Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

31 Jul 2013

Biblical Theology & J. P. Gabler

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If you’ve read anything about the history of the discipline of biblical theology, then you’ve come across the name J. P. Gabler and his now-programmatic lecture “On the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology….” The lecture, his inaugural duty for his professorship in theology at the University of Altdorf (1787), was originally delivered in Latin but has since been translated into English (avail. online here). Earlier this week I had a chance to read the lecture and thought I’d try to sketch here a bit of his argument before offering two concluding reflections.

A Necessary Distinction. Gabler blamed a good bit of the disunity in the church of his time on the dogmaticians. (And all Neutestamentlers said “Amen!”) They weren’t,  of course, the only source of dissension, but they were Gabler’s special target (see, e.g., 134–35). Specifically, Gabler seems to insist that the theologians failed to realize when they were reading dogmatic notions into texts and when they were drawing them out. And it seems Gabler also faults the theologians for not clearly articulating when their differences owed to exegesis and when, more often, they owed to other causes, whether, e.g., to the theologian’s particular agenda or his audience (see 136, 137–38 and 144). After all, Gabler notes, the Bible is essentially clear and, therefore, its occasionally-obscure places cannot themselves be the cause for all the diversity within the Church (see, e.g., 136 and 137). Both disciplines have their place, but for the sake of Christian unity they must be properly-distinguished and rightly-ordered. Biblical theology must provide a separate and, indeed, preliminary step to any dogmatic exercise (see 138, also 144).

A Biblical-Theological Method. Gabler argues, moreover, that to do the sort of biblical theology that would provide the proper basis for dogmatics and, therefore, promote unity, one must carefully do two things (see his “two ways,” 140). First, one must surface the “opinions” of each of the biblical (and apocryphal) authors through careful exegesis (140–41). Second, one must distill the “universal ideas” present in each author, which is to say, those opinions that are common to biblical authors (141–42), and, once distilled, determine which author’s contribution to these “universal ideas” are applicable to contemporary Christianity, using various canons-within-the-canon to do this (i.e., progressive revelation, modern opinion, Jesus’ words; 142–43). Once all this work is completed, the results can be systematically-ordered, which Gabler calls “biblical theology in the stricter sense” (144), and used as the basis for dogmatics.

Reflections. (1) I’m not entirely convinced Gabler’s work is as inductive as he lets on. Thus, e.g., it seems to me that his category of “universal ideas” depends, at least in part, on a handful of a priori conclusions, including the priority of (a) the Bible’s clearer texts (142), (b) NT texts (see, e.g., 139), and, further, (c) texts having something to do with human salvation (143).  While I’m sympathetic with these conclusions, I do think it would have been helpful had he reflected a bit more self-consciously on how one moves inductively from individual corpora to whole-Bible theology, which is to say, from an individual author’s “opinions” to his and the Bible’s “universal ideas.” Much the same, of course, could be said for the way Gabler decides what is and is not applicable for contemporary Christianity, which leads to my second reflection. (2) Gabler’s attention to the applicability of the Bible’s “universal ideas” suggests that biblical theology, at least as Gabler conceived it, was not a purely descriptive enterprise. For Gabler and, therefore, in contrast to quite a few who’ve followed in his wake, Scripture was not only essentially unified, it was also authoritative.