Some Resurgence of Biblical Theology among Evangelicals
Back in the evangelical world there have been some encouraging signs of late that biblical theology is seeing a bit of a resurgence. This is headlined by the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, which seems to have triggered projects such as the work of a team of scholars at Ouachita Baptist University called, The Story of Israel. This book tracks “Israel” through both Testaments, although in Paul and the Apocalypse the distinction between the nation of Israel and the Church is basically forgotten. Another interesting work following a literary-historical framework, is Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty.
A better approach to the discipline has been demonstrated (albeit somewhat unevenly) by the recent faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary. In two volumes, these scholars have tried to, “survey the Bible as a whole from an analytical and inductive stance and to extract from it those themes and emphases that are inherent to it and that recur with such regularity and in such evident patterns as to generate their own theological rubrics.”
In following this line there is the danger of constructing a biblical theology based on the number of times a particular thing is mentioned, which would be a fallacious pursuit. Still, if such a danger is guarded against (by, for example, realizing that a biblical author may be assuming a particular theme without actually mentioning it explicitly) this looks like a helpful approach. It is also arguable that this way of doing biblical theology may miss the canonical aspects of the discipline. If Biblical theology is going to be anything more than the analysis of the contributions of individual biblical writers it must consider the whole biblical canon as given by the Holy Spirit. If it does this it cannot be merely exegetical theology but must establish itself as both a diachronic and, to a greater extent, a synthetic study. It is only in this way that it really can function as a bridge to systematic theology. This is where Vos again is helpful.
Back to Vos
Going back to Vos and his followers (John Murray and Richard Gaffin), it is interesting to see how they attempted to solve the nagging problem of the role of biblical theology. Gaffin lists four characteristics of a true biblical theology:
- Special revelation has an inherently progressive historical character.
- This progress of revelation is differentiated and multiform in nature.
- The progress is organic.
- The main question is how the “historically differentiated character of revelation” contrasts and complements systematic theology.
Gaffin develops some intriguing pathways from these characteristics. First, biblical theology “challenges us to do justice to the historical character of revealed truth.” This is notably the case with the covenantal aspects of Scripture with its reliance upon God’s acts. In the second place, biblical theology should be allowed to regulate exegesis. We shall let Gaffin spell out his thinking before adding one or two observations from a dispensational perspective.
Exegesis itself is misunderstood if biblical theology is seen as no more than a step (even the most important) in the exegetical process. It does not appear to be going too far to say that in “biblical theology,” that is, in effective recognition of the redemptive-historical character of biblical revelation, the principle of context, of the analogy of Scripture, the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, so central to the Reformation tradition of biblical interpretation, finds its most pointedly biblical realization and application. All exegesis ought to be biblical-theological. To the extent that there is hesitation on this point the relationship between biblical and systematic theology will remain unresolved. (Emphasis added).
When biblical theology is thought of as “biblical-theological exegesis” it has its closest ties with systematic theology because it provides a methodological guide which can “correct any exegesis of the text.” So then, “The indispensability of biblical theology to systematic theology is the indispensability of exegesis to systematic theology, no more and no less.”
What shall a dispensationalist say to this? Clearly when a Reformed covenant theologian states that biblical theology is the very hub of exegesis he is putting a strong case for a theologically driven hermeneutics. This a dispensationalist, if he is consistent, cannot condone. What is to be done then? Is the dispensationalist forced by his prior commitment to hermeneutical consistency to define biblical theology in such a way as to separate it far from systematic theology? Must it remain purely descriptive? Can it not dictate to systematic theology even a little about how it ought to formulate its prescriptions? We think it can.
There seems to be a growing consensus among evangelicals that biblical theology must take on a canonical aspect if it is to escape a submissive and functionary role in theological studies. Wolters puts it well:
[A] strong case can be made for the view that the Scriptures themselves, taken together as a canonical whole, embody and promulgate a nondualistic worldview…If that is so, then in the dynamics of the hermeneutical circle, the Bible’s own worldview ought to inform the way it and its component parts are interpreted.
This we readily grant, but we do not see any necessity to jump straight into canonical exegesis and so drag theology into our hermeneutics. We must insist upon the integrity of the text in its immediate historical context. When attention is placed here the text itself, especially driven by the biblical covenants, will promote progressive revelation, and thus by degrees one will arrive at a canonical biblical theology.
Nor does this abrogate all we have said before about the need for an a priori, or more accurately, a transcendental “revelational epistemology.” For we enthusiastically endorse the teaching that “Biblical theology should be done with a constant self-conscious effort to be consistent with biblical presuppositions.” This does not make us fall into the trap of methodologically reading-in our theology into the text. We are Christian believers by God’s grace, but we must try hard to come to the text and first listen to what it is actually saying. Dispensationalists possess the right hermeneutical tools to do this.
 T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D.A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000).
 C. Marvin Pate, J. Scott Duvall, J. Daniel Hays, E. Randolph Richards, W. Dennis Tucker and Preben Vang, The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004). The work seems to be headed up by Pate.
 Ibid, 26-27, 266.
 Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2003). Dempster employs the rubric of geography (land) and genealogy, which is a fruitful direction in which to look. Unfortunately, I think he does not weave the covenant motif well into his treatment.
 Roy B. Zuck, ed., A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), and, idem., A Biblical Theology of the New Testament, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994).
 Eugene H. Merrill, “Introduction” to Zuck, ed., A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, 3.
 Cf. Hasel, 125-126.
 Hasel, 126.
 Gaffin, 289.
 One can also see this in the first Bampton lecture of Thomas Dehany Bernard’s, The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), 44.
 This is seen in the work of Erich Sauer. See David J. Hesselgrave, Scripture and Strategy: The Use of the Bible in Postmodern Church and Mission, (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1994), 35-51.
 Gaffin, 292.
 Ibid, 293. Cf. our comments above about the canonical features of biblical theology.
 Ibid, 294.
 Ibid, 295.
 Along with those already cited see, e.g., Paul R. House, “Biblical Theology and the Wholeness of Scripture,” in Scott J. Hafemann, ed., Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), especially 268-270.
 Albert Wolters, “Worldview,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 855.
 Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 45.