On October 31, 2017, many people around the world will be celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It was on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that began a series of events that would ultimately result in what is now known as the Protestant Reformation.
But 2017 also marks another important anniversary. It was thirty years ago when Jon D. Levenson published his well-known article, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology.” Since the publication of that article, a whole stream of articles by other Jewish scholars have appeared that deal with how Jewish writers might effectively engage in a distinctively Jewish form of biblical theology. As we approach the five hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, one particular article stands out, an article by Benjamin D. Sommer entitled, “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically.” Sommer begins his article the following way:
“Strictly speaking, there can be no such thing as Jewish biblical theology. While many definitions of the term ‘biblical theology’ exist, they all accord some privileged place to the Bible. All forms of Jewish theology, however, must base themselves on Judaism’s rich post-biblical tradition at least as much as on scripture, and hence a Jewish theology cannot be chiefly biblical….Conversely, any theology that focuses especially on scripture is by definition Protestant and not Jewish, for the notion of sola scriptura has no place in Judaism – even as an unrealizable ideal.”
In an endnote he goes on to say:
“It is no coincidence that the desire to create such a theology arose neither in Judaism nor in Catholic or Orthodox settings but in Protestant settings in the eighteenth century, and that it remained an exclusively Protestant undertaking for so long. The view that the theology of the Bible is of particular significance (though not necessarily having ultimate authority) results in large part from the notion of sola scriptura.“
In this post I would like to develop Sommer’s observation that biblical theology, at its root, is essentially a Protestant undertaking that is based, to a large extent, on the Reformation idea of sola scriptura. Piggybacking on Levenson’s article, I will argue that Roman Catholic and Eastern Christians should not really be interested in biblical theology and that when they are they are functioning in a way that is inconsistent both with the history of biblical theology as a discipline and their own tradition, which functions in a very similar way to Judaism as described by Sommer. As a grid for understanding biblical theology as an academic discipline we will focus on Johann Philipp Gabler’s inaugural address (1787) at the University of Altdorf entitled “On the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each,” which is universally understood to mark the beginning of the study of biblical theology as an academic discipline.
Definition of Sola Scriptura
But before we can proceed to an examination of Gabler’s inaugural address, it is important to define what we mean by the term sola scriptura. Sola scriptura, according to my understanding of the term, does not mean that scripture is the only authority for defining the faith and practice of the church but that it is the supreme authority, under God, for defining the faith and practice of the church. As Carl Trueman puts it, “As the norming norm, the Bible is that by which all other theological statements must be judged as to their truthfulness of content and adequacy of formulation.” Article 7 of the Belgic Confession puts it this way:
“Therefore we must not consider human writings – no matter how holy their authors may have been – equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else.“
This understanding of sola scriptura, followed by both the Lutheran and Reformed branches of the Protestant Reformation, allows tradition (i.e. the formulation of theology by Christians in the past) to play a role in both forming and formulating theology for the church today, but places tradition under the authority of scripture. In this sense, Sommer is correct when he says, “One might argue that even in Protestantism, tradition has always played a role alongside scripture, but at least the ideal of an exclusively or primarily biblical doctrine nevertheless deeply affected Protestantism.”
The Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology
With this definition in mind, we can now proceed to a discussion of Gabler’s “On the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each.” Gabler begins his address by articulating what can only be understood as a strong affirmation of sola scriptura:
“All who are devoted to the sacred faith of Christianity, most worthy listeners, profess with one united voice that the sacred books, especially of the New Testament, are the one clear source from which all true knowledge of the Christian religion is drawn. And they profess too that these books are the only secure sanctuary to which we can flee in the face of the ambiguity and vicissitude of human knowledge, if we aspire to a solid understanding of divine matters and if we wish to obtain a firm and certain hope of salvation.“
Gabler’s description of scripture as “the one clear source from which all true knowledge of the Christian religion is drawn” is a clear affirmation of sola scriptura.
But not only does this section reveal a strong belief in sola scriptura, it also makes it clear that Gabler’s goal in pursuing biblical theology was not simply historical (i.e. to describe the theology contained in or assumed by the various writings of scripture): Gabler’s ultimate goal was a dogmatic/didactic one (i.e. to define what Christians should believe today). In other words, biblical theology was meant to produce “true knowledge of the Christian religion” and to give “a solid understanding of divine matters.” The problem with contemporary dogmatic theology, as Gabler saw it, was that various factors were at play (i.e. poor interpretive methods, reading one’s ideas into the text, etc.) that obscured this “one clear source” and “only secure sanctuary.” This state of affairs necessitated the development or, rather, discovery of what Gabler referred to as biblical theology that could form the basis for dogmatic theology.
But in order to understand what Gabler meant by biblical theology, it is first necessary to understand what he meant by the term dogmatic theology. Dogmatic theology, according to Gabler, refers to the elaborate theological formulations that were developed throughout church history and were still being developed in his day by Christian theologians. These theological formulations were influenced, among other things, by the ability of the author, the time period in which the author lived, the place where the author lived, the sect the author belonged to, and various other contingent factors. Gabler, because of his strong belief in sola scriptura, wanted to bypass these theologians and the contingent factors that affected their theology and develop a theology that was based on the theology of the Bible itself, using methods that would lead to a more reliable reading of scripture than were available to dogmatic theologians before.
With this in mind we can define what Gabler meant by term biblical theology. Based on everything Gabler said about biblical theology in his address (keeping in mind that Gabler himself did not give his own definition of the term), biblical theology can be defined as the beliefs, manner of life, and practices advocated by the authors of scripture that, through careful analysis, can be said to be normative for Christians today. Another way of putting it is this: biblical theology, as a discipline, is meant to discover the Bible’s final word on what Christians should believe, how they should behave, and how they should practice their faith. In this regard it is important to emphasize that for Gabler, the term biblical theology was not limited to theology but also included the morality and the practices that were advocated by the biblical authors. In this sense, the term biblical theology can be somewhat misleading since its focus is not strictly limited to theology.
Gabler outlined two basic steps for steps for discovering which beliefs, practices, and morals found in the Bible were normative for Christians today. The first step was to gather the various theological data that were either expressed or assumed in scripture and analyze them, in the original languages, according to the time period in which they were written, the testament in which they were written, the author who wrote them, the peculiar usages of each author, the genre of the passage, the literary context of the passage, and the like. Once analyzed, the theology of each individual author could be distilled to express what they advocated for in terms of belief, morality, and practice. In other words, Gabler advocated using the best exegetical methods available in his time to analyze and extract the theological data that is contained in the text. Commenting on the rigour that would be required in this first step, Gabler noted: “If we abandon this straight road, even though it is troublesome and of little delight, it can only result in our wandering into some deviation or uncertainty.”
The second step, according to Gabler, was to compare the theology of each author and isolate the ideas that are universally valid from those that were limited to the time period in which they were written – but without distorting the original intention of each individual author. By comparing the various biblical authors with each other, the truths, manner of living and practices that are universal can be isolated from those that were confined to a particular time period. Gabler gives the rites of Moses and the practice of veiling women in Paul as examples of practices that are not universal in character.
Once these normative truths, morals, and practices have been isolated and properly arranged, they can then be used as the basis for a biblically informed dogmatic theology. Again, Gabler appeals to sola scriptura near the end of his address when he says, “And finally, unless we want to follow uncertain arguments, we must so build only upon these firmly established foundations of biblical theology, again taken in the stricter sense as above, a dogmatic theology adapted to our own times.”
Biblical Theology, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Christianity
Based on Gabler’s exposition of the nature and purpose of biblical theology, it is easy to see why Sommer would say that there can be no such thing as a Jewish biblical theology. As Sommer explains it, Jewish theology needs to take into account not only what the Bible says but the theology found in the post-biblical tradition. The same is essentially true for Roman Catholic and Eastern Christian theology. Roman Catholic theology does not simply taken into account the theology of the various biblical authors when forming its theology and practice: the teaching authority of the church, guided by the Holy Spirit, also plays an essential role. Eastern Christian theology does the same thing, though, with added emphasis on the importance of reading scripture through the lens of the church fathers. Biblical theology, as formulated by Gabler with its basis in sola scriptura, is fundamentally at odds with how the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches form and formulate their theology since tradition also plays an important and, in some cases, decisive role. As Sommer noted, biblical theology is a distinctively Protestant undertaking.
This does not mean, however, that biblical theology can have no place in these churches. Where the church, tradition, or the fathers have not spoken definitively on an issue, biblical theology might help to clarify or fill out what they believe on these topics.
However, the role that the authority of the church, tradition, and the fathers plays means that certain beliefs and practices are not open to challenge. For example, what if it could be shown that Isaiah or Paul teaches penal substitutionary atonement? This would be extremely difficult for eastern Christians to accept since penal substitutionary atonement is so foreign to their tradition. What if it could be shown from scripture that Mary did not remain a virgin for her entire life but had sexual relations with Joseph and had other children? Again, this issue would be off limits for writers in Roman Catholic and Eastern Churches because of their view of tradition.
This is part of the danger of what we are celebrating on the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation’s return to scripture meant, at least in principle, that everything that the church taught and believed is open to question on the basis of a closer reading scripture. In practice, however, tradition kept most things from being questioned. But the principle of sola scriptura created a climate where even some of the more fundamental teachings of the church could be questioned on the basis of a closer reading of scripture.
While there certainly is a real danger when it comes to the application of the doctrine of sola scriptura, sola scriptura is one of the most exciting developments to come out of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation’s insistence on sola scriptura, when used responsibly (in a way not dissimilar from Gabler’s), means that we can recover biblical truth that may have been hidden, obscured, or even lost for one reason or another as the traditions of the church developed and ruled their reading of scripture. Sola scriptura gives us as Christians freedom to explore what the Bible says and to accept it as true even if the tradition says something to the contrary.
We would be foolish to think that sola scriptura is not dangerous when used irresponsibly. But I believe that the fundamental truths of Christianity are, in fact, found in scripture and are safe precisely because they are found there. Since sola scriptura does not mean that scripture has the only say but the final say in matters of faith and practice, the accumulated wisdom of Christian theologians of the past (i.e. tradition) can help us fill out and explain what scripture says. Sola scriptura makes the type of biblical theology described by Gabler possible and, given the recovery of biblical doctrine during the Reformation, makes it well worth the risk.
Mark Steven Francois
 Jon D. Levenson, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology,” in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel (eds. Jacob Neusner, et al; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 281-307.
 Benjamin D. Sommer, “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically,” in Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation (eds. Leo G. Perdue et al; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 1-53, 265-85.
 Ibid., 1-2.
 Ibid., 265, n. 2.
 I.e. Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East.
 For the text of the address see John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldredge, “J. P. Gabler and the Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology: Translation, Commentary, and Discussion of his Originality,” in Scottish Journal of Theology 33 (1980), 133-58.
 Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 80.
 Available on the website of the Christian Reformed Church at https://www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/BelgicConfession.pdf.
 Sommer, “Dialogical Biblical Theology,” 265 n.2.
 Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, “J. P. Gabler and the Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology,” 134.
 Ibid., 134-7.
 Ibid. 137-8.
 Ibid., 138.
 Ibid., 141. “Nonetheless, there is a sufficient number of ideas, and usually of such a kind that those that have been omitted can then be inferred without difficulty, if they constitute a single principle of opinion expressly declared, or if they are connected to the ideas that are stated in some necessary fashion.”
 Ibid., 140-41.
 Ibid., 139.
 Ibid., 141-2.
 Ibid., 142. Note that Gabler does not explain why Paul’s instructions about veiling women does not apply today though he explains that rites of Moses have been invalidated because they have been fulfilled in Christ.
 Ibid., 144.
 Ibid., 144.