Towards a Biblical Theology– Part Six


Since there actually have been some rather well-received attempts at doing Biblical theology of late, it will be well to evaluate them, especially since we also now have the careful and helpful textbook on Biblical theology written by James K. Mead. Our approach in this Coda will be to examine some of things the Mead brings to light first, and then apply those insights to the analysis of two important works, Sandra Richter’s The Epic of Eden, and Charles H.H. Scobie’s mammoth study entitled The Ways of our God. An Approach to Biblical Theology. I need to stress from the outset that Richter is not claiming she is doing a full dress Biblical theology, she is simply an OT scholar doing the important work of trying to get Christians to embrace the first two-thirds of their canon as part of ‘their story’, instead of being Marcionites. Nevertheless, since she is operating with an over-arching schema of Biblical Theology, which she derived in large measure from a considerable Biblical Theologian Meredith Kline (who taught both of us), her work deserves to be treated in this portion of our study.

Towards the very end of Frank Mead’s fine book he presents us with a definition of Biblical theology as follows:

Biblical theology seeks to identify and understand the Bible’s theological message and themes, as well as how the Bible witnesses to those themes and to whom and by whom it declares that message. The outcome of such investigation will lead us to hear what the Bible says about God’s being, words, and actions; about God’s relationship to all of creation, especially humankind; and about the implications this divine-human encounter has for relationships between human beings.

What is immediately noticeable about this definition is that it is so generic that it leaves the issue of Christology entirely unmentioned. It is a theocentric definition without being a Christocentric one. I doubt the writers of the NT would have been satisfied with this definition, but it points to a crucial factor—Biblical theology which reads the theology of the Bible from front to back is bound to come up with a definition like this, so that the whole canonical witness can be taken into account under one rubric. If however one starts with the NT, and reads the Bible back to front, before reading it front to back, and one interprets the OT Christologically just as the various NT authors did, the definition will look different.

Mead expands this at the very end of his study when he adds:

The biblical canon consists of a family of writers—individuals who are related to each other by virtue of a shared history, culture, and belief system. But, like all families, these members are unique individuals who bring their own knowledge understanding, experiences, and concerns to their task. They do not adopt the same perspective on every issue, but they nonetheless share a common calling to give voice to God’s character, words, and actions, as well as to the relationship humans have with this God and with one another. Biblical theology is the exciting task of listening to their conversation, discovering their similarities and differences, understanding their deepest convictions, and making connections with them that bring to life the Bible’s message for each and every generation.

What is missing in both these summaries is any sort of theology of revelation or inspiration, any sort of consideration of the divine author as well as the human authors. I would submit that the presupposition, as I said at the outset of this volume, that there is a theology and ethic of the NT, much less a theology of the whole Bible, is that there is some sort of unity to these diverse documents, and that unity is grounded in God, and the inspiration God gave these writers to write. In other words, I don’t think the unity is simply because these folks were all part of ‘a family of writers’. Nor do I think it would be fair to say, if we are including the OT, that they were all conversation partners. The latter definition is more nearly true of the NT writers, writing over a short period of time and with close social networks in their minority sect.
Mead wants to suggest that when we get to the point of canonizing these books, what happened was a finalizing of the problem of their unity and diversity, which has been with us ever after. To extent he is of course right about this, as he is right that if there is going to be an attempt at real Biblical theology, then the relationship between the OT and NT becomes perhaps THE crucial issue. James Barr, who always has challenging thoughts about these sorts of matters, hits the nail on the head when he says “Perhaps the New Testament sees itself not as the completion of tradition coming right up to its own time, but as the fulfillment of an ancient scripture.” I would say that is how the NT writers viewed what they were saying, doing, and writing. Of course this is more evident in some NT texts than others (e.g. Matthew with its fulfillment citations comes to mind), but that mentality seems evident right to the end of the canon in 2 Peter.

The NT writers wrote as those who fervently believed they lived in the eschatology age after the climactic Christ event and awaiting the consummation. Because of all this I would insist that any definition of Biblical theology which leaves out Christ, and leaves out a concept of revelation, including progressive revelation, and does not work with a historical hermeneutic that is consonant with the one we find used by the NT writers, a hermeneutic which talks about typology, about the progress of salvation history, about the fulfillment of ancient hopes and dreams and promises and prophecies, will not at the end of the day be a Christian Biblical Theology, or at least will not be an adequate one.
And none of these desideratum I just listed controvert what John Goldingay is getting at when he says that the Old Testament “antedates Jesus and never mentions him” This is true enough. The question becomes however does the OT provide types, foreshadowings, prophecies, promises of the final great King/Prophet/Priest and the answer to this must surely be yes. We can make that affirmation without violating the historical particularity of those OT texts. To not make this affirmation is in fact to imply that the NT writers’ reading of the OT is simply wrong. I am not prepared to go there. To not make this affirmation is at the end of the day to not do Biblical theology as the NT writers would have wanted it to be done.

At the same time I agree with Mead when he says “Nothing in the New Testament authorizes biblical theologians to work backward from the New to the Old and pour a developed Christology or Trinitarian theology into every messianic reference or text about the spirit.” Fair enough, emphasis on the word ‘developed’, and so we learn that it is hard to strike the right balance in the endeavor of trying to do and to discern a Biblical theology.

There are then more and less helpful Christological readings of the OT, and certainly one that is not warranted is the reading into the OT of Jesus himself, for example in the guise of the angel of the Lord, or on the assumption that there is a clandestined Trinitarianism lurking in the OT books that goes beyond the notion that God, though One, is a complex being. There was no Incarnation before the Incarnation. Even that NT doctrine is historical grounded in a particular point in time. I am much happier with Frank Matera’s approach and conclusion that “the NT writings witness in diverse ways to an overarching narrative of revelation, redemption, life in community, new moral life, and eschatological hope, all of which are rooted in the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church.”

Let us focus for a moment on the word ‘narrative’. I would suggest that there is definitely something of a narrative unity to the Bible. You can see this most clearly in the NT, and in some of the latter parts of the OT, but the whole is bound together as a tale of creation, fall, and redemption, an epic that goes from Eden to the New Jerusalem, a salvation history saga about God’s relationship with humankind, and his choosing a people to help him in the process of redeeming humankind.

This is why it is so critical to assess the narrative thought world of the writers of the Bible, including the writers of the NT. It is not just that narrative is a dominant genre of literature in the Bible, though that is certainly true, but one needs to ask why this is true. George Stroup has put his finger on it. It is not just because narrative is the means by which individuals and communities tend to make sense of life’s experiences, though that is so, it is because “the faith of Jews and Christians is radically this-worldly and historical.” Exactly!

Thus when we think of key theological ideas like cross/atonement or resurrection or the like, we need to ask what part of the larger story are they explaining? Where do they fit into the story, not where do they fit in my linear or systematic theological schema? Also we have to ask– What is the function of such ideas within the given story and larger narrative thought world? A narrative approach to Biblical theology is as necessary as the recognition that that theology is historically grounded, and so both a historical and a narrative approach to Biblical theology is necessary. This leads us to interact with Sandra Richter at this juncture, who very much wants to see Biblical theology from start to finish in terms of a salvation history articulated by means of a grand narrative.

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