Biblical Theology 101: Scobie

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.