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The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective
by james barr
fortress, 715 pages, $40

Formerly the Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford and now the Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible Emeritus at Vanderbilt Divinity School, James Barr is surely one of the leading biblical scholars of the twentieth century. His early work concentrated on linguistic issues, applying sophisticated notions of semantics to biblical Hebrew and the operations that biblical scholars perform, often naively, on the text. In more recent years, Professor Barr has increasingly devoted his capacious learning and his formidable powers of analysis to matters of biblical theology, where he has once again found himself in spirited opposition to some major trends. In his new book, he attempts to pull together the scattered corpus of his work in this field and to make a further and more systematic statement of his own position.

Although the cover and title page of The Concept of Biblical Theology put the first three words of the title in a smaller font than the last two, the volume devotes almost no discussion to the theology of the Bible itself. Instead, it focuses on the definition of the field of biblical theology and on an evaluation of the methods of its major practitioners (and some minor ones), all at great distance from the primary sources themselves. This gives the reader a sense of an elaborate, even labyrinthine prolegomenon to a discussion that never arrives.

Barr writes that “‘biblical theology’ has clarity only when it is understood to mean theology as it existed or was thought or believed within the time, languages, and culture of the Bible itself.” This definition enormously complicates the task of including both testaments of the Christian Bible within the same theology, so much so, in Barr’s view, that he has doubts about the possibility of there ever being one “pan-biblical theology,” to use his unfortunate neologism. He clarifies his rather vague definition of the field by contrasting biblical theology with five other modes of study: doctrinal theology, nontheological biblical studies, history of religion, philosophical and natural theology, and “the interpretation of parts of the Bible as distinct from the longer complexes taken as wholes.” In addition, Barr regards as characteristic of the field an ambivalence about whether it is descriptive or normative—a characteristic that, as we shall see, deeply afflicts his own book as well.

Barr distinguishes biblical from doctrinal theology by the goal each seeks as well as by the corpus each studies. Biblical theology “seeks to state what the theology of the biblical books, or the theology implied by them, was,” whereas doctrinal theology “lays down what is to be believed.” For this reason, contrary to what most biblical theologians probably think, their work “requires an interest in theology and an empathy with it, but not a personal faith-commitment.” If so, there is room to wonder whether the whole enterprise is not better described as the history of the religious ideas of the Bible rather than as theology at all, and at one point, Barr momentarily defines his subject out of existence, denying that biblical theology really is theology:

Its own self-description as “theology” and its own clearly expressed theological values only make it look all the more like theology when in fact it is not theology at all. The most advanced biblical theologies do not reach as far as the point at which actual theological thinking begins.

Yet he refuses to collapse biblical theology into the history of the religion of Israel, distinguishing the two this way: “‘History of religion’ is concerned with all the forms and aspects of all human religions, while theology tends to be concerned with the truth-claims of one religion and especially with its authoritative texts and traditions and their interpretations.” The relationship of the two disciplines thus “should be one of overlap and mutual enrichment.” An unqualified rejection of Karl Barth’s dichotomy of theology and religion is a leitmotif throughout the book, and Barr has a correspondingly high estimation of the contributions to biblical theology of natural theology and philosophy (though which philosophy is never specified). In fact, he sees the dialectical theology associated with Barth as the greatest distorting force in biblical theology in the twentieth century.

Having discarded as exaggerated the dialectical theologians’ division between theology and the history of religion, Barr is less than convincing in his own efforts to prevent biblical theology from collapsing into the history of Israelite (and early Christian) religion. Barr demands that his biblical theologian restrict himself to describing what the Bible said in the past tense. Like the historian of religion, the biblical theologian ought never set out to update the sense of the Bible, bringing it into the modern world. Its ancient meaning “is its only meaning,” and the development of the ancient meaning, while essential to modern religiousness, lies “beyond the proper scope of biblical theology.” Indeed, because “biblical thought does not easily lead towards traditional orthodoxy,” the biblical theologian willy-nilly often undermines the received tradition. “‘Heretical’ opinions should be welcomed,” Barr explains; “they are signs of the fact that biblical theology is different from doctrinal theology.”

Some Christians do indeed welcome those “‘heretical’ opinions,” because, in their view, they serve to correct doctrine by its proper biblical standard. Not so James Barr, for whom contemporary interpreters (but not biblical theologians) have every right to override unacceptable scriptural teachings. But even this insistence that biblical theology is only descriptive and must confine itself to the question of “what it meant” as opposed to “what it means” mysteriously evaporates on occasion. “It is quite proper for biblical theologians to judge that a particular passage represents a more central, or higher, or more positive contribution than others do,” Barr writes, “and conversely to judge that another passage, or theme, or writer represents an unfortunate turning, a declension or deterioration.”

But on what grounds are such judgments to be made? Surely not on those of doctrinal theology, to whose lights true biblical theology often and appropriately represents heresy, according to Barr. Nor on the grounds of the personal faith of the biblical theologian himself, since he needn’t have any. One has the sense that Barr thinks there is a philosophy somewhere that authorizes these judgments, but what it is and how, if at all, it can be critiqued in turn by biblical truth he again does not say.

All interpretation must take place within a community. By dispensing with the need for “a personal faith-commitment,” Barr casts his lot not with traditional religious communities of interpretation, but that community of interpretation that is the modern pluralistic university. Yet the very concept of a “Bible” implies a delimited canon and a particularistic community, reading according to its own transcendentally based conventions and in accordance with its own identity-conferring structures. That context is, to say the least, in tension with the self-styled universalism of the modern secular academy and its humanistic understanding of the Bible. In point of fact, almost everyone who has defined his field as biblical theology has been a Christian seeking to state and advance the Christian message and to work in the service of the Church. In light of Barr’s problems with these goals, it is no wonder that he occasionally defines the whole field out of existence. The wonder, rather, is that he more often wants to retain the term “biblical theology” for his reconceived discipline.

In this extended discussion of the different twentieth-century figures in biblical theology, Barr demonstrates his encyclopedic command of the field and his quick, logical mind, and in some of his discussions gems of insight are readily to be found. (Though I must say, I don’t always understand his selections. James Sanders, for example, a well-known and respected figure in American biblical studies, receives less than a page, since, Barr explains, “he does not do much to claim that [his work] leads toward an ‘Old Testament theology’ or a ‘biblical theology,’” while David Brown, a British theologian of whom Barr says the same, is the subject of a substantial and highly laudatory chapter.) Never one to pull a punch, Barr exhibits a directness that is sometimes refreshing, as in his characterization of “the sort of liberal/postmodern mixture influential in the so-called ‘liberal’ churches and theological schools, where the gospel is a combination of altruism, egalitarianism, anti-elitism, pluralism, multiculturalism, and political correctness.”

Not infrequently, however, Barr’s sarcasm and his vulnerability to emotional reactions get the better of him. For example, he brands as “rubbish” Francis Watson’s complaint that historical criticism treats “texts as historical artifacts whose meaning is wholly determined by their historical circumstances of origin.” Barr’s riposte—that this does not imply that they “hav[e] no meaning at all beyond their historical circumstances of origin”—serves simply to relativize historical criticism and hardly demonstrates that Watson’s point is “rubbish.” And when Watson observes that “there is no such thing as a pure description of a neutral object,” Barr retorts: “How amazingly original a thought! Who in the hermeneutical discussion has not heard it proclaimed a hundred times?” Perhaps in a field in which scholars strive to differentiate sharply between “what it meant” and “what it means”—even assigning the two questions to different disciplines—the thought needs to be proclaimed a hundred and one times.

My own view is that it makes a great deal of difference which religious tradition a biblical theologian belongs to, so much so that I have argued in print that a common Jewish and Christian Old Testament theology is impossible. Thus, I am not surprised to find myself under attack in Barr’s new book (though at times he also concedes my point). But I was taken aback by his resorting to what Leo Strauss termed the reductio ad Hitlerum. In my book The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies (Westminster/John Knox, 1993), I endorsed a German scholar’s judgment that it is a “fact, derived from the history of religion, that the Old Testament witness is a witness out of a non-Christian religion.” This point, Barr writes, was “characteristic of the former pro-Nazi theologians,” and then he rhetorically asks, “Does Levenson want Christianity to go along that way?” Yet on the very next page of my essay I explain that my goal is to relativize the history of religion approach, denying its preeminence without denying its value within its own domain. I argue that this move will allow Christians and Jews to juxtapose their more traditional modes of interpretation to historical criticism in an intellectually responsible way. Given Barr’s own observation elsewhere in the volume under review that “the theology of the Old Testament is not the same as the theology of the New,” one would have anticipated a more sympathetic and less emotional response to my posing the problem and suggesting a way forward. Apparently, Barr is so committed to the view that the relationship between biblical theology and the history of religion is exclusively one of “overlap and mutual enrichment” that he cannot brook someone’s drawing attention to a point of serious tension between them.

But Barr is harshest on the scholar to whom he refers as “my friend Professor Brevard Childs,” the distinguished Yale Old Testament theologian known for his advocacy and practice of the “canonical method” of biblical interpretation and his sympathies with Barthian theology. Time and again, Barr returns to Childs, almost always critically, devoting two whole chapters and two subsections of another chapter to his work.

Barr’s distaste for Childs’ work is not surprising. Childs is explicit that his labors are in the service of the Christian message (though, like Barr, he is also learned in and deeply respectful of Judaism) and that historical-critical study, though indispensable, can never be an adequate foundation upon which to build a theological affirmation. Some of Barr’s criticisms are quite plausible, such as his point that Childs uses the word “canon” in several discrete and not self-evidently compatible senses.

But Barr vitiates his own potentially formidable case against Childs by continually allowing himself to be diverted from the great hermeneutical issues to attack Childs for this or that comment, some of them mere obiter dicta. For example, in response to Childs’ claim that “feminist positions . . . imply modalism in place of sound trinitarian doctrine,” Barr remarks, “No feminist will find this argument other than laughable.” Even if this unlikely claim be so, how does it answer Childs’ criticism? And what point does James Barr score against the canonical method by telling us (in the text, not the notes) that Childs’ indices are so poor that “the name of Karl Barth (or, indeed, my own) is cited in the text at numerous places which have been overlooked in the index”?

It is odd that a scholar so sympathetic to the history of religion should lack a characteristic absolutely essential to the proper practice of that discipline—the characteristic of empathy for what is strange and foreign and the eagerness to present it as fairly as possible before attacking it. To read Barr on Childs, one would have great difficulty guessing the identity of the perceived weakness in the older liberal theology that accounted for the rise and rapid spread of the dialectical alternative.

Part of the explanation for Barr’s acute distaste for Childs’ work may be biographical. Since Barr tells us he once believed in dialectical theology himself, perhaps his relentless attacks on it, and on Childs as its foremost exemplar in the biblical field, derive from the convert’s scorn for his past orientation. But there is also a larger and more important difference in their respective confessional stances. Whereas Childs is a Presbyterian committed to reformulating the classical Calvinist doctrine of sola scriptura in response to the challenge of historical criticism, Barr’s more modernistic position, as we have seen, awards a much smaller role to the Bible in the ascertainment of truth and a large role to post-biblical tradition, which he often sees as a corrective and an improvement over the Bible. Their differences on matters of biblical theology go back to more fundamental differences of religious identity of which neither scholar seems sufficiently cognizant. Their debates over method are mostly the old religious arguments carried on in a new idiom. One wishes that Barr had addressed this more fundamental point head-on, and without all the captiousness.

In his preface, Barr classifies his enormous new volume “as a sort of textbook,” though conceding that it is too big to serve comfortably in that role. It is also too diffuse, too reactive, and too dyspeptic. Much of it reads like an account of how everyone else has gotten things miserably and inexcusably wrong. The few discussions of figures judged favorably tend to come at the end and are sketchier and less impassioned, reading like outlines for chapters that never quite got finished. Near the close of the book, Barr again seems to despair of his subject and calls for works in the “Christian doctrine of the Old Testament,” since “traditional Old Testament theology . . . has often tried to solve questions which, properly speaking, cannot be solved within the horizon of the Hebrew Bible itself and within the boundaries of its resources” (this last is a very valid point).

But then in the next and penultimate chapter, Barr provides, in a brief outline dominated by quotations, the essentials of David Brown’s thinking, “an ideal example of a type of theology with which I would be very happy for my own work to be associated,” as he terms it in his preface. This is odd not only because Brown does not describe himself as a biblical theologian or a biblical scholar at all, but also because his work, if brought into connection to that field, relates to “pan-biblical theology,” about which Barr had his doubts many pages before. In his telling, the keynote of Brown’s theology is openness to God’s truth wherever it is found—in Enlightenment rationalism, in Judaism, in Islam, in ancient Greek religion and culture, in the Apocrypha and the Septuagint. “Continuing revelation,” as Brown himself puts it, “has now taken us well beyond the canon of Scripture.” The question arises, however, whether this insight can be sustained without succumbing to the weaknesses of the older liberal theology, in which religion tended to be identified with culture at its best, and sound morals and good taste replaced radical obedience to the word of God. If it cannot, then the prognosis for biblical theology in James Barr’s preferred mode is indeed grim.

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School and the author of Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton University Press) and The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (Yale University Press).