BY RICH LUSK
Defining Biblical Theology
What is Biblical Theology? How does it compare to other ways of doing theology, such as Systematic Theology?
Geerhardus Vos suggested that whereas Biblical Theology draws a line, Systematic Theology draws a circle. That is to say, Biblical Theology is diachronic, Systematic Theology is synchronic. Diachronic reading looks at the Bible “through time.” It treats the Bible as a book with a history. It was revealed and written over time, not all at once. The historical context is of supreme importance in interpreting a text. The dominant question is, “Where am I on God’s timeline as I read this passage?” Synchronic reading treats the Bible as a finished product, as a coherent, logical, unified whole. In a sense, the Bible becomes a book of “timeless truths.” Cotext becomes the key to interpretation. “What other texts speak to this particular topic?” becomes the driving question. Whereas a diachronic reading of Scripture reads the New Testament in light of the Old, a synchronic reading looks at the Old in light of the New. Diachronic treats the Old Testament as a pre-Christian book that prepares the way for the coming of the Messiah. Synchronic reading treats the Old Testament as a fully Christian book, moving from fulfillment in Jesus back to the promises of the Old Covenant. Diachronic reading is concerned with what a text meant in its original historical context (human author and audience), whereas synchronic reading is concerned with what a text means in light of the canon as a whole. Neither of these approaches is fully satisfactory, though both shed light on important aspects of the biblical revelation.
Jim Jordan provides an alternative account, distinguishing Biblical Theology from Ecclesiastical Theology. In Biblical Theology, we study how God presents himself and his actions in the text of Scripture. It deals with matters internal to the Bible itself, treating the Bible as its own “narrative world.” According to Jordan, Biblical Theology includes Covenant Theology, Literary Theology, Typology, and Ritual Theology. Ecclesiastical Theology looks at how the church applies the Bible to the world outside the text of Scripture. Jordan subdivides Ecclesiastical Theology into Historical Theology, Systematic/Topical Theology, Philosophical Theology, and Liturgical Theology. (I would add Apologetical Theology.) This is a helpful scheme.
But the most important task before us is not to define what Biblical Theology is. Rather it is to actually do Biblical Theology in service of the church.
Essentially, Biblical Theology is Story Theology. The Bible tells a story. Biblical Theology seeks to understand that story on its own terms. Biblical Theology looks at what the Bible actually says and how it says it. It looks at patterns/types within Scripture, literary features, symbols, and so forth. Biblical Theology is closely related to, if not inclusive of, biblical hermeneutics.
Before examining the nature of the biblical story itself, we need to examine what we mean by “story.” What does it mean to say the Bible is a storybook? How do stories work? How do they shape us? How do they form communities?
Every identifiable civilization in history has been held together by some overarching story (or metanarrative). We see this with the ancient Hebrews. Israel understood herself in terms of several basic narratives – the creation account, the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, the call of Abraham, the exodus, and so forth. Ancient Greek culture was formed, first by the stories of Homer and Hesiod, and later by the stories of the philosophers (e.g., Plato’s cave allegory). Augustine shaped medieval Christendom by re-telling the world’s story in The City of God. In the modern West, the Augustinian story has been challenged and effectively replaced by the stories of Locke, Darwin, Marx, and Freud.
Foundational stories allow us to interpret and organize our experience, both corporately and individually. These basic stories define our past and provide a grid for mapping out future courses of action. Shared stories create social cohesion and give rise to community. Stories also embody an ethic, a praxis, a particular way of “being in the world.” The question “Who am I?” is essentially the question, “What’s my story?” As images of the story-creating, story-telling God, we inevitably give our life experiences narrative shape.
The gospel (enacted in the liturgy and proclaimed in preaching) transforms our natural Adamic identity by telling us a different story about the world and ourselves. The Bible uses stories to expose sin, encourage faith, and build community among the covenant people. We learn that the story of Israel and Jesus is now the church’s story.
Biblical Theology requires us to learn to read the biblical narrative from within. We are insiders to the story of Scripture. It’s our story. We have to learn to read the Bible canonically. We have to allow the Word to absorb the world rather than allowing the world to absorb the Word. We have to take Scripture’s outlook as normative rather than imposing another worldview on our reading of Scripture. We must learn to read the Bible organically, in terms of itself. We should read the Bible the same way Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmond would read The Chronicles of Narnia: as a story not only for us, but about us.
Reading the Bible organically means reading it intertextually and typologically. Intertextual reading listens for echoes of and allusions to other passages within the canon, using Scripture interpret Scripture. Typological reading looks for repeating patterns within the unfolding storyline of Scripture. Biblical typology is focused on totus Christus — the whole Christ, head and body, Jesus and the church. Typology means reading the Bible on its own terms, as a revelation of the suffering and glory of Christ (Lk. 24). As we move from type(s) to antitype, there is both correspondence and escalation.
Biblical Theology as Story Theology
Looking at the Bible in a narratival fashion means we always keep in mind eschatology. God always intended for the creation (and especially humanity as the crown and representative of creation) to grow and mature. Adam’s fall sent the story off course, but God used that sinful twist in the plot to manifest his glory in an even greater degree. In redemption, God restores the created order to the plan that he intended for it all along. In the incarnation, the Storyteller writes himself into the script to set the story straight. The unfolding story of Scripture cannot be understood apart from its promised end.
To do biblical theology, we must be able to grapple with the overall “plot” of Scripture. It is helpful, then, to read other stories outside the Bible to get a feel for how stories work. Every (good) story has a kind of eschatology – some kind of plot resolution at the end. After the fact, we can look back and see everything throughout the story was pressing towards that final resolution.
A wonderful example of this sort of thing is Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s imaginative mythology provides a kind of analogue to the “true mythology” of Scripture. Towards the end, Sam Gamgee asks Gandalf, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” This, essentially, is the gospel. The sad things in the world are truly sad. The fall really happened. But there is also hope that the story will have a happy ending after all, and, in fact, the world will be a more joyous place at the last for having once endured sadness. Tolkien coined the term “eucatastrophe” to capture this aspect of biblical theology. He said the gospel sanctified the “happy ending,” thus fusing legend and history, myth and reality.
The happy ending of world history has broken into the middle of history through the death and resurrection of Jesus. His cross and exaltation were the beginning of the end, but there is a final end still to come. This is the narrative dynamic of the biblical story, and indeed, of the Christian life. Christians believe in a sort of time travel — the future has traveled back into the present. We are called to live now as we shall live then. Just as we live from back to front, so we have to read the Bible from end to beginning.
Dorothy Sayers captured all this well: “The dogma is the drama.” Or perhaps we should say, “The drama — the story — is our dogma.” Biblical religion is not a philosophy or ideology. It is a story. It is a story with a happy ending. It is the story of stories.
The Church and the Biblical Story
We have to learn to find ourselves in the biblical narrative. The biblical story is our story. We must locate the place of the church within the biblical storyline as a whole, as well as in the Bible’s individual stories.
Once again, Tolkien is helpful. In his trilogy, several of the characters have a sense of being part of a larger drama, of fulfilling prophecy, and so forth. They know they are part of a larger narrative, a broader story, which gives their quest to destroy the ring of power greater significance.
In the classic hermeneutics text, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine starts with the basic principle of totus christus: the whole Christ, head and body. To find Christ in the story is to find the church, and vice versa. Christ cannot be separated from his people. The story of Scripture is not just about Jesus; it is also about his bride, the “damsel in distress” he comes to rescue from the clutches of the dragon. We not only have to find “Christ figures” in OT narratives, but also “church figures.”
Of course, this means reading Scripture typologically, as we’ve already noted. But typology properly done arises from within the biblical narrative itself; it is not imposed from the outside. We are looking for patterns within the Bible’s story. Typology cannot be done piecemeal; it must be organic and holistic.
Part of our present cultural crisis is our loss of story. People no longer believe they inhabit a “narratable world,” that is, a world in which the flow of events have meaning and direction. It doesn’t seem like history is going somewhere any longer. In rejecting Christ, our culture rejected its telos.
Robert Jenson explains the implications of this for the church and her mission (in an article from First Things):
If there is little mystery about where the West got its faith in a narratable world, neither is there much mystery about how the West has lost this faith. The entire project of the Enlightenment was to maintain realist faith while declaring disallegiance from the God who was that faith’s object. The story the Bible tells is asserted to be the story of God with His creatures; that is, it is both assumed and explicitly asserted that there is a true story about the universe because there is a universal novelist/historian. Modernity was defined by the attempt to live in a universal story without a universal storyteller.
The experiment has failed. It is, after the fact, obvious that it had to: if there is no universal storyteller, then the universe can have no story line. Neither you nor I nor all of us together can so shape the world that it can make narrative sense; if God does not invent the world’s story, then it has none, then the world has no narrative that is its own. If there is no God, or indeed if there is some other God than the God of the Bible, there is no narratable world.
Moreover, if there is not the biblical God, then realistic narrative is not a plausible means for our human self-understanding. Human consciousness is too obscure a mystery to itself for us to script our own lives. Modernity has added a new genre of theater to the classic tragedy and comedy: the absurdist drama that displays precisely an absence of dramatic coherence. Sometimes such drama depicts a long sequence of events with no turning points or denouement; sometimes it displays the absence of any events at all. Samuel Beckett has, of course, written the arch-examples of both, with Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. If we would be instructed in the postmodern world, we should seek out a performance of Beckett–the postmodern world is the world according to Beckett.
The arts are good for diagnosis, both because they offer a controlled experience and because they always anticipate what will come later in the general culture. But the general culture has now caught up with postmodernism, and for experience of the fact, we should turn from elite art to the streets of our cities and the classrooms of our suburbs, to our congregations and churchly institutions, and to the culture gaps that rend them . . .
[I]f the church does not find her hearers antecedently inhabiting a narratable world, then the church must herself be that world.
The church has in fact had great experience of just this role. One of many analogies between postmodernity and dying antiquity-in which the church lived for her most creative period-is that the late antique world also insisted on being a meaningless chaos, and that the church had to save her converts by offering herself as the narratable world within which life could be lived with dramatic coherence. Israel had been the nation that lived a realistic narrative amid nations that lived otherwise; the church offered herself to the gentiles as their Israel. The church so constituted herself in her liturgy.
For the ancient church, the walls of the place of Eucharist, whether these were the walls of a basement or of Hagia Sophia or of an imaginary circle in the desert, enclosed a world. And the great drama of the Eucharist was the narrative life of that world. Nor was this a fictive world, for its drama is precisely the “real” presence of all reality’s true author, elsewhere denied. The classic liturgical action of the church was not about anything else at all; it was itself the reality about which truth could be told.
In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be “relevant,” here is the first step: it must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction.
Out there-and that is exactly how we must again begin to speak of the society in which the church finds itself-there is no narratable world. But absent a narratable world, the church’s hearers cannot believe or even understand the gospel story-or any other momentous story. If the church is not herself a real, substantial, living world to which the gospel can be true, faith is quite simply impossible . . .
[M]odern Christianity, i.e., Protestantism, has regularly substituted slogans for narrative, both in teaching and in liturgy. It has supposed that hearers already knew they had a story and even already knew its basic plot, so that all that needed to be done was to point up certain features of the story-that it is “justifying,” or “liberating,” or whatever. The supposition was always misguided, but sometimes the church got away with it. In the postmodern world, this sort of preaching and teaching and liturgical composition merely expresses the desperation of those who in their meaningless world can believe nothing but vaguely wish they could.”
Insofar as Biblical Theology enables the church to recover her sense of story, and therefore her sense of identity and mission in the world, it is crucial to the church’s vitality and fidelity.