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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Term ‘Biblical Theology’

‘Biblical theology’ has more than one meaning. It means either theology which is in accordance with scripture or theology that is contained in the Bible. In the first case, ‘biblical theology’ is a normative term, whereas in the second case it is an historical term.

In the one case, ‘biblical theology’ indicates the correct way or method of theology completely; the other case concerns a particular historical expression of theology. In the one case the term ‘biblical theology’ concerns theology in its essence, in the other case it is concerned only partially with various factors within theology, namely, a particular theological discipline. In the one case, ‘biblical theology’ concerns the dogmatic theologian, in the other case it concerns the historian among the theologians. Even if this distinction is really only a provisional one, it is also clear that we cannot be content with this straight-forward distinction between the two meanings of ‘biblical theology’. (Ebeling 1955: 70; ET 1963: 80)

The question is how the two forms of biblical theology relate to each other and what mutual influence between them exists. Depending upon how the relationship is accented, the term ‘biblical theology’ can be contoured in various ways (see Barr 1986):

  • If the accent is upon ‘biblical’ in opposition to ‘dogmatic’, then biblical theology is descriptive and historical, but not normative.

  • If the stress is upon ‘theology’ in opposition to ‘history of religion’, then the Bible will be read not only from the point of view of the history of religions—that is, as a source for the religion of Israel or of early Christianity—it will be seen from the point of view of its theology, that is, as a witness to God's speaking.

  • If the stress is upon the difference between the Bible and its surrounding world—Mesopotamia, Egypt, Asia Minor, Ancient Syria, Persia, the Graeco-Roman world, etc.—then biblical theology is concerned with the special characteristics of the Bible (the so called Proprium), in spite of similarities with these neighbouring worlds.

  • If, finally, priority is given to the inner connections of the Bible—the ‘unity of scripture’—in opposition to the varied nature of its traditions, then biblical theology will stand in contrast to the theology of the Old and New Testaments or to the theology of particular biblical writings or traditions (prophetic, apocalyptic, Pauline, or Johannine theology. See, for the New Testament, Hahn 1994; Stuhlmacher 1995; Reumann 1998).

Apart from the clarification of the relationship between historical and dogmatic encounter with the Bible, a designation of the relationship between genesis (the origin of the varied traditions) and normativeness (the binding nature of the Bible) belongs to the chief tasks of a biblical theology. It has to account for the ‘understanding of the Bible as a whole, that is above all of the theological problems that arise from the fact that the multiplicity of the witnesses in the Old and New Testament are expounded in the context of their backgrounds’ (Ebeling 1955: 88). The search for an answer to the question of how this relationship can be grounded, and whether biblical theology is thus a discipline within theological fields, whether it is an interdisciplinary theological programme or whether it simply functions as a regulative leading idea in formulating a theology in accordance with the Bible, belongs to the future tasks of theology (Welker 1998a).

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