The standard definition for the "biblical theology movement" has been provided by OT scholar Brevard S Childs. He perceptively describes the background, rise, flowering, and demise of the American aspect of the movement from the middle of the 1940s to the early part of the 1960s. In a more general sense the biblical theology movement was made up of biblical scholars in North America and Europe who shared liberal, critical assumptions and methods in an attempt to do theology in relation to biblical studies. This new way of doing theology was most fundamentally concerned to do justice to the theological dimension of the Bible, which previous generations of liberal scholars had almost completely neglected. Accordingly the movement reflected an interest of European neo - orthodox theologians of the 1920s and beyond.
Neo - orthodoxy and the biblical theology movement shared the common concern to understand the Bible as a fully human book to be investigated with the fully immanent historical - critical method and yet to see the Bible as a vehicle or witness of the divine Word. This meant a meshing of the modern naturalistic - evolutionary world view as developed by natural science, modern philosophy, and critical history with the biblical view of a God who gives meaning and coherence to this world in his personal acts in history.
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Joined to this was the axiom that Israel borrowed extensively from the surrounding pagan cultures and religions and that Israelite and NT faith is best understood from the point of view of natural theology. All of this meant a lack of concern regarding the theological interests of the Bible for church, community, and individual. This sterile liberal theology, devoid of meaning for church and life, remained incompatible to significant segments of Christianity, particularly American Protestantism, which had only reluctantly given in to the historical - critical method in the long and devastating fundamentalist - modernist controversy. The biblical theology movement directed its efforts against the extremes of the historical - critical approach to the Bible, while itself remaining faithful to the historical - critical method, its presuppositions, and its procedures. The attempt of the movement was to move beyond the older liberal position within the liberal framework of the study of the Bible.
It must be noted, however, that neo - orthodoxy was not a return to older Protestant orthodoxy, which held that all Scripture was divinely inspired. By and large the biblical theology movement joined the neo - orthodox view of revelation and inspiration. Revelation is essentially God revealing himself in Christ, and Scripture may become a witness to this revelation. The Bible is not the word of God but may become the word of God in its witness to Christ. Particularly useful to the movement was Brunner's view on revelation in which he attacked classical Protestant and American fundamentalists on the one hand and classical liberals on the other. The biblical theology movement could join ranks with the neo - orthodox theology to wage a common battle against both liberalism in theology and fundamentalism among conservative segments in America.
The contrast between Greek and Hebrew thought (T Boman and others) became rather important. Although the NT was written in Greek, the Hebrew mentality was common to both testaments. The idea of the Hebrew mentality led to significant studies of words in both testaments. The outlines of the Hebraic thought patterns were reflected in the words of the Hebrew language, and this Hebraic thought content was also communicated through the vehicle of language (Greek) of the NT.
The corresponding emphasis on history meant that the revelational encounter in history provided the bridge of the gap between past and present in that Israel's history became the church's history and subsequently our modern history. In the church's liturgy the believer and the community of faith participate in the same redemptive event by means of recital.
There is no easy way of evaluating and assessing the biblical theology movement because it is part of a trend in modern liberal theology and in part an overlapping with the neo - orthodox movement in our century. The following features may serve as major points of issue that are called for in an assessment of the movement:
While the movement was critical of its forefathers in the liberal tradition of theology on a number of points as noted above, in a major sense the members of the biblical theology movement continued the liberal tradition. The secular - scientific (and liberal) understanding of the origin and development of the world along the evolutionary Darwinian model was accepted as axiomatic, and the liberal understanding of the movement of history along general historicist lines was not radically questioned. Onto the contemporary scientific understanding of the movement of history along general historicist lines was not radically questioned. Onto the contemporary scientific understanding of both nature and history theologians of the biblical theology movement attempted to graft the biblical understanding of God as Creator and Lord who is dynamically active in the process of history (G E Wright).
This meshing of a "secular" or "atheistic" (A Schlatter) historical - critical method and a naturalistic - evolutionary world view with the God of the Bible who gives meaning and coherence to this world in his personal acts in history was "at best only an uneasy dualism" (Gilkey, 91). Childs notes incisively that "the historical - critical method is an inadequate method of studying the Bible as the Scriptures of the church," setting up "an iron curtain between the past and the present" (Chils, 141 - 42).
The Issue of "What It Meant" and "What It Means." The biblical theology movement attempted to put aside the dichotomy between the past and the present, the historical - critical and theological study of the Bible, or the descriptive and the normative approach to the Bible. The interest in the theological dimension of the Bible was of major concern. Nevertheless, the distinction of "what it meant" as that which is descriptive, objective, and scientific as compared to "what it means" as that which is theological and normative (see K Stendahl) put a wedge between what the movement attempted to overcome. While Stendahl's distinction of "what it meant" and "what it means" remains highly debated (see Hasel, OT Theology, 35 - 75), it struck a blow at the heart of the movement.
The concept of revelation in history as an alternative to propositional revelation on the one hand or general revelation on the other did not prove successful. The more recent attempt to replace revelation in history with the view that the OT is "story rather than history" (Barr) does not overcome the ambiguities of history but merely replaces them with those connected with story. Biblical revelation carries within itself its own validation by enabling the recipient of revelation to grasp the content of revelation and to be grasped by the truth of revelation. Due to the fact that biblical revelation is self - authenticating, there can be no external proofs that stand as judges over the revelation of the Bible.
In short, the biblical theology movement was a major attempt for a full generation in the twentieth century to correct liberal theology from within itself. It did not succeed because it ultimately remained a captive of the basic modes, thought patterns, presuppositions, and methods of liberal theology itself. It provided, therefore, an additional impetus to more recent attempts that show the basic method of liberalism, i.e., the historical - critical method, as bankrupt (W Wink) or announce its end (G Maier) and seek for new methods of the study of the Bible and its theology whether it be a theological - historical method (G F Hasel) or structuralism (D Patte).
G F Hasel
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
D L Baker, Two Testaments: One Bible; J Barr, I D B Supplement; B S Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis; L Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind and "Cosmology, Ontology, and the Travail of Biblical Language," Jr. 41; G F Hasel, NT Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate and OT Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate; G Maier, The End of the Historical - Critical Method; J D Smart, The Past, Present, and Future of Biblical Theology; D Patte, What Is Structuralism? K Stendahl, I D B, I; W Wink, The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Bible Study.
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