The Ways of our God:
An Approach to Biblical Theology
Charles H. H. Scobie (Eerdmans, 2003)Blurb Review by Dr. Graeme Goldsworthy
Review by Dr. Graeme Goldsworthy
First the bad news. This book, being over a thousand pages long, weighs more than a kilogram. While the author's introduction gives his reasons for dispensing with footnotes and for using the author-date method of referencing bibliography, the advantages he suggests are hard to relate to. The approach adopted means that, from the outset, any reader wanting to find out what work is being cited must shift a kilogram of deadweight before getting to some seventy pages of bibliography to find the author in question. This prejudice against the tried and true footnoted referencing method ensures that most readers for most of the time simply won't be bothered. It is not really a reader-friendly approach and can be very irritating for the researcher wishing to take full advantage of the author's work.
Now the good news! And there is plenty of it. The book is divided into two parts: I: Prolegomena to a Biblical Theology (pp. 1-102), and II: A Sketch of Biblical Theology (pp. 103948). Bibliography and indexes take up the remaining ninety pages. The lack of a Scripture index is disappointing. In Part I, Scobie deals with, in turn, the definition, the history, new directions, method, and the structure of biblical theology. These are all vital matters, and the fact that a mere hundred pages is given to them indicates that some at least are dealt with rather briefly. The advantage is that Scobie has provided a most useful summary of the trends in biblical theology that have emerged mostly since the 1950s, and has listed many of the more significant items out of the mass of related bibliographic material.
In dealing with the method of biblical theology, Scobie focuses on a canonical method. His constant use of the term "Christ event" might suggest a Barthian perspective here. However, he later clarifies this as a shorthand way of referring to the person and work of Jesus within the history of Israel and all human history (p.128). The treatment of the structure of BT is useful. There is a survey of various approaches adopted in the writing of BTs: systematic, historical, and thematic. When he touches on the question of a centre of BT, Scobie shows a nervousness that I find difficult to comprehend. Surely it is a question of what gives Scripture its theological unity. One can acknowledge the great diversity and multiplicity of themes, while at the same time recognising that these do not constitute disparity but rather contribute to the revelation of God's unified plan and purpose. Scobie opts for an approach based on multiple themes.
He proceeds to identify a limited number of major themes around which related minor themes can be grouped (p.87). He selects themes both verbally and conceptually, but there is still a sense of fragmentation that I find difficult to overlook. At times it looks more like a systematic treatment. On the basis of proposals made by biblical scholars, Scobie chooses to run with four major themes: God's order; God's servant; God's people; and, God's way. His plan is to show how these OT themes, along with related minor themes, correlate with the NT. In this he has a basic structural concept of proclamation/promise in the OT moving to fulfilment/consummation in the NT. The structure, then, is based on the analysis of these themes and their functions in four related stages: first, in their contemporary OT scene; secondly, in OT eschatology or promise; thirdly, in their contemporary NT scene, and finally, in their NT eschatological context. Each chapter concludes with theological reflections on the themes dealt with. This parallel approach to the themes gives a good sense of the development of the individual themes but, in my opinion, tends to miss out on the lateral relationships, between themes. One decided advantage of this treatment is that the reader can pursue a theme of choice and move rapidly from its OT expressions to the developed NT applications. The theological links are readily available. The author also makes insightful links when more overt connections are missing. Thus, the vindication of God's servant in the OT leads to a comprehensive treatment of resurrection, exaltation, and promised return of Christ in the New. The method raises interesting questions about what we mean by biblical theology. If it is theology as the Bible unfolds it, then the parallel thematic structure is further away from it than a more historical approach.
The overall impression is one of a whole range of themes with strong connections between OT proclamation and NT consummation, but with the inter-connection of these themes into some kind of integrated whole largely understated. If the entire biblical theology can be contained under the four major themes suggested, it seems to me to imply a unifying centre in the person and work of the God of Scripture. Scobie has adopted an approach that makes general evangelical assumptions about Scripture, but provides little by way of clearly expressed evangelical dogmatic formulations on the canonical implications of the unity of Scripture. His use of deuterocanonical texts, especially in dealing with the wisdom literature, further complicates the matter. Some kind of introductory comments setting out the author's presuppositional framework behind the multiplex approach would be useful. Does not an evangelical, or other, doctrine of Scripture play an important part in determining the method one uses in doing biblical theology?
A further difficulty with the method adopted in this work is that the structure fails to highlight the nuances in the historic development of the themes. The 'now - not yet' structure is too broad. This leads to a rather flat treatment of the entire proclamation or eschatology in the OT as if no differences exist between, say, the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets as to the theology of any given theme. The advantage is that questions of the relative dating of the various documents can be avoided, but means that material is drawn from the whole range of material without differentiation of historical contexts. For example, in the first chapter of Part II, Scobie deals with the sub-theme "The Lord is King." The passages cited in these two pages go from I Chronicles to Numbers, then to a whole range of latter Prophets, then Daniel and back to I Kings, and so on. This effectively abstracts the theme from its developing historical contexts and removes the sense of any epochal structure in the biblical revelation beyond the broad one of proclamation/promise -fulfilment/consummation.
While my 'good news' has been somewhat qualified by a number of concerns, I would still highly recommend this book. Scobie has added an extremely significant volume to the biblical theologies that have appeared over the last hundred years or so. The nature of the work indicates that many years of careful scholarship have been involved in its preparation. By avoiding the tiresome discussion of the latest positions in historical-critical scholarship, the author has been able to concentrate on dealing with the text as authoritative Scripture without a mass of qualifications. Some readers may regard this as a fatal weakness, but I refer to my earlier comments about the implications of an evangelical doctrine of Scripture.
There are a number of other very useful features that enhance this volume. One is the Outline of Part II (pp.928-48). This shows the structure of the main body of the work and is short enough for one to browse for material once the general layout is understood. Another excellent feature is the summary material at the end of each chapter consisting of Theological Reflections on the theme dealt with. The treatments in these sections go some of the way towards redressing the lack of integration in the main body of the text. They provide very helpful summary of the main theological points covered. In this Scobie is consistently oriented to the Christian significance of the theme.
Finally, this is a book that is not overly technical in its language or in the use of Greek and Hebrew. It is a massive achievement for which we can be really thankful. It is one of the very few BTs that actually deal with the whole Bible and not merely one or other Testament. This means that the theology of the OT is not dealt with, as in so many or Theologies, in isolation from the NT. Any teacher of Scripture at adult levels will find it accessible, well written, and scholarly. For academics teaching either OT or NT, it is a timely reminder of the links between the two Testaments, and it provides a wealth of exegetical gems.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature