“It is possible to know Bible stories, yet miss the Bible story.”
An Introduction to Biblical Theology
Imagine that you are standing at the edge of a very large and very thick forest. You are adamant about reaching a specific destination on the other side. You have no map. Obviously, once you enter the forest it would be very hard to gather your bearings, to see exactly where you are in relation to the destination, and so forth.
In this situation it would be crucial to have a ‘birds-eye view,’ a map to direct you. See, a good map reduces any area that is too vast for us to understand from a limited perspective. Seeing the whole keeps us from ‘missing the forest for the trees’, which often happens when we read our Bibles. The point, the Bible as a whole is a ‘unity.’ It is one great story, with a story line that traces an unfolding drama.
J.I. Packer masterfully illustrates why this truth is so astonishing;
“The Bible consists of sixty six separate units, written over more than a thousand years against a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, by people who for the most part worked independently of each other and show no awareness that their books would become canonical Scripture…Books written centuries apart seem to have been designed for the express purpose of supplementing each other and illuminating each other.”
In other words, Biblical theology explores the rich and multi-sided presentation of the Bibles unified message. What Biblical Theology allows us to do is “follow the line of the plot and offer a guide to the underlying story of all stories”, namely the story of Jesus Christ.
Biblical Theology will not only strengthen your understanding of the Bible, but will also strengthen your faith in the sovereignty of God. It quickly becomes apparent that only God’s sovereign hand in history could maintain a unified drama that stretches over thousands of years.
What is the Discipline of ‘Biblical Theology’?
The word ‘Theology’ can simply be defined as “teaching or discourse about God.” God can only be known through God. He has chosen to reveal himself in His Word. Although “Scripture is our theology” it is not necessarily evident that Christian theology is presented in an organized way in the Bible. In one sense, all true Christian Theology must be Biblical Theology. But Biblical Theology as a discipline has a specific function. Traditionally “Theological Disciplines” are divided into three camps that refer to a particular way of doing theology.
- Systematic Theology: This is the most popular of organizational theological systems. Systematic Theology is primarily concerned with “organizing and synthesizing theological doctrines” under headings and topics. Systematic Theology asks the question ‘what should we believe about an aspect of Christianity?’ with the aim of formulating doctrine.
- Historical Theology: This approach seeks to organize theology under its historical development. Simply put, Historical Theology is the “study of the changing face of theology across time.” Historical Theology asks the question ‘what have Christians believed about their faith at any given time?’ with the aim of providing a record of the development of Christian doctrine.
- Biblical Theology: “This approach is principally concerned with the overall theological message of the Bible.” Biblical Theology asks ‘by what process has God revealed himself to mankind?’ with an aim at properly relating the whole of the Bible to our Christian life now.
Biblical Theology occupies an important position in the study of theology. What makes Biblical Theology unique among other theological disciplines is that stands extremely close to the Biblical text by allowing the scripture to dictate its organization by the guidelines of historic progression.
Biblical Theology provides a map to helps us understand the overall unity of the Bible and helps us see that there is a central message to the Bible rather than a number of ‘unrelated stories and themes.’ Biblical Theology operates under the premise that the Bible is a unified history of God’s progressive revelation to mankind.
How can Biblical Theology be Helpful?
1. Proper Interpretation
First, Biblical Theology helps us correctly interpret the text within the context of the whole Biblical cannon. We often hear people argue that ‘we must understand the text within its context.’ But this comment is often made in reference to the immediate context of the passage (i.e. – the book which we find the passage in). But the “context must include the whole Biblical revelation, as well as the book in which the text occurs.”
“Biblical theology focuses on the storyline of scripture—the unfolding of God’s plan in redemptive history, so that in every passage we consider the place of that text in relationship to the whole storyline of the Bible.”
One of the most important questions Biblical Theology helps us ask is “by what process has God revealed himself?” The answer to this question will help us properly apply the Scripture. Only Biblical Theology will guard us from misusing the Bible, as we read each text in the context of the progressive revelation of God’s redemptive work.
God has chosen to reveal Himself in a “long series of successive acts,” therefore we should seek to understand all things in the Bible within the ‘History of Redemption.’ So, Biblical Theology is concerned with how the revelation of God was understood in its time, and what the total picture is that what was built up over the whole historical process.” What we begin to see is that “there is something growing before our eyes; there is a plan, purpose, and progress.”
Second, Biblical Theology helps us understand and resolve many difficulties we might have in hard to understand passages. Some parts of the Bible are difficult to understand. Some parts of the Bible seem to lack a sense of consistency when compared to what the Bible teaches elsewhere. Some of them are just strange because we, as modern people, do not live in the world of the Biblical writers. For example;
- Some passages use figures of speech or images that are hard to grasp without understanding their background.
- Some passages are capable of having different ranges of meaning, and the context often helps us understand what it actually means.
- Some passages seem to present moral difficulties and are simply hard to believe.
Christians with very similar convictions about the Bible can disagree over what the Bible teaches on certain subjects. I am not going to suggest that studying Biblical Theology will solve all of our interpretive problems. But, I agree with Graeme Goldsworthy when he argues that;
“Any Christian who wants to develop a sound method of approaching the text of the Bible in order to find out what it really says and means, needs an understanding of Biblical theology.”
2. Proper Application
First, understanding and applying the Old and New Testament can be difficult and is often applied in inappropriate ways. Biblical Theology helps guard us from making this mistake. To illustrate this point lets consider a few ‘problems’ in interpretation that Biblical Theology will provide the proper framework to think through these issues;
- The Old Testament is pre-Christian and never mentions the distinctives of the Christian faith. The people of Israel are not Christians and cannot be said to live “Christian” lives. How then do we properly view the relationship between Israel and us?
- The Old Testament contains many distinctives that we do not observe. Consider that some Christians attempt to distinguish OT laws as either “ritual” or “moral.” By what means do we understand how these passages apply to us?
- Every part of the Old Testament (prophecy, law, narrative, wisdom sayings, and psalms) needs to be understood as Christian scripture. If the Old Testament is a preparation of the New Testament, then why is the religion of one so different than the other?
- Jesus is does not simply function as our moral example. How then do we understand the unique person and work of Jesus Christ in relation to us?
- There are events in the New Testament that do not seem to be the normative pattern for us today. How then do we discern these events in light of our current context?
Biblical Theology examines the development of the Bible story from the Old Testament to the New, and seeks to understand the interrelationships between the two parts. Biblical Theology argues that there is coherence to the Bible as a whole.
Second, there is another difficulty which is more elusive and often becomes the most problematic in interpreting the Bible. This is the art of discerning ‘personal application.’
“Paying attention to Biblical Theology is an effective means of turning people away from the destructive postmodern question ‘what does this text mean to me?’ to the more fruitful question ‘what does this text mean?’”
One of the hard truths that we are confronted with in Biblical Theology is that “the Bible is not about you and I.” Yet this is often how the Bible is read, understood, and applied. Biblical Theology equips us to properly approach the Old and New Testaments through the lens of Jesus Christ.
Only when the primary question of the text’s meaning is answered can the other, secondary question of the application of the text to our lives be addressed properly. This prevents our application of the text from becoming a “formality or springboard for…moralizing exhortations.”
Jesus Christ Interprets the Whole Bible
If every part of the Bible needs to be understood as Christian scripture as a coherent unit, where do we start?
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
One of the central problems we have in interpreting the Bible comes from a failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of Jesus Christ’s gospel. In dealing with what happened before Christ and what happened after Christ, we need to interpret those events through Christ. Jesus Christ provides meaning for all the events in history before and after him.
Jesus is God’s Final and Fullest Revelation
- Prophetic Word: Completed (Hebrews 1:1-2)
- All Prophecy: Fulfilled (Acts 13:32-33)
- David’s Line: Ended (Romans 1:3)
- Promise to David: Fulfilled (Acts 2:30-31)
- OT proclaims salvation: In Christ (2 Timothy 3:15)
- Whole OT: Concerns Christ (Luke 24:27)
If Jesus is the central subject of the Old Testament we cannot correctly understand it without Him. In fact, Goldsworthy writes;
“The Old Testament does not stand on its own, because it is incomplete without its conclusion and fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ. No part can be rightly understood without him. In this sense it is about Christ. God’s revelation is progressive, moving in stages from the original promises given to Israel, until the fullest meaning of these promises is revealed in Christ…Thus Christ, interprets the New and Old Testaments.”
Simply put, the gospel of Jesus Christ is needed to interpret all texts by showing us their goal and meaning.
Therefore, the relationship of Jesus Christ to Scripture is that he sums it up, brings it to fulfillment, and interprets it. So the Bible is God’s inspired testimony to the living Word, Jesus Christ. This is important for our understanding; “No one is able to understand Christ without God’s Word and the Holy Spirit.”
There is the Philosophical argument that ‘historical facts do not always interpret themselves’, I believe that this applies to correctly interpreting the whole of the Bible. The facts of the Bible make up the larger story of God’s progressive revelation of himself and his kingdom. God revealed himself in stages.
Goldsworthy (the ‘grandfather’ of Biblical Theology) rightly admits; “I know it will not always be a simple matter to show how every text in the Bible speaks of Christ.” But that does not alter the fact that it does. In fact Biblical Theology is based off the premise that ‘Jesus is the final and fullest revelation of what the Bible is actually about.’ Tim Keller provides some excellent examples of ‘how’ we can look at certain events in the Biblical narrative in relation to Christ;
- Jesus is the true and greater Adam who passed the test in the garden and whose obedience is accredited to us.
- Jesus is the true and greater Abraham who answered the call of God to leave all the comfortable and familiar and go out into the void not knowing wither he went to create a new people of God.
- Jesus is the true and greater Isaac who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was truly sacrificed for us. And when God said to Abraham, “Now I know you love me because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love from me,” now we can look at God taking his son up the mountain and sacrificing him and say, “Now we know that you love us because you did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love from us.”
- Jesus is the true and greater Jacob who wrestled and took the blow of justice we deserved, so we, like Jacob, only receive the wounds of grace to wake us up and discipline us.
- Jesus is the true and greater Joseph who, at the right hand of the king, forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his new power to save them.
- Jesus is the true and greater Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord and who mediates a new covenant.
- Jesus is the true and greater Job, the truly innocent sufferer, who then intercedes for and saves his ignorant friends.
- Jesus is the true and greater David whose victory becomes his people’s victory, though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.
- Jesus is the true and greater Jonah who was cast out into the storm of God’s wrath so that we could be brought in to safety.
Jesus is the Link between every part of the Bible and Ourselves
Remember, “the Bible is not about you and I.” As believers we should be concerned with the proper interpretation of the Bible so we can understand what God is saying to us through His word. Without some understanding of the overall structure of the Bible it is very difficult to correctly apply the Bible to our own lives. When reading any Biblical passage it is critical that we ask two questions before attempting to apply the text to ourselves;
- How does this text relate to Christ?
- How do we relate to Christ?
The Bible is very clear that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), therefore God’s word must be mediated to us through Jesus Christ. “Even the words of the Old Testament are mediated through Christ in that we only know what God is saying to us through them when we see them fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” Jesus Christ is the link between every part of the Bible and us.
With this in mind we examine the Word of God for the content of Christ’s gospel and for clues to its relationship with all other parts of the Bible. The gospel is the word about Jesus Christ and what he did for us in order to restore us to a right relationship with God. The historic event of Jesus Christ is God’s fullest self-discloser to mankind. Christ brings to full clarity the promises and shadows of the Old Testament. Christ is the starting point and the goal towards which we will move.
Appendix to Session One
The Bible is the Divine-Human Word of God
All of Biblical history finds its goal and meaning in Jesus Christ. The Bible is God’s testimony to Christ. The Bible is a divine-human Word. It is a word given through human beings within their own history and culture. Goldsworthy writes;
“The Bible bears all the marks of its authors. Their language, thought forms, literary styles and forms. Their culture shapes the actual way the messages were given. So, God acted by his Sprit to inspire the biblical authors so that the humanity of the Bible would be exactly what was needed to convey the truth of God without error. When we speak of the Bibles infallibility we mean that it conveys exactly what God intended it to. God does not allow human sinfulness to interfere with his communication of the truth.”
Jesus is the Divine-Human Word of God
Jesus was fully God and fully man. He is the Word incarnate, which means ‘Word in human flesh.’ In Christ we have God who has always been (John 1:1) taking upon himself complete human flesh (John 1:14). This has specific implications on the discipline of Biblical Theology.
a. Jesus is fully God
He comes from the Father with whom he is one. To have seen him is to have seen the Father. God who established every fact there is, and who can interpret all things, has become man. In Jesus we have the absolute truth of God. Everything revealed to us in Jesus is truth, and he is our ultimate source of truth.
b. Jesus is fully man
God communicates to us through his humanity. He lived in history. This means that he spoke, acted, and thought as a first century Jew of Palestine. Being fully human he experienced the full range of human emotions, suffering, and temptation. “The significant exception was that he was untouched by original sin, and committed no sin.” Therefore he lived in perfect harmony with the Father.
Our aim in Biblical Theology is to “see the Lord of the Word in the Word of the Lord” so that we “take account of the full drama of redemption, and its realization in Christ” as the final and definitive installment.
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- Edmund P. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 11.
- J.I. Packer, Forward to Edmond Clowney’s The Unfolding Mystery, 7-8.
- Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 13 -16.
- John Owen, Biblical Theology, 4.
- See the Appendix for an explanation of what I mean by ‘Word.’
- Owen, Biblical Theology, 17.
- Goldsworthy would add ‘Pastoral Theology’ and ‘Exegetical Theology’ to the list of theological organizational systems. I have chosen to leave them off because these two primarily function on higher Academic levels. You can find Goldsworthy’s list in According to Plan on pages 29-36.
- See Wayne Grudem’s book Systematic Theology for an excellent example of this organizational structure.
- D.A. Carson, Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 101.
- Carson, Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology, 91.
- Brian S. Rosner, Biblical Theology, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 3.
- In his classic book Biblical Theology Geerhardus Vos writes that “Biblical Theology occupies a position between exegesis and Systematic Theology” (v) among the theological disciplines. In fact, D.A. Carson argues that Biblical Theology stands closer to the text than Systematic Theology. (103)
- P.J.H. Adam, “Preaching and Biblical Theology”, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 107.
- Thomas Schreiner, Preaching and Biblical Theology, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 10 (2006), 20-29.
- Adam, Preaching and Biblical Theology, 108.
- Vos, Biblical Theology, 5.
- For an excellent treatment on ‘Biblical Theology and the History of Redemption’ see chapter four of Graeme Goldsworthy’s section Gospel and Kingdom found in the book ‘Goldsworthy Trilogy.’
- Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 26.
- Daniel Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, 22.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 19.
- Adam, Preaching and Biblical Theology, 110.
- Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 30.
- Luke 24:27
- John 5:39
- This chart is found in Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan on page 51.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 52.
- The word’s ‘revelation’ and ‘progressive’ in the paragraph above are key for understanding the Scripture. Revelation simply means that God has made himself known. This revelation is progressive because God made himself and his purposes known in stages until His purposes were revealed in Jesus Christ.
- See Appendix for further detail.
- The significance of Jesus is not always self-evident; this is even observed in our record of the people who knew him as a contemporary. (Matthew 16:15-17)
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 64.
- This has been adapted from the message ‘Preaching the Gospel’ by Tim Keller delivered at the Reform and Resurge Conference, May 2006.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 72.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 63.
- Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 61.
- It is not possible for us to fully know, even as regenerate believers, ‘how’ (in a scientific sense) Jesus was fully God and fully man. This is a revealed theological mystery, and any attempt to penetrate it with logic or philosophy will end in reducing or lifting one aspect of his being over another.
- Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, 16.
- Edmund Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture, 11.