Christ and the Biblical Storyline

It is a boon to evangelicals that we have so many great books on biblical theology these days. In the ruins of modernism’s historical-critical method (and its evangelical cousin: a narrowly conceived grammatical-historical method), we are rediscovering the power of narrative and seeing afresh the world-shaping power of the biblical plotline. I would venture to say that there is hardly a theologically-minded evangelical around today who isn’t at least vaguely familiar with the common rubric biblical theologians use to describe the biblical storyline: creation, fall, redemption, and new creation (Perhaps more well-rounded is Bartholomew and Goheen’s description of the Bible as a six-act drama: creation, fall, redemption initiatied in Israel, redemption accomplished in Christ, the church, and the final consummation).

And yet there are some limitations to the storyline approach to Scripture. I am not suggesting something less than reading the Bible along its redemptive-historical plot movements, but I am suggesting that a storyline approach isn’t a panacea. It is possible to read Scripture in terms of “redemptive history” and an overarching “storyline” and still be insufficiently Christo-centric.

It happens when Christ is conspicously absent (or at least underemphasized) in our “biblical theology of _______” treatments. We can talk about, for instance, a biblical theology of the presence of God and move from Eden to the tabernacle to the temple to the church and ultimately to the new Jerusalem and totally miss the dominant Figure at the center of the biblical narrative whose “tabernacle-ing” and “temple-ing” presence holds all of the other pieces together (John 1:14; 2:21).

It happens when Jesus becomes just another event (even if the climactic event) in a story that is really about something else: Abraham or Israel or cosmic redemption or whatever. It happens when Jesus just shows up in our biblical theologies as a means to some other end. (Don’t misunderstand; we do need to understand Abraham, Israel, and God’s purposes for the cosmos, if we are to understand Christ aright. But the reciprocity between the OT and the NT—between promise and fulfillment—is asymmetrical. Christ is the interpretive key. Everything else services him hermeneutically.)

It happens when we fail to to see how every text is already, immediately related to Christ as the Savior who is overturning our Fall and Curse at every point in the story. It is precisely this immediacy of Christ that enables the NT authors to say things about the OT that would be lampooned as fanciful allegory were they not inscripturated (think, “and the Rock was Christ,” 1 Cor. 10:4). The NT authors don’t always feel the need to travel down a long and winding, redemptive-historical road to get to Christ. No matter where we go in the biblical narrative, Christ is already present. Like Aslan, he’s already on the move, and he isn’t waiting for us to map out a biblical-theolgical plotline for him to travel along. He’s already there.

Again, I am not suggesting that we should give up reading the Bible in terms of redemptive-history and its overarching storyline. But we should remember that Christ isn’t merely the climactic event of the biblical story; he is the story.

Baptists Accessing Catholicity

As Matt mentioned the other day, the ETS Baptist Studies Group is addressing the notae ecclesiae (marks of the church) at this year’s annual meeting.  Matt and I are presenting the paper on Baptists and the catholicity of the church.  When I linked to this topic the other day on Facebook, a good friend of mine issued a fair warning about how Baptists ought to access the church’s catholicity.  He suggested that Baptists should seek their catholicity via the Reformed tradition in order to avoid repeating the errors that necessitated the Reformation in the first place and in order to avoid theological confusion (especially on the doctrine of salvation) that could complicate our evangelistic efforts.


As I said, I think this is a fair warning. That’s why I think it’s hugely important that we retrieve the 17th-century Baptist reflections on the catholicity of the church. The General and Particular Baptist confessions of faith that emerged during this period either explicitly affirmed the ecumenical creeds (e.g., the Orthodox Creed) or else included clearly creedal language in their expositions of the Trinity and the person of Christ (e.g., the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith). Seventeenth-century Baptists also tended to have a more robust understanding of the sacraments, a greater willingness to engage Patristic thought, and a greater sense of spiritual connectionalism both within their own associations and in their broader evangelical context.  Baptists trended away from these catholic emphases in the next three centuries (for a host of interesting and disputed reasons), but their 17th-century beginnings were a far cry from the no-creed-but-the-Bible naiveté that would come to characterize the Baptist movement in some quarters.

Still, retrieval is not repristination. There may be some ways in which 21st-century Baptists can foster an even more open-minded and open-hearted approach to the whole church–both historic and contemporary. But clearly any efforts toward ecumenism among evangelical Baptists would need to be tethered to our Reformational commitments.  Rediscovering our 17th-century roots would go a long way in helping us strike this balance.

And Systematic: The Relation between Biblical and Systematic Theology, Part 1

Since Matt and Luke were gracious enough to let me join their online musings here, we have added an important modification to the subtitle of the blog. The aim here is to offer reflections on “biblical and systematic theology according to the scriptures.” To be sure, the other contributors were already doing systematic theology before I arrived—indeed, some pretty sophisticated systematic theology—in the sense that they were applying Scripture to Christian belief and practice. So hopefully the addition of a systematician to the blog will only continue the much-needed task of understanding Scripture on its own terms and then developing faithful ways of speaking and acting in light of this biblical framework. My first couple of posts here will explore the relationship between these two theological disciplines: biblical theology (BT), on the one hand, which attends to the storyline of Scripture in all of its unity and diversity, and systematic theology (ST), on the other, which seeks to articulate Christian doctrine on the basis of this biblical narrative in changing cultural contexts. In this first post, I explore the ways in which our ST influences our BT. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking here. My dependence upon the excellent work of others on this issue will be plain. These posts are simply an attempt to summarize some the most salient points, as I see them, about the bi-directional traffic between these two theological sub-disciplines.

The relation between BT and ST is a two-way street. Our ST informs and shapes our BT, and our BT in turn corrects and reshapes our ST. The relationship between BT and ST can be conceived of in terms of what hermeneutical philosophers call the “hermeneutic circle.” When we read any text, we bring certain assumptions about the text to the task of interpretation. As we read the parts of the text, we find our assumptions of the whole being reshaped—indeed, if we are reading rightly, we will find ourselves being reshaped by our interaction with the text. So there is a dialectical relationship between the parts and the whole and between the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader. This is not to say that readers change the meaning of the text; the text’s authorially intended meaning remains the stable variable in the hermeneutical equation. But we have no access to the author’s intention apart from our own personal and communal interaction with the text that the author has given us.

BT and ST relate in a similar fashion. Every interpreter of Scripture comes to the task of interpretation with a ST already in place. It may not be fully developed. It may not be consciously held or acknowledged. But no one comes to the text as a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Instead, we come to the text with an already-formed understanding of God, humanity, sin, salvation, and so forth. Carl Henry once quipped that there are two kinds of presuppositionalists: those who admit it and those who don’t. If this is the case, then the best course of action is to be honest about our presuppositions—to lay our theological cards on the table, so to speak—rather than accepting the modernist illusion that we can simply do exegesis in any kind of objective or neutral fashion.

This understanding of the intimate relation between BT and ST reveals the weaknesses of one common way of conceiving the two disciplines. Gerhardus Vos is well-known for his distinction between BT and ST:

There is no difference in that one [of the two disciplines] would be more closely bound to the Scriptures than the other. In this they are wholly alike. Nor does the difference lie in this that the one transforms the biblical material, whereas the other would leave it unmodified. Both equally make the truth deposited in the Bible undergo a transformation: but the difference arises from the fact that the principle by which the transformation is effected differs in each case. 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 theology draws a circle (Vos, Biblical Theology, 24-25).

In one sense, this way of distinguishing BT and ST is true enough. BT is more concerned with the plotline of Scripture and ST does ask more synthetic, topical questions. But in another sense, Vos’s taxonomy is lacking for two reasons. First, the distinction turns out to be a bit too neat. There is a sense in which BT can be topical. For example, we can consider the topic of the temple/presence of God across the storyline of Scripture. Furthermore, there is sense in which ST follows closely the storyline of Scripture. The traditional ordering of the loci of ST reveals this narrative character. We begin where Genesis does: with God. We then move to creation, humanity, the fall and its effects, the redemption accomplished by Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit, the formative role of the church, and we end where Revelation does: the consummation of all things at the end of the age. So it turns out biblical theologians can be quite adept at drawing circles and systematic theologians at drawing lines.

Second, Vos’s way of distinguishing the two disciplines fails to account for the ways in which the two relate to one another. Taken alone (in practice Vos was much better), Vos’s distinctions make it seem as if BT and ST are simply two parallel and legitimate ways of carving up the biblical text. These distinctions fail to account for how the two disciplines can talk to one another, as it were. When systematicians appeal to the Bible, they should be doing so in ways that respect the textual, redemptive-historical, and canonical contexts of the biblical texts. In other words, they should be doing biblical theology. Similarly, when biblical theologians draw theological conclusions from the text (and they should be doing so; the modern division of labor in the theological disciplines has made us too wary to cross disciplinary lines and has resulted in the atomization and fragmentation of what should be an integrated whole), they should do so respecting the complex set of historical, philosophical, cultural, and doctrinal issues that attends such a move. In other words, they should be doing systematic theology. So the two disciplines are not merely discrete ways of slicing the biblical pie. Instead, they should be seen as interdependent steps in the integrated task of doing theology as the people of God. We read Scripture according to its own redemptive-historical categories and then we apply this theological framework in the development of a theological vision of Christian faith and practice (for more in this vein, see Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology).

To return to the original point, ST influences BT in that it shapes the hermeneutical, exegetical, and theological assumptions we bring to the biblical text. This is not merely a hazard of the interpretive task, something to be acknowledged and then overcome in attempt to arrive at some kind of pristine objectivity. Theological presuppositions are not only unavoidable; they are indispensable. When they are being properly reformed according to Scripture (more on this in the next post), our theological presuppositions help guide and govern our readings of the biblical text. This truth was acknowledged early on in church history, as Christians recognized the need to read Scripture according to the regula fidei, the rule of faith. Heretics were quoting Scripture too. So there was (and is) a need to adjudicate which readings of Scripture were permissible and which were not. The rule of faith was simply a summary of the basic truths of the gospel (which were eventually summarized in the ecumenical creeds) in an attempt to regulate readings of the biblical revelation.

There is biblical precedent for such a regulated understanding of biblical interpretation. In 1 Corinthians 15:3 Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.” There is a hermeneutical and theological priority placed upon the good news of Christ’s saving death, burial and resurrection. Paul writes about many important things, but there is one thing that is of preeminent importance, and if we misunderstand this one thing, then we are in danger of abandoning the faith altogether (Gal. 1:6-9).

So the basic truths of the gospel shape, inform and regulate our readings of the biblical narrative. In other words, our ST rightly influences our BT. There are perhaps many other ways that we can describe the influence of ST on BT, but this evangelical (gospel-oriented) influence is preeminent.

In my next post, I will examine how we make the necessary but precarious move from BT to ST and how BT ought to shape the theological models of ST.

Some scattered tips for not being a jerk at conferences

Matt Emerson:

This is excellent advice from David Lincicum. I’ll simply add that, in my experience and from an administrator’s perspective, it’s rather obvious when you’re only talking to someone because you think they can get you a job. Don’t do that, either.

Originally posted on David Lincicum:

The summer is nearly upon us, and that means conferences. I’m not the most avid conference-goer, though I generally enjoy them when I actually make it. We academics can be a difficult lot, with fragile egos and precious little affirmation to go around. For that reason, conferences can be brutal, disenchanting experiences, particularly for those in doctoral programs or early in their career. Having some familiarity with these negative exchanges, having both suffered and more often inflicted on others, I thought I’d draft a minor list of tips to help those entering the fray. Needless to say, this list is neither exhaustive nor authoritative, and others have offered more useful practical tips elsewhere, but these are things that came to mind. 

  1. Praise others effusively and genuinely whenever possible. Academics are critical people, and rightly so, since we are invested in the careful weighing of claims and sober assessment of evidence…

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I recently received a very passive rebuke from Matt on not posting on the blog in a long time. Which is strange because Matt is usually anything but passive. He was correct, however, in that I’ve been very absent from the blog. Because of that, I thought I would write a quick update on what is going on.

Since about October I’ve been in Cambridge working away at trying to get my thesis question more precise. I had been flirting for quite a while on the topic of Solomon and wisdom and I think it is finely focused enough. My overall question is how Solomon is characterised in the canon. It means lately that I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 1 Kings narrative trying to figure out what is going on. My conclusion so far is that it is anything but simple. I think there is a real tendency when we read to try and force characters in polar categories (good/bad, etc). This doesn’t appreciate the complexity that a character is represented as.

In other news, I was contracted to write a few dictionary articles (along with many others) for the new Lexham Bible Dictionary for Logos. This was a good experience and I’m happy I did it. But also a lot more distracting than I had anticipated and I am happy that I can concentrate on a few other things now.

Lastly, a paper of mine was accepted for an upcoming conference at Oxford in May. I will be presenting on the role of wisdom in the temple building account in 1 Kings. Now I just need to write it. Which is generally the trickier part.

Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library

Photo from National Geographic

I’ve only recently become aware of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library. It is a fascinating website with some incredible pictures of the scrolls. You can search for the scrolls by site, language, or content. I’d highly encourage you to take a look and practice reading! Be sure to afterwards remember how thankful you are for printed critical editions!

You can see the site here.

Q&A with biblioblogger and Auburn fan Matthew Emerson about National Championship Game and Theology

Matt Emerson:

On Friday I answered Chad Chambers’ questions about Auburn, football, and faith on his blog, and am re-posting them here. Enjoy and War Eagle!

Originally posted on Cataclysmic:

Matthew Emerson and I decided to celebrate the National Championship Game between Auburn and Florida State University (of which we are fans respectively) by answering a few questions about the game itself and the connections between football and theology. You can find my answers to his questions on his blog – Secundum Scripturas.

1. After last season, the firing of Chizik, and hiring of Malzahn, what were you expectations for Auburn coming into this season?

I fluctuated between 6-6 and 11-1, and eventually settled on 8-4. I thought AU would lose to UGA, Bama, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss. Given the recent recruiting success I knew there was talent at Auburn, and I knew the Tigers were deep and talented where it matters in the SEC – on both lines. I also was counting on Tre Mason to surpass his 1,000 yard total in 2012. What worried me, though, was…

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Starting at Tyndale House

Today is my second “official” day of research since moving to Cambridge to begin reading for the PhD in Hebrew Bible. My research will be done as a reader at Tyndale House during the next three years or so. Tyndale is a Biblical Studies research library that has a strong reputation as a facilitator of Biblical scholarship set in the context of Christian community.

This being only my second day here, I easily see these two themes. Everyday at 11:00am and 4:00pm readers emerge from their desks and gather for tea and coffee, taking a break from the workload to chat and get to know one another. Some of the readers, like myself, are here at Tyndale to conduct long term research, such as for their PhD, but there are also others who may be here for shorter amounts of time – from a single day to a sabbatical. This provides great opportunities to chat with scholars about your research and hear some feedback on your ideas.

In addition to daily tea and coffee, once a week the staff and readers at Tyndale gather for chapel to pray, sing, and listen to Scripture. Today’s chapel, being the first of the new term, was particularly focused on setting our scholarship within the larger context of worship and service to the Church.

During lunch today, George Guthrie (Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible at Union University), who is on sabbatical, gave an hour long presentation on “Technology & the Research Workflow.” This was a valuable time to hear from George on the tools that he uses and continues to refine for his own work.  These include scanning, Google books, databases, and bibliographic software. It was a beneficial time for me especially as I am at the beginning of my project.

Today represents one of the largest reasons for wanting to do my research at Tyndale. Not only does it house one of the best research libraries for Biblical Studies but it also has a wonderful Christian ethos among its staff and readers that encourages one another to do the best work he or she can do.  I am excited to see what the next 3+ years hold for me here.