In his influential address, "Discourse on the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology, and the Right Determination of the Aims of Each," Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826) lodged the programmatic proposal that scholars ought to distinguish between biblical and systematic theology.2 In his lecture, delivered at the University of Altdorf in 1787 (the year the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia), Gabler urged his colleagues to place their theological edifice more overtly on a scriptural foundation: "There is truly a biblical theology, of historical origin, conveying what the holy writers felt about divine matters."3 Gabler claimed that a biblical theology conceived along these lines would provide the historical and rational scientific framework enabling systematic theology to relate biblical truths to contemporary life and thought.4
At its core, Gabler's distinction between biblical and systematic theology marks an important foundation stone to this day. Biblical theology is essentially a historical discipline calling for an inductive and descriptive method. We must carefully distinguish between biblical and systematic theology before we can accurately describe the theology of the biblical writers themselves. Some of us may find this to be a truism hardly worth stating. But as a survey of the last decade of biblical-theological research will show, the need to (1) ground biblical theology in careful historical work, (2) conceive of the discipline as essentially inductive and descriptive, and (3) distinguish biblical from systematic theology continues to be relevant, even urgent, if the discipline is to continue its viability.5
What follows surveys the present state of biblical theology, gauged by a selective survey of evangelical works produced during the past decade or so. Then it discusses ramifications of this survey for the future of the discipline.
1. The Present State of Biblical Theology 6
In one of his many important contributions to the subject, D. A. Carson remarks that how one navigates the tension between Scripture's unity and its diversity is the "most pressing" issue in biblical theology.7 Our challenge is "Mapping Unity in Diversity."8 Virtually all evangelical biblical theologians start their work with the assumption of essential biblical unity. Most also realize that, within this unity, Scripture displays a certain amount of legitimate diversity.9The challenge is how to come to terms with this interplay between unity and diversity. In what follows, I look at recent biblical-theological works under four rubrics: (1) classic approaches; (2) central-themes approaches; (3) single-center approaches; and (4) story or metanarrative approaches.10 Each of these seeks to navigate the unity-diversity question in its own distinctive way (though there are commonalities as well).11
1.1. Classic Approaches
First in our taxonomy of biblical theologies is what G. K. Beale recently called "the classic approach."12 This classic approach involves studying first the message and theological content of individual biblical books, followed by an attempt at synthesis tracing overarching themes across various corpora.
1.1.1. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, eds., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology
An example of this model is the reference work New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and Brian Rosner.13 Rosner defines the task of biblical theology in the introductory article:
Biblical theology is principally concerned with the overall message of the whole Bible. It seeks to understand the parts in relation to the whole and, to achieve this, it must work with the mutual interaction of the literary, historical, and theological dimensions of the various corpora, and with the interrelationships of these within the whole canon of Scripture.14
It is only in this way that we can properly account for what God has spoken to us in the Scriptures. In summary, Rosner defines biblical theology as theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church. More specifically, "It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyze and synthesize the Bible's teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible's overarching narrative and Christocentric focus."15 With this definition and analysis in place, the rest of the dictionary proceeds accordingly.16
1.1.2. Scott J. Hafemann, ed., Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect
Another edited work that contributes to the discussion of properly characterizing the discipline is Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, featuring selected addresses from the 2000 Wheaton Conference for Theology.17 In the first chapter, the editor, Scott Hafemann, discusses the issue of canonical unity and diversity. He believes that, in moving forward, scholars should focus on three central realities. First, they should look at each book of Scripture independently and take it on its own terms while affirming the unity of the structure of the Bible. Second, they should come to terms with the eschatological nature of the Bible, with the first and second coming of Christ serving as the midpoint and endpoint of redemptive history. Third, biblical theology must be rooted in history, lest we replace the message of Scripture with our own experience.18 These three basic affirmations serve as general principles keeping interpreters grounded as they pursue their biblical-theological work.
Later in the volume, Paul House offers a helpful perspective on the method of working toward a coherent biblical theology that does justice to the text of Scripture. He begins by affirming that canonical biblical theology requires a unitary reading strategy of the OT and NT canon that allows the Bible to be treated as one book of Scripture. Second, this unitary reading should proceed on a book-by-book basis in order to derive the specific message from each piece of writing. Third, this analysis should lead to the identification and collection of vital central themes allowing an overarching synthesis. Fourth, there must be a commitment to intertextuality, that is, to discerning instances where later passages in Scripture refer to earlier texts. Fifth, interpreters should treat major biblical themes as they emerge from the whole of Scripture. Sixth and finally, biblical theology ought to have as its goal the presentation of the whole counsel of God in various settings.19 Thus biblical theology has the potential of encouraging believers toward understanding and applying the coherent message of Scripture to their lives and ministry.
The strength of the classic approach is that it takes into consideration the contribution of each individual book in the canon of Scripture while at the same time seeking to discern major themes across the canon. Another strength of this approach is that it allows specialists in various fields to contribute. As biblical and theological studies become increasingly specialized, collaborative work is a growing necessity.
A potential weakness of the classic approach is that unless book-by-book analysis and the identification of scriptural themes are related to Scripture's larger storyline, the needed synthesis remains incomplete. While positing a single center is precarious (which I seek to demonstrate below), the scriptural metanarrative provides a promising avenue of exploring the biblical writers' message, which involves unity as well as diversity.
1.2. Central-Themes Approaches
Many have taken one important aspect of the classic approach to biblical theology, the quest for major scriptural motifs, and sought to orient the whole Bible around a few central themes that can be traced across the canon.
1.2.1. Charles H. H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God
One of the most prolific, and in my judgment most successful, biblical-theological works of the past decade exhibiting a central-themes approach is Charles Scobie's massive work The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology.20 Discussing the history, definition, and task of biblical theology, Scobie believes, "If progress is to be made in the study of Biblical Theology, the question of definition is clearly crucial."21 Scobie sides with many others in the field in maintaining that biblical theology is "the theology contained in the Bible, the theology of the Bible itself."22 Moreover, Scobie proposes what he calls an "intermediate biblical theology," contending that biblical theology is a bridge discipline between the historical study of the Bible and the use of the Bible as authoritative Scripture by the church.23 Scobie further suggests that biblical theology ought to be fundamentally concerned with the horizon of the text and as such should attempt to overview and interpret the shape and structure of the Bible as a whole. Along these lines, he writes that his own work "will seek the unity and continuity of Scripture, but without sacrificing the richness of its diversity. It will focus not on exegetical details but on the broad interrelationships between the major themes of the Bible, and above all on the interrelationship between the Testaments."24
In seeking to delineate the structure of biblical theology, Scobie cautions that scholars avoid imposing alien conceptual patterns onto Scripture and instead allow the structure of their biblical theology to arise from the biblical material itself: "The structure that is proposed here is one in which the major themes of the OT and NT are correlated with each other." In Scobie's approach, "Each theme is first traced through the OT. Although on the one hand the material is discussed with an eye to the way [in which] the theme is developed in the NT, on the other hand, every effort is made to listen to what the OT says on its own terms."25
Thus, Scobie believes that the procedure that seems to offer the most promise and the least risk of distorting the biblical material is identifying a limited number of major biblical themes, grouped around associated subthemes, and tracing each theme and related subtheme(s) through the OT and into the NT, following the scheme of proclamation, promise/ fulfillment, and consummation.26 These themes, isolated in interaction with various centers that have been proposed through the course of the discipline, are broken up into four categories: (1) God's order; (2) God's servant; (3) God's people; and (4) God's way.27 Engaging with biblical theology in this fashion allows one to trace demonstrably important themes across the canon with a view toward analysis and synthesis.28
1.2.2. Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, eds., Central Themes in Biblical Theology
As mentioned in note 8, Scott Hafemann, subsequent to the publication of his edited work Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, partnered with Paul House to edit a sequel: Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity. This book attempts to "explore biblical themes that contribute to the wholeness of the Bible."29 In this regard, the volume moves beyond a classic approach to a central-themes model. The contributors share three convictions regarding scriptural unity. First, the Bible is a unity because it is the word of God, who is a unified and coherent being. Second, biblical theology should seek not only to unpack the content of Scripture but also to establish the conceptual unity of the Bible as a whole as it unfolds in human events. Third, doing whole-Bible theology should be a collaborative effort owing to the complexity of the discipline.30 Once again, as with the works already discussed, we see specific principles guiding these authors in delineating the unity and diversity characterizing the canon.
Perhaps most pertinent to the task at hand is Roy Ciampa's essay on the history of redemption. He states that a central-themes approach to Scripture "seeks to uncover the biblical authors' own understanding of the events and their significance within the unfolding narrative context in which they are found."31 Ciampa agrees with those who have argued for a creation-sin-exile-restoration motif32 and seeks to trace this pattern throughout the various corpora of Scripture. In so doing, Ciampa argues that the main structure of the biblical narrative consists essentially of two creation-sin-exile-restoration structures whereby the second of these, which is national in nature (seen in the Israel narrative), is embedded within the first, which is global (seen in the Adam-Eve narrative and its accompanying consequences). The national creation-sin-exile-restoration pattern serves as the key to the resolution of the plot conflict of the global structure, and in the interplay between these two structures, God's kingdom intervention and promises are rightly understood.33 This essay thus contributes a useful application of biblical theology demonstrating the saving purposes of God throughout the canon.
Central-themes approaches can be helpful in tracing important motifs across the canon, but the organization of these central themes still requires further synthesis, in particular in relation to Scripture's overarching storyline. Hafemann's discussion of the covenant structure or Ciampa's treatment of the creation-sin-exile-restoration theme both constitute attempts to provide such a metanarrative framework in an effort to relate these central themes to one another. The central-themes approach is a useful component of biblical theology if one recognizes the place of central themes within the framework of the macrostructure of the entire canon.
1.3. Single-Center Approaches
Over the course of the discipline, there have been scholars who have sought to identify a single center of Scripture that constitutes the major theme around which the entire canon revolves. In effect, therefore, the single-center approach selects one from among a number of central themes and designates it as the sole center of biblical theology. The fact that such an approach is fraught with considerable difficulty at the very outset has not kept at least one scholar in recent years from exploring the notion of a central organizing theme within the scope of biblical theology.34
1.3.1. James M. Hamilton Jr., God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment
In his publication God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology,35 James Hamilton, as suggested by the title of his work, endeavors to show that God's glory in salvation through judgment serves as a biblical center, that is, as a particularly prominent theme that holds the canon together. Hamilton states the purpose of his book as follows:
The purpose of this book, quixotic as it may seem, is to seek to do for biblical theology what Kevin Vanhoozer has done for hermeneutics and David Wells has done for evangelical theology. The goal is not a return to an imaginary golden age but to help people know God. The quest to know God is clarified by a diagnosis of the problem (Wells), the vindication of interpretation (Vanhoozer), and, hopefully, a clear presentation of the main point of God's revelation of himself, that is, a clear presentation of the center of biblical theology.36
Hamilton contends that the saving and judging glory of God37 is the center of biblical theology and as such is the primary theme uniting all of Scripture.
Hamilton describes his methodology as follows. First, he sets out to pursue a biblical theology that highlights the central theme of God's glory in salvation through judgment by describing the literary contours of individual books in their canonical context with sensitivity to the unfolding metanarrative. Hamilton believes that this metanarrative presents a unified story with a discernible main point or center.38 In defining a center in biblical theology, a crucial part of his methodology, Hamilton states, with reference to Jonathan Edwards,
If it can be shown that the Bible's description of God's ultimate end produces, informs, organizes, and is exposited by all the other themes in the Bible, and if this can be demonstrated from the Bible's own salvation-historical narrative and in its own terms, then the conclusion will follow that the ultimate end ascribed to God in the Bible is the center of biblical theology.39
Thus one can identify the center of biblical theology by identifying the theme that is prevalent, even pervasive, in all parts of the Bible and that serves as its ultimate end. Hamilton claims that this theme will be the demonstrable centerpiece of the theology contained in the Bible itself.40 Hamilton then moves into textual analysis, seeking to demonstrate the centrality of God's glory in salvation through judgment in the Torah,41 the Prophets,42 the Writings,<43 the Gospels and Acts,44 the New Testament Letters,45 and Revelation.46
While it is instructive to see how Hamilton delves into the exegetical details to substantiate his thesis, the feasibility of trying to find a single center for the entire biblical witness remains fraught with difficulty.47 In the end, Hamilton's proposal fails to convince because it proves unduly monolithic and frequently appears to be artificially imposed onto individual writings (e.g., Esther, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Matthew, Philemon). As a result, the canon of Scripture in its entirety is unable to bear the weight of "God's glory in salvation through judgment" serving as a single center. As D. A. Carson wisely observed with regard to single-center approaches, "How shall one avoid the tendency to elevate one book or corpus of the NT and domesticate the rest, putting them on a leash held by the themes of the one, usually the book or corpus on which the biblical theologian has invested most scholarly energy?"48
At closer scrutiny, Hamilton's center seems to work best in the prophetic literature, which is replete with oracles of salvation and judgment. The opening chapters of Genesis, on the other hand, are discussed only briefly.49 Strikingly, God's glory in creation is at best subsidiary in Hamilton's center, and thus the bookends of biblical revelation do not receive the prominence they deserve. Another potential weakness of Hamilton's proposal is that he uses pivotal terms such as "glory," "judgment," or "salvation" in multiple senses and then moves back and forth between various definitions of these key terms to establish his single center.50 "God's glory in salvation through judgment" may well be one of Scripture's central themes, perhaps even one that was underappreciated prior to Hamilton's work, but calling this theme the "single center" of Scripture overstates the case because it excludes other important themes such as God's glory in creation and new creation.51
In light of such difficulties (and more programmatic underlying concerns noted below), the concluding verdict of Gerhard Hasel's monograph New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, written decades ago, still stands:
The variety of problems to which scholars have pointed in their discussions of the center of the NT, one that functions as "a canon within the canon" and serves as material principle of canon criticism, are apparently insurmountable. An approach to NT theology that seeks to be adequate to the totality of the NT cannot afford the arbitrariness, subjectivity, and reductionism inherent in the choice of a selective principle in the form of a center either from without Scripture (tradition) or from within Scripture on the basis of which value judgments are made with regard to the content of Scripture as a whole or in its parts.52
1.4. Story or Metanarrative Approaches
While the single-center approach has some obvious flaws, a related centering model is the metanarrative approach to biblical theology. This approach does not identify one theme as the central idea but argues that there is an overarching metanarrative that unifies the Scriptures.
1.4.1. T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem
One fairly recent exemplar of such an approach is T. Desmond Alexander's From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology.53 In this work, Alexander, one of the editors of the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (see §1.1.1), seeks to explore the unfolding canonical trajectory of Scripture. In so doing, Alexander grounds his attempt to describe the content of the biblical metanarrative in the conviction that the word of God is a unified story: "Produced over many centuries, the differing texts that comprise this library are amazingly diverse in terms of genre, authorship and even language. Nonetheless, they produce a remarkably unified story that addresses two of life's most fundamental questions: (1) Why was the earth created? (2) What is the reason for human existence?"54
Alexander's overall method is thematic in nature as he seeks to demonstrate (similar to the central-themes approach) that several overarching motifs essentially unify and hold the Bible together. In defense of this approach, he asserts,
There is something of value in seeing the big picture, for it frequently enables us to appreciate the details more clearly. The scholarly tendency to "atomize" biblical texts is often detrimental to understanding them. By stripping passages out of their literary contexts meanings are imposed upon them that were never intended by their authors. I hope this study goes a little way to redressing this imbalance, for biblical scholarship as a whole has not articulated clearly the major themes that run throughout Scripture. Since these themes were an integral part of the thought world of the biblical authors, an appreciation of them may significantly alter our reading of individual books.55
In a unique fashion, Alexander takes as his starting point the two final chapters of the book of Revelation, in the conviction that these chapters sustain a distinct connection with Gen 1-3 and that these two portions of Scripture frame the entire biblical narrative, providing the reader with an overarching framework for what the Bible is seeking to communicate throughout.56 In this way, the reader looks at the end of the story to make better sense of the beginning, and in so doing traces a theme from its point of departure to its fulfillment in Christ and ultimately its consummation in the New Jerusalem. Alexander recognizes that while "there are limitations to this approach, it is nevertheless one way of attempting to determine the main elements of the meta-story."57 Thus the study is not exhaustive but rather suggestive, seeking to outline some of the main themes running through Scripture. The contours of Alexander's book adhere closely to the standard approach of summarizing the overarching narrative of the Bible in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation.58 While Alexander does not tease out every detail of his proposal, his work serves as a helpful guide to some of the most significant themes in the Bible and the canonical weight they carry in our interpretive efforts.
1.4.2. Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology
Another instance of a story or metanarrative approach is Graeme Goldsworthy's new book Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles.59 Goldsworthy seeks to contribute a measure of coherence to the discipline by formulating a biblical-theological schema in accordance with the work of Donald Robinson and Gabriel Hebert.60 He begins by pointing out some of the difficulties involved in defining the essence and nature of biblical theology.61 He defines biblical theology as "the study of how every text in the Bible relates to every other text in the Bible" and as "the study of the matrix of divine revelation in the Bible as a whole." 62 He further refines the definition by stating that biblical theology is the study of how every text relates to Christ and the gospel.63 Goldsworthy also links his proposal with salvation history, underscoring the importance of biblical revelation and its unified progression.64 In understanding Christ to be at the center of biblical theology, Goldsworthy seeks to show how the incarnation of Jesus is the link between the Testaments and at the center of God's plan begun at creation and to be completed in the new creation, epitomized by God's presence with his people.65 In keeping with this Christ-centered understanding, Goldsworthy posits the kingdom of God, "defined simply as God's people in God's place under God's rule," as the central theme in Scripture.66
Unlike some of the other authors we have considered, Goldsworthy does not spend much time discussing method-though he affirms that there are a number of different approaches to the task of biblical theology-but instead focuses on demonstrating what he believes is the essential structure of biblical revelation to be captured by biblical theology, properly conducted.67 Goldsworthy urges that an exegete's presuppositions must be taken into account as he or she approaches the text.68 With this in mind, Goldsworthy asserts, "Given our evangelical presupposition of the unity of Scripture with its central focus on Christ, we should expect that the different acceptable approaches will reflect that unity."69 The methods for conducting this kind of biblical theology include careful thematic or word study; contextual studies of individual texts, books, or corpora; OT or NT theologies; and theologies of the whole Bible as canon.70 All of these investigations, Goldsworthy asserts, are performed in order to edify the people of God and to help them grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.71
1.4.3. G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology
A final work following a story or metanarrative approach to biblical theology is G. K. Beale's recent tome A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New.<72 Beale asserts his purpose: "My attempt in this book is not to write a NT theology, but rather a NT biblical theology."73 Beale's distinctive approach to biblical theology is to identify the storyline that unfolds as one moves from the OT to the NT. In so doing, he engages in the exegetical analysis of key words, crucial passages, OT quotations, allusions, and prominent themes in order to elaborate on the main plotline categories. This specific approach to NT biblical theology, according to Beale, is "canonical," "organically developmental," "exegetical," and "inter-textual."74 In this way, Beale is seeking to set his work apart as unique from the proliferation of NT theologies that have appeared in the last century.75
Rather than postulating a center, Beale seeks to identify a particular storyline arising from the Scriptures that can serve as a point of reference. His primary thesis is that in order to understand the NT in its richness, one must have a keen acquaintance with how the biblical authors viewed the end times since this topic forms an essential part of the NT story.76 Building on this thesis, Beale delineates the specific ways in which the OT and NT articulate this kind of narrative. The OT storyline that Beale posits as the basis for the NT storyline is this:
The Old Testament is the story of God, who progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos over a sinful people by his word and Spirit through promise, covenant, and redemption, resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this kingdom and judgment (defeat or exile) for the unfaithful, unto his glory.77
He follows this with the storyline of the NT, showing the transformation of the OT storyline:
Jesus' life, trials, death for sinners, and especially resurrection by the Spirit have launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-not yet new-creational reign, bestowed by grace through faith resulting in worldwide commission to the faithful to advance this new-creational reign and resulting in judgment for the unbelieving, unto the triune God's glory.78
In this way, one can see in a brief description the way in which the OT is the basis for the NT storyline while at the same time being subject to transformation by the NT. By working from a reconstructed storyline of the OT and the NT, Beale sets himself apart from the classic and central-themes approaches and significantly advances the field both formally (in terms of method) and materially (in terms of content).79
In contrast to single-center approaches, Beale wisely avoids speaking of a "center" in his biblical-theological proposal, attaching significance instead to the OT storyline as modified and transformed in the NT. This is certainly creative and very likely more satisfying than a rigid application of a book-by-book approach (though care should be taken that the overall storyline does not completely crowd out more minor motifs). Beale's approach also seems preferable to a more heavy-handed procedure in which a writer posits a center that he subsequently tries to validate by tying it to the message of every individual biblical book.
Nevertheless, a couple of concerns may be noted. First, making the biblical storyline central runs the danger of marginalizing biblical material that is not central to the metanarrative of Scripture but nonetheless present in the canon. Its inductive and descriptive nature and its ability to synthesize not only major but also minor motifs is one of the greatest strengths of biblical theology. Care should be taken not to lose sight of minor (or not too minor) motifs simply because they do not seem to relate directly to the central storyline of Scripture.
Second, and related to the first, is a doctrinal concern. Evangelicals such as Beale believe that it is every word of Scripture that is inspired, not merely the biblical storyline.80 If so, what in practice helps us to avoid privileging the biblical storyline (as construed by us) to the extent that less prominent portions of Scripture are unduly neglected? Here we must take care not to be similar in practice (though not in theory) to the approach of scholars such as N. T. Wright (not an inerrantist) in his work The Last Word or German content criticism, which has also had a notable impact on the work of some British and other evangelicals.81
2. The Future of Biblical Theology
What insights can we derive from this all-too-brief survey of recent contributions to the discipline of biblical theology? Several observations may be noted. On the whole, it is evident that the discipline has come a long way in the last decade or so. G. K. Beale's recent work, in particular, shows a level of sophistication and creativity that is impressive and bodes well for the future of biblical theology. On the shoulders of foundational efforts such as the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, the compendium Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect edited by Scott Hafemann, and programmatic studies such as T. Desmond Alexander's From Eden to the New Jerusalem, a new generation of scholars will be able to produce biblical theologies that are theoretically responsible, methodologically nuanced, and theologically refined.
In terms of content, there seems to be an emerging consensus that stresses christological and eschatological fulfillment (whether in terms of creation-new creation, consummation, or restoration). Several of the works we surveyed contend that Christ is the center-point and pivotal figure of redemptive history. What is more, the underlying conviction in virtually all of these works is that the Bible constitutes a unity and therefore also exhibits a unified theology.
Despite these similarities, however, there are still significant differences among the biblical theologies written during the past decade. Most importantly, the question of definition of biblical theology requires urgent reassessment. Some recent works are more rigorously inductive while others proceed from a systematic or confessional framework in exploring the teachings of Scripture. Also, the specific proposals made by various scholars differ as to what the theology of the Bible actually is and how it coheres. In part, this is a matter of setting different emphases or privileging a particular overall framework, whether the glory of God, eschatology, salvation history, or some other central topic, not to mention the importance of hermeneutics.82
2.1. The Definition of Biblical Theology
On the question of definition, Adolf Schlatter provided the following classic formulation of the nature of biblical theology over a century ago:
We turn away decisively from ourselves and our time to what was found in the men through whom the church came into being [i.e. the NT writers]. Our main interest should be the thought as it was conceived by them and the truth that was valid for them. We want to see and obtain a thorough grasp of what happened historically and existed in another time. This is the internal disposition upon which the success of the work depends, the commitment which must consistently be renewed as the work proceeds.83
This kind of definition can serve as a standard by which we measure the biblical-theological work we produce in order to ensure that we are staying within the parameters of the field. Before addressing our own questions, we must first listen to the OT and NT writers and documents in order to understand the message of the Bible on its own terms, in its own language, and in its original cultural, historical, and ecclesial contexts.
Note also that Schlatter, similar to Gabler, distinguished between biblical theology and systematic theology when he urged a separation between the "historical task" of New Testament theology and the "doctrinal task" of dogmatic theology.84 This shows that Gabler was not alone in urging this distinction but that later scholars such as Schlatter reiterated the strong need for this distinction without necessarily endorsing Gabler's larger theological program. What this makes clear is that the distinction between biblical and systematic theology does not hinge on the specifics of Gabler's proposal in his address as if some of its inadequacies somehow disqualify the legitimacy of the distinction between biblical and systematic theology as such.85
2.2. The Distinction between Biblical and Systematic Theology
Another continuing need is that scholars give careful consideration to the unique characteristics of biblical theology in relation to other fields, particularly systematic theology. David Clark asserts that each particular discipline-biblical theology, systematic theology, historical theology, and so-called practical theology-"is a microperspective that limits its view of the object of study to a particular aspect or dimensions of the whole." 86 In other words, there is a unity of the theological disciplines in that they all contribute to a proper understanding of the larger macroperspective of Scripture, providing unity to the individual pieces by constituting them as a "symphonic theology."87 While Clark's comments are helpful, one must be careful to avoid blurring the lines between the disciplines so as to allow them to contribute to the Christian faith in their own distinctive ways.88
Seeking to navigate the tension between an inductive and a preconceived conceptual approach, Hamilton affirms that biblical theology is inductive in nature but cannot be divorced from one's existing theological framework:
Our biblical-theological understanding will line up-implicitly or explicitly-with our systematic conclusions. This cannot be denied, and it should be embraced, with the two disciplines of biblical and systematic theology functioning to further our understanding of God and his word. . . .
Some today are referring to biblical theology as a "bridge discipline" that connects exegesis and systematic theology, but we can also view biblical theology, systematic theology, and historical theology as equal tools, each of which can be used to sharpen our exegesis and theology."89
Whatever the merits of Hamilton's proposal, however, clearly this is no longer biblical theology in the vein of Gabler's distinction.90 According to Hamilton, "the reality is that all these methods are used in teaching Christians, which makes them all dogmatic theology."91 In accentuating the ecclesial thrust of biblical theology, Hamilton, whether consciously or not, is picking up on an implicit distinction made by Gabler who did, in fact, seek to separate the academy from the church when urging a distinction between biblical and dogmatic theology. The fact that history matters, however, does not necessarily imply that in historical investigation the church is set aside. Rather, it is historical investigation that shows the church to be the central focus in God's redemptive plan. History is not the exclusive domain of historical research (whether historical-critical or otherwise) set off from the ecclesiastical realm, nor is the history of redemption merely textual; it is the very history in which the church has a vital, even indispensable, part.92
What is more, while it is doubtless correct that interpreters approach the text of Scripture with a set of presuppositions, the goal of biblical theology, as mentioned, must continue to be accurately perceiving the convictions of the OT and NT writers. Despite the fact that the majority of scholars in both fields (biblical and systematic theology) continues to support a distinction of the respective disciplines, however, drawing such distinctions is not always hard and fast. The need remains for definitional clarity and methodological vigilance lest biblical theology becomes systematic theology in disguise, the lines between biblical and systematic theology become unduly blurred, or the disciplines illegitimately collapse into one. If biblical theology is systematic theology by another name and systematic presuppositions, consciously or not, control one's biblical-theological work to such an extent that the end product bears more the imprint of the contemporary interpreter than that of the original biblical writers, a line has been crossed.93
There thus remains a need for a procedure by which interpreters move from exegeting individual texts in their original historical setting to placing the results of such exegesis into their proper canonical context before moving on to a systematization in light of contemporary concerns. Along those lines, Grant Osborne, citing R. T. France, calls for "the priority in biblical interpretation of what has come to be called 'the first horizon,' i.e., of understanding biblical language within its own context before we start exploring its relevance to our own concerns, and of keeping the essential biblical context in view as a control on the way we apply biblical language to current issues."94 By reaffirming the distinction between the first and second horizons of Scripture, I do not intend to issue a call for the various biblical and theological disciplines to separate even further-indeed, more dialogue needs to occur between biblical scholars and theologians.95 Instead, my purpose is to register a plea for recognizing the place of each discipline in the overall process of interpreting and applying God's word.96
In his recent assessment of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, D. A. Carson, citing Graham Cole, distinguishes between four levels of biblical and theological scholarship.97 First comes the exegesis of biblical texts in their literary and historical contexts, with proper attention being given to literary genre, attempting to discern authorial intent to the extent that this is possible. Second, the interpreter endeavors to understand the text within the entirety of biblical theology, determining what it contributes to the unfolding storyline. Third, theological structures in a given text are sought to be understood in concert with other major theological scriptural themes. Fourth, all teachings derived from the biblical writings are both subjected to and modified by the interpreter's larger hermeneutical proposal. Carson notes that traditional interpreters have operated mostly on levels 1 and 2, while many (if not most) recent practitioners of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture operate on levels 3 and 4.
I am content to let Carson appraise this latter movement. For our present purposes, it will suffice to note that the best biblical-theological work operates on all four levels (or at least the first three). On the one hand, biblical theologians must not skip levels 1 and 2 in their haste to progress to the levels 3 and 4. On the other hand, scholars should not stop at level 2 or even 3. Cole's model (as explicated by Carson) does not merely serve as a proper basis for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture; it also provides a helpful grid against which a proper definition and method of biblical theology can be assessed. There is no getting beyond Gabler's distinction, I am afraid. We must be careful to maintain the proper distinction between biblical and systematic theology.98
The past decade and a half has witnessed a tremendous amount of progress in evangelical scholarship on biblical theology. Works such as G. K. Beale's New Testament Biblical Theology bear witness to the considerable degree of sophistication to which at least some of the evangelical practitioners of biblical theology have attained. The emergence of three new series, the New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT; currently 29 vols. and with more underway), the Biblical Theology of the New Testament (BTNT; 8 vols.), and the Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation series (BTCP; 40 vols.), published by InterVarsity, Zondervan, and B&H Academic, respectively, further attests to the vitality and continuing promise of the discipline.
At the same time, there remains a need for scholars to be precise in defining what they mean when they claim to engage in biblical-theological work and to carefully distinguish between biblical and systematic theology. The notion of the biblical metanarrative, in particular, holds considerable promise in anchoring the future of biblical theology. Nevertheless, it will be important not to lose sight of the contribution of individual books of the Bible and of the variety of interrelated major and minor scriptural motifs. Biblical theology should remain a discipline where we would rather leave some loose ends untied than forcing them into a straitjacket and where interpreters are willing to heed the motto attributed to Albert Einstein, one of the most famous scientists of the past century: "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."99comments powered by Disqus