The Structure of Biblical Authority

By Meredith Kline

Kline, Meredith. The Structure of Biblical Authority. Second Edition. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997.

Introduction

The title of Meredith Kline’s work reveals the precise nature of the book itself—namely, The Structure of Biblical Authority is about the internal make-up of the Bible’s canonical structure. In it, he argues that there is a strong connection between the biblical canon and Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) treaty forms, in which the OT background is set. Furthermore, Kline is an evangelical who retraces this connection and asserts it to be a “millennium-long” formation process. [1] The structure of the book breaks into two main sections. Part I deals with the formal origins of biblical canon as they pertain to the ANE treaty document, the covenantal Bible as a whole (where both testaments are explored), the community that comes out of such biblical cannon, and the polity of both old and new covenants. Part II is a collateral section that explores the nature of the two tablets of the Decalogue, the concept of “intrusion” and its function in the OT with reference to divine judgment and blessing, and the OT origins of the Gospel Genre.

Book Review

Kline does a thorough job of drawing connections between ANE canonical genres and the biblical canon. To give an example, he notes that the features of the kudurru, a tablet document that recorded royal land grants and sometimes “related privileges” between suzerains and their vassals, can be found in the biblical treaties. [2] “Indeed, [the biblical treaties] are very much concerned with a royal (here, divine) land grant and guarantee.”[3] Also, Kline’s approach is evangelical and determines that the treaty form adopted by God for his Scriptures are only according to his divine inspiration. He believes that the “documents that constitute the literary background of the Bible”[4] are “canonical genres of various kinds.[5] This suggests that the treaty forms of the ANE that seem to parallel the treaty forms in the Bible were a derivative of the biblical canon. How is this possible if many of these documents pre-date the Sinai event? Kline does not answer this question in the current volume, which is something that I wish he would have talked more about.

For Kline, “canon is inherent in covenant.”[6] Since God has adopted the covenant treaty form of the ANE to order his canon, then his Scripture must inevitably be tied to his covenant with his people. By noting features such as the legal codes of the Law, Yahweh’s dual tablets that carry the Decalogue, the historical prologue of Exodus 20:1, the overall relationship that Yahweh shares with Israel (that is, that of a suzerain and his vassal), and more, Kline asserts that “though adapted from the model of man-with-man covenants, this was a covenant of God with men.”[7] Kline helpfully notes that the prophets were Yahweh’s representatives and covenant enforcers,[8] that the Psalter served as a “cultic instrument in the maintenance of a proper covenantal relationship with Yahweh,"[9] and the wisdom literature’s aim was to invoke fear for Yahweh as a means to wisdom. Kline sees this pursuit of wisdom as “the way of the covenant.”[10] In other words, to live as Yahweh’s vassal is to live a life of wisdom, which is underneath the canopy of Yahweh’s ruling authority.

Kline’s treatment of the New Testament in Part I is not exhaustive, for he writes, “we must be content with little more than a bare statement of our thesis, looking hopefully to colleagues whose specialization is in this area to develop the matter in detail.”[11] Nevertheless, what Kline does mention about the NT with reference to covenant and canon, I found to be consistent with his thesis and overall aim of the book.

Kline’s work was my first exposure to the biblical canon’s structure being adopted from ANE treaty forms. My knowledge of ANE treaty forms (let alone the ANE culture) is elementary, so reading this was a bit of a trudge. Nevertheless, I found the beginning of the book, where Kline lays his foundation,[12] and the latter portion of the book,[13] most helpful. Regarding pages 27–43, it was nice to get a better grasp of the suzerain-vassal treaty, as well as the other treaty forms that were used in the ANE, and how they related to the covenantal nature of the Bible. Nevertheless, I still have questions whether or not we should base our entire structure of biblical authority on extra-biblical literature rather than finding the structure in the text itself and staking that claim.

However, that being said, I think there are clear parallels within the ANE treaty forms that we mustn’t ignore—and Kline did a nice job convincing me of that. Regarding the latter portion of the book, I thought this snippet was great: “It is by tracing the unfolding eschatology of Scripture that we can most deftly unravel the strands of Old Testament religion and discover what is essential and distinctive in it.”[14] I enjoyed his section on intrusion, although I still have questions about intrusion ethics and how that exactly unfolds in Scripture. Lastly, my favorite chapter was “The Old Testament Origins of the Gospel Genre.” Kline is convincing me that the character and nature of the Gospels derive directly from the book of Exodus. The overall literary structure of the Gospels and their emphasis on historical narrative and didactic instruction strikingly parallel that of Exodus. Another point that supports this thesis is the Moses-Exodus typology in the Gospels. He writes, “[the Gospels] present the saving acts of Christ as a new exodus led by a new Moses.”[15]

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[1] Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1997), 24.

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Ibid., 33.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 43.

[7] Ibid., 49.

[8] Ibid., 58.

[9] Ibid., 63.

[10] Ibid., 64.

[11] Ibid., 68.

[12] Ibid., 27–43.

[13] Ibid., 154–203.

[14] Ibid., 154–156.

[15] Ibid., 181.