Mark W. Elliott, The Heart of Biblical Theology: Providence Experienced (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012)
Recognition that the sharp distinction between biblical studies and systematic theology needs to be overcome is not a new phenomenon, but the question of how this is to be done continues to invite all manner of suggestions. Mark Elliott’s intelligent but opaque contribution to the debate discusses the theological interpretation of Scripture, the history of the interpretation of Scripture, and the notion of biblical theology, to determine how best to promote an active and fruitful dialogue between biblical studies and systematic theology. Elliott’s search leads him to commend the theme of God’s providence as a kind of unifying concept for these two disciplines.
Following the briefest of introductions, where it is indicated that The Heart of Biblical Theology is more a signpost than a destination (this being a future work on providence), Elliott focusses on the theological interpretation of Scripture and the way(s) in which its practitioners draw from the riches of historical theological commentary without necessarily recognising that Scripture is already a theological text and can be read as such without imposing doctrinal conditions on it. In chapter two, Elliott explores the history of biblical interpretation in more depth, noting, among other things, that it is useful and, indeed, important for scholars to observe their own role within this history. This leads to chapter three’s lengthy account of the various developments in biblical theology, and how ‘covenant’ has been treated through the years by theologians eager to detect a dominant, pervasive theme in Scripture. Elliott is not convinced that ‘covenant’ can function in this way; it is, perhaps, too theologically loaded a term, and, as chapter four’s overview of ‘providence’ reveals, is not as universal as it appears at first glance. The promised companion volume on providence will surely build on these claims.
The breadth of this study is impressive, as Elliott deftly engages biblical scholars, theologians, hermeneutical method, commentary series, and, to a lesser extent, certain biblical texts. Those unfamiliar with German scholarship in this area will either benefit from Elliott’s research, or be frustrated by the sheer number of untranslated quotations in the footnotes. On a number of occasions, it was difficult to identify the precise issue being analysed or the specific conclusion reached, most likely due to Elliott’s conversational but rather meandering style. Elliott’s discussion would surely have benefitted from the inclusion of a few more ‘connecting’ sentences, not least chapter three’s seemingly sudden introduction of the ‘covenant’ theme, to make its direction clearer. It must be said, too, that the large number of editorial errors in the text did not aid comprehension.
In summary, while it is often an insightful and fascinating read, providing an important critical overview of recent research on biblical theology and the theological interpretation of Scripture, The Heart of Biblical Theology would have been easier to appreciate had its aims and conclusions been stated more plainly. Moreover, the assurance that there is to be a sequel of sorts may have the effect of diminishing the impact of this volume.