[K:NWTS 24/1 (May 2009) 12-16]

The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline.[1]

By G. VOS.

Theology both according to its etymological meaning and to logical principles should be defined as a science which has God for its object. This definition alone entitles it to a place among the other sciences, since the division of sciences must follow the distribution of reality. Besides having a specific object to distinguish it from other sciences Theology also has this peculiarity, that in it the relation of the object to the subject is rather active than passive. God not so much passively permits Himself to be known, as actively makes Himself known, nay creates a subject to make Himself known to. This unique fact is expressed in the conception of revelation, and particularly in that of supernatural revelation. If in revelation God has assumed an active relation towards man, it follows that man must respond to this by putting himself first of all into a passive, receptive frame of mind for the purpose of appropriating this revelation. Hence, the first great division of Theology, commonly designated Exegetical Theology, has for its controlling idea this receptive attitude towards the source of the knowledge of God in revelation. The whole of Exegetical Theology aims at nothing else than the faithful reflection in the human consciousness of the image of Godís self-revelation in the Scriptures. Among the various studies belonging to this department there is one, which most adequately and naturally gives expression to this common idea, and this one central study in which Exegetical Theology culminates is usually designated Biblical Theology. Biblical Theology is that part of Exegetical Theology which deals with the revelation of God. But it deals with this revelation more especially as a divine act and not, like Systematic Theology, as a product. Biblical Theology discusses both the form and contents of revelation from the point of view of the revealing activity of God Himself.

The nature and method of Biblical Theology, therefore, are prescribed for it, in the general principles of the plan of revelation. In general, Biblical Theology must be a history of supernatural revelation, because revelation has been carried on in a historically progressive form. The principal cause of this fact again lies in this, that revelation did not come independently but in connection with the work of redemption, which latter work was, of course, historically accomplished, because it proceeded on the basis of the natural development of the present world. Revelation, however, is not co-extensive with the whole work of redemption, for redemption is still going on while revelation has ceased to speak. Revelation accompanies in its progress the gradual unfolding of the central and objective salvation of God only, and not the individual application and further extension of this after it has once been accomplished in Christ.

At many points we may even say that revelation and redemption interpenetrate, inasmuch as the redeeming acts of God speak for themselves and so obtain a revealing quality. The historical character of revelation also serves the purpose of making its truth practical and concrete throughout. For this reason God has seen fit to bind up revelation with the history of one particular nation, so that it could be adjusted to its wants and emergencies. If we look more closely at the history of redemption, the course of which revelation had to follow, we shall observe that it has been controlled by the principle of organic development. Consequently revelation has been shaped by this principle likewise. The increase of revealed truth was organic increase and not mechanical addition. The organic heart and center of the truth was there from the beginning, and the subsequent growth consisted in the unfolding of what was potentially given from the very first. So it becomes clear how men could be saved by means of the truth from the outset, although the truth was subsequently disclosed with much greater fulness and clearness.

Side by side with historic progress, we observe in the course of revelation a striking multiformity of teaching. Along the historic stem of revelation, branches are seen to shoot forth, frequently more than one at a time, each of which helps to realize the complete idea of the truth for its own part and after its own peculiar manner. There are many different types of teaching in the Scriptures. Isaiah is different from Micah, John is different from Paul. But the individuality of the writers has been created and developed by God and subsequently employed by Him to give expression to certain inherent sides and aspects of the truth. Besides with the historical progress in the delivery of truth, Biblical Theology has to deal with this multiformity of teaching. Its complete definition would therefore be: the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.

It must be admitted that Biblical Theology as a separate science is of a Rationalistic origin. But what the spirit of Rationalism perverted, we should restore to its proper place and its legitimate functions. Even now Biblical Theology is suffering from the baneful influence of philosophical ideas discordant with the principles of Christianity and revelation. Its treatment is largely shaped by the philosophy of evolution, and that especially in two respects. This philosophy everywhere tries to trace a process of development from the lower to the higher forms, from the impure and imperfect to the pure and perfect. So in regard to the knowledge of God, whose growth we observe in the Biblical writings, evolution traces a gradual advance from sensual, physical conceptions to ethical and spiritual ideas. This of necessity rules out the revelation factor from Biblical Theology. Revelation as an act of God can not be associated with anything imperfect or impure. Secondly, evolution has introduced into Theology its agnostic spirit. It teaches that only phenomena can be known. In consequence no longer God but religion is posited as the object of Theology, Theology becomes a phenomenology of religion. And Biblical Theology is defined as the history of the religion of Israel and of early Christianity.

Over against this the right treatment of Biblical Theology should emphasize the following principles. First of all, that revelation is an objective communication of truth from God to man. Every system of Theology that subjectivizes revelation fits not into a theistic but into a pantheistic view of the universe. In the second place, in the method of Biblical Theology, the historic principle should be kept under control by the revelation principle. To say that the truth has a historic side, should be never so interpreted as to mean that it is only relatively or imperfectly true. God has shaped history itself so as to make it subservient to the full disclosure of the truth. Thirdly, Biblical Theology should not merely recognize the truth of the revelations recorded in the Bible, but also the truth of the history of redemption and revelation which the Bible outlines for us. If it fails to accept the Bible as a whole, it is only partly Biblical. Finally, the name Biblical Theology should never be understood so as to involve a co-ordination of the contents of the Bible and the productions of later theologians. There is no Theology in this sense in the Bible, but the Bible contains the material for Theology, as the stars do for astronomy and the phenomena of life for biology. Inasmuch as the name Biblical Theology retains somewhat of the rationalistic flavor and has actually favored this misconception it would be better to abandon it and substitute the more expressive name History of Revelation.

The practical advantages to be expected from the study of Biblical Theology are chiefly the following. It exhibits to the student of the Word the organic structure of the truth therein contained and its organic growth as the result of revelation. If anything then this will convince the student that the Bible is the work of God Himself. The organic structure of the truth bears exactly the same relation to Supernaturalism that the argument from design in nature bears to Theism. In the second place, Biblical Theology furnishes an antidote to the destructive critical views now prevailing. These theories disorganize the Bible because they declare its historical structure to be false in its main lines. Biblical Theology by exhibiting this structure in its importance for revelation, will show how irreconcilable the modern views are with the supernatural claims of revealed religion. Thirdly, Biblical Theology gives new life and freshness to the old truth, because it teaches us to know the truth in its historical and practical bearings. In the fourth place, Biblical Theology is of great value for the study of Systematic Theology. It proclaims the fact too often forgotten in our days that the true religion cannot dispense with a solid basis of objective knowledge of the truth. There is no better means of silencing the supercilious cant that right believing is of slight importance in the matter of religion than by showing what infinite care God has taken to reveal unto us the knowledge of Himself and His counsel. Biblical Theology also shows that the fundamental doctrines of our faith do not rest on isolated proof-texts, but have grown organically out from the stem of revelation. Finally, Biblical Theology will keep Dogmatics in contact with the divine truth which the latter has to systematize, and thus prevent it from wandering off in unfruitful speculations.

The higher practical end of the study of Biblical Theology, as of all Theology, lies in the glory of God, and not in anything that serves the creature. It shows how Godís works of redemption and of revelation partake of the peculiar glory that attaches to all organic growth. It teaches us to know God as the one that is, that was and that is to come, in order that no note may be lacking in that Psalm of praise to be sung by the Church, into which all our Theology must issue.

[Abstract of Inaugural Address delivered before the Theological Seminary, May 8th, 1894.]


[1]  Printed in The Princeton College Bulletin 6/4 (November 1894): 93-95.