Recovering the Unity of the Bible by Walter C. Kaiser Jr.

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Many are first attracted to Christianity because of its simple message. Later, when one reads the whole Bible, that simple message becomes lost in the 66 books with its diverse authors, times, places and subject matters. It doesn’t help when scholars seem motivated to highlight the diversities at the expense of what holds the Bible together. Does anything hold the Bible together? Today’s book confidently answers “Yes!”

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. In the last episode, I reviewed “Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Christlikeness” by Chris Wright, a free book for September from Faithlife.

Faithlife is the maker of Logos, a Bible Software that has its own Free Book of the Month program. The books in Logos are more theological and academic which can be tough for me to read, much less review. However, when I see a Logos book that is within reach of a general Christian reader, I push myself to get the review out early so that you will hear the review while it’s still September because the book is not “free while stocks last”, it’s “free while it’s still September”. But if you listening to this after September, you can hear the review and decide whether this book is worth $23.99 in Logos or $8.99 in Amazon Kindle (prices may change after recording). And to make sure you don’t miss out on any great deals, subscribe to Reading and Readers.

The Logos Free Book for September is “Recovering the Unity of the Bible: One Continuous Story, Plan and Purpose” by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. 256 pages, published in 2009 by Zondervan Academic.

A Beautiful Orchestral Symphony

A bright-eyed Christian leaves everything behind to enter seminary. He sees himself getting trained in order to enter full-time ministry, wherever God calls him. To be a shepherd to the flock. To preach to the nations. To burn mightily for a great God.

After some time in seminary, he quits, leaves the faith and is never seen again. Or if he stays, his awe and wonder is now replaced with cynical scepticism.

For he is now awakened to the overwhelming evidence that the Bible is not the beautiful orchestral symphony he thought. Rather, it is a discordant noise where God suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder, the real writers are nameless editors writing hundreds of years after the events and the core message of the Bible? There is no ‘core message of the Bible’! There are many messages, each jostling to capture the flag of your doctrinal leanings.

In some dictionaries, seminary is defined as the place where faith goes to die.

If only someone told that bright-eyed Christian that the beautiful orchestral symphony he heard and thought he knew was real. That the diversity of Scripture does not sink the message but bouys it up. As Kaiser argues:

Accounting for all of this unity in the midst of obvious diversity spread over these centuries with some sixty-six contributions of some forty different writers in three languages on three continents is mind-boggling. There can be no real answer unless we also receive the claim of the writers that there was a supernatural aspect and a guiding mind at work in their writings as well. If God was behind the production of all these contributions, then the unity is the result of a driving plan and the harmony reflects what he has willed and purposed.

Kaiser is an OT Boss

Walter C. Kaiser Jr. is the distinguished professor emeritus of Old Testament and president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Let me name some of his books which are relevant to today’s review. Kaiser wrote “Mission in the Old Testament”, “An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics” with Moises Silva, “Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament”, “The Promise-Plan of God”, “Hard Sayings of the Old Testament” and “A History of Israel”.

I list these books because:

  1. Some listeners may not know that Kaiser is a boss in Old Testament scholarship. Well, now you know.
  2. As you heard, Kaiser has written books on mission, hermeneutics, promise-plan of God as well as preaching and teaching. In today’s book review, we have chapters titled: “The Unity of the Mission in the Old Testament”, “The Unity of the Bible and Hermeneutics”, “The Unity of the Bible and the Promise-Plan of God” and “The Unity of the Bible and Expository Preaching and Teaching”. It looks like today’s book is an abridged collection of Kaiser’s other writings centred on the theme of unity.
  3. In his book “Hard Sayings of the Old Testament”, Kaiser addressed head on difficult verses and apparent contradictions. Reading these contradictions is like getting IKEA parts and figuring how each part connects. You could have sworn it was impossible until you read the manual and it all fits. Dealing with the unity question, he shows us how many parts of the Bible fit together.

To be transparent, before Recovering the Unity of the Bible, the only Kaiser book I read was “A History of Israel”, the 1998 edition. I loved it. Hence, my enthusiasm for today’s book when it was offered for free. Similarly, if you like a chapter here and there, you can thank me for your future shelf full of Kaiser books.

Family Feud for OT

Let’s get to the book. There are sixteen chapters plus preface and epilogue. The first three chapters set up the groundwork. What is unity? What is diversity? How do we harmonise the diversities?

Let’s play Family Feud on the first two chapters and see how many answers you can get.

Welcome to Family Feud, the Reading and Readers version. We asked an undisclosed number of Old Testament scholars named Walter the following question. What are the different types of unity in the Bible? What is unity? For example: on one hand, you have Genesis, on the other, you have Exodus, in what way are they the same? You say the author, the time it was written, the place it writes about, the people. Okay, that’s easy because it’s Genesis and Exodus. Two books. Now think what is the same between Genesis and Revelation. Now what is the common thread for all 66 books in the Bible. So coming back to the question: “What are the different types of unity in the Bible?” Kaiser lists and explains six:

  1. Structural
  2. Historic
  3. Prophetic
  4. Doctrinal
  5. Spiritual
  6. Kerygmatic, meaning there is one preaching message.

I would have guessed doctrinal and the preaching message. How did you do? I think you will do better in the next question.

We asked the same undisclosed number of Old Testament scholars named Walter this question, “What are the different types of diversities in the Bible?” I think is easier to think of differences than similarities. And the answer comes up on the board.

  1. language
  2. authorship
  3. qualification
  4. place
  5. forms
  6. subject matter
  7. time (covering 1600 years).

The problem is not the diversities. We know them. Christians do not just accept these diversities, we celebrate them. The problem is for others the vast diversities justify the contradictions.

“Well, of course, they contradict. It is only natural since the authors were separated by hundreds, thousands of years, across different lands, background, culture and more. Obviously this will lead to contradictions. To expect anything less is to delude ourselves.”

In this book, Kaiser shows us how modern scholarship makes much of the diversities and ignores the unity. A country that plays up people’s differences instead of a common cause will fracture. A religion that stresses on diversity and ignores the unity will collapse.

The question becomes, “Is there a genuine point of unity or is it naivete? Does the Bible present a chorus or a cacophony?”

Kaiser wants to tell you how the differences can be reconciled. Kaiser wants us to recover the unity of the Bible.

Questions Answered Through Unity

Instead of reading to you the titles for chapters 3 to 16, I’ll pose questions that is answered in the chapters. These are just sample questions to give a sneak peek on what is in the chapters.

The first question: “Who killed Goliath? David or Elhanan?” In 1 Samuel 17, David killed Goliath. But in 2 Samuel 21, it says “Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite.” In chapter 3, “The Harmonization of the Diversity”, Kaiser lists seven sources of biblical discrepancy. To answer the question of who is Goliath’s killer he points out 1 Chronicles 20:5, “Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite”. Then as only an Old Testament scholar can, Kaiser explains how a copyist of earlier manuscripts got it wrong.

Next question: “Does anything unite the sprawling Old Testament books?” In chapter 4, “The Unity of the Hebrew Bible”, Kaiser introduces David Noel Freedman, who wrote “The Unity of the Hebrew Bible” which inspired the title for today’s book. Kaiser commends Freedman saying:

Freedman has given us a most creative and unusual approach to the question of the unity of the Old Testament. He has made a strong case of the message and plan of the Old Testament.

Freedman suggests that the Ten Commandments outlines nine of the OT books. Do you remember the Ten Commandments? We will walk through them.

  • The first two commandments. “You shall have no other gods” and “You shall not make any idols”. Both were broken in Exodus 32, Aaron makes the golden calf and says, “These are your gods O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
  • The third commandment, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” was broken in Leviticus 24. A man blasphemes and is stoned.
  • The fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath” was broken in Numbers 15. A man gathers sticks on the Sabbath and is stoned.
  • The fifth commandment, “Honour your father and mother” was broken in Deuteronomy 21. A son rebels and is stoned.
  • The sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” was broken in Judges 19-21. A Levite’s concubine is brutally murdered throwing the whole nation into uproar against the tribe of Benjamin.
  • The seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” was broken in 2 Sam 11-12. King David and Bathsheba.
  • The eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” was broken in Joshua 7. Achan takes what God said no one should and is stoned.
  • The last two commandments, “You shall not lie” and “You shall not covet”, were both violated by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel who conspired to get Nabal killed through lies because Ahab coveted Nabal’s vineyard.

I just gave a summary of Kaiser’s summary of Freedman’s suggestion that the Ten Commandments provides a structural unity to these nine books. The rest of the chapter shows how the rest of the OT books, the prophecies and wisdom literature, come together as a coherent piece.

Unity in the New and All

If the Old Testament is coherent, what about the New? “Isn’t it clear that James and Paul contradict each other?” In chapter 5, “The Unity of the New Testament”, Kaiser tackles several alleged differences within the New Testament and shows that the differences between James versus Paul or Jesus versus Paul or Paul versus Paul are overstated. Yes, you heard me right, “Paul versus Paul”. Some scholars argue that the Paul in Acts is different from the Paul in the Epistles and suggest a conspiracy, a cover up, by Luke. I never even heard of this conspiracy but if this conspiracy ever crosses from academia into the pews, Kaiser has helped us prepare and refute this and other alleged contradictions.

At this point in the book, we have had some practice handling diversities for OT and NT. Let us put get together the two Testaments. Let us now ask: “Is there a unifying theme for the whole Bible?” Can you think of one? What about the Messiah? In Chapter 6, “The Unity of the Bible in it’s Messianic Promises”, Kaiser traces the development of the Prophecy-Fulfilment approach and introduces a better approach which is the Promise-Plan of God. This Promise Plan of God will be further elaborated in Chapter 11 and Kaiser wrote a whole book on this topic.

Also in this chapter, Kaiser introduces E.D. Hirsch’s famous distinction between “meaning” and “significance”. I don’t know about famous. I’ve never heard of Hirsch or his famous distinction or presumably the famous problem that this famous distinction solves. Reading this book is a humbling experience for me. But this meaning and significance distinction is a good one and I’ll share more at the end of this review.

Partying with OT Professors

I need to warn readers that this is an academic book. And if this is your first time reading an academic book, it can be daunting. Let me read an example section:

J. G. Herder (1744–1803) and J. G. Eichhorn (1752–1827) concluded that the whole idea that the Old Testament contained a prediction of a coming Savior was merely a dogmatic imposition laid over Scripture. Prophecy had only a single meaning, which could not be maneuvered into depicting a coming Messiah. Both men felt that the end of the eighteenth century had erased the concept of Messiah from the Old Testament altogether.

E. W. von Hengstenberg, however, mounted a massive attempt to stem the negative tide against a messianic interpretation of the Old Testament in a three-volume set that appeared from 1829 to 1835. A second edition, now in four volumes, appeared between 1854 and 1858, entitled Christology of the Old Testament and a Commentary on the Messianic Predictions.

Here, Kaiser is tracing a historical battle between two ways of interpreting the Messianic passages. And here, readers face their own battles to make sense of strange names, of times past, on matters obscure. If I may offer this suggestion to the general Christian reader.

It’s like going to a party where you don’t know anybody else except for your friend who brought you there. And your friend is Walter C. Kaiser Jr. So he pulls you along and introduces you to his friends. This is so and so, his job, who he gets long with and who he doesn’t get along with. Some of us would find the people at the party interesting but some are just looking for the buffet table. So you politely move past the people to the buffet table and stack your plates with delicious goodies.

What is rude in a party is perfectly acceptable when reading a book. So just skim, skip and scroll through. One day, you might want to get to know E.W. von Hengstenberg and his work. But until that day comes, don’t feel that you have to be fully engaged with von Hengstenberg when there is a beautiful buffet spread just behind him.

Thus, while there are parts of the book can be difficult reading, I want to stress that aside from occasional strange names, dates, places, theological terms, discussions on the Greek and the Hebrew word and grammar, it is a readable book. As seen in the questions the chapters answer.

More Questions and Unity Chapters

Consider, have you ever asked, “Why is God in the Old Testament different from the New Testament?” or “Why are the heroes in the Old Testament so bad? Abraham lied. David committed adultery. Hosea married a prostitute. They do not reach the ethical standard of the New Testament. In chapters 7 and 8, Kaiser explains the Bible’s Unity on God and God’s People.

By the way, Chris Wright’s book, “Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit” shows that the Fruit of the Spirit is rooted in the character of God as revealed in OT and Jesus in the NT. Chris Wright is also an Old Testament scholar and has been cited positively in Kaiser’s book. Christ Wright’s book is also free in September. For more information, watch the episode before this one.

Let’s move faster. We just finished chapter 8 and there are altogether 16 chapters.

The remaining chapters cover questions including but not limited to: “Has the Church replaced Israel?”, “Is the Law of God now obsolete?”, “How are the Old Testament saints saved?”, “Is Mission (reaching out to the nations) found in the Old Testament?”, “Is there a biblical way to interpret and to teach and preach?”

And these questions are answered in these chapters which address unity in relation to: the People of God, Kingdom of God, the Promise-Plan of God, the Law of God, the Doctrine of Salvation, the Mission, Hermeneutics and Expository Preaching and Teaching.

Unity of Scripture, Another Way to Read Scripture

As I digest this book which is only 256 pages long but so packed with ideas, puzzles, solutions, history and theology, let me offer a unifying reflection.

Many of the questions posed in this book and this review are familiar to me as I grew up in the faith. I didn’t ask about the Greek or the Hebrew in different manuscripts but I did ask about why God is different in the Old and the New Testament among many other questions. I didn’t know that these questions could be tackled with the doctrine (can I call it a doctrine?) of the Unity of Scripture.

Inerrancy of Scripture is more familiar and Christians will die on that hill. Although inerrancy and unity are two sides of the same coin, inerrancy doesn’t offer an obvious way to reveal or settle alleged contradictions.

Consider this two statements:

  1. God’s wrath is clear in the OT.
  2. God’s mercy is clear in the NT.

Is there an error to be corrected in these two statements? No, but the unspoken contradiction is God’s character is different. So if we look at them from inerrancy of Scripture we would not see the problem or the way forward.

On the other hand, inerrancy affirms that the Bible has no contradictions. All 66 books is in harmony with each other, a chorus not a cacophony, a unity amidst diversity.

If we now look back at the two statements: “God’s wrath is clear in the OT. God’s mercy is clear in the NT.” and perceive them through the lens of Unity of Scripture, it brings out the problem. Why are they not the same? And it also points to a solution. We need to show that God’s wrath is also clear in the NT (which it is) and God’s mercy is also clear in the OT (which it is).

Which means if look at Bible through the lens of Unity, it gives us another way of wrestling with the text. And even answer categories of questions that at first seem unrelated but are actually rooted in the unity/diversity question. That’s my high level big idea reflection.

On Meaning and Significance

Kaiser gave me something else to think about which is the distinction between “meaning” and “significance”. I never knew there was a distinction or even that it can make a difference in how I interpret the Bible.

This is how I illustrate it. You are at church. Your pastor comes to you and shouts, “Get out!” What is the meaning of “Get out!” The more we know of the context the more we understand the meaning and significance of what the pastor said.

Maybe there is a fire and the pastor is asking you to get out of the church to save your life.
Or maybe the pastor just realised that you have been stealing money from the church and wants you to get out of the treasurer position.
Or maybe, you came to pastor because of demonic possession and the pastor is saying get out, not to you but to the evil spirit within you.

So the more we know, the more we understand what the pastor meant by those two words “Get out”. And the significance can change or grow. Based on the different meanings we deduce that the pastor can lead in an emergency or is financially responsible or can do exorcism. These would affect how the church is like, how others interact with him. Hence the significance of one “Get Out” event can colour the future.

What Kaiser argues is that there is only ever one meaning. There cannot be two or more meanings. You may have more than one significance which can change but there can only ever be one meaning.

The pastor shouting “Get out!” cannot mean “Get out because there is a fire” AND “Get out because you stole” AND “Get out you demon, I banish you to Hell!”

Therefore, here is Kaiser’s point, in the light of the New Testament revelation, he argues that the meaning in the Old Testament did not change or multiply. It still retains the same meaning in that context but its significance may be more in light of the New Testament. There is no double meaning in the Old Testament.

He works this out in greater detail especially in the last two chapters of the book on hermeneutics, preaching and teaching.

Forgive me of my indulgence but let me quote Kaiser at length:

Kaiser quotes Chris Wright:

We may legitimately see in the event, or in the record of it, additional levels of significance in light of the end of the story—i.e., in the light of Christ. [He went on to say:] Looking back on the event [of the exodus] … in the light of the fullness of God’s redemptive achievement in Jesus Christ, we can see that even the original exodus was not merely concerned with the political, economic, and social aspects of Israel’s predicament. There was also a level of spiritual oppression in Israel’s subjection to the gods of Egypt.

Kaiser comments:

Notice that Wright carefully used the words “additional levels of significance” that could come from the “end of the story.” This is a whole world apart from what Sidney Greidanus argued after he surveyed the fact that some scholars prefer to use “sensus plenior, or the analogia fidei (“rule of faith”):

Kaiser then quotes Greidanus:

I continue to favor the name that refers to the broadest possible context and gives due recognition to God’s acts in history, “redemptive-historical interpretation.” Whatever name we use, the important point is that a passage understood in the contexts of the whole Bible and redemptive history may reveal more meaning than its author intended originally. For example, it is not likely that the author of Numbers 21 realized that in relating the story of the bronze serpent he was sketching a type of Christ. The type in this passage is discovered only from the New Testament perspective when Jesus makes use [John 3:14] of this event to proclaim his own saving work.

Kaiser comments:

Everything in this quote was going well until Greidanus used the words “may reveal more meaning than its [human] author intended originally.”

I have not decided where I stand on this yet. I’m still thinking about it. What about Isaiah’s prophecy on the virgin birth? I thought this should be interpreted as double meaning. One meaning, applicable to Isaiah speaking to King Ahaz. A second meaning, brought out by Matthew into Isaiah’s prophecy. Sadly, Kaiser didn’t have this passage as an example in this book. I would love to know how he interprets it.

Perhaps some of you think the distinction is artificial or trivial. But I agree with Kaiser on the dangers of one approach over the other. A search for deeper or another meaning in the Old Testament even with the New Testament to guide us, may result in imposing a foreign meaning and teaching it to be true. If we are not careful, we would be teaching what is not true and leading people away from what is true.

Recover the Unity of the Bible

To conclude, there is plenty in this book to meditate on and for that reason I recommend more people give this book a try, especially those I think can be stretched a bit in your reading. I’m not asking you to stop reading your devotionals or Christian living books and be a snob. Far be it! I’m saying we can all benefit from the fine scholarship that Walter C. Kaiser Jr has devoted a lifetime to, in order to enrich and deepen the Church and recover the Unity of the Bible.

This is a Reading and Readers review of “Recovering the Unity of the Bible: One Continuous Story, Plan and Purpose” by Walter C. Kaiser Jr.

I’m sure we are all united in our desire to mature in the faith. I humbly suggest one way is to read books that stretch the mind. It’s not the only way. In my circles we are very careful to not over-stress the pride of the intellect. Yet, I fear we are not stressing enough we are to love the Lord our God with our mind. If you know a brother or sister in Christ who would benefit from today’s review, please share it. My name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Have a blessed day!

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