Brevard Childs’ magisterial Biblical Theology kicks off with a quote from Gerhard Ebeling’s 1955 article, “The Meaning of Biblical Theology.” Childs – infamously cantankerous – lavishes rare praise on Ebeling’s article, calling it “a major contribution” and “a classic essay” because of its helpfulness in diagnosing the deep problems then rocking the discipline of biblical theology. Even beyond its analytical power, however, Childs commends it for its positive suggestions, “[making] a valuable start toward reconstituting the field [of biblical theology]” (7). In fact, Childs envisions his own project as an attempt to fulfill Ebeling’s proposal.
Childs didn't always smile on the so-called “New Hermeneutic” school of thought associated with Ebeling’s name. In his Biblical Theology in Crisis, Childs renders this judgment: “The fundamental esoteric quality of much of the discussion [concerning the New Hermeneutic] has made the possibility of any new consensus between Bible and theology highly unlikely” (102). Besides its uniquely German obscurity, Childs also anathematized Ebeling’s and Fuchs’ appeals to the “linguisticality of being” as a “form of positivity behind the text,” in contrast to approaches that take the canon per se as the context for biblical theology.
What then did Childs appreciate so much about this article? On Childs’ read, Ebeling accurately plumbed the dereliction of biblical theology: the untenability of proposals for theological unity between the testaments and, indeed, within each individual testament; the historical artificiality of separating out the canonical writings from their ancient cognates for special treatment; and the confusion over whether or not the contents of the Bible can rightly be called “theology” (rather than “religion”).
Childs also found Ebeling’s constructive suggestions helpful. According to Ebeling, biblical theology must not only be a historical and descriptive task, but a theological and normative one, “a modern theologian’s reflection on various aspects of the Bible.” Without turning back the clock on Enlightenment discoveries about the distinctiveness of each biblical testament and each scriptural unit, a fresh start in biblical theology would re-connect these, discerning “the inner unity [within] the manifold testimony.” Above all, Childs loved Ebeling’s use of the concept “witness” or “testimony” to describe the Bible. This metaphor positions the Bible not only as “a cultural expression of ancient peoples, but as a testimony pointing beyond itself to a divine reality to which it bears witness” (9). Each of these points remained near and dear to Childs’ whole enterprise.
Before re-reading Childs this spring, I had forgotten he made such a fuss over Ebeling. In fact, I read Ebeling’s essay for this first time this past summer, and heard in it a very different concern. Amongst other things, Ebeling revisits the history of the term “biblical theology,” and makes explicit that it is, at its roots, polemical: aimed against competing forms of theology (212). “Biblical theology,” in a word, brackets “theology proper.” Though the term “biblical theology” does not occur in Reformation writings, it depends on Luther’s attack on the authority of ecclesial tradition and scholastic theology. The catchphrase “Scripture alone” contains within itself the shudder of these mighty intellectual exclusions. The Pietists of a subsequent generation would marshal “biblical theology” against the stultifications of Protestant orthodoxy, and yet later, rationalist biblical critics (some of them Pietists) would extend and complicate this contrast. At all stages, “biblical theology” was polemical, exclusionary, and critical: a jealous younger sibling to the accumulated mass of churchly reflections on subjects of divinity. Ebeling points out the self-contradictions inherent to the discipline: at once emancipated from the tradition of systematic theology, yet covetous of its normative function; critical of the history of interpretation and disdainful towards verbal inspiration, yet parasitic on the theological importance accorded by theology proper to the Bible.
Ebeling does call in his article for a renewed cooperation between theological disciplines; Childs heard this loud and clear. Childs also, like Ebeling, does not set aside the body of critical biblical scholarship. However, the posture of the two scholars varies. Childs sees critical research as basic to contemporary interpretation, a non-negotiable if perhaps regrettable horizon. But Childs’ main energies went into reuniting biblical theology with theology proper, and contemporary exegesis with the resources of the Christian past, to overcome the modern quarantine on “pre-modern” readings. Ebeling on the other hand sees “the problem of theological method posed by the Reformation” as an enduring surd, an unanswered and, importantly, still productive question (224). For him, the contradiction of biblical theology is ongoing, even irresolvable: a discipline whose own inexorable logic of abstracting the Bible from its tradition ultimately leaves the Bible as a privileged text vulnerable and unjustifiable. But for all that self-refuting history of the concept, Ebeling understands the exclusionary starting point – the Reformation sola – more optimistically.
In an era of biblical interpretation awash in the influence of Childs, and in a field enamored with the history of reception, I fear that increasingly fewer people are able defend the theological productivity of critical, historical methods, i.e., the characteristically Protestant “bracketing” of churchly readings ingredient in “biblical theology” is viewed as misguided or passé. I understand and sympathize with much that informs this intellectual moment. But still my own confidence is that Ebeling’s essay, quite beyond Childs’ treatment of it, highlights a dynamic that still deserves appreciation and exploration: namely, the unfulfilled and inexhaustible invitation of sola scriptura.