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Joep Dubbink: building bridges with Biblical theology

25 October 2023
"The Amsterdam School of Biblical theology bridges the gap between university and Bible reader, between cultures and disciplines." An interview with FRT theologian Joep Dubbink.

Prof. Dr. Joep Dubbink has held the Dirk Monshouwer Chair in Biblical theology at the VU since 2006. He follows in the footsteps of his Doctorvater Karel Deurloo and is part of the tradition of the Amsterdam School of Biblical theology. On the occasion of his 65th birthday, he was presented with the festschrift 'Speaking of God' by various colleagues, PhD students, and former students. Joep will continue to be a professor at the VU for the next two years.

You recently turned 65, congratulations! You received a special gift from your colleagues?

Yes, I received a festschrift from my colleagues. It was leaked by someone outside of Europe who didn't quite understand the etiquette, but it was still a very pleasant surprise. The original intention was for it to be a farewell festschrift, but I've been asked to stay for another two years, so now it has become a birthday festschrift.

What is it like to receive something like that? Did you read it cover to cover right away?

Well, not right away. It's a thick volume of about 350 pages, but I did read about three articles per evening during the holidays and by now provided anyone who contributed with a response. 

You've been a professor at the faculty for 17 years, and it was recently announced that you will stay for at least two more years.

Yes, it's quite something, those 17 years, isn't it? I arrived in 2006 as the successor of Karel Deurloo, my doctorvater. When he turned 75, he retired, and I was asked to take over from him. I always enjoyed it and was able to do many different things. Biblical theology is, by the way, a bit of an odd discipline; maybe I should explain a bit what it's about. Biblical studies interpret texts in various ways using various methods, but sometimes that precise focus on the texts can make researchers overlook the larger context. Biblical theology attempts to see the bigger picture and tries to place everything in a broader framework. Ultimately, all those Bible books have also ended up as a whole in a canon that has existed for at least 2000 years and is still being read and sung in Jewish and Christian communities. According to Biblical theology, you have to take that into account.

So, is Biblical theology situated somewhere between exegesis and systematic theology?

Exactly! It serves as a kind of buffer. Where biblical scholars may lose sight of the bigger picture, systematic theologians sometimes bypass biblical studies too quickly. Biblical theology balances the both of them, understanding the wish to see the whole but also emphasizing the need to read those texts carefully. It's a delicate balance. How do you do that? What are the structures? Is it possible to identify a core message? So, Biblical theology is indeed a necessary discipline, a discipline to firmly establish the message that the Biblical story conveys.

Okay, but if it's a necessary discipline, why do not all theological faculties have a chair in Biblical theology? Isn't it a typical Amsterdam phenomenon?

You’re right, the discipline is also controversial. Even though I find it a necessary discipline from my position, there are several Old Testament scholars who think, "Just stick to the historical work; don't try to go beyond". And yes, that's a valid approach, but then I do feel like something is missing, that you don't understand that such a text always resonates within a context. The idea of the Amsterdam School where I was trained is that we try to see the text as a whole, as a work of art.

The interesting thing is that a strict historical approach was all the rage when I was studying, and the Amsterdam School was looked down; it wasn't considered scholarly. Then, suddenly, all of that changed in the '80s and '90s, especially because of French structuralism and the Anglo-Saxon canonical reading developed by, for example, Brevard Childs.

So, if I understand it correctly, Biblical Theology is based on a hermeneutic approach that also aims to bring the best of both worlds together.

Yes, you could say that. And for me, something else has been added, something I had to learn here, namely the importance of the nachgeschichte, the history of dealing with the text. I am also involved with the CCBI (Center for Contextual Biblical Interpretation), and I find their approach really fruitful. It recognizes that the reader also brings in their own context and experiences. I now supervise several PhD students in that spirit, such as a PhD student who is studying the liberation history of Myanmar and reads Exodus against the backdrop of the military dictatorship that has been in place there for the past two years. Well, that's a challenging task. We hope he can still go to Myanmar once he has finished writing his dissertation.

Another PhD student is studying texts from Hosea that deal with environmental pollution in the context of environmental pollution in her own surroundings, at Lake Poso in Indonesia. Although Hosea obviously had nothing to do with large-scale polluting industry, those texts do resonate in that context.

Such a way of reading is actually quite old; you can see it within the Bible itself, that texts were recycled and reused. The texts of the Exodus, for example, were recycled in the return of Israel from exile. And even if not everything aligns perfectly and the text may not have been intended that way, it still helps.

So, contextual Biblical interpretation is actually a natural continuation of Biblical theology?

Yes, I think so, although it took me a while to realize that. Karel Deurloo had more of a 'I just read what's written' approach. I also wrote a book about him with a title based on one of his well-known sayings, "the text can tell it". I still stand by that principle, but that text says something new within a new situation and is heard in a different way each time. It's a both-and situation. I have all kinds of students in my courses, from Muslims and non-believers to members of the Hersteld Hervormde Kerk; they all read from their own context.

Do you have any exciting plans for the next two years?

No, my appointment is only for one day a week for two years, so there’s not enough time for wild plans. We do have a new theme for the research lab (first-year bachelor's course). It was initially about 'racism', but now the theme is 'creation and responsibility.' It's really exciting, especially since the Bridging Gaps students participate, thereby creating a very diverse group. I currently have a module on Ezra and Nehemiah and that whole post-exilic period when they rebuild society and struggle with the question of whether they should preserve their identity by excluding those with different beliefs and ethnic backgrounds. Well, how relevant do you want to have it?

Even though you will stay for two more years, what already stands out to you when you look back on your time as a professor at VU?

I've had to let go of many familiar things. Every era has its own questions and developments, and what I find fascinating is that I myself have changed along with the times. In the end, you have to see what withstands the test of time. 

And what is that?

That there are grand narratives. I don't buy into postmodernism. There are a few grand narratives to which you can relate yourself to, such as the Exodus, the exile, and the story of that very unique God of Israel who doesn't fit into boxes and stands out greatly in antiquity. These stories touch on something fundamental, something related to justice, freedom, dignity, etc. That is fundamental, very fundamental to what I stand for.

What direction has Biblical theology, or theology within the Amsterdam School, taken, especially under your leadership?

I wouldn't dare say. Although I hope that Biblical theology has become somewhat less rigid, more nuanced. For example, when you see how much the reading culture is declining, how fewer people read, it is just impossible to remain so rigid in your views on Bible translation. I can still read a translation like Pieter Oussoren's (the Naardense Bible) for my highly educated congregation in Uithoorn, and they also find it very beautiful. But there may also be a dairy farmer who needs to understand it and recognize something of the Bible he has been reading for 70 years in a different translation. I want to build bridges and bring together people who are heading in the same direction anyway.

Which aligns well with Biblical theology.

Yes, that is a good comparison, although the pioneers of Biblical theology were more like prophets.