Charles H. H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003. 1,038 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-8028-4950-4. $45.00.
In "Whither Biblical Theology?", the introduction to his 1991 book, The Promise and Practice of Biblical Theology, John Reumann stated that a paradigm shift was occurring in biblical studies from the "historical" era to the "literary" era. Reumann argued that the paradigm shift was occurring due to a duel source: (1) a general dissatisfaction with the method and results of historical criticism; and (2) a new emphasis on canonical criticism (following B. S. Childs) that stresses each finished book in the Bible in its "intertextuality" with all others in the agreed canon. In Reumann's opinion, biblical theology's future depends on making this transition.
Now, over a decade later, a major book on biblical theology has appeared in line with Reumann's contention, Charles H. H. Scobie's The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology. Scobie, Cowan Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, expresses, on the one hand, extreme dissatisfaction with the method and results of historical criticism (although he refuses to abandon the method); and, on the other hand, a positive future for biblical theology if guided by canonical theology. Like Reumann, Scobie believes that the future of biblical theology rests with these advancements.
Scobie states that he wrote the book in seeking to resolve a conflict that had haunted him throughout his entire academic career. That conflict was the tension resulting from basing his academic studies, teachings, and publications upon the historical-critical approach, while at the same time living in the church and the Christian community. Scobie states that he was consequently living in two worldsone devoid of faith and one full of faith. The resolution to Scobie's internal conflict finally came with his realization that an integrated biblical theology could mediate between his two worlds. At the heart of the book, then, is Scobie's argument that biblical theology bridges the gap that exists between the historical study of Scripture and the message of faith in the life and work of the church.
Scobie realizes, however, that in appealing to biblical theology, many different opinions exist as to what biblical theology is. Scobie reaffirms J. L. McKenzie's contention that biblical theology is the only discipline or sub-discipline in the field of theology that lacks generally accepted principles, methods, structure, purpose and scope. Scobie's goal, therefore, is to present a biblical theology that embraces principles, methods, structure, purpose and scope that can be accepted by both scholars and pastors alike.
Scobie's starting place in trying to put together a cohesive biblical theology is Child's canonical approach to biblical theology. He declares, "It is a central contention of the approach adopted here that biblical theology is canonical theology" (49). Scobie readily acknowledges his dependence upon Childs and canonical theology, but he also sees himself as improving upon Childs. According to Scobie, James Barr is correct when he states that one of the disappointments of Child's work is his failure to tackle the key question of the appropriate structure for biblical theology (82). Lest this criticism of Childs apply to him, Scobie takes great pains to make sure that he does not fail in addressing this key question. Consequently, Scobie recommends an "intermediate biblical theology" which seeks to be both descriptive and normative in contrast to the descriptive only "independent biblical theology" which has dominated biblical studies since the days of Wilhelm Wrede (21).
Scobie believes this is the source of the tension in which he finds himself, i.e., the inadequate conception of biblical theology as an independent discipline. The standard understanding has been that biblical theology is an academic discipline pursued in complete independence from the church. Scobie cites Krister Stendahl's influential 1960 Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible article on biblical theology as restating the common twentieth-century belief concerning biblical theologybiblical theology is concerned only with what the biblical text "meant," not with what the text "means." Scobie argues that from such a definition and understanding, biblical theology turned into a purely descriptive activity pursued independently from the life of the church. Scobie believes that this "independent biblical theology" approach has lead to a dead end and must be abandoned.
In the place of an independent biblical theology, Scobie substitutes an approach that he believes does not disparage the historical study of Scriptureaware of the limitations of the historical-critical approach that seeks to go beyond it to a new understanding of biblical theology appropriate to a post-critical age (7). Such a biblical theology does not exist independently from the life of the church. He labels his approach, then, "intermediate biblical theology" for it is seen as a bridge discipline standing between the historical study of the Bible and the use of the Bible as authoritative Scripture by the church (8). He writes:
There can be no return to the situation of an integrated biblical theology that existed before the rise of the modern historical approach. Yet the pursuit of a totally independent biblical theology has led to an impasse. What does hold promise is an approach that sees biblical theology as a bridge discipline, situated between the historical study of Scripture on the one hand and its use by the church in its faith and life on the other. This may be termed an "intermediate biblical theology" (46).
Scobie argues that when one works from an intermediate biblical theology grid, one can accept and build on the historical study of Scripture ascertaining what the text "meant," but not to the detriment of what the Bible "means" today. Put simply, an intermediate biblical theology allows one to be concerned both with what the Bible 'meant' (the pursuit of historical investigation) and what it 'means' (the faith dimension in the life of the church) as a canonical whole. Biblical theology, then, is not merely "history," which is descriptive; it is also "theology," which is normative (48).
Scobie explains that the historical-critical method is "critical" in that it does not accept traditional explanations of how the Bible came to be written, but seeks to examine and weigh the evidence (14). It is "historical" in that it recognizes that the Bible did not drop ready-made from heaven, but emerged from a religious community (14). In affirming a commitment to a historical-critical approach, Scobie writes, "An intermediate BT will assume and accept the findings of the historical-critical approach, but will seek to go beyond them and move from analysis to synthesis" (47).
Scobie argues, however, that historical criticism is flawed in claiming for itself the status of an objective discipline which is able to maintain neutrality in its examination. Contrary to its claims of objectivity, the historical-critical method is not unbiased, nor is it neutral in approaching the Bible. Scobie writes, "The modern critical approach simply rules out any presence of God in either nature or history; to capitulate to such a presupposition is to undercut the very basis of the claims made by Scripture" (37). Positively quoting Walter Wink, Scobie also asserts that historical-critical methodology promotes the suspension of evaluative judgments and participational involvement in the "object" of research. The presuppositions of the historical-critical method, then, mandate the elimination of questions of faith from the outset, since they can only be answered participatively, in terms of a lived response (32).
Consequently, Scobie concludes that the historical-critical method has not lived up to its billing the last two hundred years. Yet, despite showing the biases, errors and weaknesses of historical-criticism, he does not seek to turn back the clock to a pre-critical time. He writes, "The approach advocated here is not one that disparages the historical study of Scripture. It does not seek to turn the clock back to a precritical age" (7). Scobie believes that his intermediate biblical theology has the ability to correct the errors of historical criticism without abandoning what he deems to be its necessary function.
Scobie further asserts that his "intermediate biblical theology" presupposes the 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 testaments can in some way be related to the plan and purpose of the one God of the whole Bible (47). In this way, "intermediate biblical theology" flows out of canonical theology. This approach, popularized by Childs, tends to be synchronic rather than diachronic as one seeks to look not through the text to the history (the traditional aim of historical critical study) which lies behind it, but at the text as it stands in its final form (35). Scobie affirms Child's basic thesis that the canon of the Christian church is the most appropriate form in which to do biblical theology. Throughout the book, Scobie returns to this basic assertion. Biblical theology does not deal with hypothetical reconstructions but with the composite picture found in the canonical text, however that may have some into being. The text, regardless of its authorship, is decisive as it is part of canonical Scripture (643).
From this foundation in Part One of his book, "Prolegomena to a Biblical Theology," Scobie puts forth his grid for doing biblical theology. He writes:
The structure that is proposed here is one in which the major themes of Old Testament and New Testament are correlated with each other. Minor themes are then grouped around the major ones. Extensive study of key biblical themes again and again reveals a common pattern in the way these themes are developed within Scripture (91).
The common pattern that Scobie sees arising from Scripture is that of Old Testament proclamation and promise and New Testament fulfillment and consummation. The basic grid he employs connects the two testaments in an admirable way. There is a tension in the Old Testament between proclamation and promise of an already (proclamation), not yet (promise) character. Old Testament promise then unites with New Testament fulfillment. The tension that exists in the Old Testament between proclamation and promise anticipates the New Testament tension between fulfillment and consummation. The New Testament does not rest content with the already (fulfillment), but always pushes forward to the not yet (consummation).
Scobie argues that identifying and tracing important biblical themes following this scheme of Old Testament proclamation and promise and New Testament fulfillment and consummation offers the most promise and the least risk of distorting the biblical material. The four major themes that Scobie runs through this grid are "God's order," "God's servant," "God's people," and "God's way."
According to Scobie, the major theme of "God's order" expresses the conviction that behind the complex phenomena of nature and history is a meaning and purpose that is to be ascribed to the one true God. The term is also used to express the difference between the present order and the expected new order. The Old Testament proclaims that God is the creator and sustainer of all things, the one whose order can be discerned in nature. The Old Testament also promises the ushering in of a new order. The New Testament proclaims the fulfillment of this promised new order through the coming of the Christ and looks forward to the consummation when the present world order will be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth (95).
In putting forth the major theme of "God's servant," Scobie argues that the Old Testament promises the coming of a new servant, the true mediator between God and his people that would take the place of the imperfect servants of the old order. The New Testament proclaims the fulfillment of the promise as Christ is the new servant who both fulfills and transcends all forms of expectation. This servant, God incarnate, faces suffering and death on behalf of his people, but at the consummation will come in power and glory (96).
Concerning the major theme of "God's people," Scobie maintains that in the Old Testament God chose a particular people to be his servant people. The Old Testament authors, however, were aware of the failings of God's people, and held out the promise of a time when God's people would be renewed, resurrected, and reconstituted. The New Testament sees the fulfillment of the promises concerning God's people in the new covenant community brought about through the Christ-event. This community, although blessed, is also imperfect and will be truly constituted only at the consummation (97).
The last major theme, "God's way", concerns the life of the people of God. The Old Testament proclaims that God has offered a lifestyle which leads to blessing and life for Israel. Israel's sin, however, leads to the promise of a new life. This promise of new life is fulfilled in the New Testament in the life of Jesus. Believers share in this new life, although it will be experienced in its fullness only at the consummation.
Around each of these major themes, Scobie groups what he considers to be five appropriate sub-themes. Scobie writes, "The structure that is proposed here is one in which the major themes of OT and NT are correlated with each other. Minor themes are then grouped around major ones. Extensive study of key biblical themes again and again reveals a common pattern in the way these themes are developed in Scripture" (91). The breakdown of the themes and sub-themes he addresses in the book are:
"God's Order": (1) The Living God; (2) The Lord of Creation; (3) The Lord of History; (4) The Adversary; (5) The Spirit
"God's Servant": (6) The Messiah; (7) The Son of Man; (8) Glory, Word, Wisdom, Son; (9) The Servant's Suffering; (10) The Servant's Vindication
"God's People": (11) The Covenant Community; (12) The Nations; (13) Land and City; (14) Worship; (15) Ministry;
"God's Way": (16) The Human Condition; (17) Faith and Hope; (18) God's Commandments; (19) Love Your Neighbor; (20) Life
Each sub-theme in turn contains numerous topics that Scobie addresses. At the end of the book, he provides a detailed one-page outline of the break down of the twenty sub-themes. This gives the reader in one place the structure of chapters that range from 25 pages ("The Servant's Vindication") to 81 pages ("Love Your Neighbor"). He provides with each entry what he believes are the best definitions and options. Numerous scholars are quoted and an extensive bibliography is provided. The last 110 pages of the book consist of outlines, bibliographies, and indices.
In many ways, Scobie's book supplements Childs's 1970 volume Biblical Theology in Crisis and 1992 volume Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Scobie hails the latter book as the most significant book on biblical theology of the twentieth century (45). He follows Childs's assertion that the main goal of biblical theology is to hear the two different voices of the Old Testament and New Testament in their canonical integrity. Copying Childs, Scobie maintains that biblical theology can do justice both to the Old Testament and hold that, in the context of the canon, the New Testament is its continuation and fulfillment (60). Like Childs, he attempts to mediate between criticism and faith while maintaining a view of Scripture which sides with the presuppositions of criticism. Scobie recognizes that historical criticism's hermeneutical a prioris are neither axiomatic nor demonstrable, but are understandable only within a shared naturalistic framework.
Throughout the book, then, it appears that Scobie wants to keep one foot in the academic world, which demands the retention of the historical-critical method, and keep one foot in the community of faith, which demands the retention of a faith dimension. In trying to maintain a place in both worlds, Scobie is forced to redefine the traditional definition of "historical criticism." He first attacks the view that historical criticism is an objective, neutral discipline. He then uses the term "historical critical" in a broad sense that Reformed biblical theologians would call "questions of introduction." For instance, he writes, "A historical critical approach demands that the OT be translated and studied on the basis of the original Hebrew text" (72). He also writes, "Historical-critical study of the Bible still has an important role to play (cf. above, C-1.3). The books of the Bible must be interpreted in the first instance against their historical background; questions of authorship, date, destination, purpose, and so on must be based on painstaking exegesis that aims to understand the meaning of the text in its original setting" (46). But, at the same time that Scobie affirms such a commitment, he steadfastly maintains that biblical scholarship cannot return to pre-critical days. He declares, "The call is not for a return to a pre-critical position, but rather for the seeking out of a new, post-critical position" (32).
In reading the book, this tension between trying to maintain a place in both worlds never goes away. Consequently, Scobie's proposal for biblical theology, which is helpful at points, does not achieve the goal that he projects. Unless Scobie becomes truly radical and puts away historical-criticism in totality, he cannot put forth a true biblical theology because his solution is not radical enough. The great methodological weakness of the book is also the great ironyby not abandoning historical-criticism as a false methodology, Scobie reaffirms the gap between the "study" and the "pulpit". His belief that there is the existence of the gap which must be overcome indicates that Scobie's overhaul of historical criticism is incomplete. The result is that Scobiedespite his loud protests to the contraryviolates one of the cardinal principles of biblical theology, the exegete is to receive conflict from the text, not create it.
Scobie writes the book because of the "gap" that he believes exists between historical study (what the text "meant") and the "pulpit" (what the text "means"). Scobie admits in pre-critical times that there was no clear distinction drawn between the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of the church. "It is true that no sharp distinction was drawn between the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of the church; the one was largely integrated with the other" (7). The study of the Scripture was not at odds with the teaching of the church. Faith was connected with a real historical event. But a return to this view is deemed not an option. Scobie writes, "There can be no return to the situation of an integrated biblical theology that existed before the rise of the modern historical approach" (46). Why not? Historical investigation of the text took pace in the church prior to the last two hundred years, and it was not at odds with theological instruction, catechetical instruction and preaching. Scobie's acceptance of the critical viewpoint, despite every statement that he makes to the contrary, creates the tension that he seeks to resolve in the writing of the book.
What is so frustrating is that Scobie hints at this himself. He approvingly cites Temper Longman when Longman maintains that literary analysis of historical books is not incompatible with a high view of the historicity of the text (37). He writes, "The modern critical approach simply rules out any presence of God in either nature or history; to capitulate to such a presupposition is to undercut the very basis of the claims made by Scripture" (37). At the same time, he writes "in biblical studies any total abandonment of a historical-critical approach would be a major disaster that would cast the interpreter adrift on a sea of subjectivity" (33).
Scobie's reasoning, however, fails to take into account the fact that theology is rooted in revelation. The Bible is revelational history. History is the creation of God; it is not the enemy of God. The believer's philosophy of history should match what Christ, in Scripture, has said about the past, the present, and the future. As long as Scobie allows the philosophical to precede the historical, a tension is created. The end result is that Scobie falls directly into line behind Childsboth can attack modern theology as being deficient, but then still speak as modern theologians. They fall then into the nebulous area of "liberal conservative" or "conservative liberal" and are given a place at the theological table to converse with all. For some, this is the ideal, a place in both worlds. For this reviewer, however, it is a compromise that falls short.
Consequently, with Scobie's refusal to abandon historical-criticism mixed with a helpful critique of it, the book ends up alternating between being helpful and disappointing. There is descriptive help in the book on a number of biblical passages and topics. The meticulous way that Scobie deals with each theme and the breadth of scholars cited is impressive. Instead of running though numerous books trying to see which scholar dealt with which issue, one can turn to the appropriate section in Scobie and find immediate references. And, more than that, Scobie identifies which scholars he believes provide the best explanations. Scobie's pattern of Old Testament proclamation/promise and New Testament fulfillment/consummation is also a useful grid. Still, neither Scobie's "intermediate biblical theology" nor his book ever reaches the richness and depth of Geerhardus Vos's Biblical Theology.
Vos, the father of Reformed biblical theology, did not see a tension between an intense preoccupation with the historical nature and diversity of the text and the doctrinal unity of the Bible. In fact, it can be said that Vos spent a lifetime arguing that in the covenant doctrine and life flow into one another. Part of the reason that Scobie sees a divide is that he believes that biblical theology operates out of a school. Vos rightly comprehended that biblical theology operates out of the covenant. In the covenant, there is not a wedge between theology and history.
The contrast in the two starting points of Scobie (school) and Vos (covenant) cannot be underestimated. Being covenantally grounded, Vos was able to work on the diversity of the text without fear that such work would place him in opposition to doctrine. Vos understood that the Scriptures are the written and inspired Word of God, so that the text partakes of theological unity prior to the engagement of an interpreter. The unity of Scripture is grounded in the unity of God whom we confess to be the author.
This understanding of Scripture, which is set forth in the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, enabled Vos to labor in the academy with the highest level of scholarship, while having no difficulty talking about his own personal faith. The academic environment that forbids Scobie from preaching did not forbid Vos during the midst of detailed argumentation to exclaim, "my Lord."
Vos also did not equivocate on whether biblical theology should retain a position in the world of speculation and the world of faith. Vos rooted biblical theology in the infallible Word of God. The first guiding principle that Vos listed in discussing biblical theology is "the recognition of the infallible character of revelation as essential to every legitimate theological use made of this term" (Biblical Theology, 11). In defending this assertion, Vos wrote, "If God be personal and conscious, then the inference is inevitable that in every mode of self-disclosure he will make a faultless expression of his nature and purpose" (ibid).
Vosian biblical theology, then, stands over against Scobian biblical theology. Despite every claim and shout to the contrary, Scobie's position on Scripture undercuts his biblical theology. Scobie wants to affirm the normative unity of Biblical Theology after refusing to affirm the normative unity of the Bible. He wants it both ways. He wants to work with the finished text without humbling himself to the claims of Scripture concerning itself. If Scobie really wants to scale the wall that the modern theological enterprise has created, he has to do more than just receive the finished text. He needs to affirm, in Vos's words, that Scripture is stamped with divinity on it. Inspiration, inerrancy, trustworthiness, and historical accuracy are not indifferent matters. Vos argues:
"Whenever the New Testament speaks about the inspiration of the Old, it is always in the most absolute, comprehensive terms. Consulting the consciousness of the Scriptures themselves in this matter, we soon learn that it is either 'plenary inspiration' or nothing at all. Further, we have found that revelation is by no means confined to isolated verbal disclosures, but embraces facts. These facts moreover are not of a subordinate character: they constitute the central joints and ligaments of the entire body of redemptive revelation. From them the whole receives its significance and colouring" (Biblical Theology, 13).
The authority of Scripture is ground in the person of God himself. It does not depend for its authority upon any man or institution. Scobie, however, wants to use the Scripture in an authoritative way without acknowledging that it is authoritative. In his canonical approach, he ends up sharing with Childs a position on canon that points to a Roman Catholic understanding of the relationship between church and canon.
Even where Scobie is at his best in pointing out the Old Testament proclamation/promise and New Testament fulfillment/consummation pattern, Vos does better. Vos continually points his readers to the significance of pre-redemptive revelation and the covenant that God makes with man in innocence. Vos believed that the Genesis account teaches, and Paul affirms, that provision was made and probation was instituted for a still higher state, both ethico-religiously and physically complexioned, than was at that time in the possession of man. It is not just with soteric revelationOld Testament proclamation/promise and New Testament fulfillment/consummationthat man is in an "already/not yet estate." In the garden prior to the Fall into sin, man was in such a situation. He was "already" in communion with God, but he was "not yet" in that place of full intercourse on a higher plane. Vos is adamant that the eschatological complex and prospect were there in the purpose of God from the beginning. The eschatological, or supernatural, is the mother soil out of which the tree of the entire soteric enterprise has sprung.
Scobie doesn't even address the issue. Either he deems it unimportant or he is unaware of its significance. The result, regardless of motivation, is a crippling of his work. Without this understanding"that the eschatological principle is so deeply embedded in the structure of the biblical religion as to precede and underlie everything else" (Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, 66)Scobie's teaching often is flat, lacking an eschatological pulse that is consistent with his proper emphasis upon consummation.
Despite the high $45 price, the book is recommended as a resource for the current state of biblical theology. It is a must in regard to understanding the transition that has occurred in biblical studies in the past few decades. Of particular value is seeing the attempted deconstruction of historical criticism without the abandonment of historical criticism. It is not recommended, however, as a substitute for Vos's Biblical Theology. For Scobie, the philosophical still precedes the historical; this ends up creating the tension which he seeks to resolve. If one desires to supplement Vos with Scobie, this could be done, but extreme caution would need to be taken. Reformed biblical theology demands a commitment to Scripture, the covenant, and an understanding of pre-redemptive revelation and eschatology that Scobie's volume lacks.