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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 59, 2011

LARRY R. HELYER, The Witness of Jesus, Paul and John: An Exploration in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2008). Pp. 362. Casebook. $US32.00.

Larry R. Helyer’s The Witness of Jesus, Paul and John: An Exploration in Biblical Theology aims to expound “the essential message of the New Testament” by examining whether there is a “genuine unity organically connecting the Old and New Testaments” (13). While the book’s title claims it is an exploration in biblical theology, this needs to be qualified: it is an exploration in evangelical biblical theology.

Helyer argues that Jesus is the master of New Testament theology and that Paul and John are indebted to the master for their theology. He argues that “ … if you have a basic understanding of Jesus, Paul, and John, you have the heart of the New Testament message” (13, see also 384). The book aims to be “introductory and foundational” (14) rather than comprehensive. To this end it is aimed at undergraduates in evangelical Christianity, seminary students and pastors in their personal lives and teaching ministries (14).

Part I’s first chapter explains biblical theology and offers methodologies to utilise in order to discover the message of the Bible (20). Chapter 2 examines whether there is a “fundamental unity” (47) between the Old and New Testaments. Chapter 3 outlines two systems of evangelical biblical theology: covenant theology and dispensationalism, “which share a common commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and yet they differ significantly on how to articulate its unity” (84).

Part II discusses the theology of Jesus. Helyer begins Chapter 4 by asking whether one can extract a theology of Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels (124–26) before moving on to examine Jesus’ views on the Kingdom of God (125–36). Helyer affirms that he himself follows the idea of inaugurated eschatology, that is, that the kingdom is both now and yet to come (136–42), “now but not yet” (141). Chapter 5 discusses the ethics of Jesus, with a significant portion devoted to the Sermon on the Mount (162–81), which Helyer feels is crucial (162).

Part III discusses the theology of Paul. Chapter 6 is devoted to contextualising Paul, before outlining critical and methodological problems in Pauline theology. Helyer takes the position that all epistles of traditionally Pauline ascription are genuine Pauline works, and thus valid for exposing his theology (199–224). Chapter 7 explores Paul’s gospel, emphasising Paul's teaching on fallen beings (226), with comparison to contemporary Jewish teachings on this topic (232). Helyer then discusses Paul’s “doctrine of reconciliation” (249–68). Chapter 8 delineates Paul’s view of Christology, focusing on Pauline use of “Son of God,” “Lord” (273–77) and “in Christ” (287–89).

Part IV discusses the theology of John. As he does in his exposition on Paul, Helyer argues that “ … the internal evidence, though not without problems, does not overturn the traditional ascription” (311). Helyer thus takes the Gospel, Johannine Epistles and Revelation as the work of the apostle. Chapter 9 deals with the Johannine portrayal of Christ, focusing on the polemical tone of Johannine Christology. Chapter 10 focuses on Johannine eschatology and ecclesiology.

Part V is a concluding chapter that brings the elements of the book together. Helyer argues that despite differences in style, emphasis and diction, there is a common thread of unity running throughout these texts (382–84) and believes he has said enough to “counteract the lopsided insistence that diversity and contradiction drown out any meaningful sense of unity and harmony” (403).

The book does feel somewhat imbalanced at points: there are 101 and 109 pages devoted to explanation of evangelical theology and Pauline theology respectively, but only 71 pages on Jesus and 68 on John (not counting the concluding chapter). The sources given as further references also vary in number: the Pauline chapters have six pages of sources collectively, while the John section has only a page and a half of sources in total. In light of Helyer’s claims that the Gospel of John’s influence has been “incalculable” and his theological contribution “enormous” (310), this seems unbalanced.

Ultimately, Helyer has set out to provide a broad introduction to a complicated topic, and he has done this well. The work is clearly borne of many years of teaching experience. Each chapter concludes with a series of study questions for further discussion and a bibliography for further reading. There are extensive indices.

This is a good introductory work on evangelical biblical theology for the seminary student, pastor, or interested lay reader.

Review by
La Trobe University
Bundoora VIC 3086