Monday, January 7, 2013

How to Do Biblical Theology Evangelically and Doxologically

Regarding what biblical theology is, many have commented, even lamented, that the definitions on offer abound. Paul R. Williamson proffers one helpful and faithful way of thinking about biblical theology evangelically, to which I recently referred in another post. I reproduce it here again: 
Biblical theology is arguably best thought of as a holistic enterprise tracing unfolding theological trajectories throughout Scripture and exploring no biblical concept, theme, or book in isolation from the whole. Rather, each concept, theme, or book is considered ultimately in terms of how it contributes to and advances the Bible's meta-narrative . . . .[1]
Williamson’s definition comports well with a number of the emphases of other definitions given,[2] and it picks up a number of important elements that should be included in doing biblical theology. An evangelical biblical theology should be theological, holistic, whole-Bible, synthetic, follow Scripture’s storyline, and follow Scriptures own trajectories. After briefly discussing these key elements, I'll also go beyond Williams' definition and add two other essentials.

It should be theological because the Bible is primarily revelation about God, about his person, works, ways, and words. 

It should be holistic in that it takes into account the Bible’s historical and literary dimensions, that is, it considers genre, literary devices, linguistic features, historical methods, and the like. 

It should be whole-Bible since the Bible ultimately has one Author and one Mind behind it. In other words, the OT should not be sealed off from the NT, nor vice versa. The Bible is therefore understood as a unity—without sacrificing its diversity!—and neither the OT nor the NT is rightly fully understood apart from the other (even though each has its distinctive voice and distinctive contributions). 

Dovetailing with this whole-Bible emphasis, evangelical biblical theology should be synthetic. That is, it should seek to relate the distinctive and diverse parts of the Bible “to uncover all that holds them together,” all the while maintaining and not muting “the glorious diversity of the biblical documents.”[3] 

It should consider the Bible’s metanarrative as well.[4] Whatever else the Bible is, it is certainly a story with a definite beginning and ending. In between the beginning and ending comes progression or development or expansion of various sorts—embedded in a breathtaking array of literary variety. In this vein, evangelical biblical theology will take into account the Bible’s chronology in thinking about how the parts relate and develop theologically. In this regard, it ought to attempt “to uncover and understand how words and themes in earlier canonical texts are used in later canonical texts.”[5] 

Moreover, it will seek to follow trajectories warranted by Scripture itself, that is, by discerning aright what Scripture is and what it is doing, in its parts, and as a whole. This relates to the emphasis on following the Bible’s chronological storyline as words and concepts are traced across God’s covenant and redemptive revelation. These words and concepts or themes are traced when warrant is discerned in the text for doing so. 

So an interpreter trying to do sound biblical theology will want to provide canonical reasons for tracing out a text along a proposed trajectory. There are no infallible methods for doing this tracing, but warrant ought to be provided for one’s choice. A reasonable and reasoned warrant might include, for example, discerning key words or concepts deployed in similar contexts; or it might include, for example, discerning a later development of an earlier text that is part of the later text’s illocution.[6] 

Now not all of these elements in Williams’ definition and similar definitions need be emphasized equally when looking at a given chunk of text. As already stated, the text itself should set the agenda. But given that any given text is part of a larger Text, these elements will be likely emphases in doing biblical theology. 

Moreover, and I judge this to be all-important, what is not included explicitly in Williams’ definition, and what is often missing in treatments of biblical theology today, is that an evangelical biblical theology—because it is theological—ought to be not only descriptive, but also prescriptive and confessional.[7] I would even be prepared to argue that everything else that has been said about what biblical theology ought to be and do must aim at this prescribing and confessing. Otherwise, the biblical theology ceases to be biblical, and is worse than worthless.

[1] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 17.
[2] See, for example, Carson, "Systematic and Biblical Theology," NDBT, 100-101; and B. S. Rosner, “Biblical Theology,” NDBT, 10.
[3] Carson, NDBT, 100-101.
[4] The OT is not the whole story, nor is the NT the whole story. The OT and NT together tell God’s whole story and together provide the full revelation of God.
[5] Carson, NDBT, 101.
[6] Richard Schultz sets forth a helpful way for working out the theological themes across the canon. See “Integrating Old Testament Theology and Exegesis: Literary, Thematic, and Canonical Issues,” in vol. 1 of New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (ed. Willem A. VanGemeren; 5 vols.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 185-205; see also Carson, NDBT, 97-98.
[7] For example, Carson notes this, NDBT, 101.


Jon Sedlak said...

It's always a disappointment when a group of christians mess up the metanarrative part of biblical theology, making all of biblical theology fit into a preconceived paradigm of some sorts. "Extreme Prophetic" groups, like IHOP, do it all them time.
Good article. I'm impressed that you managed to pack a lot of theological concepts together very clearly without using the word "plenary" even once! :-D You almost lost me at "illocution" though. J/K

- Jon

Jeff Wencel said...

Jon, I'm not sure that I myself know what an illocution is. And, like with the definition of biblical theology, it depends on who's doing the defining! In any case, see Vanhoozer's "Is There a Meaning in This Text?" for good discussion on the locution, illocution, and perlocution stuff. JW

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