Review: Christ of the Consummation: The Testimony of the Gospels By O. Palmer Robertson

During my time as an undergraduate, I was required to take a number of Biblical studies courses. Many of the professors with whom I interacted, had little interest in seeing the Scriptures as a unified whole. Many of them openly mocked the doctrine of inerrancy as “narrow-minded” and “fundamentalist.” Those interested in Gospel studies often put Jesus and Paul at odds with each other. They also argued that the Gospel writers themselves were in conflict with one another. They argued that the differences in the books were significant enough that they contradicted each other, and they could not possibly all be true. These ideas were by no means isolated to my undergraduate institution. They have been a part of the higher critical milieu since Schleiermacher and Harnack. In contrast to the higher critical scholars, many well-meaning believers and preachers, in particular in the evangelical world, have tended to blur the Gospel writers together. A sermon on one episode in Mark can quickly become a sermon on its’ parallel in Matthew and vice versa. The result is a collapsing of the Gospel narratives that violates the particular nuance that each author is trying to communicate.

There is, however, a middle ground between the two extremes. Geerhardus Vos masterfully navigated this in his Pauline Eschatology where he explored the Paul’s unique contribution to eschatology, not opposed to the rest of Scripture, but in dialogue with the Old Testament and the other New Testament writers. Like Vos, O. Palmer Robertson’s work, Christ of the Consummation: A New Testament Biblical Theology, explains the unique contribution of each of the Gospel writers to our understanding of the person and work of Christ and the various developments in redemptive history that are revealed in the Gospels. His purpose is to explain how the Gospels themselves uniquely contribute to our understanding of redemptive history, both as the fulfillment of the old testament and the foundation for the rest of the New Testament.

In the preface to his book, Robertson explains the aim of his project. He sees his work as a continuation of Geerhardus Vos. Vos’s Biblical Theology was a groundbreaking work on the progression of redemptive history from a Reformed perspective. Robertson notices in Vos’s work that his tracing of redemptive history in the New Testament stopped with Jesus’ public ministry. The aim of Robertson’s work is to continue tracing the progress of revelation throughout Jesus’ ministry into the church age. He writes, “Is it actually possible to uncover a progression of revelation across the few years of the apostolic age? What newness in terms of progressive revelation may be found in the theology of the various Gospel writers? What distinctive contribution to new covenant biblical theology emerges in the preaching of the apostles as found in the book of Acts? Does a historical progression of revelation exist in the various writings of the apostle Paul? How is the epistle to the Hebrews to be viewed in terms of the progression of new covenant revelation? What is the distinctive place of the epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude? What unique message in terms of the progression of revelation emerges in the book of Revelation?”1

The book begins by introducing the tension that was left by the closing of the Old Testament canon and the tension that the Jews faced. They had all the promises of a future messiah, but where was the fulfillment of these promises? Robertson explores the tension that they felt throughout the Maccabean period, looking for the promised messiah, to no avail. This theme of Jesus being the promised messiah is one of the key themes throughout Robertson’s work and undergirds the redemptive historical framework with which he analyzes the Gospel.

The first six chapters primarily focus on the life and ministry of Jesus. Chapter two analyzes the annunciations, Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus’ temptations. He argues that both the angelic appearances in the announcement of Jesus’ impending birth, and the preaching ministry of John the Baptist mark significant development in redemptive history. The era of promise is over. The time of fulfillment has finally arrived! Robertson argues further that Jesus’ struggle against the devil also aid the revelation of Christ’s messianic identity. He argues that there are “three critical moments” in which Jesus confronts Satan, these are: in the wilderness, at Peter’s confession, and in the garden before his crucifixion. Of these three events, he says, “Jesus overcomes the devil’s temptation by totally submitting his will to the will of his Father in heaven. Simultaneously he passes the probation, God’s test that confirms his success in filling the messianic office.”2 Robertson’s aim in analyzing these three aspects of Jesus’ life is to show genuine development and to show how Jesus fulfilled all that was required of him as the second Adam.

In chapters three and four, Robertson considers the “self—testimony of Christ” and “his life and ministry.” He accomplishes this by examining Jesus’ use of the titles: Son of Man, Messiah, and Son of God. By understanding Jesus’ use of these titles, his self-identity as the promised messiah becomes clear throughout the Gospel’s narratives. This messianic identity is further confirmed by his teaching ministry and his miracles, both of which fulfill the messianic expectation of the Old Testament.

In chapter five and six, he addresses the revelation of the kingdom of God. He argues for a progressive revelation of the kingdom in the Gospel narratives. He writes, “The following distinctive stages may be noted:

  • Prelude to the coming of the King and his kingdom.
  • Initial announcement of the arrival of the kingdom.
  • First phase of the revelation of the kingdom by the ministry of the messianic King:
    • His teaching ministry.
    • His healing ministry.
    • His summoning and commission of followers.
  • The revelation of King and kingdom at the disciples’ confession of Jesus as the Messiah.
  • The triumphal entry of the messianic King into the royal city of Jerusalem.
  • The identity of Jesus as the messianic King who rules over his kingdom before Israel’s high priest and the ruling Roman governor.
  • Lifted up on the cross: King Jesus exalted in his humiliation.
  • Resurrection and ascension as the climactic confirmation of Jesus’ messianic kingdom.3

He spends a considerable amount of time developing each of these phases in redemptive history and exploring the insights that they bring to the text. After examining Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, and ascension in chapter six, he transitions to speaking about the unique role of each Gospel in the unfolding of redemptive history. He justifies this project by arguing,

By a careful consideration of their distinctive comments, by analyzing their arrangements of materials, by noting their peculiar vocabularies, by closely comparing one Gospel with the others, the specific emphases of each Gospeler may be uncovered, At the same time observing areas of similarity or identity among two or more Gospels could underscore a commonness of testimony at critical points. In following this process, new perspectives on the person and work of Jesus may be discovered.4

For the remainder of the book, Robertson explores the unique nature of each of the Gospels and what they contribute to the full picture of Jesus. He opens this portion of his book by arguing for the unity of the witness in the synoptic Gospels. His aim here is to establish the fact that there is a basic unity in the framework for the three synoptic Gospels that precludes the attempts of higher critical scholars to pit the Gospel writers against each other. Robertson defends the basic unity and thus the authenticity of the texts. He calls the synoptics a “threefold testimony” in order to capture this idea of the unity of framework in the midst of the differing ways in which they tell the story. He points to many instances where the Gospel writers affirm the exact same teachings and articulate them in very similar ways. He explains the dynamic in this way, “The integrity of each of the three witnesses is of such a character that each convincingly presents itself as a unified whole. At the same time, their union in testimony is of such a nature that little may be proposed as a contradiction among the three. Though distinctive in perspective, each Gospel supports the other two.”5 From here, he begins by discussing the unique role of Mark. He argues (based on his defense Markan priority in authorship) that Mark sets the base for the other two Gospel writers to expand upon. On its own, the flow of the text climaxes with Peter’s confession and the transfiguration and then resolves with the crucifixion and leads to the final climax of the resurrection. Furthermore, he points out the unique and vivid vocabulary employed by Mark, the juxtaposition of the large crowds and Jesus’ search for quiet, and Jesus’ regular commands for silence.6

After showing the uniqueness of Mark, he turns to Matthew. He argues that Matthew is particularly interested in situating Christ within redemptive history and the coming of the messianic kingdom. This is proven in the way that Matthew uniquely sets forth Jesus’ genealogy and describes his birth, the visiting wise men and the escaping to Egypt. In using these details, Matthew very clearly sets forth Jesus as the anticipated Messiah whose entire life and work has been foretold by the Old Testament. He also points to the unique structure of Matthew, which, based on Mark’s structure, presents the miracles and teachings in a unique way. Robertson argues that Matthew uses his structure to highlight Peter’s confession in 16:16. Next, he turns to Luke. He points out sixteen parables that are not found in the other Gospels, many details in narratives not found in other places, the unique application of κυριος to himself, and the journey to Jerusalem from 9:51 to the end. He also points out the way that Luke ends and sets the stage for part two of his endeavor to set forth an orderly account of what took place, namely Acts. He concludes this section discussing the synoptics by discussing what they share in common and what they, taken together, teach about Jesus. He defends the idea that they are not simply “Gospel historians” but “Gospel theologians,” not just concerned about the brute facts but with their hearers expressing faith in Jesus and the good news that he brings.7

Finally, he turns to the uniqueness of the Gospel of John. He argues that there are six unique elements to John’s Gospel. They are,

The Heart of John’s Gospel: “That You Might Believe”

The Gospel in John’s Geography

Profound Truth by Dialogue: A Distinct Literary Form in John

The “Nations,” the “World,” and the “Jews” in John

John: A Bridge between the Synoptics and the Writings of Peter and Paul

John: The Final Gospel8

He points out the uniqueness of John’s statement in 20:31. No other Gospel writer “breaks the fourth wall,” so to speak. None of the other Gospel writers address “us” as the reader directly, and yet John does. Furthermore, John connects redemptive historical development with change in geographical location. Another unique feature of John is his use of dialogue to communicate truth rather than blocks of “monologue.” Unique to John as well is the fact that he rarely uses the term εθνος in his account like the synoptics. Rather, he uses κοσμος—the world. For John, there is a stronger sense that the Gospel is meant for the whole world, highlighting explicitly the universality of the Gospel message. Next, Robertson discusses the use of the term “Jew” in the Gospel of John and the way that he characterizes them. Robertson also discusses the complementary role that John plays to the synoptics, though they do not always report the same content. The present content that supports the teaching of the other. Finally, he argues that John presents itself as the final Gospel. There is no need for more. With the writing of John’s Gospel, in combination with the synoptics, we have no need of further accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Robertson’s work is thoroughly researched, well crafted, and compelling. He presents a very clear structure and develops his thesis well (he even gives a full analytical outline of the work right after the table of contents, which lays out the flow of his argument). His writing is straightforward and clear. He helpfully, brings out the nuance that each Gospel writer brings to their own text and never pits them against each other. Like Vos before him, he is able to bring out how each Gospel writer and how the four taken together contribute to our understanding of the Biblical text, and he faithfully preserves the integrity of the Biblical text as a whole. Furthermore, though he acknowledges higher critical issues arguments at various points along the way, he stays focused on his primary task. He does not directly polemicize against them, but rather explains the Biblical text in such a way that precludes their conclusions. Finally, a feature that is rare to find in a work as rigorous as this one, he is consistent in calling his reader to respond in faith. At various points throughout the work, he asks the reader directly: “Do you believe?” Robertson demonstrates that his interest in this topic is not merely an academic one. He writes as a pastor, to us as believers, reminding us of who Christ is and what he has done for us.

This book is well worth the effort and time it takes to read. You will not only understand more deeply the development of redemptive history in the Gospels, but you will also be continually reminded of great Gospel that we believe. Throughout the work, you hear not only the voice of a careful scholar interested in the “bare facts” of redemptive history, but the voice of a concerned pastor and teacher who, like the Gospel writers themselves is concerned that his readers would “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God and that by believing, you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Endnotes

1. O. Palmer Robertson, Christ of the Consummation: A New Testament Biblical Theology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2022), xxix.

2. Robertson, Christ, 34.

3. Robertson, Christ, 94–95.

4. Robertson, Christ, 156.

5. Robertson, Christ, 175.

6. Robertson, Christ, 184–92.

7. Robertson, Christ, 246.

8. Robertson, Christ, 257.

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Posted by Tyler Dowd | Thursday, November 3, 2022 | Categorized Books, Gospel, Reviews | Tagged , , Bookmark the permalink.

About Tyler Dowd

Tyler Dowd is originally from the greater Seattle area. While attending Azusa Pacific University (BM Music & Worship, 2019), his passion for theology and the Scriptures grew. Eventually, the Lord led him to pursue further education at Westminster Seminary California. He is currently pursuing an M.Div and MA. in Historical Theology.

3 comments

    • The Reformed Forum has a podcast episode on the book. In that episode Robertson mentions that he is already half way through the second volume (on Acts & Paul’s Epistles) and, Lord willing, will finish the third volume on the testimony of James, Jude, Peter & John (he won’t be using the term general epistles) as well as Revelation. I hope he is able to finish all three volumes!

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