What is “biblical theology”?

We tend to contrast “biblical theology” with unbiblical theology, with bad doctrine and even heretical thought. But in our case, we’re talking about biblical theology as a distinct discipline; for example, we talk of exegesis, systematic theology, historical theology, and biblical theology.

Exegesis

This is theology done in its smallest pieces, reflecting on the meaning at the following levels:

  • Linguistic: The simplest version of this is looking up an English word that you don’t quite know; and the next step up from that is doing any kind of word studies of the original biblical languages.
  • Grammatical and Syntactical: Here we study the form and logic of phrases, clauses, and sentences. If your English teacher ever had you diagramming sentences, you were doing a syntactical analysis.
  • Discourse: Here we get to passage study, where we examine several verses or even of a few chapters of the Bible for flow of thought, emphasis, plot, and so forth.

This is where we all start, even if we’re just reading the Bible in our own mother tongue. But none of us reads in a holy vacuum; therefore, we tend to be doing a little bit of the other kinds of theology as soon as we start. Even if you’re reading “In the beginning God created…” rather than “…בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים” (Gen 1:1), you would likely start wondering about time and God’s eternality, about which “god” this is, and what the word בָּרָא/ bārāʾ (“created”) means. And what if you start at the first page of the Gospel according to John? “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him” (John 1:1–3, NLT)

Creation
Creation

You would begin theologizing at the words “beginning” and “the Word,” and what if you into account both Genesis 1:1–3 and Proverbs 8?

The LORD formed me from the beginning, before he created anything else. I was appointed in ages past, at the very first, before the earth began. I was born before the oceans were created, before the springs bubbled forth their waters. Before the mountains were formed, before the hills, I was born— before he had made the earth and fields and the first handfuls of soil. I was there when he established the heavens, when he drew the horizon on the oceans. I was there when he set the clouds above, when he established springs deep in the earth. I was there when he set the limits of the seas, so they would not spread beyond their boundaries. And when he marked off the earth’s foundations, I was the architect at his side. I was his constant delight, rejoicing always in his presence. And how happy I was with the world he created; how I rejoiced with the human family! (Prov 8:22–31, NLT)

You couldn’t avoid doing a little bit of biblical theology and some systematic theology. And since you’re located in history yourself and probably share in some theological tradition, you would even be doing some unconscious historical theology.

Systematic Theology

Systematic theology organizes the material around topical foci and tries to take into account everything that Scripture teaches that would clarify our thought on what constitutes a “biblical” view of God, the nature of man, the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, sin, and so forth. And this isn’t just a work of cataloguing biblical truths; the exercise itself involves interpretation. Indeed, this is where the old adage comes into play:

Interpret the difficult passages in the light of the clear passages.

So, what if you were reflecting on what the Bible teaches about creation? If you were reading in Genesis 1:1–3 and knew about John 1:1–3, you would recognize that John’s “in the beginning” harkens back to the creation account. You would notice that the active agent in Genesis is “God” (אֱלֹהִים/ʾĕlōhîm), but for the same story, John has the λόγος/logos (“word”) as the agent, whom he then calls “God” (θεός/theos). And if we pulled Proverbs 8 into the discussion, we would see that “wisdom” (חָכְמָה/ḥokmâ) is the active agent. That will necessarily lead you to do some systematizing to clarify just exactly who did create the heavens and the earth, the eternality of the Logos, and even how you can relate the story about Lady Wisdom (Prov 8:22–31) to Jesus Christ as the power and wisdom of God (Luke 11:49; 1 Cor 1:24, 30; Col 1:15; 2:3).

Historical Theology

In one way, historical theology is a subset of systematic theology; in another way, it’s a subset of church history. It follows the topical arrangement of systematic theology, but layered on top of that is the historical development of Christian systematic theology. Throughout church history, theologians have refined how the church talks about biblical matters. Often the hot refiner’s fire was stoked by controversies and battles against those who come to be recognized as heretics, for example, the Trinitarian and Christological controversies. Sometimes the refinement came as a corrective to a lack of focus on essential aspects of biblical teaching. We see that pattern in the Reformation’s emphasize on the solas: Sola scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo gloria.

This work is not a linear work moving from crude to refined, from imperfect to nearly perfect; rather it generally responds to facts on the ground in the church world and to apologetic concerns. So the work is never done. Hence, the saying, “Reformed and being reformed.” Hence the recent return to forceful discussion Trinitarian theology.

Biblical Theology

Now we get to the focus of these blogs, biblical theology. Whereas systematic theology organizes theology along the lines of topical foci, and historical theology organizes it along the lines of historical development in church history, biblical theology tries to reflect the dynamic of progressive revelation within the biblical canon. By “progressive revelation,” we refer to the very thing the author of Hebrews mentions: “Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe” (Heb 1:1–2). The book of Hebrews moves on from this notice to describe the various ways God revealed himself in the Old Testament, pointing out how all of this was fulfilled in a “better” way in Jesus Christ: better revelation, priest, sacrifice, and tabernacle.

Geerhardus Vos
Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949). Considered the father of Reformed biblical theology.

And that leads us to typology, a significant element in any methodical approach to how we relate Old Testament revelation to fulfillment in the New Testament. And that’s going to be our business for the next several posts. Throughout these blogs, I will be doing biblical theology that builds upon a typological foundation. And my own foundations are in the work of men like Patrick Fairbairn, Gerhardus Vos, Leonhard Goppelt, E. Earle Ellis, and Edmund Clowney. I think I’ll leave the bibliography entries for those as we actually treat their contributions in future blogs.

Questions & Reflections

  1. When you think of the expression “biblical theology,” what do you think of?
  2. How does this blog distinguish biblical theology from systematic and historical theology?

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