When is Theology Truly “Biblical”

Everyone claims their theology is biblical. Which means “biblical” is used by everyone and so many different approaches use “biblical” that “biblical” diminishes in value. It becomes, sad to say, little more than a claim to authority.

What does it take for you to say something is “biblical”? Does biblical theology (as historical description — below) hold theology hostage to historical discoveries?

Jacob Milgrom is a world’s leading scholar on Leviticus: are his commentaries “biblical” theology? Lutheran and Reformed scholars and pastors teach a covenant theology (what I call covenant soterian theology): is this biblical theology? N.T. Wright ties the Bible together into the Story from creation to consummation: is this “biblical” theology? Wayne Grudem offers a politics that he would say is “biblical”: Is it biblical? What makes something a “biblical” theology?

Good question. And we’ve got a wonderful new textbook in a texbook-ish format, but readable, accessible and useful for upper level college and seminary/graduate students, that introduces us to five kinds of “biblical” theology. The book is called Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice, by Edward Klink III and Darian Lockett. We need this kind of book for students.  Just this semester at Northern Seminary I taught (and am still teaching) “New Testament Theology” and I did a brief taxonomy of the various methods and approaches to NT theology on that day. What I did not find was a student-level sketch of the various approaches to NT theology, and this book — while more focused on the whole Bible — will be a good taxonomy for anyone teaching “biblical” theology — Old or New Testament.

They provide five models, and I suspect not a few of us will raise some questions about the order on their spectrum. It is only in the analysis of each model and theologian that their rationale will become clear. But they move the models or types along a spectrum from “history” to “theology,” and their five types of biblical theology (BT) are:

1. BT as historical description: James Barr
2. BT as history of redemption: D.A. Carson
3. BT as worldview-story: N.T. Wright
4. BT as canonical approach: B. Childs
5. BT as theological construction: Francis Watson

The book is mostly theoretical and could have used a single text, which I will do in this series of posts, like Genesis 1:26-27, to illustrate each type of biblical theology. Each type is processed through the following themes:

The task, the use, the scope and sources, the hermeneutical approach, the subject matter.

The first type is biblical theology as historical description, and the choice of James Barr is both exceptional and odd. Exceptional because he is well-known for his fierce criticisms of how many/most do “biblical” theology, and some of his attacks were withering and made many of us nervous about using sources (like Kittel) and studies (like Von Rad or Childs). The reason Barr is odd is because Barr never really produced a biblical theology. One could also probe Milgrom, Walton on Genesis 1, Hugh Williamson on the Chronicler or Isaiah.

But it all comes down to history, so that biblical theology is to be done by the professional biblical scholar who alone is qualified to read the languages at the level of expertise needed to contextualize those texts in history; the method does not care at all about normative theology but only “what it  meant” “back then” to the “original author/text.” It is set over against theology as we know it; it uses historical methods and all historical methods; and it is exegesis and history, including the dissection of the text into its sources.

The big category often used here: it is descriptive, not prescriptive. It is description of the past, of the text in the past, of the author in the past. The past tense is the best way to carry out the business of biblical theology.

So “image of God” meant what it meant in the Ancient Near East (representative of a king) so there are discussions of how these terms are used in the ANE texts in Egypt and Babylon etc, or how this term is used in the Priestly source of Genesis 1:1–2:3, or in Genesis — but Barth’s relationality or modern scientific studies showing the uniqueness of humans over against the animal kingdom or the feminist appropriation of Genesis 1′s text are of no use. Nor does the use of “image of God” for Jesus have anything to do with “biblical” theology in Gen 1. The “us” of “let us” is not about the Trinity but about a divine council or angels or something along these lines because that is what the author at that time would have meant.

All that matters is what that text meant to that source/text at that time in its context. And that is biblical theology for this type of biblical theology. What it might mean for theology in later texts or in church history or today are of no concern to this type of biblical theology.

Though Klink and Lockett do not think this approach is the same as the History of Religions School, I would connect them closer than they do even if there are some notable differences (it’s degree not kind).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Mike

    Hey Scot, Thanks for these incredible posts! We are currently studying current theological-hermeneutical approaches to Scripture in order to better understands end points or conclusions. Understanding the various models has helped us with phrases like “prescriptive vs. descriptive”, which gets tossed around a lot these days, and can create significant confusion. We are in the third wave/charismatic tradition and are trying to articulate a good theology/hermeneutic that has not been fully developed, except for a small group of scholars like Gordon Fee. Thanks!

  • http://www.beingfilled.com/ Chuck McKnight

    Sounds interesting. Are these five models presented as being mutually exclusive? Based on the titles alone, I would think that all five are true of the Scriptures. That is, we read the Bible to find an accurate historical description, the history of redemption, a basis for our worldview, the canon to which we hold, and the source of our theological construction. In fact, I think we’re in trouble if we remove any one of those or elevate any of them above the others.

  • John

    Very helpful !! May go a long way toward explaining why there is so much un-Christian argument on theology and Biblical studies today – the failure to acknowledge the different premises and models in play.

  • dan reeve

    I’m with Chuck. I THINK I would apply all five as I exegete a text. Seems like you taught me that Scott.

  • http://www.sojournintoexile.com Nithin Thompson

    Hey Scott,
    this is all really helpful. I’m a youth pastor and I struggle with finding ways to help my students connect with biblical theology, or theology in general. I really like NT Wright’s approach and prefer it as the lens view all the others. Also, I think the story is captivating to students. But, I struggle with where do I start. How do I begin the process of having junior high, middle school, and young adults discover the depths of biblical theology? Do you know of any resources, or helpful ways of reading the bible that can get me thinking in this direction? thanks.

  • Norman

    Barr’s approach appears to be a tad sterile if I may use that word to describe what appears to be less than fully nuanced historical examination despite his pronouncements to the contrary. I also have to admit that this statement below raises my hackles as it projects an arrogance supportive of Professional Biblical scholars that overstates their abilities contrasted to learned armatures.

    “But it all comes down to history, so that biblical theology is to be done by the professional biblical scholar who alone is qualified to read the languages at the level of expertise needed to contextualize those texts in history;”

    No one is going to argue the technical qualifications of the Professional scholar as needed and desirable but the concept that one must be a professional in order to make competent and good evaluations may be overstepping to a degree. We all depend upon the multitude of expert scholars to perform the ground work and then to lay out their conclusions upon their investigations in order to determine if their deductions hold up across the board. All scholars bring prejudices to their work and Barr is no exception; therefore part of the work of all Biblical Investigators whether Professional or learned amateurs is to judge their work just as good scientist judge each other’s work to locate the discrepancies if any that may undergird their suppositions. Yes there is a level of competency needed in order to join the discussion but Professionals often owe their livelihood to the ones who sign their paychecks and therein lays the rub. The degree of independence needed to perform pure biblical investigations is hard to find among the Professional whether they want to admit it or not. Independent amateurs therefore can (but not always) bring an outside view that is critical to uncovering new perspectives.

    The example of the “Image of God” found in Genesis 1 is a great example that illustrates the possible limitation that someone like Barr adheres to. Barr’s sterilization and limitation of the Image of God to an ANE mindset has self-imposed limitations that doesn’t allow for a more complex Hebrew understanding that is no doubt ANE driven but has been appropriated by the Jews and adapted to their purpose. There should be great debate upon how the Hebrews appropriated the ANE stories and thinking and why it is obviously different than most other ANE cultures. The “Image of God” in Genesis may be an adaptation of 2nd Temple priestly writings that correlates well with early NT concepts as illustrated by Paul since Paul was obviously influenced by 2T literature. There is also great debate on why Jesus, the NT Apostles and Paul interpreted the OT in a manner that doesn’t always seem consistent with what Barr might expect. Perhaps it’s because they were not as one dimensional as Barr thinks they were. Barr is just one of many voices that are examining these issues and it’s dangerous to let someone bully the crowd into thinking his presently held concepts are the ones which are going to hold up over time.

  • MikeD

    Once again, thanks Scot, for this recommendation! Thanks to Kindle and Amazon, I was able to not only sample the book, but purchase and begin reading immediately! I look forward to your continued posts on this! You are a blessing to the church, Scot!

  • Craig

    Biblical theology is a theology that uses the Bible the way the Bible itself does: fast and loose.


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