Towards Biblical Theology— Part One

Towards Biblical Theology— Part One December 20, 2011

(In January we will start with a bang by reviewing and critiquing the fine new book by R. Feldmeier and H. Spieckerman, God of the Living. A Biblical Theology. In preparation for that, what follows in the posts leading up to the end of the year are excerpts from my own The Indelible Image.Vol. 2 that prepare us for that discussion.



“When the author of the play steps out on the stage, the play is over.”—C.S. Lewis

“In using narrative, our New Testament writers were following in the tradition of the Old Testament, where God consistently reveals himself in what he does—in creation, in history, and in what is said and done by his prophets.”—Morna Hooker


While it would be possible to discuss the relationship of the OT to the NT at this juncture, that is actually a subject for a discussion of the canon, which actually is not the focus of this study, and in any case we have discussed it some in the first volume of this work. What we are interested in here is the relationship of OT theology and ethics to the theology and ethics we find in the NT. The reason for this distinction is simple– the documents of the NT existed in the NT era and are expressions of the thought world of that era, long before there was a NT canon. The thought world of the NT speakers and writers was enormously influenced by the thought world exhibited in many books now found in the OT, though they were certainly also profoundly influenced by intertestamental Jewish literature and thought as well.

I say many books because some books of the OT seem to have exerted little or no influence on the early Christians. To take an obvious example, Esther seems to have made no impact at all, and this is perhaps not surprising since the OT canon was not fully closed in the NT era and one of the debated books was Esther. In fact several of the books which later made up the third part of TANAK, the Writings, are missing in action in the NT as are various other OT books (e.g. Nehemiah), and I don’t just mean they aren’t quoted. I mean they aren’t even alluded to. It is thus better on the whole to talk about the influence not of particular books though we could do this (the most cited in the NT are Isaiah and the Psalms) but rather of the influence of the thought world. And here we note a remarkable fact.

The OT taken as a whole has precious little to say about the afterlife, and only somewhat more about eschatology. And indeed it is mostly the very latest OT books, including especially the more apocalyptic prophets, that have anything of consequence to say on this subject, and sometimes even when they are talking about ‘the Yom Yahweh’ they are not talking about some final eschatological judgment on the world, but rather a temporal judgment on Israel and/or the nations after which there can be redemption for God’s people and further mundane life.

By comparison, the thought world of the NT writers is overwhelmingly eschatological in character. In this respect, the NT thought world is far more like the thought world of some of the intertestamental Jewish literature than it is like the OT. This of course could be said to create a problem for canonical theologians, at least for those who want to limit the discussion within the parameters of what is found in the OT and NT. But there are red flags right within various NT books against taking this sort of approach as well.

For example, the tiny little document called Jude clearly draws on extra canonical material from the Enoch literature and probably from the Apocalypse of Moses as well. Or take Paul, who shows the influence of Wisdom of Solomon, or James who draws on Sirach. Thus while we can focus on the relationship of the thought world in the OT and that in the NT, the discussion should not be limited to such a discussion, not least because important ideas like bodily resurrection of the dead, while they did not germinate in the intertestamental period, certainly gestated in that period. When it comes to the OT itself, the concept of resurrection is barely mentioned in Dan. 12.1-2, and as a metaphor in Ezekiel (and see Isa. 26.19). In other words, some of the concepts most crucial and determinative for the early Christian thinkers are barely found in the OT at all. Christian theology and ethics could never be done purely on the basis of the careful interpretation of the OT.

And indeed, some scholars have asked some probing questions about whether one can even talk about a unified OT thought world, not least because the material found there was produced and edited over an incredibly long period of time, in various places, in various different countries, in exile and in the Holy Land, and much of the literature is anonymous, or at least we don’t know who actually finally wrote it down. In any case, the concept of books did not really exist in the OT era in the same way it did in the first century A.D. By contrast the gestation period of the NT is tiny, the social networks are much more close knit, we know a good deal about various of the NT authors including knowing that these people either were, or were in touch with, the original eyewitnesses of the events which came to be called the Good News. Then too, all the writers shared something vital in common– a vibrant faith in a recently crucified and risen savior named Jesus.

There was no singular sort of experience like that, not even the Exodus-Sinai events, which generated the faith of all the Israelites. It is then, in some ways, not fair to compare the OT and NT thought worlds, and in any case the OT thought world reflects a long period of development with some remarkable changes in and after the exile in regard to afterlife theology. One has to talk in terms of progressive revelation when one is dealing with the OT thought world. It is not at all clear that one needs to do that with the NT thought world. And then too if one is going to speak at all about Biblical theology and ethics the narratological necessities dictate that we must talk about an ongoing tale which has a beginning, middle, climax and end. The OT does not include the last two elements of the story though especially its prophetic corpus sometimes foreshadows and foretells it.

Some of course will ask why is it so important to consider the theology and the ethics in the Bible in a processive and progressive manner?

One answer is that we cannot judge the meaning of a story, and the character of its actors, before we get to the end of it. Consider for a moment the example of the great trilogy the Lord of the Rings. One cannot tell whether Frodo will have the necessary character to do what is required with the ring until we get to right near the end of the story. Up to that point we do not know whether he will pass the test. Or even more tellingly, we cannot tell whether Gollum is going to end up being an adversary or an assistant in the process of saving the Shire and the world until right near the end. Or what of Gandalf? Will he return in time or at all to help the human race ward off evil? We don’t know until many hundreds of pages into the story. The Bible involves a similarly epic story from creation through fall through various acts of redemption to the final new creation. Viewing the whole story from the end changes the way we look at the character of God, the character of God’s people, how human history will play out, the nature of redemption, and a host of other subjects. The truth is—we don’t fully know God and the divine character sufficiently for eternal salvation before Jesus turns up to reveal it. We don’t fully understand the depths of human depravity until Jesus shows up and dies on the cross to reveal and overcome it. We don’t understand the importance of creation to God’s eternal plan until we hear near the end that God’s plan is that all of fallen creation be renewed and restored, and that resurrection of Jesus will be the harbinger and indeed catalyst of the final stage of redemption for human beings themselves.

It is precisely because Biblical history is told in the Bible as an ongoing story that a narratological approach to theology and ethics is not merely useful, it is required to fully understand what is being claimed and taught. The appropriate question to ask about any theological or ethical remark in the Bible is—where in the story do we find it? Is it near the outset, or in the middle or towards the end? During the administration of which covenant was this or that teaching given? Most fundamentally, is this or that theological or ethical remark before or after the Christ event? Does this point in the story reflect the partial revelations of the earlier period or the fuller revelation that comes in and after the Christ event?

These are the right sort of questions to ask when we are thinking about the theology and ethics we find in the Bible and this is precisely why we cannot do Biblical theology in a manner that treats the OT as though it provides us full a revelation of God’s character, plan, people as does the NT. It does not, and the NT writers did not think it did either, even though the OT was the only Bible they themselves had. They believed they were the people on whom the ends of the ages had come, and they believed that in fact the author of this whole story had finally stepped out on the stage in person to bring in the final chapters and explain the meaning of it all.

With this reminder about the narratological framework and nature of the thought world we are dealing with, it will be appropriate to say some final things about some of the major symbols in the symbolic universe that generate that sort of thought world and story, but first we must note that we have now found a clue or two as to why the early church completely rejected the so-called Gnostic Gospels when considering what would eventually be their canonical texts.

The first of these reasons is that the canonical Gospels do indeed focus on the passion and death of Christ, indeed they could be called Passion Narratives with a long introduction. The Gnostic Gospels by contrast not only do not focus on the death of Jesus, they avoid doing so. They see no great theological significance in that, or really any other event, which depends on historical reality and particularity.

Equally importantly as Luke Johnson says “None of the Gnostic Gospels take the form of narrative. Rather they focus entirely on Jesus as revealer, and take the form of discrete sayings…with no narrative framework (Gospel of Thomas) or revelatory discourses in response to questions (Gospel of Mary, Dialogue of the Saviour). Two of the most important Gnostic Gospels (Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Philip) take the form of teaching about Jesus rather than any sort of story.” In other words, the sensibilities and symbolic universe which formed those documents are very different from those Jewish ones which formed our canonical Gospels. In fact, it is not too much to say that most of the Gnostic texts reject the God of the OT altogether, the God of material creation.

Luke Johnson puts it this way” “Insofar as the God of Israel is the God who creates the material world, the Gnostic texts resist that God. A Gnostic sensibility that finds the world to be a corpse and blessedness in detachment and solitariness (see the Coptic Gospel of Thomas ) is far both from the sensibility of Torah and of the canonical Gospels.” The writers of the NT were all Jews or God-fearers in all likelihood , not Marcionites or Gnostics, and so we would not expect them to devalue the OT thought world, nor the OT vision of God and creation, and they do not disappoint us in this regard. The changes we find between the OT and the NT symbol system are Christologically, ecclesiologically, and eschatologically engendered—but all of those categories (the discussion of a messiah, the discussion of God’s people, the discussion of the future in connection with the messiah and God’s people) are Jewish and must be seen as a further development of OT and early Jewish thinking on such subjects in a particular direction in the light of the Christ event.


At the center of the OT symbolic universe and narrative thought world lies a singular God, Yahweh. Scholars have come to call what they find in the OT ethical monotheism, and this is an appropriate label. Yahweh, the God of the Bible is a hands-on deity constantly involved in the affairs of the world and his people, and he is constantly making demands of them in regard to their behavior especially, but also in regard to their beliefs. The Shema has been frequently seen as the core credo in regard to the OT God—“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One”. ‘One’ here means as opposed to many gods presumably. In other words this is a statement against polytheism, not about the composition or complexity of the Biblical God.

What was believed about this God can be deduced reasonably easily from a close reading of the Pentateuch and the first few historical books. As the only real God in the cosmos, the Biblical God was believed to be the creator of all things and all beings. There was no other being or thing that existed before this God decided to create the universe and all that is within it. This view of course stands in stark contrast to other ANE views about how the universe was created out of a struggle between various deities. The OT writers will have none of that. There is only one God, and one universe that was created by this God and reflects the divine character. The way that is expressed of course in the beginning chapters of the Bible is that God created all things, and made them tov, indeed made them tov m’ov—very good. A good God made a good creation and good creatures to fill it.

This whole idea of monotheism of course created enormous problems when it came to the issue of the origins of evil, the study of theodicy. Polytheism could always explain that evil came about through one or another of the bad deities or through cosmic struggle, but monotheism could not go that route. Some other explanation for evil had to be suggested. What is most interesting in Gen. 1-3 is that we are not told where evil comes from—it simply lurks in the presence of the snake in the garden. It appears that the OT writers were more interested in talking about how to cope with evil than debate its source.

But one thing they were repeatedly emphatic about is that the one and only God was not evil, there was no dark side, no shadow of turning in God, nor did the Biblical God do evil things. The blame for the Fall, as it came to be called, is placed solely on human beings, not on God for making defective merchandise. This pattern of thinking can of course be seen not only in various places in the OT, but in the NT as well. As Paul puts it in Rom. 5 and 1 Cor. 15, Adam is the head of the human race, and as a result all of us have sinned and died in Adam, and it is also true that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God all on our own as well. Never once in the Bible is there a discussion about their being some flaw or ethical defect in God. The blame for the human malaise is always laid at the door of human beings, however much they may have been beguiled or bamboozled by the powers of darkness in the universe. God is holy, just, good, and not responsible for sin and evil.

This of course raises questions about the sovereignty of God, and the OT does indeed repeatedly insist that God is almighty. Sometimes this takes the form of insisting that God is the maker and ruler of the universe, but more frequently since the OT is the story of God’s dealings with a fallen and imperfect people, it takes the form of insisting that God is almighty to save or rescue his people. God will not willingly let them go down the path of ruin and self-destruction (cf. Gen. 6 to Hos. 11). At the very heart of the Pentateuch is the story of the Exodus Sinai events which becomes the paradigm and indeed the litmus test of the character of God—Yahweh is a redeemer God, who rescues his people time and time again. This brings into the picture God’s love, compassion, mercy, for there is no suggestion in such stories, not even in Exodus, that these people earned God’s favor and deserved to be rescued, and thus a righteous God was obligated to extricate them (see Exod. 34.6).

True enough, it is stressed that the Hebrews were victims of horrible oppression, but there is no suggestion in these stories that God rescued them because their character was so much better than the Egyptians (see Deut. 7.7-8). Indeed, as the wilderness wandering traditions which followed were to demonstrate, they had some severe issues in regard to both their behavior and their beliefs about the true God. Golden calves and immorality did not come as a total accident or as a total surprise from these people. In other words, while God was just in punishing the Egyptians he was also gracious in rescuing the Hebrews. And here we come upon a crucial point.

Salvation in the OT is, almost exclusively, a this-worldly proposition. It is something God does in space and time to rescue, redeem, restore, aid the return of his people to their rightful place or condition or character. There really is hardly anything of a doctrine of heaven in the OT (though a few saints like Enoch and Elijah get beamed up into the living presence of God), and so whatever justice or redemption that happens must happen in the here and now, in space and time. To be sure, in the later and apocalyptic prophecies we begin to see an afterlife or at least a new creation theology in second and third Isaiah, in Ezekiel, in Daniel, and perhaps elsewhere, but clearly enough Sheol is the dominant concept of the afterlife in most of the OT. But nowhere do we find any NT writers who merely conjure with Sheol after death for anyone, it would appear.

There is considerable insistence in the OT on God’s holiness and righteous character. This is of course one reason why we talk about ethical monotheism. The Biblical God is not running around committing immoral acts, or like various pagan deities, attempting to mate with mere mortals. Notably when we have a story like Gen. 6.1-4 in which angels (called sons of God) come down from above and do commit the creation order violation of mating with mortals, the heavens break lose and a flood judgment comes upon the earth. The Biblical God will not tolerate, much less perpetrate a breach of the creation order, much less blur the line between creator and creature in this regard. Thus when we hear in the Holiness Code (see Leviticus)—“be holy, as I am holy” we are beginning to get to the root of the matter in terms of the OT symbolic universe. God is one, and God is holy, and God’s people should be both one and holy as well.

And here is where we say that just as theology and ethics are bound up in the character of God and one could talk about the theological story of an ethical God acting ethically, so also theology and ethics are intertwined in what is expected of God’s people as well. The character of God is to be reflected in the behavior (and belief) of God’s people. Put another way—when one knows and believes in the true character of the Biblical God and has experienced God acting ‘in character’ on behalf of his people, then the only appropriate response is to mirror that character in one’s own community and life. ‘Be ye holy, as I am holy’ means not merely set yourself apart from the behavior patterns of the larger culture but model yourself on the divine character. And interestingly such imitation is never seen to violate the creator-creature distinction, or to lead to a human being’s apotheosis. It is the voice of the snake, not God, who promises “you shall be as gods”. Yet it must be stressed that the primeval story insists that human beings are created in the image of God, created with a capacity for a special relationship with God, and thus in some ways the story of salvation history throughout the Bible is the story of God’s efforts to bring about the renewal of that indelible, but effaced image. Only so could human beings once more be said to be ‘a little less than God (or at least the angels, depending on how one reads the creation psalm—Ps. 8).

A further feature of the OT thought world which really shapes its contours is of course covenanting. The God of the Bible is a God who cuts covenants with both individuals like Noah or Abraham, but also with a whole group of people—a chosen people. Covenants are of course agreements and the Biblical ones mostly take the form of suzerain-vassal covenants, not parity treaties. Yahweh dictates the terms in these covenants and they have not only stipulations but curse and blessing sanctions. They are all ratified by a sacrifice and have a covenant sign as well—such as circumcision, or even a rainbow. It would be hard to overestimate how important covenanting was in the relationship between God and his people as described in the OT. God made demands, not merely ritualistic ones but also ethical demands of his people, in a fashion similar to an ancient dowry or betrothal agreement. To fail to live up to the stipulations resulted in the curse sanctions being enacted on God’s people.

And this brings up another crucial point. God’s people, either individually or collectively are not immune to judgment. Their chosenness does not exempt them from God’s justice, indeed judgment begins with the household of God according to the OT. It is a singular mistake to muddle up the concept of chosenness or election and the concept of salvation. As we have said, the OT has very little to say about ‘everlasting life’, and when it speaks of ‘chosenness’ it is not spoken of in terms of eternal benefits to particular individuals.

Indeed, chosenness normally in the OT has to do with God picking someone or some group for a specific historical purpose—such as the choice of Cyrus to set free God’s people in Babylonian exile. But even when the concept is applied collectively to Israel, it normally has the sense that God has chosen this people to be a light to the nations, bearing witness to God’s character and demands and to be a blessing to the nations (see e.g. the promises to Abraham). Election then has historical purposes in the OT, and little or nothing is said about personal eternal fringe benefits. The corollary of this should be clear—later Christian concepts of election and salvation (especially as blended together into one idea) ought not to be read back into the OT willy nilly. One has to have a sense of progressive revelation and the progress of developing understanding of such concepts as election and salvation when dealing with the relationship of the OT thought world and the NT thought world. Missional election however is a concept that is carried over into the NT.

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