Biblical Theology Movement

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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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It has been shown by James Barr and James D Smart that the biblical theology movement is not a uniquely American phenomenon (so Childs). In Great Britian and on the European continent the same tendencies inherent in the American aspect of the movement were present, although the setting in Europe was different. In any case, the biblical theology movement, international in scope, was broader than the scene in North America, and Barr claims it "can well be seen in the organized study programs of the international ecumenical movement." Even though there was no formal organization of the movement nationally or internationally, and although there existed varieties of emphases among its proponents, there were nevertheless overriding characteristics that were so typical of the movement that they gave a fairly well defined coherence.


Without attempting to be exhaustive, it will be useful to enumerate typical features that are common to the movement in America and Europe. Among those that characterize both its relative coherence and its distinctiveness are the following:

Reaction to Liberalism

The biblical theology movement was a reaction against the study of the Bible in previous liberal theology where the source criticism of the historical - critical method atomized the biblical text into separate sources, frequently consisting of small isolated entities or fragments of documents. These reconstructed sources were placed in new sociological, political, and cultural contexts in the ancient world and interpreted from this newly reconstructed context. A part of this scholarly reconstruction by means of the presuppositions and procedures of the historical - critical method, which reached its total victory over conservative approaches in Europe by the end of the 1900s and in America by the middle of the 1930s, consisted of a redating and reordering of the biblical materials along the lines of naturalistic - evolutionary developmentalism.

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.

Alliance with Neo - orthodoxy

The biblical theology movement was fostered by the neo - orthodox reaction to theological liberalism that developed under the influence of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner in Europe and H Richard Niebuhr and Reinhold Niebuhr in America. The neo - orthodox reaction against Protestant liberalism's reduction of the Christian faith to universal human and religious truths and moral values became a powerful impetus for the biblical theology movement.

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.

Greek Versus Hebrew Thought

The biblical theology movement constantly opposed the influence of modern philosophy and its constructs as modes to understand biblical thought. It also tended strongly to reject an understanding of the Bible on the basis of Greek thought and its categories. In its rejection of the domineering effect of modern philosophy it shared once again a concern of neo - orthodoxy. The attempt was to understand the Bible outside certain modern or ancient philosophical norms and patterns of thought. It was argued that the Bible must be understood "in its own categories" (James Muilenburg) and the scholar must put himself "within the world of the Bible" (B W Anderson).

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 Bible Within Its Culture

Another characteristic of the biblical theology movement was an emphasis on the distinctiveness of the Bible in its environment. G E Wright's book The OT Against Its Environment (1950) is typical, reflecting in part the concern of the Albright school. The consensus emerged that when there is borrowing or even syncretism, or when there are plain similarities, the differences between the literature of Israel and that of the surrounding nations are far more remarkable than its points of contact. The movement claimed that the most significant things in Israel were not the things it held in common with its neighbors but the things where it differed from them. When the Bible was compared with other contemporary cultures and religions, its uniqueness became apparent. Further, this distinctiveness is not a matter of faith but a matter of scientific historical study. The uniqueness of the biblical faith was determined by historical study and subject to its norms.

Biblical Unity

A concomitant aspect of the distinctiveness of the Bible is its unity, particularly the unity of both testaments. "The attempt to deal with both testaments in a unified way came as a protest against the tendency of increased specialization which had characterized American and British scholarship in the preceding generation" (Childs, p. 36). The biblical theology movement rejected allegory, typology, and Christology as modes of unity between the testaments. The unity of the Bible was unity in diversity, such as "unity of Divine revelation given in the context of history and through the medium of human personality" (H H Rowley), unity of purpose, covenant relation, and divine revelation (Muilenburg), or simply a "higher unity" (R C Dentan) or a "kerygmatic unity" (J S Glenn). There were others who suggested a fundamental unity in history.

Revelation in History

One of the major tenets of the biblical theology movement was the concept of divine revelation in history. "It provided the key to unlock the Bible for a modern generation and at the same time to understand it theologically" (Childs,). The emphasis on revelation in history was used to attack both the conservative position, which holds that the Bible contains eternal truths and serves as a deposit of right doctrine, and the liberal position, which claims that the Bible contains a process of evolving religious discovery or simply progressive revelation. The emphasis on revelation stressed the divine self - disclosure and shifted the content away from propositional revelation and doctrine to the neo - orthodox concept of encounter without propositional content.

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.

Decline and Evaluation

The biblical theology movement flourished for about a generation, from c. 1945 to 1965. Childs sees its demise as a major force in American theology in the early 1960s. He is supported by Barr. Against this position it is held that "biblical theology is not a movement or a brand of theology but simply an enlargement of the dimensions of biblical science" (Smart, 11) which is continuing to function on an international scale. Childs appears to have overstated the case in claiming the death of the American biblical theology movement in 1963, but has been correct in his description of the characteristics of the movement as a coherent force within twentieth century liberal theology. By 1969 such a prominent member of the movement as G E Wright appears to have moved from his earlier position supporting a God who acts in history.

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:

The Problem of Hermeneutics

The issue of the adequacy of biblical interpretation within the framework of the historical - critical method remained unresolved. The theologians of the biblical theology movement remained with both feet planted in the historical - critical method. They affirmed the modern world view with its secular understanding of the spatiotemporal world process, i.e., the world of history and of nature.

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 Problem of the Bible

Among the unresolved problems of the biblical theology movement is that of the Bible as a "fully human book and yet as the vehicle for the Divine Word" (Childs, 51). No consensus ever emerged whether the element of revelation claimed for the Bible lay in the text, behind the text, in text and event, or in some other mode. Likewise, the modes of unity within the testaments and between the testaments as expounded by such leaders as G E Wright, H H Rowley, O Cullmann, R C Dentan, F V Filson, and others (see Hasel, NT Theology, 140 - 203) did not lead to a consensus.

The Concept of Revelation in History

The issue of history as the locus of divine revelation turned out to be ill - defined and drew heavy attack from several scholars (among them L Gilkey, W King, and J Barr). Among the ambiguities of the concept of revelation in history are those related to the nature of the revelatory events, the sense of history, the relation between revelation and history as well as history and interpretation. Over against these ambiguities from the perspective of the modern historical - critical school of thought, conservative scholars have tended to base their case on the formal statements in Scripture about Scripture itself. In the last analysis history cannot be the authenticating factor of revelation, but the biblical revelation itself is self - authenticating.

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.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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