Bibliolatry or Biblical Theology?

A number of the essays brought together in B. B. Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of  Scripture contain meticulous analyses of different items pertinent to the Bible’s take on the Bible  (in one of them he spends a fair amount of time on what to make of verbs without a named subject  [e.g. legei] in the New Testament introducing a reference to the Old Testament, for example).  In  ‘The Biblical Idea of Inspiration’, he canvasses some of the Old Testament texts which were not  records of divine speech but are in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 1:16; Heb. 3:7) introduced with a  ‘God says’ or the like as well as some of the Old Testament texts which were records of divine  speech but are in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 9:17; Gal. 3:8) introduced with a ‘Scripture says’ or  the like.  He comments,

They indicate a certain confusion in current speech between ‘Scripture’ and ‘God’, the outgrowth of a deep-seated conviction that the word of Scripture is the word of God.  It was not ‘Scripture’ that spoke to Pharaoh or gave this promise to Abraham, but God.  But ‘Scripture’ and ‘God’ lay so close together in the minds of the writers of the New Testament that they could naturally speak of ‘Scripture’ doing what Scripture records God as doing.  It was, however, even more natural to them to speak casually of God saying what the Scriptures say….The words put into God’s mouth in each case are not words of God recorded in the Scriptures, but just the Scripture words themselves.  When we take the two classes of passages together…we may perceive how close the identification of the two was in the minds of the writers of the New Testament (‘The Biblical Idea of Inspiration’, in The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p. 148).

If Warfield is in the right, then it seems certain accusations of bibliolatry should give way to affirmations of the presence of biblical theology vis-a-vis the Bible itself.  Is this argument too simplistic post-Barth?  Does the bibliology of Barth and staunch Barthians in hesitating straightforwardly to identify Scripture as the word of God run aground on the Bible’s (explicit and implicit) testimony concerning itself?  Thoughts?

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15 thoughts on “Bibliolatry or Biblical Theology?

  1. Normally all of scripture is thought by most ordinary people to be the word of God. However, it is sometimes thought by some scholar,s that scriptural passages prefaced with “God said” and so forth – the “red letters” of the Bible – carry particular weight and certainty. Or have a particular character.

    Would this imply that some passages lacking that very direct attribution, be less certain therefore? And could Barth or others fasten on that, to arrange the statements in the Bible, into a hierarchy of relative certainty, or not? And derive a theology of say, “God” himself, as versus … statements by others about him?

    Certainly many of the German theologians around Barth were doing that. (As does the Jesus Seminar today?)

    Before we condemn this approach – supposed we consider the possibility that the Bible itself might have allowed some similar distinction.An interesting case in point, would be the three or four friends of Job.

    When Job complains that he is a good person, who follows God, and yet he is suffering? That God is not giving him all the good things, that God promised, to those who followed him? At this point, three or four friends of Job offer Midrash-style apologetics arguments, to explain what Job should do, or think. Interestingly? Though these are words in the Bible … eventually God himself appears in the end of Job … and tells us that at least “two” or “three” (?) of the friends of Job, “have not spoken rightly” or well, as compared to Job.

    So there does seem to be some provision – in fact a number of narrative and linguistic mechanisms – for marking statements as more or less authoritative, in the Bible itself. For marking statements a being more – or less -from God.

    So that indeed, it might be possible to come up with a theology of “God” – as opposed to the theology of the Bible, or of bibliolatry. And in fact, there are some scholarly attempts to do that out there.

    How far can we take this? That’s an interesting question.

    In any case (relating to Kyle’s remarks elsewhere?), it would appear that there is a sort of God “himself” in the Bible; who is somewhat different from scripture. And who carries particular theological weight. While any attempt to simply end-run this God, with a theological construct therefore – might indeed run into problems. An excessively non-biblical approach … might be impossible to defend, in everyday sermons. But even in more elevated discussion.

    It seems that the Bible itself as we have it today, in modern translation, is fairly sophisticated on the concept of “God”; and even makes some provisions for differentiating “Scripture” in general, from a theology specifically, of God “himself” so to speak.

    Regarding attempts to ignore that? Or to assume that the Bible itself did not specify enough here – and to suggest that therefore, theology might simply frame its own independent definition of God? Such attempts seem to run into some notable problems.

  2. Steve,

    You should check out John Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. He provides a good constructive usage of Barth, but goes beyond Barth (more trad.) by placing the ontology of scripture into the realm of soteriology and the economy of God’s grace vs. the usual Reformed epistemological category that usually is present in these discussions.

    Maybe you have read Webster (it’s short only 137pgs).

    • Hey Bobby,

      Thanks for bringing up Webster here. I have read Holy Scripture and thought there were some really valuable insights in it. Among other things, I appreciate his emphasis on the church being responsive to the canon instead of actively concocting the canon.

      I’m wondering what you mean by ‘the Reformed epistemological category’. The danger of treating the doctrine of Scripture as the epistemological starting point for theology without allowing other doctrines to shape and enrich its content?

      • Steve,

        I mean the place that Webster spoke of the ontology of scripture from; from within the economy of grace, namely in the realm of sanctification. Contra the normal reformed principal of seeing scripture as the epistemological foundation (contra Jesus). So I’m highlighting the difference between Webster’s constructive (“Barthian”) proposal vs. the typical Reformed way of understanding the place of scripture. And I find Webster’s approach to be much more fruitful.

        • Bobby,

          I think that’s an important point to work through. As I said, I really appreciate Webster on Scripture, but I’m not sure I would want to oppose locating Scripture within the economy of grace and conceiving of it as the epistemological foundation for theology. Both seem vitally important to me. Scripture arises from God’s desire to reveal himself to us and to bring about our salvation. Yet, because of the ascension, we don’t have access to Christ except as he is presented to us in Scripture, which seems to imply that Scripture is the starting point for the knowledge of God, even if Christ himself is actually the decisive locus of God’s revelation.

          • Steve,

            And yet, this seems precisely to be what Webster is after; i.e. in providing a dogmatically thick ontology of scripture that seeks to eschew the usual trad understanding. I don’t think Webster is challenging the idea of Scripture’s role in providing epistemological resource, but instead that his dogmatic relocation acknowledges the role that an order of being should have on an order of knowing. And I think it is at this juncture that Webster provides a very fruitful, constructive move in construing an ontology of scripture that the trad approach does not.

            • Bobby,

              I would agree that it’s important to consider Scripture in the order of being even as it serves as the source for our knowledge of God. I brought up the importance of Scripture as the epistemic starting point primarily because it sounded to me like you were setting up an either/or between that and a dogmatically-informed ontology of Scripture.

              • Steve,

                No, I don’t see an either/or; but wouldn’t you say that post-Reformed orthodox folk have an imbalance here, and that in fact there is an either/or — or maybe more accurate, an “only?” I mean there seems to be little attention paid to the points that Webster highlights; and emphasis is given to the fact that Scripture is our epistemic ground (w/o providing a thick account of Scripture’s ontology in the economy of grace) by the post-Reformed. The post-Reformed seem to abstract Scripture from a soteriological framework, and see Scripture through a purely intellectualist approach.

                • Bobby,

                  I’m open to recognizing some holes that should be filled in by the kind of work that Webster is doing. I would add (in part just to express where I’m coming from) that I’m not as down on Reformed orthodoxy as others can be (a psychological study might reveal that my liability to OCD tendencies sets me up to delight in fine distinctions and clarifications :). Even if the Reformed scholastics didn’t achieve the kind of thing that Webster has outlined, they do talk about Scripture in relation to the economy when, for example, they talk about its perspicuity and emphasize that it’s meant to make us wise unto salvation and doesn’t depend for its efficacy on our understanding every detail of the whole Bible. Having said that, yes, let’s still see more books like Webster’s because we’ll benefit tremendously from them!

                • Steve,

                  Well, just so you know; I read your mini-bio here at the blog, I noticed that quote from Turrettini . . . I’m onto you, Duby ;-) !

                • Haha, busted on the Turretin quote. (For some reason I couldn’t reply in the place where you actually made the comment on that. Kind of weird.)

                • Steve,

                  I should say, I’m realizing that I’m still quite traditional myself; but not scholastic (a mix of Webster, Vanhoozer, TFT and then some old school thrown in for good measure).

  3. Soteriology might have the advantage of presenting good will/love – desire to help/save others – as the foundation of it all.

    And in speaking of a “foundation” for the Church, portions of the Bible did speak of love. So it’s biblical, as far as that goes. Though it would extend beyond biblical limits perhaps.

    So that a person with a “well formed conscience,” being of good will toward others, and desiring to help them … might have a certain authority?

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