“The history of theology is riddled with arguments about issues about which the Bible has relatively little to say because they probably shouldn’t be important parts of our theological systems. I hesitate to provide examples here because I know I’ll end up picking someone’s favorite issue. “
In my theology classes, we often find ourselves wrestling with questions about which the Bible has relatively little to say. And students always wonder if that means these issues aren’t that important. If the Bible doesn’t have much to say about it, should we?
On the one hand, that’s a relatively easy issue to address. The Bible doesn’t talk about the internet, climate change, or Star Wars either. But those are obviously vital topics to discuss today. The Bible would have to be pretty long (and rather tedious) if it tried to answer every question we could possibly ask. That’s not what it’s there for.
Ultimately, though, that’s not a terribly helpful response because that’s not really what my students are wondering. They know the Bible doesn’t talk about everything, but they do generally believe that the Bible gives us at least the theological framework through which to understand God, the world, and ourselves. So if it doesn’t say much about an issue, then we should at least wonder if it’s really an important important part of that theological framework. It might be an intriguing idea, maybe worth discussing over a few cups of coffee or a couple pints of beer, but surely not the kind of issue that warrants lots of time in a theology class.
At times, I’m inclined to agree. The history of theology is riddled with arguments about issues about which the Bible has relatively little to say because they probably shouldn’t be important parts of our theological systems. I hesitate to provide examples here because I know I’ll end up picking someone’s favorite issue. But I’ll gently suggest that things like who should serve communion, the identity of the Beast in the book of Revelation, and the number of angels that exist, are all things that probably shouldn’t play a prominent role in your web of theological beliefs.
But let’s be careful. Things are not always as simple as they appear.
How Central Is the Image of God?
Take the image of God for example. The imago Dei has long served as one of the most fundamental concepts in theological anthropology, yet it only occurs in the Bible a handful of times. Consequently, some have wondered whether the imago should really be that central to our understanding of humanity. Once again, if the Bible rarely talks about it, maybe it’s not that important.
In his new book on the image, though, John Kilner rightly points out that we can’t gauge the significance of an issue simply by counting the number of biblical occurrences (Dignity and Destiny: Humanity in the Image of God [Eerdmans, 2015], pp. 37-40). Instead, he argues that we also have to take into account (1) the strategic location of the Bible’s references to that issue and (2) the way the Bible relates that issue to other theological themes. In other words, even with just a few references the Bible can present an issue as fundamentally important if we find those references in particularly important passages and if those references demonstrate that the concept is important for understanding the rest of the biblical narrative.
Or, said differently (and to justify the image above!), what looks small in the Bible might actually have big significance. Let’s see how this plays out.