In his article, “How May we Speak of God? A Reconsideration of the Nature of Biblical Theology,” Tyndale Bulletin 53/2 (2002): 177-202, R.W.L. Moberly offers the following definition of biblical theology (from a Christian perspective): “Biblical theology is thus, in some form or other, the endeavour to speak and/or write truthfully about God via the interpretation of Scripture where God’s self-revelation to Israel and in Christ is to be found” (p. 178). It is, in other words, an attempt to speak about God via the revelation of Scripture. I find this definition helpful on multiple levels. In the first it recognizes the importance of both of the testaments, and the purpose of speaking “truthfully about God” presupposes not only a descriptive function but also a confessional function, for it implies the confession that the revelation of Scripture speaks truthfully about God.
This article is an excellent example of Moberly’s interpretive program and I recommend it highly to everyone. In this post, however, I want to examine one aspect of Moberly’s suggestion: the use of Exod. 34:6-7 to set a paradigm for biblical theology. I find this to be a very helpful exercise and worthy of reflection.
Moberly offers the following translation of Exod. 34:6-7 –
YHWH passed before him [Moses], and proclaimed, ‘YHWH, YHWH, a deity gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation (p. 191).
Moberly begins his discussion of Ex. 34:6-7 with an interaction with the discussion of this text in Horst Dietrich Preuss’s Old Testament Theology, which Moberly finds to be representative of a historical approach to biblical theology. He thus uses a critique of Preuss to formulate his own positive contributions to understanding biblical theology in light of Ex. 34:6-7.
His first critique of Pruess is his “abstraction of the text [Ex. 35:6-7] from its narrative context” (192). The view that this section may have been inserted into its present context is conceded by Moberly (for the sake of the argument), but, he argues, it still must be dealt with in its present context. For Moberly, failing to notice the narrative context in which it is Moses’ intercession, after apostasy, that sets the scene for this great divine-revelation, fails to recognize how the text is functioning, and essentially what it is talking about.
The second critique is that when one divorces this text from its context, the text is greatly impoverished. This text, with the “unparalleled cumulation of terms of mercy and forgiveness” (193) is not correctly or fully understood until one realizes that this divine-revelation is given in the context of apostasy, in response to Moses’ intercession, and in the setting of Mt. Sinai. In this context the affirmation of divine mercy is striking indeed.
Thirdly, Moberly argues, historical approaches to biblical theology such as Preuss’s, end up doing the ground work for biblical theology instead of actually doing biblical theology (cf. the critique of Barth in the preface of his Romans Commentary).
Finally, Moberly notes that the historical approach doesn’t really address the issue being raised in this text of the divine revelation of the divine nature. Recognizing that this text may not have originated with Moses himself (contra most of the history of interpretation) may be helpful for historical reasons. But, for the Christian, it is of little consequent for Christians believe in the divinely inspired text, not the Moses inspired text. To recognize human agency in Scripture is of no consequence for the Christian whether Moses wrote it or someone after the Exile. Whoever wrote it, God inspired it.
The second half of Moberly’s interaction with Ex. 34:6-7 in terms of biblical theology is his exegetical observations about this text and how they can inform biblical theology. His observations are as follows:
- “[It] is only when Moses intercedes that God reveals” (198). Thus it is that “self-involvement makes possible an encounter with, and fuller knowledge of, God that a self-distancing would impede; in other words, certain kinds of ‘objectivity’, in which the knower tries to keep distance and distinctness from what is known, rule out the kind of knowing of God which is the foundation of biblical and Christian faith” (198).
- It is the context of the divine speech and Moses intercession that sets the scene in God reveals himself to Moses, while covering him as he passes by (vv. 19-23). Thus, “the fullest account of the name and nature of God in the whole Bible (34:6-7) is preceded by an emphasis upon the limitation of what the privileged recipient is able to receive.” In this we see that “because knowing God is a relational and responsive reality characterized by learning and growth where ever greater knowing is rightly accompanied by ever greater humility of unknowing” (199).
- “[T]he cumulative emphasis upon YHWH’s mercy and forgiveness [especially in the context of Israel’s current apostasy] is remarkable” (199).
- In light of the inclusion of the phrase “but who will by no means clear the guilty…” in v. 7b we can see that “YHWH’s forgiveness is truly forgiveness, not leniency, still less moral indifference” (200).
- It is notable that God’s jealousy (qn’) is not mentioned in this revelation. However, it is telling that it is not far away so that in 34:14 God’s “very name–which has just been emphatically associated with mercy, steadfast love, and forgiveness–is said to be Jealous” (200). Moberly contends that “Unless these attributes of God are both respected with total seriousness then the revelation of God will be more or less misunderstood” (200-01).
In my reading of Moberly he brings out the fact that Exod. 34:6-7, when understood in its narrative context, helpfully illustrates the relational and dialogic nature of theology and also the complex but awesome nature of God. His conclusion is thus to state that, “if biblical theology is to be true to itself, it needs to be a rigorous outworking of that openness and responsiveness towards God that we call prayer” (202). I cannot think of a greater challenge and call to the Christian biblical theologian. Let us rise to the challenge.