The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology

Charles H. H. Scobie,  The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

Charles Scobie, Cowan Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Mount Allison University (Sackville, New Brunswick), has written a massive volume on biblical theology.  It is called The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical TheologyOver the next week or two, I hope to provide brief commentary on this large work that shows promise for being a helpful guide to discerning some of the major biblical-theological themes found in the Bible.  Today let me mention Scobie’s introduction.

In 103, heavily-annotated pages, Charles Scobie traces the history of biblical theology from Irenaeus to Gabler to Goldsworthy.  His first chapter gives a cursory definition of biblical theology; his second chapter surveys the major contributors to biblical theology; his third chapter lists “new directions in biblical theology;” and his fourth chapter, which is the most involved in Section I, analyzes varying methods of biblical theology.  This leads Scobie to his final chapter in Section I, which outlines the biblical theological structure that he will flesh out in Section II.

Section I is a helpful prolegomena to Biblical Theology in general, and specifically it argues for biblical theology in a soberly optimistic fashion.  Scobie divides the history of biblical theology into three basic eras.  He terms these integrated biblical theology (pre-Enlightenment), independent biblical theology (18th Century until mid-20th century), and intermediate biblical theology, of which Scobie advocates.  He is realistic enough to recognize that interpreters cannot ignore the advances of historical-critical studies and try to return to pre-critical methods of reading the Bible, but at the same time he also asserts the shortcomings of historical-critical methods which divorce the Bible of any unified meaning or faith-engendering message.

Scobie lays out some of his presuppositions in these earlier chapters and clearly articulates a desire to read the Bible as a Christian and to understand it in the community of the church for the sake of believers.  He writes, “The presuppositions of this study include belief that the Bible conveys a divine revelation, that the word of God in Scripture constitutes the norm of Christian faith and life, and that all the varied material of the OT and NT can in some way be realted to the plan and purpose of the one God of the whole Bible.  Such a BT lies somewhere between what the Bible ‘meant’ and what it ‘means'” (47).  In this last sentence Scobie shows the way in which he sees biblical theology acting as a “mediating bridge” between rigorous biblical exegesis, which focuses on the details of history and language, and Christian theology, which aims to answer questions of belief and practice for the church.  Honestly, I would want to say more than Scobie at this point, but this is a great improvement on all those interpreters who seek to undermine the Bible.

Scobie goes on to layout his method of study and his structure.  He advocates a canonical method that reads the Bible in its final form.  In fact, Scobie, a la Stephen Dempster, Roger Beckwith, and more recently Jim Hamilton, argues for the intentional and theological shaping of the canon–in one place going into intricate detail to argue that the 22 books of the OT and the 22 books of the NT bookend the Christocentric books of the Gospels and Acts, to make a number totalling 49, which marks numeric perfection and signifies the number of Jubilee (71).  Such specificity seems a little speculative but certainly it is an interesting proposal which adds to the possibilities of canonical studies.  However, Scobie is not a proponent of a singular unifying theme in the Bible.  Rather, Scobie holds to a multi-thematic approach.  After surveying the doctrinal, historical, and thematical approaches posited by others, he concludes,

A systematic approach, based on categoreis imported from dogmatic theology, is to be rejected as tending to a certain degree to distort biblical thought, and as failing to deal adequately with all aspects of the biblical material.  A historical approach tracing the development of biblical thought period by period or book by book is of course valuable, but it belongs rather to the kind of historical study of the Bible that is presupposed by, rather than part of, an ‘intermediate BT.’  The most satisfactory approach is clearly the thematic one that seeeks to construct an outline based as closely as possible on themes [plural] that arise from within the Bible itself (87).

Finally, as Section I closes, Scobie proposes how he will advance his biblical theology in Section II.  He outlines a fourfold schema that will trace God’s Order, God’s Servant, God’s People, and God’s Way throughout the Bible.  Respectively, these four themes generally correspond with other proposals: the kingdom of God, the person of Christ, the biblical covenants, and a more unnoticed theme, the life and ethics advocated throughout the Bible.  He references these other proposals and underscores why he is synthesizing them into his multithematic approach.   Though, I am preferential to a singular theme with multiple layers of biblical sub-themes, Scobies approach seems to run more parallel.  It nicely picks up the progressive nature of biblical eschatology, while maintaining the complexity of the biblical canon.  Moreover, under each section Scobie contends that each theme is developed according to another four-fold schema, namely proclamation and promise in the OT and fulfillment and future consummation in the NT.  In this recapitulation of events, Scobie adheres follows an already-but-not-yet pattern that unfolds throughout the Bible.

Much is to be commended of Scobie’s approach, especially his willingness to understand the Bible on its own terms and his desire to let his structure arise from the Bible itself.  His work summarizes well the work of others over the last one hundred years and should serve as a good resource for grasping the literature on biblical theology.  However, this one-hundred page introduction makes up only a small portion of his work.  He devotes over 800-pages to unfolding his biblical theology that should provide ample reflection on how the Bible is put together.  I look forward to reading it, digesting it, and better understanding the Bible because of it. 

For another brief reflection on Scobie’s work, see Tom Schreiner’s review.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

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