I’ve been familiar with the name Walt Kaiser since early on in college. One of my first professors used several of his sources, but I hadn’t personally read anything by him until now. Originally delivered as a set of 16 lectures at Cambridge Summer School of Theology, Recovering the Unity of the Bible is a very reader-friendly defense of Scripture’s overarching unity. Kaiser notes in the preface that it seems like recently scholars are more excited to celebrate the diversity of Scripture, and any thought of a unifying theme or center has fallen to the wayside. To help change that, Kaiser presents his findings in this book.
Rather than arguing for a specific center to unify Scripture, Kaiser explores different themes in Scripture that unify what seems like diversity. His opening chapters look at this history of the search for unity and types of unity possible (chapter 1), the different types of diversity actually present in Scripture (chapter 2), and different approaches to harmonization (chapter 3). Ultimately, as Kaiser concludes,
The theological unity of the Bible celebrates the diversity of the Bible but does so with the conviction that even though that unity can be tested historically, ethically, and otherwise, it has not detracted from the central case for the theological harmony that is found in the text. This has been the general conclusion of two millennia of Judeo-Christian exegesis (33).
Kaiser notes that while unity is in principle achievable, he does not diminish that there will be difficulties involved. To help present his case, he begins with two chapters exploring the overall unity of the Old Testament (chapter 4) and then the New (chapter 5). I was particularly fascinated by his use of the Decalogue and Israel’s disobedience of it as a unifier. If we take the Hebrew Bible’s organization of the books, the primary history comprises these books:
- Books of Samuel
- Books of Kings
Kaiser then makes the case that a major episode showing Israel breaking each commandment occurs in each book and the history therefore ends with them in exile. An inclusio is formed by a double violation in Exodus and Kings, resulting in the following:
- Apostasy and Idolatry (Ex. 32)
- Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:10-16)
- Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)
- Parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
- Stealing (Joshua 7)
- Killing (Judges 19-21)
- Adultery (2 Samuel 11-12)
- False Witness and Coveting (1 Kings 21)
I had never recognized or thought of this before, but it does seem to be a clear unifying theme in the narratives of the Old Testament. Even if one were to argue that this is less than convincing, Kaiser has several more thematic arrows in his quiver to shoot toward unity.
In the New Testament chapter, Kaiser points readers back to his book The Promise-Plan of God, which we’ll look at soon enough, so I’ll pass over it here. Chapter 6 gives an overview of messianic prophecies as a unifying factor, before Kaiser spends the next two chapters on the unity of the Bible between the two testaments. Chapter 7 looks at how the character of God is consistent testament to testament and chapter 8 the morally offensive character and acts of Old Testament saints. To the latter, Kaiser makes the important distinction between what the Bible reports and what it approves, and in doing so we can see that the ethical demands of both testaments are consistent.
The next three chapters look at the unity of the people of God, the kingdom of God, and the promise-plan of God. These are the most overtly eschatological chapters in the book and will probably be taken differently by readers depending on whether they are of a more covenantal or dispensational persuasion. Since I’m more or less neither of those, I found Kaiser’s position to be helpful, and though I didn’t agree with him fully, I think he presents a path that seeks to make exegetical sense of the text without committing to either major eschatological system. I’ll say a little more about this though when we review The Promise-Plan of God.
The following three chapters are on the law of God, the doctrine of salvation, and missions. Here Kaiser shows that the continuity of the ethical demands of God, the offer of salvation by grace through faith, and the practical outworking of being part of the people. Kaiser shows that the expansion of the people of God through missions runs through both testaments and that the offer of salvation hasn’t changed, though the full understanding of the object of faith has.
The final two chapters cover two practical matters: interpreting the Bible, and preaching and teaching the Bible. In the former, Kaiser presents his approach to hermeneutics over and against many modern approaches. He is very suspicious of anything that seems allegorical or open to multiple meanings in the text and instead prefers E. D. Hirsch’s distinction between “meaning” and “significance.” In the latter chapter, Kaiser argues that though there is coherence and unity to the Scriptures, one does not need to explicitly preach Christ from every Old Testament passage in order to convey that.
Overall, I found Kaiser’s book an enjoyable read and it is a very useful summary case for the unity of Scripture. It helps that the chapters were originally presented as lectures. It keeps them short and to the point and the style is clear and crisp. Kaiser has a broad range of sources he pulls on and is clearly looking at the text of Scripture with years of scholarly research under his belt. In all of that though, he presents his position with a jargon-less clarity that most general readers will be able to appreciate and understand. Even when essentially summarizing journal articles, Kaiser demystifies what might have otherwise been a tough read for the average person (especially the ones that are originally in German!)
If you’re looking for a good resource that covers multiple themes and opens up new avenues for thinking about the unity of the Bible, then I would definitely consider checking out Kaiser’s Recovering the Unity of the Bible. And if you’re interested in seeing more from him, keep an eye out next week for my review of The Promise-Plan of God.
- Author: Walter C. Kaiser Jr.
- Title: Recovering the Unity of the Bible: One Continuous Story, Plan, and Purpose
- Publisher: Zondervan (October 13, 2009)
- Hardcover: 256pgs
- Reading Level: Bible School/General Reader
- Audience Appeal: Prophets interested in exploring a defense of the unity of Scripture
- Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Zondervan)