A Denver Journal Review

Understanding Biblical Theology

    A Denver Journal Book Review by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. William Klein

    Edward W. Klink, III and Darian R. Lockett. Understanding Biblical Theology. A Comparison of Theory and Practice. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012. 193 pp. $17.99. ISBN: 978-0310492238.

    Perhaps a quotation by D.A. Carson captures best what lies behind this book: “Everyone does that which is right in his or her own eyes, and calls it biblical theology” (page 78; from Carson, “Systematic and Biblical Theology,” in NDBT, 91). Equipped with PhDs from the University of St. Andrews, both authors serve as associate professors of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology. The result of their efforts is a brief but highly effective volume that will help pastors and scholars alike both to understand and to distinguish among various authors who claim to be “biblical theologians.”

    In their quest to understand what is “biblical theology” (BT) Klink and Lockett assess the writings of a wide range of scholars who claim to engage in this discipline, and come to identify what they see as five major schools of thought. They seek to define each of these categories, provide a brief developmental history for each, and illustrate each in the writings of one major practitioner.

    What are the five types of BT that the authors discern from their analyses? They give the following names: BT1: biblical theology as historical description; BT2: biblical theology as history of redemption; BT3: biblical theology as worldview-story; BT4: biblical theology as canonical approach; and BT5: biblical theology as theological construction. Following a chapter devoted to each one, they examine a representative practitioner, respectively: (1) James Barr; (2) D.A. Carson; (3) N.T. Wright; (4) Brevard Childs; and (5) Francis Watson. They are well aware that their types are not always discretely defined, nor can they so precisely label the practitioners, but to the readers’ benefit, Klink and Lockett show how the approach of each of the “schools” plays out in the writings of actual scholars.

    They discuss (and even devise a chart to show concisely) each of the five “schools” in terms of the following: how each handles the relationship of the OT to the NT; how it treats the historical diversity of the biblical materials versus their theological unity; whether the scope and sources of the discipline lie with the original author/readers or includes the church throughout its history--including contemporary readers; the subject matter for BT (e.g., history, God, God’s activities, the beliefs of the authors); and whether doing BT is the task of the academy or the church. Related to this latter point, they seek to unpack for each school whether the results of BT are descriptive (what ancient writers believed about these things) or prescriptive (what Christians ought to believe and practice). In other words, how should BT be implemented in the Christian church according to each school? Of what relevance is it to Christians today, if any?

    Some representative quotes can shed more light on the five schools. On BT1, “Barr argued that ‘the term “biblical theology” has clarity only when it is understood to mean theology as it existed or was thought or believed within the time, languages, and cultures of the Bible itself . . . What we are looking for is a ‘theology’ that existed back there and then’ ” (p. 45; quoting from Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology, p. 4).

    “The overall task of BT2 is to discern the coherence of the whole Bible as it unfolds over time” (p. 60). As to its scope and sources, “BT2 seeks to discern the historical and theological revelation of God through a specific set of authoritative texts … that must be understood by means of historical-grammatical analysis that will rely on extracanonical sources for such historical context” (p. 64).

    “The hermeneutical approach of BT3 centers on the task of reading every passage, whether small or large, within the context of the overarching story shape of Scripture” (p. 100). In other words, in this view the central narrative of the Bible (whatever that might turn out to be for different scholars) becomes the lens for discerning the theological significance of specific passages or books within the Bible.

    In BT4, “The dynamic canon itself becomes the overarching context used to determine the meaning of Scripture” (p. 127). For his canonical approach, “Rather than conceiving of a competitive approach, pitting history and theology against one another, or a developmental approach, moving in a linear fashion from history to theology, Childs conceives a relation between history and theology that is circular, even helical, so that each one informs and counter-informs the other” (p. 151).

    Finally, “The primary subject matter of BT5 is God and his work in the world. The complex discussion centered on author(s), reader, and text serves to make manifest and witness to the true subject matter: God  … the person and mission of God … who is present and active in the world, a world to which he still speaks through the witness of Scripture” (p. 167).

    I have several reactions to this immensely useful book. First, I must confess it was eye opening; it had not previously registered to me how large was the umbrella of “biblical theology.” Previously, I would not have given all these practitioners this label, but apparently Carson is correct--scholars can give any label they wish to what they do. If it relates to the Bible, and if it bears some relationship to theology, then why not call it BT? Whether that is a good thing is another matter; as it stands, BT is a wax nose to be bent this way or that.

    That means, second, that I will have to soften my own criticisms of some scholars whose work I dismissed as not being truly BT. I will have to back off since I see that my dismissals grew out of my view that only my own understanding of the term was worthy of the name. [I may still prefer my definition, but I will need to be more magnanimous!]

    I wonder, third, if other scholars should do the same? Since no one approach or “school” can patent the term, then anyone can use it. I (and others) may see that as a liability, but the same holds true in other realms, as in “football.” What is the nature of that sport? It depends on which continent you live in.

    Fourth, in surveying the options and the proponents of the various approaches to BT, I realized that I value the contributions of most, if not all, of the five “schools” Klink and Lockett isolated. I rather suspect that most of us who study and teach the Bible or theology engage in all of them at one point or the other--to a greater or lesser degree. Even James Barr’s strict historicist position did not prevent him from being a strong churchman, valuing theology, and seeing the place of the Christian canon for the life of the church. And Francis Watson, while arguing for a largely theological reading of the Bible, engages in historical-critical exegesis and sees its value for theology.

    While the purpose that Klink and Lockett had for writing the book was not to prescribe the “right” way to do BT nor what is the correct definition of the discipline, their survey--and the categorizations they devise--prove to be immensely useful and heuristic. Students will be better able to see why scholars so often appear to be talking past rather than to each other: they are using the same label but mean quite different things.

    The book clarifies many issues involved in moving from text to theology to Christian praxis. While different scholars and pastors find themselves in different positions within the schools, I think they should all recognize their needed places within the conversation and their need to listen to and learn from the others who have a different “take” on the issues at stake. Particularly, Klink and Lockett hope that BT will find again its rightful place within the Church for, as they put it, “biblical theology is not a method or a field of study; it is a way of life” (p. 185). To this I can only say, “Amen!”

    William W. Klein, Ph.D.
    Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary
    January 2014

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