eve, Noah, and Abraham to be instructive, but I am not convinced that the biblical authors intend for us to see these individuals as having been called to be priest-kings in the same way as are the nation of Israel and the church. While Melchizedek is described as “king of Salem, priest of the Most High God” (Heb 7:1), the nation of Israel is called at Mount Sinai to be a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6), and finally the church is declared to be a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9; cf. Rev 5:10), no other figure before the exodus is explicitly described as having a priest-king function.
Quoting from D. G. McCartney’s “Ecce Homo: The Coming of the Kingdom as the Restoration of Human Vicegerency,” Alexander presents the claim that, “according to Paul, mankind lost his vicegerency in Adam, but gains it again in Christ” (94). Paul’s relating the obedience of Christ to the disobedience of Adam in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 are provided to support this claim, but neither passage mentions Adam’s ruling responsibilities. I do not see the texts cited as clearly arguing for the restoration of the human vicegerency found in “God’s creation blueprint” (94) and would like to further explore this concept in McCartney’s work.
In obeying the serpent, Alexander states that Adam and Eve “concede to it the authority delegated to them by God,” (102) seeming to imply that this concession by Adam and Eve is what actually grants Satan the dominion he exercises as the ruler of this world. However, I do not find this claim being made in the Scriptures. This is in keeping with language frequently employed by Alexander that makes human decision the determining factor in the course of history such that God is forced to re-work his plans. For example, Adam and Eve are said to have “overturned” God’s plans (189) such that “the successful completion of this divine project was tragically endangered” (98). This kind of language can be somewhat misleading with regard to God’s sovereign design of all things for his glory (Gen 50:20; Acts 2:23; Eph 5:32).
Given that several of the ideas related to the overarching theme of the Bible’s meta-story were new to me and were convincingly argued, as described above, I found this book to be eye-opening in many ways and anticipate it will be useful in teaching others how to better understand every book of the Bible. Alexander achieved his stated goal, demonstrating that an vision of the grand meta-story of the Bible answers life’s most important questions. However, noting the concerns stated above, I would provide some cautions when recommending this book
Soli Deo gloria!