Monday, 11 February 2008

Thoughts on Biblical Theology

It is pertinent to raise some questions about Biblical Theology. Is there good reason warranted for a special discipline termed Biblical Theology beyond Exegesis and Systematic Theology? Does Geerhardus Vos’ version provide such? Does the present abuse of that version undermine the witness of the infallible authority of Scripture? I answer the first two questions NO, and the third YES.

Question One. From the distinction of the decrees of God and their execution it follows; Systematics treats of the contents of the decree in a logical manner, Exegesis in an historical manner. There seems to be no need for an additional historical discipline. A modern assumption that Theology is chiefly, if not only, an historical study is alien to the view that Theology treats with the revelation of God. Many forms of Biblical Theology make this unsound assumption. The first cases of this special study of Biblical theology were the writings of unbelieving critics of the Bible and it is not surprising that Modernists and the proponents of Neo-Orthodoxy followed their example. Thus G.E. Wright’s definition of Biblical Theology “as the confessional recital, the acts of God in a particular history… fails to return to the analogy of Scripture.” G.E. Wright, God Who Acts; Biblical Theology as Recital (London S.C.M. Press, 1952), p. 156. cited by Edmund P. Clowney in his book Preaching and Biblical Theology, (Eerdmans, 1961) p.12.

Question Two. This denial of Revelation was not the presupposition of Vos’ Biblical Theology. Rather he defined the discipline in terms of Revelation in an orthodox sense. Considerations discrediting outright Modernist and Pseudo-Orthodox schemes do not apply to Vos’ version. But the basic issue remains, whether Exegesis and Systematics are sufficient without a further historical study added in between? In addition to this general question as to the necessity of a special discipline, a question may be raised about the possibility of a Biblical Theology as defined by Vos having as its subject matter the history of Revelation. Biblical Theology is defined by Vos as “that branch of Exegetical Theology that deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” (p. 13). Biblical Theology, (Eerdmans, 1959). This is now to been seen as Edmund Clowney’s view of Biblical Theology as, “the fruit of exegesis, an essential step in the formulation of summary statements concerning the teaching of the Bible as a whole.” (p. 15) Preaching and Biblical Theology.

Some summary observations on this definition might be made. First, it is modestly defined as a branch of another, i.e. Exegetical Theology, which to be sure is broader than Exegesis proper, including Introduction and Canonics as well as Biblical Theology. Such modesty does not usually appear in the present day writers on Biblical Theology.

Second, the word “process” in the definition gives rise to a question. What is the nature of the process? The answer is not given, but rather raises further questions by the reference to “the organic nature of the historic process observable in revelation.” (p. 15) While Vos observes “the extent to which, at the present time, the treatment of Biblical Theology is influenced by the philosophy of evolution” (p. 19), it is far from clear that the same ‘organic’ process applied to the history of revelation has escaped this influence entirely. This ‘organic’ expression applied to Biblical Revelation appears to be influenced by the works of Abraham Kuyper, as he appears to inject an element of German Idealism into his defense of Scripture. [See more in my talk “The Influence of Philosophy on Abraham Kuyper’s Theology” in the Free Reformed Student Journal, Summer 1998.]

Third, the very enterprise of a history of revelation is questionable. Do the contents of the Bible warrant the belief in a history of God’s acts of revealing those contents? In the first place, it may be a dubious assumption that “the actual self-disclosing of God in time and space which lie back of even the first committal to writing of any Biblical document, and which for a long time continued to run alongside of the inscripturation of revealed material.” (p.13) Many revelations were made to our first parents, to Noah, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob before Moses was inspired by the Holy Spirit in writing Genesis. Countless cases of revelations made to the Patriarchs, Judges, Prophets, and Apostles have not been recorded. The recorded event need not necessarily be the first instance of a revelation. In the second place, the second observation above gives rise to the question of how Revelation is to be considered. Is it an ‘organic’ historical process or is it rather a series of acts terminating in the entire divinely holy inspired Scripture? Vos strikes me as betraying the influence of the historist and evolutionist mentality of the 20th century, despite his resolute effort to oppose these destructive forces. The ‘organic’ process view of Revelation fosters the illusion of a progress of the object of knowledge from age to age. The error of this wide spread belief is evident when one realizes that the Substitutionary Atonement is no less clearly revealed in Isaiah 53 than anywhere in the N.T. The measure of grasping the revelation enjoyed by the saints of the O.T. is not to be confused with the Revelation itself. This is evident in the case of Daniel 7:15, 29, 8:5, 21 and 12: 8, 9.

Vos evidently objects to the view that confines “revelation proper to the bare facts of self-disclosure performed by God.” (p. 21). His alternative view is clearly the ‘organic’ theory. The act view, I believe, was always accepted by the Reformed before Kuyper whose view of Inspiration influenced Vos. It need not have any connection with the liberal abuse of it to which Vos rightly objects, and Vos, like Kuyper, unquestionably and powerfully defends the Scripture against Modernism. Yet, they allowed the influence of current tendencies that have been accentuated by their followers, with fatal consequences. Fourth, Vos himself makes an explicit statement of objections to the name “Biblical Theology”: (a) “The name is too wide, for, aside from General Revelation, all Theology is supposed to rest on the Bible.” (b) The term might be understood to imply that Biblical Theology reproduces “the truth in its original Biblical form without subsequent transformation”. Vos states that it is not the case that Biblical Theology is superior in nature to Systematic Theology because it reproduces truth without transformation. Both Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology transform truth. “In the case of Biblical Theology this is historical, in the case of Systematic Theology it is of a logical nature.” There is no superiority in nature. (c) The suffix –al in “Biblical” creates confusion since the discipline is not a major division of Theology, but in reality a subordinate of Exegetical Theology. Unhappily Vos, after admitting all these valid objections, concludes, “It is difficult, however, to change a name which has the sanction of usage.” (p.23) Vos has followers, who, unlike their mentor, would regard Biblical Theology as a, if not the, main department of Theology rendering Systematic Theology outdated.

Fifth, Vos is far from suggesting that sort of thing. It is worth observing that the division of disciplines that makes Biblical Theology an intermediate stage between Exegesis and Dogmatics is not found in the definition of Biblical Theology or in Vos’ work as far as I know. In fact such an absurdity goes counter to his views. Exegesis is distinguished from Exegetical Theology, and Biblical Theology is defined as a branch of the latter, not the former. The practice of Systematics is direct appeal to Scripture, without any intermediate discipline.

Vos, writing on the relation of Biblical to Systematic Theology states, “In Biblical Theology this principle is one of historical, in Systematic Theology it is one of logical construction. Biblical Theology draws a line of development. Systematic draws a circle. Yet it should be remembered, that on the line of historical progress there is at several points already a beginning of correlation among elements of truth in which the beginnings of the systematizing process can be discerned.” (p. 25) It may appear that Vos was well aware of the factual data in the text of Scripture that raise serious questions about this “line of historical progress” and suggests the subordination of the historical element to the total revelation of the system of the whole counsel of God. It is worthy of mention that before teaching Biblical Theology at Princeton Geerhardus Vos taught Systematic Theology at Calvin and wrote on the subject in the Dutch language. “This work, a transcript of class lectures, first appeared in hand written form at Grand Rapids in 1896 and was followed by a typed edition in 1910” note 5, page x., Introduction to Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, edited by Richard B. Gaffin Jr. Chapter one of his Biblical Theology would indicate that Vos’ outlook as to Systematic Theology remained constant, while his employment turned to the area of Biblical Theology. His disciples have distinguished themselves by their lack of interest in his earlier Systematic Theology, as is indicated by the failure to have it translated into English.

The failure to appreciate Vos’ high estimation of Systematic Theology gets no support from the passage quoted by Gaffin from Mr. Murray’s article. (op.cit. p.xxii) This strategy is plainly opposed to Vos’ views and also to Murray’s superb actual practice as a Systematic Theologian.

Question Three. The inroad on the once valiant contention for the faith once delivered, is most evident in the inaugural lecture of Peter Enns as Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary, in which emphasis on history is here carried to an extreme at the expense of the historic doctrine of the church, and especially of the Word, personal and written.

The Section II of the inaugural address, “How Things Have Changed”, is a rather blatant indication of the poisonous consequences of Biblical Theology based on an ‘organic’ theory of historical progress. Enns begins by observing that things have changed in biblical studies. First, “serious historical study of Scripture must continue in view of Semitic studies and the history of Israel”. Second, as a result Enns propounds what he supposes as progress, the chaotic numerical growth and weakening, if not giving up, of the Seminary’s distinctive witness for the Gospel. His account of the present state of affairs in the circle of Evangelical scholars and writers is probably correct, but his glorification of the deplorable defection is abominable.

The most frightening passage begins when Enns states, “In my view, what I consider one of the high-water marks of this progress in the Westminster tradition is the 1987 faculty monograph, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic.” The inference, whether or not validly drawn by Enns, is that Inerrancy is ultimately a hermeneutical issue. And inerrancy is a great tradition, but its older formulations are also under going legitimate challenges through the modern study of Scripture. The way through the challenge is by debate, and if you read some of the essays geared particularly to Biblical studies, that debate results in synthesis of old and new.” Peter Enns, Biblical Context in Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 2006, p 217.

Clearly, doubt is hereby cast on the inerrancy of Scripture, and the old Modernist dishonesty is employed in keeping ancient terms but giving them opposed meanings, now in the line of the current irrationalist trend in philosophical, post-modern hermeneutics. The entire Section IV culminating in a synthesis of old and new is a choice example of the way that a basically historical orientation to Theology works havoc with Systematic Theology and with the very foundations of the faith in the infallible and thereby inerrant Word of God.

Enns has not contented himself with casting doubts on the entire reliability of Holy Scripture. His departure from historic orthodoxy extends to the infallibility of the personal Word, the Incarnate Son of God. In his article “William Henry Green and the Authorship of the Pentateuch: Some Historical Considerations” in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Sept. 2002) he opposes Green’s appeal to Christ’s authority and infallibility in support of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Against Green, Enns gives the counter argument “that we would fully expect Jesus, precisely because he is God incarnate to exhibit such marks of accommodation” (p. 401). Enns goes on to suggest that accommodation of the cultural errors of his time in history, would not deal such a critical blow to Christianity as Green suggests. The conclusion of the discussion of this point is that “Christians now no longer look upon Jesus’ first century contours as an embarrassment to be explained away, but as evidence of the lengths to which God will condescend to redeem his people.” (p.492) This piece of pious sophistry reinforces the above contention of the destructive influence of the exegetical “historical” approach on Theology. I am astonished at the lengths to which a Christian would go to question his Lord’s infallibility. I am astonished that an institution founded in order to counteract such deviations now teaches them, and that a nominally evangelical society publishes them!

Note: This idolizing of history confuses the history that took place with the history that men write. Enns magnifies transitory theories of the latter at the expense of the supernatural facts of the former which he dismisses as myths or cultural beliefs. It is indeed a paradox that ‘history’ is called for, and results in replacing history by myths in Revelation and faith. The history faithfully recorded in the infallible Word, set forth by sound exegesis, provides ample material for Systematic Theology.

©William Young 2007. All rights reserved.