What is Biblical Theology?

biblical-theology

Tom Schreiner (part two of a three part essay):

The solution to the problems of shallow preaching … is really quite simple: pastors must learn how to use biblical theology in their preaching. Yet learning how to do that requires us to begin by asking, what is biblical theology?

Biblical vs. Systematic Theology

Biblical theology, in contrast to systematic theology, focuses on the biblical storyline.
Systematic theology, though it is informed by biblical theology, is atemporal. Don Carson argues that biblical theology

stands closer to the text than systematic theology, aims to achieve genuine sensitivity with respect to the distinctiveness of each corpus, and seeks to connect the diverse corpora using their own categories. Ideally, therefore, biblical theology stands as a kind of bridge discipline between responsible exegesis and responsible systematic theology (even though each of these inevitably influences the other two).[1]

In other words, biblical theology restricts itself more consciously to the message of the text or corpus under consideration. It asks what themes are central to the biblical writers in their historical context, and attempts to discern the coherence of such themes. Biblical theology focuses on the storyline of scripture—the unfolding of God’s plan in redemptive history. As we will consider more carefully in part 3, this means that we should interpret and then preach every text in the context of its relationship to the whole storyline of the Bible.

Systematic theology, on the other hand, poses questions to the text that reflect the questions or philosophical concerns of the day. Systematicians can also—to good end— explore themes that are implicit in biblical writings but do not receive sustained attention in the biblical text. Still, it should be apparent that any systematic theology worthy of the name builds upon biblical theology.

The distinctive accent of biblical theology, as Brian Rosner notes, is that it “lets the biblical text set the agenda.”[2] Kevin Vanhoozer articulates the specific role of biblical theology in saying, “‘Biblical theology’ is the name of an interpretive approach to the Bible which assumes that the word of God is textually mediated through the diverse literary, and historically conditioned, words of human beings.”[3] Or, “To state the claim more positively, biblical theology corresponds to the interests of the texts themselves.”[4]

Carson expresses well the contribution of biblical theology:

But ideally, biblical theology, as its name implies, even as it works inductively from the diverse texts of the Bible, seeks to uncover and articulate the unity of all the biblical texts taken together, resorting primarily to the categories of those texts themselves. In this sense it is canonical biblical theology, ‘whole-Bible’ biblical theology.[5]

Biblical theology may limit itself to the theology of Genesis, the Pentateuch, Matthew, Romans, or even all of Paul. And yet biblical theology may also comprehend the entire canon of scripture, in which the storyline of the scriptures as a whole is integrated. Too often expositional preachers limit themselves to Leviticus, Matthew, or Revelation without considering the place they inhabit in the storyline of redemptive history. They isolate one part of the scripture from another, and hence preach in a truncated way instead of proclaiming the whole counsel of God. Gerhard Hasel rightly remarks that we need to do biblical theology in a way “that seeks to do justice to all dimensions of reality to which the biblical texts testify.”[6] Doing such theology is not merely the task for seminary professors; it is the responsibility of every preacher of the word!

We think again about the differences between systematic and biblical theology, for which Carson charts the way.[7] Systematic theology considers the contribution of historical theology, and hence mines the work of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and countless others in formulating the teaching of scripture. Systematic theology attempts to speak forth the word of God directly to our cultural setting and our day. Obviously, then, any good preacher must be rooted in systematics to speak a profound and powerful word to his contemporaries.

Biblical theology is more inductive and foundational. Carson rightly says that biblical theology is a “mediating discipline,” whereas systematic theology is a “culminating discipline.” We can say, then, that biblical theology is intermediate, functioning as a bridge between the historical and literary study of scripture and dogmatic theology.

Biblical theology, then, works from the text in its historical context. That’s not to say that biblical theology is a purely neutral or objective enterprise. The notion that we can neatly separate what it meant from what it means, as Krister Stendahl claimed, is a chimera. Scobie says the following about biblical theology:

Its presuppositions, based on a Christian faith commitment, include belief that the Bible conveys a divine revelation, that the Word of God in Scripture constitutes the norm of Christian faith and life, and that all the varied material in both Old and New Testaments can in some way be related to the plan and purpose of the one God of the whole Bible. Such a Biblical Theology stands somewhere between what the Bible ‘meant’ and what it ‘means’.[8]

It follows, then, that biblical theology is not confined to only the New Testament or the Old Testament, but that it considers both Testaments together as the word of God. Indeed, biblical theology works from the notion that the canon of scripture functions as its norm, and thus both Testaments are needed to unpack the theology of scripture.

BALANCING THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENT

There is a wonderful dialectic between the Old Testament and the New Testament in doing biblical theology. The New Testament represents the culmination of the history of redemption begun in the Old Testament, and hence biblical theology is by definition a narrative theology. It captures the story of God’s saving work in history. The historical unfolding of what God has done may be described as salvation history or redemptive history.

It is also fruitful to consider the scriptures from the standpoint of promise and fulfillment: what is promised in the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament. We must beware of erasing the historical particularity of Old Testament revelation, so that we expunge the historical context in which it was birthed. On the other hand, we must acknowledge the progress of revelation from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Such progress of revelation recognizes the preliminary nature of the Old Testament and the definitive word that comes in the New Testament. To say that the Old Testament is preliminary does not cancel out its crucial role, for we can only understand the New Testament when we have also grasped the meaning of the Old Testament, and vice-versa.

Some are hesitant to embrace typology, but such an approach is fundamental to biblical theology, since it is a category employed by the biblical writers themselves. What is typology? Typology is the divinely intended correspondences between events, persons, and institutions in the Old Testament and their fulfillment in Christ in the New,[9] as when Matthew refers in his Gospel to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ return from Egypt in the language of the Israel’s departure from Egypt (Matt. 2:15; Ex. 4:22, 23; Hos. 11:1). Of course, not only do the New Testament authors observe these “divinely-intended correspondences.” The Old Testament authors do as well. For instance, both Isaiah and Hosea predict a new exodus that will be patterned after the first exodus. In the same way, the Old Testament expects a new David who will be even greater than the first David. We see in the Old Testament itself, then, an escalation in typology, so that the fulfillment of the type is always greater than the type itself. Jesus is not only a new David, but the greater David.

Typology acknowledges a divine pattern and purpose in history. God is the final author of scripture—the story is a divine drama. And God knows the end from the beginning, so that we as readers can see adumbrations of the final fulfillment in the Old Testament.

[footnotes]

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.