Biblical Theology and (Dispensational) Theological Method (2)

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,[1] which seems to have triggered projects such as the work of a team of scholars at Ouachita Baptist University called, The Story of Israel.[2] 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.[3] Another interesting work following a literary-historical framework, is Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty.[4]

A better approach to the discipline has been demonstrated (albeit somewhat unevenly) by the recent faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary.[5] 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.”[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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[9] lists four characteristics of a true biblical theology:

  1. Special revelation has an inherently progressive historical character.
  2. This progress of revelation is differentiated and multiform in nature.
  3. The progress is organic.[10]
  4. The main question is how the “historically differentiated character of revelation” contrasts and complements systematic theology.[11]

Gaffin develops some intriguing pathways from these characteristics. First, biblical theology “challenges us to do justice to the historical character of revealed truth.”[12] This is notably the case with the covenantal aspects of Scripture with its reliance upon God’s acts.[13] In the second place, biblical theology should be allowed to regulate exegesis.[14] 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.[15] (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.”[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

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.”[19] 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.

[1] T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D.A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000).

[2] 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.

[3] Ibid, 26-27, 266.

[4] 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.

[5] 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).

[6] Eugene H. Merrill, “Introduction” to Zuck, ed., A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, 3.

[7] Cf. Hasel, 125-126.

[8] Hasel, 126.

[9] Gaffin, 289.

[10] 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.

[11] 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.

[12] Gaffin, 292.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 293. Cf. our comments above about the canonical features of biblical theology.

[15] Ibid, 294.

[16] Ibid, 295.

[17] 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.

[18] Albert Wolters, “Worldview,” in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Gen. ed., Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 855.

[19] Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 45.



    1. Umm… I think that the best book overall is Walter Kaiser’s ‘The Promise-Plan of God.’ While I do not hold to the too simplistic promise-fulfillment scheme, Kaiser is very sound on a lot of things. Most modern works on the subject (e.g. Schreiner, Hamilton, Beale) are pretty poor on prophecy. Zuck etc. is a mixed bag. Kaiser is generally very solid.

  1. Hi Dr. Henebury,

    Thanks for this post.

    At the moment I’m trying to tackle what I regard as ‘extreme Christocentric hermeneutics’. Some years ago I read an article titled ‘Redemptive-Historical Preaching: An Assessment’ by John Carrick which discussed the hermeneutics of Vos. This article really ignited a passion for me to go on and investigate the issue further and I’m at the point of consolidating my thoughts on paper.

    Part of my passion comes as the evangelical-eschatological landscape here in Australia is heavily dominated with the teachings of Graeme Goldsworthy, and many evangelical churches are simply ignorant when it comes to any other approach to the Bible other than Goldsworthy’s ‘Biblical Theology’ approach. It’s taught in the local seminaries, at ‘Sydney Anglican’ youth conventions, and just assumed by many in the pew. While Goldsworthy’s theology is in some ways a development of Vos’s ‘Biblical Theology’, I haven’t really found anyone who’s critiqued him head on.

    While there are many admirable things about Goldsworthy’s theology, such as the esteem he gives to Christ and the gospels, overall I find his insistence of ‘Christ in every verse’ leads him to allegorise interpretations that aren’t in the text (propping up his Amil eschatology). This, coming from his hermeneutical principle of reading the OT through the NT grid.

    Do you have any thoughts on this matter, or recommended reading?

    Thank you for your blog. You’ve touched on many of the theological issues I’m wrestling through.


    1. David,

      I have interacted here and there with Goldsworthy (and others who broadly take his Vossian approach). The series on Progressive Revelation, and Covenants: Clarity, Ambiguity & Faith both mention him. I often quote from ‘According to Plan’ when I want to show clearly how these guys really believe that the prophecies in the OT were not fulfilled as they would have been expected to be fulfilled. This would make God wholly undependable in any age.

      The major problem with Goldsworthy et al is their baseless insistence that the OT (and indeed the prophetic portions of the NT) must be understood in light of the Cross. From this vantage point, any text which will not bow to the predecided ‘Christotelic’ theology can be easily turned into a type (of sorts) and made to heel.

      You may also find help in my review of Greg Beale’s ‘A New Testament Biblical Theology’.

      My own positive response to Goldsworthy and others is the series called ‘Christ at the Center’.

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H.

      1. Thanks Paul, I look forward to reading these articles.

        Take care brother, and keep it up!


  2. Also, Paul, on the way to work this morning I was listening to an interview you did (on youtube). We seem to have a similar testimony, from the beers to the local dispy resistance!

    1. Dave, I found your comments have articulated my concerns much better than I have ever done as well. I’m from across the Tasman (NZ) and go to a church heavily linked with the Sydney Anglicans, Moore College, and Sydney Missionary Bible College (such that the Jensen brothers,Goldsworthy, Al Stewart are not only household names, but they have actually been invited and have spoken at my local circle’s camps and conferences). I suspect we are moving the same circle and would be able to recognise names of the teachers recommended by our respective circles’ teachers.

      Like you, I’m also swimming in the Sydney Anglican circle as a “dispy”, and I also found the traditional prophecy watchers like Rapture Ready inadequate to dealing with Goldsworthy etc. My pet theory is that many prophecy watchers who are in Australian or NZ circles go to the “other” mainly charismatic church circle and know nothing about Sydney Anglicans.

      Look forward to hear more from you.

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