How to Do Biblical Theology (and Not Screw It Up from the Get-go)

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?


5 thoughts on “How to Do Biblical Theology (and Not Screw It Up from the Get-go)

  1. Joseph,

    Can you demonstrate the levels of coherence creation, which are in the Bible?

    It seems to me that whatever suggestions you or others would make in this regard would fall under the same criticism leveled at those who attempt to find compositional unity: they are the product of interpretive communities.

    In other words the faith commitments of these communities will inevitably determine the theories of how the Bible was created and what message(s) it must therefore contain.

    I’m not sure I see how these suggestions move the discussion forward.

    1. Brettler uses the book of Judges to demonstrate his point. Generally speaking, he refers to its syndetic style, conversive waws or wayyiqtols, creating smooth narrative sequence. He also refers to various kinds of repetition and to morpho syntax. It would be too laborious to reproduce his arguments in full here (I’ll send you his essay). I think much the same could be said on a broader scale for demonstrating coherence that occurs across the individual books of the Hebrew Bible. For example, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers begin with conjunctive waws/wayyiqtols, though this does not discourage us from studying them independently or writing books like “The Theology of Leviticus” (as though this isn’t the exact same thing as “The Theology of Exodus,” which it isn’t). The toledot formula in Genesis is picked back up again briefly in Numbers and Ruth in ways that make these books cohere with Genesis (see Matthew Thomas’ book mentioned in the previous post), but it isn’t what structures and drives the plot of these books, particularly the book of Numbers. The toledot formula hardly prevents the individual components of Genesis from, for lack of a better term, contradicting themselves (the endurance of Cain’s line into the postdiluvian world [Gen 4:20-21] versus their elimination in the flood [Gen 5] / the dispersion of human population from Babel in the days of Nimrod [Gen 10:10 cf.11:1-9] verses their dispersion in the days of Peleg, two generations later [Gen 10:25]). The books of the Bible cohere through various means, and our inclination is naturally to read it in such a way that we pick up on the coherence while neglecting its non-coherent features. I simply cannot see the controversy in recognizing that the singular vision or focus characteristic of the book of Ruth is not characteristic of the larger Hebrew Bible. This is both true, and not a problematic point of departure for faith communities as I see it.

  2. Well, I think the problem here is that Christians have seen the Bible as a witness to Christ and a story whose culmination and meaning is found in Christ. That means that there is another principle at work here than (for example) the structure and form of the book of Genesis, as such. So, the student always ends up speaking of both the meaning of the book itself and the significance it has had for later interpreters who fit it into a redemptive shema it didn’t know it was a part of.

    1. I should point out that I am not calling into judgment in these posts the validity and/or relevance of traditional Christian theology per se. In my previous post, my goal was not to say that Christian theology is illegitimate, but that it does not reflect the theological emphases of the book Genesis. This will no doubt come across to some traditions as a criticism (who wants to hear that their theology isn’t biblical, right!?!), but I think it a separate question whether or not one must be well versed in the theological intricacies of Ecclesiastes and Lamentations in order for one to belong to the Christian faith. Within reason, I am willing to entertain that Christian theology need not be as complex a beast as biblical theology. I do, however, reject the attempts of some who would have us conform the Bible to Christian theology, as though the latter has been sufficiently and finally articulated by some previous generation. I think the church should always strive to develop a more biblical theology, not to make biblical theology more Christian. If Christianity is essentially biblical, then the move to the one is necessarily a move to the other, even if this requires that Christians reevaluate and re-articulate the Christian faith in ways previous generations didn’t. I would say this has less to do with how Isaiah understood his message as pointing to Christ, and more to do with how early Christians understood Christ in the light of Isaiah.

      Thanks for your sharing your concerns, I don’t think they are illegitimate.

  3. At the risk of being heretical, I have been asking questions about that word Christian and its tendency to abrogate to itself the meaning of everything as if the Anointing of the Spirit is not evident already in the election of Israel, its king, its poets, its readers, and all who fear Yhwh as related in the Psalter and consistently in Job, Lamentations, Ruth, the Song, Qohelet, Jonah which are the books I have managed to read closely in the discovery of my own biases. The question occurs to me: if I were God and had to save this profoundly difficult creation in this particularly local manifestation, just how would I have done it and how would I make it evident? I think I would have figured it out before starting if indeed start can even be applied to me and I think I would demonstrate my costly style in recognizable patterns, and I think that an irresistible beauty might play a part. I would be prepared for extremes of abuse, fragmentation, and violent or self-centered appropriation of my own self-giving – but I would give myself in radical jealousy anyway. I would leave open the possibility that the created order might discover itself through the very sensual apparatus I loaned to it and to those creatures who think themselves dominant. My plan would be to show that their dominance could be exploited in fragrant participation given the depth of my resources.

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