Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Best Definition of Biblical Theology I've Found

Over the past several decades, there has been a great deal of debate about the definition (or even possibility) of doing biblical theology (as distinct from, say, historical-critical exegesis). I'm currently working up a class on the biblical theology of St. Paul, and was reading through the French Jesuit Ferdinand Prat's 1000 page, 2 volume Theology of St. Paul (London: Burnes, Oates, and Washburne, 1926).

This work--yet another Catholic magnum opus that has fallen into undeserved oblivion (although James Dunn mentions Prat favorably, he never intereacts with him even once)--opens with an interesting definition of biblical theology that distinguishes it both from exegesis , positive theology (by which he means what we would call "historical theology") and scholastic theology (by which he means what we would refer to as "dogmatic theology" or "systematic theology").

I'm curious as to what you think biblical theology is (or should be). Here's Prat's take on the matter, in what I consider to be one of the best definitions of biblical theology I've found:

"In the most general meaning of the term, theology is the science of revealed religion. It is called positive theology when it undertakes to make an inventory of dogma, the historical development of which it does not hesitate to trace.

If, after setting forth in order the elements of revelation, it enriches this material with rational conclusions, in order to make of it a vast, harmonious structure, all of whose parts unit and support one another, it is scholastic theology.

Biblical theology is only a section of positive theology. Of the two sources of revealed truth--Scripture and Tradition--it draws from the first only. Its duty is to collect the results of exegesis, to bring them together for comparison, to assign them their place in the history of revelation, the upward progress of which it endeavors to follow, and finally to furnish thus to scholastic theology a sure foundation and thoroughly prepared materials. In a word, biblical theology is the fruit of exegesis and the germ of scholastic theology.

But it is not itself either scholastic theology or exegesis. Exegesis stuies particular texts, but does not trouble itself overmuch about their mutual relations. Its method is that of analysis. Biblical theology adds to analysis synthesis, for it must verify the results of the exegesis which has preceded it, before employing them to reconstruct a system, or, rather, a line of thought. Its characteristic is synthesis. Scholastic theology, on the other hand, is only the putting into form, by the reason, of the facts acquired by positive theology. Without the foundation thus laid, it would have nothing to stand on. Biblical theology must precede it and enlighten it, but must also take good care not to encroach upon its aim or to borrow its method., which is usually that of deduction.

We may say, therefore, that biblical theology ends where scholastic theology begins, and begins where exegesis finishes." (Prat, Theology of Saint Paul, 1.1 [emphasis altered]).

What do you think? Is this the right picture? Or is something missing here?


Unknown said...

Hmmm....I would want to say that Biblical Theology does not end where scholastic theology begins. That seems too narrow. For me there is an overlap. The Fathers of the Church are the prime example of Biblical Theology. They didn't separate exegesis, dogmatic, systematic, etc. Rather their theology was an integrated whole, the way theology should be done. All theology should be biblical and all biblical studies should be theological. It is not just using the Bible while doing theology, but I think rather the Bible permeating the very essence of how one theologizes. That's exactly what the Fathers did and unfortunately most don't do today.

That's my two cents anyways. It seems that Prat has a very limited view of what Biblical theology is.

D. Timothy Goering said...

in a sense this defintion reminds of Gabler's famous defintion, in that Prat anticipates a division of biblical theology from dogmatic theology. This division seems to impossible in theory. I will forever inevitablly carry around my own dogmatic categories whenever I read any text - especially the Bible (this is obviously Gadamer right there for you). So from the outset Prat strives for the impossible.

What I find amazingly impressing, nonetheless, is Prat's use of 'synthesis'. "Biblical theology adds to analysis synthesis, for it must verify the results of the exegesis which has preceded it, before employing them to reconstruct a system, or, rather, a line of thought." Great! This is a wonderful way of putting it, although in my eyes he fails to add an important element - the canon. The canon can function as a kind of regula fidei (Irenaeus) in the sense that it can establish a framework of interpretation (Childs).

Great stuff - looking forward to more now that I stumbled across this blog.

Brant Pitre said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

I agree with every word you said about "Theology" as a whole. There's no doubt that the fragmentation of the discipline has been destructive, and that Vatican II expressly declared that "the study of the sacred page should be the soul of sacred Theology" (DV 24). All theology should certainly be biblical and biblical studies should (alas!) be theological.

However, I guess I'm still wondering if there is any place in Catholic studies for a distinctively biblical theology--one that focuses its efforts primarily on the word of God as contained in Sacred Scripture, such as Prat does. Or is this more of a Protestant way of doing things? (echoes of Sola Scriptura)

In Prat's defense, his definition of THEOLOGY as a whole is not limited at all: "the science of revealed religion." I guess the question is whether there is any place for subdisciplines within Theology and for focusing on one source of Theology, whether Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition.

Thanks for the two cents.


Welcome to the blog. You send shivers down my spine by alluding to Gabler. He's done more damage than most to the discipline of theology, in my opinion.

However, again in Prat's defense, I don't see him expressing a "division" between biblical and scholastic theology so much as a DISTINCTION of both object and method. But I'll think about it...
In any case, you've tagged the very aspect of his definition that I thought interesting as well: his emphasis on synthesis. This is what has been so lacking in biblical studies during the twentieth century. Everything deconstructed, nothing reconstructed... Or at least, when reconstructed, done in avery unconvincing way.

Thanks for your thoughts on this important issue.

Paul Cat said...

So, what were people doing before theology?

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, sounds very Barthian. I'd have to look it up (it's somewhere in CD I.1 or CD I.2) but I think Barth provides the same focus on revelation and almost exactly the same definition of biblical theology -- although perhaps he would rephrase things to say that biblical theology is the fruit of exegesis and the germ of proclamation.

Grace and peace.

Leroy and Kari Huizenga said...


In reading this, I'm hearing a lot of formal echoes of Gabler and Stendahl, the classic distinction between 'meant' and 'means', the process in which biblical scholars simply hand descriptive exegetical results to systematic theologians for use in their normative systems. It's these sorts of things that my neo-orthodox and postliberal mentors are desperately trying to overcome.

I would certainly agree with your sentiment that there's a lot of good Catholic stuff out there that gets overlooked in the history of the discipline because the keepers of that history are largely protestant. It's also interesting that Catholic scholars get recognized and accepted by the academy precisely when they are most modern, most Protestant (e.g., Ray Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer). It'd be interesting to write a book examining the history of Catholic biblical scholarship, retrieving scholars and works that have been neglected.

Unknown said...

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