What is Biblical Theology? – My Take on the Issue….

Geerhardus VosI first became interested in biblical theology back in 2002 when I took my first course in Old Testament Biblical Theology with Geoff Adams at Toronto Baptist Seminary.  The main textbook that we used was Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948).  Dr. Adams drilled Vos’s definition of biblical theology into our heads so well that I still remember it today: “Biblical theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible (Biblical Theology, 5).”  But as I mentioned in a previous post, I didn’t realize back then that Vos’s approach to the subject was only one approach among many.

One of my key areas of focus is Old Testament theology, a sub-discipline of biblical theology that focuses primarily on the Old Testament.  That means that a lot of the posts I’m going to make on this blog will have to do with evaluating the methodological decisions that scholars make in their Old Testament or biblical theologies, including their definition of the subject.  So in this post I want to explain what I mean when I use the term biblical theology so that my evaluations of particular Old Testament and biblical Theologies will make more sense.

Use of Terminology

But before we get into my take on biblical theology, a few words about terminology following, for the most part, James Barr’s use of the terms in The Concept of Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 1):

1. Theology with a capital “t” refers to a particular work of Old Testament or biblical theology; theology with a lower case “t” refers to the subject. “Brevard Childs wrote a Biblical Theology” refers to a book by Brevard Childs.  “Brevard Childs is interested in biblical theology” refers to the subject matter.  The same goes for my use of the terms Old Testament theology and New Testament theology.  There may be some confusion, however, when these terms are used in titles, when the convention requires that key words be capitalized – but this shouldn’t cause too much of a problem.

2. Old Testament theology and New Testament theology are sub-disciplines of biblical theology.  As I mentioned earlier, my first course in biblical theology was called “Old Testament Biblical Theology”.  Using this terminology, it should simply be called “Old Testament Theology”.

3. Biblical theology refers to the discipline as a whole, contrasting itself with disciplines such as systematic/dogmatic theology or philosophical theology.  A Biblical Theology that focuses on both the Old Testament and New Testament will be referred to as a Pan-Biblical Theology.

 My Take on Biblical Theology

With that terminology in mind, here is my take on biblical theology:

1. Biblical theology is an academic discipline that deals with the theology contained in or assumed by the biblical texts (following James Barr).

2.  The focus of biblical theology is on the final-form of the text rather than (a) earlier stages in the compositional history of the text; (b) the events or experiences behind the biblical text; or (c) the actual theology or theologies of ancient Israelites.

3. Biblical theology can be divided into three distinct phases: (a) a historical-critical presentation of the theology contained in or assumed by the biblical texts; (b) comparison and contrast between the various theologies or presentations of theology found in the biblical texts; and (c) theological/moral/ideological etc. evaluation of the theology contained in or assumed by the biblical texts.

(a) As James Barr notes in chapter 13 of The Concept of Biblical Theology, a good analogy for this phase is historical theology.  This phase can be carried out by any biblical scholar regardless of their religious affiliation.  There is a lot of debate in biblical theology as to whether or not biblical theology or even Old Testament theology is a distinctly Christian discipline.  Part of the confusion arises because these phases of biblical theology are not properly distinguished.  This phase seeks to isolate the theology contained in or assumed by the biblical texts in all of their historical and literary particularity without trying to stretch the evidence to make it harmonize with their own biases or prejudices or with any other source of theological authority.  This doesn’t mean that other biblical texts can’t be used to clarify the theology of a particular book.  But when this does happen it is not because both books are found in the same bible; it’s because they come from a similar cultural, social, or theological milieu that helps to illuminate the theology of the book on a historical level.

A good example from this phase in New Testament theology is the belief in the Gospel and Epistles of John that Christians are children of God.  Reformed interpreters, who usually focus on Paul more than on John, usually think of sonship in terms of adoption – which is Paul’s main metaphor for sonship.  However, in the Johannine writings, Christians are children of God through the new birth.  Paul’s theology of sonship has to do with the believer’s inheritance and new relationship with God; John’s theology of sonship has to do with the Holy Spirit regenerating the believer and transforming them to be like their Heavenly Father, guaranteeing that they will live righteous lives and won’t fall into theological apostasy.  The Reformation distinction between justification and sanctification is formulated in distinctly Pauline terms; if Johannine theology were more prominent, the issue would have to be reformulated (i.e. the relationship between salvation as a gift of God accepted by faith and the requirement to live a righteous life) and John’s theology would prove very helpful.

(b) This stage compares and contrasts the theology of one particular book, writer, or tradition with theology of other books, writers, or traditions.  The scope of comparison is determined by whether or not one is dealing with Old Testament theology, New Testament theology, or Pan-Biblical theology.  In Old Testament theology, the primary conversation partners are other books of the Old Testament (comparisons with ancient near eastern material belongs to phase 1).  The books included in this conversation may vary depending on the extent of one’s canon but, since the theologies of the individual books, traditions, or authors remain distinct, it should make little difference.  In New Testament theology, the primary conversation partners are other books or authors in the New Testament.  In Pan-Biblical theology, the primary conversation partners come from both the Old and New Testaments, which can be quite difficult.  The main purpose of this phase is to sharpen the distinctions between the ways each book, author, or tradition formulate their theology.  A good example of this phase is the comparison made between Paul’s theology of sonship and John’s theology of sonship.

(c) This stage is the stage that biblical scholars often are, or should feel, less competent to carry out themselves.  This is why many biblical scholars choose not to deal with this stage – which is perfectly legitimate when one understands the methodological issues involves.  This stage evaluates the text on a theological level (I listed other types of evaluation above but most evangelicals will one to stick with this level).  For most evangelicals, evaluation won’t have anything to do with evaluating the truthfulness of the theologies contained or assumed by the Bible because of our belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bile.   For most evangelicals, evaluation has to do with figuring out how much of the Old Testament and New Testament are applicable to us as Christians under the New Covenant.  This tends to be a major focus in Reformed biblical theology.

The reason why this stage is or should be intimidating to biblical scholars is because it is ultimately theological in character.  Judgments about redemptive history or redemptive historical trajectories are theological judgments rather than strictly biblical judgments.  Judgments about the relationship between the covenants, as opposed to Paul’s understanding of the relationship between the covenants, is a theological question, rather than a biblical question.  Determining how Paul’s letters are authoritative for church practice is a theological judgment rather than a biblical judgment.  These types of judgments go beyond the competence of most biblical scholars and are often made without taking into account all of the variables involved.

 These stages are based primarily on Johann Philipp Gabler’s famous inaugural address, Krister Stendahl’s writings on biblical theology, and my reading of James Barr on biblical theology.  It also seems useful for resolving most of the disputes about what biblical theology is.  How my view differs from Vos and others will have to wait for another post.

But there are two more points that still needs to be made to clarify my view.  (1) I see biblical theology and the theological interpretation of scripture as being two very distinct things.  Both are legitimate but they need to be distinguished from one another.  But I will have to discuss this at another time. (2) I don’t think that works in biblical theology have to be structured according to my three phases.  This is a theoretical framework rather than a blueprint.  How a work in biblical theology is structured is a separate – and disputed – methodological issue.

Mark Francois


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