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Biblical Theology

BIBLICAL THEOLOGY. Biblical theology is that exercise in which an attempt is made to state systematically the faith affirmations of the Bible. This definition acknowledges that the Bible is a book of faith, that is to say, it records the redemptive meanings of the encounter of God with man. The term “systematically” by no means suggests that the categories of systematic theology are to guide the exercise. Rather it indicates that the task of the Biblical theologian is to express the faith affirmations of the Biblical writers individually and collectively according to the patterns of expression discernible in the Bible itself. Furthermore, an effort is made to present not only an orderly statement, but hopefully a unified description of the faith of the Bible.


History of Biblical theology

Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

According to O. Betz, the Reformation laid the groundwork for Biblical theology. Luther’s radical attack upon the authority of tradition, as well as his struggle against the scholastic method in theology and the dominance of Aristotelian thought in the church’s theology, provided the opportunity for the development of a Biblical theology. His great concern for solid exegesis of the Scripture and his personal tendency to employ Biblical ways of thinking created a demand for a theology based radically upon the Bible. Thus, the Reformation with its centuries-distinguished Biblically-oriented scholars (e.g., Melanchthon and Calvin) gave full recognition to the self-sufficiency of the Scriptures, and this fact was felt in the writing of theology.

Tragically, in the period following the Reformation, a Protestant scholasticism developed in which the maintenance of dogmas took precedence over the right of the Bible to stand as a judge of all doctrinal statement. Largely the Bible was used as a mine from which to glean supporting blocks for the various tenets of the church. The assumption prevailed that the Bible contains a single doctrinal system and upon investigation it can be demonstrated that it accords with the church’s creed. This new scholasticism differed from the old Catholic brand at the point of external authority. There was no single church authority to determine the dogmas for which to find support and which interpretation of the Scriptures should prevail.

Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Students of the history of Biblical theology see pietism with its strong emphasis on Biblical exegesis as the promulgator of this new discipline. Ebeling notes that the struggle was between systematic theology which tended to turn to “the wisdom of the world” and a theology bound to the Scripture. There was no denial of the orthodox foundations by systematic theologians; there was only a disturbing movement toward the scholastic methodology. In the opinion of the pietists, notably P. J. Spener in his Pia Desideria in 1675, orthodox theology became “unscriptural” primarily in its form. But, Ebeling comments, this apparently quite innocuous criticism had far-reaching consequences greater than conceived at that time (G. Ebeling, “The meaning of ‘Biblical theology’” JTS, VI [1955], 215).

In the 18th cent. several men sought to move theology back to “Biblical simplicity.” C. Haymann (1708), a pietist, was the first to produce a Biblical theology, and he has been credited with the first technical usage of this term. He was followed fifty years later by A. F. Büsching, who published in 1758 a monograph entitled Advantage of Biblical Theology over Scholasticism. A colleague of Büsching, the eminent J. S. Semler, joined in insisting that Biblical theology be considered a separate discipline. In 1772 G. T. Zacharia wrote a Biblical theology, the core of which was an explanation of the church.

While the foregoing men were under the “pietistic” concern in this struggle, J. P. Gabler, who more carefully delineated the role of Biblical theology, was a rationalist. In his inaugural address as professor at Altorf, Oratio de justo discrimine theologiae et dogmaticae regundisque recte utriusque finibus (1787), Gabler insisted that Biblical theology must not be a subsidiary discipline to systematic theology but rather a completely independent exercise. He wrote: “Biblical theology is historical in character and sets forth what the sacred writers thought about divine matters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary, is didactic in character, and teaches what a particular theologian philosophically and rationally decides about divine matters, in accordance with his character, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar influences.” The effect of Gabler’s approach was to focus attention on what the Biblical writers were saying to the people of their day. Literary and historical matters therefore became immensely important in the presentation of the thought of the Bible.

The 19th cent. saw the production of a number of works in this field. The insistence upon the discipline as a historical science prevailed but along with it came the Lehrbegriffen approach, a modified topical systematization which acknowledged the variety of religious consciousness in the Bible. G. L. Bauer, a colleague of Gabler, issued four volumes of Biblical theology in 1800-1802, in which he distinguished between the religion of the Jews before Christ, the religion of Jesus, and the religion of the apostles. In 1813 and 1816, W. M. L. de Wette published a Biblische Dogmatik des AT und NT in two volumes. He discerned two “historically evident steps of revelation” in the OT, namely, the religion of Moses, and the religion of the Jews. In the NT he isolated two levels also, the teaching of Jesus and the interpretation of it by the apostles.

The Ger. philosopher Hegel affected Biblical theology in this cent. In the OT field, W. Vatke published his Religion des AT in 1835 in which he applied Hegel’s threefold analysis of history. Vatke distinguished three periods in OT thought, the preprophetic, the prophetic, and the postprophetic. These three divisions corresponded to Hegel’s scheme of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In the NT field, F. C. Baur of Tübingen applied Hegelian principles to the study of the early Christianity. The “thesis” was the religion of Jesus, the “antithesis,” the theological reflection of Paul, and the “synthesis,” the Old Catholic Church.

Both Vatke and F. C. Baur produced a host of followers, but the former prob. had more lasting influence in the development of Biblical interpretation.

Through most of the 19th cent., some of the scholars, both in the OT and the NT, took seriously historical criticism and environmental factors; others by-passed them. In the OT field, for example, B. Bauer in his Die Religion des AT (1838-39) turned aside from criticism of sources and focused on the OT material itself, whereas H. Schultz, a conservative scholar, in his Alttestamentliche Theologie (1869) maintained a historical orientation but at the same time took full note of literary problems. In the NT area, two conservatives, Bernard Weiss (1868) and W. Beyschlag (1891) published NT theologies which recognized systems of thought in the NT but attempted to harmonize them (teaching of Jesus, views of the first apostles, etc.). These men also gave attention to the environment of Judaism and Hellenism as well as the findings of historical criticism.

Both of these men were subjected to severe criticism by H. J. Holtzmann in his Lehrbuch der neutestamentlichen Theologie (1897). Holtzmann employed the Lehrbegriffen approach, but he was confident that the harmonizations of Weiss and Beyschlag were utterly superficial and artificial. At a later time even Holtzmann was subjected to criticism by some of his own liberal camp who rejected his analysis of the thought of the NT into distinct systems of doctrine, such as the theologies of Jesus, Paul, Peter.

In the more pietistic circles, a strongly biblicistic and uniquely historicistic view developed. The attempt was made to keep a unity between the OT and the NT. Such is reflected in E. W. Hengstenberg’s Christologie des Alten Testaments (1892), but esp. in J. C. K. von Hofmann’s Der Schriftbeweis (1825-55) in which he sees the entire Bible as recording God’s saving action in behalf of mankind. Both the OT and the NT are linked together in this “salvation history.” Rightly therefore von Hofmann can be called the father of Die heilsgeschichtliche Schüle.

Near the end of the 19th cent., during the last decade, liberal Biblical scholars rejected Biblical theology as a legitimate, Biblical discipline. In its place it substituted “the religious history of Israel and the church,” “the religion of the OT and NT,” “Hebrew Religion,” or “the religious ideas of the Bible.” The rapid growth of literary and historical criticism forced theology out of exegesis and left nothing but man’s evaluation of Biblical materials in the light of literary principles and archeological and historical findings. Some of the books arising out of this movement, which reaches well into the 20th cent., are (1) Duff’s Old Testament Theology (1891); (2) H. Wheeler Robinson, The Religious Ideas of the OT (1913); (3) H. P. Smith, The Religion of Israel (1914); (4) Albert C. Knudsen, The Religious Teaching of the OT (1918); (5) W. O. E. Oesterley and T. H. Robinson, Hebrew Religion: Its Origin and Development, 2nd ed. (1937). E. W. Parsons’ The Religion of the NT (1939), though appearing late in this movement, shows much the same commitments. There came into existence what has become known as Die Religionsgeschichtliche Schüle (the History of Religions Schools), which took as a fundamental premise that Biblical religion is not unique but one among the many religions of mankind. The proper study of the Bible necessitates the comparison of Biblical concepts with those of surrounding religious movements. One must also acknowledge wholesale synthesis between OT and NT religion and the prevailing philosophical and religious movements contemporaneous with them. Quite obviously, therefore, OT and NT religion was the result of the quest of man alone in his naturally religious state. The Bible gives us the record of the religious strivings of one group of men. But as Betz comments, this approach “failed to evaluate the material theologically. The question of truth was overlooked; the claim of revelation by witnesses in the OT was disregarded” (ibid., p. 432).

The thrust for this movement in the OT field came from Vatke, who influenced K. H. Graf, A. Kuenen (1870), who in turn influenced J. Wellhausen, whose study of Israel in 1895 gave primary place to the critical study of the OT. A plethora of monographs appeared holding to this view, all inspired by Graf and Wellhausen.

The definitive work which gave impetus to this movement in the NT area was that of W. Wrede, entitled The Task and Method of Socalled NT Theology, published in 1897. In this pamphlet Wrede called for the displacement of NT theology with the religion of primitive Christianity. His reasoning, according to Betz, was that the essence of Christianity could not be determined by the study of the canonical books alone but also from the study of surrounding religious and philosophical cults and concepts. H. Weinel’s Biblische Theologie des NT (1911) and J. Kaftan’s Neutestamentliche Theologie (1927) are fair samples of this approach. In projecting his views, Wrede had help from two deft scholars, Wilhelm Bousset and W. Heitmuller, both of whom were outstanding students of the environment of early Christianity, the mystery religions and the religious philosophies.

Twentieth century.

The early part of this period saw the dominance of the History of Religions School in the exploration of the Bible and its religious thought. However, several men clung rather tenaciously to a concern for the theological understanding of the Bible. In his excellent monograph, The Theology of the OT (1904), A. B. Davidson emphasized that the kingdom of God concept controls both the religious consciousness of Biblical man and his cultic and liturgical practices. Another OT Theology appeared in 1922 from the pen of E. König which sought to give attention to Israel’s faith as basic to understanding the OT. NT scholars were at work, too, esp. the more conservative ones. G. B. Stevens produced his NT Theology in 1904, developing it along Lehrbegriffen lines. A Catholic scholar, Paul Feine, published his Theologie des NT in 1913, in which he gave expression to von Hoffmann’s Heilsgeschichte theme.

The important years in this cent. were 1910-20 during which radical criticism in Biblical studies reached a point of saturation and sterility. Revolt set in. Bible scholars realized that the historical method had been made a sacred cow. It had become an “end in itself” rather than a means for explicating the truth of the Bible. It was thus creating a relativism and skepticism in Biblical studies. On the basis of its presuppositions the best that one could hope for in the study of Biblical problems was “a set of probabilities.” One could not expect to find that which was normative in Biblical faith. As one writer has commented, analytical historicism killed the soul but retained the corpse.

It was the comparatively unknown Swiss pastor, Karl Barth, with his publication of a commentary on the Epistle to the Romans in 1918 who brought about the re-entry of theology into Biblical studies. Terribly upset over the failure of “social Christianity” and evolutionary views of Biblical truth, as well as distraught over the church’s role in World War I, Barth “turned back to the Bible” to let it speak to him. He discovered, in the words of Stephen Neill, “that the Bible is not a collection of the pious meditations of man upon God, but the clarion tones in which God speaks to man and demands his response” (The Interpretation of the NT, 1861-1961 [1964], 206). Barth saw the Bible as the Word of God. He did not repudiate historicism; he simply called for an empathetic study of the Bible, that is, a coming to it with full acknowledgment of its faith character and permitting it to speak to us. A full and new appraisal of the theological statements of the Bible was eventually demanded by the Barthian return to the Bible.

Since Barth’s Romans the whole field of Bible has been under intense investigation and out of this fresh look has come a number of theological studies of the Bible. Space will neither permit the mention of all the works nor an extensive annotation on them. It will be sufficient to list them with brief notes.

Old Testament.

W. Eichrodt, Theologie des alten Testaments, 3 vols. (1933-38). The basic theme and unifying element is the covenant of God with Israel. E. Sellin, Alttestamentliche Theologie auf Religionsgeschichtlicher Grundlage, 2 vols. (1933). Sellin still operates in the History of Religions School but finds a major theme in the holiness of God. (L. Kohler, Theologie des alten Testaments [1936].) He focuses on the thought of God as Lord. (W. Vischer, Das Christuszeugnis des AT, 2 vols. [1934].) He led the way in showing the christological focus of the OT. T. C. Vriezen (1949), E. Jacob (1955), O. Procksch (1956) follow through with the same emphasis. Procksch, however, gives large place to the concept of “saving history.” A leading figure in OT theology is G. von Rad, whose two volume work, Alttestamentliche Theologie, appeared in 1957 and 1960. Following the cultic emphasis of the Scandinavian scholars, von Rad has concluded that the theological thinking of Israel “arose with the task of gathering, arranging, and interpreting different documents of traditions.” An attempt was made by Israel’s theologians to relate the material in these documents to God’s mighty deeds.

Among the Eng. writers are H. W. Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the OT (1946); H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel (1956). These two books are relatively brief, presenting general positions on the OT material, and representing commitments to liberal views on criticism but at the same time acknowledging the need to see the faith of Israel. In America, G. E. Wright, The Challenge of Israel’s Faith (1944); J. Bright, The Kingdom of God (1953); and P. Minear, Eyes of Faith (1949) follow the above-mentioned Eng. writers in their general views on, and the analysis of, OT materials. M. Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology (1946). Employing a topical rather than a chronological scheme, this author seeks to demonstrate the unity of the two testaments theologically. O. Baab, The Theology of the OT (1949). For Baab, the key to OT thought is the keen awareness of the presence of God on the part of OT men. G. A. F. Knight, A Christian Theology of the OT (1959). Knight’s contention is that the OT must be read and understood, at least for the Christian, in the light of Christ. The OT is Christ-centered.

Three strongly conservative OT theologies are worthy of note. G. Vos, Biblical Theology (1948). Unfortunately, it is not complete; it breaks off with the incarnate ministry of Jesus, no doubt due to the death of the author. The two completed portions divide the OT into Mosaic and prophetic parts. Vos combines historical and theological analyses in each part, with major emphasis on the latter. P. Heinisch, Theology of the OT (1940). This is a Roman Catholic work which is sound on basic Christian truth but gives large place to distinctive Rom. views. J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (1962). Payne organizes the religious thought of the OT around his special understanding of the word “testament.”

It is virtually impossible to note all the works which have been published in the field of NT theology. We can list only representative ones. Three continental works are noteworthy. E. Stauffer, NT Theologie (1941). Stauffer is oriented to the “salvation history” analysis. Beginning with creation and the Fall, he moves through the law and promise to the great deed of God in Christ with its consequences and promise for man. R. Bultmann, Theology of the NT, 2 vols., Eng. ed. (1951, 55). An existentialist in theology and a follower of the History of Religions School, as well as a form-critic, Bultmann emphasizes the historical development of the preaching (kerygmas) of the Early Church as reflected in the NT. The Sitz im Leben of the church at given times controlled the nature of the preaching. NT theology strictly however is the attempt to clarify the new understanding of self which the believer has whenever confronted with the Gospel. The NT gives us the new self-understandings of the particular writers.

J. Bonsirven, The Theology of the NT, Eng. ed. (1963). This French scholar has produced the most significant Catholic NT theology. The object of NT theology is “to bring together the revealed truths contained in the NT, to define their meaning as the authors understood it, and to attempt to classify these truths in order of importance, so as to provide a basis for Christian dogma” (pp. xii, xiii). Methodologically, Bonsirven pursues a historical pattern beginning with Christology and the theme of Jesus’ preaching. From there on he employs a chronological scheme, in which he deals with the primitive community, Paul, and the maturing church.

The British have two main NT theologies, though they have a host of outstanding thinkers in the field who have written widely on a variety of themes related to NT theology. A. M. Hunter, The Unity of the NT (1957). This author fully recognizes the problem of unity in diversity, but decides that NT thought can be correctly presented under the Heilgeschichte scheme with three main divisions: Christology, a Savior; soteriology, a way of salvation; and ecclesiology, a saved people. A. Richardson, An Introduction to NT Theology (1959). This Eng. writer from a moderate conservative stance approaches NT theology on a thematic basis, that is, he predetermines the areas of thought which control and unify the NT. Richardson begins with Biblical categories such as “belief” and “knowledge” and seeks through careful and thorough penetration of the Biblical material to delineate their meanings.

American NT scholars have worked diligently in this field and the fruit of their labors is abundant. It will be sufficient to mention three or four of the more widely-circulated NT theologies. F. C. Grant, Introduction to the Thought of the NT (1950). With full attention paid to the environmental factors relating to the development of the church and her theology, Grant identifies “areas of thought” in the NT which are not basically chronological nor geographical but which overlap.

Among these “areas,” for example, are the doctrines of God, man, and Christ. Grant’s great hope, however, is to demonstrate a synthesis of thought in the NT.

J. W. Bowman, Prophetic Realism and the Gospel (1955). By “prophetic realism” Bowman means that the governing thought of the whole Bible as well as the NT is that in prophetic understanding God dialogs with man and as a result man really comes to know God and purposes in his heart to do God’s will. The theme of prophetic realism is the Gospel and the content of it is Jesus Christ.

F. V. Filson, Jesus Christ, The Risen Lord (1956). This author finds the resurrection of Christ as the “central interpreting fact” of the thought of the NT. All the writers of the NT wrote from a post-resurrection stance, asserting that the risen Christ constituted the great saving reality for them. The earliest preaching centered on the Resurrection. NT theology must start from this “rock-bottom fact” and move out into the varied dimensions of its meaning for the early Christians.

Two conservative theologies have appeared during the last decade, one by F. Stagg, NT Theology (1962) and the other by C. C. Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the New Testament (1959). The former is developed according to a thematic pattern beginning with “The Plight of Man as Sinner” and ending with “Eschatology,” a typically systematic form, whereas the latter is developed according to the historically topical form, “the synoptic theology,” “the theology of Acts,” etc.

Relation to other disciplines

It is most natural to ask how Biblical theology relates to other forms of Biblical study. Is there a distinct province for Biblical theology?


The task of exegesis is to determine as accurately as possible through grammatical and historical analysis what the Biblical writer said at the time that he wrote. Textual and philological problems are to be resolved by the exegetical procedure. The exegete need not go beyond this function, but the Biblical theologian takes what is determined through exegesis and seeks to unfold the whole pattern of thought of the Biblical writers. Because his primary material is the Bible, the Biblical theologian must have some proficiency in the exegetical discipline, too.

NT introduction.

Questions such as Who wrote this book? When was it written? To whom was it written? are sometimes determinative of the thrust of any particular Biblical passage. For example, to conclude that Paul did not write the pastoral epistles but that they were composed decades after his day is to raise serious questions as to the development of church life during the 1st cent. What, therefore, was the normative view of church structure during Paul’s day? What form did the church take in those early decades? Biblical theology will depend upon such “introductory studies” for its development of the varied areas of NT thought.

Dogmatic or systematic theology.

The relationship of these two disciplines has remained unclear for several centuries. As Ebeling has noted, Biblical theology “was originally conceived only as a reform of systematic theology” but has become a separate discipline with far-reaching consequences. In fact, the relationship has been dominated by three “self-contradictory tendencies.” (1) Biblical theology “rejects any directions laid down for its work which come from dogmatics.” (2) “The more ‘Biblical theology’ as a historical discipline derives its vitality from its detachment from dogmatics, the less it can be indifferent to the utterances of dogmatics.” It must have the respect of dogmatic theology and it must function as a norm for dogmatics, for “dogmatics must render account of its use of Scripture before the judgment seat of historical study of the Bible.” (3) While granting the detached status and the normative functions, Biblical theology remains “dogmatically interested to a high degree.” The issue here is simply the personal theological stance of the Biblical theologian. How does he view the Bible? What is his conception of the Christian faith? While Ebeling is not altogether sure that Biblical theology has a province of its own, he does not say that it should be eliminated. He sees Biblical theology and systematic theology as always keeping an open conversation between themselves (op. cit., pp 218-225).

Speaking from the standpoint of NT theology, the Catholic scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg sees dogmatic theology as an attempt to understand revelation with the help of rational philosophy but Biblical theology as an attempt to understand it strictly from the Scriptures themselves. Methodologically they differ somewhat, but “they are one at a deeper level, for Biblical theology, too, is led by the ‘sense of faith’ and goes forward κατὰ τὴν ἀναλαγίαν τη̂ς πίστεως” (Rom 12:6). He goes on to assert that there is no opposition between them, either in their content or in their outcome—“They simply probe into, and light up, the same Revelation from two different standpoints; what is more they are the complement of each other” (NT Theology Today, trans. David Askew [1961], 18).

C. C. Ryrie’s resolution of the problem of relationship is much more explicit and cogent. He notes the similarities between the two exercises. Both are based upon the Bible and are systematic. “It is farthest from the truth to think of Systematic Theology as unbiblical or Biblical Theology as unsystematic.” The differences, according to Ryrie, are four in number. (1) As to precedence, Biblical theology is foundational to systematic theology. The order of study “ought to be introduction, exegesis, historical backgrounds, Biblical theology, and finally Systematic Theology.” (2) As to purpose, “Biblical Theology is to discover what the writers of Scripture themselves regarded as truth not only from what they wrote but from that which their writings reflect of their theological thinking. The purpose of Systematic Theology is to set forth not only the truth but the reasons why it is truth.” (3) As to perspective, Biblical theology is shaped from the point of view of the Biblical writers whereas systematic theology has the perspective of today. (4) As to content, Biblical theology investigates particular parts of the Bible but systematic theology “is based on all of the Bible as a whole.” “Systematic Theology is as a blossom, each petal of which Biblical Theology has examined separately and in detail” (Biblical Theology of the NT [1959], 17, 18).

One significant point in Ryrie’s discussion needs enlargement. He acknowledges that systematic theology may use sources of knowledge other than the Bible, but he does not give proper emphasis to this fact. Systematic theology to be vital to the church’s life and ministry must engage in a constructive presentation of the meaning of the Christian faith with full usage of any information beyond the Bible which will elucidate the faith to the current situation. The insights of secular history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, and science can aid in creating a viable view of Christian truth which will speak to men of the particular day in which it is composed. Biblical theology, on the other hand, will function to correct any aberrations in this constructive effort since it moves primarily within the boundaries of the Biblical record. (Cf. P. S. Watson, “The Nature and Function of Biblical Theology,” Expository Times, LXXIII [April, 1962] 200.)

K. Stendahl’s view that Biblical theology is a descriptive science, limited to “what the Bible meant” at the time of composition has some merit. It reserves “what it means” for systematic theology, presumably. However, this dichotomy can be unmanageable and distorting. What of the universal and authoritative nature of the Bible? “What it means” is a form of “translation” of “what it meant” and need not therefore to be far removed from the latter. The Bible must function as a corrective to systematic theology and Biblical theology aids in this work. (“Biblical Theology, Contemporary,” IDB, I, 418, 419).

Methodology in Biblical theology

Biblical theology takes many forms today and this fact highlights the disagreement among Biblical theologians as to methodology. It seems wise therefore not to attempt a suggested method for Biblical theology but rather to note some of the areas of study which are germane to a valid Biblical theology.

Unity of the Bible.

Any attempt at systematization of Biblical thought raises acutely the problem of unity. For one thing, the immense range of literary material both in the OT and NT confronts one immediately. There are histories (1 and 2 Kings, Acts); hymns (Psalms); prophetic and apocalytic writings (Isaiah, Daniel, Revelation); letters (Pauline epistles); gospels (Matthew, etc.); wisdom writings (Proverbs, James). Moreover, the history during which this lit. was composed covers a span of 150 years. This diversity raises the question of the norm for these books. Should we follow liberal views of the OT and assume the prophets to represent normative Heb. religion? With regard to the NT, should we seek the norm in the synoptics, in Paul, or in John? It seems reasonable to assert that the diversity must be admitted but seen as falling under a common witness to the redemptive activity of God in behalf of sinful mankind. Furthermore, this unity must bridge the testaments, at least for Christians, who claim that Jesus as the risen Christ was the Messiah to whom the OT witnessed. The OT represents promise, and the NT, fulfillment; and this is supported by the words of Jesus (Matt 5:17; John 5:39; cf. also Gal 4:4). Thus, a Biblical theory must give attention to that which binds the Book into a unit historically and theologically.

Salvation history.

Stendahl is correct when he states that in Biblical theology “history presents itself as the loom of the theological fabric” (op. cit., p. 423). The uniqueness of Biblical faith rests in the revelation of God through events in history. The Hebrew-Christian faith stands apart from all the religions of mankind precisely because it was not founded upon mythologies or cycles of nature. Neither did it spring out of philosophical exploration or mystical experiences. Eldon Ladd comments, “It arose out of the historical experiences of Israel, old and new, in which God made himself known” (“The Saving Acts of God,” ChT, III [1961], 18). The God of Israel was the God of history, the Geschichtsgott, as the Germans say. A cursory review of the Bible will clarify this fact, for it takes us along a historical path—a series of events—from creation, the call of Abraham, the Exodus, the settlement in Canaan, the establishment and conduct of the kingdoms, the Exile, the return to Pal., the life of Christ and the establishment of the church. These events are not just accidental happenings in history; they are acts of the living God who possesses a redemptive concern for His people. Thus, this history is Die Heilsgeschichte, “salvation history” and in it God shows His redemptive nature and brings into existence and sustains His redeemed people. Von Hofmann, von Rad, G. E. Wright, O. Cullmann, J. Danielou, E. Rust and a host of other OT and NT theologians have emphasized the centrality of history in Hebrew-Christian faith. This being true, Biblical theology to be valid in its methodology must show this salvation history because God’s revelation of Himself in history is one of the fundamental categories of Biblical thought.

Christ the key to Scripture.

For Christians, as Rust points out, Christ is “the Lord of Scripture as He is Lord of history and life.” The OT presents an unfinished picture of God’s redemption without the NT. It is promise without fulfillment. Significantly, the Early Church did not repudiate the old Scriptures, not only because their Master did not do so, but because the Old Testament provided the only basis for their understanding and verification of their existence in the sacred history of Israel. The key to this necessary interpretation was the coming of Christ. Three events in particular, recorded in the Luke-Acts history, sharpen this fact. (1) The walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Concerning the Master’s conversation, Luke records, “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (24:27). (2) Stephen’s defense (Acts 7). Quite obviously, if Stephen had been permitted to finish his speech, he would have demonstrated the role of Christ in this history. Indeed, Christ was not only the key but also the redemptive climax. (3) Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39). Amazingly, the eunuch was reading Isaiah 53. When the eunuch admitted that he did not understand what he was reading, Philip “beginning with this scripture...told him the good news of Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Christ is the fulfiller of the promises to the people of Israel, and this fact governs the NT.

To assert that Christ is the key to Biblical theology is easy; but to demonstrate it raises the hermeneutical question: How is Christ related to the OT? Are we to look for types? Is there a historical typology which will legitimately acknowledge the uniqueness of the faith of OT saints but at the same time maintain the promise-fulfillment equation? The task of Biblical theology is very exacting at this point.

Confessional and kerygmatic.

The Bible has a witnessing dimension. The Bible is not just a recording of so many events and facts from a people of a distant day, but rather a lengthy statement of their faith in a God who acted savingly in their behalf. Hebrews and Christians “confess” God as their Savior and preach through these Scriptures that He is the Savior of all mankind, and in particular through Jesus Christ in the NT faith. For Biblical theology this means several things methodologically: (1) some of the statements of the Bible are not to be taken primarily as theological statements with logical and reasoned support behind them. They indeed have theological significance, but they are first of all statements of faith. This puts them in certain instances beyond full and explicit analysis. (2) As far as this is possible, the confessional and kerygmatic elements should be evident in the systematization of the thought of the Bible. One cannot go as far as G. E. Wright to say that “Biblical theology is the confessional rehearsal of history together with the inferences from it. However, the confessional nature of the Biblical material must be demonstrated if Biblical theology is to be truly Biblical. To settle for philosophical and theological abstractions is to present a truncated view of the faith, and indeed to miss its vibrant nature. (3) A “reading between the lines” in “doing Biblical theology” is important, too. For example, while Paul’s letters are for the most part written to deal with local problems of one kind or another and do not have the highly reasoned character of theological treatises, they do give expression implicitly, if not explicitly at times, to a general theological stance on his part. The NT theologian, therefore, will have to draw some inferences from Paul’s statements and then relate them to the whole of the Pauline corpus and the whole NT.

To reiterate, Biblical theology is a definitive study of the Bible, assisted by all the other Biblical disciplines, in which an attempt is made to demonstrate by some Biblically suggested system God’s revelation of Himself through Christ for the express purpose of redeeming sinful mankind.


W. Wrede, The Task and Method of So-called NT Theology (1897); C. T. Craig, “Biblical Theology and the Rise of Historicism,” JBL, LXII (1943), 281-294; J. Lindsay, “Biblical Theology,” ISBE, I (1943), 469-472; M. Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology (1946); O. Baab, “OT Theology: Its Possibility and Methodology,” The Study of the Bible Today and Tomorrow, ed. by H. R. Willoughby (1947), 401-418; A. N. Wilder, “NT Theology in Transition,” The Study of the Bible Today and Tomorrow, ed. by H. R. Willoughby (1947), 419-436; G. Vos, Biblical Theology (1948); R. C. Dentan, Preface to OT Theology (1950); R. L. Hicks, “Present-Day Trends in Biblical Theology,” AThR, XXXII (1950), 137-153; W. D. Davies, “Scene in NT Theology,” JBR, XX (1952), 231-238; E. C. Rust, “The Nature and Problems of Biblical Theology,” RE, L (1953), 463-487; H. Hahn, OT in Modern Research (1954); R. Bultmann, Theology of the NT, Eng. ed., II (1955), 237-251; G. Ebeling, “The Meaning of Biblical Theology,” JTS, VI (1955), 210-225; E. G. Kraeling, “Toward a Biblical Theology,” The OT Since the Reformation (1955), 265-284; A. Richardson, “Historical Theology and Biblical Theology,” CanJTh (1955), 157-167; F. V. Filson, Jesus Christ The Risen Lord (1956), 9-30; E. L. Allen, “The Limits of Biblical Theology,” JBR, XXV (1957), 13-18; C. C. Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the NT (1959) 11-24; E. J. Young, “What is OT Biblical Theology?”, EQ, XXXI (1959), 136-142; G. E. Ladd, “The Saving Acts of God,” ChT, V (1961), 18, 19; R. Schnackenburg, NT Theology Today, trans. by David Askew (1961); O Betz, “History of Biblical Theology,” IDB, I (1962), 432-437; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (1962), 15-43; K. Stendahl, “Contemporary Biblical Theology,” IDB, I (1962), 418-432; P. S. Watson, “The Nature and Function of Biblical Theology,” ExpT, LXXIII (1962), 195-200; D. H. Wallace, “Biblical Theology: Past and Future,” TLZ, XIX (1963), 18-105; S. Neill, The Interpretation of the NT, 1861-1961 (1964), 191-235; H. Anderson and Wm. Barclay (eds.), The NT in Historical and Contemporary Perspective (1965), 133-148; 237-260.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



1. Definition

2. Relation to Dogmatics

3. Place and Method of Biblical Theology

4. Relation to Scientific Exegesis


1. Its Rise in Scientific Form

2. Patristic and Scholastic Periods

3. Biblical Efforts in 17th and 18th Centuries

4. Old Testament Theology in First Half of 19th Century

5. New Testament Theology in the 19th Century

6. Old Testament Theology in Second Half of 19th Century

7. Bearings of Criticism on Old Testament Theology


1. Divergent Views of Old Testament Divisions

2. Law and Prophecy

3. Primal Prophetism and Final Judaism

4. Place of Mosaism

5. Nature of Israel’s Religious Development


I. Biblical Theology As a Science.

1. Definition:

Biblical theology seems best defined as the doctrine of Biblical religion. As such it works up the material contained in the Old Testament and the New Testament as the product of exegetical study. This is the modern technical sense of the term, whereby it signifies a systematic representation of Biblical religion in its primitive form.

Biblical theology has sometimes been taken to signify not alone this science of the doctrinal declarations of the Scriptures, but the whole group of sciences Concerned with the interpretation and exposition of the Scriptures. In that wider view of Biblical theology, the term exegetical theology has been used to define and include the group of sciences already referred to. But the whole weight of preference seems, in our view, to belong to the narrower use of the term Biblical theology, as more strictly scientific.

2. Relation to Dogmatics:

This is not to confound the science of Biblical theology with that of dogmatics, for their characters are sharply distinguished. The science of dogmatics is a historico-philosophical one; that of Biblical theology is purely historic. Dogmatics declares what, for religious faith, must be regarded as truth; Biblical theology only discovers what the writers of the Old Testament and the New Testament adduce as truth. This latter merely ascertains the contents of the ideas put forward by the sacred writers, but is not concerned with their correctness or verification. It is the what of truth, in these documentary authorities, Biblical theology seeks to attain. The why, or with what right, it is so put forward as truth, belongs to the other science, that of dogmatics.

3. Place and Method of Biblical Theology:

Biblical theology is thus the more objective science; it has no need of dogmatics; dogmatics, on the other hand, cannot be without the aid of Biblical theology. The Biblical theologian should be a Christian philosopher, an exegete, and, above all, a historian. For it is in a manner purely historical that Biblical theology seeks to investigate the teaching, in whole, of each of the sacred writers. Each writing it studies in itself, in its relation to the others, and in its place in history taken as a whole. Its method is historical-genetic. The proper place of Biblical theology is at the head of historical theology, where it shines as a center of light. Its ideal as a science is to present a clear, complete and comprehensive survey of the Biblical teachings.

4. Relation to Scientific Exegesis:

In pursuance of this end, Biblical theology is served by scientific exegesis, whose results it presents in ordered form so as to exhibit the organic unity and completeness of Biblical religion. The importance of Biblical theology lies in the way it directs, corrects and fructifies all moral and dogmatic theology by bringing it to the original founts of truth. Its spirit is one of impartial historical inquiry.

II. History of Biblical Theology.

1. Its Rise in Scientific Form:

Biblical theology, in any truly scientific form, dates only from the 18th century. Offspring as it was of German rationalism, it has yet been found deserving of cultivation and scientific study by the most orthodox theology. Indeed, Pietism, too, urged its claims as Biblical dogma, over against the too scholastic dogma of orthodoxy.

2. Patristic and Scholastic Periods:

The Patristic theology, no doubt, was Biblical, and the Alexandrian School deserves special praise. The scholastic theology of the Middle Ages leaned on the Fathers rather than on the Bible. Biblical theology, in spirit, though not in form, found a revival at the Reformation. But this was early followed by a 17th century type of scholasticism, polemical and confessional.

3. Biblical Efforts in 17th and 18th Centuries:

Even in that century, however, efforts of a more purely Biblical character were not wanting, as witness those of Schmidt, Witsius and Vitringa. But throughout the entire 18th century there were manifest endeavors to throw off the scholastic yoke and return to Biblical simplicity. Haymann (1708), Busching (1756), Zachariae (1772) and Storr (1793), are examples of the efforts referred to. But it was from the rationalistic side that the first vindication of Biblical theology as a science of independent rank was made. This merit belonged to Gabler (1787), who urged a purely historical treatment of the Bible, and was, later, shared by his colleague, G. L. Bauer, who issued a Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Ger) in four parts (1800-1802). More independent still was the standpoint assumed by C. F. Ammon in his Biblische Theologie (2nd edition, 1801- 2). Ammon does not fail to apprehend the historical character of our science, saying that Biblical theology should deal only with the "materials, fundamental ideas, and results of Biblical teaching, without troubling itself about the connection of the same, or weaving them into an artificial system."

4. Old Testament Theology in First Half of 19th Century:

The influence of Schleiermacher was hardly a fortunate one, the Old Testament being sundered from the New Testament, and attention centered on the latter. Kayser (1813) and, still more, DeWette, who died in 1850, pursued the perfecting of our science, particularly in matters of method. Continuators of the work were Baumgarten-Crusius (1828), Cramer (1830) and Colln, whose work was posthumously presented by D. Schulz in 1836. It was in the second quarter of the 19th century that the Biblical theology of the Old Testament began to receive the full attention it deserved. It has been declared the merit of Hegel’s philosophy to have taught men to see, in the various Biblical systems of doctrine, a complete development, and Hegel did, no doubt, exert a fertilizing influence on historical inquiry. But it must also be said that the Hegelian philosophy affected Biblical theology in a prejudicial manner, as may be seen in Vatke’s a priori construction of history and doctrine in his work, Die bib. Theologie (1835), and in Bruno Bauer’s Die Religion des AT (1838-39), which disputed but did not improve upon Vatke. Steudel (1840), Oehler (1845) and Havernick (1848) are worthy of particularly honorable mention in this Old Testament connection. In his Theology of the Old Testament (3rd edition, 1891; American edition, 1883) G. F. Oehler excellently maintained the close connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament, which Hengstenberg had already emphasized in 1829.

5. New Testament Theology in the 19th Century:

The Biblical theology of the New Testament was furthered by the memorable Neander. In 1832, he first issued his Planting and Training of the Christian Church, while his Life of Jesus first appeared in 1837. In this latter work, he summarized the doctrine of the Redeemer, while the former presented the doctrinal teaching of the apostolic writers in such wise as to show the different shades of thought peculiar to each of them, pointing out, at the same time, "how, notwithstanding all difference, there was an essential unity beneath, unless one is deceived by the form, and how the form in its diversity is easily explained." C. F. Schmid improved in some respects upon Neander’s work in his excellent Biblical Theology of the New Testament, issued (1853) after his death by Weizsacker (new edition, 1864). In Schmid’s work, the Biblical theology of the New Testament is presented with objectivity, clearness and penetrating sympathy.

Hahn’s Theology of the New Testament (1854) came short of doing justice to the diverse types of doctrinal development in the New Testament. The work of G. V. Lechler on the apostolic and post-apostolic age, was, in its improved form of 1857, much more important. E. Reuss, in 1852, issued his valuable History of the Christian Theology of the Apostolic Age, a complete and critical work, but not sufficiently objective in its treatment. The Prelections on New Testament Theology of F. C. Baur, head of the Tubingen school, exemplify both the merits and the defects of the school. They are critical, independent and suggestive, but lacking in impartiality. They were published by his son after his death (1864). A new edition of these lectures on New Testament theology was issued by Pfleiderer in 1893.

Having first dealt with the teachings of Jesus, Baur then set out the materials of the New Testament theology in three periods, making Paul well-nigh the founder of Christianity. For him only four epistles of Paul were genuine products of the apostolic age, namely, Romans, the two Corinthians, Galatians, together with the Revelation. To the growth and history of the New Testament Baur applied the method of the Hegelian dialectic, and, though powerful and profound, displayed a lack of sane, well-balanced judgment. Yet so conservative a scholar as Weiss gave Baur the credit of having "first made it the problem of criticism to assign to each book of the New Testament its place in the history of the development of primitive Christianity, to determine the relations to which it owes its origin, the object at which it aims, and the views it represents." Among Baur’s followers may be noted Pfleiderer, in his Paulinism (1873).

The Theology of the New Testament, by J. J. Van Oosterzee (English edition, 1870), is a serviceable book for students, and the New Testament Theology of A. Immer (1878), already famous for his hermeneutical studies, is noteworthy. Chief among subsequent cultivators of the Biblical theology of the New Testament must be reckoned B. Weiss, whose work in two volumes (English edition, 1882-83) constitutes a most critical and complete, thorough and accurate treatment of the subject in all its details: W. Beyschlag, whose New Testament Theology (English edition, in 2 volumes, 1895) is also valuable; H. Holtzmann, whose treatise on New Testament Theology (1897) dealt in a critical fashion with the doctrinal contents of the New Testament. Holtzmann’s learning and ability are great, but his work is marred by naturalistic presuppositions. The French work on Theology of the New Testament, by J. Boron (2 volumes, 1893-94) is marked by great independence, skill and fairness. The Theology of the New Testament, by W. F. Adeney (1894), and the yet more recent, and very attractively written, work with the same title, by G. B. Stevens (1899), bring us pretty well up to the present state of our science in respect of the New Testament.

6. Old Testament Theology in Second Half of the 19th Century:

Coming back to the Biblical theology of the Old Testament in the second half of the 19th century, we find A. Klostermann’s Investigations into the Old Testament Theology, which appeared in 1868. The Old Testament theology, no less than that of the New Testament, was set forth by that great scholar, H. Ewald, in four volumes (1871-75; English edition (first part), 1888). His interest in New Testament theology was due to his strong feeling that the New Testament is really the second part of the record of Israel’s revelation. A. Kuenen dealt with the Religion of Israel in two volumes (English edition, 1874-75), writing nobly but with defective insight into, and comprehension of, the higher religious ideas of Israel. F. Hitzig’s Prelections (1880) deal with theology of the Old Testament, as part of their contents. H. Schultz treated of the Old Testament Theology in two volumes (1st edition, 1869; 5th edition, 1896; English edition, 1892), in a careful, mainly just, and, by comparison, well-balanced handling of the development of its religious ideas.

We have not touched upon writers like Smend, for example, in his History of Old Testament Religion (1893), and J. Robertson, in his Early Religion of Israel (2nd edition, 1892), who treat of the Biblical theology of the Old Testament only in a way subsidiary to the consideration of the historico-critical problems. The Conception of Revelation in the Old Testament was dealt with by F. E. Konig in 1882 in a careful and comprehensive manner, and with regard to the order and relation of the documents, revelation in Israel being taken by him in a supranaturalistic sense. Significant also for the progress of Old Testament Biblical theology was The Theological and the Historical View of the Old Testament, by C. Siegfried (1890), who insisted on the development of the higher religion of Israel being studied from the elder prophets as starting-point, instead of the law.

Mention should be made of Biblical Study: Its Principles, Methods and History, by C. A. Briggs (1883; 4th edition, 1891); of the important Compendium of the Biblical Theology of the Old and the New Testament by K. Schlottmann (1889); of E. Riehm’s valuable Old Testament Theology (1889); and of G. Dalman’s Studies in Biblical Theology--the Divine name and its history--in 1889. Also, of the Old Testament Theology of A. Duff (1891); A. Dillmann’s Handbook of Old Testament Theology, edited by Kittel (189:5); and of Marti’s edition of the Theology of the Old Testament of A. Kayser (3rd edition, 1897).

Of Theology of the Old Testament, by A. B. Davidson (1904), it may be said that it does full justice to the idea of a progressive development of doctrine in the Old Testament, and is certainly divergent from the view of those who, like Cheyne, treat the Old Testament writings as so many fragments, from which no theology can be extracted. Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, by B. Stade (1905), is the work of a distinguished representative of the modern critical views, already famous for his work on the history of Israel (1887). The Theology of the Old Testament by W. H. Bennett (1906) is a clear and useful compendium of the subject.

7. Bearings of Criticism on Old Testament Theology:

Recent works like The Problem of the Old Testament by James Orr (1905), Old Testament Critics by Thomas Whitelaw (1903), and Essays in Pentateuchal Criticism, by Harold M. Wiener (1909), deal with the critical questions, and do not concern us here, save to remark that they are not without bearing, in their results, upon theology of the Old Testament. Such results are, e.g. the insistences, in Orr’s work, on the unity of the Old Testament, the higher than naturalistic view of Israel’s religious development, the discriminate use of Divine names like Elohim and Yahweh, and so forth; and the express contention in Whitelaw’s work, that the critical hypotheses are not such as can yield "a philosophically reasonable theology" (p. 346). Indeed, it must not be supposed that even works, like that of S. R. Driver, Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (first issued in 1891), axe without resultant influence on Biblical theology.

So far from that, the truth is that there is probably no result of the readjustment of the history and literature of the Old Testament so important as its bearings on the Biblical theology of the Old Testament. For the order and the method of revelation are most surely involved in the order and relation of the books or documents, and the course of the history. The progress of the revelation ran parallel with the work of God in Nature and in the growth of human society. Hence, the reconstruction of the historical theology of the Old Testament will take much time and study, that the full value of the Old Testament may be brought out as that of an independent and permanent revelation, with characteristic truths of its own. Meantime, the reality of that revelation, and the teleological character of the Old Testament, have been brought out, in the most signal manner, by theological scholars like Dorner, Dillmann, Kittel, Kautsch, Schultz and others, who feel the inadequacy of natural development or "human reflection" to account for Old Testament th eology, and the immediacy of God’s contact with man in Old Testament times to be alone sufficient to account for a revelation so weighty, organically connected, dynamically bound together, monotheistic and progressive.

III. Divisions of Biblical Theology.

1. Divergent Views of Old Testament Divisions:

The divisions of Old Testament theology are matters of grave difficulty. For the newer criticism has practically transformed that mode of representing the process of Israel’s religious development, which had been customary or traditional. On this latter view, the Patriarchal Age was succeeded by the Mosaic Age, with its law-giving under Moses, followed, after an intercalated period of Judges and monarchy, by the splendid Age of Prophecy. Then there was the Exile preparing the way, after the Return, for the new theocracy, wherein the Law of Moses was sought with more persistent endeavor, though not without darkly legalistic result. Such were the historic bases for Old Testament theology, but the modifications proposed by the new criticism are sufficiently serious. These it will be necessary to indicate, without going beyond the scope of this article and attempting criticism of either the one view or the other. It is the more necessary to do so, that finality has not been reached by criticism. We are only concerned with the difference which these divergent views make for Old Testament Biblical theology, whose reconstruction is very far from perfected.

2. Law and Prophecy:

That they do mean serious difference has been indicated in the historical part of this article. Most obtrusive of these differences is the proposal to invert the order of law and prophecy, and speak rather of the Prophets and the Law. For the Law is, on the newer view, taken to belong to the post-prophetic period--in short, to the period of the return from the Exile, whereas, in the traditional scheme of the order of revelation, the Law was found in full force both at the Exodus and the Return, with a dead-letter period between. The garment of legalism, the newer criticism asserts, could not have suited the Israelite nation in its early and undeveloped stage, as it does after the teachings of the prophets and the discipline of the Exile. Against this, the older scheme prefers the objection that an external and legalistic system is made the outcome of the lofty spiritual teaching of the prophets; the letter appears super-imposed upon the spirit. Criticism, however, postulates for the ritual codes of the Pentateuch an influence parallel in time with that of prophetism.

3. Primal Prophetism and Final Judaism:

Besides the adjustments of prophecy and law just referred to, the critical views postulate a primal period in which the religion of the prophets, with their view of Israel’s vocation, was inculcated; also, a final period of Judaism, intercalated between the Return and the Maccabees, in which are seen at work the Levitical law, and various anti-legal tendencies. It must be obvious that attempts to integrate the Old Testament theology amid the prevailing uncertainties of criticism must be far from easy or final, even if the need and importance be felt of keeping the religious interest before even the historical in Old Testament study. For the Old Testament writers, religion was primary, history secondary and incidental, we may well believe.

4. Place of Mosaism:

We must be content to know less of the remote beginnings and initial stages of Israel’s religious development, for, as A. B. Davidson remarked, "in matters like this we never can get at the beginning." J. Robertson deems criticism wrong in not allowing "a sufficient starting-point for the development," by which he means that pure prophetic religion needs "a pure pre-prophetic religion" to explain its more than "germinal or elementary character." It may be noted, too, how much greater place and importance are attached to Mosaism or Moses by critics like Reuss, Schultz, Bredenkamp and Strack, than by Wellhausen, who yet allows a certain substratum of actual and historical fact.

5. Nature of Israel’s Religious Development:

It may be observed, further, that no one is under any compulsion to account for such a transformation, as even Wellhausen allows, in the slow growth from very low beginnings of the idea of Yahweh up to pure and perfect monotheism--among a non- metaphysical people--by the simple supposition of naturalistic theory. Evolutionary the critical hypothesis of the religious development of Israel may be, but that development was clearly not so exclusively controlled by human elements or factors as to exclude the presence of supernatural energy or power of revelation. It had God within it--had, in Dorner’s phrase, "teleology as its soul." Thus, as even Gunkel declares, "Israel is, and remains, the people of revelation." This is why Israel was able to make--despite all retrograde tendencies--rectilinear progress toward a predestined goal--the goal of being what Ewald styled a "purely immortal and spiritual Israel." Old Testament theology does not seem to have sufficiently realized that the Old Testament really presents us with theologies rather than a theology--with the progressive development of a religion rather than with theological ideas resting on one historic plane.


I. Old Testament Literature:

B. Stade, Biblische Theologie des A T, 1905; H. Schultz, A T Theologie, 5th edition, 1896; English edition, 1892; H. Ewald, Revelation: Its Nature and Record, English edition, 1884; G F. Oehler, Theology of the Old Testament, English edition, 1874; A. Kuenen, The Religion of Israel to the Fall of the Jewish State, English edition, 1875; E. Riehm, AT Theologie, 1889; S. R. Driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, 1st edition, 1891, A. B. Davidson, Theology the Old Testament, 1904; J. Orr, The Problem of the Old Testament, 1905; A. Duff, Old Testament Theology, 1891; J. Robertson, Early Religion of Israel, 2nd edition, 1892; W. R. Smith, The Old Testament in the Jewish Church, new edition, 1892; W. H. Bennett; The Theology of the Old Testament, 1896; T. K. Cheyne, Founders of Old Testament Criticism, 1893; T. Whitelaw, Old Testament Critics, 1903; W. G. Jordan, Biblical Criticism and Modern Thought, 1909; H. M. Wiener, Essays in Pentateuchal Crit icism, 1909; E. C. Bissell, The Pentateuch: Its Origin and Structure, 1885; D. K. V. Orelli, The Old Testament Prophecy, Amer. edition, 1885, English edition, 1893; B. Duhm, Die Theologogie der Propheten, 1875; E. Richre, Messianic Prophecy, 2nd English edition, 1891; C. I. Bredenkamp, Gesetz und Propheten, 1881; W. R. Smith, The Prophets of Israel, 1882; D. K. Schlottmann, Kompendium der biblischen Theologie des A. u. N. Testaments, 1889; A. T. Kirkpatrick, The Divine Library of the Old Testament, 1891; J. Lindsay, The Significance of the Old Testament for Modern Theology, 1896; R. Kittel, Scientific Study of the Old Testament, English edition, 1910.

II. New Testament Literature:

W. Beyschlag, New Testament Theology, 2nd edition, 1896; English edition, 1895; H. Holtzmann, Lehrbuch der N T Theologie, 1897; B. Weiss, Lehrbuch der biblischen Theologie des New Testament, 7th edition, 1903; English edition, 1883; J. J. V. Oosterzee, Die Theologie des New Testament, 2nd edition, 1886; English edition, 1870; J. Boron, Theologie du Nouveau Testament, 1893-94; C. F. Schmid, Biblische Theologie des New Testament, new edition, 1864; G. B. Stevens, The Theology of the New Testament, 1899; F. C. Baur, Vorlesungen uber New Testament Theologie, 1864; W. F. Adeney, The Theology of the New Testament, 1894; A. C. McGiffert, A History of Christianity in the Apostolic Age, 1897; E. Reuss, History of Christian Theology in the Apostolic Age, English edition, 1872; H. H. Wendt, The Teaching of Jesus, English edition, 1892; A. B. Bruce, The Kingdom of God, 1890; J. Moorhouse, The Teaching of Christ, 1891; O. Pfleiderer, Der Paulinismus, 2nd edition, 1890; 2nd English edition, 1891; A. Sabatier, The Apostle Paul, English edition, 1891; G. B. Stevens, The Pauline Theology, 2nd edition, 1897; G. Matheso n, The Spiritual Development of Paul, 1890; E. Riehm, Der Lehrbegriff des Hebraerbriefs, 1867; B. Weiss, Der petrinische Lehrbegriff, 1855; G. B. Stevens, The Johannine Theology, 1894; B. Weiss, Der johanneische Lehrbegriff in seinen Grundzugen untersucht, 1862.

Biblical Theology (Discipline)

BIBLICAL THEOLOGY, O.T., The Discipline of (θεολογία, science of divine things). The knowledge of God as displayed in Scripture, esp. the OT.



Modern liberal scholars maintain a skepticism toward the theological consistency and validity of Scripture; correspondingly, they now confess to their inability to agree upon a definition of Biblical theology, other than as a description of what the differing Biblical authors and redactors may have thought to have constituted theological truth (IDB, I:418, 419). Among evangelicals, however, it may be defined as study of the truthful Biblical history of actual divine redemption.


Biblical theology deals with objective affairs and ideas, through a succession of time periods; e.g., the divinely chosen nation of Israel was first raised up (Hos 11:3) and then punished (v. 6). Chronology therefore constituted the organizing factor of Biblical theology. The ever-present and basic question is, “When does a given event or concept appear?” Such points of occurrence may precede the composition of the Biblical books in which the event is related; e.g., the content of Genesis 3:15 dates to the time of Adam, not to the time of Moses who recorded it. Yet the interpretation of an occurrence may, however, appear with its writing rather than with the event described; e.g., the awareness of Satan as indicated in 1 Chronicles 21:1 dates to Ezra(?) who recorded it, not to David who held the census. Biblical theology is thus constructed on a time framework.


The basic commitment of Biblical theology is to the reality of the Biblical God, actively communicating His will in history (Exod 20:1; 1 Kings 18:24, 39). It was because He had actually freed the Hebrews, from Egypt, and because He had answered Elijah with real fire, that Israel knew that “Yahweh [active presence], He is God.” Cf. G. Oehler’s insistence upon Biblical religion as a fact, not simply doctrinal belief, Theology of the OT (1883), pp. 6, 9, 10, 13.

Arising from the divine character of Biblical theology are four corollaries. (1) Biblical theology relates primarily to God. The Sinaitic covenant, for example, was fundamentally God’s binding Himself to save Israel (Exod 6:7; 19:4), though the fact that He confronted Israel with His law assumes certain effects that relate secondarily to man. (2) Since God both acts and thinks, Biblical theology is concerned with both the doings of God, active revelation (revealing), and then as a result His truths, static revelation (knowledge revealed); cf. 2 Peter 1:16. The term “revelation,” however, implies in both instances manward effects as well. E.g., God’s covenant on Sinai resulted actively in things done for men: on earth Israel was granted possession of Canaan, and in eternity true Israelites inherit heaven’s bliss. It also resulted statically in certain truths being revealed to men: the necessity of shedding life-blood (Christ’s) for reconciliation with God, or the illegitimacy of false witnesses; cf. E. J. Young’s insistence that without genuinely divine revelations one is not studying theology, The Study of OT Theology Today (1958), pp. 29-31. (3) Since there is but one God, it follows that Biblical theology is an internally consistent unity, recorded under the guidance of one Spirit. (4) God has, however, spoken at different times in different ways (Heb 1:1). As a result, Biblical theology exhibits variety. It portrays a cumulative knowledge of the many facets of the living God. But because of the unity of Biblical theology, this variation never means theological replacement, correction, or self-contradiction (1 Pet 1:10, 11). Instead, it means variety, supplementation, and clarification.


Biblical theology assumes man’s lost condition; but God is concerned about mankind’s desperate plight: “How can I give you up?” (Hos 11:8). His purpose in history is to bring men back to Himself through Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:19); and, historically, God’s revelation has appeared only in conjunction with God’s redemption.

To this, another four corollaries appear. (1) Since redemption at all times has been in Christ (John 14:6), Scripture presents but one plan of salvation. This is the most important single feature of the general unity of Biblical theology. (2) Since God’s redemptive acts were progressive, preparing the way for Christ who should come in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4), the accompanying truths that were revealed show in most cases a progressive development. That is, God graciously unfolded both His redemption and His revelation in ways corresponding to man’s capacities to receive them (cf. Acts 17:30). The variety of Biblical theology is therefore that of an organic interrelationship, which results in a growing appreciation of God’s redemptive plan. (3) Since redemption reaches its climax in Christ (Heb 1:2), it is Christ who becomes the focal point of both the OT and NT (Acts 10:43). Thus, when Judaism seeks to make the OT an end in itself, it misses Christ who is its center, and therefore fails to grasp its true meaning (2 Cor 3:14-16; IDB, I:423). (4) Since men today need this same redemption that God has revealed in Scripture, Biblical theology constitutes an eminently practical guide to a God-blessed life of faith and practice.


Biblical theology claims but one source of information for its knowledge of the will of God, the sixty-six canonical books of the OT and NT. As the prophet Daniel put it, “I...perceived in the books” (9:2). Much of the Apoc., Pseudep., and the writings of the Qumran community arose, indeed, in the historical period between the testaments. Because of their non-inspired character, they cannot serve as sources for true Biblical theology. Among liberal writers, who consider this study as nothing more than a description of Israel’s beliefs during the Biblical period, “the canon can have no crucial significance,” IDB, I:428. Roman Catholic authors also are accustomed to disregard this distinction, esp. in respect to the Tridentine Apoc. (cf. P. Heinisch, Theology of the OT). Evangelicals, however, equate the two concepts of Scripture and of special revelation. It is true that God historically used various means of special revelation—the Bible was itself one of these means. But the Bible is now the only extant record of the others. Biblical theology is therefore equivalent to the history of special revelation (G. Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 23).

Related studies.

The place of Biblical theology in religious encyclopedias.

Theological study as a whole divides itself into the four major theological disciplines: exegetical theology (the study of the Bible), historical theology (church history, missions), systematic theology (dogmatics, philosophy of religion), and practical theology (homiletics, Christian education, etc.). The first of these may then be analyzed as follows:

(1) Background, the historical appreciation of the Bible:

Biblical geography

Ancient Near East history

Biblical archeology

Religions of the Near East

(2) Content, textual appreciation of the Bible:

Heb., Aram., and Gr. grammar

Related languages



(3) Publication, the literary appreciation of the Bible:

General introduction: lower (text) criticism and canonics

Special introduction: higher criticism

(4) Truth, revelational appreciation of the Bible

Biblical apologetics

Biblical theology

Each of the other exegetical subdivisions provides prerequisites that are necessary for the construction of a valid Biblical theology. The background studies make meaningful the life situations in which God revealed Himself to His people; history was the medium of divine revelation. Furthermore, it is historical knowledge of the religions of the pagans who surrounded Israel that serves to explain certain terms or forms that God chose to use in His own true religion. The very name of God in Biblical Heb., which is a Canaanitish language, illustrates this point. Again, the errors of the pagan religions serve both to underline the contrasting excellencies of the faith of the saints (G. E. Wright, The OT Against Its Environment) and to explain why similar superstitions came to arise among the apostate in Israel (cf. 1 Kings 18:26-28).

Concerning Biblical content, it is only after a careful exegesis of the text of Scripture, in its original language and by sound hermeneutical principles, that the reformulation of its teachings may be undertaken in Biblical theology. This, in turn, assumes the practice of sound textual criticism, to reconstruct as closely as possible the readings of the original, inspired MSS. It also presupposes the determination of the Canon (q.v.), designating which books are the ones from God.

Biblical theology also is dependent upon higher criticism, for it is the date critically assigned to a given Biblical writing that helps determine the chronological position of its ideas, though the reverse is true as well: it is the theology that constitutes the prime factor in determining the placement of undated books, such as Job. This connection with criticism is what vitiates much of the modern writing in Biblical theology for those committed to Scripture. If, for example, Leviticus be dated, not to the time of Moses (as Lev 1:1, Rom 10:5 indicate), but centuries, or even a millennium later, as skeptical criticism proposes, then the chronology of revelation is thrown into chaos; in fact, the certainty and very existence of revelation as a historical reality is brought into question. This in turn illustrates the significance of Biblical apologetics, upon the success of which a true Biblical theology depends. Built, as it is then, upon these prerequisite studies, Biblical theology stands as a crown to the discipline of exegetical theology.

Regarded otherwise, Biblical theology exists as the mid-point in a series of three theological studies which deal with the nature of religion; but it must be carefully distinguished from both of the others.

The history of religion.

Israel’s faith is a subject of study, along with that of the other religions of the Near E. As a discipline, it asks, “What did Israel believe?” It concerns human ideas. But although some of Israel’s leaders were truly taught of God, even the best failed to grasp all that God had revealed (Dan 12:8, 1 Pet 1:10, 11); and the common people could become worse than the surrounding heathen (Jer 2:11). Biblical theology, belonging by contrast to the revelational division of exegetical theology, asks, “What did God reveal?” At given points in Israel’s history this may have been largely identical with the religious beliefs of the nation’s contemporaneous spiritual leaders, but there are still significant differences. Considered as the sum total of God’s thoughts that had been revealed up to a certain time, Biblical theology thus excludes all false human concepts (1 John 1:5). It also adds truths, some of which may have been undiscoverable (Gen 1) or even incomprehensible to the contemporary human insight (John 11:49-52). For messages may be verbally revealed and recorded before being fully appreciated; “revelation” must not be confused with a man’s perhaps delayed understanding.

Systematic theology.

This last subjectarea builds upon exegetical theology, but it exists as a separate theological discipline. Systematic theology concerns timeless knowledge, without direct reference to the circumstances of its communication. It asks, “What is true of God?” It contains the same facts as Biblical theology (provided one assumes true doctrine to be necessarily Biblical); but it arranges them in a topical synthesis, rather than in the order of their revelation as does Biblical theology.

History of OT Biblical theology.


The Protestant Reformation in the 16th cent. reëstablished two principles that were prerequisites to the development of Biblical theology: “the analogy of Scripture” recognized that the Bible is its own best interpreter, and “the literal sense” made possible a revival of interest in the truly historical development of revelation. Later, John Cocceius (1603-1669) organized his “federal theology” around God’s successively revealed covenants—of works, with Adam in his innocency, and of grace, concerning God’s redemptive activity with fallen man—and thus grasped Scripture’s own key to the progress of divine revelation. Johann Bengel then related his practical piety to the progressive stages of historical revelation in his Ordo Temporum (1741); but the conflict with Rom. sacerdotalism restricted the reformers into an understandable emphasis upon the final results of theology, rather than upon the unfolding of its earlier, OT stages.

Nineteenth century.

The birth of Biblical theology may be dated to John Philip Gabler’s oration of 1787, “Concerning the Correct Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology,” in which he described the former as “the religious ideas of Scripture, so as to distinguish the different times and subjects, and so also the different stages in the development of these ideas.” This required the separation of OT and NT theology, and the first theology of the OT was that of L. Bauer in 1796. Since Gabler tended to distinguish Biblical theology from dogmatic by his rationalistic approach to the former, Bible-believing scholars were slow to recognize the possibilities that lay in the employment of progressive revelation to confirm rather than to explain away the supernatural. It was E. W. Hengstenberg who first demonstrated the value of OT theology in his monumental Christology of the OT (1829-1835). Other significant works were Kurtz’s History of the Old Covenant (1853-1858); Auberlen’s Divine Revelation (1864); and the major work of H. Schultz, OT Theology (1869). G. Oehler’s OT Theology (1873-1874), is still one of the most adequate complete treatments of the subject. A. B. Davidson’s The Theology of the OT (1904), has had prob. the most influence among Eng. books and was only partially affected by the author’s final acceptance of destructive higher criticism of the OT.


L. Bauer’s initial OT theology in 1796 had freely dismissed certain aspects of OT thought as but “the weaker philosophy of the Hebrews”; and the “historicists” who succeeded him went on to assume that God did not really communicate His will, that only what could be explained upon a theory of religious evolution might be considered historical, and that Biblical truths must stand trial before the bar of human rationalism. Assuming dominance in Germany, its advocates included DeWette (1813); Von Cölln (1836); Kuenen (1869); Hitzig (1880); Reuss (1886); Smend (1893); Budde (1900); Marti (1907); and Kautzsch (1911). Later works, in Eng., were H. Wheeler Robinson’s The Religious Ideas of the OT (1913); H. P. Smith’s The Religion of Israel (1914); and W. O. E. Oesterley and Th. H. Robinson’s Hebrew Religion: Its Origin and Development (1937). There were a host of others, the very titles to which indicate the historicism of their contents. Most recently, and most extreme, are T. J. Meek, Hebrew Origins (1950), and R. H. Pfeiffer’s posthumous Religion in the OT (1961).

In reaction against rationalistic historicism, there arose in 19th-cent. Europe the two movements of Ger. Heilsgeschichte and Plymouth Brethren dispensationalism. For the former, J. C. K. Hoffmann’s “Sacred History” emphasized the truth of God’s redemptive activity in history, though to the detriment of written revelation. The OT scholar Franz Delitzsch (d. 1890) is considered a product of Heilsgeschichte theology; and, while it ceased in 1931 as a distinct school at Erlangen, its effects appear in the God in History of O. Piper (1939); God Who Acts of G. E. Wright (1944); and the OT theology of O. Procksch (1956). For the latter, J. N. Darby’s (d. 1882) withdrawal from the liberal Church of England led to the Plymouth Brethren rejection of the whole concept of church organization as apostate. The true NT church (subsequent to Palm Sunday) was thus sharply distinguished from organized Israel, either of the OT, or of the future earthly kingdom. Brethren dispensationalism has been widely popularized by the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible of 1917 (rev. 1967). Meanwhile, the dark night of historicism settled over the Church: for almost half a cent., following the posthumous appearance of Oehler’s work in 1873, Protestant Germany failed to produce a single Biblical theology.


The insufficiency, however, of the man-made religion with which historicism left its devotees was made all too clear by the disillusionment that followed upon Germany’s defeat in World War I. Desperate men were seeking a clearer note of authority than hypotheses of evolutionary naturalism, and were beginning to ask of the Biblical scholars not simply, “What did it mean?” but also, “What does it mean?” Instead of a consistent Biblical Christianity, the movement that has arisen to fill the gap is the half-faith variously identified as “neo-orthodoxy,” “Crisis theology,” or “Barthianism” because of its initial dependence upon the writings of Karl Barth (Epistle to the Romans [1919]) and his insistence that while the Bible was not the Word of God it could become the Word of God, namely, the medium for an existential encounter of the living God with a man. The year 1922 then witnessed the publishing of a theology of the OT by E. König, more systematic than historical; and 1926, that of O. Eissfeldt, which categorically denied the possibility of any real activity of God in history, just as had the historicists, but at the same time sought to maintain a theology that was “real” in the existential sense: subjective and distinct from history.

In the next ten years there appeared in Germany three major works of OT theology: none was willing to accept the whole OT as God’s truth, but each did find within it certain teachings that were considered divinely significant. Most important was W. Eichrodt’s three-volumed Theology of the OT, 1933-1939 (Eng., 1961-1967), centering about the reality of God’s covenant with Israel. E. Sellin’s two-volume work (1933), commenced as a history of religion but then accepted as true theology such teachings as Sellin found to be fulfilled in the Gospel, esp. the holiness of God. L. Köhler’s OT Theology, (1936 [Eng., 1957]), sought to bring unity out of the variety of the OT by focusing on the thought of God as Lord.

The effect of these three was revolutionary. T. C. Vriezen (1949 [Eng., 1958]) of Holland and E. Jacob (1955 [Eng. 1958]) of France maintain that the OT is to be understood from its fulfillment in Jesus Christ; cf. the study of Barth’s disciple, W. Vischer, The Witness of the OT to Christ (1949), that appears almost as the work of a Bible believer. Others, such as G. von Rad’s OT Theology (1957-1960 [Eng., 1962-1966]), are limited to reinterpretations of much-varying strata of Israelitish traditions. All continue to cling to the destructive higher criticism of the OT associated with Wellhausen and demand abandonment of the Reformation principle of “the analogy of Scripture” if one is to construct “Biblical theology in the modern sense” (R. Dentan, Preface to OT Theology, p. 6).

Yet however unstable and inconsistent this combination of intellectual self-determinism with a Biblical Gospel may seem to be, neo-orthodoxy has swept the theological scene. In Scandinavia the stress has been upon God’s working through ancient Heb. sociology and upon the cultic origin of much of the OT; cf. J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture (1926-1940). In Israel, Y. Kaufmann’s Religion of Israel (1960), views the OT as dominated by a popular monotheism instituted by Moses. In England the leading neo-orthodox spirit has been H. H. Rowley, The Relevance of the Bible (1941), The Faith of Israel (1956), with a host of specialized studies by A. G. Hebert, C. B. North, W. J. T. Phythian-Adams, and N. H. Snaith, among others. American neo-orthodoxy has produced G. E. Wright’s, The Challenge of Israel’s Faith (1944), the more liberal theologies of M. Burrows (1946), and O. Baab (1949), and G. A. F. Knight’s A Christian Theology of the OT (1959); various works by J. Bright, R. C. Dentan, P. Minear, and others; and articles in the journal, Interpretation, devoted to neo-orthodox Biblical theology, and the dozens of monographs in the Studies in Biblical Theology series, G. E. Wright and H. H. Rowley, eds.

Twentieth-century conservatism.

Though scarcely acknowledged by the historicists and neo-orthodox, Bible believers are becoming increasingly articulate in the realm of Biblical theology. Early 20th-cent. England produced, confessedly, few conservative works (though cf. R. B. Girdlestone’s OT Theology and Modern Ideas [1909]); but the center of gravity had shifted across the Atlantic. For thirty years the stronghold of orthodoxy lay in Princeton Seminary, N.J. There the standard for consecrated OT study that had been set by the publications of Wm. H. Green in the 1890s was maintained by men such as J. D. Davis, G. Vos, B. B. Warfield, and R. D. Wilson. The Princeton Theological Review served as a chief outlet for major articles and reviews, until its discontinuance at the more liberal reorganization of the seminary in 1929. At neighboring New Brunswick, J. H. Raven published The History of the Religion of Israel (1933), commencing with the revelations God granted to Adam, but extending only to the reign of Manasseh, in which Raven placed the Book of Job. Outstanding is G. Vos’s Biblical Theology, compiled in 1948 after his retirement.

The Princeton position has been perpetuated at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, of whose OT representatives O. T. Allis has been the guiding genius: Prophecy and the Church (1945); God Spake By Moses (1951). Until his death in 1968, Westminster’s E. J. Young was perhaps America’s leading evangelical OT scholar; his theological publications include, My Servants the Prophets (1952), and, The Study of OT Theology Today (1958). The acute Bible-centered reasoning of his colleague John Murray is represented in The Covenant of Grace (1953), and Principles of Conduct (1957). In addition, The Westminster Theological Journal publicizes significant OT articles.

The years since 1950 have been marked by a revival of American evangelical scholarship in other independent and small-denominational conservative institutions. Gordon Divinity School, Mass., publisher of varied articles in The Gordon Review, led in the founding in 1949 of the Evangelical Theological Society. By holding firmly to the inerrancy of the Biblical autographs, “E. T. S.” and its quarterly Journal, Annual Papers, and Monograph Series, has proved a rallying point for Bible-believing theologians. J. B. Payne of the Wheaton College Graduate School of Theology produced the comprehensive Theology of the Older Testament (1962). Dispensationalism has received scholarly leadership from Dallas Seminary, Texas, via its journal, Bibliotheca Sacra; witness also M. F. Unger, Biblical Demonology (1952), D. Pentecost, Things To Come (1958), and C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (1965). Baptist conservatism, though on the wane, has produced W. Watts’ two-volumes, A Survey of OT Teaching (1947). In England a similar evangelical revival is represented by the Tyndale Fellowship with its annual Tyndale Bulletin, and with an Australian branch organized in 1956.

On the continent, neo-orthodoxy did all but destroy what historicism may have left of believing scholarship; yet cf. the stress on verbal plenary inspiration in W. and H. Möller’s OT theology (1938), and the outline studies of E. Sauer. Roman Catholicism, prior to its capitulation to negative higher criticism as documented at Vatican Council II, also produced M. Hetzenauer’s OT theology (1908); and P. Heinisch’s Theology of the OT (1940) [Eng., 1955] towers far above the contemporary works of Protestant neo-orthodoxy.


R. Dentan, Preface to OT Theology (1950); N. Porteous, “OT Theology,” in H. H. Rowley, ed., The OT and Modern Study (1951); H. Hahn, The OT in Modern Research (1954), ch. VII; E. Kraeling, The OT Since the Reformation (1955), ch. XVII; E. J. Young, The Study of OT Theology Today (1958); J. B. Payne, Theology of the Older Testament (1962); K. Stendahl and A. Dulles, “Method in the Study of Biblical Theology,” in J. P. Hyatt, ed., The Bible in Modern Scholarship (1965).

Biblical Theology OT



Existence of God.

The OT never argues for the existence of God (unless the Book of Job is so regarded) but assumes it as self-evident truth, necessary to all subsequent rational thought. None but a fool denies it (Ps 14:1). It is no accident that the Bible begins with God (Gen 1:1); and it is characteristic of OT thought that this is assumed as self-evident rather than proved, and introduced in a concrete situation, rather than in the abstract. This, however, is not a question-begging assumption; it corresponds to the modern insight that, if God is anywhere, He is everywhere, and that, since He is the basis of all proof, He is as incapable of proof as proof itself. Thus, as surely as the author of Hebrews, the author of Genesis knows that, to establish any effective communication with God, belief in His existence is a pre-requisite (Heb 11:6). Nor is this a belief that becomes outmoded, as man gradually comes of age, in OT days.

Activity of God.

The Heb. was not interested in proving the existence of God, because bare existence, without responsiveness, was meaningless to him. Again there is a parallel with the thought of Hebrews (11:6). To the Heb., it was the active presence of God that was all-important; indeed, His saving activity followed from His very nature. So to say that YHWH “had visited his people” (Ruth 1:6) is typical of OT thought. When the OT wishes to deny the reality of other gods, it does so by mocking their inability to act in any given situation (1 Kings 18:27). By contrast, the favorite and most binding Heb. oath was by the life of YHWH (1 Kings 18:15) because, to them, His life and activity were the most stable elements of the whole universe. Characteristically, God is not described in abstract terms as dynamic or active, but He is shown as such from the dawn of time, in the creation of the world (Gen 1; 2). Nothing could be further from the so-called “death of God” theology than this buoyant faith of the OT in the God who is eternally living and active.

Personality of God.

It could be argued that this type of saving presence and purposive activity implies from the start at least what among humans is called personality. To attribute this to God is not to limit Him, but simply to describe Him in the highest categories known to man, while at the same time recognizing their inadequacy, as the Heb. certainly did (Isa 55:9). The personality of God is brought out in the OT in several ways. The first is to be found in simple anthropomorphisms, as in Genesis 1:3, 4 (God said, God saw, God separated, God called, etc.). These express, in an unsophisticated way, a deep theological truth—that God is active in every area of being. Israel’s faith knew not so much an anthropomorphic God as theomorphic men, at least in their unfallen state (Gen 1:26). A second way in which the personality of God is stressed is by the continual use of divine names in the OT; of these the great Mosaic title of YHWH is the best known (Exod 3:15), whether used alone or in combination. To the Heb. name is much the same as the modern concept of personality; the modern view that a name is merely accidental noise by which a particular object is signified was foreign to their thought. That is why, in the Ten Commandments, to take YHWH’s name in vain (i.e., to swear falsely by Him) is such a serious crime (Exod 20:7).

Revelation of God.

In our day, God is often described as “the God who acts,” and the theology of the OT is seen as a recital, often by cultic prophets and in the liturgical context of the temple worship, of the saving acts of God. Thus, every act of God from creation onward, is also a revelation.

Nature of God.

This is intimately connected with His revelation, for He shows Himself to be spiritual and moral.


While the Bible is clear that man has been created in God’s likeness (Gen 1:26) and that God wants to communicate with man (3:9), it never identifies God with part or the whole of the universe that He made; still less does it identify Him either with man or with any of man’s ultimate concerns. God is apart from man, utterly distinct from man, and far transcending him (Isa 55:9). To use the terminology of Genesis, taken up in many parts of the OT, God is spirit, and man is flesh (Gen 6:3). Flesh implies limitation, weakness and transience; because man is a fallen creature, this implies a tendency to sin, although the OT nowhere sees flesh in itself (man considered as a natural creature) as sinful. Spirit is the opposite of all these; but again it is typical of the OT that, great as the gulf is, God can and does span it. God’s spirit can live in man (Gen 6:3) or come upon a man (Judg 11:29).

Because of this belief, it was a natural outcome that, at least from the time of Moses, the worship of Israel was aniconic (Exod 20:4); no material form or shape could be symbol of such a God.


Even in the Genesis story, God’s activity is not arbitrary, but morally directed; if man is expelled from paradise, it is as a punishment for sin (Gen 3:23). Blessing and curse are alike morally motivated, for God is morally predictable, unlike the Baals of Canaan (Mal 3:6). This alone makes the continuous process of revelation in the OT possible; otherwise, there would be only a series of disconnected events. With the revelation at Sinai, this becomes even more clear; the ten commandments (to the Heb. the ten words of revelation) are a definition of God in terms of moral concepts, worked out in a pattern of relationships (Exod 20:1-7). The whole of the rest of the OT is a struggle to maintain this, in the face of the non-moral concepts of God held by the pagan nations around Israel.


Signs of the covenant.

All such early covenants had some external material symbol associated with them, as visible guarantee of the accompanying promises. The simplest and most general was common salt (2 Chron 13:5) which therefore figures largely in Israel’s sacrificial worship (Lev 2:13). The symbol of Abraham’s covenant was circumcision, binding on all his descendants if they wished to consider themselves in this relationship to YHWH (Gen 17:9-14). It is probable that the older prohibition of the eating of blood (9:4) was likewise embodied in this new covenant; certainly both were retained as signs of the great Sinai Covenant, which so far overshadows the others in Heb. minds that to them it is “the covenant.” In later days, the written deed of contract would be the sign (Jer 32:9-14). Even in earlier days, the law—or more likely, a portion of it—may have had the same significance (Exod 24:7, “the book of the covenant”).

Response to the covenant.

Such covenants, if commercial contracts, might be between equals. The covenant made by YHWH with Abraham, however, was no more a covenant between equals than when a Hitt. overlord graciously accepted under his protection some subject people. YHWH was the initiator; all the promises were His (Gen 12:2, 3), for Abraham was not asked to promise anything in return (contrast the Sinai covenant). All that YHWH demanded from men was trust, and the obedience that expressed it (Gen 12:4). Indeed so important was this “faith-obedience” that, on the basis of it, YHWH freely accepted man with all his imperfections (15:6). This acceptance was to become the root of the great Biblical doctrine of justification by faith. True, Abraham is told to walk before YHWH, and to be blameless (Gen 17:1); but this prob. refers more to single-minded faith than to moral perfection.

The covenant as revelation.

The terms of the covenant.

Choice and the covenant.

While God’s choice of Israel is clear, there is also a sense in which man is called to make a definite choice in response. This is true even in the case of patriarchs; it is abundantly true in the case of Israel, where a definite affirmation of choice is demanded (Exod 24:7). This is reiterated at the various later renewals of the covenant (e.g. Josh 24:24) and therefore seems to be an essential part of it. The one difference is that man’s choice is fickle and erratic, as realized even by OT leaders (Josh 24:19, 20), while God’s is eternal and immutable (Isa 49:15).

Later covenants.

In the OT, though the Sinai covenant was the greatest, it was not the last. Associated with it for example was the Levitical covenant, governing the constitution of the priesthood in Israel (Num 25:13). Growing from the history of the covenant people came the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7), governing the nature of kingship. Even in the darkest days of her history, the knowledge of God’s covenant never left Israel; but there came a deepening of her own consciousness of failure to keep the covenant. Out of this was born the richest concept of the OT. Jeremiah 31:31 proclaims the coming of the “new covenant,” this time inward, not merely outward, and carrying within itself the power to fulfill itself in the hearts of men.

Sacrifice and the covenant.

Covenants, in Israel, were initiated by sacrifice; this is clearest in the case of Abraham (Gen 15:9) and Moses (Exod 24:5). Indeed, the peculiarity of Israel lay not so much in her sacrificial system as in the relation of sacrifice to covenant. All Israel’s sacrifices could be explained as either introducing the covenant, or maintaining the covenant (e.g., sin-offerings), or enjoying the benefits of the covenant and expressing consequent gratitude (whole burntofferings, peace offerings, etc).

God’s presence

Another important area for the understanding of the OT theology is the manner in which God was thought of as living among men. There is no evidence in the Biblical texts for any fixed place of worship in patriarchal days; there is not even evidence for a portable shrine as used during the days of Exodus. Certainly the patriarchs erected altars in any place where a vision, dream, or theophany had convinced them that God was peculiarly present. Jacob’s reaction at Luz is typical (Gen 28:17), when he realizes with awe God’s presence and activity. The standing pillar of stone (later forbidden to Israel, because of its association with Baal worship; Exod 34:13) symbolized God’s presence, and even His dwelling place, as the name Bethel (God’s house) suggests, and as Jacob’s own words indicate (Gen 28:22). In early days before the law, this primitive view was innocent enough.

Symbols of God’s presence.

If God’s presence and saving activity among His people was symbolized by a stone pillar in Jacob’s day, it was symbolized by a tent in the days of the Exodus, and by a temple from the time of Solomon onward. Admittedly, in detail the plan of the later Temple differs from that of the earlier Tabernacle; the point at issue is, however, not the elaborateness and extent of the symbolism but its existence. It is also true that there were less static and more dynamic symbols of the divine presence in such phenomena as the column of the cloud (Exod 33:9), lightning, thunder, storm, darkness, wind, earthquake, bushfire, etc. These, although less exposed to the dangers attendant on static symbols, were at best temporary not permanent. Even the mysterious manifestation referred to in the OT as YHWH’s glory (Exod 16:10), or in later days as the Shekinah, the visible sign of God’s presence, seems to have come under this heading.

Reason for these symbols.

The reason for the choice of these symbols is not hard to see. In fully pastoral-nomadic days, the symbol must be a natural object to mark a spot, so that it can be recognized again when the nomads return. As against this, when the semisettled Israelites left Egypt, they used a portable shrine (as other desert people have been known to do) which resembled the tents that they lived in themselves. The inner division of the Tabernacle seems to correspond to the two familiar divisions of the nomad’s tent, and possibly the outer perimeter corresponds to some kind of stock enclosure. God was thus in either case using a symbol of His presence familiar to daily life. The same could be said of the Temple; when men had lived in tents, God had used the symbol of a holy tent. Now that man lived in houses, God would use the symbol of a holy house (or, more prob., the symbolism of a king’s palace), for this is the true meaning of Heb. הֵיכָל, H2121, (from Sumer. ē-gal, “great house”).

Increasing remoteness of symbolism.

All such symbolism was valuable, expressing the purpose of man’s creation as being fellowship with God. That there were difficulties involved from the start, arising from man’s fallen nature, was clear; this was symbolized by the “bipartite” construction of both tent and temple, denying easy access to God’s presence. It is also well-symbolized by the early Mosaic tradition that YHWH’s meeting tent had been pitched in the middle of Israel’s camp. After the great desert revolt the tent was pitched away from the main camp (Exod 33:7), so that the approach to God was no longer easy for the ordinary man. The same process is prob. to be seen in the development of the professional priesthood. In patriarchal days, there was no such group in Israel; even as late as Sinai, Exodus 24:5 tells of young men sacrificing animals. Later, however, the holiness of God and the sinfulness of men were both underlined not only by the institution of a professional priesthood, but also by a complex ritual of approach to God, even by these men. God could no longer be considered as living in the midst of His people. While Solomon’s Temple was unquestionably more beautiful than all that had gone before, and the ritual more complex, YHWH must now have seemed too lofty to be near the humble Israelite (in spite of prophetic protests, Isa 57:15), just as Solomon was distant from the people in a way which David his father had not been. In the theological realm, this accompanied an increased sense of the majesty and transcendence of God in later Jewish thought (e.g., Ezekiel and Ezra).

Dangers inherent.

In all such symbolism, there are inherent dangers, from which Israel was certainly not free. The first was that of excessive localization of God’s presence, as though, because God was pleased to show His presence particularly in tent or temple, He was therefore restricted to that place. But this was popular theology rather than Biblical teaching (see 1 Sam 26:19 for an example on the lips of David himself) and did little damage, the more so as it was balanced, from very early days, by the complementary truth of the vast gulf between God and man (Gen 6:3).

More serious was the danger of the static symbol becoming a dead symbol. Men began to assume that, if YHWH’s Ark was with them as a physical presence, then YHWH Himself was of necessity with them. The disaster at Aphek should have taught them wisdom (1 Sam 4:11), but Israel was slow to learn. Shiloh too must fall before they could realize that even YHWH’s Tabernacle did not give an automatic guarantee of His presence, despite the sin of His people. The fall of Shiloh was long remembered (Ps 78:60; Jer 7:12), but the prophets had to bring the same teaching with reference to the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem (Mic 3:12). Had this form of symbolism then outrun its usefulness? Not only had it been abused; men realized more and more its inadequacy (1 Kings 8:27). How could YHWH, the great creator-God, live in a house made by human workmen? But, if this be abandoned, how could God’s saving presence among His people be symbolized?

The new symbolism.

When God created unfallen man, He created him in His own image; mankind himself was then the visible sign of God’s presence in the universe that God had made, and man could freely enjoy fellowship with God. Even when this image was marred, the new type of kingship at least gave some human analogy by which certain aspects of God’s being could be understood. In view of the promises associated with the line of David (2 Sam 7:11-16), this was even more true. At the time it was recognized that YHWH could not be restricted to a building, and at the moment when the abuses of the static symbol were at their worst, Isaiah 7:14 contains the promise that a child will yet be born, a descendant of David, whose name will be Immanuel—God in the very midst. Now at last the cycle is complete. At the first, God had shown His likeness to men in unfallen man; at the last, God would live among men by becoming a man. No wonder that when He did, tent and temple passed away forever.


Kingship of YHWH.

Like all other Biblical concepts, kingship is not to be studied in the abstract, but as actualized in various kings. Similarly, in early days, the rule of God is not so much stated as exemplified and actualized. God creates man “in his own image” and therefore to share in His dominion (Gen 1:26). Genesis 14:18-22 shows recognition of the rule of God (El Elyon) both by Jebusite Melchizedek and Heb. Abraham. No doubt the concept of divine kingship was widespread if not universal, as the various words used for God in the small Sem. nations round about show (e.g., Milcom, Molech; 1 Kings 11:5-7), all being variants of the word for king. This kingship of God, implicit in patriarchal days, became explicit with the formation of Israel as a nation. The 13th cent. Oracles of Balaam presuppose this (Num 23:21 and 24:7). Deuteronomy 33:5 describes the Mosaic covenant as “thus YHWH became king in Jeshurun” (this occurs in an archaic poem, the Blessing of Moses). This also is the origin of the oftrepeated refrain in the Psalter, “YHWH is king” (Ps 10:16, etc.). The thought of human kingship (Judg 8:23) brought horror to the pious Israelite. All kingship in the OT is ultimately to be understood in terms of, and in relation to, the ultimate kingship of God.

Human kingship.

Nature of kingship.

Failure of kingship.

Saul was not this ideal king; the type had failed. David came nearer to it. He could be described as a man whose heart was like YHWH’s (1 Sam 13:14), but even David’s later days were clouded with failure. There was always the hope that a descendant of David would succeed where he had failed. This was reinforced by God’s promise (2 Sam 7:12-16). When David’s brilliant son Solomon ascended the throne, it must have seemed to many that the ideal type of kingship had come, esp. in view of Solomon’s association with the Temple at Jerusalem, and the part that he took in the worship there. Perhaps it was therefore at this time that Israel’s poets began to use, of the earthly king, language that was really only appropriate to the divine king, of whom he was a type (e.g., Ps 72). But soon the people were disillusioned, and the kingdom divided. As king succeeded king in Judah (always of David’s line) such hopes were again and again disappointed, although not completely dashed. It was not to be; in inter-testamental days, kingship passed altogether from David’s house.

Fulfillment of kingship.

Yet this failure of earthly kingship to realize the ideal, as shown in the OT, was fruitful theologically. Israel was forced to turn from the literal fulfillment to the hope of a spiritual one, though still associated with the name and family of David. What is sometimes called the Messianic hope is nothing more than the mutation of this theme; and since in the Psalter, this ideal Davidic king was also called Son of God (Ps 2:7), the roots of NT Christology are plainly visible. There was yet another level at which kingship was to find a spiritual fulfillment, and that was the area of priesthood. The connection of Israel’s king with covenant and Temple has been noted. If justification for his quasipriestly status was to be sought, it was found in the figure of the old Jebusite priest-king, Melchizedek (Gen 14:18 and Ps 110:4). In Christian thought, this too was fulfilled in the eternal high-priesthood of Christ, the theme of Hebrews.


L. Koehler, OT Theology (1957); T. C. Vriezen, An Outline of OT Theology (1958); G. E. Wright and D. N. Freedman (ed.), The Biblical Archaeologist Reader, 145-184, “The Significance of the Temple in the Ancient Near East” (1961); R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961); W. Eichrodt, Theology of the OT (1961); Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (1961).

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