Biblical Theology Movement

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Time Period
1943  - 1960
Description
The biblical theology movement (BTM) refers to an emphasis in Protestant biblical studies in the United States between the mid-1940s and early 1960s. The BTM was marked by a rejection of both liberalism and fundamentalism, and the attempt to recover the Bible for theological reflection in both seminary and church. The hope that biblical renewal might undermine the doctrinal divisions that separated churches gave the movement an ecumenical impact.

Several tenets of the BTM are evident: 1) The Bible as a theological resource; 2) The unity of the Bible; 3) The revelation of God in history; 4) The Bible’s distinctly Hebraic mentality; and 5) The uniqueness of biblical revelation. The BTM attempted to emphasize the Bible as a rational resource that did not counter science. BTM scholars include G. Ernest Wright and Floyd Filson.

In the 1960s, the BTM began to decline as theological interest turned from efforts to get behind the text to more postmodern strategies.
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Narrative
Historical Background

Throughout the 19th century, "biblical theology" as a discipline distinct from dogmatics developed, along with critical methodologies, into a study of the history of Israel’s religion. Criticism became increasingly concerned with the historical and philological minutiae of both Israelite religion and emerging Christianity, and their primary documents as found in the Bible. The result was a progressive distancing of theology from biblical study, with theology taking an ever more philosophical turn.

The BTM arose from continental and British developments, particularly in the 20th century. North American biblical studies, however, were further defined by their reaction not only to liberalism, but also to the peculiarly North American battle over the Bible embodied in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. This gave the BTM a tone of radical departure and definitive rejection of the previous generation’s methods, rather than of organic development, as was generally true in European scholarship.

The BTM owed much to the neo-orthodox reclamation of the Bible as a medium of revelation. Karl Barth’s The Word of God and the Word of Man (English, 1928) and his commentary on Romans (English, 1933) were influential, more through his theology of the Word as encounter than by exegetical method. More prominent was Emil Brunner, whose Divine-Human Encounter (1943) and Revelation and Reason (1946) placed the Bible at the center of theological reflection.

European emphases on holistic synthesis encouraged the BTM’s notion of a fully biblical theology. Walther Eichrodt’s Theology of the Old Testament (1931; English, 1961-1967) presented "covenant" as the integrating concept unifying the Old Testament. British scholarship echoed this return to biblical unity, for instance, in the work of C. H. Dodd (The Present Task of New Testament Studies, 1936) and H. H. Rowley (The Unity of the Bible, 1955). Later, in his Old Testament Theology (1957-1960; English, 1962-1965), Gerhard von Rad took a more diachronic view following the history of traditions surrounding Israel’s kerygmatic confession. For all the diversity this implied, he followed the motif of promise and fulfillment as a core concept, finding in the Christ-event the consummation of OT hope. From von Rad, and others such as Oscar Cullmann (Christ and Time, 1951), the BTM appropriated the notion of Heilsgeschichte, a perspective on the revelatory acts of God in history.

British and continental scholarship further influenced the BTM through the "wordbook" tradition exemplified in Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (1933-1973) and Alan Richardson’s Theological Word Book of the New Testament (1951). This approach presupposed that specific vocabulary transmitted the uniquely Hebraic mentality of the writers. H. Wheeler Robinson’s classic work on "Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel" proposed the pervasiveness of Hebrew psychology in biblical thought such that others applied it to Pauline notions of the second Adam and being "in Christ."

Emphases

The BTM took shape in the mid-1940s with a spate of articles and books heralding a fresh creative synthesis of Bible and theology. These included James D. Smart’s "The Death and Rebirth of Old Testament Theology" (1943); Paul Minear’s "Wanted: A Biblical Theology" (1944); Floyd V. Filson’s One Lord, One Faith (1944); and G. Ernest Wright’s The Challenge of Israel’s Faith (1951). The inaugural issues of journals such as Theology Today (1944) and Interpretation (1947) marked the arrival of an intentional movement.

Brevard Childs penned the classic treatment of the rise and fall of the BTM in 1970, as he sought to introduce a canonical method that dispensed with efforts to get "behind the text." Childs noted five major emphases in which the BTM claimed a new departure in biblical studies.

1. The Bible as a theological resource.

The BTM saw both liberalism and fundamentalism as the culprits in banishing the Bible from seminary and pew. The BTM called for hearing the Word of a transcendent God, without losing it to a rationalist worldview, nor receiving it in some pre-critical way that denied the scientific results of scholarship. Relying on the work of American archaeologist William Foxwell Albright and his students G. Ernest Wright and John Bright, the BTM proposed a historical background that substantially supported the biblical narrative. This allowed the Old Testament to be recovered as a recitation of Israel’s faith (Wright, God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital, 1951) rather than being so many scattered data in the search for the history of Israel’s religion. As Minear argued, faith is the result of an existential encounter with the God who confronts us with the event of his Word (Eyes of Faith, 1946).

2. The reunification of the Bible.

The history of religion school, emerging from 19th-century historical criticism, rejected any normative sense of Scripture, seeing the Old and New Testaments as primary sources for the elucidation of history. The resultant fragmentation debilitated biblical studies for half a century. The BTM, building on German and British scholarship, championed the unity of the Bible, contemplating a theological center that integrated both Old Testament and New Testament studies. Thus Bernhard Anderson spoke of The Unfolding Drama of the Bible (1957), with Christ as the climax. In 1951, the journal Interpretation devoted a whole issue to the theme of biblical unity in diversity.

3. The revelation of God in history.

Drawing from German notions of Heilsgeschichte (i.e., God's salvation through Jesus), the BTM focused on the biblical accounts of redemptive history, as essentially factual, but gaining theological significance by their interpretation of divine acts. This redefined theology as a revelational matter rather than a philosophical one. G. Ernest Wright’s God Who Acts (1951), claimed that the recital of God’s mighty deeds was at the center of Israel’s creed. In 1957 he published, with R. H. Fuller, The Book of the Acts of God, setting forth a salvation historical account of the Scriptures for lay students. In a series of articles in the 1950s, Frank Moore Cross, a student of Albright’s and Wright’s, sought a more nuanced rapprochement of Heilsgeschichte and the history of religions.

4. The Bible’s distinctly Hebraic mentality.

The BTM presupposed that a Hebraic worldview permeates the entire biblical corpus, and that this mind-set could be retrieved through word studies. This bias was informed by the work of Danish scholar Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture (1926-1940) and Thorlief Boman’s Hebrew Thought Compared with the Greek (German, 1951; English, 1961), both of whose perspective continues to cast a long shadow in biblical studies. Their impact is illustrated in James Muilenburg’s emphasis, in a 1961 article on the Hebrew conception of the concrete linearity of time and God’s revelation in history. Muilenburg appealed to Boman, emphasizing the distinction between the "eye" in Greek thought as impersonal and objective, and the "ear," the Hebrew notion of hearing, as more relational and time-bound.

5. The uniqueness of biblical revelation.

The BTM highlighted the Bible’s divergence from the historical context of the ancient Near East. Rather than accentuating continuities with its environment, the BTM built on the Albright school of "biblical" archaeology and saw Israelite religion and early Christianity as largely distinct from the surrounding world. This view found substantial confirmation in a significant 1946 publication from the non-theologically disposed Chicago Oriental Institute entitled The Intellectual Adventure of Modern Man. The essential uniqueness of the biblical worldview also featured in a pair of books, together forming the 1949 Haskell Lectures at Oberlin College: Wright’s The Old Testament Against its Environment (1951), and Filson’s The New Testament Against its Environment (1951).

Decline

The BTM suffered attack both from within and outside the movement. The first bout was a critique by Langdon Gilkey, who claimed to share its views, but dared to ask in 1961 how the BTM actually differed from a history of religion approach if "the mighty acts of God" had no literal referent, but ultimately represented Hebrew interpretation. A devastating attack came from James Barr, first in The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961), which questions the linguistic basis of the wordbook tradition. His 1963 paper on "Revelation through History" dealt an additional blow, claiming the BTM’s appropriation of history was selective and ambiguous, and that its rejection of the more supernatural dimensions of the narrative failed to take the Bible as seriously as it claimed. In addition, the 1950s witnessed the reception of increasingly philosophical approaches including both Tillich’s existentialist symbolism and Bultmann’s demythologized existentialism as theological alternatives to the BTM in a modern world. The BTM’s appeal to Heilsgeschichte further collapsed as the Albright school of "biblical" archaeology fell into disfavor in the early 1970s with the emergence of a more objectively based Syro-Palestinian approach advocated by William Dever in the United States. Though its legacy continues to be felt, particularly in the theological interpretation of Scripture, ultimately, the BTM failed to survive what Leo Perdue called "the collapse of history." Scholarly interest turned from efforts to get behind the text, to more postmodern strategies.

Photographs

Desk of Karl Barth- Wikimedia Commons- photo by ThinkingLeaders (CC BY-SA 3.0)

William F Albright speaking- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Moshe Pridan, National Photo Collection, photo code- D469-134

Frank Moore Cross portrait- photo by Jack1956 at the English Language Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by Gerhard Kittel- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Jonund (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442244320/The-Encyclopedia-of-Christianity-in-the-United-States-5-Volumes
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
David J. Courey

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