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Biblical Theology

Retrospect and Prospect

Scott J. Hafemann

On April 6-8, 2000, the ninth annual Wheaton Theology Conference brought together a mix of younger and senior scholars from inside and outside of evangelicalism to think together about the history and future of biblical theology. This book represents some of the fruit of this labor. In the essays that follow, there is a lively and serious discussion concerning the contours of biblical theology. Nevertheless, all are convinced that although the biblical theology movement of the mid-twentieth century ran its course, biblical theology as such is not a movement. Indeed, as James Smart observed, to call biblical theology a “movement” in the first place was “the kiss of death.”1

Movements are temporary answers to abiding issues. Thus, by definition, movements come and go. In stark contrast, biblical theology is an abiding response demanded by the subject matter of the biblical text itself. At the descriptive level, biblical theology recognizes that the authors and editors of the biblical texts understood themselves to be preserving and interpreting the significance of God’s redemptive acts in the history of Israel, Jesus and the church. At the prescriptive level, biblical theology will and must last as long as the Bible is held to be God’s Word about himself and his relationship to his creation. The Bible is not merely a witness to revelatory events or theological ideas but is itself an expression of theological activity and affirmation. To do biblical theology is to go where the Bible leads us, since the Scriptures are a record of historical events interpreted in terms of their theological significance. Thus biblical theology “is an enlargement of the dimensions of biblical science to make its character and methodology commensurate with the contents of the documents which it is its task to interpret.”2

As a result, biblical theology attempts to ascertain the inner points of coherence and development within the biblical narrative and exposition. It does its work inductively from within the Bible in an attempt to bring out the Bible’s own message. It is well known, however, that students of biblical theology disagree over its methodology, not to mention its structure and content. In view of this diversity, the purpose of this collection of essays is to look at the way in which biblical theology has been done in the last century in order to think about how it ought to be done in the next. This retrospect and prospect have made it clear that several salient issues now confront all those who desire to follow the biblical text wherever it may lead them theologically.


Several of the studies (and much of the discussion at the conference) are a response to the fact that the diversity of Scripture preserves within its pages unresolved tensions. In the past, biblical theologies have taken this tension to be the remains of competing ideological viewpoints that have been imperfectly combined in the historical development of Scripture. Hence, as Gerald Wilson points out, the tension was often neutralized by trying to ascertain the best among many voices or by allowing the diversity to stand “as unresolved heterodoxy.” Neither option, however, is acceptable. In what follows, we will be challenged to consider whether the unity of Scripture consists in living in the midst of its (apparent?) tensions as poles on a spectrum, as mutually interpretive lenses in a prism, or as the expression of an enlarging history of redemption. We will also be called to think through whether Scripture presents a collage of theological loci or one overarching and integrated center. The fact that no consensus has been reached concerning the theological heart of the Bible makes these questions all the more pertinent, albeit daunting, especially when we take seriously the task of integrating every corner of the canon into our biblical theology, from the Wisdom literature to the Johannine literature and James. Readers will be spurred on in this task by the creative, integrative work presented in the essays that follow by those in the earlier stages of their scholarly careers and by the seasoned reflections of Professors Dumbrell, Sailhamer, Wilson and Stuhlmacher. The volume before us makes clear that a compelling biblical theology must speak with a cohesive voice concerning God and his covenant relationship with his people in order to address God’s people about their Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and Judge. At the same time, the historical framework posited by the Scriptures must be taken into consideration, since God has revealed himself as King in the history of Israel and in the kingdom of the crucified Messiah. To that end, Daniel Fuller and James Scott remind us that we cannot avoid raising anew the age old questions of the law-gospel contrast on the one hand and of the roles of Israel and the church in redemptive history on the other. When all is said and done, are there two or more fundamental messages and peoples of God in the Bible or one? How this question is answered determinesone’s understanding of the history of redemption, personal justification and eschatology, which together lie at the heart of biblical revelation.


The essays in this book and the passionate disagreement during the conference also call attention to the fact that biblical theology cannot make substantial progress in the decades to come unless it takes up the questions being raised in biblical scholarship concerning the literary unity and structure of the canon. Does the fact of the canon bespeak its own perceived unity theologically, thereby offering essential clues to its structure and meaning? If so, which canon and how? The programmatic work of Brevard Childs on the one hand and the Tübingen school on the other makes it clear that the Bible’s theology cannot be developed in the abstract as if the canon in its various forms (!) and the history of its traditions do not exist.3

If context is king when it comes to theological exegesis, we cannot escape the fact that the context of Scripture also includes its developing canonical shape as the depository of tradition history. This becomes equally true for the NT, if in fact the NT writings did not come into existence in isolation from one another and if the NT canon is the product of an early editorial design rather than of a long, slow process of collection and evaluation.4

However, biblical theology is just now coming to grips with the complexity and intentionality of the formation of the canon(s). This is illustrated by the questions and proposals raised concerning the tripartite Hebrew/OT canon and its significance for the doing of biblical theology in a world dominated by the Septuagint’s influence on the ordering of the Christian Bible. Does the Tanak in its final form exhibit an explicit, editorial canon consciousness that provides exegetical and theological clues to its meaning? Does the Hebrew canon help us solve the problem of the interrelationship among the Law, the Prophets and the Writings? In pursuing these questions, we must be clear regarding the historical reconstructions and exegetical methodology that we bring to bear in answering them, especially as they revolve around the so-called canonical seams and programmatic conclusions within the OT.

At the same time, the conference brought home to many the pivotal question of whether the OT canon was closed prior to the coming of the Christ, so that in the doing of biblical theology we are faced with two distinct Testaments (see especially the essay by Christopher Seitz). Or was the content of the canon still open in the first century A.D., with the formation of the NT as the literary and theological-historical continuation of Israel’s ongoing heritage, so that biblical theology is the study of one “history of tradition”? And what is the significance of the fact that there is no one, unified ordering of the books within the Hebrew or Septuagint tradition, not to mention the differences between the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint themselves? At what stage in the formation of the biblical canon do we do our biblical theology? These are difficult and pressing questions that biblical theology cannot relegate to the province of historical studies.


The work in this volume on the unity of the canon and its theological trajectories reveals that there is a strong impetus to overcome the conflict theories that have dominated biblical theology in the past. In order to remain faithful to the message of the biblical text, this volume encourages us to rethink the dichotomies so often posited in the past between the Law and the Prophets, priest and prophet, Jesus and Paul, creation and redemption, the kingdom of God and the church, as well as the interrelated theological systems of covenant theology and dispensationalism that have grown out of them.5

The attempt to forge a historical and theological unity out of two conflicting realities, in which one must be sublimated to the other, is seriously being called into question in view of a renewed emphasis on the material unity of the Bible’s message. This growing concern for a “unity paradigm” in the doing of biblical theology is seen in John Sailhamer’s emphasis on the eschatological drive behind the canon; in G. K. Beale’s understanding of the new creation as central to biblical theology; in the work of Brian Toews, Richard Schultz, Stephen Dempster and William Dumbrell on the Genesis foundation for biblical theology; in Jay Wells’s work on figuration throughout the Old and New Testaments; in Gerald Wilson’s emphasis on the Davidic cast to the psalms, confirmed by Dempster’s view of the Davidic lens to the canon as a whole; in James Scott’s focus on the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes for restoration as central to Jesus’ ministry and therefore foundational for the NT; in Andreas Köstenberger’s emphasis on the integrative motifs of the NT; in Ted Dorman’s call to the centrality of the history of redemption as fundamental for understanding the development of biblical theology; and in Stephen Fowl’s and Nicholas Perrin’s treatments of the overarching hermeneutical issues that confront us in working toward the unity of the Scriptures.

Essential to the doing of biblical theology in the decades to come, therefore, will be a threefold project of (1) mapping out the content of the biblical witness; (2) working on the development of this content the biblical canon, especially as this comes to the surface in the OT’s use of earlier OT traditions and in the NT’s use of the OT; and (3) striving to describe in ever greater scope a pan-biblical theology that incorporates the OT and NT into an integrated whole in which the questions of the Bible’s unity and center are pursued in tandem, without sacrificing one for the other. To this end, Paul House provides a program for future studies, while Graeme Goldsworthy holds us accountable to the fact that the focus of our scholarly endeavor is not merely a collection of religious documents from the ancient world but the Word of God, the life-source for God’s people.6

In all of this, the text must remain the focus of our attention, not reconstructions of a supposed “history” behind or in front of the text or abstract formulations of a supposed “essence” of the text that locates theology in the religious experience of humanity rather than in the self-revelation of God in time and space. In speaking about the unity of the Bible we should not resort to abstract themes but to concrete biblical statements about what God has done to reveal himself and to redeem his people. The experiences and example of my own doctor-father, Peter Stuhlmacher, outlined in the essay below, have been paradigmatic in this regard.


In working toward a pan-biblical theology that is focused on the Scriptures, we must not assume, however, that the unity of the Bible means reducing the biblical witness to that general proposition that is found to some degree in every book of the Bible. This presupposes that every writing must be viewed independently, as if it were not part of an ongoing revelation in response to an ongoing history of redemption. For there to be unity within the Bible, every corner of the canon need not repeat the main theme of every other corner (e.g., Wisdom literature must not rehearse the exodus; the covenant need not be rehearsed explicitly for it to be fundamental to the Prophets; Paul must not quote Jesus extensively; and Hebrews need not mention the kingdom of God to be part of the NT witness concerning the Christ!). Unexpressed presuppositions are no less central for being unexpressed. For as Robert Yarbrough made clear during the conference, the predicted demise of “revelation in history” has been premature. Moreover, its rejection of liberalism’s optimistic evolutionary theories and its stress on revelation as propositional truths still stand as a needed corrective to the attempt to abstract biblical theology from its historical contexts.7

Furthermore, the focus of this pan-biblical theology must be on the first and second comings of the Christ as the midpoint and end point of redemptive history. The goal of this redemption is the consummation of the new creation as the expression of the kingdom of God already inaugurated in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and in the consequent pouring out of the Spirit as a down payment of the future. At the same time, this eschatologically driven history of redemption must be filled with the developing covenantal relationship between God and his people that Scripture testifies is initiated at creation, maintained throughout Israel’s history, and fulfilled in the Messiah’s establishment of the new covenant (Jer 31:31-34; Ezek 36:22-31; Lk 22:17-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26; 2 Cor 3:3-6; Heb 8:1-13; 9:15; 12:24).

The key question in theology is the relationship between theology and history. In making our contribution to the theology of the church, we must not divorce revelation from history or give biblical theology any other object to study apart from the Scriptures as the deposit of that revelation. To do so will transform biblical theology into an open category that, confronted with the seemingly irreconcilable diversity of the Bible, will be filled with the experience of the church, formulated in its creeds and confessions, or with the experience of the individual, formulated in psychological or sociological or ideological categories. The biblical theology movement of the mid-twentieth century imploded precisely because, in the end, it located revelation in the divine encounter and separated the final object of theology from the biblical text.8 In presenting this volume, it is therefore my honor to invite you to think along with its contributors concerning the theological dimension of the Bible. Doing so will challenge us to ask again for our century what it means that, in accordance with the Scriptures and in the Scriptures, God has revealed himself in space and time, for all. 8


1. James D. Smart, The Past, the Present and Future of Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1979), p. 10.

2. Ibid., p. 11.

3. See now the mature work of Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), and Peter Stuhlmacher, Biblische Theologie des Neuen Testaments, 2 vols. (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992, 1999).

4. For the first point, now argued in regard to the Gospels, see Richard Bauckham, ed., The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), and for the latter, see David Trobisch, The First Edition of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

5. On the interrelationship of covenant theology and dispensationalism, see Stephen R. Spencer, “Reformed Theology, Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism,” in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands: Biblical and Leadership Studies in Honor of Donald K. Campbell, ed. Charles H. Dyer and Roy B. Zuck (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1994), pp. 238-54.

6. For my own attempt to do biblical theology for the church, see Scott J. Hafemann, The God of Promise and the Life of Faith: Understanding the Heart of the Bible (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2001).

7. Robert Yarbrough, “James Barr and the Future of Revelation in History in New Testament Theology,” Wheaton Theology Conference, 2000.

8 For an analysis of this attempt to steer a course between fundamentalism and liberalism, see Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970).

About The Author:

Scott J. Hafemann (Th.D., Tübingen) is the Mary F. Rockefeller Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Prior to joining the faculty of Gordon-Conwell, he served from 1995 to 2004 as the Gerald F. Hawthorne Professor of New Testament Greek and Exegesis at Wheaton College and Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois. His books include Suffering and the Ministry of the Spirit; Paul, Moses and the History of Israel; an NIV Application Commentary on 2 Corinthians; and The God of Promise and the Life of Faith: Understanding the Heart of the Bible. He has written several books, including Paul, Moses and the History of Israel and God of Promise and the Life of Faith.

Faith & Reason Forum would like to thank InterVarsity Press for kindly allowing us to put this article on faithandreasonforum.com. Taken from Biblical Theology © 2002, InterVarsity Press, Post Office Box 1400, Downers Grove, Illinois 60515