Daniel J. Brendsel on the Center of Biblical Theology

I’ve just re-read Daniel J. Brendsel’s essay, Plots, Themes, and Responsibilities: The Search for a Center of Biblical Theology Reexamined,” Themelios 35.3 (2010): 400–12, which has me more convinced than ever that the center of biblical theology is the glory of God in salvation through judgment.

I’m going to paste my notes on Brendsel’s essay below, and if you’d like to know why I prefer my proposed center to his, please see God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment (for a shorter version, see either my article on the subject or this summarizing presentation).

Here are my notes on Brendsel (my outline doesn’t correspond entirely to his, and I have reformatted some quotations, summarizing other parts):

Daniel J. Brendsel, “Plots, Themes, and Responsibilities: The Search for a Center of Biblical Theology Reexamined,” Themelios 35.3 (2010): 400–12.

1) Introduction: Assumes that the search for a center is not an obsession but a responsibility and

2)   provides a rationale for the search for a center

3)   refocuses what the object of the search is, and

4)   discusses the process of the search

2) The Rationale for the Search

2.1 if a center exists, it has massive heuristic value for understanding the parts in light of the whole

2.2 the search for a center is driven by a prior conviction about the unity of Scripture

2.3 Paul’s reference to “the whole counsel of God” in Acts 20:27 seems to imply a core deposit that will inform the Ephesians as they continue to study the Scriptures in his absence

“The search for a center is the search to provide heuristic lenses for the people of God in their interaction with scripture (and the world)” (401).

3) The Object of the Search

3.1 Problems with the term “center”

3.1.1 few have defined what they mean by the term (citing me as an exception: “the concept to which the biblical authors point as the ultimate reason” for God’s activities and as “the theme which all of the Bible’s other themes serve to exposit.” [402])
3.1.2 Many centers have been proposed, and they all threaten to steamroll diversity

3.2 Plot, Themes, and Responsibilities

It is helpful to focus on the narrative of form of Scripture, but this should not keep us from searching for a center because

3.2.1 “Narrative is not an option over against ideas—the latter is intrinsic to the former” (403–404), and
3.2.2 “plot-line alone might not sufficiently summarize the message of scripture, nor describe its fundamental heartbeat, because not all scripture is narrative.” (404)

“storyline can be an effective means of communicating the whole counsel of God when the key concepts and commands arising from the storyline itself are also explicitly noted and highlighted. An adequate proposal for a center to biblical theology, or more preferably, to use the language of Acts 20:27, a sufficient summary of the whole counsel of God, will link these elements together—plot, theme(s), responsibilities—in its formulation.” (404).

3.3 Two Important Precedents

“there are two important precedents for this fusion of plot, theme, and responsibility as a way of summarizing scripture to be used as a heuristic tool by God’s people. The first comes from Jesus himself, the second from the early church.” (405)

3.3.1 ““Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45–47). Note two things: (1) Jesus presents a concise summary of “the scriptures,” offering what could be considered the core of what “is written.” (2) This core consists of a plot (the story of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, and a proclamation beginning in Jerusalem and moving outward), a theme (repentance for the forgiveness of sins), and responsibilities (repentance, proclamation).” (405)
3.3.2 “second, ante-Nicene theologians (esp. tertullian and irenaeus) spoke of a “rule of Faith,” which they viewed as being both derived from and serving deeper reflection on scripture.” (405)

“The rule of Faith offers four important parallels with the present proposal.
First, it seeks to offer a narrative digest of scripture.
Second, it combines plot (moving through creation, fall, redemption, and restoration), themes (creation, sin, salvation, etc.), and responsibility (as a creedal statement).
Third, it was used as a kind of framework or guide for further fruitful reflection on scripture, a kind of heuristic lens through which the people of God may discover truth.
Fourth, as Paul Blowers has argued persuasively, ante-Nicene theologians were not interested in using the rule merely as a useful guide for biblical instruction and interpretation or as a way to fend off error, but also in the formation of Christian identity, that is, in shaping believers’ “storied” existence as themselves part of the biblical story. In other words, the rule of Faith was formulated and passed on within the context of pastoral care for the people of God.” (406)

4. The Process of the Search

4.1 Validation Tests for Selecting Key Points

Citing Beale:

“Proposals for a center must be
(1) “more overarching” than other proposals;
(2) related to the other major themes of the NT;
(3) “integrally related to major old testament themes,” resting ultimately upon “a broad storyline” and rooted in Christ; and
(4) individually examined.

These four tests can be condensed into two broad criteria: comprehensiveness and integral relationship to the major themes of scripture, especially the Bible’s plot-line and the death and resurrection of Christ.” (407)

4.2 Objections:

4.2.3 historical and cultural factors result in the identification of “major” themes
Answer:
some themes are consistently identified across cultures and history

4.2.4 “the idea of comprehensiveness might be rejected on two fronts:
(1) there is no basis for relegating some elements of scripture to mere sub-categories under other more comprehensive themes, and
(2) even if there were a basis, it is extremely difficult to know what to subordinate under what.” (408)

Answer to the first: this criticism can be applied to any proposal that recognizes a cluster of broad or major themes, since even if they reject a center they are nevertheless presenting a hierarchy of themes.
Further,
1)   selectivity is inevitable
2)   complaining that some things are at the margin while others are central is more a description than a criticism
3)   those who criticize proposals for the center should do so on other grounds: for instance, that all themes should be treated equally, that another proposal is better, or that some passages contradict the proposal.
4)   Scripture itself prioritizes some parts of the Bible over others—e.g., weightier matters of the law (Matt 23:23), Micah 6:8, greatest commandment, Jesus’ claim that the Scriptures testify to him.

Answer to the Second: Factors to help us in the search:
1. “repetition and representation in diverse portions of scripture, while certainly not sufficient in and of itself, is a significant consideration.
2. Climactic portions of the biblical narrative would be key places to identify clusters of important events and ideas.
3. Integral relationship with other major themes has been shown to be a valid area for examination.
4. And related to this is whether or not parallel suggestions have been made in the history of interpretation, which could be either different expressions of or perspectives on a substantive core, or the seed form of something one is trying to develop.” (409)

Purposes and agendas cannot be denied and should be acknowledged up front (410).

5. Conclusion

“What basic, general hermeneutical lens ought we to provide for the people of God? Perhaps we might suggest the following: The triune God is actively engaged in increasing (and incarnating) his presence among his people, a presence that entails for his people the responsibility of worship, in the fourfold story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.” (412)

The whole essay is here.

9 Comments

Filed under Bible and Theology, Biblical Theology, Center of Biblical Theology

9 responses to “Daniel J. Brendsel on the Center of Biblical Theology

  1. Dr. Hamilton,
    We don’t know each other personally, but I attend Southern; and I read your blog quite frequently. In a recent paper I wrote for Dr. Wellum’s Issues in Biblical and Systematic Theology, I briefly interacted with and disagreed with your centre for Biblical Theology. A link to the summary of my argumentation can be found below. I would like your thoughts on it; mainly how your centre of Biblical Theology accounts for God’s relationship with pre-fall creation, God’s Trinitarian relationship prior to creation, and God’s purpose for creating angels that did not and never will sin. Here’s my brief critique of your centre: http://jaredmoore.exaltchrist.com/2011/01/31/a-critical-critique-of-james-hamiltons-centre-for-biblical-theology/.

    I realize you are very busy; and I understand if you do not have time to respond. I appreciate your time; and hope that we can meet sometime on this side of glory.

    In Christ,
    Jared Moore

    • Jared,

      I’d invite you to consider the way that I describe and define biblical theology in the first chapter of my book. And as for pre-fall creation, God’s Trinitarian relationships prior to creation, and unfallen angels, I would simply say that these are not things that the Bible gives a great deal of attention to.

      Since I’m doing biblical theology, I don’t think your critique carries much force.

      Every blessing,

      JMH

  2. Dr. Hamilton,

    I’ve read the first chapter of your book. You argue that the Bible “tells a coherent story (pg.39).” I agree, but, if this is the case, then your centre should account for the entire Bible, regardless how brief or lengthy it details various historical events included in biblical history (unfallen angels, pre-fall creation, God’s Trinitarian relationship prior to creation, etc.). If biblical theology is a “whole Bible theology,” then shouldn’t its centre include the whole Bible (pg. 41)? Even though you argue, “these things are not things that the Bible gives a great deal of attention to,” you still do not answer why these things are included in Scripture or biblical history. I believe that you make a great argument for the center of paradise lost and paradise restored; however, this is not a “whole-Bible theology.” The theme of Genesis must include God’s relationship with pre-fall creation. The theme of Genesis and the Gospel of John must include the pre-creation Trinitarian relationship. And, it we’re speaking chronologically concerning biblical history, we must begin with God’s Trinitarian relationship.

    You may disagree with my purported centre of biblical theology: God’s Trinitarian glory being magnified in the revealing of His love and holiness; but, it does account for God’s entire relationship with creation, both pre and post-fall. Furthermore, God’s Trinitarian love and holiness accounts for God’s Trinitarian relationship in eternity past. Therefore, it accounts for the whole of biblical history.

    If pre-fall creation, God’s Trinitarian relationship prior to creation, and unfallen angels are in the Bible, then shouldn’t they be included in your centre of biblical theology? I don’t understand how you can claim to be doing a “whole-Bible theology” if you have not proven how everything detailed in Scripture points to your centre of biblical theology, whether directly or indirectly.

    Furthermore, you say, “The centre of biblical theology will be the ultimate reason that the Bible gives to explain what God has done (pg. 48).” God created angels that will never sin. How does your centre of biblical theology explain this? It is one of the things that “God has done” that does not fit into your center. Based on your own definitions then, your center for biblical theology cannot be the center for biblical theology unless it explains “the ultimate reason that the Bible gives to explain what God has done.” What reasoning is there for unfallen angels? I believe they exist, not judgment or mercy, but to reveal the Triune love and holiness of God. This Trinitarian love and holiness seems to me to be “the ultimate reason that the Bible gives to explain what God has done.”

    Finally, Can you think of anything in the Bible, any theme, that does not fit into God’s Trinitarian holiness and love? It explains everything mentioned in Scripture: God’s Trinitarian relationship, His mercy, His judgment, His grace, His divine election, pre-fall creation, post-fall creation, redemption, Israel, the patriarchs, heaven, eternal life, hell, the elect, the non-elect, God the Son, propitiation, justification, unfallen angels, fallen angels, God the Holy Spirit, God the Father, crucifixion, resurrection, etc.

    I’ve enjoyed interacting with your work. Although, I am not convinced it is the center of biblical theology, I do believe it is the center of paradise lost and paradise restored. I also believe your center is a sub-theme that fits into my suggested center. Thus, I conclude: “God’s glory in salvation through judgment exists post-fall to reveal God’s eternal Trinitarian love and holiness.”

    I appreciate you taking the time to read my original critique; and your willingness to reply.

    In Christ,

    Jared Moore

  3. Dustin

    Hi Jared, I don’t presume to speak for Dr. Hamilton but it seems like you are slightly misunderstanding what he means by “the center” of biblical theology. He describes the center as what organizes the metanarrative and makes sense of the purposes within smaller units, and is discernible since it is pervasive throughout the text. This does not mean that every individual verse, story, or idea directly relates to the center in an immediate way. Nor does it mean that BT as a “whole Bible theology” gives equal weight to every particular detail. However, each individual story or theme that makes up a passage of Scripture is teaching something, i.e., there is an authorial purpose behind the account’s details, and these individual teachings could be classified as what Dr. Hamilton calls “subordinate ends” (following Edwards). A center is not uprooted because each subordinate end is not the center, but rather, subordinate ends make up and move into the larger ultimate end which organizes and illuminates the smaller units. It seems some of your noted objections (such as the existence of angels without sin) are not actual subordinate ends but simply details within units, which is why the biblical authors do not give them great deal nor do they unpack and develop the significance of such teaching. Or, to state it differently, even though the details prior to the fall may be important to us, it could be argued that Genesis does not develop the significance and theology of these details by themselves but only as they relate to the fall.

    It’s certainly legitimate to disagree with the idea of a center or with Dr. Hamilton’s proposed center, however one should probably do so by suggesting that his proposed center (God’s Glory in salvation through judgment) is not a suitable ultimate end because it cannot adquately make sense of and harmonize all of the subordinate ends as they exist in their progressive and historical dimensions.

  4. Dustin,
    I appreciate your response. I agree with you concerning the center of biblical theology. Everything in Scripture must directly or indirectly point to the center of biblical theology or to a sub-theme that points to the center of biblical theology. You make some great points. I do think however that you presume too much concerning authorial intent when you say,

    “It seems some of your noted objections (such as the existence of angels without sin) are not actual subordinate ends but simply details within units, which is why the biblical authors do not give them great deal nor do they unpack and develop the significance of such teaching. Or, to state it differently, even though the details prior to the fall may be important to us, it could be argued that Genesis does not develop the significance and theology of these details by themselves but only as they relate to the fall.”

    Authorial intent must be traced back to its divine source. The Bible is God’s deposited self-revelation. The goal of biblical theology should not be “what is presumed to be important to us,” for this changes with history; but rather what is important to God, which transcends creation (God is God without a world). I agree that it may be argued that the point of sinless creation being in Scripture is its relation to the Fall; however, the point may also be made that since biblical history begins and ends with sinless creation, that the Fall contained in the middle is a parentheses, regardless its length of exposition; and this creation’s entire history as well may be a parentheses concerning God’s Trinitarian holiness and love in His divine relationship that transcends both time and creation. In dealing with a God that is not concerned with time the same way we are, I think it is presumptuous to assume that the amount of time biblical writers spent developing one theme carries more weight than other themes that took less time to develop. Time should not be the deciding factor, but rather what center every theme of biblical history “serves to exposit.”

    Furthermore, I am very open to hearing how Dr. Hamilton believes these “units” (Trinitarian relationship, unfallen angels, and God’s relationship with pre-fall creation) point toward his centre for Biblical Theology. I don’t hold a candle to his knowledge; and I am still in need of much learning.

    Finally, the main area where Hamilton and I may be disagreeing is in the biblical authors’ detailing of history, and that actual history. Dustin, do you believe the detailing of biblical history should be used to determine the centre of biblical theology, or that the history itself should be? In other words, should the Scriptural authors’ detailing of history prove the center; or the actual history that the biblical authors wrote about? I’m arguing for the center of the history itself. If length of time is a factor, then the history itself points to a center that transcends the Fall and redemption. In the grand scheme of history, the Fall and redemption are a nanosecond. The reason why they appear to be the center of biblical history is because we exist within this time period; and so did the Scripture writers. I believe that the pre-fall creation, Trinitarian relationship, etc. are deposited in the Scriptures to prove and point to the fact that biblical history transcends these sub-themes. The history itself should be the determining factor since all of history is detailed in the Scriptures. In other words, the history itself transcends the depositing of Scripture; therefore, the center of Scripture must be the center of the Depositor; for, even God’s existence before time is contained in the Scriptures.

    Furthermore, maybe pre-Fall creation and eternity past are not detailed much in the Scriptures because they have nothing to do with us today or the biblical writers? We don’t need to know the details; we merely must understand that they are part of biblical history. If they are part of biblical history, then they must “serve to exposit” the center of biblical theology. We have enough information concerning eternity past deposited in Scripture to develop a theme; and this theme is found throughout Scripture: God’s Trinitarian holiness and love.

    I don’t think that all of biblical history serves to exposit Hamilton’s center; however, I am very much open to correction. In other words, I’m not completely convinced by my purported center either at this point.

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

  5. Hi, Jared, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think that your comments could benefit from revisiting what Biblical theology is. The term itself can be difficult to define, but in general Biblical theology is about studying the history of God’s progressive revelation to man in the literature of Scripture. When Hamilton speaks of the center of Biblical theology, he is talking about coming to terms with the actual texts of the Bible. At the end of the day, Biblical theology analyzes a given book of the Bible, outlines it, traces the authors arguments, and comes to terms with what an author is trying to do, while placing it within a diachronic context. When one comes to terms with the authors of the Bible, many themes, ideas, and intentions are revealed. However, when I do so, I don’t see any Biblical author concerned with the subjects you mention. I think Hamilton is correct to posit that the concerns you mention “are not things that the Bible gives a great deal of attention to.” Perhaps if you approached your questions from a systematic theology standpoint, your concerns would have more weight.

  6. John,
    I appreciate your comment. I understand the argument; but, I take biblical theology one step further to also emphasize the Authorial intent of God that undergirds the authorial intent of the human authors. I think I’m still in the realm of biblical theology, since I am still concerned with the chronoligical deposit of history as revealed in Scripture; but also as revealed in history. My goal is still progressive revelation: both how the Scriptures detailed the history and also how that history existed.

    Do you think that I’m still in the realm of biblical theology? Can the center of biblical history be different than the center of biblical theology?

    BTW: Love your artwork! God has definitely given you a talent there.

  7. Thanks, Jared🙂

    I am really not sure how I would even delineate Biblical theology, nor am I a Biblical theologian by any stretch. I would only say that as we read and outline and come to terms with Scripture, ideas like God’s trinitarian relationship prior to the fall are not given much space, thought, or development. I think if we move over to the other side (systematic theology) we see that trinity is kind of a hot topic right now. I think some of your ideas might serve better as a bridge for thought on how ST and BT inform each other. Just my 2 cents.

  8. Dustin

    Thank you for the interaction Jared and for helping think through some of these issues. I would have to agree with John and even go a step further and say the way you are answering your questions is from more of a systematic theology (ST) method than biblical theology (BT).
    First, even though you state you are approaching it from the chronological depostit of history, it seems from the sampling of what you’ve stated that you are not doing this in your exegesis, and thus are not doing biblical theology. For example, your propsal that since sinless creation (past and future) and God’s prefall Trinitarian relationship are of great importance and should factor more in finding a center appears to be based more on a synthesis of the whole Bible (ST). If you were to try and prove your center, how would you demonstrate it at specific chronological intervals in the OT based upon the revelation given to them up to their time? Or, as John stated, where would you go to see biblical authors demonstrating concern and highlighting the areas you’ve brought up in your previous comments?
    Second, and this is admittedly a tough area, you mention moving past the human author’s intent to get to the divine source, but when doing biblical theology these are one and the same? Even if one holds to sensus plenior and the idea of their being “another layer of meaning” God intended which is explained in later revelation, here again this is not the realm of biblical theology. God’s intent is tied to the human’s author’s intent, and we do exegesis that is biblical-theological by considering what the author knows and what revelation he is following on. Consider this quote by John Murray on how we do biblical-theology.
    “If biblical theology deals with the history of revelation it must follow the progression which this history dictates. This is to say it must study the data of revelation given in each period in terms of the state to which God’s self-revelation progressed at that particular time. To be concrete, we may not import into one period the data of revelation which belong to a later period. When we do this we violate the conditions which define the distinctiveness of this study [biblical theology] (“Systematic Theology” in Collected Writings, vol 4, 18-19).
    I personally find that to be very helpful. If you want to do ST (or at least a version of ST) than all revelation is on a level plane and can be brought to bear on a topic. However, if we’re doing BT than our understanding of what a text means is tied to the human author’s understanding, which is based on what he knows from revelation (in deed and word) at that specific point in history. I could be misreading you but it seems your emphases fall more in line with looking at things from a ST approach than a BT approach.

    I would like to be able to answer your questions about “the detailing of history” and “actual history” but I must admit I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t see a dichotomy between what happened in history and the way it’s described in Scripture, other than in Scripture we’re also given an interpretation of the history. In BT we deal with the historic deposits in Scripture and not with what may have happened in “time-history” which the authors do not exposit. For example, it may be that that later biblical authors deal with significant events prior to the fall and even provide explanations of them, but because Genesis itself does not provide this if we’re doing a BT of the Torah we would not import that revelation. Thus, if that is what you mean by a center dealing with actual history as opposed to biblical history, then it again seems your attempt to find a center is not via the method of BT.

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