Is there a center to biblical theology? Is there an idea that drives the Bible’s theology? A theme found from the beginning to the end? Found no matter which genre, which book, or, perhaps, which chapter you look? In God’s Relational Presence, authors J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays believe that God’s relational presence drives the biblical storyline.
Their basic thesis is that “the Triune God desires a personal relationship with his people and so makes his presence known to establish and cultivate this relationship” (325). They write, “The center of biblical theology is that prevalent theme that is continually advancing the plot forward and interconnecting the other themes” (5).
The authors believe that this theme fulfills three criteria:
- It drives the plot of the Bible’s story from Genesis to Revelation.
- God’s created mankind to know him and to be in relationship with him. He walked in the garden with Adam and Eve, but they soon sinned and were exiled from the garden of Eden. But God continued to draw people close to him, talking to Cain, Enoch, Noah, appearing to Abraham and his sons, Moses, and Israel, speaking with Samuel and David through the prophets and priests, dwelling and walking among Israel in the tabernacle and temple so that they might know him and have access to him. Jesus “tabernacled” among people when he came, and upon his ascension he poured out the Holy Spirit onto all those who believe. Now Christians walk with God daily, having his Spirit in them, and we look toward the coming new creation where we will live in God’s presence forever.
- It appears extensively throughout the Bible.
- God’s relational presence appears in every genre and almost every book and chapter (for example, God isn’t mentioned in Esther).
- It best accounts for other main themes in the Bible.
- This theme “provides a cohesive, web-like center uniting the other themes into a coherent whole.” Like a web, many threads lead from the center to the end of the web, while other themes/threads aren’t even attached directly to the center, but they are still part of the web.
Duvall and Hays also believe that this theme fits with another proposed center: God’s glory. There are two senses to glory: (1) honor, prestige, reputation; and (2) visible splendor in the sense of glorious presence (329). Because of God’s glorious relational presence, we praise and honor him. “Praise is the ultimate result of presence” (329).
Duvall and Hays attempt a “whole-Bible” biblical theology, examining every genre of both the OT and NT (3). They do this according to the order of Protestant English Bibles. (Quite a few lately find significance in the Jewish Tanakh canonical order. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but the authors disagree.)
Throughout Scripture we see a God who is both transcendent (other than us) and immanent (relates to his creation). God appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and they spoke with him, even wrestled with him. Yet Moses sees God in a burning bush; Israel, a pillar of cloud and fire; all Israel and Moses, a burning fireball on top of Mount Sinai, replete with lightning, thunder, and an earthquake; and Moses goes up into the cloud. He isn’t allowed to see God’s face. When the tabernacle is finished, God’s presence comes down as a cloud, and when the tabernacle is ready for sacrifice, he shows himself by burning up the sacrifices.
This relational presence has consequences both good and bad. To live in God’s presence is to experience life to its full. It is to experience God’s blessings through a relationship with him. But for Israel, to sin against God meant that he would turn his face against them, turn his hand against them, and eventually send them out of the land where he resided. They would be exiled away from him, just as Adam and Eve were. Separation from God is no blessing, and eternal separation from God is hell.
The Psalms speak of God as in the tabernacle and in heaven. God is here and there. God is present everywhere, but he is particularly present in certain places or at certain times. The supreme hope in Psalms is “for the restored presence of God,” seen in merging of the Messiah’s kingship and God’s kingship (103). This is seen in the person of Jesus, who calls people to follow him and whose “presence creates community” (179).
I think Duvall and Hays have it right. They make a good argument that the center of biblical theology is not only God’s presence, but his relational presence. He created us so that we could know him, and Jesus died for us to be in union with us that we could, as Jeremiah 9:24 says, understand and know God. Your knowledge of the Bible will be enriched through this book, an it should help you see how God’s presence pervades Scripture.
- Authors: J. Scott Duvall & J. Daniel Hays
- Hardcover: 392 pages
- Publisher: Baker Academic (November 19, 2019)
- Sample: Read the Introduction, Genesis, and Exodus
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Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.