Geerhardus Vos vs. Brevard Childs – What’s the Difference?

When I was a student at Toronto Baptist Seminary, the main textbook that we used for our course on Old Testament Biblical Theology (that is, Old Testament theology) was Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments.  Vos was famous for two things at TBS: (1) his extremely difficult writing style (which seems pretty easy now 11 years later and after reading pretty much anything by Ephrem Radner!) and (2) introducing us to a new (at least to us) and exciting way of reading the Old Testament – through the lens of biblical theology.

When people familiar with Geerhardus Vos and Reformed biblical theology in general see Brevard Childs’ works on display at their local Christian bookstore (okay, maybe not the average Christian bookstore!) they often wonder what the difference between the two really is.  So in this post I’m going to look at the main difference that I see between Geerhardus Vos and Brevard Childs.

The main difference between Vos’ Biblical Theology and Childs’ Old Testament Theology is that Vos’ main concern is the events behind the biblical text while Childs is primarily concerned with the text itself.  Take a look at these two quotes:

Geerhard Vos – “ [T]he study of the actual self-disclosures of God in time and space which lie back of even the first committal to writing of any Biblical document, and which for a long time continued to run alongside the inscripturation of revealed material; this last-named procedure is called the study of Biblical Theology.(Biblical Theology, 5, emphasis mine)

Brevard Childs – “The initial point to be made is that the canonical approach to Old Testament theology is unequivocal in asserting that the object of theological reflection is the canonical writing of the Old Testament, that is, the Hebrew scriptures which are the received traditions of Israel.  The materials for theological reflection are not the events or experiences behind the text, or apart from the construal in scripture by a community of faith and practice.” (Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, p. 6)

Now if you’re not very familiar with Old Testament theology outside of the Reformed tradition, you might think that Vos has the most “biblical position” because as evangelicals we believe, for the most part, that the truthfulness of the theology contained in the Old Testament depends on certain events having actually happened.  The quote from Childs seems to go against that – keeping in mind that in the very next sentence he says that “the literature cannot be isolated from its ostensive reference.”

But I would say that Childs has the better position.  Here are a few reasons:

(1) You don’t have to actually know what happened in history to be able to understand what the theology contained in or assumed by the biblical texts is.  What actually happened in history may be important (for some people) in terms of how you evaluate that theology but, in the end, it’s not very important for how you understand that theology.

(2) Not everything in the Bible is based on or reflects on events that actually happened in history.  As I noted in my previous post, the prime example of this is OT wisdom literature, which, for the most part, makes no reference to “God’s saving acts” in redemptive history.  The truthfulness of Proverbs – at least in terms of how we evaluate it – is not based on whether or not certain events happened; it’s based on whether or not its wisdom actually works (at least in its own historical context).  It is no coincidence that Vos only cites OT wisdom 10 times in total.  Compare that with 94 references to Exodus, not including passages that are cited more than once.

(3) From a theological perspective, God gave the church the canon, not the revelatory events behind the canon.  This may seem counterintuitive but the book of Amos has more authority for the Christian than the actual preaching of Amos.  I’m tempted to say the same thing about the gospels but that might be going too far.  But, in the end the gospels are all we have and they have more authority for the Christian than a historian’s reconstruction of the life and teaching of Jesus, regardless of how Wright it might be.  My point is that there is a difference between inspiration and canonicity (not everything that’s inspired made it into the Bible) and that there is a difference between events and how these events are depicted (it’s the depiction of the event that is important from a theological perspective).

(4) The field is called biblical/Old Testament theology, not the actual events or revelatory acts behind the biblical text theology.  Enough said.

There are other differences between the two writers but, for me, this is the main difference.  Childs (in theory) is more focused on the Bible whereas Vos (in theory) is more concerned with what lies behind the text.  I added the words “in theory” because, as is often the case in biblical theology and Old Testament theology, there is a huge difference between how a person articulates their methodology and what they actually do in their own writing.  But (in theory!) Childs’ approach is much more attractive than Vos’.

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Biblical Theology in Kingdom Through Covenant

Kingdom Through CovenantThe majority of book reviews that I’ve seen on Kingdom Through Covenant focus on the authors’ views of the relationship between various divine-human covenants found in the Bible – which, of course, makes sense given the fact that this is one of the main topics of this book.  My main interest, however, in picking up this book was not so much their view of the relationship between the covenants but their understanding of biblical theology and the methodological issues involved.  So in this post I would like to look at Stephen Wellum’s understanding of biblical theology and offer an evaluation based on my understanding of biblical theology.

Is a Critique Even Possible?

But before we get to Wellum’s views on biblical theology, there’s an important issue that needs to be dealt with first.  As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s common knowledge to people working in biblical theology or its sub-disciplines (Old and New Testament theology) that there is no agreed-upon definition for what biblical theology is supposed to be.  The definitions that people do give for biblical theology often vary quite widely from each other.  So in one sense, it might seem a little strange to evaluate and critique another person’s approach to biblical theology because any disagreement could simply be attributed to the disputed nature of biblical theology as an academic discipline.  However, despite the fact that there is no agreed-upon definition for what biblical theology is supposed to be, there are a number of reasons why I think it’s legitimate to evaluate and critique another person’s view of biblical theology:

1. Despite the fact that biblical theology is a disputed term, most people who work in the field of biblical theology see enough of a family resemblance with other works of biblical theology to see their work as belonging to the same field.  The real difference, for most people, has to do with differences in methodology.  If that’s the case – and I think it is – it’s perfectly legitimate evaluate another person’s understanding of biblical theology in light of those family resemblances, however vaguely defined.  The understanding that I gave for biblical theology in my previous post was an attempt to define what that family resemblance might be and to trace where and how that family resemblance diverges in various works of or understandings of biblical theology.

2. Any work that deals with the nature of biblical theology on an academic level inevitably ends up interacting with (a) the history of the discipline and/or (b) other works of biblical theology.  In these cases, it is perfectly legitimate to evaluate how well a person has understood the history of the discipline and the authors they are interacting with.

So with those two points in mind, let’s move on to an evaluation of Wellum’s understanding of biblical theology in chapter 1 of Kingdom Through Covenant.

Evaluation

There are three main points I would like to discuss:

(1) The first point I would like to discuss is Wellum’s belief that the Bible itself should determine the shape and structure of biblical theology.  This can be found in a number of different places in Wellum’s discussion:

“Biblical theology must follow a method that reads the Bible on its own terms, following the Bibe’s own internal contours and shape, in order to discover God’s unified plan as it is disclosed to us over time.” (p. 32 – emphasis mine)

“‘Biblical theology’ is ‘theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church.  It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyse and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus.’” (pp. 32-33, quoting Brian Rosner’s definition of biblical theology in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology)

“In other words, all theologizing starts with the Bible’s own presentation of itself as we seek to live under its authority and teaching and not over it.” (p. 33)

“To start with the Bible’s own presentation of itself, or to read the Bible on its own terms is at the heart of biblical theology.  Even within evangelical biblical theology this point is not always followed.  For example, some argue that biblical theology is the approach by which redemptive-history is divided into various historical epochs and then the development of those epochs is traced.  Or, others view biblical theology as merely thinking through the large themes of Scripture.  Still others approach the discipline by working through the Bible book by book.  All of these approaches have their place but, in our view, they fall short.  Their fundamental problem is that they do not follow the Bible’s own presentation of itself, or, in other words, they do not carefully trace out the Bible’s own literary plot structure.  If we are going to read the Bible on its own terms, we have to ask, how has God given Scripture to us, what are the Bible’s own internal structures, and how ought those structures shape [sic] our doing of biblical theology?  We are convinced that working through the biblical covenants is tracing out the Bible’s own internal structures and learning to read Scripture as God intended it to be read.” (p. 33, n. 29, emphasis original)

There are a number of problems with these statements and the way they are worked out in this book – not least the lack of distinction between how biblical theology is presented versus how biblical theology is discovered – but the main thing I want to focus on is his insistence that biblical theology follow the Bible’s own shape and structure.  I have to admit that when I read these quotations, especially the final one, I was completely baffled.  While it’s true that the covenants form the shape and structure of redemptive history – a reality that exists outside the texts – and that they shape the meta-narrative of the Bible, it’s simply not true that they form the structure of the Bible itself.  While I don’t necessarily think that a book-by-book presentation is the most effective way of presenting biblical theology, it is impossible to deny that the Bible itself follows a book-by-book structure, not a redemptive-historical structure.  The structure of redemptive history and the overall metanarrative of scripture is something that has to be reconstructed theologically following cues found in the Bible, not the structure of the Bible itself.

This may seem like nitpicking but it’s important to realize what we’re doing when we’re doing the kind of biblical theology being presented here.  Wellum’s approach belongs to the third stage of biblical theology that I mentioned in my previous post.  That stage is distinctly theological in character – it involves much more than simply describing the theology assumed or found in the biblical text.  That’s the reason why there’s so much disagreement between the various forms of dispensationalism and covenant theology – it’s not just a matter of exegesis, it’s a matter of theology, which always involves more than mere exegesis.  (I’ll have to talk about my understanding of systematic/dogmatic theology in another post).  The more variables that are involved, the more potential there is for disagreement.  So by saying that his approach simply reflects the shape and structure of the Bible itself doesn’t do justice to the shape and structure that the Bible actually gives has and downplays the theological character of the structure he gives instead.  Again, I’m not saying that this theological structure isn’t important – it’s absolutely essential for doing the third stage of biblical theology from an evangelical perspective – but we need to recognize it for what it is.

(2) Related to this is Wellum’s exclusive focus on redemptive history in the definitions he gives for biblical theology.  As I said in my previous post, biblical theology deals with the theology contained in or assumed by the various books of the Bible.  That’s the main point of family resemblance in virtually every form of biblical theology.  If that’s the case, redemptive history is only one aspect of biblical theology, an important one but not the exclusive focus.

The classic way of showing this is by looking at how Biblical Theologies that focus on redemptive history treat Wisdom Literature.  If you look at the scripture index of Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology there are six references to Proverbs, four references to Job, and zero references to Ecclesiastes.  Kingdom Through Covenant does a little bit better (Proverbs – 16; Job – 9; Ecclesiastes – 2), but when you look up these references they are mostly there as cross-references for other passages (e.g. most of the references to Job have to do with the “sons of God” in Genesis 6).  The reason why the wisdom writings are neglected is because they don’t really mention redemptive history.  Sure, we can place them in a redemptive-historical framework so that we know what to do with them, but the reality is that these books don’t really mention the main themes of redemptive history (covenant, election, the exodus, etc.).  Compare Vos’s Biblical Theology and Kingdom Through Covenant with Walter Brueggemann’s Old Testament theology and you will get the picture.

My point is that there is much more to theology in the Bible than redemptive history.  You have the character of God, divine providence, God’s holiness, God’s wrath, Jeremiah’s theology of repentance, beliefs about angels and demons, the whole idea of monotheism, etc.  Just take a look at a book of systematic theology: redemption is important, maybe even central, but that doesn’t mean that other topics are not dealt with in their own integrity.  So to define biblical theology so narrowly inevitably leads to the sidelining of other major topics in biblical theology.

(3) The final point I would like to look at is Wellum’s focus on the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture.  Please read this carefully so you don’t misunderstand.  A belief in inspiration and inerrancy is absolutely essential for the third stage of biblical theology from an evangelical perspective (which is my perspective, of course) but I don’t see why it’s essential for the first two stages.  The first two stages are descriptive in character: (1) describing the theology contained in or assumed by a particular biblical text and (2) comparing/contrasting it with the theology contained in or assumed by other books in the Bible (the scope depending on whether one is doing pan-biblical theology, Old Testament theology, or New Testament theology).  Since these stages are mainly descriptive, I don’t see why a belief in inspiration or inerrancy is absolutely essential.  There are a few cases where there is a choice between a more conservative or less conservative interpretive option but the choice between the two usually belongs to the third stage of biblical theology, which allows other sorts of information to be considered besides information that is publically available to any historian.  This point is the most likely one to be misunderstood and to be argued with but I think it’s important.  Making this distinction allows those of us who do believe in inspiration and inerrancy to learn from and dialogue with Biblical Theologies that don’t believe in inspiration and inerrancy.  If James Barr, Brevard Childs, John Collins, Jon Levenson, or Walther Eichrodt have insight into the theology of Genesis, Proverbs, or Amos, then we can learn from them.  We may differ in how we evaluate and appropriate the theology of these books, but it is perfectly possible for them to describe the theology of these books (even if they disagree with it) without believing in inerrancy.  When reading this chapter it seemed like every work of biblical theology outside of the evangelical/Reformed camp was being dismissed as being “illegitimate”.  If anyone wants to push back on this point, please do.

Conclusion

There are a number of other issues that could be addressed in Wellum’s understanding of biblical theology but these are the ones that stood out most  In the end I probably do agree with most of their conclusions about how the main divine-human covenants in scripture relate to each other.  However, biblical theology is an important discipline and we need to make sure that we do it right, with all of the methodological precision that that entails.

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