Biblical Theology and Theological Interpretation of Scripture

NB: This is an essay I wrote for one of my PhD comprehensive exams, which I had to complete within a time limit and without any sources—hence the missing footnotes. If ever I have time in the future, I’d like to revisit it and shore up my assertions with beefy citations. Until then, I hope you can benefit from the essay as is.

The relationship between Biblical Theology (BT) and Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) is complicated. For starters, meaningful comparison can only be done between two entities that are properly defined. But both BT and TIS seem to have almost as many definitions as practitioners.

What follows is my attempt to map the general contours of the BT and TIS streams, cataloguing the various historical tributaries and contemporary branches of each discipline. From there, I will compare BT and TIS, noting both similarities and differences. Finally, I will evaluate the prospects that both BT and TIS hold for evangelical interpreters.

History of Biblical Theology

In many ways, the practice of BT can be traced back to the authors of Scripture. In both the Old Testament (Psalm 78) and the New Testament (Acts 7), we find the biblical authors summarizing and synthesizing the history of God’s dealings with man. In fact, the argument could be made that much of the New Testament, for example the book of Hebrews, was a divinely inspired project of biblical theology, as the authors of the NT set about explaining the theological significance of the historical facts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the reality of the church using terms and concepts rooted in the Old Testament text.

Brevard Childs, in his introduction to his Biblical Theology, argues against James Barr that biblical theology did not spring up in a vacuum, but can be traced back to the early church fathers down through the reformation to today. We can identify Irenaeus, specifically in his treatise Against Heresy, as one the first non-canonical examples of biblical theology. Irenaeus, facing the claims of the heretic Marcion that the OT text should be discarded and replaced by the NT, argued for a unity of the testaments along the lines of God’s unfolding plan in salvation history. As I will argue below, I believe this to be one of the sin qua non tenets of biblical theology, namely an historical organizing principle in approaching the biblical text.

From Irenaeus to Chysostom to Nicholas of Lyra to Thomas Aquinas, the presence of a recognizable biblical theology could be traced by a careful reader, although to apply this term to them might be seen as anachronistic. For the most part, pre-Reformation interpreters did not perceive a conceptual distance between the theology of the Bible and the theology of the church, a point made by Kevin Vanhoozer in his essay on exegesis and hermeneutics in the New Dictionary for Biblical Theology. But with Luther, Calvin, and the Reformers, it was necessary to make the distinction between the Bible’s theology and theology that is [purportedly] based on the Bible.

Due to the rise of humanism, access to and appreciation of the original languages that comprised the biblical text was growing, and with that came the ability to read the text on its own terms. Luther’s project, it could be persuasively argued, was a project in a recovery of biblical theology, or the Bible’s theology. Chief among the theological and hermeneutical presuppositions that aided Luther in his reformation project were his commitments to the principle sola scriptura and his almost wholesale rejection of the medieval fourfold senses of scripture. He rejected this in favor of the primacy of the literal meaning of the text —what Hans Frei identifies in Eclipse of Biblical Narrative as the narratival or historical meaning. Calvin likewise largely rejected the multiple senses of scripture, and operated out of the assumption that reading the Bible involved understanding the sensus literalis, the literal sense, of Scripture.

Ironically, students of the development of post-reformational hermeneutics recognized that this distance made apparent between church teaching and the bible’s theology, led to the separation and fragmentation of biblical studies, biblical theology, and dogmatic or systematic theology, as we will see below.

After the Reformation, we can trace the rise of historical-critical exegesis in the academy and the rise of various opposing dogmatic systems in protestant scholasticism and German pietism. It is in this milieu that J. P. Gabler, who is almost everywhere identified as the father of biblical theology, made his proposal for the formal separation of biblical theology and dogmatic theology.

Gabler was not the first to make this distinction, but in his 1787 address at the University of Altdorf, he called for a new era in theology. Looking out at all of the various protestant dogmas and systems that sprung up after the Reformation and the infighting that followed, Gabler suggested a way forward that could attain objective unity among scholars.

Biblical Theology, for Gabler, was to be the unifying and even “scientific” discipline on which everyone could agree, a discipline that was to be rooted in the text in an attempt to describe what the biblical authors believed, what he referred to as the wahre, or truth. By this time, however, philosophical naturalism was in vogue and skepticism reigned in the academy with regard to the events the Bible recorded. Therefore, Gabler proposed that the task of the biblical theologian was to run the beliefs of the authors through the discipline of historical criticism in order to determine what “actually happened,” what he called biblical theology. From here, Gabler argued, the dogmaticians could formulate their doctrines, what he called the reine, or pure, in accordance with what comported with Reason (philosophical rationalism) and the dogmaticians’ particular traditions.

It is one of the ironies of history that the father of biblical theology, attempting to unify the academy and Protestantism in general, opened the gates to the greatest fragmentation of theology, which led to the siloed status of the 19th century biblical studies department. The New Testament was separated from the Old Testament, gospel studies and Pauline studies were set at odds, and form-, source- and redaction-criticism were scholar’s tools to get at the “meaning” of the text, a meaning which had less and less regard for the “literal” sense of Scripture (I’m using that term here in Frei’s sense) and the plain historical referents and more regard for what “actually” happened “behind” the text.

Quickly after Gabler, historical critics such as Schleiermacher argued that the canonical unity of the scriptures—and the historical reality witnessed to therein—was inconsistence with the academy’s commitment to philosophical naturalism and thus disregard for the plain (historical/literal) meaning of scripture. “Theologies” of the Bible were replaced by the “history of religions” school, and only conservative scholars committed to the authority of the Scripture attempted “biblical theology.”

It is this context that makes Geerhardus Vos so important. At the turn of the century, Vos planted his flag in the discipline of biblical theology, taking a newly created chair of biblical theology at Princeton in the early 20th century. Arguably, it was Vos’ (evangelical) commitment to the authority and verbal-plenary inspiration of the Bible that led to his recovery of a rich tradition.

This was the context in which the Biblical Theology Movement (BTM) of the 20th century, as exemplified in the work of G. E. Wright, sprung up. The BTM insisted on a return to the unity of the canon, but, unlike Vos, it imported the historical-critical assumptions and conclusions of the previous generation. One scholar has noted that BTM shared the presuppositions of the historical critics while using the language of orthodoxy, rendering their project nearly incomprehensible. It was BTM that led to the crisis of biblical theology identified by Brevard Childs in the middle of the 20th century, illustrating the importance of theological presuppositions. While Vos’s successors are writing biblical theologies today, BTM has no heirs.

In the 21st century, biblical theology is alive and well, with both evangelical and non-evangelical scholars participating in the discipline. The what’s, why’s, and how’s of biblical theology, however, are being answered in a variety of different ways. Instead of outlining the various approaches that go by the name “biblical theology” (for an attempt at this project, see Klink and Lockett’s recent taxonomy), I will below attempt to identify some distinctives of biblical theology that most in the discipline share:

  • Historical Organizing Principle. Geerhardus Vos, in his Biblical Theology, argued that the difference between biblical theology and systematic theology can be found in their organizing principals: BT has an historical organizing principal, while ST has a logical organizing principal. What Vos means by this is that biblical theology is necessarily grounded in the history of the text—that is, the historical realities the text points to and the historical situatedness of the text itself. Biblical theologians recognize the progressive revelation of the canon, and they read the books of the Bible in light of their historical provenance—including author, date, etc. While there are several “horizons” on which the text should read, including the literary and canonical, the historical horizon is never neglected in a true biblical theology. I will speak more of this below when comparing BT to TIS, as this is one of the main divergences I see between these two disciplines.
  • Relationship between the Old and New Testaments. For the most part, biblical theology is a synthesizing discipline. Biblical theology recognizes the canonical form of the Scriptures. I will argue that evangelicals are able to do this best, as they have the only sound warrant for holding the canon together—namely the divine inspiration of the scriptures. But biblical theologians read the constituent parts in light of the whole. This is one reason why I think Klink and Lockett’s taxonomy fails, as James Barr is included among the list of biblical theologians. Barr’s project is set squarely in the history of religions school, which puts the canon on the same level as extra-canonical documents for determining “meaning” and reconstructing “history.”

While there are other distinctives of BT that could be mentioned, we will now move on to the history of TIS.

History of Theological Interpretation of Scripture

The history of TIS is much shorter than the history of BT. In fact, the phrase “theological interpretation of scripture” is only around two decades old. It was first used by Stephen Fowl, a theologian who remains a spokesperson for the movement that is as diverse as it is hard to define. The TIS movement, like the BT movement, includes evangelical interpreters such as Kevin Vanhoozer and Scott Swain, and also many non-evangelical interpreters such as Christopher Seitz and Stephen Fowl. Instead of rehearsing its extremely short history, I will attempt to list some TIS distinctives:

  • Theological Interpretation. Inherent in the name, theological interpretation is an attempt to interpret the biblical text In many ways, this is a direct repudiation of the vision set forth by J. P. Gabler for biblical theology. Instead of seeking to separate biblical studies from systematic theology, TIS practitioners purport to read the text through the lens of their theological commitments, and to do so unashamedly. That is, the TIS movement tends to want to erase the distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology.
  • Rule of Faith. Although the theological commitments of TIS interpreters are multiform and thus produce multiple readings, the one “governing” theological criteria seems to be the Rule of Faith (regula fidei). By Rule of Faith, TIS interpreters often mean the 7 ecumenical councils, and most often they mean the Nicene Creed. If one’s interpretation cannot be refuted by the creeds—the argument tends to go—then one’s interpretation cannot be refuted.
  • Pre-critical Exegesis. A common theme among TIS practitioners is an attempt to recover and deploy pre-critical modes of interpretation that are beyond the grammatical-historical or historical-critical modes, which they label as “modernistic.” This method includes, if not prefers, the fourfold sense of meaning: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. This commitment is stated in the preface to the new Brazos TIS commentaries edited by Daniel Trier, where Trier outlines the unique attributes of the series: Each contributor is committed to exploring the allegorical, moral, and anagogical readings of scripture.
  • Ressourcement. A final distinctive of TIS, which is part and parcel with pre-critical exegesis, is giving ear to earlier “readings” of Scripture. The TIS movement has set about rejuvenating lost and forgotten interpretations of scriptures. Interestingly, this is done most often from the patristic and medieval period, and less often are readings revived from the Reformation onward, such as the project undertaken by Swain and Allen in their book Reformed Catholicity.

Theological Interpretation of Scripture vs. Biblical Theology


TIS and BT, as separate disciplines, share several broad similarities. In practice, however, the similarities between TIS and BT have more to do with the presuppositions and theologies of the interpreter than the discipline they are consciously operating in. Evangelical TIS and BT practitioners both share a commitment to: (1) The verbal, plenary, inspiration of the Bible, (2) the primacy and authority of the canonical books, and (3) a rejection of the historical-critical conclusions that stem from a naturalistic worldview. Below, I will list more broad agreement between the TIS and BT disciplines.

1) Canonical Interpretation. Both TIS and BT are committed to canonical interpretation. That is, both BT and TIS reject the notion that the Old Testament should be sequestered off from the New Testament, and vice versa. Even when biblical theologians are operating at the level of a singular book, or author, or testament, they are aware of the canonical context.

2) Textually Oriented. Both TIS and BT are textual enterprises. While the how of interpretation is often different, what is being interpreted is the same. It is the Bible’s theology that BT is after, and the interpretation of Scripture that TIS is concerned with. Whether or not this comes with an evangelical warrant—namely the inspiration of the canonical writings—both BT and TIS recognize the object of study to be the canonical text.


If we are not limiting the investigation to evangelical practitioners of BT and TIS, it is clear that there are far more differences than similarities between BT and TIS.

1) Geschichte vs. Historie. At the end of the 19th century, a German scholar by the name of Martin Kähler used the terms Geschichte and Historie to describe an undercurrent that had been present in biblical studies since Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. Kant is famous for his distinction between the noumena and phenomena, a distinction that he found necessary after he was “awakened” by the philosophy of David Hume. For Kant, the visible, experiential realm is accessible through the senses alone and is determined by natural cause and effect. This realm he called the phenomena. The noumena, while it may or may not exist (for Kant it did exist), is the realm that is not “provable” by experience or observation—in other words, by science. The noumena is not governed by naturalistic cause and effect and is only accessible by “faith.” Many scholars recognize Platonic undertones to this Kantian system.

Thus when Kähler used the term Geschichte to describe the biblical text, he was talking about “salvation-history” that was not verifiable nor explainable in naturalistic terms (noumena). Only Historie is verifiable and explainable and is bound by naturalistic cause and effect (phenomena). In Kähler’s system, Historie and Geschichte, while they both may really exist, were closed off from one another. This Historie/Geschichte distinction made a profound impact on the theologies of two of most important theologians in the 20th century: Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth.

For both Bultmann and Barth, Historie is rooted in chronos, or natural time, and Geschichte in kairos, or heavenly time(lessness). Bultmann applied the concept of Geschichte to the realm of faith—the personal experience of the believer with the “Christ of Faith” as opposed to the “Jesus of History”—in order to make the message of the Bible palatable to modern, naturalistic hearers who did not believe in miracles, let alone the resurrection from the dead. But Barth, on the other hand, applied the concept of Geschichte to salvation-history, much in the same way as Kähler. Barth believed that miracles took place and Jesus rose actually from the dead, he was just unwilling—even unable—to say that these things happened in Historie. This is what makes Barth so difficult for evangelicals.

I rehearse this history and bring up this distinction between Geshichte and Historie to make this point: TIS seems to be happy to operate in the realm of Geschichte while being agnostic on Historie. BT, however, does not remain agnostic to Historie. In fact, I would argue that any BT worth its salt operates at the intersection of Geschichte and Historie (here I’m following loosely the argument laid for by Michael Horton in Covenant and Eschatology). This has been referred to occasionally as Heilsgeschichte, but this term can be confused by a more liberal use of Heilsgeschichte to refer just to Geschichte. Instead, I propose the term Historischgeschichte, by which I mean the intersection of the material with the immaterial—or better, the unification of Historie and Geschichte under God’s unfolding plan for his creation in relationship to himself.

It the above account is accepted, we see two progenitors of two different disciplines at the beginning of the 20th century: Geerhardus Vos and Karl Barth. Vos described his brand of biblical theology as the “History of Special Revelation,” a biblical theology that studies the intersection of special revelation and history, which is seen ultimately in the incarnation of the eternal Word, Jesus. Barth, on the other hand, was to contented to be agnostic to Historie—the material, organic, development of revelation in this space and time—and instead focused on the presence of the Word with the believer in interpretation, reading the miraculous in the context of Geschichte, not Historie. In this way, I would submit that TIS operates downstream of Barth, and BT downstream of Vos (and the Reformers and the biblical authors).

2) Antioch vs. Alexandria. As noted above, one of the tenets of TIS is a recovery of pre-critical exegesis. In practice, this often means the preference of allegorical, moral, and anagogical readings of Scripture over against the grammatical-historical (or literal). For most BT interpreters, though, because of the historical component of the discipline, the grammatical-historical (or literal) reading is preferred, with occasional recourse to typological (what some call typological-allegorical) readings. Here is another noted difference between BT and TIS—in the issue of hermeneutics.

In many ways, this dispute can be traced back to Alexandria and Antioch. Although any sharp distinction between these schools is challenged by some, many historians conclude that the Alexandrian School, as exemplified by Origen, produced more allegorical readings of Scripture, while the Antioch School, as exemplified by Chrysostom, more “historical/literal” readings. Regardless of whether or not two “schools” existed in Antioch and Alexandria, any honest reader of these two figures will notice a difference in their interpretations. When reading Origen, one begins to wonder if his reading could ever be duplicated by another looking at the same text. But when reading Chrysostom, one can easily follow his exegetical moves. Interestingly, Origen is often held up as the poster-boy for TIS exegesis, while Irenaeus and Chrysostom are more often cited by BT proponents.

Looking at the fourfold sense of the medieval (and sometimes Patristic) hermeneutic, we can categorize the TIS and BT methods. For the most part, TIS tends to use the entire fourfold scheme: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical, but TIS often favors the latter three over the first. BT, on the other hand, tends to use only the first two: literal and typological-allegorical, and even then the scheme is modified. By using the term typological-allegorical, often termed merely typological, BT practitioners are referring to historical correspondence (and some would argue typological escalation) between figures and events in an earlier and later text. The difference between BT’s typology and TIS’s allegory is textual warrant. Allegory, by definition, uses an external grid for interpretation, while typology uses textual cues to establish textual connections.

This major difference can be explained by looking at predominant influences in the TIS camp. As mentioned above, Karl Barth can be described as a forerunner to TIS. For Barth, the “literal” sense of Scripture has less to do with “history” and everything to do with “the Spirit,” which can be equated to the moral and anagogical senses of reading. In addition to Barth, you will more readily find the bibliographies of the TIS movement referencing postmodern hermeneutical theorists like Gadamer, Eco, Riceour, and even Fish and Derrida.

Gadamer’s Wirkungsgeschichte—whereby the meaning of a text is mediated through its reception history—can also explain the ressourcement tenet of TIS. Riceour and Eco, both postmodern literary theorists, emphasize the contexts of the interpreter and the interpretation when examining a text’s meaning, which aligns with TIS’s affinity for the allegorical sense reading. It is interesting, then, to see the Yale School (Lindebeck, Frei, Childs) and its emphasis on literary readings—which align more with the “literal” reading of the fourfold sense of Scripture—in TIS bibliographies as well. The Yale School and their literary emphases just as often shows up in BT bibliographies. Perhaps this is one of the reasons TIS is so difficult to define—there are many tributaries.

3) Authorial Intent. These two differences above explain the diverging approaches of BT and TIS to authorial intent. TIS methods, especially in the hands of a non-evangelical interpreter, can come to textual meaning regardless of whether or not the attributed author existed. That is, the majority of the “readings” of the TIS movement would be no different if the entire Bible was written in the 2nd century by one man. This is strikingly different from BT, which takes into consideration at which point along Scripture’s progressive unfolding each particular book was written. Because of this, many in the TIS movement have rejected the search for authorial intent, opting instead for a more postmodern hermeneutical approach, such as Gadamer’s Wirkungsgeschichte or Eco’s reader-response hermeneutic. Instead, in the BT camp, while the term “authorial intent” might not always be used, what the author meant and how the text was understood at the time it was written is always of prime importance. Because of this, one is more likely to find E. D. Hirsch in the bibliography of a BT project than Stanley Fish.

Evangelical Prospects 

Evangelical interpreters can and do operate in both TIS and BT circles. But here are a few cautions:

The Chicago Statement of Inerrancy affirms biblical authorial attribution as part of what is divinely inspired when it occurs in the text. That is, when the Bible says Moses wrote a book, the evangelical interpreter believes Moses wrote that book, and it should make a difference in one’s interpretation.

TIS’s agnosticism toward authors and the history the text bears witness to must concern and be addressed by evangelicals. In his inaugural address at Princeton, Geerhardus Vos, referring to the text of Scripture and the events recorded therein, said: “without God’s acts the words would be empty, without His words the acts would be blind.” I think the TIS movement, with its ahistorical approach, is in danger of interpreting empty words.

On the flip side, evangelical practitioners of BT need to be willing to hear the critique from TIS that our interpretations must and always will be theological. That is, the Enlightenment project of the pure, unadorned, tabula rasa of a mind is impossible. We must be honest about our presuppositions. But this should be encouraging to the evangelical, for our presuppositions are these: the Bible is the inspired Word of God and the Reformers got it right in their commitment to Sola Scriptura. Just as important, though, evangelical TIS practitioners need to be careful not to assign their “theologies” a status above the Scripture.

Along with this, evangelicals need to recognize that there was a reason why Luther and Calvin rejected the fourfold sense. Apart from a grammatical-historical reading that is sensitive to it literary context—the canon—whereby the authorial intentions of the author are quested for and respected, there is no guard against relativity, and thus no guard against subjectivity and the loss of truth. Douglas J. Moo makes this point when he notes that for Paul, there was a right way and a wrong way to read the prophets, otherwise there would have been no debate in the synagogues. Likewise, the Reformers realized that there was a right way and a wrong way to read Paul, and this important point led to the recovery of the gospel for the Church. If our methods do not allow us to say why a reading is right and why a reading is wrong, then we can no longer do what Paul commanded Timothy when he told him to guard against wolves who distort the Word.

Let the evangelical interpreter plunder the Egyptians, as it were, and take the best that is offered from TIS and BT—even from non-evangelical interpreters. But let us at the end of the day be found faithful to the Lord Jesus and his Word.


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