Daniel J. Brendsel on the Center of Biblical Theology

I’ve just re-read Daniel J. Brendsel’s essay, Plots, Themes, and Responsibilities: The Search for a Center of Biblical Theology Reexamined,” Themelios 35.3 (2010): 400–12, which has me more convinced than ever that the center of biblical theology is the glory of God in salvation through judgment.

I’m going to paste my notes on Brendsel’s essay below, and if you’d like to know why I prefer my proposed center to his, please see God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (for a shorter version, see either my article on the subject or this summarizing presentation).

Here are my notes on Brendsel (my outline doesn’t correspond entirely to his, and I have reformatted some quotations, summarizing other parts):

Daniel J. Brendsel, “Plots, Themes, and Responsibilities: The Search for a Center of Biblical Theology Reexamined,” Themelios 35.3 (2010): 400–12.

1) Introduction: Assumes that the search for a center is not an obsession but a responsibility and

2)   provides a rationale for the search for a center

3)   refocuses what the object of the search is, and

4)   discusses the process of the search

2) The Rationale for the Search

2.1 if a center exists, it has massive heuristic value for understanding the parts in light of the whole

2.2 the search for a center is driven by a prior conviction about the unity of Scripture

2.3 Paul’s reference to “the whole counsel of God” in Acts 20:27 seems to imply a core deposit that will inform the Ephesians as they continue to study the Scriptures in his absence

“The search for a center is the search to provide heuristic lenses for the people of God in their interaction with scripture (and the world)” (401).

3) The Object of the Search

3.1 Problems with the term “center”

3.1.1 few have defined what they mean by the term (citing me as an exception: “the concept to which the biblical authors point as the ultimate reason” for God’s activities and as “the theme which all of the Bible’s other themes serve to exposit.” [402])
3.1.2 Many centers have been proposed, and they all threaten to steamroll diversity

3.2 Plot, Themes, and Responsibilities

It is helpful to focus on the narrative of form of Scripture, but this should not keep us from searching for a center because

3.2.1 “Narrative is not an option over against ideas—the latter is intrinsic to the former” (403–404), and
3.2.2 “plot-line alone might not sufficiently summarize the message of scripture, nor describe its fundamental heartbeat, because not all scripture is narrative.” (404)

“storyline can be an effective means of communicating the whole counsel of God when the key concepts and commands arising from the storyline itself are also explicitly noted and highlighted. An adequate proposal for a center to biblical theology, or more preferably, to use the language of Acts 20:27, a sufficient summary of the whole counsel of God, will link these elements together—plot, theme(s), responsibilities—in its formulation.” (404).

3.3 Two Important Precedents

“there are two important precedents for this fusion of plot, theme, and responsibility as a way of summarizing scripture to be used as a heuristic tool by God’s people. The first comes from Jesus himself, the second from the early church.” (405)

3.3.1 ““Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45–47). Note two things: (1) Jesus presents a concise summary of “the scriptures,” offering what could be considered the core of what “is written.” (2) This core consists of a plot (the story of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, and a proclamation beginning in Jerusalem and moving outward), a theme (repentance for the forgiveness of sins), and responsibilities (repentance, proclamation).” (405)
3.3.2 “second, ante-Nicene theologians (esp. tertullian and irenaeus) spoke of a “rule of Faith,” which they viewed as being both derived from and serving deeper reflection on scripture.” (405)

“The rule of Faith offers four important parallels with the present proposal.
First, it seeks to offer a narrative digest of scripture.
Second, it combines plot (moving through creation, fall, redemption, and restoration), themes (creation, sin, salvation, etc.), and responsibility (as a creedal statement).
Third, it was used as a kind of framework or guide for further fruitful reflection on scripture, a kind of heuristic lens through which the people of God may discover truth.
Fourth, as Paul Blowers has argued persuasively, ante-Nicene theologians were not interested in using the rule merely as a useful guide for biblical instruction and interpretation or as a way to fend off error, but also in the formation of Christian identity, that is, in shaping believers’ “storied” existence as themselves part of the biblical story. In other words, the rule of Faith was formulated and passed on within the context of pastoral care for the people of God.” (406)

4. The Process of the Search

4.1 Validation Tests for Selecting Key Points

Citing Beale:

“Proposals for a center must be
(1) “more overarching” than other proposals;
(2) related to the other major themes of the NT;
(3) “integrally related to major old testament themes,” resting ultimately upon “a broad storyline” and rooted in Christ; and
(4) individually examined.

These four tests can be condensed into two broad criteria: comprehensiveness and integral relationship to the major themes of scripture, especially the Bible’s plot-line and the death and resurrection of Christ.” (407)

4.2 Objections:

4.2.3 historical and cultural factors result in the identification of “major” themes
some themes are consistently identified across cultures and history

4.2.4 “the idea of comprehensiveness might be rejected on two fronts:
(1) there is no basis for relegating some elements of scripture to mere sub-categories under other more comprehensive themes, and
(2) even if there were a basis, it is extremely difficult to know what to subordinate under what.” (408)

Answer to the first: this criticism can be applied to any proposal that recognizes a cluster of broad or major themes, since even if they reject a center they are nevertheless presenting a hierarchy of themes.
1)   selectivity is inevitable
2)   complaining that some things are at the margin while others are central is more a description than a criticism
3)   those who criticize proposals for the center should do so on other grounds: for instance, that all themes should be treated equally, that another proposal is better, or that some passages contradict the proposal.
4)   Scripture itself prioritizes some parts of the Bible over others—e.g., weightier matters of the law (Matt 23:23), Micah 6:8, greatest commandment, Jesus’ claim that the Scriptures testify to him.

Answer to the Second: Factors to help us in the search:
1. “repetition and representation in diverse portions of scripture, while certainly not sufficient in and of itself, is a significant consideration.
2. Climactic portions of the biblical narrative would be key places to identify clusters of important events and ideas.
3. Integral relationship with other major themes has been shown to be a valid area for examination.
4. And related to this is whether or not parallel suggestions have been made in the history of interpretation, which could be either different expressions of or perspectives on a substantive core, or the seed form of something one is trying to develop.” (409)

Purposes and agendas cannot be denied and should be acknowledged up front (410).

5. Conclusion

“What basic, general hermeneutical lens ought we to provide for the people of God? Perhaps we might suggest the following: The triune God is actively engaged in increasing (and incarnating) his presence among his people, a presence that entails for his people the responsibility of worship, in the fourfold story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.” (412)

The whole essay is here.

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