Tabletalk: Describe how you became a Christian and how God called you to work in the academy.
T.D. Alexander: I grew up in a rural community in the northeast of Ireland, strongly influenced by Ulster-Scots culture, where almost everyone was Presbyterian by birth. As the eldest of three boys, I was cared for sacrificially by our mother following our father’s early death. In my mid-teens, I made that wonderful discovery of the grace of God, understanding personally the significance of what Christ did for me on the cross. Thereafter, filled with a desire to serve Christ, I explored the possibility of becoming a Presbyterian minister. By a remarkable series of twists and turns, too numerous to tell now, I ended up completing a four-year undergraduate degree in Semitic studies, studying mainly Hebrew and the Old Testament. I then embarked directly on a PhD degree course, largely under the guidance of Dr. Gordon Wenham, at Queen’s University in Belfast. After three years of PhD research, God opened the door for me to teach in Queen’s, and so began my academic career. Through all of this, God continued His work of grace in my life, giving me the privilege of devoting my time to studying and teaching Scripture.
TT: Why should Christians care about studying the Old Testament?
TA: It’s a good issue to raise, especially since most Christians probably view the Old Testament as of secondary worth compared to the New Testament. For me, the Apostle Paul gives an all important answer when, in 2 Timothy 3:14–17, he reminds Timothy of how the Holy Scriptures have made Timothy “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and how “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Importantly, Paul speaks here of the Old Testament as the source of divinely inspired truth. From my own experience, I have come to appreciate why Paul wrote as he did. While the Old Testament may not always be the easiest part of the Bible to read, we remain spiritually poorer by neglecting it.
TT: What advice would you give to Christians who have tried to read through the Old Testament only to get bogged down in Leviticus or Numbers?
TA: One of the important Reformation truths about Scripture is the concept of clarity or perspicuity, to use the more technical term. While accepting the idea that biblical truth is accessible to ordinary readers, we also need to appreciate that most modern readers are far removed from the world of the Bible, especially the Old Testament. The books of the Bible are distant from us chronologically, geographically, culturally, and linguistically. This distance is not easy to bridge, even with good Bible translations in English, and so we may readily fail to grasp the true meaning and significance of Old Testament books. Reading through the Old Testament is like going on a journey to a foreign country where the language and culture is very different from are what we know. To make sense of everything, we need a good guide and interpreter. Often, one part of Scripture will interpret another part of Scripture for us. But those who are new to the Bible may not always know where to turn for such help. In these circumstances, reliable guides in the form of commentaries on biblical books are indispensable. I recall well as a university student having my eyes opened to the book of Leviticus by the commentary of Gordon Wenham. Unfortunately, good guides, especially for the more difficult books of the Old Testament, are sometimes few and far between.
TT: Why is understanding the Five Books of Moses crucial to understanding the entire Bible?
TA: Essentially, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy make up the foundation upon which everything else in the Bible rests. They introduce the main characters and set in motion the plot that is developed throughout the rest of the Bible. Without, for example, the opening chapters of Genesis, we would not understand why our world is far from perfect and why people are alienated from God. While the New Testament points us to Jesus Christ as the solution for the human predicament, the books of Moses explain why we need a solution and begin to tell of the process by which God’s solution is made known to the whole world.
TT: What is “biblical theology,” and how does it compare to “systematic theology”? Are they conflicting ways of doing theology?
TA: So much could be said on this. I’m almost fearful to say anything because it might easily be misunderstood. Different people have very different views of what biblical theology is all about. Some evangelicals see it as a steppingstone between the Bible and systematic theology or doctrine. But such a view presents systematic theology or doctrine as something that has been refined or distilled from the Bible (like petroleum from crude oil). We must never forget that Scripture comes to us not only as the source of divine truth but also as the means by which that divine truth is applied to our lives. For this reason, reading the Bible is vital for Christian growth. For me, biblical theology is merely an aid to grasping better the meaning of Scripture. It helps me see the relevance of all of the Bible, the unity of its many different books, and how the diversity of these different books enriches the Bible’s message.
TT: Is there an overarching theme that ties all of Scripture together, and how would you define it?
TA: I’m reluctant to suggest that one overarching theme unites the whole Bible. Any attempt to reduce all of Scripture down to one theme, however well done, will ultimately fail to do justice to the rich complexity of the biblical material. While I’m deeply convinced about the unity of the Bible, unity should not be confused with uniformity. The unity of the Bible is more like the unity of the human body than the unity of a marble pillar. There is remarkable diversity within the unity of the body, and so it is with Scripture. Diversity adds richness, as different parts of the Bible complement each other. Unfortunately, some people exploit this diversity as a reason for denying unity. Yet, this is a false line of reasoning and ought to be vigorously rejected, but not at the expense of denying diversity within the Bible. We must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
TT: Why do you start with a study of Revelation, rather than Genesis, in your book From Eden to the New Jerusalem?
TA: You may be surprised by my answer. The book is based on a series of lectures that I gave for a group of ordinary church members, many of whom were, dare I say, somewhat mature in years. I wanted to speak to them about their future hope: what did they have to look forward to as believers in Jesus Christ? Naturally, John’s vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21–22 is very relevant. However, over a period of several years, I was convinced that what John saw as the climax of human history is intimately linked to the very beginning of human history. What God intended when He first created the world is fulfilled in the renewed earth of Revelation 21–22. After putting these things together, other parts of the Bible took on a new meaning for me and made greater sense. Seeing the end of the process helped me to understand better all that God has been doing in the world since its creation. It helped me to connect the garden of Eden, the tabernacle, Jerusalem and its temple, Jesus as a temple, the church as a temple, and, finally, the New Jerusalem. As you trace what God does through each of these, you see how everything eventually comes together to fulfill God’s purpose in creating the earth.
TT: In your book The Servant King, you examine how the Old and New Testaments portray the Messiah. Why does Scripture only gradually unfold this picture, and what are the advantages we enjoy living on this side of Christ’s ministry?
TA: Reading through the Bible from beginning to end is like watching a painter transform a blank canvas into a masterpiece. This is not something that can be done in minutes. So it is with God as He works patiently to bring about the redemption of our world from the power of Satan. The process is slow by its very nature, for God’s plan is to fill the earth with those who love and serve Him. As with the painting, those who see it in the final stages are in a better position to appreciate what the artist has achieved. From our perspective, we are better placed to appreciate the impact of Jesus Christ on our world.
T.D. Alexander is senior lecturer in biblical studies and director of postgraduate studies at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and an elder at Fitzroy Presbyterian Church. His areas of expertise are the Pentateuch and Biblical Theology. He has written and contributed to a wide variety of academic and reference books on the Bible, including From Paradise to the Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch.