The Reemergence of Biblical Theology: What Is Going On?

Stephen Motyer

Quite a lot! And much excitement is being generated, as always when foundations are shaken, old paradigms and subject-divisions questioned, and new vistas emerge from the mist. The shape, though, of this “biblical theology,” looming out of the clouds ahead, is not clear. Many are trying to map it, but there is little agreement even about its broad shape, let alone about the detailed contours.

As we seek for the proper instruments to observe and map this mountain, evangelicals find themselves on equal footing with other Christians, for there is no particular evangelical commitment in this area. In some areas — for instance, concerning the historicity of the Gospels — evangelicals are broadly committed to a “line” that to some extent defines evangelicalism. But it is not so in the area of biblical theology. Beliefs about inspiration or “progressive revelation,” for example, still leave open the question of how we discern and describe the oneness of this Word of the one God. And as soon as we ask about discerning meaning, broader hermeneutical questions join the fray, particularly questions about the role of historical criticism in the study of the Bible, and the relationship between the Bible and the dogmatic tradition of the church. Here, evangelicals simply have a broad commitment to the primacy of Scripture. But as yet, we are still debating with others, and with ourselves, with respect to how the primacy of Scripture can rightly be made effective within theology.

The recent “biblical theology” movement dates from about 1970, and has three interlocking strands to it. An American strand is associated particularly with B. Childs, whose book Biblical Theology in Crisis (Westminster, 1970) marked a turning-point in a movement that needed reformulation. Childs’ own emphasis on the canonical basis of biblical theology, worked out in detail in three large volumes, has been highly influential worldwide as well as it has been controversial. He has been attacked for side-lining the Bible’s historical nature by his emphasis on the primary role of “canon” in interpretation.

A German strand is associated particularly with Tübingen University and with the names of H. Gese (OT) and P. Stuhlmacher (NT). Their distinctive approach is to emphasize the common tradition-history of Old and New Testaments by seeking to show that the New is a natural progression from the Old, so that the unity of the Bible is a unity of common story. More recently, H. Hübner has made a substantial contribution in arguing — in line with this Tübingen approach — that the quotations of the OT in the New must be the starting-point and focus of biblical theology.

A British strand is connected especially with F. Watson of Aberdeen University, who insists particularly on the necessary overlap between biblical and systematic theology. The traditional division of the disciplines into “OT,” “NT,” and “Theology” must be broken down, he argues, so that our theological questions about God, Christ, the world, and the gospel shape our approach to the Bible. Within British scholarship, J. Barr has long been an independent voice, highly critical of Childs and of any “theological” reading of the Bible that overrides the Bible’s history. His recent book, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Fortress, 1999), is a fascinating and brilliant survey of the new movement in all its strands.

A brief survey of the various options will highlight the central issues in the debate. Barr provides a useful typology of current approaches to OT theology (p. 27). Of course, actual theologies can represent various combinations.

  1. Biblical Theology Based on the Traditional Categories of Systematic Theology. In this approach, the Bible is handled as a fundamental sourcebook for teaching about God, the world, and its redemption in Christ. So the questions that structure the theology are those asked by theologians. Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Theology (InterVarsity, 1981) is an excellent example of a theology constructed along these lines, as is E. Jacob’s Theology of the Old Testament (Hodder, 1958) and G. Knight’s A Christian Theology of the Old Testament (SCM, 1959).This approach takes seriously the need to integrate the Bible with the broader systematic tradition, but it can easily override the distinctive shape and nature of the biblical literature. As G. Ebeling famously commented, “The Bible is not theology, but the raw material out of which theology is done. In itself the Bible is a dramatic and wonderful collection of stories, laws, prayers, prophecies, and didactic writings arising within the broad history of ancient Israel. Very little of it is ‘theology’; that is, the kind of systematic and ordered statements about God and the world for which ‘theologians’ strive.”Yet the Bible clearly “has” theology, simply because it teaches and speaks of and from God, and supremely contains the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, ultimately we cannot escape from the questions for which we want answers. But we must surely take care not to ignore the distinctive literatures and overall form in which God’s Word comes to us. Is “biblical theology” that sort of theology that grows out of the Bible’s distinctive literatures and historical shape? But how can it best do this? The other types of biblical theology attempt this task in different ways:
  2. Synthetic Attempts to Summarize “the World of Faith.” Theologies adopting this approach start from the religious experience underlying the texts, in particular the relationship with God that they express. Walter Eichrodt’s Theology of the Old Testament (Westminster, 1961/67) is the most famous representative. He focused on the notion of “the covenant” as the idea that holds together the OT conception of the relationship with God, and suggested that on this basis the unity of the Bible can be understood (though he did not seek to develop the NT angle). The highly compelling work of W. Brueggemann stands broadly within the Eichrodt tradition (Theology of the Old Testament [Fortress, 1997]) and emphasizes the paradoxical nature of OT faith because Israel experienced God both as savior and as enemy.This approach can cope easily with varieties of religious experience and expression within the Bible, and so is attractive to those who — like Barr — want to move away from “theology” in the direction of “history of religion.” But if “biblical theology” simply means describing the varied forms of biblical faith — nomistic, wisdom, prophetic, charismatic, apocalyptic — then it provides little to appropriate for ourselves today. To which, if any, should we seek to conform ourselves? In any case, if we could describe “NT faith” and make that normative for today, would this not remove all incentive for Christians to engage with “OT faith”? Yet the Christian use of the Psalms in worship is as old as the church.
  3. Biblical Theologies That Start from the NT and Emphasize the “Christian” Nature of the Enterprise. Should biblical theology start with the OT and seek to demonstrate lines of continuity into the New, or should it start with the New, particularly with Jesus, and assess (evaluate, critique) the Old from this perspective? T.C. Vriezen’s An Outline of Old Testament Theology (Blackwell, 1960) is the most substantial modern example of the second approach, one that looks back to Vischer’s The Witness of the Old Testament to Christ (German original, 1936). It can claim to be the most ancient, for this is certainly the approach of the letter to the Hebrews, which is the closest the NT comes to a formulated biblical theology.But the hermeneutic of Hebrews — that is, its interpretive theory and exegetical method — is far from clear. Does the NT provide us with the means fully to “critique” the Old? If we seek to derive the critique from the quotations of the OT in the New, what about the many parts of the OT not quoted? How will we integrate these into our biblical theology? It is not surprising that Childs, although emphasizing the Christian nature of “biblical theology,” does not make the NT his point of departure, but underlines the need for Christians to hear the “discreet” voice of the OT. But how can the OT speak “discreetly” — that is, differently, distinctly — within a unified, Christian, biblical theology?
  4. Biblical Theologies That Build on the Description of Developing Historical Tradition. Gerhard Von Rad’s Old Testament Theology (SCM, 1975) is the most powerful attempt to formulate biblical theology on this principle, although he does not deal in a detailed way with the line of development into the New. That task has been taken up by others working within his tradition, most notably by Gese and Stuhlmacher. This approach resists abstraction — that is, distilling abstract “ideas” from texts rooted in historical circumstances — and seeks to minimize the distance between theology and history. Biblical theology, in the long run, is telling the story of God’s dealings with his people through many ups and downs, from Abraham to the end of the first century AD, focusing, of course, on the appearance of Jesus near the end of this period.This approach at least lets the Bible be itself. But the story is bigger than the Bible. The story includes the inter-testamental period, attested in literature not recognized as “Bible” by the Christian churches, even though it is occasionally quoted in the NT. But if this literature is included, on what basis can the post-NT story be excluded? Though the story (the history) is basic and vital, “biblical theology” must ultimately have a textual foundation, for otherwise it loses its bounds. Stuhlmacher recognizes this, and so emphasizes the need to integrate biblical theology with the broader dogmatic tradition of the church in which the Bible is recognized and distinguished as “canon.”
  5. Biblical Theology Resting on a “Canonical” Approach. Childs has many companions and followers in contemporary writing. Even his critics owe much to his vision and the persistence with which he has defended it. He is explicit about his starting point: Christians approach Scripture as members of a community that recognizes the canon as the place where God normatively speaks to and confronts his church. This is surely right! But, acceptance of this starting point does not help us to know how we are to hear the voice of God in Scripture granted the shape of Scripture (its division into two testaments, one of which is not technically “Christian”) and the historical and cultural distance between the issues we face today, to which we must make a theological response, and the issues actually addressed in the scriptural literature.In his early and programmatic book, Biblical Theology in Crisis, Childs emphasized our questions as the focus of biblical theology: “What we are suggesting is a process of disciplined theological reflection that takes its starting point from the ethical issue at stake along with all its ambiguities and social complexities and seeks to reflect on the issue in conjunction with the Bible that is seen in its canonical context” (131). But in practice, this focus disappears in his later volumes as Childs emphasizes the witness of each Testament, so that his “canonical” approach in fact offers little more than a tradition-historical reflection on the relationships between the Testaments.

Where have we come, and where are we going? Clearly the integration of the disciplines (OT, NT, Systematics) is vital to the future of “biblical theology.” I am personally excited about the potential of the projected Two Horizons Commentary series (Eerdmans). This series seeks to integrate the disciplines around an exegetical engagement with the NT; and doubtless, the future of “biblical theology” will be deeply affected by these volumes as they appear. The rationale of the series has already been discussed in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (ed. J.B. Green and M. Turner; Eerdmans, 2000), a collection of essays that further explores many of the issues outlined in this brief discussion.

Posted Apr 01, 2002