Biblical Theology and History of Religion

Is it proper to define biblical theology over against the history of religion? If so, to what degree? Most histories of the discipline of biblical theology will make much of this distinction from a historical perspective, and it remains for some a normative judgment. However, in describing and assessing the claim that biblical theology is a “contrastive notion,” James Barr resists making of this distinction two hermetically sealed disciplines. He argues,

In fact, then, the relation between biblical theology and the history of religion is and should be one of overlap and mutual enrichment. And the ultimate reason for this is that the stuff of which biblical theology is built is really biblical religion, or, as I indicated above, those elements of biblical religion which are commended, supported and advanced by the main currents of the Bible (The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective, 135).

There is real currency in Barr’s argument as demonstrated by the recent publication of Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann’s God of the Living: A Biblical Theology. Time and again these two authors draw upon developing notions of religion to cast light on the theological significance of biblical texts and motifs with which they interact. My own review of the book should be published soon in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures. For now I recommend John Hobbins thorough review in the newly established Journal of the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament. See other fine reviews are available on Ben Witherington’s blog: Richard B. Hays, Larry Hurtado, Jack Miles, and Walter Brueggemann.

In concert with this idea Barr highlights a “highly imaginative” article by John Barton that addresses God’s activity in history in a way that “makes sense of evolution [both biological and history of religion], that combines it with the history of Near Eastern religion, that gives positive meaning to the ‘digging beneath the surface’ or reconstruction of persons like the prophets of Israel, and that offers a very significant set of possibilities for modern theology” (99). I found the article a helpful methodological reflection on a substantive topic, to say the least. I will end this post with a particularly keen methodological observation by Barton:

It is customary to say that the English obsession with asking purely historical questions about Jesus shows a philistine insensitivity to real theology, of a piece with our notorious failure to produce systematics. Those who hold that nothing of religious importance can hang on the contingencies of history are supposed to be the people who are really serious about theology. Precisely the opposite is the case; for theology is not a game played among those already in a charmed circle, but a set of assertions about the way things really are; and if it fails to connect with what may be discerned through other modes of study, history, the natural sciences, and so on, then it is saying nothing worth saying. It is therefore precisely those students of Christian origins who are most scrupulous about religious neutrality, most purely descriptive, who seem to me to have the most to contribute theologically, because they are contributing some real knowledge rather than a self-contained system of religious thought that might as well exist on Mars. (“Preparation in History for Christ” in The Religion of the Incarnation: Anglican Essays in Commemoration of Lux Mundi, 68-69.)


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