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Schlatter on the task of Biblical Theology

Posted by on Dec 9, 2009 in biblical theology | Comments Off

Adolf Schlatter was a very interesting person. He was an evangelical theologian who worked and taught at non-evangelical schools such as Tübingen. He wrote the following in 1923:

The New Testament writings present us with the task of identifying their teachings and of clarifying their origin. We customarily call this branch of historical research “New Testament theology.” By calling this field of historical work “theology,” we affirm that its object is the statements about God and God’s work contained in the New Testament. In speaking of “New Testament” theology, we are saying that it is not the interpreter’s own theology or that of his church and times that is examined but rather the theology expressed by the New Testament itself.

It is the historical objective that should govern our conceptual work exclusively and completely, stretching our perceptive faculties to the limit. We turn away decisively from ourselves and our time to what was found in the men through whom the church came into being. Our main interest should be the thought as it was conceived by them and the truth that was valid for them. We want to see and obtain a thorough grasp of what happened historically and existed in another time. This is the internal disposition upon which the success of the work depends, the commitment which must consistently be renewed as the work proceeds. (Note that at this point we are not studying what the New Testament words mean for us, how they influence our own thoughts and actions, and whether or not and why they achieve over us the compelling authority of truth. At the proper time, however, this question will be very important.) (The History of the Christ, translated by Andreas K̦stenberger, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, p 17-18 Рemphasis in translation)

Schlatter points out some very important aspects of the task of biblical theology (or New Testament theology in his case). First, the task is primarily historical, meaning that the task of the biblical theologian begins with understanding the writings of Scripture within their historical context.

The authors of Scripture wrote in a way that would be understandable to readers and hearers within their own culture. Obviously, this means that they used languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek) that were in common use at the time of writing. However, there are other historical and cultural phenomenon that would have influenced their writings, from common customs of that day, to idioms of speech, to shared experiences, to government.

Second, the task is primarily historical in that sense that the theologian must be extremely careful not to read his or her own theology back into the Scripture. Now, it may be that the Scripture supports the theologian’s theology, but that cannot be presupposed. Instead, as Schlatter aptly states, Scripture must be studied in order to understand “the thought as it was conceived by them [the writers] and the truth that was valid for them.” This is very difficult for any theologian, so everyone who desires to study biblical theology must attempt to recognize where their own theology is creeping into the study.

Finally, notice that Schlatter says that application must come after Scripture has been analyzed and synthesized into a biblical theology. It is only after we know what the scriptural authors said that we can begin to ask the question, “What does this mean for me and the people in my culture.” Application is very important. Those who follow Christ want to live according to his teaching and according to Scripture. However, we must understand those teaching in context before we can start extrapolating the teachings into our own context.