Theocentricity in Biblical Theology: A Short Essay on Finding Unity in the Diversity of Scripture

The long, complicated, and contentious history of biblical theology shows that the entire field once needed a savior.[1] Mercifully, one came along a few decades ago, though it had been hiding in plain sight for more than two millennia. The knight in shining armor turned out to be the Bible itself, now released from the shroud of higher criticism, yet still bearing a few scars from the battle. More specifically, it was the supernatural worldview shared by each of the biblical authors as they penned their compositions that finally rolled away the stone. For all the diversity inherent in Scripture, it is the biblical writers’ shared philosophy of life—their overarching conception of reality—that holds together the Bible’s collective witness across the generations. As Thiselton writes, “Continuities within the biblical writings do not exclude diversity, but they witness to monotheism rather than polytheism. To focus piecemeal only on atomistic textual units . . . is to miss the transcendent dimension of the whole.”[2] The biblical authors would agree; the God about whom they wrote was—and still is—transcendent. Therefore, it is not enough for preachers to see the “big idea” of a single text; we must also see the “Big Story” of the entire Bible.[3]

Such a claim implies that Scripture is not merely an ancient record of religious beliefs or a catalog of profound spiritual experiences in response to divine revelation outside itself, though it certainly contains such elements. Scripture itself is divine revelation.[4] The books of the Bible were written by believers—individuals embracing a theistic worldview—precisely because they had encountered the living God who moved them to write what he had deigned to show them (cf. 2 Pet 1:21). To those writers, God was the self-existent creator of the universe, and he personally involved himself in the affairs of men and women whom he created and rescued from folly. The biblical authors’ conviction was that God unveiled himself in history, documenting for posterity his unfolding revelation over time via the apostles, prophets, and evangelists in texts that would eventually comprise the canon. Wherever the authors’ perspectives on reality may have diverged across the full sweep of biblical history, their perspectives on ultimate reality converged without hesitation or deviation: God lives, God loves, God speaks, God acts, and God makes himself known in the world—fully and finally through his anointed one, the promised messiah. As such, their worldview was deeply theological from start to finish. Theirs was a theocentric orientation. 

Now, there is a sense in which appealing to the Bible for its own authority is a kind of circular argument. That, however, does not make invalid. As Grudem notes, “All arguments for an absolute authority must ultimately appeal to that authority for proof; otherwise the authority would not be an absolute or highest authority. This problem is not unique to the Christian who is arguing for the authority of the Bible. Everyone either implicitly or explicitly uses some kind of circular argument when defending his or her ultimate authority for belief.”[5] Grudem offers the following four claims where a similar dynamic is at play: (1) “My reason is my ultimate authority because it seems reasonable to me to make it so”; (2) “Logical consistency is my ultimate authority because it is logical to make it so”; (3) “The findings of human sensory experiences are the ultimate authority for discovering what is real and what is not, because our human senses have never discovered anything else: thus, human sense experience tells me that my principle is true.”; (4) “I know there can be no ultimate authority because I do not know of any such ultimate authority.” In all of these arguments for an ultimate standard of truth, an absolute authority for what to believe, there is an element of circularity involved.[6]

Issues of self-authentication aside, the view advocated here is one of taking the Bible on its own terms, respecting its own supernatural worldview orientation. For interpreters today to ignore the biblical writers’ conception of reality, or even to grant it for the sake of argument while personally dismissing it as primitive, naïve, or wrongheaded, is potentially to misperceive the gravity and gladness of what those authors sought to communicate, even in the very process of analyzing their work. In my own ministries, I use a theocentric approach to biblical theology because it aligns with the worldview of the biblical writers themselves. That is, I start where they started—with God at the center—and I remain open to the univocal worldview that undergirds the diversities they present throughout the canon. Indeed, only a supernatural conception of reality can produce a vibrant biblical theology that serves the church rather than undermines its confessions. Such a theology must be equipped to deal with the witness of Scripture on its own terms, accommodate the church’s longstanding faith tradition and experiences of God, and allow for the possibility of people today encountering that same God through what he moved his people to enscripturate. As such, evangelical pastor-scholars take as their authority in ministry what God has spoken supremely through his living Word, Jesus Christ, as revealed to us in his written Word, the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible. Such a view requires us to strive to engage in a proper handling of both the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which contain a treasure trove of insights about God and his ways. When we rightly hear the human author who composed the text, we ultimately hear the divine Author who inspired the text. 

Of course, there is no shortage of writers today who adopt a critical view toward the text, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to analyze them. It is enough for me to briefly state and defend my contention that an attitude of openness is preferable to a disposition of doubt when it comes to the canon. Stuhlmacher advocates a “hermeneutic of consent” (as opposed to a “hermeneutic of suspicion”) with respect to the biblical texts, along with an attitude of genuine “receptivity” toward their claims.[7] He does so as a result of his long and sophisticated interaction with the German school of higher criticism and its deleterious effects on the church. While not abandoning the historical-critical method entirely, Stuhlmacher encourages a more thorough examination of its rationalistic assumptions, which are at odds with those of the biblical writers. He is also concerned about the ethical responsibilities associated with biblical interpretation. Handling a biblical text has moral connotations, he says.[8] The locus of meaning cannot be arrogated by the reader alone or become the exclusive domain of higher criticism. The Bible is neither a spiritual ink blot for divination nor an academic code for cracking.

While the claims of higher criticism should always be heard, those claims need not go unchallenged as if they were settled law in every jurisdiction where biblical theology is done. As even Barr noted two decades ago, “A certain weariness with historical criticism has been an important part of the reaction which produced biblical theology in its twentieth-century form.”[9] By shedding the hermeneutics of suspicion in the 21st century, biblical theology has become even more robust.[10] What was long seen as a severe criticism leveled at the biblical writers—that they were driven in their composition by an underlying theological agenda (i.e., a “bias”)—is actually a compelling rationale for pursuing a truly biblical theology. If we start from the vantage point of accepting the biblical record as an account of what actually happened in history, we can then produce a biblical theology that the biblical writers would not only recognize but wholeheartedly embrace. Fueled by a theocentric approach to both worldview and Scripture, biblical interpretation—and the biblical theology that derives from it—can keep pulsating with life. 

One development that has sucked the life out of biblical theology over the last three hundred years is the Graf-Wellhausen (JEPD) Documentary Hypothesis and its various descendants—views that claim the Torah assumed its present shape not from the hand of Moses and his contemporary aids, but from multiple contradictory sources that were compiled and redacted over the centuries in a developmental (and therefore uninspired) fashion. Because of my work under Drs. Buckwalter and Dorsey, and my own work on biblical literary structure since Dorsey’s passing, I view all such theories of origins with suspicion, giving the benefit of the doubt to the biblical text as we now have it.[11] Indeed, I give literary criticism priority because it often serves as a better tool for rationalizing a text’s formation and, more importantly, uncovering an author’s intended meaning, whatever its oral pre-history may have been. While the arguments of source criticism should be heard and evaluated on a case-by-case basis, the fact remains that the extant biblical manuscripts have been found largely intact, so the textual “fossil record” does not support a “divergent evolution” model of canonical development. 

Applying the methods of source criticism to, say, The Lord of the Rings, may well lead to the hypothesis that multiple authors from successive generations synthesized various traditions with conflicting storylines. After all, Aragorn, like Yahweh, goes by many names throughout the epic tale, including Strider (S), Estel (E), Thorongil (T), the Dúnadan (D), and several others. Moreover, the novel has been criticized for its plot holes, minutiae, violence, racism, lapses in logic, and other missteps, not unlike the charges often leveled against the Hebrew Bible. One can only imagine Tolkien’s response to such an analysis of his work.[12] Moreover, as Kaiser rightly insists: “A good exegete will have nothing to do with hypothetical sources which have never materialized in any form. These sources are deductively ‘authenticated’ and then inductively ‘proven’ from the same document in what becomes a most vicious circle. What you put in, you get out.”[13] Rather, the burden of proof should fall on source critics who must reconcile the teleological nature of biblical texts with an evolutionary model of their origin. The explanatory power of such models is often insufficient to account for the literary artistry and intentional patterning we now know permeate the Hebrew Bible (and even the New Testament). In the end, literary criticism may not answer every question we have about the compositional history of a particular passage, but granting this tool priority over source criticism can help reduce the endless speculation and frustration inherent in the quest for textual origins, not to mention the unnecessary cynicism that evolutionary models often display toward the final form of biblical texts. The more exquisite a block of biblical text, the less likely it is that many hands contributed to its final form in a complex redactional process spanning the centuries. As in the kitchen, so in the scriptorium: too many hands spoil the broth.

One way to test the legitimacy of higher criticism’s rationalistic assumptions is to apply both a naturalistic hermeneutic and a theocentric hermeneutic to a particular biblical phenomenon and then determine which approach better accounts for the evidence. For example, does the Israelite religion as portrayed in the Old Testament mirror the faith—or even borrow from the faith—of its ancient Near Eastern neighbors, or is it unique and exceptional as it is? A naturalistic hermeneutic tends toward the former because of anti-supernatural presuppositions as well as thematic parallels found in correspondent literature. But a solid case can be made for the latter. Indeed, the Bible everywhere affirms Israel’s uniqueness, and its historical claims are not easily divorced from its theological claims. To mythologize the history is to neuter the theology. Indeed, a naturalistic worldview has to dismiss divine revelation as a legitimate source of knowledge because it presupposes a world beyond the senses and the existence of a realm that one cannot see or control. It is a fully supernatural, theocentric realm, so it is rejected out of hand by historical criticism. Yet a theocentric approach to Old Testament texts actually strengthens the claim to historicity, affirming Israel’s uniqueness and distinction. As Oswalt argues:

When we ask the Israelites where they came up with these fantastic concepts, they tell us they did not ‘come up’ with them. They tell us that God broke in upon their lives and dragged them kicking and screaming into these understandings. They tell us that they did their best to get away from him, but that he would not let them go. He kept obtruding himself into their lives in the most uncomfortable ways. If that report is not true, we are at a loss to explain where the fundamentally different understandings of life in the Old Testament came from.”[14]

Oswalt’s observation is perceptive. To strip the biblical world of its theocentric orientation is to be left mystified by the sociology that remains. The community’s rich theology is boiled off by skepticism, leaving only a historical stain at the bottom of the cup. But the sparse residue lacks sufficient explanatory power to account for the historical, theological, and textual phenomena. No one ever would have fabricated the theology that Israel embraced, as it placed them too far out of step with the rest of the ancient Near East—especially when it came to the prohibition of idols, the observance of Sabbath, the wearing of tassels, and the keeping of laws protecting widows, orphans, immigrants, and slaves. The Israelites were a strange and quirky people in the midst of a dark and hostile world. It was only their submission to divine revelation and their sense of identity as God’s covenant people that kept them willing to remain strange. Even then, their drift toward syncretism was a constant temptation. As Oswalt points out, much of their history involved a fair amount of “kicking and screaming” against the God who had graciously revealed himself to them. 

Parallels in correspondent literature can be explained in other ways besides mirroring or borrowing. Indeed, one of the most striking features about correspondent literature is the myriad points of contrast not comparison, as if the biblical writers sought to critique or parody much of that literature. Yahweh feeds his people, not vice versa. Yahweh clothes his people, not vice versa. Yahweh illuminates his people, not vice versa. Yahweh leads his people, not vice versa. Yahweh gives rest to his people, not vice versa. Yahweh helps his people, not vice versa. Most of what we read in the Torah reverses a vast array of ancient Near Eastern conceptions of the divine, standing many of those ideas completely on their head. Quite significantly, to discover something about the character of God in an Old Testament text is to discover something about the character of Christ as well, for “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19), and “he is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3a). For the Christian interpreter, then, theocentricity leads naturally to Christocentricity; they are not mutually exclusive considerations. When I come to the end of my interpretive work on an Old Testament passage, I should be able to say, “Like Father, like Son. I can see how the God who inspired this text is the same God who took on flesh in Christ.” 

That said, biblical theology is more than a mere academic discipline; it is a reconstruction of ancient thought patterns with crucial spiritual implications for today. Failure to attend to the biblical authors’ theological interpretation of God’s acts in history is to stop short of biblical interpretation itself, for such an approach either avoids or minimizes the impetus behind their rationale for writing in the first place. Consequently, simply analyzing biblical texts is incomplete until a truly biblical theology emerges. As Rosner has said, “No one would dispute the legitimacy of studying Shakespeare’s plays for their artistry and language, or to consider the evidence they provide of the social mores or political conventions of their day, or to trace their impact on the history of literature and ideas. But to do only this is by no means to engage in the interpretation of Shakespeare. The same principle applies to the Bible.”[15] In Christian terms, one could likewise say it is possible to “study” Jesus without actually following him, but the results would be both intellectually and spiritually deficient (cf. e.g., Luke 7:36-50; John 5:39-40). I must always guard against this drift into theological intellectualism. Academizing the faith is no guarantee of spiritual maturity. 

In the end, it is only a theocentric approach that enables the church to hear God’s voice in Scripture and respond with joyful obedience. The hermeneutic of suspicion is a muzzle to that voice, for it concludes that no such voice exists. A hermeneutic of consent, on the other hand, is a megaphone to that voice, for it recognizes that God is still speaking today by his Spirit through his Word. God has revived biblical theology in our day, and we are enjoying the fruits of it.

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[1] For a brief overview of the consternated history of biblical theology, see, e.g., Charles H. H. Scobie, “History of Biblical Theology” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 11-20; James K. Mead, Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 13-59; and Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 14-17.

[2] Anthony C. Thiselton, “Introduction” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture & Hermeneutics Series, vol. 7, eds. Craig Bartholomew, Scott Hahn, Robin Parry, Christopher Seitz, and Al Wolters, eds., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 5.

[3] The slogan of one famous preaching ministry today is, “Unleashing God’s truth one verse at a time.” A better approach might be, “Unleashing God’s heart one story at a time.”

[4] See John S. Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 13-15.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 68-69.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Peter Stuhlmacher, Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Toward a Hermeneutics of Consent, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (London: S.P.C.K., 1979), 83, 90.

[8] Ibid.

[9] James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 8.

[10] Mead writes, “The field of biblical theology has entered a new century with a tremendous surge of interest and vitality. Scholars and students from many and diverse communities are reading the Bible theologically, seeking to understand its message and shape the methods whereby we approach the Bible.” See Mead, Biblical Theology, vii.

[11] Two can play the suspicion game. Those of us with a high view of Scripture can be provocateurs, too.

[12] Analogy first suggested to this author by Paul Elliott, Concordia University Irvine, via personal conversations with Phil and Sarah Bollinger.

[13] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Exegetical Theology: Biblical Exegesis for Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 64.

[14] John N. Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 17.

[15] Brian S. Rosner, “Biblical Theology” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 4. Emphasis mine.

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