The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective

By Anderson, Bernhard | Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective


Anderson, Bernhard, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective, by James Barr. Minneapolis: Fortress; London: SCM, 1999. Pp. xvii + 715. $48.00.

This is a stimulating, illuminating, challenging work, one that crowns the achievements of twentieth-century works in biblical theology. Despite the impression created by the book's cover, it is not a biblical theology, as Professor Barr states emphatically in the preface, but a book about it: what it is and is not, its contested issues, and the contributions of outstanding theologians. Many will find it striking that this book, which seeks for a constructive position, comes from a scholar who in the past has been critical of various aspects of so-called biblical theology and indeed has presented in strong terms "the theological case against" the whole enterprise. To me in particular this impressive volume of some seven hundred pages made fascinating reading because I have lived through most of the period on which it focuses and have been involved in the issues discussed.

As I see it, the book seems to fall into two parts. The first (chs. 1-21) contains a lively discussion of various "typologies" of OT theology and their major representatives: (1) the doctrinal type (Ludwig Koehler), (2) the synthetic approach (Walther Eichrodt), (3) Christian perspective (Th. C. Vriezen), (4) traditio-historical or heilsgeschichtliche interpretation (Gerhard von Rad), and (5) 11 canonical" approach (Brevard Childs). The inclusion of Vriezen, an important Dutch theologian, as a typological representative is rather surprising, especially since, as Barr points out, he does not follow the approach he advocates. However, delineation of these "typlogies" is a helpful way to launch the discussion.

Next, attention falls upon major issues that have been debated in the past century: the relation of biblical theology to doctrinal (dogmatic) theology (the overriding concern of the book), evolution or development of biblical thought (a major concern in the midtwentieth century), the relation of biblical theology to philosophy or natural theology (the subject of Barr's Gifford Lectures, 1991), and the relation of biblical theology to "Jewish theology" (chs. 16-19 are very important for Jewish-Christian dialogue). This part of the book ends with an important chapter on "Story and Biblical Theology," which recalls Barr's seminal essay on "Story and History in Biblical Theology."

The second part of the book (chs. 22-35), according to my way of thinking, consists largely of expositions of the works of major theologians such as H. Gese, B. Childs, M. Oeming, F. Mildenberger, H. Raisanen, W. Brueggemann, and David Brown. Barr is very good at summarizing, analyzing, and critiquing the position of other theologians. Tucked into this section, which gives the impression of being a series of appendices or supplements to the main part (chs. 1-21), are chapters on "natural theology within biblical theology" (one of Barr's favorite subjects) and "apocryphal and other non-canonical books."

Throughout this whole discussion one gets the impression that Barr doubts whether so-called biblical theology exists as an independent discipline in relation to or over against doctrinal theology, indeed, whether it is "authentic" or -real" theology (ch. 15). While there is some progress toward theology in the Bible, he admits, theology in the proper sense is a highly reflective enterprise that arose from the contact of biblical tradition with Greek language and thought as evident initially in "apocryphal" books such as Wisdom, parts of Paul's writings, and the Gospel of John (p. 251). Nevertheless, Barr does not advocate surrendering the enterprise of biblical theology, for there is "implicit theology" in the whole course of biblical traditions. Even in story, which is definitely not theology, there are theological moments, especially divine speeches, whether spoken by God directly or through an intermediary (p.

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