Here now is the next to last entry in our little study of Biblical Theology. This section looks particularly at the question of how we perform this type of study. I hope it is helpful for you.
How to do Biblical Theology
Now we come to the practical section of our study. It is not uncommon to hear Biblical Theology defined by how it is done instead of what it is. We have resisted this temptation thus far. In this section we will look at what steps we feel are necessary to practice Biblical Theology. We will, then, look at various structures for presenting Biblical Theology. Finally, we will explore the quest for the center of Biblical Theology.
What practices are indispensable for attempting a work of Biblical Theology? We will answer this question, but let us, first, remember that Biblical Theology has many helpers. It does not discard the great fruit of other disciplines, but instead partners with them to come to the most accurate understanding of God’s message for mankind. With that in mind, let us proceed.
First, we see that exegesis of the text is the foundational building block of Biblical Theology. As the atom has been historically known as the smallest component of the body, so good Biblical Theology finds its simplest beginnings in good exegesis. Many definitions for Biblical Theology which we have heard make it clear that it is the theology of the Bible that one is after when practicing Biblical Theology, so study of the Biblical texts is obligatory. This includes all of the practices that any good exegete brings to the task such as textual criticism, grammatical analysis, word studies, historical-cultural background, and others.28 We must not stop at exegesis, though, for as Dennis Tucker has written, “when we teach Old Testament or New Testament, we feel compelled to rehearse the chief contributions of the historical-critical method. Theological construction, we would like to believe, would be a by-product of the historical investigation. But…one does not naturally follow the other.”29
The second building block of Biblical Theology is the understanding of the theology of individual books and authors of Scripture. This is a natural next step following exegesis. The work of exegesis is compiled and synthesized to ascertain what the author of any book is trying to communicate. Exegesis shows what was written, while this step illustrates why it was written. Or put another way, this second step asks, “What is the big deal? What does that mean for those to whom the text was written?”
The third building block of Biblical Theology is synthesis. How do the various authors and corpora of Biblical material fit together? This is often done through tracing themes throughout the Bible, paying particular attention to how each section of Scripture or Biblical author deals with that theme. 30
The final building block of Biblical Theology is the integration of the various themes of Scripture. This has most often been done through an attempt to find a “center” of Biblical Theology from which all other major Biblical ideas spring forth. By doing so, it is thought that the theology of the entire Bible can be discerned. Each successive step is pushing towards the integration of the whole.
The Construction of a Biblical Theology
We will now turn our attention to the structures used in presenting a Biblical Theology. Osborne lists six different approaches,31 but we will focus our attention on the two most prominent. The first major method for presenting a Biblical Theology is called the synthetic method. The synthetic (from synthesis) method traces various themes throughout scripture helping to show its development and unity as the scholar traverses the varied Biblical terrain. Often a study based on the synthetic method will have chapter titles such as “Law,” “Covenant,” and “Justification” i.e. systematic theological categories. The strength of this approach is that it helps to illustrate the unity of the Bible as it traces themes throughout each section. Some would suggest that it depends too heavily upon systematic categories, but we must remember that systematic categories primarily arise out of Scripture.
The second major method is called the analytic method. The analytic method looks at each book individually attempting to discover the theology behind it. Some scholars will then attempt to synthesize what is discovered, but most are content to let each book speak for itself with little attention paid to how they interrelate. The strength of this method is its faithfulness to every author/book. Its weakness is that it can seem to portray a lack of unity between the various books instead of taking the next step of integration.
In concluding our discussion on method, I believe that Osborn is correct when he writes that the “analytical mode and…synthetic mode can inform and correct each other.”32 It is to our advantage to let each book/author speak for itself, trying our best to discern the theological message present in each; however, if we do not then bring together these theologies and demonstrate how they relate one to the other, we do ourselves and our readers a disservice. To believe that the Bible is Scripture is to believe that God’s Word is not contradictory. We support a both/and methodology, not an either/or. There are rich rewards for those who will wed the analytic and synthetic methods in their study.
Excursus-The Question of the Canon
When beginning my study, I did not know that the Biblical Canon was central to the topic of Biblical Theology. I realized that the Canon is important for almost all scholars; however, the basis for its importance varies depending on who is speaking. I have divided these groups into two categories. We will refer to these groups as the Canon of Content and the Canon of Consecution.
The Canon of Content group refers to work concerned with the writing, compiling, inspiration, and closing (date and content) of the Canon.33 We are unable in our limited time to deal with each and every question here; I shall only comment briefly. Obviously, for the conservative scholar, inspiration is a settled matter, as is, typically, the authority of the text. The question that seems to arise most in writings within this group is “should we include writings that are currently extra-Canonical within the Canon as we pursue a Biblical Theology?” The debate is also concerned with whether to strictly adhere to the “final form” of the Canon or to attempt to ascertain what was first written, tracing how it was modified, and how it came to be the form that we have today. Most are willing to admit that the form of the Canon as we have it today is not what was originally penned. Compilation and editing took place, making the work a coherent and powerful whole for the people of God. In my limited study, it seems that the final form is the best, and only viable, option for the Biblical Theologian. Attempting to get at the first words is a chasing after the wind, much like the oceans of ink spilt on Q, which we should be reminded probably never existed, at least not in the sense that scholars today argue.
The Canon of Consecution group will deal with the above issues, but they go on to ask a further question of the Canon: “Is the arrangement of the books in the final form of the Hebrew Tanakh (Law, Prophets, Writings) a critical issue? Is the arrangement, so to say, inspired?” The original divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) were different than what we have today. Our Bibles today follow an order of Law, the Historical Books, the Wisdom Books, and the Prophets. Is the Christian deviation from the original arrangement of the Old Testament a hindrance to Biblical Theology and our full understanding of God’s revelation to us? For instance, the earliest Canonical shape to the Hebrew Scriptures placed Chronicles at the end of the Tanakh. Why did the compilers do this? Sailhamer writes intriguingly:
The book of Chronicles was deliberately placed at the end of the Tanak, after the books of Ezra/Nehemiah and after the book of Daniel. It…suggests a conscious effort to close the Tanak with a restatement of the edict of Cyrus at the end of Chronicles…In doing so, it extends Jeremiah’s seventy years beyond the time of the return from Babylon – a future fulfillment.34
What this means is that the Old Testament ends with Israel still in captivity, despite the reforms instituted in the Ezra/Nehemiah narrative.35 To place Chronicles before Ezra and Nehemiah, as per the Christian Bible, is to communicate a contrary message.
Personally, this is a fascinating area of study. To illustrate, imagine a book with fifteen chapters in it. Chapter fifteen has a happily-ever-after style ending; however, when the book was published, the tenth chapter was accidentally placed at the end of the book. Chapter ten is concerned with the growing power of the evil antagonist and his attempt to destroy the book’s hero. To end the book with chapter ten is to communicate that the happily-ever-after ending was only a façade. While our hero is celebrating his victory, the antagonist is plotting his revenge. While many Hollywood movies prefer to end this way to allow for the possibility of a sequel, this was not the intention of the author of our hypothetical book. When we carry this analogy over to the Biblical canon, we see that to place any book out of order is to distort the story that God desires to tell. Much more could be said concerning the Canon of Consecution issue, so I encourage the reader to consult the works cited.36
We return to conclude our “How to do Biblical Theology” section by considering the idea of a “center” to Biblical Theology. Some call this practice, simply, “Biblical Theology,” while other terms such as whole-Bible and pan-Biblical theology have been coined for this purpose. The key question is “is there one, single theme that encompasses the entirety of the Scriptural narrative and out of which flow all other key themes?”37 Proposed centers have included covenant, kingdom, God, the presence of God, creation/new creation, salvation history, the people of God, and more. Dempster, I am sure indebted to others, puts it humorously, “the number of thematic centers identified for the Old Testament is virtually equivalent to the number of interpreters.”38 It is because of this reason that many, including myself, feel that the search for a single center is futile. This does not mean that we need to abandon the practice of discovering and tracing themes throughout the Canon. The recent collection of excellent essays edited by Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House is just one example of how tracing multiple themes can be beneficial.39 Therefore, it is not pan-Biblical Theology that is futile, but only the attempt to identify one, single center. We should not be surprised at this when we consider the nature of the Canon. It is, firstly, narrative. A story occurs kinetically – through movement. It teaches many lessons along the way, yet it does not seek to present a center, but to tell its story.40 This is why, in my opinion, the History of Redemption approach has been most successful with presenting the Bible’s theology. Unfortunately, there is a good deal of theology in Scripture that has little to do with redemption in any sense of the word, so it too will have to ignore some themes.
Instead of hoping to discern a center from which all others originate, why would we not allow disparate themes to work in communion with one another? It is when themes are allowed to interact with one another that we begin to see an ever tightening spiral coming closer and closer to the intended meaning of Scripture’s full theology.41 Each them is a thread, which when woven together with other threads becomes a rope, strong enough to hold together the theology of the Bible. For instance, God is a covenant God, and He is also King of all the earth and heavens. Neither of these truths is subordinate to the other. They are equally true and equally important to the Bible. To gain a more complete understanding of our infinite God, we must do justice to all that He has revealed about Himself. This is seldom done when one theme is given predominance over the others.
28 Joel B. Greene writes, “This does not mean that reading the Bible theologically requires apathy concerning historical questions, as though the last two centuries of a biblical scholarship characterized by its orientation toward historical issues were unimportant or unnecessary. Quite the contrary, we have learned that attention to historical questions may serve to shield the text from domestication or objectification by the reader, by working to allow the text its own voice from within its own sociocultural horizons…Thus, the aim of historical work shifts from the discovery of meaning embedded in or behind the text to enabling the text its robust voice as a subject (rather than an object) in theological discourse.” Taken from “The Bible, Theology, and Theological Interpretation,” SBL Forum online at: http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=308 (accessed August 11, 2007). For an introduction to these and other practices, see Gordon Fee, New Testament Exegesis 2002 Westminster John Knox Press.
29 Dennis Tucker, “From Biblical Exegesis to Theological Construction: Reflections on Methodology” SBL Forum online at: http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=309 (accessed August 11, 2007).
30 Seemingly opposing theologies that arise is scripture (for example John vs. Paul) are often seen as a challenge to Biblical Theology. For more on this, see P. Balla “Challenges to Biblical Theology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T.D. Alexander, et al (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 20-27 and Carson, D. A. “Current Issues,” 17-41. A similar challenge is the continuity/discontinuity of the Testaments. For an introduction to the challenges, see C.A. Evans, “New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” and G. Goldsworthy, “Relationship of Old Testament and New Testament,” in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T.D. Alexander, et al (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 72-89.
31 Osborn, 365. Much of what follows concerning the synthetic and analytic methods is taken from Osborn, 366-367.
32 Ibid., 355.
33 It should be said that the Canon of Consecution group is also concerned with these issues. Perhaps it is better to think of those scholars as wanting to add another element to those important for the Canon of Content group.
34 John H. Sailhamer, “Biblical Theology and the Composition of the Hebrew Bible,” n Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, ed Scott J. Hafemann (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 35-36.
35 Stephen Dempster agrees: “Thus in a very real sense all three sections of the Hebrew canon end on a note of exile. This is clear for Deuteronomy as the people are on the outside of the land looking in; it is less clear for Haggai – Malachi. Nevertheless, there too the fact that the people are in need of radical reform and that the return had had extremely modest gains show that the people are still awaiting redemption.” in “Geography and Genealogy, Dominion and Dynasty,” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Scott J. Hafemann (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 81, fn 34.
36 See also Rolf Rendtorff, The Canonical Hebrew Bible (Leiderdorp: Deo Publishing, 2006) and T. T. Beckwith, “The canon of Scripture,” in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 27-34.
37 Osborne, 371, gives the following as criteria for choosing a center: 371 criteria for a center: 1. It must express the nature/character of the Godhead. 2. It should account for the people of God as they related to God, their world and one another. 3. It must include the world of humankind as the object of God’s redemptive love. 4. The motif must explain the dialectical relationship between the testaments. 5. It must contain and sum up the individual emphases of the diverse parts of Scripture. 6. should account for other potential unifying themes and must truly unite them under a single rubric.
38 Dempster, 66.
39 Hafemann and House, Central Themes.
40 We must not confuse moral with center as story is not the same as fable.
41 The image of an ever tightening spiraling of strands, owes its origin to Osborne.