In Pursuit of a Macro-Cosmic Biblical Theology
To many people, the very idea of a comprehensive, or macro-cosmic biblical theology is a little strange. Biblical theology by its very definition is less than comprehensive, is it not? Biblical theology has to do with the study of the revelation of a particular era, a particular biblical author, or so on. Whatever else, it is, it cannot be macro-cosmic: a macro-cosmic view of revelation is the domain of systematic theology; and biblical theology is concerned with developing the building blocks of systematic theology. Once it starts putting those blocks together, it has gone beyond the realm of its appropriate employment, and can no longer be designated â€œbiblical theologyâ€ at all. At that point, it is something else.
So many theologians would assume today â€“ or at least the character of their writings gives that impression. But from the beginning, this was not so. When John Owen published his monumental and prototypical Biblical Theology, he included in its pages an account of revelation from beginning to end. When Jonathan Edwards conceived of an educational approach based on biblical, and not systematic theology, he developed his comprehensive History of the Work of Redemption to facilitate the vision. From the beginning of its prominence, biblical theology sought nothing less than a systematic and comprehensive understanding of the unfolding of God's plans throughout history. In fact, the terms â€œbiblical theologyâ€ and â€œredemptive historyâ€ were, for all practical purposes, synonyms.
Today, this is not the case â€“ but in a way, that is a good thing. The serious biblical theologian of today simply cannot concern himself in detail with all of redemptive history, for the tradition of outstanding scholarship upon which he stands has served to multiply exponentially the amount of information needed to contribute intelligently to the ongoing discussion. In order to add something valuable, one has to limit his area of expertise to some specific field. However, while that good outcome has made itself felt, the unfortunate side-effect is that the very idea of a comprehensive biblical theology has been forgotten. And I fear that this incidental effect has had certain harmful results in the discipline of biblical theology, across the board. My desire is not that today's biblical theologians would all attempt to approach their task macro-cosmically, as did Owen or Edwards; but I would like to see a more general acknowledgment that the task of biblical theology is not done until the findings of any one particular branch have been intelligently incorporated into the broader understanding of redemptive history as a whole.
This desire, I must confess, has enormous obstacles to overcome: for it is not only hindered by the rise of areas of particular expertise within the discipline of biblical theology; but also, by the very nature of the hermeneutics now employed, as a general rule, within biblical and systematic theology alike. What do I mean by this? Well, the modern accepted definition of hermeneutics is that its goal is to discover what the human author meant to convey to his original audience. Determine that much, and the task of exegesis is done â€“ all that remains is the systematization of the results of that exegesis into a comprehensive systematic theology, or else the application of those results to the modern Christian. However, this definition of hermeneutics is severely lacking â€“ and in proportion as it is accepted in the discipline of biblical theology, it struggles against every hope of a comprehensive redemptive history. If exegesis ends with the understanding of the original audience, then we cannot understand any portion of biblical revelation in any way more clearly or distinctly than the state of revelation had advanced to at that time. Neither can we apply our exegesis in any way which demands a fuller knowledge of redemptive history than the saints of that era possessed.
But these hermeneutically-imposed limitations have several difficulties. For instance, how can we know to what extent the believers of any era understood the Christ-centered truths of divine revelation? After all, the Spirit who illuminates us illuminated them to things that could not have been grasped by the natural mind (see I Corinthians 2:9-13); and furthermore, we do not know the extent to which religious knowledge had been passed down from old to the newer generations of believers. How much of substitutionary sacrifice did God explain to Adam, after the Fall? How much did Adam pass down to Abel, or Seth? How much did Seth pass down through the generations to Noah, and so on? We simply cannot determine, with definite accuracy, the amount of understanding that the original audience of believers in the Messiah would have had, in any stage of redemptive history: and so this exegetical premise, even if it were valid, would be impractical. But at that, it is not even valid. Paul tells us that the Spirit had revealed things in the scriptures which would not be understood until gospel times (Romans 16:25-27); and Peter tells us that even the prophets themselves did not know all the contingent circumstances of their prophecies which we, as believers this side of the cross, may know (I Peter 1:10-12). In sum, this hermeneutical principle, as legitimate as it sounds, greatly errs in that it makes the human authors of the bible of more practical importance than the divine Author who inspired the whole account as one unified story, and saw fit to foreshadow in some eras what he would later say explicitly. If we would pursue a legitimate, macro-cosmic biblical theology, we must give more precedence to the divine author than to the human authors of the bible.
I would admit that the goal of modern biblical theology, in determining the mindset and understanding of the original audience as fully as possible, has definite value. It can greatly help us in our understanding of the history of revelation; for instance, the reason that the crowds responded the way they did to Jesus, and the reason he answered them as he did, is illuminated to a great extent by the research of biblical theology, even as it employs the hermeneutic mentioned above. However, I would suggest that the findings of this micro-cosmic biblical theology still need something before they may be profitable. Until we place those findings within the context of redemptive history, we cannot employ them as we ought. And we cannot appropriately place them in their context until we recognize, under and behind the human authors and audiences, the divine author of all of scriptures. So now, to make these abstract assertions more understandable, let's take as an example the modern biblical theologian's insight into the phrase â€œthe Son of Man,â€ as employed within the gospels, and seek to understand how his valuable research might be better employed to reach the audience of largely uneducated Christians.
The typical popular author or preacher, when he sees the phrase â€œSon of Man,â€ will assume that it refers to the fact that Jesus was born of Mary, and so preach about Jesus' true humanity. Furthermore, when he sees the phrase â€œSon of God,â€ he will assume it to mean â€œGod the Son,â€ and will preach about Jesus' divinity and eternal generation from the Father. However, the biblical theologian will object (and rightly so) that this preacher is entirely missing the point that Jesus was making by employing these terms. In the days when Jesus preached in Judea, the people as a whole were looking for a Messiah â€“ but for a different kind of Messiah than Jesus was going to be. The were looking for â€œThe Son of David,â€ or â€œThe Messiahâ€ (which is, in Greek, â€œthe Christâ€), or â€œThe Son of God,â€ but they understood him to be a different sort of conqueror than Jesus actually was. So why did Jesus use for himself the term â€œSon of Manâ€ more than any of those more common terms? It was probably just so that he could infuse it with his own teaching and example of what the Messiah should be, apart from massive popular misconceptions. The title â€œthe Son of Man,â€ came from Daniel 7:13-14, and describes the one who would be sent by God to accomplish redemption for his people. It was a Messianic term, but one that was not in current usage in Jesus' day. So Jesus took it as his predominant title, so that he might teach what it meant to be â€œthe Son of Manâ€ (that is, â€œthe Christâ€), in a way that would not be misunderstood by the common person. Using this term, he taught about a Christ that was basically a conflation of the eternally-reigning Davidic King (commonly called â€œthe Son of Godâ€) and the humble and afflicted Servant of the Lord, whom people then saw as different and manifestly irreconcilable persons. Biblical theologians have corrected this misunderstanding, and given us some valuable insight into Jesus' use of that term.
However, in the process, many biblical theologians have entirely stripped the term of the obvious overtones of humanity that it carried even before Jesus' incarnation. This title, they insist, may not be used to teach of Jesus' humanity; and in fact, it may even be helpful to re-translate it as â€œthe Sent One,â€ or some such equivalent phrase. After all, this is how Jesus used the term, and this is how his audience would have understood him.
The problem with this approach is that it limits our understanding of a rich and meaningful term to the misunderstanding of Jesus' contemporary audience. Is it really appropriate to refuse any insight from its Danielic origin, in which a clearly divine and eternal figure is named â€œSon of Man,â€ hinting at the taking on of human nature by divinity in pursuit of the Messianic task? Is it appropriate to refuse to take account of any later usage of this term in epistolary or apocalyptic literature, as we seek its full meaning in the gospels? Yes, Jesus' contemporary audience had a certain idea associated with the various Christological titles used of him, yes, those associations influenced his decision of what to call himself on different occasions, and yes, that interplay may help us understand why certain dialogues unfolded the way they did. But when we use information that gives us insight into the historical background of a book or passage to delimit the meaning inherent in the terminology employed to that precise period, we have transgressed the bounds of appropriate and beneficial usage of biblical-theological information.
So what do we suggest? Take the biblical-theological insights into contemporary understanding and psychology seriously, but recognize that those findings will not be particularly valuable until they are given their place in the context of redemptive history. The gospel audience may inform our understanding of Jesus' â€œSon of Manâ€ self-titling, but ultimately, until we place that term within a broader context, one which speaks of the condescension of God to take upon himself human flesh in pursuit of his Messianic-redemptive work, we will be benefited little thereby. Similarly, Jesus' â€œSon of Godâ€ title may be enriched by contemporary Messianic expectation, but to use that contemporary understanding to deny its ever meaning â€œGod the Sonâ€ is to deny the whole for the sake of the part. Micro-cosmic biblical theology certainly has a place â€“ but its place is not realized until it has been designated within the flow of redemptive history, and informed by previous and subsequent revelation which pertains to it. In this particular, we have much to learn (or re-learn) from Owen and Edwards.