An Approach to Biblical Theology

The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology

Matthew W.I. Dunn

THE WAYS OF OUR GOD: AN APPROACH TO BIBLICAL THEOLOGY. By Charles H. H. Scobie. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. Pp. xvii + 1038. Paper, $45.00.

The massiveness of Scobie’s book–over a thousand pages–is due to its unusually long delay in coming out: though he always wanted to write it, it was not until he had retired in 1998 (Mt. Alison University) that he was able to compose this, his magnum opus on biblical theology (pp. x-xi). Scobie admits that as one trained in the theories and techniques of the world of academic biblical scholarship, he has often felt its acute tension with the world of the Christian community which he has served. Although biblical studies and dogmatic theology went their separate ways a long time ago, he writes, preachers were still left with the task of explaining every week to their congregations how the readings of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures were connected (pp. ix-x). Hence, there was still the practical (if not, the theoretical) necessity for developing some kind of biblical theology” uniting the testaments for Scobie and his community.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, shorter part of the book, Scobie offers a brief, but interesting, “sketch” of the history of biblical interpretation, insisting that a biblical biblical theology should have as its subject matter the canonical scriptures of the church; biblical theology is canonical theology (p. 49). It is apparent that Scobie is heavily indebted to the work of Brevard Childs and the interpretive approach of canonical criticism. The author insists that every effort has been made to let the canonical text of the Bible speak for itself (pp. xiii-iv); Scobie’s ultimate success at doing that is evident on almost every page.

Scobie dedicates the rest of the first part of this book to describing his four-fold pattern for binding the two covenants into a comprehensive theology: proclamation/promise (Hebrew Bible); fulfillment/consummation (New Testament) (pp. 91-93). Additionally, he thinks it wise to identify a limited number of central themes around which associated sub-themes can be grouped and discussed. Thus, he suggests dividing the overarching fourfold pattern of the two testaments according to the biblical themes of God’s Order, God’s Servant, God’s People, and God’s Way (cf. pp. 94-99). Each theme is traced through the Hebrew scriptures as a proclamation of what God has done in Israel, while including a correlative promise of what God will do for his people. Then, Scobie follows the matter through its fulfillment in the New Testament to its final consummation in the triumph of God at the end of time. Additionally, he appends a concluding section where he offers his own (usually, fruitful) theological reflections.

The second part of the book (pp. 105-927) is concerned with applying Scobie’s four-fold model for a biblical theology. While by no means doing full justice to Scobie’s detailed work, it might still be helpful here to look at some characteristic examples.

Under the main theme of “God’s Way” Scobie examines the sub-theme of loving one’s neighbor. After having traced the sub-theme’s development through Proclamation and Promise, he addresses its Fulfillment in the New Testament, organizing his approach according to the schema of individual, family, society, state, and nation. More specifically, under love of neighbor within the context of family, Scobie covers adultery, fornication, prostitution, and homosexuality (see pp. 833-58). He even has the stamina to include a brief section on celibacy (pp. 838-39). In his discussion of the title “son of man,” under the main theme of “God’s Servant” (pp. 335-64), Scobie outlines how the title translates a Hebrew or Aramaic phrase which has various usages throughout the Bible for both human beings and angels (pp. 337-39). While employing all human beings in his plan, God especially brings his message of judgment and salvation through special “sons of men,” like the prophets (p. 339). The allusion to “one like a son of man” in Daniel 7 is presented as part of God’s Promise that he will establish a new order through that personage. Scobie notes correctly that the phrase is used collectively in Daniel of all God’s faithful people, and not of a specific individual per se (pp. 339-40; cf. p. 122). Nevertheless, somewhere in the tide’s history it became connected with one human being in particular, viz., an apocalyptic figure through whom God would establish a new world order. This person would be the ideal human being, like Adam and Eve in their innocence (pp. 343-44; see also pp. 340-41). Of course, for Scobie the Fulfillment of this title is Jesus of Nazareth. He comes as the Second Adam, the ideal human being, who as the Exalted One will usher in a renewed humanity. Though Jesus was an individual, Scobie argues that Jesus also represented what the people of Israel were intended to be, and thus preserved the originally collective nuance of the phrase (pp. 351-52). But, that is not the end for Christian believers: the Consummation of the title will come about when Jesus, the “son of man” of the new covenant, will return personally at the end of time, destroy the forces of evil, and establish God’s reign (p. 359).

Now for the requisite disagreements. I had difficulty accepting Scobie’s reasoning for not including the deuterocanonical books as a legitimate part of the canon (pp. 60-65). Especially since those books have been accepted as part of the final and canonical form of Christian scripture by the greatest number of believers, for the longest period of time, his decision seemed inconsistent with his Stated emphasis on the role of the community in recognizing which books should be read as scripture (cf. pp. 40-42). Scobie’s statement that the Christian church has “never” been able to agree on whether to use the longer or shorter canon of the Hebrew scriptures is highly debatable in my view (p. 61). Further, his position becomes even more paradoxical when he confesses that the Hebrew Bible authors knew and used the deuterocanonicals extensively (pp. 63-64; 71-72). But, his explanation that they did not accept the apocrypha as scripture, but only alluded to them insofar as they agreed with their views, is not based on any evidence that Scobie produces. Still, he is an honest scholar, and uses the deuterocanonicals whenever they shed light on a point, which is often.

Further, though Scobie argues for an ecumenical approach to biblical theology which is “unblinkered” by confessional leanings (pp. 77-79), this is not always the case in his writing. For example, his contention that it is only an assumption that the eucharist was a regular part of the early church’s worship service, and that there was probably a separate service of prayer and scripture reading as well (p. 601), sounds more like special pleading for his own denomination’s liturgical practice than his own reading of the Bible or the writings of the apostolic fathers (like Justin Martyr). Finally, two minor points: I would have appreciated a scripture index, which this book does not have. Also, though an outline of Scobie’s biblical theology is presented at the end of the book (pp. 928-48), it is not very enlightening.

I warmly recommend Scobie’s work as an extremely useful resource for clergy and lay educators, who should not be scared off by its bulk. It is a tribute to Scobie’s intellect and years of study that he is able to acknowledge, rehearse, (re)appraise, and otherwise juggle a great bulk of material on both testaments of scripture, while also offering his own theological reflections based on years of preaching. Any clergyperson or teacher of religious education will find this book invaluable for its clear management of a wealth of nuanced information on just about any topic imaginable. From holy war (pp. 824-25) to the tide “rabbi” (p. 620), from the divinity of Christ (p. 395) to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (pp. 279-80), from the characteristics of Torah (pp. 750-51) to church councils (p. 640), Scobie provides a worthy example of scholarly biblical-theological reflection.

Matthew W. I. Dunn

University of Saint Michael’s College, Toronto, ON

COPYRIGHT 2005 Biblical Theology Bulletin, Inc

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group