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Biblical theology and discourse analysis – Part 3

Posted by on Apr 13, 2009 in biblical theology, discipleship, scripture | Comments Off

In this series, I examine how macro-structure analysis (specifically some of the tools of discourse analysis) can help the biblical theologian determine themes and categories in Scripture. In the previous posts of this series, I’ve looked at the relationship between biblical theology and exegesis and the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology. In this post, I examine the methods used by several biblical theologians to find themes in Scripture.


The distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology does not intimate that one discipline is more important than the other discipline, but instead appreciates the complementary nature of the two disciplines. The theologian who distinguishes between the historical and descriptive nature of biblical theology and the contemporary nature of systematic theology should also recognize the importance of taking a different approach to categorizing the text. As Poythress points out, “[I]t is understandable that the difference in aims [between biblical theology and systematic theology] should sometimes result in different kinds of topical arrangements.” (“Kinds of Biblical Theology,” 139)

However, recognizing the distinction between biblical theology and systematic theology does not prevent contemporary or historical themes (i.e., systematic themes) from slipping into biblical theologies. Several scholars warn of this possibility. For example, Kaiser warns:

Systematic theology has traditionally organized its approach around topics and themes such as God, humanity, sin, Christ, salvation, the church, and last things. By contrast, biblical theology has, more often than not, been a discipline in search of a mission and a structure—often falling into the same topical and structural tracks gone over by systematic theology, even though it severely criticized and stood aloof from systematic theology, claiming it had imposed an external grid (derived from philosophy or the like) on its material. (The Promise-Plan of God. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008, 18)

Thus, even while biblical theologians recognize the importance of following the themes laid out in Scripture, they often fall into the trap of returning to “traditional” themes.

Likewise, Osborne says, “The interpreter must at all times be aware of the fallacy of reading subsequent theological issues into the text.” (Hermeneutical Spiral, 266) He later cautions that the problem is primarily one of language and hermeneutics. (Ibid., 276) Thus, for Osborne, the biblical theologian must ask questions concerning language and semantics as he gathers the biblical information into themes and categories. Only then can the biblical theologian synthesize those various themes.

Marshall also cautions that theologians tend to group biblical material into familiar and comfortable categories. He states, “This is to take over an existing plan such as is found in a textbook of systematic theology but without any firm evidence that this framework was in the minds of any of the New Testament authors.” (New Testament Theology. Downers Grove: IVP, 2004, 24) Instead of using an “existing plan,” Marshall urges the theologian to seek the plan of the New Testament author.

Similarly, Rosner says that the biblical theologian must allow the texts of Scripture to set the agenda:

The task of biblical theology is to present the teaching of the Bible about God and his relation to the world in a way that lets the biblical texts set the agenda. This goal is achieved by allowing them to serve as the very stuff of inductive study and by reading the books more or less in their historical sequence. In other words, biblical theology subscribes to the primacy of the text; the interpretive interest of biblical theology corresponds as closely as possible to what the text is about. (“Biblical Theology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner; Downers Grove: IVP 2000, 5)

At this point, it seems that Osborne, Marshall, and Rosner are all talking about exegesis—the first step of biblical theology. Questions of language, interpretation of the thoughts of the author, and interpreting texts points to the importance of exegetical methodologies that will aid the biblical theologians in looking past “existing plans” in order to determine the New Testament authors’ frameworks. But, what methodologies can offer this aid?

When Scobie laid out the framework for his biblical theology, he also recognized the danger of following traditional schemes. He warns against “imposing an alien pattern” and concludes, “[S]o far as is humanly possible, the structure employed should be the one that arises out of the biblical material itself.” (The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003, 81) What methodology does Scobie utilize to ensure that his structure arises from the text of Scripture? He explains his methodology as follows:

The procedure that seems to offer the most promise and the least risk of distorting the biblical material is that of identifying a limited number of major biblical themes, grouping around them associated subthemes, and tracing each theme and subtheme through the OT, then through the NT, following the scheme of proclamation/promise: fulfillment/consummation. The selection of themes is obviously of crucial importance. In point of fact, the major themes that are proposed here were arrived at very largely through an extensive study of the numerous proposals that have been made by biblical scholars, especially for a so-called center or focal point of BT. (Ibid., 93—94)

So, while arguing that the best procedure is one that arises from the biblical texts, Scobie finds his themes by studying proposals made by other biblical theologians. Certainly all of those biblical theologians claim that their themes arise from the text of Scripture. In fact, most of them claim that their theme is the central focus of Scripture. Scobie himself recognizes that these claims often arise, not from Scripture, but from the theologian fitting the text into a predefined mold. Scobie says, “[T]he various proposals that have been made obviously have a lot of merit and, taken together, form the most useful guide to a multithematic approach.” (Ibid., 94) Scobie decides that while the themes do not have “a lot of merit” on their own, they do have merit when taken together. Unfortunately, his methodology does not aid the biblical theologian in ensuring that the themes and categories arise from Scripture instead of being imposed on Scripture.

In Central Themes in Biblical Theology, the editors, Hafemann and House, explain that the purpose of the book is to explore some of the biblical themes. They write, “We did not determine the seven most important themes in the Bible and assign them to one another. Individual interests were allowed latitude, but we nonetheless found that the themes the participants chose provided a solid sample of key biblical ideas.” (Central Themes in Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007, 16) The various authors chose to examine the themes of “The Covenant Relationship”, “The Commands of God”, “The Atonement”, “The Servant of the Lord”, “The Day of the Lord”, “The People of God”, and “The History of Redemption.” But, what methodologies were used to determine that these were “central” themes of biblical theology, and what methodologies were used to examine each theme across the corpus of Scripture? Those methodologies remain undetermined. As the editors explain, “Each contributor was allowed to pursue the chosen theme across the Scriptures in the manner they deemed best, but they all pursued that theme in a way calculated to demonstrate biblical wholeness.” (Ibid., 17) It is possible, and perhaps probable given the themes examined in this book, that different authors analyze the same passages of Scripture in order to synthesize their different themes across Scripture. It seems problematic to approach biblical theology without a methodical approach to determine the “central themes” (that is, each contributor choosing a theme based upon their own “individual interests”) and without a common methodology to examine these themes.

Ladd, on the other hand, uses a methodology in his New Testament theology. However, as Poythress points out, Ladd’s methodology is controlled by his interest in inaugurated eschatology. Poythress says,

[Ladd] saw inaugurated eschatology as a common theme through all the NT books. So, in imitation of biblical theology, should one organize systematic theology using the theme of inaugurated eschatology? But Ladd could equally have claimed that fellowship with Christ, or the resurrection of Christ, or Christ as God and man, or the doctrine of God, was a common theme. He made inaugural eschatology primary not because it was the only possibility, but probably because biblical theology in its historical orientation had a keen interest in NT conceptualizations of redemptive-historical epochs. And these compartmentalizations complement the traditional topical interests of systematic theology more than would an organization of the material by traditional topics. (“Kinds of Biblical Theology,” 139—40)

As Poythress points out, when a theologian has an interest in a particular area, this interest can manipulate how the theologian analyzes and synthesizes the biblical data.

Köstenberger also utilizes a more methodical approach for his theology of John. First, he recognizes that the structure of John’s Gospel and his Epistles reveal much of the theology and meaning contained in these writings. (A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, Forthcoming, 296) Next, Köstenberger suggests a “literary-theological reading” of the Johnanine material which follows the author’s structural framework. He says,

By “literary-theological reading” is meant a careful reading… Engaging in this close narrative reading of John’s Gospel and Letters before attempting to present the major Johannine theological themes in Part 3 [the synthesis of the biblical material] is vital, because such a literary-theological reading ensures that the presentation of John’s theology is properly grounded in a contextual, narrative apprehension of the respective documents. Methodologically, biblical theology is inextricably wedded to a study of the writings in question in their historical and literary settings. (Ibid., 309)

Thus, unlike Scobie, Köstenberger does not determine his themes by reading other biblical theologies, but by reading the text of Scripture. He finds the themes of John’s Gospel in the author’s purpose statement (20:30—31), the introduction to the Gospel (1:1—18), and the introduction to part two of the Gospel (13:1—3). The benefit of this approach is that Köstenberger discovers themes in the prominent sections of the book, removing some of the subjectivity.

Without using the name specifically, Köstenberger follows the methods of discourse analysis by seeking prominent passages of Scripture and finding and author’s themes from those passages. The tools and methods of discourse analysis can aid the biblical theologian because they are exegetical tools focused on the structure and meaning of the text and because they help the theologian determine important macro-level information.

In the next post in this series, I will present an introduction to discourse analysis, and examine how some of the tools of discourse analysis can be utilized to help the biblical theologian determine the themes and categories of Scripture.


Biblical theology and discourse analysis series
1. Relationship between biblical theology and exegesis
2. Relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology
3. Methods of discovering themes in biblical theology
4. Discourse analysis in biblical theology
5. Case study from Romans 12-15 and conclusion