Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes

Written by James K. Mead Reviewed By Jay Sklar

The purpose of this book is not to develop or present a biblical theology in particular, but to orient the reader to the field of biblical theology in general. To that end, it addresses five main topics that make up the first five chapters of the book.

Chapter one discusses the challenges of defining biblical theology in the first place. According to Mead, this a challenge “because the language of definitions lacks clarity, because we ourselves approach the task with a wide range of experiences and understandings, and because biblical scholars disagree over the precise nature, scope, and purpose of theological interpretation” (p. 3). Despite these challenges, Mead does offer a working definition of biblical theology: “Biblical theology seeks to identify and understand the Bible’s theological message, that is, what the Bible says about God and God’s relation to all creation, especially to humankind” (p. 2).

With this provisional definition in hand, Mead turns in the second chapter, “The History of Biblical Theology,” to provide the historical backdrop to the discussion. He does this by asking a series of questions, in chronological order, that give an overview of biblical theology’s development (p. 14):

  1. What kind of biblical theology existed before the disciplines of that name arose?
  2. Under what circumstances did the discipline of biblical theology develop?
  3. Why did the division in the treatment of the testaments occur?
  4. What intellectual movements influenced the methods of nineteenth century biblical theology?
  5. What is the difference between the history of religions and biblical theology?
  6. Why is the middle of the twentieth century thought of as a great age of biblical theology?
  7. What new developments arose in the closing decades of the twentieth century?

In the third chapter, “The Issues Raised in Biblical Theology,” Mead addresses eight different key issues that come up when discussing biblical theology. These are helpfully grouped under three larger umbrellas: issues related to the scope of biblical theology (such as the relationship of the Old and New Testaments); issues related to the methods of biblical theology (such as the relationship of history and theology); and issues related to influences on biblical theology (such as modern and postmodern influences).

Mead switches to the related area of methodology in the fourth chapter, “The Methods Used in Biblical Theology.” Nine different methodologies are discussed here, again helpfully grouped into three categories: those that focus on content (such as systematic or doctrinal approaches), shape (such as the tradition history approach), and perspective (such as existential or experiential approaches).

In the last major chapter, “The Themes Developed through Biblical Theology,” Mead turns his attention to various biblical themes. Once more, these are grouped into three areas: the God attested in biblical theology; living in relationship with God; and living in relationship with human beings (p. 171). This chapter has a different feel to the ones that preceded it. Chapters 2–4 focused more on presenting the major figures in biblical theology and the contribution that they made. In this chapter Mead is not simply describing the approaches of others; he is laying out his own understanding of the various themes that are most central to biblical theology itself.

The book concludes with a brief chapter (7 pp.) that considers various prospects related to each of the five main topics discussed above.

Positively, Mead demonstrates a very thorough knowledge of the field of biblical theology. His book is an impressive summary of multitudes of the most central figures in the history of the discipline. In further keeping with his stated goals (p. vii), he also presents these figures and their views with fairness and objectivity. As a result of these factors, the book has the potential to orient readers well to the field of biblical theology.

The book’s comprehensive scope, however, is also a potential weakness, for the simple reason that some chapters (particularly 2–4) are so rich in details that beginning students might have a difficult time grasping the forest for the trees. To his credit, Mead compensates for this as best as possible with clear section headings and helpful groupings where possible, but spending more time on fewer authors might have made this book even more accessible to novices in the field.

Ironically, another possible weakness of the book is the definition of biblical theology itself (see above). Positively, Mead’s definition allows for—even assumes—a level of continuity in the text. Negatively, it is so broad that it is not clear how biblical theology differs from other disciplines, most notably, systematic theology. Granted, Mead will discuss the differences between biblical theology and systematic theology elsewhere (e.g., pp. 95ff.), but the lack of contrast early on prevents a level of sharpness (or perhaps a “narrowness” he is trying to avoid?) that many would find helpful.

In sum, this is a very comprehensive introduction to the field of biblical theology. At the least, this book would serve as a helpful resource for the student (or teacher!) who wants to quickly place an individual biblical theologian in historical and methodological context. At the most, this book could serve to introduce a student to the field of biblical theology as a whole, though the student would probably need a fairly thorough background in biblical studies for the book to achieve this goal well.

Jay Sklar

Covenant Theological Seminary

St. Louis, Missouri, USA

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