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NEW DICTIONARY OF BIBLICAL THEOLOGY


Eds. T.D. Alexander, Brian S. Rosner
IVP. xx + 866 pages. 29.99
ISBN 0 85111 976 X

Have you heard the story of salvation presented by means of a study of 'sweat' or 'hospitality' or 'the Beast and the Man' or 'war and peace' or 'marriage' or 'mountains' in the Bible ? If not, then please ask your pastor 'Why?' since these are themes and categories which God himself has used in history and in Scripture to unfold and explain his great work of redemption.

Biblical theology is the discipline which takes that unfolding revelation on its own terms and in its own words and themes and proceeds to study God's truth by means of storylines and multiple perspectives. There are no definitions of biblical theology which do not make it sound either esoteric or dull but biblical theology at its best - combined with exegetical carefulness and systematic rigour - is a truly exhilarating way into the Bible.

The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology attempts to make that way more accessible and to equip Bible readers and Bible teachers with the tools and the leads they need to experience that exhilaration for themselves and bring it to others. It succeeds - but not as well as it might have done.

In three parts

The book is divided into three parts. Part One consists of 12 extended essays on aspects of biblical theology as a theological discipline, such as 'The History of Biblical Theology' and 'New Testament Use of the Old Testament'. Many purchasers of such dictionaries as this do not actually read preliminary essays, and, in this case, may even resent the fact that here they occupy over 100 of the book's 866 pages. However, although the overlap between them results in some repetition, several of the essays are very worthwhile - Roger Beckwith on 'The canon of Scripture', Kevin Vanhoozer on 'Exegesis and hermeneutics', Don Carson on 'Systematic theology and biblical theology' and Peter Adam on 'Preaching and biblical theology'. And P. E. Satterthwaite on 'Biblical History' is a particular treat.

Part Two provides a theological introduction to the main groupings of biblical books (25 pages) and to each individual book of the Bible (225 pages). Generally these are thorough and well-written though they rarely provide anything more than would be expected in the introduction to a middle-level commentary.

Part Three constitutes the real body of the work - 500 pages on 130 topics ranging from 'Abraham' and 'adultery' to 'water' and 'worship'. Many of these articles represent biblical theology at its best - thorough, sensitive to Scripture, theologically acute, well-informed and Christ-centred. Examples include articles on 'anger', 'election', 'glory', 'hospitality', 'Jerusalem', 'marriage', 'nations', and 'warfare'.

Weaknesses

Unfortunately, however, the book suffers from some real weaknesses. The absence of indices of subject, author and, above all, Scripture passages, is as inexcusable as it is incomprehensible in a work of this type. The reader who comes looking for biblical theological help on 'stars', 'smell', 'the Lord's Supper', 'animals', 'bread', 'blasphemy', 'ransom', 'resurrection', 'tribulation', 'typology' is left guessing whether these words and themes are treated in the dictionary and, if so, where they are to be found. Additionally, the bibliographies at the end of articles are patchy - some are both thorough and up to date, others neither.

It is not always clear that the contributors shared a common understanding of the nature and purpose of the articles. Some read like entries from a standard Bible dictionary, others like a systematic theological treatment, others like a journey through a concordance entry with comments upon each reference, and the better ones like the mature reflection on biblical themes as perspectives on God's work of revelation and redemption in history that constitutes one form of authentic biblical theology.

Comment on particular articles in Part Three could extend almost indefinitely but within the articles there are a disappointing number of slips and omissions. The first few lines of my jottings on this section include: 'Babylon: why no reference to the important view that, in the book of Revelation, Babylon represents Jerusalem/apostate Judaism ?'; 'Baptism: where is the treatment of OT baptisms ?'; 'Childlessness: does not I Timothy 2.15 have relevance here -why is it not mentioned?'; 'Creation: why the dismissive reference to interpreting the 'NT promise in purely anthropocentric terms'? Do not 2 Corinthians 5.17 and Ephesians 2.10 have a huge bearing upon our biblico-theological understanding of creation?'. Many more examples could be given.

From a more 'systematic' perspective, some will be disappointed at the attempted even-handedness between traditional Christian teaching on everlasting conscious punishment of the wicked on the one hand and annihilationism/conditionalism on the other. Others will be confused, if not dismayed, at F.P. Cotterell's approving quotation of Sobrino: 'The Father takes upon himself all the pain and suffering of human history' (in a paragraph which leaves Scripture reference behind). The article on the 'Sabbath', as well as omitting reference to the important Leviticus 23.3, does not do justice to a more traditional 'sabbatarianism'. Again, more examples could be given.

The choice of articles to be included also warrants comment. It is good to see articles on themes such as 'exclusion' 'grumbling', 'mission', 'violence' - all of these could easily have been overlooked. But some of the omissions are puzzling, to say the least. There are articles on 'poverty' but not 'wealth', 'serpent' but not 'beast', 'sacred meals' but not 'food', 'water' but not 'cloud', 'hardening' but not 'boasting', 'mountains' but not 'rock/stone', (and in each case the article included does not adequately cover the topic not included).

Consistent with what appear to be the criteria for inclusion, there should have been articles upon clean/unclean, knowledge of God, name, perseverance, praise, memorial/ remembering, tabernacle, thankfulness, anointing, the day of the Lord, resurrection, inheritance, and servant/service, to give but a few examples. And there could have been many more.

Could do better

In conclusion, if the |New Dictionary of Biblical Theolog|y lands in your lap then you may be most grateful - you have a book containing a very great deal of excellent material. But if you are a Bible reader or Bible teacher with around 30 to spend then you can do better. Specifically, and without beginning a second review, a wiser investment would be to buy the Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (ed. Walter Elwell, Baker Book House, 1996, 34.99) which has 20% more material and comes with a free and fully searchable and printable CD-ROM. The Baker dictionary has slightly less space given to the essays in Part One of the IVP dictionary, but in all other respects it shares its strengths as well as avoiding the faults outlined above. (As a further consideration, however, the Baker dictionary is also accessible but not downloadable online at http://bible.crosswalk.com/Dictionaries/).

It is splendid that there are now available two scholarly evangelical dictionaries of biblical theology to choose from. Both books are capable of taking readers to a deeper understanding and experience of the powerful way in which biblical theology unlocks the riches of Christ in Scripture and for that we can be most grateful.