King's Evangelical Divinity School

14 September 2009

Review of "Out of Egypt"

In my last post I briefly discussed biblical theology and promised to post several book reviews on the subject. The first (below) was originaly published in Evangelical Quarterly (78.3, July 2006, 274-6) and concerns an excellent book on the issue and how it relates to hermeneutics. Not for the faint-hearted, this collection of essays offers a theoretical rather than methodological treatment of where biblical theology and hermeneutics intersect. It also explains how postmodernism (ironically) paves the way for a return of the discipline within academic theology. More on this in my book review below.

Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation
Edited by Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller, Robin Parry
(Scripture and Hermeneutics Series. Vol. 5. Bletchley: Paternoster Press / Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004. xx + 496 pp. hb. £19.99.
1-84227-069-9 [U.K]; 0-310-23415-8 [U.S.])

This collection of essays, arising out of the 2003 gathering of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, explores biblical theology’s contribution to the hermeneutical task. Half-a-century after the demise of the Biblical Theology Movement there is renewed academic interest in the field (as recent publications demonstrate), and editor Craig Bartholomew explains how, from its inception in 1998, the Seminar identified biblical theology as `a vital topic in any agenda for renewing biblical interpretation’ (p. 16). Out of Egypt examines biblical theology’s place within that agenda.

The problem, of course, is defining `biblical theology’, as understandings of the term vary considerably. Gerald Bray, Nuria Calduch-Benages, Andrew Lincoln, and Charles Scobie all highlight some of the difficulties here. Yet at its most minimalist, biblical theology emerges in this book as the theological unity of the Old and New Testaments, that is, the overall, coherent and unfolding inner biblical story, which Al Wolters refers to as the `grand narrative’ (Wolters offers a particularly useful definition of biblical theology on pages 261-2). Craig Bartholomew and Mike Goheen, whose website ( seeks to `promote the reading of Scripture as one unfolding story’, prefer the term `meta-narrative’. Explaining how humans draw on narrative as a vital reference point in order to make sense of their lives, likewise every Bible character, subplot and event must be understood `in the context of the one storyline’. This represents a key aspect of correct biblical interpretation. Bartholomew and Goheen go on to highlight the homiletic nature of the Bible story (`The preacher’s task is to call God’s people to live in the biblical story’, p. 149), while Charles Scobie concludes with a useful chapter on preaching and biblical theology. Hence, Out of Egypt endeavours to recapture the unity of the Bible and demonstrate how this single, unfolding story represents an essential aspect of biblical interpretation and its proclamation. The focus on the unity of Scripture is reflected in the title’s allusion to Matthew 2:15, a reference to Hosea 11:1 and the exodus which the evangelist ultimately ascribes to Christ, thereby highlighting the recurring theme of the redemption of God’s people throughout the biblical story.

The editors present the material in four parts. The first, consisting of seven essays, offers a rationale for biblical theology’s role within hermeneutics, and also challenges historical criticism’s fragmentation of the text. Yet the reader will not discover here a new hermeneutical manual demonstrating how to employ biblical theology. Rather, while several essays offer some examples of how biblical theology shapes hermeneutical outcomes, by and large this section of the book is apologetic and theoretical in nature, challenging those within academic theological circles who have lost site of the bigger picture. Part 2 explores several great themes of the Bible, though this is a disappointingly thin section (only two essays are offered, to the detriment of other central themes of the Bible). Part 3 provides examples of hermeneutics and biblical theology in action by exploring several parts of the Bible. Al Wolter’ survey of patristic and modern interpretations of Zechariah 14, and Andrew Lincoln’s treatment of the book of Hebrews, are particularly helpful in demonstrating biblical theology’s hermeneutical value. The book concludes with a section on theological interpretation and biblical theology.

One of the book’s strengths lies in its multi-disciplinary approach, bringing the diverse theological specialities of 18 respected scholars (including biblical studies, church history, mission, homiletics, systematics, and philosophy) to bear on biblical theology. Each chapter concludes with a useful bibliography. Out of Egypt is also ecumenical in nature, with contributions from several Catholics. Clearly, while systematic and ecclesial theologies highlight the huge divide separating Catholicism and Protestantism, a focus on the theology and inner unity of the Bible is less divisive and more conducive to ecumenical cooperation, though some Evangelicals may well feel uncomfortable with such an approach.

The book is not without its problems. For example, while much of the work is lucid and straightforward, several essays are not particularly easy to follow, or else do not appear to focus single-mindedly on biblical theology. In these very few instances one is left with the distinct impression of an attempt to relate, however tenuously, current research interests with the theme of the book (or else the material is presented so implicitly that its links with biblical theology are not obvious). Thus, Out of Egypt is not ideal for the novice student newly embarked upon a biblical studies programme. Instead, the book offers a scholarly and stimulating debate that is better suited for scholars, specialists and mature students aware of the trends and historical developments within the fields of biblical studies and hermeneutics.

Another issue that arises during a reading of this book is how to determine the nature and main themes of the Bible story. While adherents of biblical theology see at its core the redemption of God’s people, when it comes to the `nitty gritty’ of establishing the main acts or themes of the biblical play, the contributors are not always agreed on what these are. For example, William Dumbrell delineates very clearly an end to Israel’s role in the overall biblical story, arguing that `Paul is speaking in Romans 9:30 – 10:4 of a post-cross situation in which ethnic Israel stands rejected and has been replaced’, which must `regulate our approach to the interpretation of Paul.’ (p. 310). Arguably, such a view is at odds with Paul’s passion and intensity for ethnic Israel as expressed in Romans 9 – 11, as well as demonstrating a central problem that arises when one attempts to construct a biblical theology. In this instance, a dogmatic presupposition (Reformed supercessionism) appears to have determined the outcome of the exercise from the outset (thus biblical theology, which should come first, is preceded by systematic and dogmatic considerations). On the other hand, James Dunn and Andrew Lincoln do quite the opposite, recognising and strongly emphasising the centrality of Israel in any biblical theology.

A further important aspect of the Bible narrative, especially given much of Jesus’ and Paul’s teachings, must surely be its thoroughly eschatological nature. Some contributors dwell at length on this fundamental theme that underpins the entire Bible story, but others less so, which is a pity. (After all, if the Bible does not actually offer a great future hope throughout its pages, regardless of which eschatological system one might espouse, there seems little point in the narrative). Thus, one is confronted with a very real problem with biblical theology, namely, how to establish the key themes of the unfolding story, and on what basis. An excellent essay by Christopher Wright constructs a biblical theology that revolves around mission, which certainly offers a convincing interpretation and application of the Bible story. Yet Karl Möller, during his treatment of the first part of Scobie’s The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), warns us of the danger of falling into arbitrary categorisation revolving around set schemes.

Out of Egypt is not a hermeneutical manual (though it does provide some useful examples of biblical interpretation). Instead, it offers a meaty treatment of biblical theology for consideration by academic theologians, demonstrating its integral role within hermeneutics and raising important questions which need to be addressed. (For example, James Dunn is not afraid to raise the problem of constructing a single biblical theology by two separate religions, Judaism and Christianity, who draw on the same Scriptures, the Old Testament). Most importantly, the current debate challenges the theological poverty evident within much of academic `theology,’ whose reliance on an historical-critical approach has resulted in an historical (arguably non-historical at times!), rather than a theological emphasis. The consequence of this erroneous emphasis has led to successive generations of graduate `theologians’ leaving university totally ill- prepared and equipped for church ministry. That is not to suggest that Out of Egypt ditches completely an historical-critical approach. Yet its emphasis on the inner unity of the Bible is underpinned by an unavoidable presupposition: divine revelation (throughout the book the word `Scripture’ is used plentifully and without excuse), which must surely demand a cherry-picking approach to historical criticism. It is ironic that while postmodernism shuns metanarrative (as discussed by Bartholomew and Goheen, p. 144), it is this same theological postmodernist milieu that is increasingly looking beyond modernist sterility for inspiration, thereby permitting this book to step into the gap and offer fresh insight. (hence, the title also reflects setting the biblical interpreter free from the bondage of historical criticism), Thus, while the church has always espoused a unified text and may well wonder what all the fuss is about, theology built upon the canon of Scripture is once again making headway within academic biblical studies.

No comments: