Dr. Walter Kaiser states perhaps one of the most crucial and yet disputed questions of contemporary Old Testament theology: “Does a key exist for an orderly and progressive arrangement of the subjects, themes, and teachings of the Old Testament?” Further, were the Old Testament authors aware of such a theme? Dr. Kaiser seeks to demonstrate an affirmative answer to both questions. His thesis is that the promise plan of God is the unifying feature of the Old Testament. It is the integrating motif which the biblical authors are seeking to flesh out and extend as the history of the Old Testament unfolds, and which brings together all other themes and subjects of the Old Testament.
The term “center” is perhaps useful in capturing the essence of what Dr. Kaiser is seeking to articulate here. However, it does have certain limitations. For one, it does not capture the historical framework embedded in his understanding. The Promise Doctrine is something that grows dynamically in that it builds upon itself in the historical progress of redemption and revelation. It is not something statically revealed only at the beginning of the story, but something that is unfolded and developed and extended across the whole scope of the Old Testament. This is in line with Kaiser’s methodology that “biblical theology draws its very structure of approach from the historic progression of the text and its theological selection and conclusions from those found in the canonical focus.”
Notions of a center almost inevitably bring up the question of philosophical grids: Does the recognition of a center to the Old Testament necessarily involve the imposition of a foreign framework onto the text? This fear has been a primary reason for the reluctance of Old Testament theologians to affirm a center. Dr. Kaiser is aware of this danger, but believes it can be overcome by his methodological principle that gives primacy to the text itself, not one’s philosophical system. Any center of the Old Testament must be discovered inductively from the text. If it cannot be so demonstrated, then it must be abandoned.
Another difficulty with finding a center to the Old Testament is expressed by G. E. Wright and echoed by Gerhard von Rad, Gerhard Hasel, and others. It is that the Old Testament is so diverse and multi-faceted that no single theme could by itself pull everything together. But in response, we must ask: “Were the authors of Scripture merely diffident or even ignorant of any divine master plan behind the course of human events, authorial selectivity of what was to be included or excluded, and the claims for supramundane evaluations of what was recorded?” The answer seems to be no. Ultimately, this objection must be decided not a priori but on the basis of the text itself. Do the Old Testament authors themselves demonstrate a conscience principle of selectivity in seeking to develop and expand a single integrating theme? That question must be explored, not decided beforehand.
There is canonical precedence for taking the promise plan of God is the unifying center of the Old Testament. If we look at the Old Testament, we see that the accent of the biblical writers fell upon “a network of interlocking moments in history made significant because of their content, free allusions to one another, and their organic unity.” This accent falls upon “the content and recipients of God’s numerous covenants.” And God’s covenants grew around a “fixed core that contributed vitality and meaning to the whole emerging mass.” This content, he states, is spoken of by the Old Testament under terms such as blessing, promise, pledge, oath, and standard divine formulas common to redemptive acts of progressive eras.
A discussion of the key passages and events in the Old Testament confirms that the writers were consciously operating out of a central unifying divine plan. At the beginning of the story, right after the fall of man, we see God promising a “seed” who would accomplish redemption. In the life of Abraham, we see that God’s promise of this seed remains central as God continually states and reinforces a promise to give Abraham a seed and a land, and to make him a blessing to all the nations. In the Exodus, we see the nation that God created from Abraham brought out of slavery and into the land promised. In the premonerical era, monerical era, and exilic prophets we continue to see the focus placed upon a coming individual of promise who is tied with the ultimate restoration and blessing of Israel and the whole world.
In keeping with Kaiser’s diachronic method, the focus of each progressive historical era remains resolutely on the “promise” (keeping in mind the multiplicity of terms used to express it). This provides significant confirmation of his thesis that it does serve as the unifying center of the entire Old Testament. Note the connections, as he has expressed them, between the various eras through their common focus on this one theme:
- Prolegomena to the Promise: Prepatriarchal Era
- Provisions in the Promise: Patriarchal Era
- People of the Promise: Mosaic Era
- Place of the Promise: Premonarchical Era
- King of the Promise: Davidic Era
- Life in the Promise: Sapiential Era
- Day of the Promise: Ninth Century
- Servant of the Promise: Eight Century
- Renewal of the Promise: Seventh Century
- Kingdom of the Promise: Exilic Times
- Triumph of the Promise: Postexilic Times
Finally, while we are not to force the New Testament back onto the Old Testament, it is worth observing that the New Testament writers themselves seemed to view the Old Testament as integrated by a unifying motif, which they referred to as the promise.
There are many strengths to Kaiser’s thesis. First, his diligent focus on the text is highly commendable. It is evident that he is not seeking to impose a theological grid upon the text, but rather is seeking to let the text itself guide us. Indeed, I believe that he has indeed convincingly shown that the text does point to the promise plan as the “center” of the Old Testament. (This will be discussed more fully below.)
Second, his willingness to follow the text and not preconceived notions of what it may or may not say is refreshing. The issue of whether the Old Testament has a center and what it is are determined by what the Old Testament itself says, not a priori notions of whether it is possible for the diversity of themes in the Old Testament to have any center at all.
Third, his historical approach harmonizes and complements his inductive approach. By tracking the Old Testament historically, it is made much easier to see the common focus of all aspects of the Old Testament on the promise theme and how the multi-faceted dimensions of the text actually build upon, expand, and ultimately integrate with one another by means of this center.
Fourth, Kaiser provides a very satisfying—and textually demonstrable—link between the wisdom literature and the rest of the Old Testament canon. The place of the wisdom literature and its relationship within the Old Testament canon has been extremely difficult to discern, especially within approaches that focus upon an historical approach to Old Testament theology. Kaiser notes: “It is so highly individualistic and with so few linking concepts, terms, or formulas with either antecedent or subsequent theology of Israel that most despair of ever unifying it into the rest of Old Testament theology.” Yet, Kaiser points out something that seems easily overlooked on account of its simplicity and perspicuity: the primary theme of the wisdom literature is the fear of the Lord, which is clearly a significant motif accented in all other eras as well. In the patriarchal era, for example, we see it emphasized that Abraham “feared God” (Genesis 22:12). The fear of God continues to receive significant emphasis in passages like Exodus 14:312; 20:20; Leviticus 19:14, 32; Deuteronomy 4:10; 14:23; 31:12-13. Further, the wisdom literature strongly links the fear of God with wisdom: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). And the concept of wisdom “supplied so many of the concepts used by some of the prophets” after the sapiential era, indicating a link with the prophets as well.
Fifth, I am convinced that, in the main, Kaiser is correct in his thesis. There is indeed a unifying center to the Old Testament, and that center is the promise plan of God. The storyline of the Bible, guided as it must have been by some sort of selectivity principle of the authors, seems to strongly illustrate this. We see man created and blessed at the beginning of the story. Then we see mankind fall into sin. Immediately, a solution to the problem into which man has entangled himself is announced: there will be a seed that will come and be victorious. The narration of man’s fall from such a blessed state followed by an immediate promise of restoration through a coming seed seems to strongly suggest that the remaining history is going to focus on the plan of bringing man back into what he has lost.
This seems confirmed in that we soon see God call a man named Abraham and promise him—and the whole world through him—what seems to be a restoration of what man lost, including land (alluding back to man’s expulsion from the Garden) and blessing (again alluding back to man’s original blessing in creation). The remainder of the entire Old Testament then focuses upon the people that God created from Abraham, which the Lord had indicated is itself in one sense the “seed” and yet in an ultimate sense to be the bearer of the seed that would fulfill the original promise of Genesis 3:15 and restore mankind back to Genesis 1-2 (and beyond). The focus of the whole storyline, then, seems to be on one thing: the working out of God’s promise to bless man by redeeming man from his initial fall from blessedness.
There is perhaps an analogy that can help one to see how the flow of a storyline can demonstrate an author’s main integrating theme in his writing. In The Count of Monte Cristo, we begin with the main character, Edmund Dontez, experiencing a good life. He is quickly betrayed, however, and his life falls apart. Although innocent, he is sent to prison, where he begins plotting revenge on those who betrayed him. Once out of prison, he finds a treasure that had been revealed to him by a fellow prisoner and begins the task of carrying out his revenge.
In the recent movie version at least, the story comes to a resolution with him giving up his quest for revenge but, in doing so, receiving justice and restoration by the hand of God. While it is obvious that the author is trying to communicate multiple things in the story, it seems to remain equally obvious that all the lessons and insights into human nature illustrated by the story are primarily sub-themes that flow from and unfold a more primary and dominating theme—the primacy of God’s justice over man’s revenge in the fall and restoration of Edmond Dontez. In other words, the theme of the story is the plan of and events by which Dontez overcame the plight into which he was cast–and, in the movie version at least, this theme itself exists to underscore and illustrate the point that God will give justice, even though it often looks as though he will not and that revenge is a better course.
Of course, the above analogy assumes that most writers have a single integrating theme in most of what they write. But that is exactly part of the point: we do approach most stories, whether movies or books, with the assumption that there is indeed a unifying theme. Part of the act of comprehending a story is the very act of discovering and grasping the unifying theme. Most of the time, stories that do not seem to have a unifying theme are what we consider to be bad stories—the type of stories after which we say, “I don’t get that—what was the point?” This is not to say that the unifying theme is always evident to us—often times, especially in complex novels, it is not entirely clear to us. But we see enough vestiges of what seem to be the theme that we remain interested in and moved by the story through the act of exploring what that main theme may be. As long as we have hope that there is a main theme, we have hope that the story has meaning. And even stories that at first seem to have multiple coordinate themes do not truly satisfy us until we can see how the multi-faceted themes actually do integrate into one dominant, primary, integrating principle.
But do these insights apply to a work that, such as the Old Testament, has multiple authors? They do when, as we also have in the Old Testament, the authors seem to be working in conjunction with one another. Although not all of the Old Testament authors lived at the same time, the later authors had access to the previous authors because the books were kept together in a canon (or, at the very least, the story of what God had done and was doing was kept alive in the minds of the community of God’s people, even if they didn’t always have every new book of the Old Testament immediately added to the canonical rule). Hence, we have a scenario similar to that of an edited work with multiple authors.
Let us take, as another analogy, D. A. Carson’s recent edited work Justification and Variegated Nomism. This work is a collection of chapters written by various scholars. Yet, there is one overlying theme which all of the chapters have in common, no matter how diverse the subject matter might be from one aspect of the analysis to another: namely, the fact that the Jewish nomism of the NT era was variegated and not monolithic, and the relationship that this fact has with justification, especially in light of the New Perspective in Pauline studies.
But it is precisely my affirmation of the success of Kaiser’s thesis that leads me to the conclusion that it may have the weakness of not going far enough and hence being incomplete. As in the story of The Count of Monte Cristo, the unifying theme is not simply the restoration of Edmund Dontez, but rather is, ultimately, the point that we are to gather from that. It seems as though the ultimate unifying theme of the story is not only the plan and process by which he overcomes his plight, but the meaning that we see illustrated by means of that plan and process in its consummation.
In the case of the Old Testament, that means we need to ask the question: for what reason has God established his promise plan? Why is God interested in restoring man to blessing—and, while we’re at it, we may as well wonder if this relates to his original purpose in creating man, such that there was anybody at all around to jump into sin and need redemption.
Daniel Fuller seems take the discussion to this level in his Unity of the Bible. It appears that his answer is that the unity of the Bible—the integrating, ultimate theme of Scripture—is that God be glorified in the obedience of faith. But Fuller’s book seems unfocused and hard to follow at times, such that in the end discerning what Fuller takes to be the unity of the Bible becomes, at least for this reader, even more difficult than discerning the Bible’s own integrating center on its own terms. Martens speaks of God’s design as the center of the Old Testament, Robertson, McComiskey, and Dumbrell as covenant, and Meredith Kline as theophany as the center. Yet, these solutions seem to suffer from the same weakness that I see in Kaiser’s approach: they don’t answer the ultimate question of why.
To be sure, Kaiser is right that the promise plan of God is the center of the Old Testament. I am not arguing for an alternative center or for the addition of a second coordinate center (if such a notion were even coherent). Rather, I am arguing that there is something more that is part of the very promise plan itself which must itself be acknowledged in a full-orbed, text-based account of the center of the Old Testament. This something more is, I would propose, the glory of God.
It is the glory of God which answers the question of why the promise plan exists in the first place and what God is seeking to accomplish in it. All plans exist for a purpose. The plan is the means; the goal of the plan is the purpose. Kaiser has stated the means; he has not stated the purpose. Purpose and means are two sides of the same coin, and hence both must be stated together in order for the unifying theme of the Old Testament to be stated in its wholeness.
What I am proposing, then, is that the reason God created and blessed man in the first place, and the reason he has put into operation his plan to reestablish man in blessing is that His own glory would be put on display. And that this purpose must be understood as part of the center itself in that it is the purpose of the promise plan, and no plan is rightly understood apart from its purpose.
There is not space for a full defense of this. However, two verses stand out most forcefully. First, in speaking of the time in which God will redeem the people of the promise and restore them to the place of the promise, God states his reason for creating in the first place the people who extend his promise plan: “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ And to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring My sons from afar, and My daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have formed, even whom I have made” (Isaiah 43:6-7). The people of the promise (Israel and, I would argue, ultimately all the elect, Jew and Gentile) were created for God’s glory. Their purpose is not simply to be the means of accomplishing the promise plan. It is deeper: the people, and therefore the plan itself, seem to exist that God may be glorified.
Second, God states in Malachi 1:11: “For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, My name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense is going to be offered to My name, and a grain offering that is pure; for My name will be great among the nations.” The connection this verse has with the promise plan seems evident: God is speaking of the work he will do among all the nations, echoing the plan stated in Genesis 12, 15, and other texts to bless all the nations. But here it is not stated that he will bless all the nations, but rather that his name will be great among all the nations. The implication seems to be: God will bless the nations by making them see the greatness of His glory (cf. Habakkuk 2:14: “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord”). The ultimate consummation of the promise plan is the demonstration and recognition of God’s greatness. This, in turn, ties back to God’s original purpose in creation which, as the text of Genesis indicates, was to fill the earth with His glory by filling it with humans in His image who reflect his glory.
In sum, the center of the Old Testament is the promise plan of God to redeem mankind from its fall, through the seed of Abraham, so that God’s name may be made great among His image-bearers and that He be glorified. The promise plan and its purpose are the center of the Old Testament and its unifying theme. The historical progression of redemption progressively restores the knowledge of God and is itself the means by which God will send the seed who ultimately will bring in the final era of blessing and glory (in New Testament terms: the glorification of mankind and the entire universe).
- Walter C. Kaiser, Toward on Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978).
- Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, 12.
- Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, 24.
- Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, 34.
- Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, 52-54.
- Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, 66.
- Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology, 66.
- Most importantly, although not addressed here, we should remember that the OT does indeed have one overarching Author who worked through the multiple human authors.
- In addition, I should add that they also suffer from the weakness of not seeming to have the strong textual support that is the distinctive strength of Kaiser’s approach.
- I am not denying that Kaiser has stated that creation and redemption exist for the glory of God; I am saying that he has not integrated this into his expression of the center of the Old Testament. When it comes to the center of the Old Testament, he has not incorporated the necessary integration of the two sides of that center.
- A blessing, I would add, that is far greater than the initial blessing Adam and Eve enjoyed before the fall.
- For a plan and purpose of the plan are so logically connected as to be one thing. For the character of the plan is a reflection of the purpose of the plan. For example, if a nation has a plan of using military force to expel the government of another country, the moral quality of that action will partly depend upon the question: what is their reason for seeking this regime change in this way? Is it simply conquest? Or is it to secure a just peace, and military action has been justifiably deemed to be the last resort? The plan itself becomes a very different thing depending on its reason for being (i.e., the goal).
- Notice how the immediate context speaks of redemption (v. 1) and seems to go on to describe the consummate act of final redemption, for God will command the north and south to “give them up” that they may be gathered together.