Because, of course, there are a variety of theological schools on offer at present, and numerous taxonomies for arranging them: Radical Orthodoxy, postliberalism, liberation theologies from various contexts, the Chicago school, the diffuse and lingering embers of dialectical theology, etc., and all kinds of mediating and liminal theologies in between. For the most part, these contemporary theological schools count only very slight exegetical complements – the exceptions, perhaps, being postliberalism and liberation theologies (and, apparently, the Union apocalyptic school with regards to the New Testament). The question of why this is so is only another way of getting at the longstanding disciplinary problem of the relation between (systematic) theology and biblical exegesis. From one angle, the question is: why do some theological regimes count allies amongst the exegetes and biblical theologians and others do not (or to a far lesser extent)? From another and (to me) more pressing angle, the question is: how and why would one, trained far more on the exegetical side of the theological disciplines, ever become an accomplice to some theological program?
By and large, the famous exegetes and biblical theologians I know do not fit neatly into the theological camps mentioned above. Von Rad was part of the Confessing church, and so shared many of the commitments of the dialectical theologians (Christocentrism of some kind, focus on the revelatory character of the texts per se and not as windows to a revelatory experience or social world behind them) – but was hardly a party man, and in fact, as James Barr has limned, pursued some ends that would have been quite anathema to Barth (too systematizing still). Childs, too, inherits a lot from Barth, including a reading for the theological subject (Sache) of Scripture, the theological determinacy of Scripture’s final form, a complex Christocentrism. At the same time, he tracks far more with the history of reception than Barth would have probably been interested to do, and this is only the tip of the iceberg on the hermeneutic directions he took far beyond his Barthian muse (somewhat, I think, in response to the complicated and unique exegetical pressures of the Old Testament). Childs is sometimes counted as a postliberal, but Daniel Driver’s recently published dissertation has shown definitively that he really parts company with Frei (and Lindbeck) on the matter of Scripture’s referentiality: Childs thinks that Scripture doesn’t only “render the identity” of Scripture’s divine subject, but refers as a truthful witness to him. Childs wholly lacks the “story-world” vocabulary that surfaces in these dons of the postliberal paradigm. In any case, I could repeat this exercise with any of the well-known names in biblical theology: Brueggemann, Rendtorff, Goldingay, Fretheim (maybe also Levenson and Trible?). None sit too snugly within one of the aforementioned theological schools, though lines of connection could be drawn from any of them to one or multiple of the theological teams. To some extent, the exegetes and biblical theologians are doing their own thing, most likely because of their disparate training and the more detail-oriented focus of their work. How, in their own view, do they relate to the theological teams at play in their day? How in general does one ever end up as a devotee (or even an ally) of a specific theological program?
Theological autobiography is a weird thing – like looking under the hood of the theological arguments. I think about this often in my own case, especially now in this season of transitioning from the end of my MDiv and (hopefully) into further study. I have worked with the Old Testament largely because of my friendship with two consultants in Nepal during an undergraduate internship, one a Filipino man and the other a Brazilian woman. They knew and loved the Old Testament like no one I had ever met before – and read it in rich and life-giving ways. They even found books like Leviticus to be deeply humane and theologically profound. And none of this in a kitschy, naïve, pietistic way, either. From them I first seriously engaged the claims of modern critical research. I remember how scandalized I was when they said things like, “oh, a vengeful priest put that in there about Michal’s [David’s wife] infertility” or, “I guess the author of Mark’s gospel just had it wrong about the timing of parousia.” Their own lives were breathtakingly marked by Jesus. All this connected up with my extant Christian faith, which was already pretty exegetically preoccupied and radically Protestant in its amenability to correction from new forays into the Bible. I don’t even know what the particular scholarly “lineage” of these two friends is: they had studied under an American Old Testament scholar at a seminary in the Philippines. When I myself shipped off to seminary I had already read around in current biblical theology; the only “theologians” I had ever touched (besides Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas) were Barth and Frei. Was I open to the Old Testament because of anterior theological beliefs? Or has my approach to theology proper been shaped by my prior love for the Old Testament, so that I cottoned onto Barth and the dialecticians early because of their salutary effect on the discipline of Old Testament theology? Is there a more appropriate direction of influence here, chicken and egg, Bible and theology? How related are the sensibilities that guided me into Old Testament with those that have directed my readings in the theologians? I don’t know. And: how much does this kind of consideration matter for the congealment of one’s theological “raw materials” into a more definite theological outlook?
(Hey, these things are allowed to be soupy.)