What is biblical theology? Or: What is it I think I’m doing with myself?
Biblical theology is a fraught and protracted thought-experiment: what do we (Protestants) find when we heuristically “bracket out” traditional Christians doctrines and scriptural interpretations, and, riding the estrangement occasioned by historical methods, reach fresh and creative observations about the ways that scriptural texts perceive God, humanity, and the world?
This is a complicated definition. Gerhard Ebeling in his essay “The Meaning of ‘Biblical Theology’” (in Word and Faith, transl. James Leitch, Mohr and Siebeck, 1960) has done a fine job drawing out the delicate, somewhat contradictory balance of goals inherent to the discipline of biblical theology. On the one hand, biblical theology is the child of the Reformation’s sola scriptura principle, as well as its Pietistic aftershock in the late 17th and early 18th century. The Reformers argued that church teaching is susceptible to correction by scripture, and ought to be primarily determined by it. The Pietists, in rebellion against the scholastic edifice of “Protestant orthodoxy,” urged a simpler, more directly biblicistic form of theology. But a cursory look at present-day titles within the broad genre of biblical theology shows that figures within either of these historic movements could not have imagined the radical novelty and theological bizarreness of present-day proposals: Calvin could hardly have stomached “the bodies of God” (a la Benjamin Sommer). Jakob Spener would have been scandalized by “the suffering of God” (a la Terence Fretheim) or “God's perennial struggle against evil” (a la Jon Levenson).
No, these kind of efforts require a strong admixture of Enlightenment rationalism – and the consequent strangeness generated by a more sharply-tuned historical apparatus. The doctrinal novelty of the Protestant Reformation was rather shallow; antecedents for their innovations existed in medieval dispute, and justifying citations from the fathers pepper their writings. Likewise, the objection of the Pietists to Protestant Orthodoxy was more formal than really novel: they affirmed the same principal theological tenets as their opponents but in a language that hewed self-consciously closer to the Bible. Though history remembers the names of only a few famous Reformers or Pietists, their beliefs were usually a matter of consensus within their tribe – and not the idiosyncratic product of one learned and creative scholar.
By contrast, the novelty of present-day biblical-theological proposals is just that: really new, unprecedented, individual, idiosyncratic. They harness the oddity thrown up by a beefy historical consciousness; by giving weight to the inherence of biblical texts in distant and alien cultures, they defamiliarize Exodus, or 1 Corinthians (priests as haz-mat experts? the inner man as a husk-like endoskeleton? what?). But at the same time, and as Gerhard Ebeling notes, biblical theology still trades on its often implicit theological inheritance: namely, that its practitioners imagine that what they say, though rejecting dogmatic theology as a methodological base of operations, ought to influence it. Though aiming to bracket out traditional theology, a residual confidence that their efforts churn up the word of God endues biblical-theological discoveries with theological self-importance. Here is the discipline’s curious and self-contradictory balance: a distinctively Christian enterprise trying, especially with the aid of historical criticism, to open its ears to a word from God that might upset and reshape its theological commitments (see here).
Some would object that the above sentiments suffer from a conflation of historical with theological alienness, i.e., that biblical theologians equate theological reform with the odd and intellectually opprobrious operation of trying to force modern people to believe all kinds of exotic premodern things. I am not deaf to this objection. But the truth that the good news about the fidelity of Israel’s God in Jesus Christ is tied to no particular worldview (and translates successfully into all) does not relieve Protestants of our hermeneutical dilemma: this good news in its normative, scriptural form is ensconced within a particular (or rather, multiple) culturally located ways of seeing reality. Correlatively, the humanistic instincts of the Reformation and their renewed scrutiny of the historically provincial biblical materials fueled their vastly successful translating endeavor. There is, after all, an unpredictable, paradoxical relationship between theological reform and historical-critical revisiting the Bible. Turning up a new and strange exegesis of Ezekiel does not de facto demand theological reform – but by the same token, without the serial attempts of Christians to hear scripture anew, including such a piecemeal and historically disciplined exegesis, would theological reform occur? I doubt it. I am also afraid that appeals to Jesus Christ as the center of scripture do not tidy up the conversation that much: key aspects of his identity as envisioned within the Reformed tradition owe to re-readings of scripture, and not even scripture directly naming him (e.g., emphasis on him as prophet, priest, and king). Our vision of him, too, is caught up in the corrigibility of all scriptural interpretation, and, because of his unity with the God who sent him, patient of correction from anywhere in the canon.
Biblical theology, then, as practiced today, is an inherently experimental and maybe even tragic task. Individual scholars use historical-critical learning to take a strange and novel angle on familiar biblical texts. No doubt most of this literature ends up simply eccentric and irrelevant. But it proceeds in a lively awareness of the possibility that we may uncover something vital about the living God, which must change the old, well-trod ways we speak and obey.