Hostname: page-component-7d684dbfc8-kpkbf Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-09-24T13:04:05.446Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "coreDisableSocialShare": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForArticlePurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForBookPurchase": false, "coreDisableEcommerceForElementPurchase": false, "coreUseNewShare": true, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Biblical theology and/or theological interpretation of scripture?

Defining the relationship

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 2008

Daniel J. Treier*
Wheaton College, 501 College Ave., Wheaton, IL 60187,


‘Biblical theology’ has long influenced modern theological method, especially Protestant, as both boon and bane. Its role has been seen as either pivotal or problematic in the attempt to construe the Christian Bible as scripture with unified teaching for the contemporary church. The attempt to unfold biblical teaching as having organic unity, related to an internal structure of theological concepts, is frequently perceived as a failure, a has-been that leaves us only with fragmentation – between parts of the Bible, between academy and church, church and world, clergy and laity, and between various theological disciplines. Today a new movement is afoot, often labelled ‘theological interpretation of scripture’. Some of its adherents define this practice as distinct from, even opposed to, biblical theology. Others treat the two practices as virtually coterminous, while perhaps contesting what ‘biblical theology’ is typically taken to be in favour of new theological hermeneutics. Much of the difficulty in defining the relationship, then, stems from lingering debates about what biblical theology can or should be. The rest of the difficulty is perhaps rooted in the dilemma of any interdisciplinary efforts: how to breach unhelpful sections of disciplinary boundaries without redefining territory so nebulously that no one knows where they are.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2008

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Charles, Scobie, The Ways of our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 5Google Scholar.

2 Ibid., esp. pp. 14, 21.

3 For a recent symposium on biblical theology that also contains helpful overviews and illustrations, see Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller and Robin Parry (eds), Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture and Hermeneutics, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).

4 Scobie, Ways of our God, p. 25.

5 Ibid., p. 44.

6 Ibid., p. 77.

7 See their exchange in the 1999 Scottish Journal of Theology.

8 For an older but useful and illustrative survey, see Hasel, Gerhard F., Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, 3rd edn (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982)Google Scholar. A more recent collection of key material is Ollenburger, Ben C., Martens, Elmer A. and Hasel, Gerhard F. (eds), The Flowering of Old Testament Theology: A Reader in Twentieth-Century Old Testament Theology, 1930–1990 (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1992)Google Scholar. Scobie himself argues for a multiple-theme approach.

9 Kevin Vanhoozer first highlighted this for me. See also Brian Rosner, cited in n. 25 below.

10 For discussion of literature relevant to this claim, see Treier, Daniel J., ‘Scripture, Unity of’, in Vanhoozer, Kevin J. et al. (eds), Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, and London: SPCK, 2005)Google Scholar.

11 On this point, see Treier, Daniel J., ‘Canonical Unity and Commensurable Language: On Divine Action and Doctrine’, in Okholm, Dennis L., Bacote, Vincent E. and Miguélez, Laura C. (eds), Evangelicals and Scripture: Tradition, Authority, Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), pp. 211–28Google Scholar; Vanhoozer, Kevin J., The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005)Google Scholar.

12 Note, by the way, that Barr must assume historical theology is non-normative to pull this off (see The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), e.g. pp. 203–5).

13 For that matter, some Roman Catholics have begun to speak of scripture as ‘final authority’, and could at least share this worry in ways that are faithful to their tradition. See e.g. select essays in Colson, Charles and Richard, John Neuhaus (eds), Your Word is Truth: A Project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002)Google Scholar.

14 Kelsey, David H., Proving Doctrine (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999)Google Scholar.

15 Charry, Ellen T., ‘To What End Knowledge?: The Academic Captivity of the Church’, in Alston, Wallace M. Jr., (ed.), Theology in the Service of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 83Google Scholar.

16 A representative dictionary is available: Kevin J. Vanhoozer (general editor), Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible (cited in n. 10). See also Fowl, Stephen E. (ed.), The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997)Google Scholar; Fowl, Stephen E., Engaging Scripture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998)Google Scholar; Francis Watson, Text, Church and World: Biblical Interpretation in Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994); idem, Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). For a survey, see Daniel J. Treier, ‘Theological Hermeneutics, Contemporary’, in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation.

17 Frei, Hans W., Types of Christian Theology, ed. Hunsinger, George and Placher, William C. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992)Google Scholar. The typology was of course loosely tied to another fivefold model, Niebuhr's, H. RichardChrist and Culture (London: Faber & Faber, 1952)Google Scholar.

18 William, J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), e.g. pp. 325–6Google Scholar; Fowl, Stephen E., ‘The Conceptual Structure of New Testament Theology’, in Hafemann, Scott J. (ed.), Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), pp. 225–36Google Scholar.

19 Stendahl, K., ‘Biblical Theology, Contemporary’, in Buttrick, G. A. (ed.), IDB (New York and Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962), vol. 1, pp. 418–32.Google Scholar

20 Barr, Concept of Biblical Theology, p. 104. And, in a different sense besides the historians, what philosophers would allow is decisive too; consider Barr's long-standing defence of natural theology, attacking ‘Barthians’.

21 Frei, Types of Christian Theology, p. 29.

22 Fowl, Engaging Scripture; idem, ‘Conceptual Structure’.

23 This is one way of putting Fowl's position (whereas Vanhoozer takes virtue to be primarily an aim but not really an interpretative norm; so ‘Body-Piercing, the Natural Sense, and the Task of Theological Interpretation: A Hermeneutical Homily on John 19:34’, Ex Auditu 16 (2000), pp. 1–29).

24 For a presentation of this view with considerable nuance, see D. A. Carson, ‘Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology’, in Carson, D. A. and Woodbridge, John D. (eds), Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), pp. 6595Google Scholar; more recently, Carson, D. A., ‘Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology’, in Alexander, T. Desmond et al. (eds), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), pp. 89104Google Scholar. Some movement in emphasis towards the literary (or towards more balance with the literary?) may be manifest between these essays, but the line of authority is portrayed similarly, along with a continuing emphasis on biblical theology involving induction and description as much as possible.

25 Watson, Text, Church and World; idem, Text and Truth; David S. Yeago, ‘The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis’, in The Theological Interpretation of Scripture, pp. 87–100. Plus, in a recent collection of essays, the following are especially notable on this point: Green, Joel B., ‘Scripture and Theology: Uniting the Two So Long Divided’, in Green, Joel B. and Turner, Max (eds), Between Two Horizons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), pp. 2343Google Scholar; idem, ‘Rethinking History (and Theology)’, in Between Two Horizons, pp. 237–42; Steve Motyer, ‘Two Testaments, One Biblical Theology’, in Between Two Horizons, pp. 143–64. Advocating a multi-disciplinary view of biblical theology as practising ‘theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church’, Rosner, B. S. compares it to the integrative nature of civil engineering in ‘Biblical Theology’, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, pp. 311Google Scholar. The larger work contains several methodological essays, usually orientated towards a redemptive-historical approach but with some possibly relevant divergences (see n. 24 on Carson, above). This variety may have more to do with what counts as theological interpretation of scripture than with a redemptive-historical (and also literary) approach to biblical theology; so Rosner may or may not fit this category. It is not clear that he (and others in that volume) would advocate enough bravery in using Christian doctrine during biblical interpretation that they should qualify for type four.

26 Frei, Types of Christian Theology, pp. 39–40.

27 Ibid., p. 45.

28 E.g. Watson; Yeago, ‘New Testament and the Nicene Dogma’, p. 97.

29 Frei refers to the later David Tracy as a possible fit, but his pre-eminent case is Friedrich Schleiermacher – who, he says, may not fit the type (Types of Christian Theology, p. 34)!

30 See the discussion and qualification of that claim, explicit and implied, in Treier, Daniel J., Virtue and the Voice of God: Toward Theology as Wisdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006)Google Scholar.

31 Gunton, Colin E., ‘Indispensable Opponent: The Relations of Systematic Theology and Philosophy of Religion’, Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 38/3 (1996), 298306Google Scholar.

32 An important theme from ‘post-liberal’ writers such as Frei and George Lindbeck.

33 I use this word in a generic sense, without engaging specific debates over defining ‘warrant’ vis-à-vis ‘justification’ in epistemology (which are especially due to the work of Alvin Plantinga). Part of the following support for this point also appears, in expanded form, in my Virtue and the Voice of God, ch. 6.

34 See e.g. Nicholas, Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), chs 1213Google Scholar.

35 Scobie describes his ‘intermediate’ model of biblical theology in this way: ‘a bridge discipline, standing in an intermediate position between the historical study of the Bible and the use of the Bible as authoritative Scripture by the church’ (Ways of our God, p. 8).

36 Or, to add another implicit question to the mix, most Protestants lack but desperately need theologies of school and church and public square – of clergy, gifted teachers and the teaching office, as well as believer-priests; theology's relation to each of these spheres must be mapped, and probably not as if the overlap is exact or uncomplicated.