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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Aspects of the History of Interpretation

The terminus a quo for the origin of the term ‘biblical theology’ is the modern separation of historical and systematic theology, which began at the time of rationalism. The coining of ‘biblical theology’ sounds very reformed, because Holy Scripture from a reformed point of view is both a source and a guideline for teaching (doctrina) but it was not used by the reformers. At the time of its origin in the first half of the seventeenth century (Ebeling 1955: 75 n. 8), it was the solution for a theological programme of reform, which was concerned neither with the content of orthodox dogmatics nor with the form of systematic theology as such, but which was critical of certain excesses such as the domination of ‘naïve’ biblical statements by the ‘presumptuous subtleties’ (Spener 1675; see Ebeling 1955: 74–6) of dogmatics. However, the formal criticism of the gulf between the Bible, on the one side, and the dominant form of theology and its dogma of inspiration, on the other side, which was conducted in the name of ‘biblical theology’ gave rise to the hermeneutical problem that reflected upon the tension between text and interpretation and how theology could be tied to Scripture. In this connection strenuous attempts were made to put together the various dogmatic loci dicta probantia from the Bible. In Catholic circles it was also done from texts from the church fathers (Walter 1994; Schmidt 1671, 1676) in order to tie theology back to its basis in Scripture.

The consequences of this procedure, which meant that biblical theology was nothing more than a subsidiary discipline of dogmatics, became clear first of all in the eighteenth century, as Protestant theologians of the Enlightenment devoted themselves to the task of a biblical theology and step by step developed this into a competitor of dogmatic theology. The decisive breakthrough to a self-standing, historical-critical discipline alongside dogmatics is connected with Johann Philipp Gabler, who, in his inaugural lecture in the University of Altdorf, De iusto discrimine theologiae biblicae et dogmaticae regundisque recte utriusque finibus (‘On the Correct Distinction of Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Correct Distinguishing of the Aims of them both’) delivered on 30 March 1787, made a programmatic distinction between biblical theology as a historical discipline and dogmatic theology as a didactic discipline (German translation in Merk 1972: 273–84; English translation in Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge 1980). The bridge to dogmatics is therefore worked out from the basic biblical ideas that come from ‘a pure biblical theology’:

Biblical theology possesses historical character: transmitted, concerned with what the sacred writers thought about divine things. Dogmatic theology on the other hand possesses a didactic character: teaching, what each theologian philosophised over divine things by means of his ability and/or in accordance with the conditions of the time, the age, the place, the sects, the schools and other similar things of this type. The former, because it argues historically is, considered in itself, always similar (although according to the system of teaching by which it is worked out, it will differ from others that are worked differently). The latter, like the rest of human disciplines, is subject to many alterations, as is abundantly proved by careful observation of what has happened in many centuries…. This must not be understood as though I were saying that everything in theology must be taken for uncertain and doubtful. However, the point I am making with these words is that we must carefully distinguish the divine from the human; that we must make a certain distinction of biblical and dogmatic theology after we have distinguished what, in Holy Scripture, is directed to all times and all human beings: that only these pure ideas should underlie our philosophical views about religion which divine providence has made valid for all places and times, and in this way to have a clearer idea of the divine and human areas of wisdom. Thus at the end, our theology will be more certain and more firm and will have much less to fear from the fiercest assault of the enemy. (Gabler, in Merk 1972: 275–6)

If the idea of biblical theology was originally thought of only as a reform of systematic theology, its emancipation from dogmatics and the assumption of its methodological and material independence had a considerable back-working effect upon dogmatics. At the same time, the conception of biblical theology as a historical discipline resulted in a new explanation of its basis both in general considerations of the nature of history or historical consciousness and in the interpretation of sources. The attempts at writing a biblical theology that followed, based on these premisses, were to some extent affected by contrary tendencies, which will be sketched briefly in what follows.

2.1 Biblical Theology and Historical Criticism

Out of the historical-critical direction of biblical theology were drawn first of all the consequences of a separate presentation of the theology of the Old and the theology of the New Testaments (Georg Lorenz Bauer). In addition, the methodological instrumentarium of Gabler was further developed (by Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette, Ferdinand Christian Baur, Daniel Georg Conrad von Cölln, and others; see Merk 1980). In Ferdinand Christian Baur's Vorlesungen über neutestamentliche Theologie (1864), the programmatic viewpoints of Gabler and Baur—that is, the interconnection of historical reconstruction and theological interpretation—were brought to the highest point of critical investigation so far. With them, perspectives became visible which reached well into the era after Baur, but which belonged to the most insoluble problems of a biblical theology of the New Testament until the end of the nineteenth century (Holtzmann 1911; Merk 1980: 459–61).

2.2 History of Religion versus Biblical Theology

The conception of biblical theology as a historical discipline developed in the context of a growing historical consciousness, but at the same time in acknowledgement of the relevance of Holy Scripture for Christian faith. The result was the double insight, that biblical theology as a historical discipline is bound not only to the historical setting of the experiencing subject, but also to the conception which the subject has of Christian faith. Depending upon the weight placed upon one or other of these aspects, a further spectrum of possible variations becomes apparent. The position of the history of religions school would have many rich consequences in this connection, a school which made the appreciation of historical distance into a principle of knowledge, and which came to expression in William Wrede's programmatic writing Über Aufgabe und Methode der sogenannten Neutestamentlichen Theologie (1897).

The name ‘biblical theology’ means originally not a theology which is contained in the Bible, but a theology which has biblical character, which is created from the Bible. This cannot be to us a matter of indifference. (Wrede 1897: 79; Ebeling 1955: 69–70)

As a result of this, biblical theology of the Old and New Testaments took on more and more the character of a history of the religion of Israel or of early Christianity.1 Hermann Gunkel expressed a view programmatically on this problem in 1927: ‘if one looks deeper and tries to recognise the last grounds of these inadequacies of biblical theology, one notices that these are dominated by the old church view of inspiration. According to this the whole of the biblical material must work at one level and the unity of thought which the Bible is believed to possess can be systematically ordered in a united disposition. If this procedure is contradicted in present time, this means in the last analysis that the spirit of historical research has entered into this discipline. The phenomenon that our generation has experienced, according to which biblical theology has been substituted by the history of Israel's religion, can also be understood that in the place of the theory of inspiration, the spirit of historical research has begun to enter’ (Gunkel 1927; emphasis original). On the present discussion of the relationship between the history of Israelite religion and/or the theology of the Old Testament see sect. 2.3.

2.3 Biblical Theology versus History of Religion

Simultaneous with the arrival of dialectical theology there were, in the 1920s and 1930s, reactions against the results of historical-critical scholarship which reached a climax in the charge of analytical confusion, of historical relativism and deficient theological interpretation.2 See already Martin Kähler 1897: ii. 691: ‘Historical research seeks to establish past reality and to understand its historical development. In the process it loses the unity of the Bible, and the Bible simply becomes a collection of devalued accounts and documents. The majority of readers of the Bible on the other hand seek in its smallest parts a word of God, which can be applied to each in his circumstances of life. Over both exaggerations, which seem to stand in irreconcilable opposition, a sober consideration of the facts can help, that these many single pieces of scripture throughout their putting together into a Bible have won a new value over and above their original meaning and that this Bible in its workings through the centuries has an abiding present rather than simply being a monument of a great past.’ In reaction to this, theologies of the Old Testament and of the New Testament were written which sought to correct the previous presentations of the ‘history of the religion of pre-Christendom’ through their demonstration of the similarities between the historically transmitted materials of the Christian Bible and the differences compared with its neighbouring world. Also in view was the structural unity of religious belief of the Old Testament and its connection with the New Testament (Walther Eichrodt, Ludwig Köhler; see Kertelge 1994). At the same time, some scholars attempted a compromise by trying to write a ‘history of Israelite religion’ alongside a theology of the Old Testament (Eduard König, Ernst Sellin, also Georg Fohrer; see Albertz 1992: 20–4). The current discussion is (once more) characterized by the alternative of the ‘history of Israelite religion’ versus ‘theology of the Old Testament’ and by the plea for a new orientation in the light of the history of interpretation (Albertz 1995, 2001: 3–24; see the essays in Janowski and Lohfink 1995, 2001). That these alternatives offer no relevant answer to the continuing basic questions is shown by the most recent contributions to the theme, although they seek to bring arguments for an integrative perspective: that is, for the material connection between history of religion and theology (Köckert 1998; Hermisson 2000; Keel 2001; Janowski 2003; Jeremias 2003. For a similar discussion regarding the New Testament see von Bendemann 2003).

A future biblical theology will consequently ignore neither the literature nor the history of Israelite religion or early Christianity, even though it will be concerned with concrete happenings in history. In the matter of history of religion, the old questions about the relationship between genesis and normativeness reappear: how can the unity of the Old and New Testaments or of the Christian Bible be spoken about when at the same time the diversity of their religious traditions is taken into account? And is the question of the uniqueness of faith in YHWH excluded by concentration on the social-historical background of religious sayings and theological concepts of the Old and New Testaments? Or are both aspects connected with each other in the context of an integrative model? How such a model might look is a matter of considerable controversy in present research (see, with various options, Welker 1998a; Herms 1997; Barth 1998; Hübner 1998; and the criticism by Welker 1998b).

2.4 Biblical Theology and the Canonical Approach

A new approach in the discipline was initiated first by Gerhard von Rad who, in his epoch-making attempt, conceived of a theology of the Old Testament as the exegesis of the Old Testament texts in the context of their history of transmission, and raised the question of the correlation between revelation and history to its hermeneutical principle (see Oeming 2001). Building on this initiative, stress was laid partly on the event structure of belief in YHWH (Claus Westermann, Horst-Dietrich Preuss), and partly on the idea of the ‘uniqueness of YHWH’ as the centre of the Old Testament (Walther Zimmerli; see Janowski 1999a: 273–81). In the English-speaking realm, following on from the ‘biblical theology movement’, there was the search for a ‘new ‘biblical theology’ for which Brevard S. Childs with his biblical theology of the Old and New Testaments provided a significant canonically orientated impulse (Childs 1992; German translation 1994–6. See Rendtorff 1994; Barth 1998). The canonical approach to the theology of the Old Testament, represented above all in Germany by Rolf Rendtorff (1999; cf. Rendtorff 1991), bases itself not only on the canonical form of the Hebrew Bible, but also makes ‘the text itself in its extant canonical form the starting point of the presentation’ (Rendtorff 1999: 1). However, in common with the historical criticism that it criticizes, it is dependent on sometimes quite far-reaching hypotheses (see Jeremias 2003: 40–2).

Notes:

1 Hermann Gunkel expressed a view programmatically on this problem in 1927: ‘if one looks deeper and tries to recognise the last grounds of these inadequacies of biblical theology, one notices that these are dominated by the old church view of inspiration. According to this the whole of the biblical material must work at one level and the unity of thought which the Bible is believed to possess can be systematically ordered in a united disposition. If this procedure is contradicted in present time, this means in the last analysis that the spirit of historical research has entered into this discipline. The phenomenon that our generation has experienced, according to which biblical theology has been substituted by the history of Israel's religion, can also be understood that in the place of the theory of inspiration, the spirit of historical research has begun to enter’ (Gunkel 1927; emphasis original). On the present discussion of the relationship between the history of Israelite religion and/or the theology of the Old Testament see sect. 2.3.

2 See already Martin Kähler 1897: ii. 691: ‘Historical research seeks to establish past reality and to understand its historical development. In the process it loses the unity of the Bible, and the Bible simply becomes a collection of devalued accounts and documents. The majority of readers of the Bible on the other hand seek in its smallest parts a word of God, which can be applied to each in his circumstances of life. Over both exaggerations, which seem to stand in irreconcilable opposition, a sober consideration of the facts can help, that these many single pieces of scripture throughout their putting together into a Bible have won a new value over and above their original meaning and that this Bible in its workings through the centuries has an abiding present rather than simply being a monument of a great past.’

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