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Monday, September 10, 2012

"Understanding Biblical Theology"

TITLE: Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice
AUTHOR: Edward w. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012, (192 pages).

This excellent work highlights the diversity of understanding of the theology of the Bible according to the Bible. The editors set the stage by distinguishing the five broad perspectives through the frameworks of "descriptive" vs "prescriptive" forms of biblical theology. This is not a book that lets various contributors debate, agree, or rebut one another's viewpoints, the editors of this book . It is part of their research work toward their thesis project. Two chapters are made for each biblical theology perspective. The first explains the concept while the second describes the application. The editors will contribute the conceptual framework of each view, and then selectively study prominent and leading theologians and scholars on how the respective biblical theology is practiced. Biblical theology understood via,

  1. BT1 As Historical Description - James Barr
  2. BT2 As History of Redemption - D. A. Carson
  3. BT3 As World-view story - N. T. Wright
  4. BT4 As Canonical Approach - Brevard Childs
  5. BT5 As Theological Construction - Francis Watson

The editors explain it detail enough for the reader to appreciate the nuances of each type of biblical theology. At the same time, they leave the door open for readers to make their own interpretations and conclusions about the various perspectives of biblical theology. There is no strong arming by the editors. Rather the focus is on understanding. The book is planned to begin from a more descriptive and historical perspective (Type 1) toward a more prescriptive and theological view (Type 5). Each view will attempt to shed light on:

  • the connection and relationship between the OT and the NT;
  • the "historical diversity" vs the "theological unity" of the Bible;
  • the scope of biblical theology
  • the sources (Bible only? or Bible + other material) to be used for biblical theology;
  • about what subject matter should biblical theology deal with;
  • about whether biblical theology is for the Church or for the academy.

BT1 has been introduced by J.P.Gabler back in 1787, and championed recently by Krister Stendahl in 1962. The purpose of BT1 is to "affirm the exegetical or descriptive nature of biblical theology and deny the theological or normative nature of biblical theology." In other words, it attempts to let the Bible speak for itself rather than to allow external theological lens to judge it. Yet, the problem with extreme BT1 view is that Biblical Theology as a concept itself is already a foreign device. BT1 is said to be the most "descriptive" of them all, of how it is actually used by the originators. This contrasts with the "prescriptive" mode which suggests what or how it OUGHT to be used, something attributed to modern readers of the ancient texts. BT1 proponents claim the Bible as the main, if not the only source. It is also independent of outside theological influence focuses on the meaning of the Bible texts themselves. BT1 builds theology based on the Bible's own terms. One of James Barr's key contributions to BT1 is that the connection between the OT and the NT must be one that is driven by faith, and not theological constructs to bind the two. Unfortunately, Barr's main weakness is his reductionistic definition of biblical theology. His carefulness is noble, but unwittingly dismisses others.

BT2 can be understood as God revealing Himself and His redemption plan progressively through history. It focuses on the parts with an eye of the whole bigger picture of the total Bible story. Its emphasis is more on unity rather than diversity. By trying to keep the whole Bible as a progressive narrative, the whole Bible can be inductively analyzed  for key themes that can be used to form a biblical theology of the Bible. Some schools are highlighted. First, the "Dallas school" exegetes deeply the individual parts of the canon to build a big theological picture. Its strength is in its inductive work. The "Chicago school" on the other hand, is similar to the "Dallas" counterpart except that it is less dogmatic about straitjacketing biblical themes across the ENTIRE Bible. Another school, called the "Philadelphia school" combines biblical theology with systematic theology to make their version of BT2 more integrated than the rest. Strong in exegesis and sensitive to historical contexts, BT2 remains a very influential part of the evangelical world. The popular evangelical DA Carson is used as a case study example, and his influence within a popular blog, The Gospel Coalition.

BT3 attempts to balance the historical and theological matters using narrative and the storying worldview. The key assumption is that there is a central story coherence throughout the entire Bible. Simply put, instead of adopting BT1's way of analyzing smaller portions of the Bible that leads to the grand picture, BT3 attempts to let the big picture direct the reading of the smaller parts. A key question arises. Who is best suited or equipped with the task of BT3? The practicing pastor or the academic scholar? The authors also give an insightful explanation of the difference between "narrative" and "story." The latter assumes a sequence of events leading up to a eventual picture. The former represents the story within the text. Thus, in a way, BT3 also works from the basis of a big story and reads it into individual narratives in varying degrees. Using NT Wright as a case example, it is fascinating to read about Wright's distinction between "story" and "worldview," which resembles the way BT3 distinguishes story from narrative. The authors feel that while Wright's views are comprehensive and coherent, it lacks systematic theology propositions.

BT4 comes into play as we see more diversity of opinions and the struggle to bring about some kind of unity of the historical and theological contexts. Its chief distinctiveness is its unwillingness to be locked down by historical authority. Instead of the interpretive authority of the canon in ALL the Bible, BT4 proponents prefer to adopt a more open "some convictions." Brevard Childs is a champion in this approach. Instead of the biblical text that forms the framework of Biblical theology, it is the "canonical context" that moves back and forth the meaning of texts and traditions, historical and ahistorical, canon and community, and sets itself up as a "dynamic canon" of interpretation. The "form and function" of the Bible rather than the texts form the key driving conviction.

BT5 appears almost as the antithesis of BT1. Instead of letting history and biblical texts inform the reader, BT5 proponents lets theological convictions inform the reading of the biblical text. It is an "all theologically motivated interpretation." It works on the basis of biblical theology as something in the present rather than been trapped in the past. Using Francis Watson as a case example, any biblical interpretation must be primarily concerned with the "theological issues raised by the biblical texts." This neccessitates the work of both biblical historians as well as systematic theologians. Watson uses the genre approach heavily.

My Thoughts

It is important to note the editors's reminder about the book being "a starting point" for anyone interested in the study of biblical theology. They are also wary about the book being used to "pigeon-hole" their positions. We ought then to read this book with the perspective or "orientation" rather than total adherence to the views set forth. More likely than not, there will be combinations of each view at different phases of our biblical understanding.

There are benefits as well as risks as far as comparing and contrasting the various forms of biblical theology. As a benefit, we get to appreciate the other viewpoints, that can enrich our understanding of other perspectives as well as to shed further light on our own way of understanding biblical theology. The risk is that we label people too quickly. Like many different approaches, it is common knowledge that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of the views. For instance, BT1 is strong in its exegesis and inductive reading of the biblical texts. It is most conservative in its keeping to historical contexts and strong textual scholarship. Unfortunately, it unwittingly sets aside other theological viewpoints that can inform the work of biblical theology. BT2 is slightly less rigid, but tends to restrict the overall story into all the biblical texts. BT3, while it plays a convincing narrative bridge of the historical-theological contexts and the overall Bible story, its key weakness lies in genre analysis. How do we know the limits and the extent of each genre with regards to its contribution to the whole Bible narrative? BT3 is also problematic when one sees the theological conviction as both literary as well as philosophy. How do we know which is which? Then, there is also the problem of method. Which is best? BT4 is promising as it attempts to make good sense out of texts and contexts, but here is where confusion reigns. Which authority is more authoritative? Does it not make biblical theology a more complex exercise for the practitioner? BT5 is strong in methodology but when compared to BT1, it is weaker in inductive exegesis. The work of biblical theology needs to lie in the church instead of merely in the academy. Its strength lies in its conviction that biblical theology must be done by the church as its most natural "social location." Unfortunately, the methods and the concepts of BT5 are more commonly available in the academy!

Finally, I will close with three reasons why I like this book. Firstly, it offers the clearest and most comprehensive description of the nuances of biblical theology. Secondly, it offers a platform for readers to appreciate the many different viewpoints, and increase the arena of understanding among evangelical scholars, theologians, and the Church. Thirdly, students will find the work as a great 5-tools-in-1 to let them read the Bible with greater resourcefulness. There is a need for unity in diversity. There is also a need to let the diverse community demonstrates its creativity. This book is a valuable addition to the library of scholars. Laypersons will benefit more if they are guided by a more experienced mentor, or seminarian. For anyone who is interested in the theology of letting the Bible speak for itself, this book is a generous gourmet meal.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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