J. V. Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology”

taken from lecture notes by Richard Barcellos


EXCURSUS 1: J. V. Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology”[1]


In J. V. Fesko’s contribution to a book in honor of Richard B. Gaffin, he addresses an important issue – the antiquity of biblical theology. He readily acknowledges that there are some who think biblical theology finds its origin in classical liberalism and rationalism. He quotes Jay Adams as claiming that “Geerhardus Vos rescued it from the liberal theologians.”[2] Even D. G. Hart claims, “The problem for biblical theology is that it is a recent scholarly effort, originating only in the late nineteenth century.”[3] These detractors notwithstanding, Fesko states his thesis as follows:


It is the contention of this essay that biblical theology is not at all a novelty, but a discipline of great antiquity.[4]


…it is the thesis of this essay that biblical theology has been a part of the church’s interpretive history from the earliest years, not simply in the patristic period, but stretching back into the very formation of the Old Testament (OT) canon, evidenced in its own intra-canonical interpretation.[5]


Then he adds these words:


In recognizing the antiquity of biblical theology, we will see how fundamental the discipline is to the hermeneutical and theological process.[6]


In this thesis, Fesko claims that biblical theology goes all the way back to the Old Testament. He is fully aware that its formal inception occurred in the eighteenth century; that is, as a distinct discipline within the theological encyclopedia and labeled as such. However, he also realizes that a concept can be present and functioning in antiquity while the word or phrase we presently use to describe that concept is absent. In other words, he does not fall into the word-concept fallacy.

After reviewing Gabler’s contribution in the early days of biblical theology as a formal discipline, Fesko then devotes four pages to Geerhardus Vos. The reason is probably two-fold: 1) The book is in honor of Gaffin who is a follower of Vos in the Reformed tradition of biblical theology and 2) Vos is the most important modern figure in terms of shaping biblical theology within the Reformed tradition. Since we will analyze Vos’ biblical-theological method below, we will not comment much upon Fesko’s brief treatment, except to note two of his three “key ideas…in Vos’s understanding of biblical theology.”[7] First, “the biblical theologian does not treat the biblical text from merely a historical perspective.”[8] This, in fact, is what the liberals had done. Vos’ concern is to respect the Scriptures, primarily, as revelation from God. This is why he preferred “the term history of special revelation in lieu of biblical theology.”[9] Since Scripture is revelation from God, “the entire corpus is an organic whole.”[10] This is why Vos sees biblical theology as “the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.”[11]

Second, “unlike Gabler’s understanding of biblical theology, Vos believed the discipline focused on Christ and covenant, which is the manner in which the church learns redemption accomplished and applied.”[12] The Bible unfolds itself in a Christ-centered manner via its covenants. Everything before Christ prepares the way for Christ. Fesko quotes Vos as follows, “All Old Testament redemption is but the saving activity of God working toward the realization of this goal [i.e., Christ], the great supernatural prelude to the Incarnation and the Atonement.”[13] The various stages of Bible history are redemptive epochs gradually and progressively “unfolding…God’s revelation in Christ…manifested through the various covenants…”[14]

After discussing the key ideas of Vos’ definition of biblical theology, Fesko further describes “biblical theology as that exegetical discipline that recognizes”:


  • The whole of Scripture in both Testaments as special revelation both in word and act; (2) the progressive historic unfolding of God’s self-revelation in Christ through covenant; (3) the primary interpretive principle of recognizing the organic unity of the Scriptures in typology, type, and anti-type; and (4) recognizing that biblical and systematic theology are necessary counterparts–that one may distinguish but never separate the two disciplines.[15]


The bulk of the chapter is contained under the heading BIBLICAL THEOLOGY THROUGHTOUT THE AGES. In this section, he seeks to show “how various interpreters throughout the centuries have employed the hermeneutics of biblical theology, which therefore demonstrates the antiquity of the discipline.”[16] He asserts that “biblical theology does not formally exist until the eighteenth century; it is, however, materially manifest in the hermeneutics of the church for centuries before Gabler delivered his address.”[17]

His first sub-heading is “The OT and Intra-Canonical Interpretation.” By intra-canonical he means that within the Old Testament canon itself, subsequent revelation assumes and interprets or comments upon antecedent revelation. In other words, within the Old Testament, there is a hermeneutical relationship between various texts. Texts pick up on texts. He views the Pentateuch as “the old testament of the OT.”[18] The rest of the Old Testament assumes the Pentateuch as its foundational document. Concepts and themes first revealed in the Pentateuch are picked up by subsequent authors and explained or expanded upon. This argues for a “hermeneutical relationship between the Pentateuch and the rest of the OT.”[19] Since we will be devoting some discussion to Old Testament intra-canonical interpretation we will not illustrate how Fesko argues his case.

He then devotes space to second-temple Judaism. This refers to Judaism between the 5th century B.C. and the time of Christ, basically. In this section he illustrates the fact that some Jewish interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures in this era “believed that patterns of pre-redemptive history would be the same ones that would emerge in the eschaton.”[20] By pre-redemptive, Fesko is referring to a Vosian term. Pre-redemptive history is that which is depicted for us in Genesis 1 and 2 prior to the fall into sin. In other words, he is claiming that intertestamental Judaism had a strand of teaching in it that saw the eschaton resembling the proton.[21] He quotes the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a


collection of approximately 850 Jewish manuscripts (mostly fragmentary) discovered by shepherds in 1947 in caves near the shore of the Dead Sea. These scrolls represent all the biblical texts except Esther, as well as many nonbiblical texts, including commentaries and paraphrases of biblical books, and liturgical and eschatological works. …the scrolls have shed light on early Judaism and early Christianity by unveiling the thought and practice of one group [i.e., the Qumran community, see below] among the diversity of perspectives that existed within Judaism at that time. The communities that preserved these texts were ascetic with respect to laws of purity and eschatological with respect to history and God’s rule. [22]


Qumran is a geographic site on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea from which the scrolls were excavated. Here are the Fesko quotes of the Dead Sea Scrolls:


For God has chosen them for an everlasting covenant and all the glory of Adam shall be theirs.


Thou wilt cast away all their sins. Thou wilt cause them to inherit all the glory of Adam and the abundance of days.


I shall accept them and they shall be my people and shall be for them forever. I will dwell with them for ever and ever and will sanctify my [sa]nctuary by my glory. I will cause my glory to rest on it until the day of creation on which I shall created [sic] my sanctuary, establishing it for myself for all time according to the covenant which I have made with Jacob in Betel.[23]


Fesko is quick to acknowledge that the soteriology of Qumran was works-based and the redeemer is identified as “the Teacher of Righteousness rather than the incarnate covenant Lord.”[24] However, he aptly notes that their view of “eschatological redemption is conceived as covenantal”[25] and that God’s temple or sanctuary finds itself in the eschaton. What is fascinating is that the only Bible they had was the Hebrew Scriptures (except Esther, as far as we know). As will be shown in subsequent discussion, the Bible (OT/NT) goes from the garden to glory, from one temple to another, from the temporary to the permanent, from good to better, from Eden to New Jerusalem, from creation to new creation via redemption by Christ. What the entire canonical Christian Scriptures clearly teach was at least hinted at in the Qumran understanding of the Hebrew Bible.

Moving to the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament, Fesko points us to Luke 24:27 and 44.


27 Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. (Luke 24:27 NAU)


44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44 NAU)


Then he comments:


Once again we see the characteristic patterns of biblical theology emerge in the ideas of the organic nature of special revelation, which is evident in Christ’s appeal not just to select portions of the OT, but to the revelatory whole as echoed in the references to the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, the three parts of the Hebrew OT. …In one sense, we can say that Jesus is the theologian par excellence who exegetes the Scriptures employing a biblical-theological hermeneutic.[26]


He goes on to observe that the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament is governed by “a typological hermeneutic.”[27] He notes the book of Hebrews as a case in point. We will explore typology below so will leave Fesko’s claim for now.

Moving from Holy Scripture, Fesko conducts a brief survey of the history of interpretation, seeking to illustrate that biblical theology was utilized by patristic interpreters (Irenaeus), medieval interpreters (Aquinas[28]), and Reformation (Calvin) and post-Reformation interpreters (Westminster Standards, Cocceius, Witsius, Owen, Edwards). He ends with Patrick Fairbairn in the nineteenth century. His survey, though brief, shows that a strand of interpretation exists which is reflective of a biblical-theological, whole-Bible, canonical method of interpreting Scripture.

He closes his discussion with three observations worth hearing, but for lack of space and time we will consider only one. Fesko says, “for those who criticize biblical theology as a novelty, they seem to forget the scriptural maxim that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9).”[29] Though the phrase biblical theology is of modern origin, the hermeneutical concepts and trajectories of what we now call biblical theology are at least as old as the Hebrew canon itself. They also appear in the intertestamental era, the New Testament, the patristic era, the Middle Ages, and in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras. Biblical theology is older than many think.


[1] Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington, Editors, Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in the Service of the Church, Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 443-77.

[2] J. V. Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” in Resurrection and Eschatology, 444.

[3] As quoted by Fesko in Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 444.

[4] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 444.

[5] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 445.

[6] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 445.

[7] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 450.

[8] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 450.

[9] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 450.

[10] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 450.

[11] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 450.

[12] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 451.

[13] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 451.

[14] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 451.

[15] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 452.

[16] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 453.

[17] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 453.

[18] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 453.

[19] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 453.

[20] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 456.

[21] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 457.

[22] Arthur G. Patzia & Anthony J. Petrotta, Pocket Dictionary of Biblical Studies (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 32-33m herein after PDBS.

[23] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 456-57.

[24] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 457.

[25] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 457.

[26] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 458.

[27] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 458.

[28] Interestingly, Aquinas is quoted, saying, “As to the Sabbath, which was a sign recalling the first creation, its place is taken by the Lord’s Day, which recalls the beginning of the new creation in the Resurrection of Christ.” Thomas Aquinas, ST, Ia IIae q. 103 art 3. This displays a typological understanding of the first creation’s Sabbath. The Lord’s Day is seen as its new covenant anti-type.

[29] Fesko, “On the Antiquity of Biblical Theology,” 474.