Poythress on Biblical Theology and Biblical Theologies

Vern Poythress, in the Westminster Theological Journal (70/1 [2008] 129-42), writes a thought-provoking article about different “Kinds of Biblical Theology.”  His aim is “to reassess the present-day possibilities for biblical theology’s relation to systematic theology” and to show how one cannot be done without the other.  To start, Poythress sketches a brief history of the term, “biblical theology,” contrasting Geerhardus Vos with Johann Gabler and James Barr.  Following Vos, and leaning on the earlier work of Richard Gaffin, Poythress argues for reading the Bible with attentiveness to the divine unity of ‘biblical theology’ and nuanced recognition of the different ‘biblical theologies’ espoused by various biblical authors.   He compares biblical theology to a historical, linear representation of Scriptures, while systematic theology attempts to encircle various biblical themes into logical spheres.  Both approaches are necessary and heuristically viable, and both should be employed by biblical exegetes.

Moreover, Poythress encourages faithful systematicians and biblical theologians to use both BT and ST to read the Bible.  This two-fold approach coheres with the unity and diversity, the history and the logic of the Scripture.  Speaking of this, he writes cautioning against oversimplifications in biblical theology:

Why not write the theology of Paul with resurrection and union with Christ as a central organizing theme, while a theology of the Synoptics would have as a central theme the coming of the kingdom of God? Then a theology of Hebrews would focus on the superiority of Christ, particularly in his high priestly ministry; a theology of John might make central the theme of the revelation of God in Christ; a theology of Revelation might choose theophany and spiritual war as central; a theology of James might make wisdom central; a theology of 1 Peter might choose suffering for Christ as central. A theology of 2 Thessalonians–why not contemplate such a thing?–might make central the hope for the Second Coming. A theology of the Pastoral Epistles might choose the theme of gospel ministry as central.

In laying out such a proposal, Poythress encourages us to read the Bible more carefully.  Affirming Scripture’s divine origin, inspiration, and coherence, he cautions that we should not force themes, systems, or concepts on the Bible. Instead, we should read each Spirit-breathed book, author, and genre with attention to the details of the text. BT and ST should work together to unpack the riches of God’s Word, and we should boldly proclaim the spiritual unity and contextual diversity that is found in God’s redemptive history.

May we do so with power and precision. 

(HT: Justin Taylor)

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