Old Testament 101: Biblical Theology: background, pros, and cons

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.