About the Author
Matthew Y. Emerson is associate professor of religion and holds the Dickinson Chair of Religion at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, OK.
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Introduction: What Is Biblical Theology?
"The Bible contains sixty-six books written by more than forty authors, but is ultimately one book written by one author — God the Holy Spirit."
This axiom, which you may have heard, is undoubtedly true. The Bible is one book written by one divine author, but God used many different human authors to do the writing. But when we ask how exactly the Bible fits together as one book, our agreement may begin to unravel. Is the Bible one book only because the Holy Spirit authored it all? Or is there some other way that it coheres together as one book? People have answered these questions differently through the centuries.
Biblical Theology and the Question of Unity
This question — how is the Bible one book? — is often answered through the tools of biblical theology. As a discipline, biblical theology exists to explain the unity and distinctions between the biblical books. Over the past three centuries, biblical scholars have answered the question in a variety of ways. To get an understanding of how the Bible coheres as a unified book, let's look at a few ways people have understood "biblical theology."
Johannes Gabler's Project: Historical Development
The "father of biblical theology," Johannes P. Gabler, saw biblical theology as primarily an historical task. In his address to the University of Altdorff in 1787, Gabler made a distinction between biblical theology, inquiry concerned with the historical setting and religious function of particular biblical books and authors, and dogmatic theology, an ecclesial enterprise focused on the impact of the Bible on its contemporary readers.
For Gabler and those who followed him, particularly William Wrede, biblical theology is a purely historical, descriptive task — "what it meant" — while dogmatic, or systematic, theology is a constructive, prescriptive task — "what it means." The former is done in the academy, the latter in the church. The former tends to be willing to depart from traditional Christian beliefs, while the latter is focused on reading the Bible in the context of the church's historic confessions.
In Gabler's model, then, biblical theology is an attempt to describe the religious beliefs of biblical authors and communities at the time a particular biblical book was written. Any unity between books or between the two testaments exists as a historical unity, one that arises because of historical continuity between religious communities. Unity is not a product of the continuity provided by divine inspiration of each biblical author, nor of a similar subject shared by each biblical author. Rather, unity is solely the product of one biblical author being historically situated in the same religious and theological stream as another biblical author. For many biblical theologians that follow Gabler, then, different streams and trajectories are within the Bible, some of which contradict one another.
Let me provide two examples of how this approach to biblical theology works out in practice. Among New Testament theologians it is popular to assert that a difference exists between the charismatic, imminent eschatological expectation of "authentically Pauline" letters like 1 Corinthians and the more settled, delayed eschatological expectation of "deutero-Pauline" letters such as 1 Timothy. Another example some give is the supposed contradiction between James's soteriology and Paul's soteriology in Romans. Now let me be clear: I do not find either of these conclusions to be justified! Still, this is one way this form of biblical theology works itself out. To be fair, I need to say this approach does not always end up with contradiction or discord. That would be to say too much because scholars such as Balla follow Gabler and Wrede's approach but do not find disunity in the biblical material. Nevertheless, any unity they find is historically situated and not explicitly tied to the nature of Scripture or its authorship.
Geerhardus Vos: Conceptual and Structural Unity
A second model of biblical theology pays attention to the divine authorship of Scripture and assumes a theological unity based on that fact. This model, typically traced to Geerhardus Vos, sees the two testaments tied together based on:
1. Scripture's Subject: Jesus Christ
2. Scripture's Story: the grand narrative from creation (Genesis 1) to new creation (Revelation 21)
While there are different articulations of this model and ways of demonstrating this unity, each of them share a recognition that the Bible is ultimately one coherent story, usually described as Creation-Fall-Redemption, that points to and culminates in the person and work of Jesus, the Son.
Developing from this overall structure Vos pioneered, there are at least three schools of thought on how this story fits together and how individual passages point to Christ, helpfully summarized by Klink and Lockett:
1. The so-called Dallas school seeks to situate a passage in its historical context and ask what it says to Israel or the church at that moment. While there is a recognition that the passage fits into the larger biblical story, there is reticence in this school to import any later developments of the passage into its original message.
2. The Chicago school also seeks to situate a passage in its historical context, but here there is also a willingness to see how the passage develops and furthers the biblical narrative. So, for instance, in Gen 3:15, the Chicago school would ask what the passage's original readers would have understood by it, as would the Dallas school. Rather than stopping there, as the Dallas school would, the Chicago school asks how that passage develops and is fulfilled in the rest of the biblical story. There is a willingness to see how the text moves the biblical narrative forward.
3. The Philadelphia school asks not only about the passage's historical context but also its literary context. It wants to know everything the Dallas and Chicago school does, but it also asks (a) how the passage itself points to Christ and (b) how its canonical context informs the interpretation of the passage. In other words, while the Dallas school and Chicago school would be reticent to say that Gen 3:15 "is about" Jesus, the Philadelphia school would be willing to import the canonical development of the passage back into its message. In any case, each of these three approaches seeks to discern how a passage fits into not only its historical context but also its canonical literary context. In other words, they ask the question, "How does this passage fit into the big story of the whole Bible?" And, in the case of the Philadelphia school, a second question augments the first: "How does this passage point to the culmination of the biblical story, the person and work of Jesus Christ?"
From the section above, we can see how scholars have understood biblical theology and the unity of Scripture in the past 250 years or so. But what about in the early church? What about from the time before Gabler? When we look at that time period, we gain insight on the church's view of biblical theology and Scriptural unity. The early church helps us to ask biblical theological questions related to the subject and structure of Scripture. And key to our understanding is the figure of Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons.
Biblical Theology and the Early Church
Irenaeus, a second-century apologist and theologian, argued that we should read the Bible with at least three things in mind. First, we ought to read Scripture with its hypothesis in view. Irenaeus used this term to indicate there is a main idea — the person and work of Jesus Christ — to which each passage in the Bible points. To help his readers understand this term, Irenaeus employed the analogy of a mosaic — a portrait made of different pieces of stained glass. For us today the corresponding analogy might be of a puzzle. In both a mosaic and a puzzle, the many pieces could be put together in any number of ways. Only when we have access to the plan for the mosaic, or the puzzle box top, do we know how to put the pieces together properly.
For Irenaeus, the mosaic pieces are supposed to be put together in such a way that they show readers of Scripture the handsome King, Jesus Christ. To put it in puzzle terms, the box top shows us that the pieces fit together to form a picture of Jesus. As we read with the hypothesis in mind, then, our goal is always to find how a particular puzzle piece, or scriptural passage, fits into the larger puzzle that shows us Jesus Christ.
Irenaeus employed two other tools to assist in seeing how particular passages point to Christ. The first, economy, seeks to understand how a text fits into the structure of the Bible. Particularly important for Irenaeus is the recognition of the shape of the biblical story, a shape that culminates in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Much like Vos almost two millennia later, Irenaeus asks how particular texts of Scripture fit into the larger story of the Bible, and especially how those texts point forward or backward to Scripture's climax found in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
In seeking to understand how texts fit into the grand narrative of Scripture, Irenaeus employed a final hermeneutical tool, what he called recapitulation. For Irenaeus, each story in the Bible finds its culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ, not only in terms of historical progression but in terms of typology. For instance, while the story of Abram and Sarai progresses the biblical narrative in terms of the covenant God makes with them and the line of the seed continuing through Isaac, both of which ultimately progress to the person and work of Jesus, it is not merely their place in the history of redemption that points to Jesus. For Irenaeus, the actual details of each biblical story are patterned after and point to the one main story, the story of Jesus in the Gospels. As an example, Sarai's barrenness and miraculous conception point forward to both Elizabeth's barrenness and miraculous conception of John the Baptist and to Mary's miraculous conception of Jesus.
Biblical Theology and the Bible's Unity
While current practitioners in the stream of Vos's biblical theology may not agree with every tool Irenaeus uses, the conclusions he makes, or even the manner in which he describes either his tools or his conclusions, there are affinities between this early church interpreter and today's biblical theologians.
For example, G. K. Beale emphasizes the story of the Bible, seeing how each passage fits into that story, intertextuality (how certain texts quote or allude to previous texts), and how a particular passage in the Old Testament may both historically and conceptually progress toward the person and work of Jesus. Beale refers to his method as organic, in that Old Testament texts are like seeds that flower out. As we read these Old Testament texts, we follow their progression through other, later Old Testament passages that all eventually find their culmination and fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Likewise, biblical theologians like Peter Leithart and Scott Hahn see an abundance of narrative patterns — what Irenaeus called recapitulation and what we commonly refer to as typology — that find their culmination and fulfillment in Israel's Messiah. So, while Irenaeus's terms may not be used with much frequency today, and while there is variety within Vos's stream of biblical theology, again we can say that what holds this approach together is an attempt to read each passage and book of Scripture within its larger narrative context and as pointing to the climax of the biblical story, Jesus Christ:
The unity of the Bible is found in its structure — the grand narrative of Scripture — and its subject — the incarnate Christ.
This unity is grounded in what the Bible is. It is the Spirit-inspired, Son-centered, Father-revealing Word of God.
The Bible's Theological Unity
In other words, the Bible is ultimately one book given by one author for one purpose. The Bible is a trinitarian book. Scripture is given by the Father to reveal the Son by the power of the Spirit. In this way, it is "trinitarian." God has given Scripture to his people in the context of the covenant of salvation he has made with them. God gives Scripture to us so we might know him. The Bible is written to reveal the God of the universe to us. Its purpose is to make the one God, Yahweh, known to his people, his people who have been redeemed through his covenant-keeping work.
When we think about the Bible, then, we need to come to it understanding the context in which it is given and the purpose for which it is given. The Spirit inspires Scripture in the context of God's work of salvation, and he does so in order that his people might know how to come to him and know him fully. The Bible is not just an instruction manual, although it certainly gives instructions; it is not just a guide for moral living, although it certainly addresses morality; and it is not just an anthology of disparate stories, only connected by the front and back cover. The Bible is a covenant book, given to God's covenant people so they might know him fully.
The Bible's Trinitarian Shape
The triune God makes himself known specifically through the person of God the Son. Therefore, the Bible is not only about God generally, or about the Father in some places, the Son in some places, and the Spirit in some places. Instead, God chooses to reveal himself particularly through the person of the Son. This has to do with how the Trinity works in creation and redemption. God the Father works and is known through God the Son, who works and is known by God the Holy Spirit. When we think about the Bible, then, we need to think about it along the lines of the trinitarian God.
If God gives us the Bible to make himself known to us, how does he accomplish that as one God in three persons? We begin by acknowledging that God the Holy Spirit inspires Scripture (2 Tim 3:16–17). But he inspires it to what end? Jesus tells us that the Spirit's role in revelation is to testify to the Son (John 17:14; 2 Cor 3:17–18). As the Spirit inspires the writers of Scripture, then, he is continually pointing toward the Son, and particularly to the person and work of the incarnate Son, Jesus of Nazareth. We can and should, therefore, say that the entire Bible points to Christ (cf. Luke 16:29–31; 24:27,44; John 5:39,46). And the reason that this is so, the reason that the Spirit testifies to the Son, is it is through seeing and knowing the Son that we see and know the Father. "He who has seen me has seen the Father," says Jesus (John 14:9; also 12:45; cf. 6:45–46; 8:19; 14:7). Further, the writer of Hebrews tells us the ultimate revelation of the Father comes through the Son (1:2), who is "the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature" (1:3 ESV). If we want to see the Father, we look at the Son. Because we cannot see Jesus face to face until we meet him either in paradise or at his return, we must know him through that which testifies to him — the Bible.
Therefore, we know the Son through the Scriptures, which the Spirit inspired. To say that the Bible is about God is to say that it testifies to the Son by the Spirit so that we might know and see the Father. Saying that the Bible is about Jesus is not to say that it is only about Jesus and not about the Father or Spirit, but to say that we know the Father through knowing the Son, whom we know through the Scriptures inspired by the Spirit.
One Subject and One Story
This brings us back to the two aspects of Scripture that unite the Bible's sixty-six books into one book — its subject matter and its structure. The subject matter is Jesus, and we see how passages point to Jesus through understanding their place in the structure of Scripture. The next two chapters will articulate the broad structure of the Bible, or the grand narrative of Scripture, but for now we can summarize it as Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration (or New Creation). The Bible begins with God's creation of the world and its fall into sin through Adam and Eve, and then the rest of Scripture is taken up with the story of God's plan to redeem the cosmos. Situating a particular passage within this big picture is vital to biblical theology and biblical interpretation.
Excerpted from "The Story of Scripture"
Copyright © 2017 Matthew Y. Emerson.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Academic.
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Table of Contents
About the Library,
1. Introduction: What Is Biblical Theology?,
2. The Story of the Bible, Part 1,
3. The Story of the Bible, Part 2 Redemption, Continued,
4. The Story of the Bible, Part 3 The New Testament,
5. Exploring Biblical Terrains,
6. Using the Map: Practical Applications for Biblical Theology,
Name and Subject Index,