Archives For Old Testament 101

Barry Webb, in his seminal work analysing the structure of Judges, departed from Noth’s view that it fit into a deuteronomistic history. Noth believed the Judges period began in Judges 2:6 and ended in 1 Samuel 12, this overlap between books meant that few saw Judges as a piece of literature in its own right.

Arguing for the literary cohesion of Judges as a stand alone text does not dismiss its place in a framework of Biblical Theology.

Webb believes Judges is internally coherent. That it deals with two primary characters God, and Israel. God is angry at Israel for disobedience but continues to show faith to his promises. Webb suggests the dynamic is more complex than a simple “repentance/deliverance” cycle. That it is more the case of consistent mercy in the face of apostasy.

Webb says the emergence of the monarchy is the next major narrative movement at the end of Judges. Judges ends “to be continued.” He sees “now after the death of…” as a common biblical means for introducing a new chapter in Israel’s history. From Moses (Joshua), to Joshua (Judges), to Samuel, to Saul (2 Samuel 1), and to David…

Webb suggests any approval of the monarchy in Judges is an approval of the Davidic/Judaic monarchy. Webb argues that the monarchy isn’t fully realised until Yahweh’s chosen king (based on Deut 17), David, takes the throne. Saul is “a king like the other nations” while David is a king after the Lord’s heart. But he sees the monarchy as a secondary issue to the relationship between Israel and Yahweh.

He sees a parallel in the downward spiral of kingship with the downward spiral of the judges, comparing Othniel to David.

Webb’s structure of Judges

Webb, like Wenham, identifies Chapter 1:1-3:6 as a prologue, or Overture.

1:1, opening with “after the death of Joshua” represents both continuity and discontinuity. Chapter one concludes essentially revealing the hopelessness of Israel’s attempts to meet the expectations as laid out. The overture climaxes with the meeting with Yahweh’s messenger who makes it clear that they are not to make agreements with the inhabitants of the land (2:1-5), and God’s speech in 2:20-22 about his faithfulness.

Chapter 2:20-22 lays out Yahweh’s rationale for not giving the whole land over to Israel as promised. They failed their end of the bargain. The structure of the overture is:

  1. Israel comes to terms with the Canaanites (1:1-2:5)
  2. Israel is ensnared by their Gods (2:6-3:6)
  3. Israel is now in conflict with Yahweh (2:20-22)

Webb identifies the same pattern of “The Israelites did what was evil” – six times throughout 3:7-16.31. He identifies motifs like improvised weaponry, worthless fellows, seizure of the fjords of the Jordan, weak women overcoming male heroes, and flaming torches that emerge throughout the narrative. And the following issues as thematic:

  1. Israel’s special status as a nation separated to Yahweh (a holy people)
  2. Israel’s going after other gods in willful violation of this status,
  3. The implied contest between Yahweh and those other gods
  4. The freedom of Yahweh’s activity compared to Israel’s presumption that it can use him as required.

Samson epitomises the Israelite condition – he is set apart, chases foreign women, and calls on Yahweh when he gets into trouble.

Webb calls the concluding chapters (divided along the same lines as Wenham) a coda, because he sees it as bringing balance to the book in terms of literary symmetry. He sees some chiastic closure with Judah receiving prominence in chapters 1 and 19, Jebus/Jerusalem and the Jebusites in 2:1-5 and 19:10-12, the weeping at Bethel and the weeping at Bochim (2:1-5 and 20:18, 26), and the Danite migration in 19 as closure for Dan’s failure to secure territory in 1:34.

For my next trick, I’ll tackle the question of how the structure of Judges impacts interpretation. I’ll be interacting with two texts on the subject – Wenham’s superb “Story as Torah” and Webb’s “Judges: An integrated reading”.

Wenham seeks to extract ethical principles from Old Testament narrative. Ethics have traditionally been ignored in interpreting these narratives because the narrator often passes no explicit judgment on the acts reported, he simply reports and the events speak for themselves.

Wenham applies historical, literary, and rhetorical criticism to these narratives. He recognises that ethics ultimately don’t rely on the historicity of the text but the literary approach. If only I’d read this when writing my violence essay… that would have been another footnote. Essentially I agree with him. Though I didn’t know it at the time…

Wenham notes that the narrator of the Old Testament is omniscient – aware of the thoughts and feelings of characters in the story. Some use this as justification for seeing the narrative as fiction, others as part of the case for divine inspiration.

Wenham suggests the first readers of the text read them as though they were historical, which legitimises the approach of extracting ethical principles from the stories as though they are indeed historical…

Wenham on the structure of Judges

Judges opens with Israel’s inability to conquer the land (and thus their inability to meet God’s requirements), and closes with the gloomy “in those days there was no king in the land, and everybody did what was right in their own eyes.” These ideas bookend (and perhaps technically bookbegin) the book.

The stories within the book are intended to shock the reader, and beg the question “what should this character have done” (which I think is one of the best ways to understand the spiraling despair of Judges – 2 Kings, and probably any narrative, it’s one of the first questions I ask – the second is the hypothetical “what would things have looked like if they had” because I like speculative ideas).

The stories in Judges follow a pattern of conquest by foreigners, an agent of delivery acting in Israel’s interest, followed by a period of stability, followed by their deaths, followed by Israel “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Wenham argues this idea is tied to Deuteronomic principles (I reckon Deuteronomy 30 is a pretty key interpretive rubric for these passages – Israel’s national autonomy is linked to their obedience to God).

Wenham identifies three sections in Judges:

  1. The prologue: 1:1-3:6
  2. The Core “Book of Deliverers”: 3:7-16:31
  3. The Epilogue: 17:1-21:25

The epilogue and prologue are split into two parts. The prologue contains a summary of the conquest (failed) of the land (1:1-2:5) and a commentary on the constant apostasy of Israel in the Judges period (2:6-3:6). The epilogue deals with a disturbing civil war and essentially a chaistic repetition of chapter 1 with the repetition of “who shall go up? Judah shall go up” (1:1-2, 20:18).

The six major judges in the middle of the book arise in a formulaic manner – the people do what is evil, they are sold into enemy hands, they pray for deliverance, and the Lord raises up a judge.

These judges follow a downward spiral from Othniel who escapes uncriticised to Samson who is the ultimate flawed hero.

The narrative represents the narrators dismay with the state of Israel’s faith, but delight in the actions and methods of deliverance. Within Judges we see people killing enemies with ox goads and jaw bones, stealth (and toilet humour) and after setting fire to fields using foxes tied together by their tails.

Judges 2:2-3 provides a useful interpretive schema for the whole book: “I [God] said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land… But you have not obeyed my command… So now I say I will not drive them out before you but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare for you”

This becomes a key theme in the book.

Judges 1 contrasts Joshua 1 while dealing with the same circumstances. Wenham says Joshua is celebrating the success of the conquest while Judges paradoxically declares it a failure. This represents the different literary/rhetorical purposes of the narratives.

Critical wisdom suggested that the epilogue came from a different hand, but it seems more valuable to read it as a commentary on the preceding chapters using the closing refrain as a literary marker (first in 17:6). Wenham argues that it is entirely consistent with the rest of the content. He suggests “doing right in their own eyes” mirrors “doing evil in the eyes of the Lord” but represents an evolution (or devolution) from that position.

Wenham sums up his commentary on the structure as: “Judges portrays Israel becoming progressively more lax in its religious practice, and ever more prone to disunity between the tribes, it reaches a climax with outright idolatory amongst the Danites and a civil war that could have destroyed the nation (nb. which also incidently foreshadows the ten tribes semi-rebellion under David in 2 Samuel and the eventual split of the kingdoms). The reader is driven to conclude that this must not continue, if the new nation is to enjoy harmony at home and peace abroad. A new way of life under new leadership is required…”

Wenham on the date of Judges

A variety of theories – most plausible seems to be for a composition under David prior to his capture of Jerusalem and shoring up of authority (due to a repudiation of Benjamin and Gibeah – Saul’s tribe and birth place), while a post Assyrian editing under Hezekiah (because 18:30 refers to the “capturing of the land” – this editing possibly took place to explain why the southern kingdom survived while the north didn’t) is also plausible if 19-21 are downplayed. The first view almost relies on the capturing of the land being a mistranslation of “the capturing of the ark”…

Just to add another Biblical Theology into the mix, Demster’s work is part of Don Carson’s “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series.

Like everybody else in the Biblical Theology world he starts with a bit of background on the discipline. He says “of the sixty biblical theologies written in the last hundred years there are almost as many theologies as there are theologians.”

Demster, in a vaguely Hegelian movement, critiques the application of both postmodernism and modernism to Biblical text. This is a cool quote:

“Theologians sailing in the waters of contemporary western culture have to avoid two opposite errors: they have to navigate between the Scylla of modernism and the Charybis of postmodernism. The error of modernism is objectivism, that is the idea that individual subjects can attain the entire value-free truth when examining an object – they can see it as it really is; while the error of postmodernism is subjectivism, the idea that because observers are never value-free or objective, they see the object according to their subjective perspective – they see it not as it is, but as they are (and therefore never really see it). A truly Judeo-Christian epistemology will navigate between these extremes…”

That’s a nice elegant critique with a reference to old school Greek mythology right there…

Barr championed the notion that the books of the Bible must be read separately because they were written separately, and stored as such until a later collation. He says notions of unity are “read into the text” rather than “read out of it.” The same could be said of the Lord of the Rings.

Demster provides a good quote for anybody tackling a question about the ordering or importance of keeping particular books in the Pentateuch:

“The larger literary context of the Tanakh has significant hermeneutical implications. For example, it begins with Genesis rather than Exodus, signifying that Israel’s national history is subordinated to that of world history.”

And one for anybody writing on Judges (this afternoon’s readings) – “The monotonous refrain at the end of Judges that there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) supplies the appropriate context for interpreting the rise of kingship in the subsequent book of Samuel.”

Demster affirms the cohesive literary value of the whole Old Testament, under its primary role as “scripture.” T.S Eliot said “the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered the report of the word of God.”

Here’s another cool Eliot quote about primarily enjoying the Bible as ‘literature’:

“While I acknowledge the legitimacy of this enjoyment, I am more acutely aware of its abuse. The persons who enjoy these writings solely because of their literary merits are essentially parasites.”

He uses the analogy of approaching the Bible with a wide angled lens (Biblical theology) as well as a zoom lens (textual criticism). It’s only really worth interpreting with the latter if you understand it in perspective.

Demster, in his summary of the story from Adam to David (conveniently the period covered by our exam) says:

“This story is about the reclamation of a lost human dominion over the world through a Davidic dynasty. In short it is about the coming of the kingdom of God, and it is unfinished.”

His understanding of the Kingdom is essentially the same as Goldsworthy’s, though curiously (given that it was written in 2003) does not reference or interact with his work at all.

Then he brings out the hourglass structure – God’s people starting as humanity, narrowing to Israel, narrowing to Judah, narrowing to Benjamin, and then narrowing to David, before expanding. And he sees this as a typology of Jesus, the new David.

Scobie’s “The Ways of Our God” is a significant tome introducing a slightly altered framework of Biblical Theology – God’s Way, God’s Servant, God’s People, and God’s Order…

It opens with a history of Biblical Theology that alone is worth the price of admission – he charts scholarly thought from Augustine (and earlier) through to the reformation, and finally the last 500 years (or thereabouts).

Consensus, at least in the “German School” of textual criticism which sees the Bible as a patchwork document of odd bits and pieces thrown together at the last minute and missing lots of valuable pieces that have been lost forever, is that Biblical Theology is impossible, not only is a unifying idea for the whole Bible impossible in their minds, but to suggest such an idea is possible for either the New Testament or Old Testament is lunacy. Scholars can be dumb. There. I said it. This is one of my most significant epiphanies. Academia is “the emperors new clothes” come to life… let me give you a tangential rant…

Hegel was the ultimate hater of conflict. He’s a compromiser. And proud of it. Hegel believed that in any conflict there were two sides just waiting to be synchronised. This may be a strawman version of his actual position, but it’s a strawman many people have since dressed up and carried around Oz looking for a brain to give him. Hegel’s dialectic works a bit like this:

Someone comes up with an idea (it doesn’t really matter if it’s a good idea or a bad idea). This is the “thesis”…

Someone voices a disagreement with the thesis (it doesn’t really matter if it’s a good disagreement or a bad disagreement). This is the “antithesis”…

We have conflict. Now, suddenly, it’s a good idea to bring those two positions together. In balance. Rather than rejecting either faulty thesis. And that gives us our understanding, until another idea comes along.

There doesn’t, in my mind at least, seem to be any sense of quality control. And so, to continue the Wizard of Oz metaphor, we end up down a yellow brick road wondering why we’re no longer in Kansas, but rather in a mythical land created by our imaginations.

This is pretty much what happens with scholarship. This digression is now over. Lets get back to Scobie’s history of Biblical Theology. Textual criticism (be it sociological, historical, structural, or form) started by doing away with any notion of authorial intent (how very postmodern). As a writer I find that pretty insulting. What’s the point of writing something if you’re just going to interpret it with zero regard to why I’ve written it? I don’t write for writing’s sake. I write to communicate something. The convenience for textual and form critics is that redactors (later editors) play a big part in their understanding of the writing of scripture – which means that anything that disagrees with their presuppositioned conclusion (yes, it is an oxymoron) can just be attributed to an editor and cast off as the scholar burrows into the “true meaning” of the text. Which is whatever they want it to mean. Dumb. Don’t get me started.

Scobie, in discussing the presuppositions that are inherent in any textual criticism makes the following point:

“The underlying assumptions of many practitioners of historical criticism have frequently been positivistic and rationalistic. While claiming to be neutral and objective, many scholars have in fact ignored the most central assertions of the Biblical texts themselves, those relating to the presence and activity of God.”

To paraphrase, Scobie is saying these guys may as well be atheists. That’s how they approach the text.

Brueggemann is more interested in sociological criticism – understanding how texts functioned in terms of shaping the identity of the reader, how they were intended to function in that manner, and how the identity of the writer shaped the writing. This is much more useful, so long as it is approached from a position of acknowledging that God plays some part in shaping the identity of his people via the pen (or quill, or chisel) of the writer.

Scobie concludes his piece on the textual critics by acknowledging that such criticism has a place in establishing the “world behind the text” but he suggests this must play a subsidiary role to the theological function of the texts. And particularly the Biblical theological function of the text. Scobie argues that textual criticism should be focused at the level of the canon as a united work, rather than in parts.

Brueggemann, and others, also want to treat the Bible as literature, paying attention to genre and the art of the text. Which is, I think, my default interpretive position (with the assumption that that will reveal the theological truth). The problem with some of the language used surrounding this literary approach – rhetoric, literary, etc – is that it creates a dichotomy between literature and truth. Not all literature is fiction. Not all fiction is untrue. Fiction – through fables, analogies, allegories, and extended metaphors (all pretty much the same thing) – can be used to express truth. History can be recorded with literary flair.

Scobie shares a good quote from Longman:

“While the Old Testament prose narrative consists of selective, structured, emphasised and interpreted stories… a literary analysis of a historical book is not inconsistent with a high view of the historicity of the text.”

He follows his history of scholarly thought with a short history of the Biblical canon before arriving at the bit that is of interest – a reflection on frameworks or themes identified in popular Biblical Theologies.

He mentions covenantal theology as “foundational” and tracks its development under Eichrodt. Who took the covenant as a heading and proposed:

  1. God and Nation
  2. God and World
  3. God and Men

As three sub-themes of the Old Testament.

Kaiser goes with one idea – “The Promise”…

Von Rad (who has an awesome name) said of the Old Testament, in response “there is no focal-point such as there as in the new.”

He acknowledges the sovereignty of God as a key theme identified by Goldsworthy, and “redemptive history” as a product of German thinking (notably Von Rad).

Scobie says that while the debate has failed to identify one major unifying theme it has recognised multiple important themes that run through the whole Bible.

He comments on a work by Dumbrell that loosely identifies Revelation 21-22 as positing five themes, which Scobie synergises into his own four themed approach which he bases on a proclamation/consumation model of interaction between Old and New Testaments.

His themes and their explanations follow:

God’s Order

Essentially a rebrand of Goldsworthy’s “God’s Rule” – encompasses God’s role and relationship with his creation. It is fulfilled in Christ who brings the dawn of the age, promised in the Old Testament. He brings five sub-themes under this heading.

  1. The Living God
  2. The Lord of Creation
  3. The Lord of History
  4. The Adversaries
  5. The Spirit

God’s Servant

This is obviously fulfilled in Jesus, but the role is played by other characters in the Old Testament  – from Israel holistically to kings, prophets and priests… This is essentially a rebrand of part of Goldsworthy’s “God’s People”. But it also tracks the development of messianic themes and other prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled in Jesus.

God’s People

The part of Goldsworthy’s “God’s People” that wasn’t expressed by those specifically acting as God’s agents (above), falls under this category. This captures the ideas of covenant, the theme of God relating to people, and doctrines like election and the church. He also brings Goldsworthy’s “God’s Place” under this heading, arguing that God’s people were always, and are always, intented to be in God’s promised land – from Eden to the New Creation.

God’s Way

Here Scobie departs from previous frameworks to include things like the law, righteousness, ethics (particularly Old Testament ethics – following Childs (1992) who argued that “the Old Testament portrayal of ethical behaviour is inseparable from its theological content.” These ethics are ultimately consummated in the ethics of Jesus and the injunctions of the Epistles.

One of the most famous architects of Biblical Theology is Australian. Graeme Goldsworthy. His Gospel and Kingdom is one of the seminal works on Biblical theology – its premise is that “God’s Kingdom” is a lens through which the Bible can be cohesively understood – he defines God’s kingdom as “God’s people, living in God’s place, under God’s Rule”… So, in say the Garden of Eden we see God’s people (Adam and Eve), living in God’s place (Eden), in direct relationship with God, and then, moving forward a few books, in Judges we see God’s people (Israel), living in God’s place (the promised land), under God’s rule (the judges) – this idea develops throughout the Old Testament, biblically culminating in Jesus, and ultimately culminating in the new creation. This “redemptive history” approach frames every passage as it relates to the ultimate end of the Bible, books are not ends in themselves, but part of the means to that ultimate end.

His book “According to Plan” charts the development of this picture through the Bible. For our OT exam we’re focusing on the Old Testament up to the end of 2 Samuel, so here are his divisions of our text under his headings (followed by a summary):

Creation by Word Genesis 1 and 2
The Fall Genesis 3
First Revelation of Redemption Genesis 4–11
Abraham Our Father Genesis 12–50
Exodus: Our Pattern of Redemption Exodus 1–15
New Life: Gift and Task Exodus 16–40; Leviticus
The Temptation in the Wilderness Numbers; Deuteronomy
Into the Good Land Joshua; Judges; Ruth
God’s Rule in God’s Land 1 and 2 Samuel; 1 Kings 1–10; 1 Chronicles; 2 Chronicles 1–9

I think the strength of basing approaches to Biblical texts in a framework of Biblical Theology is that it is, by my reckoning, what Jesus would do (and indeed what he did), and it’s certainly what the apostles did – they were able to explain, beginning with Moses, how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Biblical narrative (cf Matthew 5:17-20). It’s not rocket science. So a good framework, or understanding of the unfolding nature of revelation, helps us read the Old Testament without getting bogged down in mechanics. To continue Vos’ body analogy – we can enjoy the fruits of anatomical research without knowing the science – we can sit in our arm chairs and appreciate athletic endeavour without analysing every aspect of the physiological make up of the athlete and his trappings, and any study of the mechanics should be undertaken with the goal of improving on field performance.

For the benefit of other Old Testament students out there – below is Goldsworthy’s summary of the key points in his structure (via here).

Creation by Word
Genesis 1 and 2
In the beginning God created everything that exists. He made Adam and Eve and placed them in the garden of Eden. God spoke to them and gave them certain tasks in the world. For food he allowed them the fruit of all the trees in the garden except one. He warned them that they would die if they ate of that one tree.

The Fall
Genesis 3
The snake persuaded Eve to disobey God and to eat the forbidden fruit. She gave some to Adam and he ate also. Then God spoke to them in judgment, and sent them out of the garden into a world that came under the same judgment.

First Revelation of Redemption
Genesis 4–11
Outside Eden, Cain and Abel were born to Adam and eve. Cain murdered Abel and Eve bore another son, Seth. Eventually the human race became so wicked that God determined to destroy every living thing with a flood. Noah and his family were saved by building a great boat at God’s command. The human race began again with Noah and his three sons with their families. Sometime after the flood a still unified human race attempted a godless act to assert its power in the building of a high tower. God thwarted these plans by scattering the people and confusing their language.

Abraham Our Father
Genesis 12–50
Sometime in the early second millennium BC God called Abraham out of Mesopotamia to Canaan. He promised to give this land to Abraham’s descendants and to bless them as his people. Abraham went, and many years later he had a son, Isaac. Isaac in rum had two sons, Esau and Jacob. The promises of God were established with Jacob and his descendants. He had twelve sons, and in time they all went to live in Egypt because of famine in Canaan.

Exodus: Our Pattern of Redemption
Exodus 1–15
In time the descendants of Jacob living in Egypt multiplied to become a very large number of people. The Egyptians no longer regarded them with friendliness and made them slaves. God appointed Moses to be the one who would lead Israel out of Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. When the moment came for Moses to demand the freedom of his people, the Pharaoh refused to let them go. Though Moses worked ten miracle–plagues which brought hardship, destruction, and death to the Egyptians. Finally, Pharaoh let Israel go, but then pursued them and trapped them at the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds). The God opened a way in the sea for Israel to cross on dry land, but closed the water over the Egyptian army, destroying it.

New Life: Gift and Task
Exodus 16–40; Leviticus
After their release from Egypt, Moses led the Israelites to Mount Sinai. There God gave them his law which they were commanded to keep. At one point Moses held a covenant renewal ceremony in which the covenant arrangement was sealed in blood. However, while Moses was away on the mountain, the people persuaded Aaron to fashion a golden calf. Thus they showed their inclination to forsake the covenant and to engage in idolatry. God also commanded the building of the tabernacle and gave all the rules of sacrificial worship by which Israel might approach him.

The Temptation in the Wilderness
Numbers; Deuteronomy
After giving the law to the Israelites at Sinai, God directed them to go in and take possession of the promised land. Fearing the inhabitants of Canaan, they refused to do so, thus showing lack of confidence in the promises of God. The whole adult generation that had come out of Egypt, with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, was condemned to wander and die in the desert. Israel was forbidden to dispossess its kinsfolk, the nation of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, but was given victory over other nations that opposed it. Finally, forty years after leaving Egypt, Israel arrived in the Moabite territory on the east side of the Jordan. Here Moses prepared the people for their possession of Canaan, and commissioned Joshua as their new leader.

Into the Good Land
Joshua; Judges; Ruth
Under Joshua’s leadership the Israelites crossed the Jordan and began the task of driving out the inhabitants of Canaan. After the conquest the land was divided between the tribes, each being allotted its own region. Only the tribe of Levi was without an inheritance of land because of its special priestly relationship to God. There remained pockets of Canaanites in the land and, from time to time, these threatened Israel’s hold on their new possession. From the one–man leaderships of Moses and Joshua, the nation moved into a period of relative instability during which judges exercised some measure of control over the affairs of the people.

God’s Rule in God’s Land
1 and 2 Samuel; 1 Kings 1–10; 1 Chronicles; 2 Chronicles 1–9
Samuel became judge and prophet in all Israel at a time when the Philistines threatened the freedom of the nation. An earlier movement for kingship was received and the demand put to a reluctant Samuel. The first king, Saul, had a promising start to his reign but eventually showed himself unsuitable as the ruler of the covenant people. While Saul still reigned, David was anointed to succeed him. Because of Saul’s jealousy David became an outcast, but when Saul died in battle David returned and became king (about 1000 BC). Due to his success Israel became a powerful and stable nation. He established a central sanctuary at Jerusalem, and created a professional bureaucracy and permanent army. David’s son Solomon succeeded him (about 961 BC) and the prosperity of Israel continued. The building of the temple at Jerusalem was one of Solomon’s most notable achievements.


I promised my wife I’d do some reading up on Biblical Theology for the both of us… This is a long post. Feel free to just skip it.

What is Biblical Theology

Biblical Theology is a framework, or the attempt to create a framework, that sees the Bible not as a set of disparate texts brought together by chance and the say so of a council of clergy centuries later – but rather as a consistent piece of revelation. One work that outlines God’s interaction with his creation from beginning to end. It is different to systematic theology, which seeks to bring pieces of the Bible together in order to approach particular topics, but good systematic theology stems from solid Biblical theology.

Geerhardus Vos, apart from having a cool name, described Biblical Theology as the art of drawing a straight line through Biblical texts, where Systematic Theology draws a circle.

He also, when taking the chair as Princeton’s inaugural professor of Biblical Theology, made the following statements about the value of Biblical Theology.

First, he defined the anti-supernatural readers (textual critics) that he says Biblical Theology counters:

“Revelation [by their definition] consists in this, that the divine Spirit, by an unconscious process, stirs the depths of man’s heart so as to cause the springing up therein afterward of certain religious thoughts and feelings, which are as truly human as they are a revelation of God, and are, therefore, only relatively true… The people of Israel are held to have possessed a creative religious genius, just as the Greek nation was endowed with a creative genius in the sphere of art…Writers of this class deal as freely with the facts and teachings of the Bible as the most extreme anti-supernaturalists. But with their evolutionistic treatment of the phenomena they combine the hypothesis of this mystical influence of the Spirit, which they are pleased to call revelation. It is needless to say that revelation of this kind must remain forever inaccessible to objective proof or verification. Whatever can pretend to be scientific in this theory lacks all rapport with the idea of the Supernatural, and whatever there lingers in it of diluted Supernaturalism lacks all scientific character.”

I especially like the last bit.

Then he uses this analogy of the intricacy of the human body (with a hat tip to the argument from design) to describe why Biblical Theology opens up exciting new possibilities for understanding the Bible:

“In the Bible there is an organization finer, more complicated, more exquisite than even the texture of muscles and nerves and brain in the human body; that its various parts are interwoven and correlated in the most subtle manner, each sensitive to the impressions received from all the others, perfect in itself, and yet dependent upon the rest, while in them and through them all throbs as a unifying principle the Spirit of God’s living truth. If anything, then, this is adapted to convince the student that what the Bible places before him is not the chance product of the several human minds that have been engaged in its composition, but the workmanship of none other than God Himself.”

Recognising the unity of the Bible is not a priori a reason to dismiss analysing its individual parts (provided you recognise that they have a larger role to play), there is, to stretch the analogy, value in studying the anatomy and physiology of the human hand (or the eye – if you want to follow the traditional path of the argument from design). The Biblical body is both the sum of its parts, and greater than the sum…

Vos saw Biblical Theology as the antidote to what he perceived (writing in the late 19th century about ten years after Wellhausen had proposed the “Documentary Hypothesis” – that there were four separate writers, or schools of writers, responsible for the Pentateuch)…

“Biblical Theology is suited to furnish a most effective antidote to the destructive critical views now prevailing. These modern theories, however much may be asserted to the contrary, disorganize the Scriptures. Their chief danger lies, not in affirmations concerning matters of minor importance, concerning errors in historical details, but in the most radical claims upsetting the inner organization of the whole body of truth. We have seen that the course of revelation is most closely identified with the history described in the Bible. Of this history of the Bible, this framework on which the whole structure of revelation rests, the newest criticism asserts that it is falsified and unhistorical for the greater part. All the historical writings of the Old Testament in their present state are tendency-writings. Even where they embody older and more reliable documents, the Deuteronomic and Levitical paste, applied to them in and after the exile, has obliterated the historic reality. Now, if it were known among believing Christians to what an extent these theories disorganize the Bible, their chief spell would be broken; and many would repudiate with horror what they now tolerate or view with indifference.”

Cons – Problems with Biblical Theology

The effect of holding to no consistent theological framework or understanding led Carl Trueman to make the following observation about the state of modern “theological” studies in universities:

With no coherent epistemological or ontological basis to hold itself together, the university discipline has long ago collapsed into an incoherent mish-mash of courses of the `Theology and ….’ variety, where you insert your own particular concern or interest, be it women, ecology, politics, vegetarianism, or Tom and Jerry cartoons. Hey, it’s a postmodern world, cartoons are as worthy of time and energy as starving children, and the unifying factor in our disciplines, if there is one, must be found in our own little universes, not in the God of revelation.

Ouch. I guess I’ll be shelving plans to write “Theology and Coffee”…

Trueman offers a valuable critique of Biblical Theology – a corrective from a self styled theological revolutionary (from his first paragraph)… in his sights is the redemptive history movement championed on the global stage by Australian’s like Graeme Goldsworthy through Moore College. He thinks, in the circles that he moves in, this framework has become the “establishment” and because he self identifies as a “Marxist” when it comes to challenging establishments he wrote the following critique:

“First, there is the problem of mediocrity. It is one thing for a master of biblical theology to preach it week after week; quite another for a less talented follower so to do. We all know the old joke about the Christian fundamentalist who, when asked what was grey, furry, and lived in a tree, responded that `It sure sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer to every question is `Jesus’’.

One of the problems I have with a relentless diet of biblical theological sermons from less talented (i.e., most of us) preachers is their boring mediocrity: contrived contortions of passages which are engaged in to produce the answer `Jesus’ every week. It doesn’t matter what the text is; the sermon is always the same.

Second, the triumph of the biblical theological method in theology and preaching has come at the very high price of a neglect of the theological tradition. The church spent nearly seventeen hundred years engaging in careful doctrinal reflection; formulating a technical language allowing her theologians to express themselves with precision and clarity; writing creeds and confessions to allow believers over the face of the earth to express herself with one voice; and wrestling long and hard with those aspects of God which must be true if the biblical record was to be at all coherent or make any sense whatsoever.”

His closing statement (in an online debate that Goldsworthy subsequently responded to)…

My fear is that the biblical theology movement, while striving to place the Word back at the centre of the church’s life, is inadequate in and by itself for the theological task of defending and articulating the faith. Reflection upon the wider church tradition is needed, creeds, confessions and all, because this is the best way to understand how and where the discipline of biblical theology and redemptive history can be of use to the wider picture without it usurping and excluding other, equally necessary and important theological disciplines.

A paragraph from Goldsworthy’s response to Trueman is useful when assessing the importance of Biblical Theology when reading the Old Testament:

Biblical theology is necessary to prevent this de-historicising of the gospel by anchoring the person and work of Christ into the continuum of redemptive history that provides the “story-line” of the whole Bible. The only thing that can rescue systematics from such abstractions is biblical theology. In fact, systematic theology is plainly impossible without biblical theology. Biblical theology is the only means of preventing every biblical text having equal significance for Christians (eg. we need it to sort out what to do which the ritual laws of the Pentateuch). It prevents us from short-circuiting texts so that we isolate them from their theological context and then moralize on their application to believers.

Old Testament 101

Nathan Campbell —  June 8, 2010

Greek is done and dusted. So now its on to the Old Testament. Which I like. Much. Much more. I dug up some past exam questions in the library today, and our exam is on Thursday, so I’m thinking I might engage in a little learning through blogging exercise…

Our first Old Testament subject covers Genesis to 2 Samuel (I think). Which means the following academic “chestnuts” are sure to feature strongly:

1. The creation account(s)
2. The flood (though this has been covered by an essay topic)
3. Something about the covenant promises to Abraham.
4. The patriachs/creation of a nation.
5. Something about the law
6. Something about violence (though this has also been covered by an essay topic)
7. Something about the historicity of the Genesis-Joshua accounts of occupation of the promised land.
8. Something about Judges
9. Something about Biblical theology
10. Something about kingship (1-2 Samuel, and probably, to a lesser extent, Judges).
10. Something about the documentary hypothesis (source criticism), form criticism, sociological criticism, literary criticism etc or the structure of the Pentateuch…

There’ll be eight questions, we’re expected to answer four. I like all of these topics. Does anybody have any recommended readings for the next 32 hours that will see me through?