The Design of the Scriptures - A First Reader in Biblical Theology by Robert C. Dentan
Robert C. Dentan was Professor of Old Testament Literature and Interpretation at the General Theological Seminary in New York. He is the author of The King and His Cross; Preface to Old Testament Theology; The Holy Scriptures: A Survey (a volume in the Seabury Press Church’s Teaching Series), and The Apocrypha, Bridge of the Testaments. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Richard Kendall.
The purpose of this book is to set forth the teaching of the Bible in such a way as to illustrate the consistency and organic unity of biblical thought: the harmony which underlies the all-too-obvious differences between the two Testaments, the threads of interrelationship which tie together their separate parts in a complex and fascinating design. The diversity in point of view between the Testaments and among their various books and authors has been exploited frequently enough; the aim of this book is to show that underneath these differences there is a fundamental unity with respect to the questions with which they deal, the solutions which they offer, and the historical and literary images which are the basic vocabulary with which they speak.
It is not, of course, suggested that this is the only way in which the Bible should be read. There are many other valuable approaches—by books, by sources, by personalities, by rearrangement of the literary material in chronological order, even by perusal from cover to cover—and for each of them some special advantage may be claimed. It is undoubtedly important to learn as much as possible about the background, thought-patterns and literary style of the various authors who have contributed to the Bible and to understand the intricate process by which the present canon of scripture developed. But each of these methods of study is defective in some way and most of them
have certain defects in common. Purely literary and historical study tends to concentrate the reader’s attention either upon the various elements of which the Bible is composed, thus reducing the Book to a collection of fragments, or else upon the complex procedure by which these elements were fused into books and later into the completed canon, which tends to make the genetic process seem more significant than the end result. The common alternative to this kind of critical study is that of simply reading the Bible through froni Genesis to Revelation, a method which, in the case of the ordinary unprepared reader, is likely to be more productive of confusion and frustration than edification.
The present book, it must be clearly understood, presupposes the ‘‘assured results’’ of biblical criticism, but ~\ is itself concerned with critical methods only rarely and incidentally. Its interest is in the Bible as a finished product and in its meaning for faith and life. For the Christian Church—as for the Jewish Church before it—the Bible is a unity, a collection of books bound together by a common outlook and a common spirit (though we should be more faithful to Christian convictions if we capitalized the word Spirit). If this unity is a fact and not merely a fancy born of ecclesiastical tradition, it should be possible to demonstrate it by actual observation and make it evident to the common reader as well as to the professional theologian. Such is the intention of this hook. Whether that intention has been successfully realized is a question which the reader will have to answer for himself. The author can claim no more than that he is personally convinced of the validity of this approach and has earnestly tried to make its validity apparent to others also. It is his conviction that there is—as faith has always maintained—an overall pattern or design to the Bible which makes its total meaning something greater than the meaning of even the greatest of its parts.
The subtitle describes this book as A First Reader in Biblical Theology. Biblical theology, as I attempted to show in a small book published some years ago,1. is the branch of biblical studies which treats the religious ideas of the Bible systematically—i.e., not from the point of view of their historical development, but from that of the structural unity of biblical religion. The applicability of this definition to the present book will be evident from what has previously been said. The word "Reader" in the subtitle is used advisedly, since this is not a treatise on bil)lical theology, but a guide to reading the Bible in order to discover what biblical theology is. The Bible text is primary. The book is intended to provide a simple commentary on the passages selected rather than a collection of texts chosen to support the opinions of the author. It is called a "first" reader in order to indicate the elementary character of the task proposed. The author’s purpose has been to introduce the reader to a method of studying the Bible and thinking about it which, it is hoped, he may then pursue by himself at greater length and in greater depth.
Something should be said, briefly, about the arrangement of the book and the point of view from which it is written. There have been many treatises on biblical theology (or Old Testament, or New Testament, theology) and many different opinions expressed concerning the way in which its subject matter should be arranged. It is, for example, a popular view today that biblical theology is merely a recital of "the acts of God." Here I can only say, without arguing the thesis at length, that this seems to me an inadequate conception of the task (although I appreciate the profound truth about the nature of biblical religion which the proponents of this view wish to emphasize). \Vhile it is evident that God’s mighty acts in history for us men and for our salvation are the ultimate theme of Holy Scripture, only certain portions of the Bible are devoted to an explicit account of them. The major part of the Bible is concerned with the history of the people of God and the implications for life and thought of the fact that their God has shown Himself to be the kind of God He is. This means, to say the least, that the structure of the Bible and the theology which is implicit in it is far more complex and subtle than the formula "biblical theology is a recital of the acts of God" would suggest. In the book mentioned above, I defended the use of the classical rubrics of dogmatic theology—Doctrine of God, Doctrifle of Man, Doctrine of Salvation—as the most useful subject headings for organizing a treatise on biblical theology, and I have arranged the contents of the doctrinal part of this book according to that basic scheme. But it has become increasingly clear to me that this alone does not provide a satisfactory account of the theological content of the scriptures. What the Bible contains is not simply the story of God’s dealings with the world and ~ His chosen people, nor merely an implicit body of doctrine.
It contains, rather, a body of doctrine (or, if one prefers, a set of convictions) founded upon a story and issuing in a distinctive manner of lifé~ Each of these elements is organicalT~ related to the others; taken together they constitute the framework of biblical theology and provide three basic categories under which the smaller units in the pattern or design of the scriptures can be arranged. The three divisions of this book are, accordingly: history (the story of God’s people and His dealings with them), doctrine (the abiding assertions about the nature of God and His relation to man to which this history gave rise), and life (the forms of piety and of personal and corporate existence which belief in the story and acceptance of the doctrine necessarily imply).
The term "history’ as used in this connection has a somewhat special sense. In the study of biblical theology we are not so much concerned with mere events in their chronological sequence as with the theological meaning which those events acquired in the total perspective of biblical thought. To give just one example: in this book our interest in Abraham will be less in the shadowy historical figure who may have lived in the first part of the second millennium B.C. than in Abraham as the ideal man of faith who appears to US in later Jewish and Christian tradition, especially in the writings of St. Paul and the i ith chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The history with which this book is concerned is not secular or even "religious" history, but rather theological or sacred history (what the Germans call Heilsgcschichte). This is not to say that it is false or merely legendary history (although it includes, as all history does, some legendary elements), but only that it is history viewed from a special theological point of view and in the light of our interest in historical events as the principal media of redemption and revelation.
A word also needs to be said with regard to the vantage point from which we attempt to grasp the design—the artistic shape and fashion—of the scriptures. The form which the Bible takes to our mind will be at least in part determined by the angle from which we view it. It is evident, for instance, that the ultimate meaning of the Old Testament will be drastically different for those who view it from within the Christian community rather than from within the fellowship of Judaism. This does not mean that the Christian will have a different understanding of every verse in the Old Testament, or even very many of the verses, but the fact that he sees Old Testament history as reaching its logical terminus in the New Testament rather than in the Talmud will determine his view of the overall significance of the Hebrew scriptures and therefore influence his interpretation of some crucial passages A Christian cannot help believing that the New Testament gives the clue to the meaning of the Old Testament at its deepest level. The present book is written frankly, and in all its parts, from the Christian perspective. To define its vantage point more precisely, it may be said that it attempts to view the whole Bible, not merely from some point within the New Testament itself, but from that somewhat indefinite point in early Christian history when the sacred writings of the Old and New Testaments became, in approximately their present form, the Church’s canon of scripture.
Since this is merely an introductory work, no attempt has been made to include all conceivable topics or make use of every text which might be brought to bear upon any particular subject. The treatment is intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. The only deliberate attempt at comprehensiveness has been in the use of the books of the Bible. Every book of the Old and New Testament has been referred to at least once, as have the four most important books of the Apocrypha.2 As far as possible the selections given for reading are extended passages
‘The section entitled Apocrypha, which is printed in sonie editions of the Bible, contains certain important books of ancient Jewish literature which are valuable for understanding developments between the Testaments. Separate editions of the Apocrspha are published by the Oxford University Press, Harper & Brothers, and Thomas Nelson & Sons. General information about these books will be found in R. C. Dentan, The Apocrypha—Bridge of the Testaments (Seabury Press, 1954) and B. M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 1957). rather than isolated verses, it being the author’s conviction that the Bible is not to be treated as a collection of "proof-texts," even for the study of biblical theology, but is a body of literature, in which the order, shape and flow of a writer’s thoughts may be as significant as his final, categorical judgments. In the case of narrative selections, the need for this procedure is self-evident.
Because the comments in the various chapters of this book are intetitionally brief, the reader would do well to have at hand a complete Bible commentary to clear up incidental questions which may arise and are not discussed here. The one-volume commentaries edited by Charles Gore (The Macmillan Company, 1929), W. K. L. Clarke (The Macmillan Company, 1952), and by M. Black and
H. H. Rowley (Peake’s Commentary, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1962) would be quite satisfactory for this purpose, as would also The Interpreter’s Bible (12 vols., Abingdon Press, 1950—56). A good dictionary of the Bible, such as Harper’s (Madeleine S. and J. Lane Miller, 1952), would be another valuable tool.
The scriptural quotations, with only a few exceptions, are taken from the King James Version (KJV), because this is still the most generally familiar and available. The reader should, however, become acquainted also with the Revised Standard Version (RSV), which is both more accurate and more immediately intelligible.
In conclusion, I wish to express my appreciation to the editors of Episcopal Churchnews and The Living Church in whose columns most of this material appeared in its original and unrevised form (under the title of "Searching the Scriptures") and by whose courtesy it is reproduced here.
ROBERT C. DENTAN
General Theological Seminary