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As we have already noted, it would seem that the best way to do biblical theology is to start with the symbolic universe that all the biblical writers lived in and were influenced by. In that universe, there were fixed stars like God, revelation, redemption, messiah, holiness, mighty works (or miracles), to mention but a few ideas which were taken for granted by all the authors.
By way of synopsis, we have established that God is the most essential item in the symbolic universe which configures and reconfigures everything else that could even be called fundamental assumptions. The one, unique, living God is the colossus that blots out any other possible suns, with all light, all revelation coming from this one deity. God is not argued for, he is assumed, presupposed, depended upon.
A different sort of bridge between the testaments (other than a text like Jer. 31.31), old and new, is the study of intertextuality, the use of the OT in the NT, and one of the most insightful efforts in this direction is that of Richard Hays. In his important work, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Hays spends considerable time unpacking his reading of 2 Cor. 3.1–3, with its reference or allusion to Jer. 31.31 and its context.
My theory is that a seismic shift in the symbolic universe, for example a re-envisioning of the divine identity of God, leads to a shift in the way the earlier stories in the narrative thought world are viewed, used, and retold. And yes, there was such a seismic shift in the minds of at least some of the earliest Christian writers, especially the more creative ones.
It is a commonplace in NT scholarship that probably the very first portion of the story of Jesus that came to have a written and reasonably fixed form is the Passion narratives. 1 Cor. 11, where Paul, in about ad 52 or so, quotes a bit of the story about Jesus’ last night before the crucifixion, is probably evidence that this conclusion is correct.
There is a temptation, which has to be resisted, to throw up one’s hands in this age of over-specialization and ask with St. Paul, “Who is sufficient for these things?” Who knows the scope of the Bible and its various writings and its detailed exegesis, and its theologies well enough to write a biblical theology that does anything like justice to this vast subject? The painful truth is that no one can master the whole of the Bible, not even with many decades of close study and hard work.
John Goldingay’s statement above, I think, is mostly correct, but not entirely so. The OT is largely about Yahweh, and his relationship to creation and to God’s people, as well as some more tangential remarks about his relationship to everyone else who is not a Hebrew.
Undoubtedly one of the most misused texts in the OT is the passage in Jer. 31 where the prophet speaks about the New Covenant. The context is very clearly a poetic and prophetic discussion about the restoration of Israel and Judah after the exile, and as such it is much like similar discussions in Third Isaiah (Isa. 56–66).
There is a very good reason this volume is entitled “a” biblical theology. Obviously, there are a variety of ways one could write such a volume, and a variety of approaches one can take, not least because the matter is quite complex, and no two persons are going to read all the relevant texts in the same way. Simply trying to undertake this task has been a humbling experience. No wonder there have been whole generations of scholars who have avoided it like the plague! Who is sufficient for such things? And that question is all the more appropriate in an age of over-specialization and too few general practitioners of the reading and interpreting of the whole Bible.
The previous dialogue with Chad Thornhill is helpful in clarifying a whole variety of issues in regard to election, God’s chosen people, covenants, predestination, and God’s sovereignty, thus some of the problems with Luther’s, Melanchthon’s, and Calvin’s readings of Paul have already been dealt with in the previous chapter.
In Biblical Theology, Ben Witherington, III, examines the theology of the Old and New Testaments as a totality. Going beyond an account of carefully crafted Old and New Testament theologies, he demonstrates the ideas that make the Bible a sacred book with a unified theology. Witherington brings a distinctive methodology to this study. Taking a constructive approach, he first examines the foundations of the writers' symbolic universe - what they thought and presupposed about God - and how they revealed those thoughts through the narratives of the Old and New Testaments. He also shows how the historical contexts and intellectual worlds of the Old and New Testaments conditioned their narratives, and, in the process, created a large coherent Biblical world view, one that progressively reveals the character and action of God. Thus, the Yahweh of the Old Testament, the Son in the Gospels, and the Father, Son, and Spirit in the New Testament writings are viewed as persons who are part of the singular divine identity. Witherington's progressive revelation approach allows each part of the canon to be read in its original context and with its original meaning.
If there is indeed a God who covenants with a particular group of human beings, this inherently raises the question of the nature of the “chosenness” of those people, and why they are chosen – to what ends? As we have already noted, certainly one of the consistent themes of the Bible is that the God of the Bible is an Almighty God. When the discussion turns to the issue of “election” or God’s chosen people, the issue is not whether God is powerful enough to determine the outcome of all things great and small, from the motion of an atom to the largest decision a human will make, or from the way the universe evolves to the way that human history writ large progresses.
That biblical theology is a complicated matter is shown by the fact that J. K. Mead’s textbook was the first attempt in some 30 years to try and define and refine the category in meaningful ways. At the outset, one has first to decide what counts as “the Bible.” For persons of Jewish faith, a perfectly good “biblical theology” can be done simply by studying and analyzing what Christians call “the Old Testament,” though ironically when asked about the Christian enterprise called biblical theology, some Jewish scholars say they are simply not interested in the subject.
It is a commonplace amongst OT scholars, and most biblical scholars in general, that the references to God’s Spirit in the OT are in fact references to God’s spirit – that is Yahweh’s presence (חַוּר).
Jesus, while hanging on the cross, cried out to the God of the Bible, quoting the beginning of the 22nd Psalm, asking why he had been forsaken. The word God in that quotation of course did not refer to Jesus who was reciting the psalm. It referred to Yahweh, and interestingly this is the only time in our earliest Gospel, Mark (followed closely by Matthew), that Jesus called God something as formal or generic as Eloi, or as Matthew has it, Eli.