Reason, History and Revelation:

Biblical Theology and the


William D. Dennison


In my judgment, until recently, respect and peace has existed between the proponents of Biblical Theology and her critics within Reformed confessional churches and seminaries. In recent years, however, this spirit of tolerance has begun to crumble. Although mystery surrounds what has triggered this deteriorating spirit, three popular criticisms have intensified with respect to Reformed Biblical Theology. First, Biblical Theology fails to apply the Biblical text to the lives of God's people; often the analogy is used that it flies like an airplane over the earth, never touching the ground. Second, the redemptive-historical genre of Holy Scripture (Biblical Theology) is one perspective of many genres that appear throughout the Biblical narrative (for example, there is the genre of wisdom literature, parabolic literature, apocalyptic literature, etc.). Third, the origin of the theological discipline of Biblical Theology is within the critical-liberal theological tradition, specifically the German Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and for this reason the discipline must be viewed as destructive to the purity of Reformed theological orthodoxy.

From my perspective, the first two criticisms (application and perspectival) are the most persistent criticisms that appear upon the theological landscape today. The third criticism is not, however, without its vigorous adherents, and for that reason, this essay will address the third area of criticism—the relationship between Reformed Biblical Theology and the Enlightenment. In the current air of criticism, it is common to hear the more strident opponents of Biblical Theology simply attempt to discredit the discipline because it arose in the critical-liberal thought of the Enlightenment. A deductive argument is employed: Biblical Theology arose in the context of liberalism; therefore it is liberal.

Although logic books tell us that these critics have employed a logical fallacy in their argument ("genetic fallacy," i.e., attacking the source rather than the person or position), we must not dismiss their criticism so quickly. After all, we cannot overlook the fact that Reformed scholars as well as critical-liberal scholars hold that the discipline of Biblical Theology arose during the German Enlightenment. Specifically, whether we are reading Geerhardus Vos or Bernhard Weiss, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. or Brevard Childs, there is agreement that the modern development of the discipline of Biblical Theology occurred on March 30, 1787 with the inaugural address of Johann Philipp Gabler at the University of Altdorf.1 On that day, Gabler addressed his audience on the subject: "An Oration on the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each." Gabler's title demonstrates that he wished to define the distinction between the new discipline of Biblical Theology and the traditional rendering of Dogmatic Theology. In light of the attack upon theological dogma in the universities as well as in the churches, Gabler called for a return to the Bible. He mapped out before his audience the formulation and distinctive path for Biblical Theology that he felt would alleviate the tensions surrounding Dogmatic Theology.

As Reformed and critical scholars have reflected on the content of Gabler's address, both sides have recognized that his project was steeped in the complex nuances of the Enlightenment. To be sure, such recognition creates an uneasy atmosphere around Reformed Biblical Theology since the Enlightenment expounds the fundamentals of modernity, i.e., exalting human reason over against the revelation of God's work in history.2 The Enlightenment is the era in which its leading intellectuals have been described as "modern pagans."3 These intellectuals served as the inquisitors, placing the God of the Bible upon the stand in their court of human reason—demanding that God tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.4 They demanded that the god they had fashioned by their own mind forsake the lies found in the Bible. In other words, it was time that their god of reason tell the truth: serpents do not speak, seas do not part, miracles do not occur, and men do not rise from the dead. Furthermore, the religion presented from Genesis through Revelation is not the sole religion that brings redemption to a fallen creature. Many religions can direct us to the essence of a credible religious experience of freedom, fraternity, and life.

In light of the Enlightenment worldview, the question can be asked of Reformed Biblical theologians—why would we even entertain the prospect of enriching the theological enterprise with anything that sets before us blatant unbelief and rebellion against Christian orthodoxy? Let me provide a tentative response to this question as I also reveal my thesis. Although Reformed theologians such as Vos and Gaffin commend Gabler's address for making the distinction that Biblical Theology is a historical discipline and that Dogmatic Theology is a didactic (teaching) discipline, at this point their approval of Gabler ends. After all, in compliance with the critical mood of his era, Gabler's enlightened mind and "pious" heart scrutinized the historical and revelatory character of the Biblical narrative in order to make it relevant to his generation. For this reason, as Vos unfolds his conception of Biblical Theology, it can be said that the discipline formulated by Gabler was not Biblical Theology at all. Rather, Gabler's conception of Biblical Theology was merely a critical hybrid of the grammatical-historical hermeneutical method. He adapted his exegetical method to the spirit of the Enlightenment while attempting to sustain stability for less than orthodox Christian beliefs in an era of transition and confusion.

The Mood of the German Aufklärung

The thesis of Immanuel Kant's famous 1784 essay entitled, "What is Enlightenment?" captured not only the spirit of the age, but also its theological and hermeneutical landscape.5 His dictum was clear: "Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred [self-caused] tutelage [immaturity]. . . . Have courage to use your own intelligence!"6 As Kant defended his thesis, he encouraged both scholar and cleric within the German ecclesiastical setting to use his mind in order to free himself and the laity from the tutelage of traditional creedal church dogma. Kant tempered his evangelic spirit of freedom with the consciousness of German culture; he had to be sensitive to the submissive character of the church to the state as a German way of life. The state finalized, and on occasion initiated, ecclesiastical appointments and dismissals; likewise, on occasion, the state employed censors who approved or disapproved all books about religious subjects.7 In this environment, Kant believed that enlightenment and liberation could be achieved by aligning what many leading German intellectuals had come to distinguish as the private and public use of reason.8 As a pastor, the clergyman carried out his ministry with the private use of reason in mind. He followed his obligation to teach his congregation and pupils according to the doctrine of the church since he was accepted into the pastorate on the basis of compliance to the teachings of the church. On the other hand, as scholars, the clergy were free and even obligated to carry out their scholarly task with the public use of reason in mind. In this case, the scholar must demonstrate to his listeners and students all the erroneous points in church dogma as well as his proposals to improve upon the religion presented in the church. Herein, within the public use of reason, the scholar exercised the courage and boldness of enlightened wisdom to go beyond the tutelage of traditional church dogma, and yet the continual exercise of the private use of reason provided the appearance of a cautious movement.

Although Kant's essay has left its mark on the history of ideas, its substance was not really new. Some sixty years prior to the appearance of Kant's essay, Christian Wolff (1679-1754), a disciple of Leibniz, had declared the Enlightenment motto—"that freedom consists in this, that in judging truth one depends not on what others say, but on one's own mind."9 Wolff was emphatic; for one to be under the tutelage of another—whether a teacher or a creed—was to be in a state of slavery. For Wolff, freedom had to be realized through the continuing Cartesian renaissance of rationalism, and its attack upon the dominant status of theology as the queen of the sciences. Wolff demanded that the theologians carry out their discipline by using the rules of logic and reason as uncovered by the philosopher.10 He did not find this demand inconsistent with freedom; rather the unimpaired activity of the human mind was its liberating effect. In this context, Wolff asserted two basic premises which had a profound influence during the eighteenth century: "1) that revelation may be above reason but not contrary to reason, and 2) that reason establishes the criteria by which revelation may be judged."11 Although Wolff's synthesis of reason and revelation influenced the eighteenth century, it is true that during the fourth decade of the century the popularity of the pure structure of his philosophy began to wane in light of the new demand to reassess the relationship of philosophy and history.12 Even so, Wolff's position that reason is judge was solidly in place assisting the emerging discussion between philosophy and history. For not only was the faculty of reason being employed to liberate modern man from the dogma of the church, but in view of the widening influence of Benedict Spinoza's (1632-1677) Tractatus Theologico-politicus (1670), the discipline of history under the direction of philosophy began to liberate theological dogma from what history conceived as the errors of theology.13

In light of our focus, the German pietistic movement, from which the modern discipline of Biblical Theology emerges, operated in the midst of this complex discussion of reason, history, and revelation. Sometimes referred to as neologians, S. J. Baumgarten (1706-1757) and J. S. Semler (1725-1791) employed a historical-critical approach to the Bible.14 They held, in different degrees, that the Bible revealed religious truth and that the Bible was imperative for the religious life; they also held that its content was not different from that of natural religion in general. Furthermore, following Wolff's lead, reason was to eliminate those individual doctrines of Christian revelation which were not identical with their view of reason.15 Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that as rational and historical criticism performed its operation upon the pages of Scripture, the basic tenet of seventeenth century German pietism remained intact. The pietistic movement established by Philip Spener (1635-1705) and his disciple August Francke (1663-1727), continued to maintain that the inner religious experiences of the soul ranked above the dogma and external authority of the church.16 In fact, Spener expressed this distinction with interesting terminology; he contrasted the devotional "biblical theology" (theologia biblica) with the dogma of the prevailing Protestant "scholastic theology" (theologia scholastica).17 In this context, our principle figure, Johann Philipp Gabler emerged.

Biblical Theology is Recognized

I have already noted that Gabler's inaugural address (1787) has been viewed by many scholars as the turning point in the discipline of Biblical Theology. When the address was delivered, however, its immediate historical importance was not apparent. According to John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldredge, it was not until D. C. G. von Cölln's reference to the address in 1836 (about fifty years after the address) that Gabler received such patriarchal status concerning the discipline of Biblical Theology.18 In fact, there is no evidence that his inaugural address had a broad influence upon those who attended the address or upon his theological contemporaries throughout the German provinces. Rather, it seems that the theological climate at the time was "slow to accept biblical theology itself as a discipline."19 Moreover, until the appearance of Gotthelf Traugott Zachariä's (1729-1777) five volume set on Biblical Theology, which appeared from 1771-1786 (five vols.: 1771, 72, 74, 75, 86), the modern description of Biblical Theology was extremely vague, and its popularity had not emerged. Even after the appearance of Zachariä's first four volumes in the first half of the 70's, the next book that included the phrase "biblical theology" in its title was Hufnagel's Handbook of Biblical Theology in 1785. The discipline remained so obscure that J. A. Noesselt's work, Direction to the Knowledge of the Best General Books in All Subjects of Theology (1779), which was a standard guide for the theology students of his day, did not include a section on Biblical Theology, and Zachariä's work on Biblical Theology was only mentioned among those works "recommended" for reading. Even Noesselt's last edition in 1800 still failed to include a section on Biblical Theology.

Finally, in 1813, the succeeding volume to Noesselt's own last edition included a section on Biblical Theology in the theological handbook for students. Although it can be noted that in the 1790's there was an increased appearance of the phrase Biblical Theology in books and articles, there still seemed to be confusion about what the term meant and how the discipline should be understood. Even so, Gabler and a few others (e.g., C. F. von Ammon's The Design of a Pure Biblical Theology, 1792 and G. L. Bauer's four volumes on Biblical Theology, 1800-1802) attempted to keep the theological world abreast of the issues associated with Biblical Theology. Although we do not know to what extent they were effective, we do know that W. M. L. de Wette's Biblical Dogmatic of the Old and New Testaments (1813) and G. C. von Cölln's Biblical Theology (1836) publicized Gabler as the figure who did the most to launch Biblical Theology as a separate discipline.20 For this reason, Weiss, Vos, Childs, Gaffin, and others (e.g., Kümmel and Frei), regard Gabler as the distinguishing figure of modern Biblical Theology. Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge argue that Zachariä was probably the one who laid the foundations for Gabler's pivotal position in the history of the discipline.21

Gabler's Address

As Kant's essay revealed, the last half of the eighteenth century can be viewed as a period of theological unrest in the churches as well as in theological institutions. Things were not going smoothly. Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge seem to be on target as they present the two basic problems.

First, how could the Bible still be the final authority in Christian doctrine when so many critical studies seemed to be destroying its believability and its unity of doctrine? Secondly, even if the Bible were assumed to be the basis for Christian faith, could there be a role for any further development of Christian ideas, namely dogmatic theology?22

Hence Gabler set out to maintain that the Bible is the final authority for Christian doctrine as he also attempted to reestablish a legitimate place for Dogmatic Theology. Gaffin summarizes Gabler's position correctly:

The gist of Gabler's position is that biblical theology is an historical, and for him that means, a purely descriptive discipline, concerned to discover what in fact the biblical writers thought and taught; dogmatics, on the other hand, is a didactic or normative discipline, concerned to provide a contemporary statement of faith based ultimately not on the Bible but on philosophy and the use of reason.23

Although Gabler held that there is a distinction between the historical origin of Biblical Theology and the didactic (teaching) origin of Dogmatic Theology, his address depicts a synthesis of the grammatical-historical method of biblical interpretation with the historical-critical and rationalistic approach of his own era.24

In light of the bold attacks upon the integrity of the Bible in his day, Gabler's address invoked the grammatical-historical hermeneutic of the Reformation.25 He must have sounded like a breath of fresh air as he demanded that his peers return to the Bible and its grammatical-historical character. Indeed, he echoed the Reformers by maintaining that the exegete is to study and classify the text according to its historical period (time and place) viewing the authors as well as the words and grammatical-constructions from within their immediate historical environment. After recognizing this basic proposition of agreement, however, his adaptation of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic begins to dissolve. Like Kant, Wolff, and the liberating mind of the Enlightenment, Gabler's call to get "back to the Bible" was filtered through modern rational-empirical and pietistic lenses. As Gabler proceeds with the exegetical task, these lenses become apparent.

After studying and classifying the historical and grammatical context of the biblical authors, the exegete must collect and classify the ideas of each author throughout the Biblical narrative as well as clearly distinguish between what belongs to the Old and New Testaments, while at the same time (in pietistic fashion), giving higher relevance to the New Testament text. As the New Testament takes its exalted position in the Biblical text, Gabler pushed his synthetic hermeneutic towards its final goal. He told his audience in 1787 that the "careful and sober comparison" of each author as well as each testament was to enable the exegete to understand what is of temporal value and what is of universal value in the Bible. Specifically, in rational-empirical fashion, the opinions of the authors of Holy Scripture are to be "carefully collected" and "suitably digested" in order to see what "universal notions" emerge in comparison to them.26 For Gabler, what seems to be culturally conditioned by a particular time, place, or human idea is the temporal element, whereas what emerges as being universal is the divine element. As Gabler proceeded in his address, it became apparent that the litmus test concerning the universal was typical of the pietistic genre. The truly universal—that which is truly divine—is "the unchanging idea of the doctrine of salvation" for all men.27 Herein, we are to find true religion as opposed to theology.28 For Gabler, then, true religion and the doctrine of salvation "is everyday, transparently clear knowledge" concerning "what each Christian ought to know and believe and do in order to secure happiness in this life and life to come."29 Simply put, it is an enlightened moral universal religion clothed with Christian nuances. Furthermore, in his mind, this true understanding of biblical religion releases Christianity from the traditional dogmatic and creedal propositions of church doctrine.30

In this context, Gabler advocated his view of biblical inspiration; he maintained that the doctrine of inspiration must be viewed merely as conveying the universal notion of salvation. In other words, the biblical authors are inspired only as they bear the divine message of salvation. On the other hand, if the message of the biblical authors is viewed as only being relevant to a particular time or place, then that specific message is not to be viewed as inspired.31 Here, Gabler is following the lead of his fellow neologian, i.e., J. S. Semler's (1721-1791) landmark work on the Biblical canon entitled, A Free Investigation of the Canon (1771).32 Semler had come to believe that since the application of scriptural interpretation should take place in accordance with universal moral and religious principles, one can no longer believe that all sections in the Bible are equally inspired.33 Gabler was simply following suit.

What cannot be overlooked, however, is how the distinction between the eternal and temporal, the spiritual and the worldly, the universal and the particular in union with his view of Biblical inspiration affected his own distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology. In summary, Gabler told his audience that Biblical Theology "deals only with those things which holy men perceived about matters pertinent to religion, and is not made to accommodate our point of view."34 Such a goal is accomplished by the empirical-grammatical-historical-critical hermeneutic, which for Gabler, simply meant Biblical Theology. On the other hand, Dogmatic Theology is varied according to the "variety both of philosophy and of every human point of view of that, which is subtle, learned, suitable and appropriate, elegant and graceful."35 Simply put, Dogmatic Theology is a discipline whose chief task is to adapt its material to "our own times." 36 Specifically, Dogmatic Theology takes the universal principle as extracted by Biblical Theology and applies it to a whole theological system that accommodates the philosophical nuances to one's own time. Herein, Dogmatic Theology was transformed into an immediate Contemporary theology.

Analysis of Gabler's Address

As previously stated, Gabler was in tune with the spirit of his enlightened age; he was committed to using the public use of human reason as a liberating vehicle from traditional theological authority. Specifically, he was committed to a modern empirical-scientific method which maintained that Biblical Theology is "of historical origin, conveying what the holy writers felt by divine matters."37 The key term is "felt;" however, his use of the term was not a romantic-existential concept of feeling of a shared consciousness between the Biblical writers and the reader. Rather, for the exegete to know what the Biblical writers felt by "divine matters" was a result of a rigorous scientific investigation. Specifically, Gabler held that we are to proceed chronologically as we observe, collect, classify, and compare (empirical method of modern science) the data which each author wrote (grammatical) in their own historical context (historically) as those authors conveyed what they felt about divine matters. If the author's ideas "shape" men's "souls," then he is writing as a "sacred author," but if his ideas are attempting to "shape" the "needs of his time," then he is versing only human opinion. But how does one reach such a distinction? What is being observed, collected, classified, and compared?

Simply, one is analyzing the Biblical text in order to extract the moral ethos of the Enlightenment: goodness, happiness, the natural, innocence, pleasure over pain, tolerance, duty, liberty, equality, fraternity, etc. Herein, we discover that Gabler's critical method is a means to an end, i.e., the method is used in order to authenticate Gabler's preconceived conception of a universal moral world, or more specifically, a universal moral religion. Such a presupposition as well as a methodological analysis of the Biblical narrative reveals a conception of a canon within a canon. Analogous to the mind-body dualism of antiquity and the Cartesian mind-body problem, he has employed a method which makes a judgment between the eternal (essential to the human spirit) and the temporal (relative to the immediate culture) in the Biblical text.

Besides Gabler recasting the grammatical-historical hermeneutic of the Reformation into the empirico-rational framework of modern science, his view of Biblical Theology also demonstrated a methodological difference with his enlightenment predecessor, Christian Wolff. Although an examination of the structure of his thought has revealed that he agreed with Wolff's assertion that reason is to judge revelation, nevertheless, when Gabler analyzed the historical and grammatical context of the biblical narrative, he began with language in its environmental context and not logic. In other words, unlike Wolff, for Gabler language precedes concepts (logic), or to put it another way, history precedes philosophy.38 For Gabler, however, history is merely the sequence—the progress—of the Biblical narrative, written by inspired authors at various places and times in a contextual world, using the language of the culture. Herein, Gabler incorporated the position of the later Enlightenment period in distinction from Wolff, i.e., that history must liberate us from philosophy and logic. For him, Biblical Theology, as a historical discipline, secured such liberation. On the other hand, in the area of dogmatics, Gabler maintained the Cartesian and Enlightenment directive that reason or philosophy informs one's theological dogmas. In the arena of dogmatics, therefore, Gabler continued to find Wolff's method relevant; reason will continue to judge what had previously been believed.

Gabler was committed to his enlightened hermeneutical procedure: "if I judge of anything, everything must be accomplished by exegetical observation only, and that with constant care, and compared with the things spoken of and promised by our Savior in this matter."39 However, in order to hold on to the notion of eternal or universal religion, Gabler employed a Stoic philosophical paradigm that he attributed to the influence of the German scholar, Tiedemann.40 As to what this actually meant, Gabler was not clear. Perhaps, if we take our cue from Stoic philosophy, the universal will be defined in Stoic fashion as moral worth, justice, and duty. In principle, this is what we find when Gabler stated that the religion of the Bible is "teaching what each Christian ought to know and believe and do in order to secure happiness in this life and in the life to come."41 Herein, man is pictured as securing his own salvation through what he knows, believes, and does; he is showing himself to be of moral worth. Unlike Stoicism and more like Platonism, however, the universal becomes transcendent for Gabler; it is able to take us beyond the world of appearance into a world that is unchanging in all its ideas and notions.

As the universal principle is grasped by means of an empirical-scientific investigation of the Biblical text, it should not be overlooked that Gabler's method included an empirical historiography that was driven by a comparable conception of reason. During the Enlightenment, the faculty of reason went through a conceptual change; no longer was it merely a static faculty which possesses, acquiesces, and judges information, rather it also has an inherent power to control, change, and overcome the terrain of its world. This transition is a continuation of the authority and the autonomy of reason in secular western thought. In my judgment, the impetus for this movement was implicit in the construction of the nature-grace dualism (scholasticism) in which reason was presented as a neutral foundational category, and yet, complementary to revelation, faith, and grace. In the context of this dualism and the sinful state of man, reason will only press for its own liberation—liberation not only of its own faculty but also as a power unto itself. In Gabler, we are observing reason as a power unto itself.

Through the empirical and rational procedure of observation, classification, collection, and comparison in the sequence of historical events, the inherent power of reason moves to the forefront of the enterprise. Through the empirical process, reason lifts off the pages of the Biblical narrative the universals that are to be believed from those things that are merely cultural. Reason judges and affirms within its own power what is to be received as divine and what is to be received as human. As one can guess, Gabler's view of "reason" teaches that we only have access to the effects of Biblical inspiration and not the cause of Biblical inspiration.42 Gabler held that an exclusive empirical approach to Biblical inspiration excluded an a priori understanding of the supernatural status of the Word of God. His point should be evident: we only have the record of sacred authors (the effects of Biblical inspiration). Reason reveals that on occasion the sacred authors were conveying a human teaching and at other times a divine message. Reason has the inherent power to extract from the grammatical-historical-empirical investigation of the sacred authors the universal message that is relevant for the salvation of men's souls. Moreover, reason also has the inherent power to extract from its scientific method what is left as mere human instruction from the biblical author. In essence, Gabler's Biblical Theology was constructing a new moral religion. Simply stated, it is a religion extracted from the Bible by the later Enlightenment view of human reason. For this reason, the religious product of Gabler's Biblical Theology is different than the supernatural revelation presented by the entire Biblical corpus. Specifically, the power of reason shaped Biblical historiography into its own moral universal religion.

Gabler and Vos

Gabler's notion of Biblical Theology is merely the transformation of the grammatical-historical hermeneutic of the Reformation into the empirical method of modern science and its fraternal companion, the liberating effect of enlightened reason. In terms of Gabler's synthesis, his notion of Biblical Theology is far removed from the kernels of Biblical Theology found in Calvin and others during the Reformation, and it is also far removed from what would emerge within the confines of modern Reformed orthodoxy in the work of Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949).43 Simply put, Vos's Biblical Theology did not begin by isolating the empirical landscape of history in order to find how "holy writers felt about divine matters."44 Vos began with God as the Creator and sustainer of his creation and with the God of the Bible who reveals himself in providential history. The entire canon of Scripture records the condescending activity and deeds of the living God upon the plain of his own created history. The knowledge and understanding of God is unfolded within the historical revelation of his activity. For Vos, the process of God's self-disclosure is apparent: event precedes word, deed precedes interpretation.45 God's revelatory activity precedes man's comprehension of that activity in his whole existence (including heart, soul, mind, senses, etc.).

In God's inscriptured Word, God's activity and God's interpretation of that activity cannot be separated. One must start with God and his revelatory activity in order to know, understand, and interpret God and his revelatory activity correctly. The hermeneutical approach to the canon includes the eschatological identity of God—one must begin with God (deed), and one must end with God (interpretation) in one's understanding of his Word. Such an eschatological structure of Biblical revelation cannot be found in Gabler's address; rather his hermeneutical approach falls into its own eschatological structure. As an Enlightenment rationalist, Gabler began with an empirical-rational religion and he ended with an empirical-rational religion; specifically, he began with reason taking on the investigation towards uncovering truth, and he ends with reason uncovering the universal principle of religious truth. Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge are correct when they conclude: "Gabler has perhaps a better claim to be considered the father of the study of biblical religion than the father of biblical theology."46 Although this observation is correct, it should not be overlooked that the "biblical religion" presented by Gabler is not the religion of the Bible at all. Moreover, it brings into question whether Gabler, the so-called father of Biblical Theology, should be viewed as a true participant in the discipline itself.

Perhaps in light of the connecting link to Biblical and Reformed orthodoxy, Vos is the father of modern Biblical Theology. Indeed, new elements were brought to mind by the critical-liberal Biblical theologians, e.g., the position that Biblical Theology is a historical discipline. Since facts only have meaning within their given context, the connection between critical and orthodox Biblical Theology ends. Gabler's view of history was shaped by the dynamic of empirical reason and not by the authority of God and his Word. In what had become customary and fashionable during the Enlightenment, his view of reason stripped history of its supernatural character, and thus constructed another natural religion—a universal moral religion based on the Christian ethos. It was not a coincidence, therefore, that Vos frequently used the terminology of "supernatural religion" to describe the revelation of Biblical religion. Such terminology as used purposely to contrast the natural or rational religion of the critical-liberal Christian theologians who preceded him. As far as Vos was concerned, their view of history was antithetical to the God who acts and interprets the whole story of Biblical history.

Even in light of this tainted past, Vos was able to place the new discipline consistently within the confines of Biblical and Reformed orthodoxy. One may ask why the Reformation tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not advance to Vos's understanding of the discipline? Vos's teacher at the University of Berlin, Bernhard Weiss, provides some insight into answering that question. He highlights three points. First, the Reformation brought to the forefront the difference between the authority of the Church and the authority of the Bible and demanded a renovation of theology in accordance with the sole authority of Holy Scripture.47 Second, although the Reformers were dominated by the consciousness of sola Scriptura against Roman Catholic doctrine, nevertheless at this time the Reformers continued to accept the system of theology passed down to them, i.e., the scholastic systematic arrangement of theological rubrics.48 Third, by means of the exegesis of Scripture, the Reformers imported a new, and more Biblically informed, interpretation into the doctrines of theology without examining or questioning the system of theology at all.49 Simply put, the Reformers were changing the substance of the various theological rubrics without transforming the system of theology.

I would suggest that this directive makes sense; we must remember first things first. First, the Reformers had to change the substance of theological formulations, and then, perhaps, they would see the need of addressing the system of theology. In their day, however, and even by the late nineteenth century, the need to address the formulation of the system of theology was not clearly perceived by most Reformed theologians. In my judgment, Vos was the person who not only continued to address the substance of theology (e.g., Christ's resurrection is the primary subject of Paul's soteriology, not the atonement), but also attempted to transform the system of theology (e.g., eschatology moves from the end of systematics to the beginning). Vos's project should not be viewed as an attempt to upstage or truncate the position of the Reformers; rather, he was simply attempting to apply more consistently a Reformed view of hermeneutics to the whole spectrum of the theological enterprise. In other words, in terms of the subject of our study, the roots of Vos's Biblical Theology are not to be found in Gabler and the Enlightenment; rather, the roots of his theology are to be found in the Reformers. Let me be specific, although not comprehensive.

Although the Reformers were still operating with the rubrics of medieval Roman Catholic theology, the seeds were being planted for understanding the structural flow of Biblical revelation in a whole new way. The emphasis was upon the authority of God and the sovereign control of whatsoever comes to pass. Specifically, God's own providential dealings in the course of history are pervasive in the Reformers and the Reformed Confessions. This view of God and history came to expression in what the Reformers saw as the continuity element in Biblical revelation—the idea of the covenant. Unlike some Lutherans or the Anabaptists, the Reformers understood the Bible as a whole. Portions of Scripture were not elevated in comparison to other portions of Scripture (Lutherans), and the New Testament did not eradicate the Old Testament (Anabaptist). Rather, with Augustine, the Reformers proclaimed that the Old is contained in the New and the New is contained in the Old.

In this context, one must not forget that for Calvin typology became a hermeneutical principle he employed to attack the allegorical interpretation of medieval hermeneutics, i.e., Old Testament persons as well as certain institutions (e.g., priests, temple) were types of Christ.50 Even among the Reformers the expanse of the grammatical-historical method was not limited to the language, historical context, and sequence of the narrative. Rather the grammatical-historical method appeared in the context of the sovereign God of heaven and earth revealing himself in history, i.e., through the covenant unfolding in Christ.51 In Reformed theology, therefore, the covenant and Christocentric typology provided a fundamental link in understanding and stressing the unity of Scripture; they are at the core of the meaning of Scripture. This same understanding is found at the heart of Vos's Biblical Theology.

Furthermore, one cannot overlook the hermeneutical principle of the Reformation, i.e., "that Scripture interprets Scripture." The Reformed view of the historical continuity of Scripture testifies specifically to the hermeneutical principle of the Reformers; this hermeneutical principle is nonsense without the unfolding history of revelation. For this reason, Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. has stressed that the analogy of Scripture is implicitly Biblical-theological; this hermeneutical principle depicts the essence of the discipline of Biblical Theology.52 In light of Gaffin's observation, it is easy to conclude that Vos's work was a consistent outworking of the Reformed principle of hermeneutics. On the other hand, it takes great strain to connect Gabler to this Reformed principle. If anything, Gabler teaches us the danger of the grammatical-historical method of exegesis if not properly placed within Reformed orthodox perimeters.


If one truly believes that Reformed Biblical Theology is tainted merely because modern Biblical Theology arose in the Enlightenment, then one has failed seriously to do his homework. As students of God's Word and the history of western thought, it is our duty to uncover and expose the philosophical presuppositions that underlie the critical-liberal construction of Biblical Theology, especially as formulated in its so-called father, Johann P. Gabler. Furthermore, we are to examine and investigate those presuppositions in order to see how they conform to the revelation of God's Word. In our study, we have seen that the critical-liberal formulation of Biblical Theology appeared in the context of the Enlightenment and its presupposition of an empirical-rational worldview. They interpret the "facts"—the grammatical-historical construction of the Bible—in light of their scientific method. Such an approach begins with man and not with God. It has no integrative stance between the Biblical text and the sovereign God who is the author of the entire canon of Scripture. Rather, it proceeds exclusively on the empirical grounds of the liberating effects of public, practical, and enlightened reason in order to extract a divine moral religion in the pursuit of everlasting happiness. The liberal critics are freeing themselves from supernatural revealed religion and returning to a world which resembles Greek mythology and how the muse "felt about divine matters" (to use the language of Gabler).

When this humanistic religion is exposed through uncovering its presuppositions, then we are confronted with the full force of the antithetical nature of liberal-critical Biblical Theology in respect to Vos and his faithfulness to the hermeneutic of the Reformed tradition. We must realize that the common features between Vos and Gabler dissolve in light of the presuppositions, structure, and content of their respective views on Biblical Theology. The holistic construction of Vos's Biblical Theology is antithetical to the holistic construction of Gabler's formulation.53 The idea that Biblical Theology is a historical discipline and Dogmatics is a didactic discipline, or that the discipline of history precedes the disciplines of philosophy and dogmatic theology does not reveal much substantive continuity between Vos and Gabler. For Vos, these observations as well as biblical "facts" occur in a context—the context in which the one true God, i.e., the ontological Trinity, gives meaning to the facts. The Bible records the actual activity of God, and the Bible provides God's own interpretation of those acts. Such a position is not found in Gabler.

For Vos, God revealing himself in history is integrated with a grammatical-historical approach to the Bible; it is a holistic approach. In this approach, any empirical and rational investigation into the biblical text is integrated with the authority and person of God who must control the investigation by the exegete submitting to the structure of Biblical revelation. Thus, the reason Vos would endorse the fact that history precedes philosophy is because of the nature and character of God's revelation of himself, not because of the necessity to liberate man from rationalism. Hence, the Enlightenment is the enemy; it is not a friend! As we hold passionately to the God of the Bible and the unfolding of his revelation, we will not allow Gabler and the Enlightenment to define the terms on which we stand. Gabler's Biblical Theology is not Biblical Theology at all, in light of God's true revelation of himself recorded on the pages of Holy Scripture. The roots of an orthodox Biblical Theology are not found in the Enlightenment; rather, in the final analysis, they are found in God himself! Indeed, we are not declaring ourselves to be children of modernity (Enlightenment); rather, by the sovereign grace of God, we are children who hold passionately to the whole counsel of God as revealed to us from Genesis through Revelation. We are to preach, teach, and proclaim the full-orbed message as God has given it to his church in his infallible Word!

Covenant College

Lookout Mountain, Georgia


*A revised version of an address given at the Kerux Conference (1999) at Westminster, California.

1 Cf. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954) 17-18; Bernhard Weiss, Biblical Theology of The New Testament, trans. from 3rd revised edition by David Eaton (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1892) I: 26; Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., "Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology," in The New Testament Student and Theology, ed. John H. Skilton (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) III. 34; Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993) 4-5. An English translation of Gabler's address appeared in John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldredge, "J.P. Gabler and the Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology: Translation, Commentary, and Discussion of His Originality, "Scottish Journal of Theology, XXXIII, no. 2 (1980) 133-158. A partial English translation appears also in W.G. Kümmel, The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, 98-100. A more recent German translation appeared in Otto Merk, Biblische Theologie des neuen Testaments in ihrer Anfangszeit (Marburg: Elwert, 1972) 273-284. Also compare Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale, 1974) 165-167.

2 Geerhardus Vos admitted that "her [Biblical Theology] very birth took place under an evil star" ("The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline (1894)," in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980) 15. Herein, Vos wrote of the modern use of the term; however, recent discussion has placed the conception in the context of the Reformation (see O. Betz, "History of Biblical Theology, "in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia [New York: Abingdon Press, 1962] I: 432, and Charles H. H. Scobie, "History of Biblical Theology,"in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D. A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy, Steve Carter [Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000] 12). In fact, Robert Morgan states that the expression, Biblical Theology is "first found in 1629, has its roots in Christian discussion, intensified by the Reformation, of the relationship of theology to its biblical bases" ("Biblical Theology," in A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, eds. R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden [London: SCM Press, 1990] 86).

3 See Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Science of Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977) II: 125.

4 Carl L. Becker described the climate of opinion well: "What we have to realize is that in those years [Enlightenment] God was on trial" (The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932] 73).

5 Frei made a similar point: "Hermeneutical theory, like all other theory in the latter part of the eighteenth century, obeyed the slogan: 'Dare to think.'" (Eclipse, 94). Further insight into the sentiment of Kant's thesis can be found in the essay by Thomas P. Saine, "Who's Afraid of Christian Wolff?" in Anticipations of the Enlightenment in England, France, and Germany, eds. Alan Charles Kors and Paul J. Korshin (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania, 1987) 107.

6 "What is Enlightenment?" [1784], The Philosophy of Kant: Immanuel Kant's Moral and Political Writings, ed. and trans. Carl J. Friedrich (New York: Modern Library, 1949) 132.

7 Kant experienced the problems with both the academic and literary oversight of the German state. In 1786, Kant was denied the opportunity to teach philosophy at Marburg University because of the ruling of Frederick the Great and his government. Even so, in September of 1786, Kant was singled out by Frederick's administration and was elected a member of the Berlin Royal Academy. Later, in 1792, he had a book rejected for publication by the censor in Berlin.

8 The distinction between private and public use of reason did not originate with Kant. We know that it goes back to Leibniz (1646-1716), and is also found in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) and Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768). Concerning the connection between Leibniz and Lessing, see Henry Chadwick's essay, "Introduction," in Lessing's Theological Writings, trans. Henry Chadwick (Stanford: Stanford, 1956) 11. Concerning Reimarus, see Charles H. Talbert's essay, "Introduction," in Reimarus: Fragments, ed. Charles H. Talbert, trans. Ralph S. Fraser (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970) 6.

9 This quote is an analysis of Wolff's position by Thomas P. Saine ("Christian Wolff," 107).

10 See ibid., 105.

11 Talbert, "Introduction," 5; cf. Saine, "Christian Wolff," 109-111.

12 Wolff's seeming synthesis of reason over revelation can be seen in the following statement: "The natural way, as the superior way, must always be preferred over the way of miracles, and therefore miracles cannot occur except where God cannot achieve his goal in the natural way. And in such a case miracles derive not only from God's power, but also at the same time from his wisdom, for he uses them as a means for achieving his end, which he afterward connects to natural ends; whereby the miracles are integrated into the natural order of things" (quote appears in Saine, "Christian Wolff," 111).

13 See Hans-Georg Gadamer "On the Problem of Self-Understanding (1962)," Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. & ed. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California, 1977) 46.

14 See Frei, Eclipse, 111; Chadwick, "Introduction," 13, and W.G. Kümmel's The New Testament: The History of the Investigation of Its Problems, trans. S. McLean Gilmour and Howard C. Kee (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972) 62-68.

15 See Talbert, "Introduction," 5. Concerning the term "neologian," John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldredge write: "This term has been used by modern historians since Wilhelm Mauer to designate the theologians who steered a middle way between defending the whole of orthodox theology on rational principles and those who denied that there was any revelation apart from reason alone. In the eighteenth century 'neologian' was usually a term of abuse. The development of this term has not been adequately chartered by historians; however, Gabler appears to have been one of the first to use 'neologian' in a purely descriptive sense free from pejorative overtones" ("J.P. Gabler," 147, n. 1).

16 See Talbert, "Introduction," 4. Halle was founded in 1694 as a pietistic university.

17 See Scobie, "History of Biblical Theology," 13. This particular contrast became part the theological environment of the Enlightenment as evidenced in the title of A. F. Büsching's work, Advantage of Biblical Theology Over Scholasticism (1758).

18 See "J.P. Gabler," 149.

19 Ibid.

20 It is believed that Gabler influenced Bauer (see Kümmel, New Testament, 104). Also, it is believed that de Wette was the first writer to mention Gabler's work explicitly in his own work on Biblical Theology (see Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, "J.B. Gabler," 149 n. 2).

21 Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, "J. B. Gabler," 151-158.

22 Ibid., 145.

23 Gaffin, "Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology," 34.

24 Hans Frei also made this observation (Eclipse, 103).

25 Kümmel defends this point (New Testament, 112).

26 Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, "J.P. Gabler," 142.

27 Ibid., 143.

28 Gabler's conception of the universal here is not that far detached from the 20th century distinction between Geschichte and historie in German critical-liberal theological thought. Gabler is defending a trans-historical position, a supra-temporal notion, of the universal in distinction from the temporal—admittedly without the transcending twentieth century existential element of going beyond the subject-object relationship. Indeed, we have here the notion of a canon within a canon—the Bible within the Bible.

29 Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, "J.P. Gabler," 136.

30 Gabler's method and moral religion were typical of the Enlightenment project (see Becker, The Heavenly City, 100).

31 There is no plenary view of inspiration found in Gabler. In contrast, the Reformed Biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos will strongly defend plenary inspiration (See his "The Nature and Aims of Biblical Theology," The Union Seminary Magazine, [February-March, 1902] 198; this article has been republished under the same title in Kerux: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching [May, 1999] 3-8, esp. p. 7).

32 See Frei, Eclipse, 111; cf. also Kümmel, The New Testament, 68.

33 See Ibid.

34 Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, "J.P. Gabler," 144.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., 137.

38 Cf. Frei, Eclipse, 103.

39 Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, "J.P. Gabler," 143.

40 Ibid., 142.

41 Ibid., 136.

42 Ibid., 143.

43 Recently, Scobie has argued that the Reformers like Calvin and Luther" practiced a form of Biblical Theology" ("History of Biblical Theology," 12).

44 Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, "J.P. Gabler," 137.

45 See Vos, Biblical Theology, 13; idem., "The Idea of Biblical Theology," 7. Further insight into this point is provided by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.'s essay, "The Vitality of Reformed Dogmatics," in Vitality of Reformed Theology: Proceedings of the International Theological Congress, June 20-24, 1994 (Kampen: Kok, 1994) 16-50. James T. Dennison, Jr. also captures Vos's position: "He [Vos] emphatically declares the revelatory character of the mighty acts of God in history. The act is identified with revelation in history. Moreover act is further explicated by word. Hence the mighty acts of God are not abstract moments—they are followed by words of explanation and interpretation. And in the organic continuum of redemptive history, act and word progressively unfold. Acts recapitulate one another; words additionally exegete one another" ("What is Biblical Theology? Reflections on the Inaugural Address of Geerhardus Vos," Kerux: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching [May, 1987] 38).

46 Sandys-Wunsch and Eldredge, "J.B. Gabler," 158.

47 See Weiss, Biblical Theology, 22.

48 See Ibid., 22-23. Richard A. Muller has made the same observation (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena to Theology [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987] I: 63, and "The Problem of Protestant Scholasticism—A Review and Definition," in Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise, ed. Willem J. van Asselt and Eef Dekker [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001] 53-54).

49 See Weiss, Biblical Theology, 23.

50 See John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948) I: 114, and his The Epistles of Paul The Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, eds. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) 84.

51 See Scobie, "History of Biblical Theology," 12; Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 37; and Geerhardus Vos, "The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology," in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980) 234-267.

52 John Murray made this same observation about the relationship between the analogy of Scripture in the Westminster Confession and the discipline of Biblical Theology (see his, "Systematic Theology," in The New Testament Student and Theology, ed. John H. Skilton [n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1976) III: 26, n. 20. Gaffin's comment is worth noting: "It does not appear to be going too far to say that in 'biblical theology,' that is, effective recognition of the redemptive-historical character of biblical revelation, the principle of context, of the analogy of Scripture, the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture, so central in the Reformation tradition of biblical interpretation, finds its most pointedly biblical realization and application" ("Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology," 45). Gaffin made almost the same statement in 1994 (cf. his "The Vitality of Reformed Dogmatics," 26, n. 19). Theology: Proceedings of the International Theological Congress, June 20-24, 1994 [Kampen: Kok, 1994] 26, n. 19).

53 Interestingly, Vos provides the church with one of the most succinct critical analyses of Enlightenment Biblical Theology that one will find within the bounds of orthodoxy (see "Idea of Biblical Theology," 7-8, and his Biblical Theology, 17-23).