The uses of Scripture in recent theology

Written by David H. Kelsey Reviewed By Robert Duncan Culver

This book is an attempt to lay out the ways in which some important workmen producing formal works of theology actually ‘do’ their theology. It is assumed that all Christian theologians worthy of the name explicitly seek scriptural authority for their theological proposals (whether doctrinal or otherwise). The precise connection between Scripture authority (used in a deliberately vague way) and theological formulations is the subject of the book.

The author therefore selects seven theologians, later arranged in three groups, all Protestants of the twentieth century, for case studies in exploring his theme. These theologians are Karl Barth, Hans-Werner Bartsch, Rudolph Bultmann, L. S. Thornton, Paul Tillich, B. B. Warfield and G. E. Wright.

The book is in three parts. In Part I he develops the thesis that in practice there is no accepted common idea, ‘Scripture’; in practice the theologians ‘construe’ Scripture (he means, conceive of its nature and function in relation to theological proposals, never until the end of the book committing himself to any value-judgment about the status of theological proposals) ‘in irreducibly different ways’. He claims his interest is in what they actually have done rather (method) than what they claimed as to methodology.

Having said this much about Mr Kelsey’s stated goal it must be added that in over 200 pages he never overtly makes a theological proposal. Neither does he discuss a single doctrine nor evaluate any man’s conclusions at length, except for some ‘morals’ tentatively proposed at the end.

Warfield construes Scripture not merely as record of revelation but as revelation itself. As revelation it provides the building-blocks of systematic theology, not on the basis of occasional dogmatic statements of Scripture but on the combination of the several theologies (different writers and groups of writers) of Scripture. (Kelsey does not seem to notice that he, himself, goes right on to explicate Warfield’s employment of 2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:19–21 and Jn. 10:34ff. as ‘dogmatic’ texts proving his (Warfield’s) doctrine of plenary, verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture.) Bartsch aims ‘to lay out the distinctive biblical concepts of one thing and another’ in order that they may serve as basis for theological proposals. He assumes Bible-wide unity of notion in these various concepts. These concepts fall into a structure. Author Kelsey significantly places orthodox conservative Warfield and biblical ecumenist Bartsch together in this chapter, entitled ‘Doctrine and Concept’. They form one of his three groups.

Wright and Barth form the second group, ‘Recital and Presence’. Wright discovers the biblical basis for theological assertions in inferences: God is known by what he has done. God’s attributes are inferences drawn from the way he has acted in the whole of the biblical recital of God’s acts in history rather than from any dogmatic statements in Scripture as to his being and essence. The message of each Testament (kēryma) is simple recital of the most basic acts of God. The theologian, in Sherlock Holmes style, ‘finds’ God in history. Barth, on the other hand, in a variety of ways, finds basis for theological affirmations in the Bible. The Bible must be understood as report, narrative, witness of many varieties. Within the narrative we see, for example, the humanity of Jesus, as a history rather than as a nature. To describe Jesus’ humanity, one discusses no general properties of human nature but the history of Man’s acts. It is not difficult to see, on this analysis, why Wright and Barth are grouped together.

The third chapter, ‘Event and Expression’, groups together Thornton, Tillich and Bultmann. In each of these three, as with Wright and Barth, the Bible’s usefulness in theology is mainly (indeed nearly exclusively) as a story of events. But for these three the Bible is not important to theology because it tells a story, but rather because by ‘expressing’ the occurrence of the revealing and saving events in its narrative we readers and auditors are linked with those events. For Thornton these events of Scripture are revelation in the form of ‘images’ or representative pictures. The Bible is a picture album of a cosmic creative process. We find common ‘motifs’ (not Kelsey’s word) throughout and we generalize from them as theologians. We are linked to those events as we, existentialist-style, act responsibly with reference to them. ‘Done this way theology seems a species of literary criticism … far from translating the image-rich text into paraphrase, [the theologian] confines himself to identifying and sorting out the symbols and suggesting how they work in the text.’

Tillich agrees but in a definitive statement affirms, ‘The subject matter of theology … is the symbols given by the original revelatory experiences (i.e. of Scripture) and by the traditions based on them.’ The theologians must show that these symbols contain the answers to the ‘existential’ questions men are asking today. These revelatory events, however, may be found expressed in the Koranic community and writings or in Buddha and his disciples as well as in the Old and New Testaments. These expressions occasion revelatory events in the ‘new being’ of ‘unbroken unity between Man and God’. So Tillich does not derive many affirmations about God as God or man as man. (Is his theology truly theology?)

Bultmann—to simplify greatly—agrees with Thornton and Tillich as to the notion that the Bible’s significance for theological affirmation lies in reports of events. These events, however, are important only because they change the reader-auditor’s self-understanding. The new self-understanding is faith. The revelations (= events) change men’s self-understanding and thereby transforms them. He distinguishes between kerygmatic and theological statements but cannot separate them.

Kelsey follows this analysis by chapters on the concepts Scripture and Authority and closes with two ‘morals’. (1) Stop calling the Bible the Word of God; ‘… the theologian’s task is not to answer the question, “What does the Bible say?” but rather “What is God using the Bible to say?” ’ and (2) ‘Theological proposals are concerned with what God is now using Scripture to do, and no degree of sophistication in theological methodology can hope to anticipate that!’

Very briefly: Readers of Themelios will find Kelsey’s book useful by way of information, but superficial and quite doubtful as to his recommendations.

Robert Duncan Culver

Robert Culver, formerly Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, now has a pastorate in Lincoln, Nebraska.