When we read the Bible, how do we get to theology? Should we read the Bible as the word of God for the church, as an artifact of history, or as the material for systematic theology? The term biblical theology has been used to describe all of these perspectives.
So, what is biblical theology? Some would describe it is a theology that is biblical, theology that is grounded in Christian Scripture. Others might insist that biblical theology is only the theology contained in the Bible, that is, descriptively the theology of the Bible itself. In Mark Elliott’s The Heart of Biblical Theology, reading the Bible theologically demands both notions of biblical theology above. Elliott’s book argues for the undervalued role of providence in understanding how biblical theology must be both constructive theology grounded in Scripture and rigorously descriptive of the theology of the Bible itself.
Elliott begins by noting the longstanding stalemate between biblical studies and theology—the historical versus theological approach to biblical theology. He argues, “biblical studies belongs more to the cautious linguistic technocrats and historians of ancient religion, while modern theology has moved to remake tradition in its own image…making sure of its foundations, even through denying them.” With the result that, “[b]iblical theology has taken a back seat and [has] been displaced in more conservative circles by ‘theological interpretation of scripture’” (p. 1). It is this high wall of separation partitioning off biblical studies from theology that Elliott attempts to scale. The reward atop the climb is biblical theology and the promise of reintegration of Bible and theology within the life of the church.
Noting the eclipse of biblical theology by what is being called “the theological interpretation of scripture,” Elliott is critical of this movement’s ability to illuminate the Bible’s theology. The “theological interpretation of scripture” attempts “to retrieve the tradition of interpretation, bracket out critical questions and adopt a literary reading in commentaries on individual texts which justify their blurring of exegesis and interpretation by their drive towards practical application for the Church” (p. 1). In chapter one, Elliott surveys several recent approaches that attempt to read Scripture theologically. Sections include: The Invention of the “Rule of Faith” as a Patristic Hermeneutical Tool, Theological Biblical Interpretation, Examples of Some “Theological” Commentaries on the Bible, The Spiritual Quality of Theological Interpretation, and The Ethical Turn. He considers Joel Green, Kevin Vanhoozer, David Yeago, Matthew Levering, Todd Billings, Rusty Reno, Walter Moberly, A.K.M. Adam, Dan Treier, along with others as they contribute to the movement of “theological interpretation.”
The “limit” of “the theological interpretation of scripture,” in Elliott’s view, is that though there is much heat of methodological discussion and theological reading of discrete passages of Scripture, the light of a whole-Bible relationship to systematic theology has not dawned. Rather sharply he notes, “theological interpretation acts like ‘hit and run’ guerilla warfare on the modernist biblical studies project, but it is the mirror image of the shift towards cultural studies in many university departments” (p. 35). Thus, because both reactionary and piecemeal, “the theological interpretation of scripture” movement fails to offer a substantial way forward for biblical theology. Elliott suggests: “Part of the solution may be to consider in any integrative way the whole of the Bible’s interpretation through history” as well as “to think of the Bible as a whole” with respect to “its relationship to (systematic) theology” (p. 36). Taking up the whole Bible with an appreciation of its ongoing influence on one hand and its relationship to systematic theology on the other—a proper biblical theology—is precisely what Elliott attempts in the rest of his work.
In chapter two, Elliott considers the history of biblical interpretation as foundational to biblical theology. Here he thinks through the relationship between Auslegungsgeschichte (history of exegesis) and Wirkungsgeschichte (history of the text’s effects). Biblical theology is “really the history of exegesis of the Word of God met in diverse forms through the Bible; biblical theology is exegesis of the encountered Word of God in the Bible…” (p. 40). Though the backwards-looking task of Auslegungsgeschichte is crucial for a full understanding of how the church has wrestled with Scripture, it is the task of Wirkungsgeschichte to focus the church’s attention on the continuing force of Scripture. Elliott notes that Wirkungsgeschichte is not “the tradition of interpretations but the effect of the Bible’s own texts, images, themes, messages with ever-renewed force” (p. 47). It is not merely the history of interpretation, but the ongoing influence of the text itself in the life of the church. It is in this way Elliott thinks that the history of biblical interpretation will serve a crucial role—“Theology can be found between the text and its interpretations through the arc of history” (p. 80). Appreciating our location in the history of interpretation by experiencing the text’s influence upon us puts us in “our place as part of an ongoing story of interpretation” and constitutes a powerful antidote against endlessly searching for a “right methodology” as if “five steps to biblical interpretation” was all the church needed.
In chapter three (“The Possibility of Biblical Theology”), Elliott suggests a way forward. Here he offers the clearest definition of biblical theology in a constructive sense. His comments are worth quoting at length:
Biblical theology can be defined as both an account of what the Bible has to say theologically and any post-biblical (including present-day) theology that is well-informed by the Bible… In that sense the distinction often made between biblical theology (i) as descriptive of the Bible’s theological content and (ii) theology informed to a full degree by the Bible is a sensible one, but it should not work as a disjunction, to make us think that these two are not intimately joined together. It will not just be about the uniting of the testaments but will move towards providing material for theological subdisciplines, although it will aim to persuade, not to colonize. It will be a form of discourse that is empirical and inductive, not closed to the contribution of philosophical concepts whatever their provenance, yet not beginning and ending with them. (p. 83)
With such a theoretical outline of biblical theology set as his goal, Elliott is realistic about the current situation. Any prospect of doing biblical theology necessarily includes balancing Biblical Studies and Theology. After interacting with some recent attempts by biblical scholars and theologians to write a biblical theology together, Elliott concludes the chapter with a lengthy discussion of the prospects and ultimate shortcomings of “covenant” for biblical theology.
Elliott’s final chapter considers the theological significance of “providence” for biblical theology. He asks: “Might providence succeed where ‘covenant’ has failed?” His answer is yes, because the “divine activity can be perceived even where there is no strong awareness of agreement of terms, where God does more than is promised, where his care seems unexpected and the appropriate human response is (principally) thankfulness and devotion rather than, say, obedience to conditions” (p. 149). Rather than nesting biblical theology within God’s mediated presence through covenant, Elliott views biblical theology through the lens of God’s immediate, divine providence. As the question of whether providence is able to hold the biblical material together, or if, rather, it is merely one doctrine among others Elliott again articulates the strength of providence over that of covenant. Whereas covenant seems to drop out of sight in the wisdom material of the OT, he notes, “that both the history books and the wisdom literature meet where providence is the theme…. And this is not in an oppositional way as in the case of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, but in a complementary, although at points dialectical, way. Further it has to do with God’s working outside covenantal and salvation-historical limits for the sake of his own glory” (p. 159). In the end, both creation and redemption as revealed in Scripture come under one banner, that of God’s providence.
Elliott’s work is to be warmly received. He organizes and assess voluminous amounts of scholarly perspectives on biblical theology and offers a careful, though at times opaque, portrait of the current state of biblical theology. Elliott has further put us in his debt because his work (in both of his books, The Reality of Biblical Theology and The Heart of Biblical Theology) constitutes one of the view voices heard in English that has considered the relatively unknown German discussion on biblical theology. Though he is carefully critical, his appreciation of Childs is evident and one wonders whether, as he points the way forward to providence, if Elliott is able to articulate how providence shapes the reading of Scripture. That is, in the heat of biblical exegesis in the life of the church, how exactly does providence shape choices of interpretation and application? Elliott notes in the introduction that a monograph on providence and biblical theology is in the works. Perhaps there we will discover more about the work of providence in the task of biblical theology.
The Heart of Biblical Theology: Providence Experienced. By Mark W. Elliott. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012, 187 pp. Ashgate provided a copy of the text for this review.