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On Biblical Theology

November 16, 2011

To those of you disappointed that your festschrift article hasn’t yet appeared, I urge you: be patient! It will come! However, on the way to becoming the world’s greatest processed meat metaphysical discussion site, something unforeseen has arisen.

It seems that my intrepid readership thinks that my blog is primarily about board games, despite (or indeed because of) my post On Board Games. But this site isn’t called hotdog board games–that would be silly. No, this is hotdog theology, a free WordPress site bringing the insights and problems of the biblical theology movement to the masses. And by masses, yes, I mean you. At least you’re not the unwashed masses. This post is an initial attempt to redirect the conversation towards the issues about which I actually began this exercise.

The problem with discussing biblical theology is that no one actually knows what that means. Even within the academy* there is disagreement about these terms. Some think of biblical theology as uncovering the theology within the Bible. There’s just one problem with that definition: it is waaaaaaay too simple for theologians. No, they’d rather obfuscate about some rather simple truths while hiding behind some innocuous sounding verbiage. In this way, the real theology can be left to the experts and the regular churchgoer can content him or herself with the latest by Joyce Myers. I don’t have anything against Joyce (as you can see, we are on a one-way first-name basis) but she certainly wouldn’t be confused for a biblical theologian in the sense I’ve just described.

*“Academy” and “discipline” are imperious words that simply mean people who do this more or less full time or at least as their major hobby. You can usually identify the academy members by the elbow patches on their jackets.

So if biblical theology doesn’t mean uncovering the theology found in the Bible, what does it mean? See, this is where it gets tricky. It does mean that. It’s just that it also means more than that. Or less than that. It depends. Some find that biblical theology means determining the basic theology of an individual book of the bible. For example, this sort of approach can be applied to 1 John to yield insights such as “the author of 1 John thinks that sins are forgiven based on confession. See 1 John 1:9.” This type of biblical theologian would not care much about what the rest of the Bible says about forgiveness of sins; the issue at hand is determining what does 1 John say about it? Or, to give another example, this line of inquiry seeks to determine what is distinctive about each of the gospels. They might find that Matthew’s sermon on the mount says “blessed are the poor in spirit” while Luke just says “blessed are the poor.” Therefore, we can determine that Luke is interested in the materially poor (ie: me). Put another way, this type of biblical theology is interested in the diversity of perspectives throughout the Bible and in determining the points of view of different books or of different authors. The fact that there isn’t word-for-word unity on some of the issues doesn’t faze the biblical theologian; they are seeking to simply describe what the Bible says, not put it into an easy-to-purchase package. In fact, if it were easy, there wouldn’t be a thriving industry based on New and Old Testament studies, now would there?

The other approach to biblical theology is almost the complete opposite. To keep comfortably in the chair of confusion with their feet on the ottoman of obfuscation (pictured below), scholars use the same term to describe this diametrically related line of thinking. Admittedly, the first approach is more popular among scholars, but this second way of doing things is what most Christians subconsciously do during their own Bible studies and theological exercises–it’s emphasizing the unity of the bible rather than its diverse perspectives. The reason that this approach isn’t as popular is that it’s a lot harder to do well. Sometimes it’s easy. Let’s take the New Testament theology of giving. Basically throughout the NT, giving is seen as a positive thing that people should do. It’s never seen as optional or as negative. This is true of didactic (teaching) passages like 2 Corinthians 9 or in narrative (story) passages like Acts 4. A person can choose to agree or disagree with New Testament teaching on giving, but it’s pretty internally consistent. This is when this type of biblical theology works and everyone is happy.

It gets murkier in other cases. And by other cases, I mean pretty much most other cases. Even on something fairly central, like the divinity of Christ, the New Testament can’t seem to get its story straight. Colossians 1 says that Jesus was the firstborn from all creation. (I love that passage). But John 1 says that nothing was created except through Jesus himself. So was Jesus created or did He do the creating? I’m confused. And it’s not like 1 Timothy 2:5 makes things any clearer–Jesus was a man!?!?! Just like Abraham said, #SMH.

NB: when I say that the Bible can’t get its story straight, please understand that it’s a figure of speech used for emphasis. Don’t go firing off ugly letters to my boss about how I’m a liberal pinko commie.

You see, that’s the problem with the Bible. Its powerful truths are hidden among layers of complexity. But that’s the beauty of it too! The Bible is not some theology textbook to be mined for propositional truths about God. Nor is It a nihilistic mishmash of thoughts by deceived ancient writers. It’s more than that–it’s a book written across a period of time by different people who experienced God in different ways. Why should we be surprised that the biblical authors then express themselves somewhat differently? Answer: we shouldn’t. The Bible is not trying to paint a comprehensive picture for us. We shouldn’t stretch it to try to make it so.

It’s not like it would’ve been easier had God handed Moses a pamphlet with the “Three Things you Have to Believe.” An infinite God should not be able to be summed up that easily! Layers of mystery are to be expected; they should encourage, not frustrate, the reader.

So what, then, is biblical theology? To me, it is searching the Bible to find out what it says. Then, it is using what the Bible says to build a theology from the ground up, as free from prior expectation as possible. Does your bias predict a synthesized, homogenized result? Maybe try rethinking why you desire such an outcome. If you still need homogenization, try some milk. If the Bible is diverse, so too should our theology be. Like Burk Parsons said via my friend’s Facebook wall, “It is easier to hold an extreme position at the end of the doctrinal spectrum than it is to hold the biblical tension.”

THIS is what this blog will be about. Of course, I will intersperse happy posts about spice racks and my kiddos, but the grist in this mill will always be examining the Bible. Hopefully we will all be formed by the process.

Thanks for reading. And use some Oreos in that there milk.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2011 4:53 pm

    Lovely reflection! I appreciate its academic rigor and accessibility. Are you wearing patches yet?

    • November 16, 2011 5:50 pm

      Thanks Casey.

      No patches yet, because Tara won’t let me. I hope when I graduate that that will be my gift.

      (But don’t tell her: I wear patches at home when she’s not around)

  2. Adam Cammack permalink
    November 16, 2011 5:13 pm

    I was just this morning thinking of how desperately I wanted a sweater with leather elbow patches. No joke. I really appreciated this. I think Hotdog theology 101 should be a new online theology class at ORU.

    • November 16, 2011 5:53 pm

      Perhaps we can find some sweaters on a 2 for 1 sale.

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