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The Limits of Biblical Theology

One of the advantages, or disadvantages as the case may be, of being a biblical theologian, in which my phenomenological (i.e. believer’s) approach to the text within a historical grammatical and literary context through inductive method holds sway, is that I am excused within my heart from having to make sure judgments about the external realities of many of the things recorded within those texts. Inquiring minds want to know many things that the text just cannot tell them, because it was not written to answer our curiosities.

Let me illustrate. Since my primary function is to understand what the author of the text was attempting to communicate to his original readers, I am less inclined than some to feel the need to draw hard and fast conclusions about whether there was a global flood, so much as to whether or not the text of Genesis 6-8 preaches a global flood. Given that the word we translate Earth had at the time many meanings, none of which were globe, we cannot expect to find within these words an absolute guarantee that the text teaches a global flood. The passage of the story from eyewitness account to us through whatever process leaves the possibility open to the idea that a region of the world was flooded which accomplished God’s goals in sending it. The water flooded all the land, as far as the eye could see, for as far as the ark floated; it topped certain mountains, all those visible to the witnesses, eventually allowing the ark to lodge on one of them. We do not know, however, where the ark began its journey, nor for certain where it landed. What we do know is the theological significance of the story within the context of Genesis 1-11.

Keep in mind that this is not a conclusion about the legitimacy of a global flood vs. a regional flood vs. mythological flood; it is an honest recognition of potentials within an ancient text. Given the textual options, the answer to the question, “Was there a global flood?” will not ultimately be found within the text but, rather, in our own scientific investigations of the world… assuming one can find those skilled enough and honest enough to do the work.

I am also less inclined to draw iron clad battlements between myself and others over a demand for a belief in a literal 6 day creation. It is my job to attempt to determine whether the author intends to make such claims in the terms that we, so far removed from his world, often assume “him” to mean. Ancient near eastern interests in functional ontology[1] (how the world was made to work and how we can work better in it) as opposed to modern interests in material ontology (exact processes and timing by which the material world came into being) leaves some doubt as to the ancient author’s intentions. The grammar of Genesis 1:1-3 leaves doubt as to the beginning point of the story, be it before or after the creation of the formless and void earth. The importance of the seven day pattern in the ancient world in relation to sacred establishments of divine rule within temples lays out the potential for a metaphorical pattern by which we are given a declaration of the relationship between God and his creation.[2]  The connection of the paradigm  to other ancient near eastern myths and the obvious structural device in which the substance of days 1, 2 & 3 correspond to the content of days 4, 5 & 6 leaves the intention of the six day pattern open to yet deeper metaphorical significance as statements of function.[3] Then we have the radical shift in perspective from Genesis 1 to Genesis 2 provoking some funky attempts by many to iron out the seemingly contradictory elements within them. This struggle often shifts the focal point of inspiration for modern readers away from the text, to the event that stands behind the text, forcing the text to answer questions it just wasn’t written to address.

This is not me trying to side with evolutionists… because I don’t. This is not me making choices about young earth vs. old earth… because I am unsettled… with strong youngish earth leanings.

This is me, as a biblical theologian recognizing the distinction between what the text does and does not establish with certainty. This is me, as a biblical theologian recognizing that some of our modern issues will have to be settled in other arenas… and I am not blind to the questionable attachment of “Science” to much of what is done in origin studies.

This is me begging believers to be open and sensible with each other rather than paranoid and vicious minded against anyone who seeks open investigations of things that 3000-4000 year old texts leave open to question. This is me declaring the primary goal of the biblical theologian to be an interpretation of the text and not to use the text to figure out every detail of the events that provoked the text, and not to use the text to sate our own modern curiosities.


[1] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. Baker, 2006
[2] G. K. Beale We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. InterVarsity Press, 2008.
[3] Richard Averbeck, “The Three ‘Daughters’ of Baal and Transformations of Chaoskampf in the Early Chapters of Genesis”  Chaoskampf in the Bible and the Ancient Near East. “A Literary Day, Inter-Textual, and Contextual Readings of Genesis 1 and 2”   Five Views on Genesis 1 and 2.
[4] Media pic is from sxc.hu

4 thoughts on “The Limits of Biblical Theology

  1. Evelyn says:

    Isn`t this what faith is all about, not having concrete answers, but believing that God did what he said He did. We all want answers, but will never get the full meaning of anything until we see God face to face, then we will know everything. Fighting over trivial things never solved anything, and hopefully churches will quit fighting over what they believe that someone else sees differently.

    1. I am trying untangle your comment. So, 1. Yes, faith means believing without proof. 2. Our faith only comes into play when we really understand what Scripture says. Does the text declare a world-wide flood? If so, I’m there. Does the Bible teach 6 literal days of creation? If so, again, I’m there. Only when I KNOW what the text declares does a faith response come in. God created man with a purpose. I’m there. God made man in his image, and this image-bearer status is the foundation of all law. I’m there. 3. I agree fighting over the dotting of every I and the crossing of every T gets tiresome… debate, discussion… yes. constant rage, strife and condemnation… they can keep it.

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