Biblical Theology, Köstenberger’s JETS Editorial, and J. P. Gabler

Andreas Köstenberger’s editorial in the most recent issue of JETS surveys the recent revival of biblical theology among evangelicals (“Editorial,” JETS 55 [2012]: 1–5). I am grateful that he took notice of my work in this area along with that of Greg Beale, Frank Thielman, and a host of others. A lot of good work is being done in biblical theology, and Köstenberger serves us by highlighting some of it.

I do, however, want to take issue with both Köstenberger’s characterization of my approach to biblical theology and his commendation of J. P. Gabler’s.

Köstenberger has this to say of God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology,

. . . it should be noted that Hamilton’s brand of Biblical Theology is in fact a hybrid of Biblical and Systematic Theology—Hamilton calls the two disciplines “equal tools”—and takes its cue from both theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and direct study of biblical texts (3).

A Hybrid?

I would first observe that a “hybrid” is the offspring of two animals or plants of different breeds. Regarding biblical and systematic theology as “equal tools” does not hybridize or merge the two but simply recognizes that they are both used for different things at different times. Observing that an ox and a cart-horse are “equal tools” at the farm does not result in an equi-bovine hybrid of the two animals.

My statement that biblical and systematic theology are equal tools adds to the usual assertion that we use biblical theology as a “bridge” or a “building block” toward systematic theology. I agree with that concept, but I also think that at points biblical theology is an end in itself and is taught directly to the people of God, rather than being merely a step in the process of assembling a full systematic theology. So the statement that biblical and systematic theology are “equal tools” does not hybridize the two, as though my book means somehow to merge them into one thing.

Taking Cues Not from Edwards but the Biblical Authors

Köstenberger then states that my “brand of Biblical Theology . . . takes its cue from both theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and direct study of biblical texts.”

I do quote Jonathan Edwards, and I use his distinction between subordinate and ultimate ends to define the “center” of biblical theology (47–49). What biblical theologians are looking for in the quest for the center of biblical theology is usually left unarticulated, resulting in confusion and uncertainty as to how to evaluate the various proposals.

I define the center of biblical theology as “the ultimate end ascribed to God in the Bible,” noting that it needs to be demonstrated that “the Bible’s description of God’s ultimate end produces, informs, organizes, and is exposited by all the other themes in the Bible” and shown “from the Bible’s own salvation-historical narrative and in its own terms” (48). In sorting through the Bible’s themes to determine which one the biblical authors consider to be ultimate, the distinction Jonathan Edwards makes between subordinate and ultimate ends is very helpful. But quoting Edwards on this point does not mean that my “brand of biblical theology . . . takes its cue” from him, as anyone who has read Edwards and my book will easily discern.

I have learned from and have great respect for Jonathan Edwards, but he did not define biblical theology as I do, nor am I pursuing an interpretive methodology that takes its cues from his way of operating. He was working at a different time with different dialogue partners.

If I am not taking my cues from Edwards, what am I doing? Here’s how I describe what I undertake in GGSTJ:

In this study, I will pursue a biblical theology that highlights the central theme of God’s glory in salvation through judgment by describing the literary contours of individual books in canonical context with sensitivity to the unfolding metanarrative. In my view this metanarrative presents a unified story with a discernible main point, or center. This study will be canonical: I will interpret the Protestant canon, and the Old Testament will be interpreted in light of the ordering of the books in the Hebrew Bible (see further below). It will be literary: I will seek to interpret books and sections of books in light of their inherent literary features and structures as we have them in the canon (44).

It’s not as though that’s the only time I say that sort of thing. A few pages later:

The purpose of biblical theology, then, is to sharpen our understanding of the theology contained in the Bible itself through an inductive, salvation-historical examination of the Bible’s themes and the relationships between those themes in their canonical context and literary form. In this book I am arguing that one theme is central to all others (47).

At this point, borrowing an image from Doug Wilson, imagine me dancing around in a circle waving a handkerchief trying to draw attention to what I’m about to say: My “brand of Biblical Theology” means to “take its cue” from the biblical authors. As I put it in GGSTJ:

We can think of the practice of biblical theology in two ways. On the one hand, we have the practice of the believing community across the ages. On the other hand, we have a label that describes an academic discipline. Regarding the first, I would argue that biblical theology is as old as Moses. That is, Moses presented a biblical-theological interpretation of the traditions he received regarding Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and his own experience with his kinsmen. Joshua then presented a biblical-theological interpretation of Israel’s history (Joshua 24), and the same can be said of the rest of the authors of the Prophets and the Writings, the Gospels and Acts, the Epistles and the Apocalypse. The biblical authors use biblical theology to interpret the Scriptures available to them and the events they experienced. For the believing community, the goal of biblical theology is simply to learn this practice of interpretation from the biblical authors so that we can interpret the Bible and life in this world the way they did.

It seems to me, then, that the history of biblical interpretation in the church is a history of more and less success in accurately understanding the interpretive strategies used by the biblical authors. Some figures in the history of the church were more adept at this than others. Some failed miserably . . . (41–42).

So I mean for my “brand of Biblical Theology” to take its cue from the biblical authors. I think we should be attempting to trace the contours of their interpretive perspective, reflected in the way they have interpreted earlier Scripture and their own situations, so that we can embrace and apply that perspective as we interpret the Scriptures and our own situations.

Thus, the assertion, “Hamilton’s brand of Biblical Theology is in fact a hybrid of Biblical and Systematic Theology” does not, in fact, reflect either what I say I intend to do in the first chapter or what I then do in the body of the book: tracking through all 66 books of the Bible, making observations on near and canonical context, discussing literary structure and organic thematic development, contending that the glory of God, seen most clearly in his justice and mercy, is the center of biblical theology.

Gabler’s Goal and Mine

Köstenberger writes, “Hamilton’s approach thus differs from ‘The Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology’ urged by Gabler” (3).

That’s right, it does. Gabler wanted to sift the biblical material to remove the time-bound bits that no longer apply. It seems that he would exclude from “pure biblical theology” statements that the biblical authors make that reflect merely their own time and do not apply to the people of God today. I’m after something different as I pursue biblical theology. I’m not seeking the pure silver amidst the dross (cf. Gabler: “what in the sayings of the Apostles is truly divine, and what perchance merely human”). I’m seeking the perspective from which the biblical authors write, which is not what systematic/dogmatic theologians are doing, either. I’m trying to get at the world-view shared by the biblical authors. That’s what I mean by “biblical theology,” the world-view, or interpretive perspective, reflected in the biblical writings.

We also need to be clear about what kind of “dogmatic theology” we’re after as opposed to what Gabler sought. Again, Gabler wanted to remove the time-bound statements the biblical authors made so that he could get the timeless truths, and the timeless truths would then be used to construct “a dogmatic theology adapted to our own times.” As explained above, I am not interested in Gabler’s program of sifting out the statements in the Bible, where he tried to establish “whether all the opinions of the Apostles, of every type and sort altogether, are truly divine, or rather whether some of them, which have no bearing on salvation, were left to their own ingenuity.” It’s not hard to imagine how this program would handle assertions that “have no bearing on salvation” but are culturally unacceptable—statements about gender or marriage or sexual orientation, for instance. I would not commend Gabler’s enterprise to anyone, as it would seem to enable us to reshape the message of the Bible according to what fits with our culture and its expectations.

I want to teach the people of God to understand how the biblical authors have interpreted earlier Scripture, that is, I want to teach them biblical theology. And my hope is that this will equip the people of God to interpret the Bible and their own lives from the perspective the biblical authors themselves model in their writings.

Check it out for yourself.

9 Responses to Biblical Theology, Köstenberger’s JETS Editorial, and J. P. Gabler

  1. dr. james willingham May 21, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    I am fascinated by your focus on Salvation through judgment. It is true that all of the attributes of god meet in the work of Christ on the cross and come to their full harmony in a fugue of a pastoral symphony. It would seem that the two together sustain the theme of Divine Glory.

  2. Jeremy Caskey May 24, 2012 at 7:48 am #

    I’m wondering if Dr. Köstenberger read your whole book? His description doesn’t seem to characterize it at all. We miss you and Kenwood.

    • Brian Watson May 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

      Jeremy,

      I had the same thought. I wonder how often scholars read entire books, even when they endorse them. I’m simply curious. There’s no sin in not reading an entire book.

  3. Mark Turner June 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    Thank you for your book. It was a stimulating read.

    In regard to Köstenberger’s objection and your response. Was there a reason you didn’t significantly respond to Gabler’s definition of Biblical Theology in your book? I suspect you didn’t want to play by his rules (which you surely didn’t!), but I just wanted to make sure. I know that most Biblical Theologies feel the need to at least deal with Gabler because of his prominence in the history of Biblical Theology as a discipline (even if they significantly disagree).

    Blessings

    • JMH June 9, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

      I think the only reason Gabler retains relevance is because people continue to talk about him, and I don’t feel the need to continue to talk about him because I don’t think his program is the way forward.

      Blessings!

      Jim

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