Horace D. Hummel began a review of The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible by saying, “ ‘Biblical Theology’ is dead, and IOVC is its witness.” Thus he brought to a focus a tendency that has been apparent for some time. There has been a steady move away from “biblical theology,” and it may be of value to examine the process.

But first we should notice that the term “biblical theology” is not self-explanatory and in fact has been understood in more ways than one. James Barr distinguishes three usages. The first sees it as “a descriptive discipline, belonging definitely within the biblical sciences along with language, history, literary criticism and so on.” He cites Eichrodt as an exponent of this type of biblical theology. The second type is “a kind of dogmatics,” one that “lays a heavy emphasis on the Bible and takes it as the basic of the only source of authority.” The third lies between the other two. “It is ‘expounding the Bible as the Word of God.’ ” In this it “tries to be descriptive-authoritative at the same time.” It is biblical theology in this last sense and possibly also the second with which Hummel seems concerned. The first is surely unexceptionable.

Biblical theology has not been dominant for very long. At the turn of the century liberalism was at its height. The Bible was not overlooked. But it was a source of ideas and opinions, a starting point for discussion rather than an authoritative guide. Karl Barth was more responsible than anyone else for turning theology into new channels. His tremendous insistence on the truth that God has spoken turned theology back to the Bible. Barth could say,

At bottom, the Church is in the world only with a book in its hands … and if we are asked, what have you to say? we can only answer, Here something has been said and what is said we want to hear.

This approach made a tremendous impact, helped as it was by the aftermath of World War I. People were realizing, after the wartime demonstration of evil on the grand scale, that liberalism’s view of man was too shallow. Man, far from being perfectible, was capable of abysmal depths of evil. He needed a Saviour, not an opportunity to rise to better things. Barth’s profound thinking and massive learning, coming at this particular time, forced men back to revealed religion.

The result was a flowering of biblical studies. Everywhere scholars began taking the message of the Bible seriously. I recall a conference at Cambridge, England, twenty years and more ago at which one speaker said, to applause, “Of course we are all biblical theologians nowadays.” And the extent to which liberalism had been abandoned was shown in the genuine amusement that followed another speaker’s claim that he was “an unrepentant liberal.”

In this atmosphere, evangelicals and scholars who espoused critical orthodoxy found themselves engaged in much the same kind of studies. The Bible was the center of study as it had not been in the preceding period. There was a real possibility of getting together in a quest for a fuller understanding of the message of that book.

But there was a difference as well as a resemblance. Critical scholars studied the Bible closely, but they did not regard it as authoritative in the same way as evangelicals did. For some purposes this was not important, and there were areas in which a measure of unity appeared. But for other purposes it was very significant. This difference is now receiving emphasis.

By common agreement it is the influence of Bultmann that is largely responsible for the new situation. At first his essay on demythologization did not receive widespread attention. It could be understood in more ways than one. It was possible to see it as basically a call to recognize that the world of the New Testament was different from ours, and that we must translate the Bible message into the categories of our day if it is to remain meaningful. In one way or another this call has gone out throughout the history of the Christian Church, and the translation to which it calls is the never-ending task of the interpreter of the Christian message.

But it was also possible to take Bultmann’s thesis in a more radical way. It could be seen as demanding not only a translation of the Bible’s message but also a reinterpretation of it. The expositor then accepts what he sees as true and right but rejects what he regards as incompatible with modern thought. It soon became clear that Bultmann himself was striving for this more radical approach, and it is the one that most of his disciples have followed.

This more radical approach to the Bible has been making steady headway. Even when they are writing about the message of the Bible, theologians are more and more using something other than the Bible as their ultimate standard. Books about the Bible continue to pour from the presses, but in most of them the attitude is different from that common in the period leading up to World War II. Men are less ready than they were to make their aim the “expounding of the Bible as the Word of God.”

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That is what Horace D. Hummel’s quip is about. The prevailing mood in biblical studies, he implies, is opposed to the view that if the message of the Bible is spelled out in terms that men of our day can understand it will be found to have both relevance and importance. The trend is toward analysis rather than synthesis. Parts of the Bible are seen as valuable, other parts as erroneous.

It would not be easy to dispute this assessment of the current theological situation. If “biblical theology” is not dead, at least it is far from being as lively as it once was.

This does not mean that the Bible is not being studied by a great many scholars who wholeheartedly accept its message. There are many such, both among the evangelicals and elsewhere. Exponents of the evangelical approach are probably as numerous and as scholarly as they ever have been. There is no danger that the form of biblical theology they favor will be lost.

But theologians in general are far from endorsing their position, and the gap is getting wider. There is a greater tendency to emphasize currents of fashionable secular thought, a philosophical approach, or the like. The Bible is not seen as the final authority. In this situation it is important that evangelicals do well the task of interpreting the Bible to men of today. If Hummel is right, others will be increasingly disinclined to do so.

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