As I mentioned in my last post, Christian theology traditionally emphasizes three (and sometimes four) major events in the course of history: the creation, the Fall, the cross/resurrection of Jesus, (and sometimes) the second coming of Christ. For many evangelicals today, the activity of Biblical Theology involves re-articulating the biblical message, perhaps through the lens of one or two themes, but more or less within this traditional framework of creation/Fall/redemption(/restoration). Certain volumes in the New Studies in Biblical Theology series published by InterVarsity Press exemplify this approach to Biblical Theology.
I have already explained why I believe this approach to Biblical Theology does not do justice to the book of Genesis itself. My concerns likewise extend to other parts of the Hebrew Bible (HB). In a creation/Fall/redemption scheme, everything that occurs between Genesis 3 and the gospels of the New Testament (NT) must be read as the rising action of the plot (the NT gospels being the climax of biblical theology). But this framework results in the marginalization of portions of the HB. For example, while the gospels frequently cite from the HB to demonstrate how the events they record fulfill what the HB anticipated, the attention to individual books is disproportionate. Some books like Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and the Psalms are frequently cited, while others, if they are cited, are cited so infrequently that the essence of their theological agenda is not adequately represented, at least not in a way that contributes to the rising action of the plot (e.g. Esther, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes).
One of the problems that I believe underlies this approach to Biblical Theology is the assumption that the unity of the Bible must be of a certain kind. I take for granted the unity of the Bible (including all its various canonical iterations, though the one that funds my particular faith tradition contains 66 so-called “books”). However, I do not assume that the unity of the Bible requires that one distill its message into a single meta-narrative framed by the three or four major events emphasized by traditional Christian theology and that any other articulation fails to capture the theology of the Bible and thus cannot rightly be called biblical theology. Not only does this place inordinate faith in traditional Christian theology to have captured the essence of the Bible’s theology so succinctly, effectively, and finally, it also assumes that the unity of the Bible is compositional in nature.
Certain books of the HB betray compositional unity—the book of Ruth, for example, or Jonah (though chapter 2 makes this somewhat more difficult for some to swallow). The authorial motive for penning these books is generally focused and unified. It is difficult, however, to say this regarding most of the books that make up the HB, particularly when most betray signs of various kinds of editorial activity. Such activity is, of course, how we ultimately arrive at the larger HB (not to mention the NT). Thus, it becomes difficult to speak of the compositional unity of the Bible. There are those, however, who speak of God as the “ultimate” author of Scripture and who suggest (or require!) that divine authorial intention gives rise to the Bible’s compositional unity.
In the recent festschrift honoring Tzvi Abusch, Gazing on the Deep, Mark Zvi Brettler makes an important distinction between compositional unity (as described above) and literary coherence. In his article, “The ‘Coherence’ of Ancient Texts,” he argues along with modern literary critics that coherence is generated in the minds of readers by such things as “co-occurrence, coreference, and causality.” He notes that “coherence criticism” is well suited to those involved in reader-response criticism, but challenges the assumption that historical-critical scholars cannot equally benefit from investigating literary coherence.
Coherence may also be used as a historical-critical tool, on the assumption that some editors tried to make biblical works such as the book of Judges cohere. . . . These editors were not so different than we are: they felt a need to create something coherent and had notions of coherence that were similar to ours. Thus, we might speak of the desire to create coherence as a tool in the hands of ancient editors.
This desire to create coherence is, I believe, where discussions about the unity of the Bible should begin. Whether we are talking about the HB, the NT, or the combination of the two (and possibly other “books” depending on one’s faith tradition), the creation of a canon of literature is a product of interpretive communities observing and creating(!) coherence; compositional unity is an unnecessary and empirically problematic assumption. Brettler concludes that
readers of both ancient and modern books attempt to make them cohere, and the editors of many biblical books, like their modern counterparts, were sensitive to this fact. Thus, scholars of the ancient Near East should continue to speak of coherence, but should do so cautiously, using precise definitions of what coherence is and how it is achieved. They should also distinguish the coherence that we create as readers from that likely created by ancient authors and editors as they shaped and reshaped material into books. Finally, they must continue to be careful not to confuse coherence with [compositional] unity.
This sounds like excellent advice for those engaged in Biblical Theology! What do you think?