Mark W. ELLIOTT. The Heart of Biblical Theology: Providence Experienced. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012. pp. 196. $99.95 hb. ISBN 9781409440437. Reviewed by Michael G. AZAR, University of Scranton, Scranton, PA 18510
“Biblical theology” has earned for itself a diverse array of definitions, particularly among scholars who have sought to bridge the common divide between biblical studies and systematic theology. With The Heart of Biblical Theology: Providence Experienced, Mark Elliott intends to contribute to such bridge-building, and for him, the practice of biblical theology centers upon the uncovering of a theological theme that unites the Bible from beginning to end: the theme of providence.
In the first chapter (“The Limits of Theological Interpretation”), Elliott finds much that is disappointing among various scholarly attempts to bring biblical studies and systematic theology closer together, whether in specific monographs or entire journal or commentary series. Chief among these disappointments is the recent tendency to limit biblical theology to the theological interpretation of Scripture, which Elliott defines, at one point, as “using the Bible to be descriptive of the Church’s practices” (7). Among the faults of theological interpretation, for example, Elliott points out the frequent disregarding or bypassing of “history” in the reading of Scripture. Against such missteps, Elliott observes, “Christianity has never been a flight from history, but at its best follows the principle that theology is done through reflection on history” (21).
Acknowledging, somewhat relatedly, that one learns “biblical theology through examples of its being done” (42), Elliott in chapter 2 (“The Usefulness of Historical Biblical Interpretation”) reflects on the place that familiarity with past scriptural interpretation holds, or should hold, in contemporary theological practice. The overview here provided reveals how far the study of historical biblical interpretation has come in biblical, especially Protestant, studies—from something to abandon and overcome, to an investigation useful and intriguing, to an indispensible component of sound biblical or theological study. Though Elliott recognizes that, if given unbalanced privilege, “the tradition of interpretation threatens to become more important than the classic texts themselves” (74; italics original), he nonetheless regards it as essential to know “our place as part of an ongoing story of interpretation” (81) since “it is tradition that prevents theology [sic] becoming too enculturated in our own times” (80).
Having given an overview of historical biblical interpretation, Elliott moves on in his third and longest chapter (“The Possibility of Biblical Theology”) to survey many of the more recent attempts at offering a unified “biblical theology,” which Elliott now defines as “both an account of what the Bible has to say theologically and any post-biblical (including present-day) theology that is well-informed by the Bible, i.e., theology that has its source and its reference/checkpoint in the Bible” (83; italics original). Elliott’s focus is predominantly on the former, and in this chapter he especially (but by no means exclusively) centers upon the unifying theme of “covenant” as it has been utilized or popularized by scholars of the Old and New Testaments. Ultimately, the covenant theme falls short for Elliott, and he moves his discussion to the theme of “providence”—“[p]erhaps a theological theme which is not totalizing in its claims, yet which is able to connect a number of other biblical themes which ‘covenant’ perhaps fails to (including creation, holiness, kingship) and which challenges systematic fixations (meaning, epistemology, authority)” (148). Thus, in Elliott’s final, and unfortunately shortest, chapter (“Might ‘Providence’ Show the Way?”), he examines the providence theme and the possibilities it opens for biblical theology, in hopes that it might “succeed where ‘covenant’ has failed” (149).
The Heart of Biblical Theology comprises a rich survey of the recent and classic sources for biblical theology, while taking small steps forward in the final chapter, and as such, the book seems to be more the initial stages of a new exploration rather than a finished project. Aside from the numerous editorial mishaps, for example, many of Elliott’s strongest conclusions are phrased tentatively and subjunctively, rather than directly. But then again, this appears to be all that Elliott intended (see, for example, his conclusion in the final pages). One looks forward, therefore, to Elliott’s continued work on the issue and further development of the project of which The Heart of Biblical Theology is one piece.
As Elliott continues to develop providence as a valuable focus of biblical theology, one area that would contribute positively to his project would be further examination of key Eastern thinkers, historical and contemporary, in addition to his more thorough grasp of their Western counterparts. It is already clear, with Elliott’s few references to Eastern writers, that his work would both serve and benefit well from Orthodox traditions, particularly due to the latter’s often distinct emphasis upon free will and its tension with providence. Elliott’s detailed overview of historical and contemporary interpreters of Scripture reveals both the necessity of encountering diverse ancient and modern theological opinions in biblical study and the benefit such encounters bring to biblical theologians in their attempts to be attentive to the often inconsistently multivalent emphases of Scripture.