Biblical Theology Isn’t New—It’s In the Catechism

HC Q. 19 (Pt 1)

Title Page Heidelberg Catechism 1563Go the reference room (virtual or real), find a encyclopedia entry on “Biblical Theology” and one will likely find an entry that begins in the 19th century liberalism. Depending upon which entries one reads, one might find reference to the Dutch Reformed and Princeton theologian, Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) who rehabilitated the practice “Biblical theology” for confessionally Reformed specifically and for Bible-believing Christians generally. From the mid-twentieth century one thinks of figures such as Herman Ridderbos (1909–2007), Meredith Kline (1922–2007), Krister Stendahl (1921–2008), Oscar Cullmann (1902–99), and James Barr (1924–2006) among others.

If one reads Vos closely there are signals that he was aware, however, that there was a tradition behind the work he was doing and it was not simply revising the Germans. Before the Germans and before the rise of the neo-orthodox bibical-theology movement, the broader Christian tradition had long read Scripture with an awareness that there is an unfolding history of redemption within which the incarnation, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ must be placed. One sees a consciousness of this in the Epistle to Diognetus in the mid-2nd century. It’s in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies as well.

The church has always been aware, to some degree or other, that there are in Scripture types, illustrations, hints, suggestions in the history of redemption and revelation that come to realization later. It was, after all, Augustine who said “In the Old Testament the new is concealed and in the New Testament, the old is revealed” (Concerning the Catechizing of the Uninstructed, 4.8).

Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587), who wrote one of the most important early accounts of Reformed covenant theology (On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect, 1585) remarked that, in his Romanist youth, his teachers and priests told the story of redemption by explaining the promises and their fulfillment and by showing the correlation between types and shadows. He went on to explain that those priests did not understand the significance of what they were saying but they were carrying on an ancient Christian tradition.

One of the contributions of the Reformed tradition to the Reformation was its development of the biblical doctrine and theme of “covenant” in the history of redemption. Beginning almost as soon as the Reformation began to stumble to its feet, Reformed biblical commentators such as Johannes Oecolampadius (1482—1531) began sketching the story of the outworking of the biblical covenants in the early 1520s. Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) wrote a little popular tract on the covenant of grace in the 1530s. In his sermons, tracts, and biblical exposition, Calvin traced the history of redemption. After Olevianus and Ursinus in the 1560s through the mid 80s elaborated on the earlier covenant theology, their students picked up the baton and carried on. Robert Rollock (c. 1555–99) wrote a history of redemption focusing on the covenants as unifying threads. Johannes Cocceius (1603–69), and Herman Witsius (1636–1708), and Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) all wrote in detail on the history of redemption in different ways.

To be sure, there is more to biblical theology than simply types and antitypes—there is the wonderful interplay between heaven and earth, vertical dimension that adds layers to the horizontal and historical—but that’s a rudimentary part of biblical theology and it’s a starting point.

All this is to highlight the significance of Q. 19 of the catechism. It is important to notice that, when the catechism turns to the gospel, when it begins to characterize the gospel, it does so in terms that would have been entirely familiar to the Apostolic Fathers in the 2nd century, Augustine in the 5th century, Gottschalk in the 9th century, Aquinas in the 13th century, the Protestants in the 16th century and to their heirs in the 17th and 18th centuries. It characterizes the gospel, in the first instance relative to the history of redemption, the progress of revelation, and the fulfillment of types, shadows, and promises in Christ. To be sure, the catechism is also perfectly comfortable in characterizing the gospel in terms of the Apostles’ Creed (Q. 22), which is both historical and more topically theological in nature. Put baldly and anachronistically, in the catechism there is no tension between “biblical” and “dogmatic” or “systematic” theology. The same traditions that gave us a redemptive historical reading of Scripture also gave us a topical/systematic reading of Scripture. Now, this way of putting it is misleading since the Creed is not a system of theology. It is the church’s catholic (universal) understanding of the basics of the Christian faith and even it has a redemptive-historical character but one is sure that the reader takes the intended point.

19. From where do you know this?

From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself revealed first in Paradise; afterwards proclaimed by the holy Patriarchs and Prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.

Pt 2: The Gospel in paradise

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