Biblical Theology and “Theological Interpretation of Scripture”

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Great post, Mike (on the definition of BT), I like Rosner’s definition. It is interesting, in light of developments since that definition was published, that the first two words you cite are “Theological Interpretation.” The developments I’m thinking of are the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible and Daniel J. Treier’s recent book Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture.

In a footnote in the introductory chapter of a book I’m working on [Lord willing, my book on the center of biblical theology will appear in the fall of 2010–please pray for me!], I briefly interact with Treier’s fivefold typology of ways to relate biblical theology to theological interpretation of Scripture.

Here is part of that footnote:

Daniel J. Treier has presented a “fivefold typology of ways to relate” biblical theology to “theological interpretation of Scripture,” and it seems to me that most evangelical biblical theologians would see themselves as occupying both Treier’s second and fourth categories—believing biblical theology that is both historical (category two) and literary (category four). Treier understands himself and “theological interpretation of Scripture” to be in the third category. Treier concedes that D. A. Carson, his example of someone who belongs in category two with its historical emphasis, has balanced his approach with more literary sensitivity, which Treier says belongs to category four (Daniel J. Treier, “Biblical Theology and/or Theological Interpretation of Scripture?” SJT 61 [2008], 16–31, the note on Carson is on p. 26 n. 24). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a historical emphasis prevailed among evangelicals in the twentieth century, with more and more attention being given to literary/narrative features near the end of the millennium and at the beginning of the twenty first century.

Note: Treier does not claim that theological interpretation of Scripture is the perfect balance of literature and history. . . I am responding to aspects of his categories not reproducing them.

A question regarding the relationship between theological interpretation of Scripture and biblical theology:

In the essay noted above, Treier writes (30): “The process of a biblical theology discipline . . . will involve a more historically and literarily focused approach, whereas the process of a systematic theology (or interdisciplinary theological interpretation of scripture programme) will involve a more literarily and philosophically focused approach.” It thus seems that Treier understands biblical theology as starting from history and exegesis and moving toward whole Bible, Christian theology (at least for evangelicals), while theological interpretation of Scripture starts from literature, philosophy (and perhaps historically orthodox systematic theology) and moves toward whole Bible, Christian theology. Is this an accurate way to think of these two programs (BT and th. int. of Scrptr): that both are, in a sense, moving in the same direction from different starting points?

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14 Responses to “Biblical Theology and “Theological Interpretation of Scripture””

  1. greenbaggins Says:

    I think Vos’s comments on the relationship of BT and ST are by far the best:

    “The fact is that Biblical Theology just as much as Systematic Theology makes the material undergo a transformation. the sole difference is in the principle on which the transformation is conducted. In the case of Biblical Theology this is historical, in the case of Systematic theology it is of a logical nature. Each of these two is necessary, and there is no occasion for a sense of superiority in either” (_Biblical Theology_, pg. 14).

    This clearly implies, to my mind, that the methodology of ST is NOT taken from philosophy, but also from Scripture, although one must recognize that philosophy is an ambiguous category. Do we mean by philosophy anything that is talking about the love of wisdom? In which case Proverbs would definitely qualify as philosophy. If, however, we mean unbelieving rationalist thought, then it is extremely problematic to connect ST with philosophy. It is much more fruitful to see ST as looking at the Bible as a whole, dealing topically with the Bible’s themes. As Richard Gaffin once put it, describing the Bible by the metaphor of a novel, BT follows the plot line, noting its contours, climaxes, denouments, whereas ST is a plot analysis.

    Therefore, I would vigorously contest the idea that ST somehow puts a foreign grid onto Scripture, making the text undergo a transformation, AS IF BT DID NOT. I do not mean to imply, by the way, that this is what you are doing, Jim. I am merely observing what terribly deleterious effects result from shuffling ST off to the side, methodologically speaking. It is a little known fact, it seems, that Vos wrote a 5 volume dogmatics, and was keenly interested in the intersection of BT and ST. This is clearly seen, for instance, in his article on the history of covenant theology (published in his shorter writings).

  2. greenbaggins Says:

    One point of clarification: I believe that neither BT nor ST imposes a foreign grid onto Scripture. The beginnings of both the BT grid and the ST grid are found in Scripture itself.

  3. Kevin Says:

    You guys need to set up an RSS feed. :p

  4. Mike Bird Says:

    In reply to greenbaggins, I would have to say that ST and BT can indeed impose a foreign grid on scripture and we have to be very careful! Let me give two examples:

    (1) In Systematic Theology no place is ordinarily given to the social function of justification by faith to legitimize the identity of Gentile Christians as full and equal members of the Christian church. Nowhere in Reymond or Grudem do you find mention of this aspect of justification despite the fact that it figures prominently in the NT. While Systematicians have rightly perceived the vertical and anthropological element at work in justification (i.e. God justifies the ungodly through faith and not through works of law) the horizontal elements are entirely ignored. That is because Systematicians habitually read the Bible through the lens of an ordo salutis rather than via the grid of a historia salutis. This makes their accounts of justification defficient in the least or obscure at worst. This is why Systematicians often have a great deal of fear about Biblical Theology (and rightly so) because it potentially undermines the purported infallibility and hegemony of their “system” in certain ecclesial setings.

    (2) Biblical Theology can also obscure the the Bible! For example, if you read the Bible via the lens of a “still-in-exile” motif you are potentially imposing a scheme that, while at times quite useful and appropriate, requires certain exegetical gymnastics in order to be comprehensively viable. Likewise, opting for a christocentric hermeneutic in exegesis might obscure the fact that alot of NT use of the OT is not just christological but also ecclesiological.

    This is why we need a mutually critical three way dialogue between exegetes, biblical theologians, and systematicians.

  5. m slater Says:

    Excellent new blog, quite impressed with the posts thusfar. I like that you are taking seriously the ‘Theological Interpretation” issue, I think it is an important step in Christian thought and have found myself reading and bloging about it as well recently.
    As far as your question goes, I see Theolgical Interpretation as using both a top down systematic approach, and a bottom up exegetical ‘Biblical theology’ approach while critiquing both and taking into account the history of interpretation of a passage. This may be less true of Trier, I have not read more than short articles by him, but it seems to be the case with Vanhoozer for example.
    Both the potential weaknesses you pointed out for ST and BT are quite on target, unfortanetly both occure rather more ofton than one would like. Just look at how the two sides of the New Perspective debate argue past eachother and misunderstand the other since they are approaching it with such different methods.
    I look forward to seeing the further development of this blog, best of luck.

  6. John C. Poirier Says:

    Jim,

    I’m quite a bit less excited about “theological interpretation” than you are. The great majority of those using the term are in fact espousing this approach as an alternative to historical criticism, thereby strongly implying that historical criticism itself cannot *be* “theological interpretation”. This, I think, is a huge problem–the supposition is wrong, and the rhetoric is dishonest.

    I have not yet had a chance to read Treier’s *SJT* piece, but in my opinion, “biblical theology” and “theological interpretation” (as currently used) stand opposed to each other.

  7. m slater Says:

    I really do not think they are mutualy exclusive, as N.T. Write summerized it (himself being one who is very much in the Biblical Theology/Historical Grammatical arena) by saying theology “has grown impatient with waiting for the mountians of historical footnotes to give birth to the mouse of theological insight”. *
    When you look at where Wright takes this it is by no means an abandoning of Biblical theology, exegesis, or historical criticism, he uses all of these. But he also sees that they are tools, and we need to remember that those insights need to illumine our understanding of Jesus and the plan of God as well as directing us in living our place in that plan.
    If Wright, given the type of study and writing he is involved in, can see Biblical theology and Theological Interpretation as complementery to the point of being a major contributer to the “Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible”, than I’m comfortable that the two can work together.

    *N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Galatians: Exegesis and Theology,” in Between Two Horizons: Spanning New Testament Studies and Systematic Theology (ed. Joel B. Green and Max Turner; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 205–36 (citation from p. 206).

  8. m slater Says:

    Wright not Write for the first line lol

  9. John C. Poirier Says:

    The fact that someone else can use two things together without feeling any fundamental incompatibility is no indation at all that they *are* compatible. Theologians and scholars are notoriously blind to the inconsistencies in their own thought systems. A better argument for compatibility would be one that looks at the two approaches themselves, at the level of their philosophical commitments.

  10. greenbaggins Says:

    Mike, in response, I would have to say that even if the NPP is correct in asserting a Jew/Gentile horizontal element (or even priority) in justification (which I do not see in the NT exegetically; rather I see horizontal elements being the result of justification, not the structure of justification itself), it is not inherent in ST to ignore such conclusions of exegesis. Exegesis is the lifeblood of ST. If legitimate conclusions from exegesis arise, it is inherently part of ST to make use of such.

    With regard to BT, again I think you are pointing out an abuse of the discipline, not the discipline itself.

  11. Kent Says:

    You might be interested in a collection of books on this very subject recently released by Logos Bible Software. It includes both Treier’s book and The Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible.

    Baker Hermeneutics Collection (14 Vols.)

  12. jdodson Says:

    I’m surprised that Scobie hasn’t been mentioned here. In The Ways of God, Scobie offers a very basic definition of BT: “The ordered study of what the Bible has to say about God and his relation to the world and to humankind.” (5) Of course, Scobie’s work is far from basic.

    An attractive element in his BT is what he calls “an intermediate BT” that functions as a bridge discipline between the Bible and the Church in order to address adequately the historical and the contemporary contexts. Like ST, BT will need adequate theologian-pastors who are able to push the rich insights of BT into the nooks and crannys of everyday life, functioning as bridge-builders for this incredibly rich discipline to a poverty stricken church.

  13. How to Get Six Pack Fast Says:

    Hey, cool tips. Perhaps I’ll buy a glass of beer to that man from that forum who told me to go to your site 🙂

  14. Benti Megersa Says:

    please send me more intepretation of new testatament ;especially reveilation.god bless you.

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