[K:NWTS 7/3 (Dec 1992) 62-67]

Suggestions for Reading The History of Biblical Theology: Encyclopedias and Dictionaries

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Recently, one of our readers asked for reading suggestions in order to further explore biblical theology. One of the best ways in which to gain a perspective on biblical theology is to trace the historical development of the discipline. And one of the best ways to gain this "mountain top" view of the evolution of biblical theology is to turn to the survey articles in Bible encyclopedias and dictionaries. These articles trace the growth of biblical theology from the Reformation through Protestant Scholasticism and Pietism to the Enlightenment. Under the evil star of Deism as it influenced German rationalism, biblical theology became a distinct part of the theological encyclopedia in the eighteenth century. Nineteenth century romantic idealism was followed by twentieth century existentialism and linguistic analysis. Since its birth as a distinct theological discipline, biblical theology has been dominated by the prevailing philosophical ideology. It is precisely this point which makes Reformed biblical theology in the tradition of Geerhardus Vos unique–it is dominated by revelation (eschatologically conceived), not ideology (philosophically construed).

The most recent excursion surveying the history of biblical theology is found in the massive Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday) published this summer. The article on "Theology (Biblical), History of" (Volume 6, pages 483-505) is by Henning Graf Reventlow, modern German critical scholar whose books on biblical theology are distinguished for synthetic overviews of the topic (cf. The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World [Fortress, 1984] and Problems of Biblical Theology in the Twentieth Century [Fortress, 1986]). Reventlow's review is succinct, candid (he is a liberal!) and up-to-date. He is particularly at home in describing the twentieth century state of the discipline. There is no better survey treatment of developments in biblical theology since World War II available in English. His extensive four-page bibliography omits Vos and Ridderbos although it does indude Gerhard Hasel, Chester Lehman and J. Barton Payne.

Brief articles in two one-volume dictionaries rapidly summarize trends in biblical theology from 1700 to the present. Gerhard Hasel contributes "Biblical Theology Movement" to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Walter A. Elwell (Baker, 1984), pages 149-52. This article concentrates on the neo-orthodox biblical theology movement as a reaction to nineteenth century German liberalism. Neo-orthodoxy was an attempt to repristinate some "word of God" for the modern church. The failure of this "new modernism" biblical theology is amply documented by its demise (cf. B. S. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis [Westminster, 1970]) and the current malaise in critical, post-neo-orthodox biblical theology. Liberal biblical theologians have produced no consensus in the last quarter of our century–nor is a consensus likely to emerge given the hodge-podge of contemporary views about revelation (all of which are grounded ultimately in Enlightenment principles). Incidentally, Hasel has written two extensive surveys of the history of Old and New Testament theology (Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate [Eerdmans, 4th ed. 1991]; New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate [Eerdmans, 1978]).

Robert Morgan provides the other serviceable "rapid survey" in a one-volume dictionary format (cf. "Biblical Theology" in A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. by R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houldon [SCM/Trinity Press International, 1990], pages 86-89). This is a revealing (he's a liberal too!) overview of the field from Johann Phillip Gabler (1787) to Krister Stendahl (1962) by the translator of William Wrede's seminal Uber Aufgabe und Methode der sogenannten neutestamentlischen Theologie ("Concerning the Problem and Method of the so-called New Testament Theology"–English translation by Morgan as "The Tasks and Methods of 'New Testament Theology'," in The Nature of New Testament Theology [Allenson, 1973], pages 68-116). Morgan's proposal for a way out of this late twentieth century biblical theological malaise is to rehabilitate Gabler's eighteenth century rationalistic biblical theological methodology (cf. his "Gabler's Bicentenary," Expository Times 98:6 [March 1987], pages 164-68). Precisely how that will play as we approach the twenty-first century is anybody's guess. (After all, we went through a neo-Schleiermacher revival in the late 1970's. Who says liberalism isn't progressive, forward-looking, innovative!!!)

At this point, the reader may be wondering if there are any conservative surveys of the history of biblical theology which will critically assess the discipline as it has metastasized through its various stages of critical/liberal malignancy. There are two major articles of this sort: George Eldon Ladd, "Biblical Theology, History of" in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia ed. G. W. Bromiley (Eerdmans, 1979), Volume 1, pages 498-505; Willard Taylor, "Biblical Theology" in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Zondervan, 1975), Volume 1, pages 593-600. Both articles provide a conservative evaluation of the discipline from the Reformation to the 1970's. Taylor's article situates the discipline vis-a-vis exegesis and systematic theology while evaluating the methodology of the twentieth century heilsgeschichte ("holy history" or "salvation history") school (i.e., Oscar Cullmann, G. Ernest Wright, etc.). Ladd's essay consists virtually of one paragraph summaries of various biblical theologians arranged according to each one's most noted biblical-theological treatise (i.e., Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time; Alan Richardson, Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, etc.). The bulk of his remarks focus on developments since the late nineteenth century emergence of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule ("History of [Comparative] Religions School"). The "History of Religions" approach reduced the religion of the Bible to an evolutionary construct. That is, Biblical religion evolved as all other non-Christian religions evolved–from simple or primitive religious notions to complex or developed religious dogmas. On this basis, biblical theology (and "the religion of the Bible") is reduced to the lowest common denominator among all world religions.

One other conservative treatment of our subject may be mentioned, although it is a very disappointing and superficial essay: Francis I. Anderson, "Biblical Theology" in the (never finished) Encyclopedia of Christianity (Wilmington, DE: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1964), Volume 2, pages 63-70. This article focuses (inadequately, in my opinion) on definitions while giving no attention to the historical development of the topic. To his credit, he does mention Vos, Ridderbos and E. J. Young.

Before concluding with the heretofore tour-de-force survey in Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, I mention a small gem by Stanley B. Marrow in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (J. Heraty, 1967), Volume 2, pages 545-50 sub "Biblical Theology." Written from a Roman Catholic point of view (and many fertile developments in modern biblical theology have been contributed by Catholics; cf. especially Xavier Leon-Dufour, Dictionary of Biblical Theology [Seabury, 1973]), Marrow succinctly treats the history of biblical theology from the Middle Ages to the 1960's. Every major figure is treated: Gabler, Vatke, Wellhausen, Eichrodt, von Rad, Kittel, Bultmann, Stauffer, and many more. While not exhaustive, the article is a superb piece of compressed writing.

I conclude with the three famous articles from the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, 1962). First is the exhaustive survey by Krister Stendahl ("Biblical Theology, Contemporary" in Volume 1, pages 418-32) in which he proposes the now legendary canon of critical/liberal biblical theology–the distinction between "what it meant" (i.e., what the biblical text meant to those who first received it) and "what it means" (i.e., what it means to us today). This handy formula reveals the reductionist agenda of liberal/critical biblical theology. The meaning of the Biblical text to its first hearers or recipients or audience is very different from the meaning of that Biblical text to its modern hearers or recipients or audience. By means of various modern interpretive tools (form criticism, redaction criticism, source criticism, etc), contemporary scholars (pastors, laymen) must get behind the text to what it meant and then make the text applicable to the contemporary listener. Stendahl blatantly drives a flying wedge between the ancient text and the modern interpreter. The second article by Otto Betz ("Biblical Theology, History of," ibid., Volume 1, pages 432-37) is a standard treatment of our subject from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries. The third article is found in the Supplement to the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon, 1976), pages 104-111. This is an article in which the author, James Barr, summarizes his now famous strictures against the neo-orthodox biblical theological movement. Barr's use of linguistic analysis to torpedo the neo-orthodox camp arises from his own devotion to the spirit of nineteenth century liberalism and the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule ("History of [Comparative] Religions School"). The Bible is not a unique religious document. The Dead Sea Scrolls (Qumran) and Nag Hammadi (Egyptian Gnostic) texts have demonstrated other religious documents contemporaneous with the Bible (especially the New Testament). For Barr, the Bible is a human statement of human religious belief; a story of the "God" these ancient writers believed they encountered. This religious story must be reinterpreted in order to be meaningful to modern man. The methods Barr prefers for this reinterpretation are very similar to those of nineteenth century liberalism. James Barr is in fact an advocate of a return to the metaphysical subjectivism of classic liberalism. (And this is progress?!?)

The study of the history of biblical theology is intriguing and depressing. Intriguing as the major players in each century advance their method for doing biblical theology against the backdrop of the dominant philosophy of their era (rationalism, romantic idealism, existentialism, linguistic analysis). Depressing as each proponent attempts to salvage some meaningful content from a book he has dismissed as "primitive" and "unenlightened." Is it any wonder that in liberal/critical circles there is no unified biblical theology!

However, we are those with a "sure word." God has spoken objectively in history. The progress of that revelation has been directed to the redemption of his people. That redemptive revelation is centered in the person and work of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. As that redemptive revelation unfolds from Genesis to Revelation, it displays the character of an organism. This organism is both vertically (eschatologically) and horizontally (historically) interrelated. God himself comes to us; comes to us in his Son, Jesus Christ; comes to us in history in order that we may come to him now and in the eschaton. That is our story because it is His story. And, dear reader, that is what we have learned from Geerhardus Vos–the father of a truly biblical theology!

Escondido, California