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.