Tracing Motific Trajectories throughout the Grand Narrative
Traditional thematic approaches to biblical theology often just borrow the categories of systematic theology to build out a biblical theology, but I’m not talking about that kind of topical approach. What I propose is developing a biblical theology that traces key representative themes that sprout in the Old Testament but come to full bloom only in the New Testament.
The Old Testament is Jesus’s family story
In the mid-twentieth century, renewed attention to the legitimate role of typological interpretation provided some methodological underpinnings for such an approach,1 and by the end of the century, studies on the New Testament use of the Old had begun to flourish. I think of the work of Gerhardus Vos, Leonard Goppelt, E. Earle Ellis, and Richard Hays.2 Nowadays, it’s a simple matter to find indexes on the New Testament’s use of the Old, commentaries on that usage, and their electronic equivalents embedded in the data of various Bible software programs.3 This motific approach to the Old in the New may not serve to cover the biblical content comprehensively in any particular work—how long would that book have to be? But it will provide a tool for reading the Bible theologically wherever you land in it, from Eden to Egypt and Babylon, from the mount of transfiguration to Golgotha and on to that great high mountain in new Jerusalem. This approach has the innate capacity to deal adequately with any of the Old Testament material—just not all of it at once.
The Old Testament Is Jesus’s Family Story
Before we focus in on individual themes that come to fulfillment in Christ, we should note that the whole story line moved in that direction; so Jesus picked up every strand of the Old Testament story and spoke of himself as its fulfillment. He’s the fulfillment of the purpose of Adam’s race, he’s the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to bless the nations, he’s the fulfillment of the Davidic mandate to rule the nations, he’s the fulfillment of Suffering Servant’s mediating role in redemption, he brings the Sabbath law to fulfillment, he brings what the tabernacle and temple symbolized to fulfillment—and so forth.
Even if we hadn’t recognized this upon finishing our first read of the Old Testament, we would be forced to reckon with it as soon as we read even the opening words of the New Testament. In our English Bibles, the Old Testament ends with these words:4 “Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the LORD arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). At that stage, redemptive history stands poised at the decisive choice: repentance and blessing, or refusal and curse. Then we turn a page and the New Testament begins, “This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of David and of Abraham” (Matt 1:1, see vv. 2–16). And Luke’s version of this family record even goes back to Adam: “Jesus was known as the son of Joseph…. the son of Adam… the son of God” (Luke 3:23–38). Without the Old Testament, we would open the New Testament and immediately have to start asking, “Who’s David?” “Who’s Abraham?” “Who’s Adam?” For that matter, we would wonder, “Who’s God?”—or more likely, “Why are we talking about only one God?”
Beyond that, the New Testament presents the work of Jesus as the fulfillment of so much in the Old Testament. If we didn’t have the Old Testament, what would we do with New Testament phrases like these?
“It is written…”
“For it stands in Scripture…”
“This happened to fulfill…”
“Scripture cannot be broken”
“…according to the Scriptures”
“You know neither the Scriptures, nor the power of God…”
“Have you never read this Scripture/in the Scriptures…?”
And that would only scratch the surface of New Testament use of the Old. If we branch out from those signals of direct citation and quotations, cataloging and explaining the breadth of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament turns into an exhausting challenge.
Watch for my upcoming Advent series on the Jesse Tree, which will run daily throughout Advent, beginning December 1. The series will apply this understanding of how biblical theology works to the Old Testament’s way of looking forward to Christ.text
CHILDREN’S VERSIONIf you would like to do this with smaller children, a version suitable for them can be had HERE.
The “Jesse Tree” traces the messianic hope throughout the Bible up until the birth of the Christ child. The reference to “Jesse” comes from Isaiah’s expression of messianic hope.
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
Following that line of hope, and hanging an ornament for each day’s lesson throughout the Advent season is a good change-up from opening a little window and eating a chocolate from a Hallmark Advent calendar—and it definitely beats the “twelve days of Christmas.”
These blogs first began as something my wife and did for our two daughters and our young grandchildren. My wife made representative tree ornaments for each of the characters that will follow in this blog, and I wrote a short lesson for each. My daughters used them with our grandchildren, and soon their friends and friends of friends were asking if they could get a copy. So we produced a booklet and some charts for creating decorations each day. Then some of the mothers asked for an “adult” version; so I wrote the original version of these blogs for them.
I’ll follow the same set of lessons that we did for the parents with children, and I won’t modify them much for “Theologizer.” My thinking is twofold:
Many of you have children or grandchildren, or you’re leading small groups or congregations of people with children. Perhaps you’ll want to share this tradition with them during this Advent season.
Even if you’re reading these on your own, it might be useful to see what the biblical-theological approach looks like in a simple form that’s addressing regular congregation members—or even sympathetic unbelievers who love Christmas.
So, I’m hoping you’ll enjoy engaging in some daily biblical-theological reflection at the simple level that’s appropriate for parents with children.
Biblical Theology of the “Jesse Tree”
Scripture: Isa 11:1–10
The Bible says, “God chose [Jesus] as your ransom long before the world began, but he has now revealed him to you in these last day” (1 Pet 1:20).1 In fact, God says, “Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes” (Eph 1:4). God was working his plan of salvation long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. And that’s what we want to highlight throughout Advent.
Jesse had seven sons. Some of them may have seemed impressive sorts to Samuel, and God had sent him to anoint one of them as king. But God told Samuel, “Don’t judge by [their] appearance or height…. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). In fact, God had chosen Jesse’s youngest son to become Israel’s greatest king. David was the first royal branch from “the Jesse tree.”
Through thick and thin, the promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty stood true, whether Israel and the Davidic dynasty measured up to God’s expectations or not. Even when the Davidic kings broke covenant with God, his promise to David and his descendants remained in effect. So Isaiah could promise, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit…. In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (Isa 11:1, 10 ESV).
This figurative language about stumps, shoots, and branches promised renewal of the Davidic dynasty. Out of the apparently dead “stump of Jesse” there would sprout a new shoot (Isa 11:1). This new branch would bear “fruit from the old root,” that is the promise to David’s family would yet come to fruition in a “Son of David” (e.g., Matt 1:1). He would rule well, because God’s Spirit would rest on him, enduing him with all the attributes of a righteous king: “the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the LORD” (Isa 11:2).
A righteous king should “Fear the LORD and judge with integrity, for the LORD our God does not tolerate perverted justice, partiality, or the taking of bribes” (2 Chr 19:7). So just as God would not look on outward appearances when appointing his chosen king (1 Sam 16:7), this Davidic king would “not judge by appearance nor make a decision based on hearsay”; rather, the Spirit’s anointing would enable him to “make fair decisions.” He would rule like God himself rules over his people (Isa 11:3–6).
And that just rule will establish a kingdom of perfect peace, indeed heavenly peace (Isa 11:7–9). Animals that now fight or fear each other will live in peace (v. 7), babies will be safe even “near the hole of a cobra” (v. 8). “Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (v. 9), which was the site of the ancient Davidic throne.
More importantly, it was God’s own throne, upon which God’s anointed king would rule over God’s people. Under the Old Testament arrangement, that meant theocratic rule over Israel. But even then, it included others who joined Israel in worshiping the one true God. That might be David’s own great-grandmother Ruth the Moabitess, or a resident alien who came to be a disciple of the Lord God. The ultimate goal of this kingdom was not just to bless Israel alone with peace and righteous rule. No, God’s goal was to bless all nations. That was why he called Abraham in the first place (Gen 12:1–3), and it was why he raised up the Davidic dynasty. So the days of fulfillment for the Davidic promise are described this way: “In that day the heir to David’s throne will be a banner of salvation to all the world. The nations will rally to him, and the land where he lives will be a glorious place” (Isa 11:10).
Each day throughout December, the Jesse Tree lessons will keep reminding us that God keeps his promises, especially his greatest promise. The Bible stories we’ll recount show how God kept on reminding his people that a “Son of David” would come and fulfill every promise God ever made. When we celebrate Christmas, it ought to be with this note: “All of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’ And through Christ, our ‘Amen’ (which means ‘Yes’) ascends to God for his glory” (2 Cor 1:20). That should be the underlying motivation for our Christmas shouts, “Glory to God in the highest heaven!”
Mechanics of the “Jesse Tree”
“Theologizer” will become a daily blog between the first of December and the day after Christmas.
Each day’s blog will be posted in the earliest morning hours of each day.
Each day’s blog will be a lesson with appropriate “Questions, Reflections, and Commitments”
If you would like to produce ornaments for a “Jesse Tree,” you have two options:
You can get a simple cross-stitch pattern for each ornament and start working on them now. Click here to download cross-stitch patterns for all the daily ornaments.
You can get a paper copy of each ornament for children to cut out, color, paint, or decorate for tree hangings. Click here to download a simple coloring book for all the daily ornaments.
Questions, Reflections, and Commitments
Meditate on the linkage between the Jesse “tree” and our contemporary notion of a family tree. We tend to look backwards when we’re talking about the family tree; however, the family tree of Jesse was very much a forward-looking genealogy.
As you read the description of the messianic kingdom that Isaiah gave us (Isa 11:1–11), refresh your contribution to the prayers of saints in all the ages: “May your Kingdom come soon. May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
Typology is an inner-biblical pattern of self-interpretation, but because the church has abused the method its reputation has suffered. In response to bad practice, the church has sometimes neglected or even disdained the typological method.
I remember telling students they should enroll in my Typology course, and they would respond, “Oh, I love typology!” But I couldn’t necessarily affirm their enthusiasm; they were almost certainly thinking of the popular allegorizing approach that finds theological significance in every little detail of the the Old Testament narrative and the tabernacle’s construction.
Following the pattern that Greeks had begun with their own core literature, Hellenized Jews and then Christians began allegorizing the Bible. Philo of Alexandria († AD 50), a Jewish philosopher who wrote during the early apostolic age, allegorized the Old Testament to harmonize it with Greek philosophy and super-enrich the Pentateuch’s1 narratives with spiritual lessons. And Christian interpreters followed the same practice.
Among the allegorizers, numbers could be manipulated at length. Of course, almost any occurrence of the number 3 became Trinitarian. And 5 and 10, 40 and 50, and 100 and a 1000 joined the list of spiritual numbers—and 6, 7, and 8, and so forth. An example of where this would lead is how the Epistle of Barnabas (ca. AD 100) interpreted the 318 fighting men of Abraham’s household as not only a generally spiritual number, but even a specifically Christian number (Gen 14:14):
Total = 318
After running the numbers through his allegorizing abacus, using Septuagint Greek rather than the original Hebrew, he said it pointed to ΙΗ, the first two letters of ΙΗΣΟΥΣ/Iēsous, plus Τ, the “cross.” And “Barnabas” even said “Christ crucified” was actually what the author meant by “318,” though only the “spiritual” were worthy and could understand it.2 One wonders how Ezra and his colleagues explained “318” when they read and explained Genesis 14:14 to the postexilic community (Neh 8:1–8).
Of course, we refer to Origen († 254) as the great allegorist. For example, he came found “the cross of Christ” in a passage like Genesis 6:14–15. The Hebrew is עֲצֵי גֹפֶר/ʿăṣê-gōper (“wood of gopher“), which is an unknown tree, probably resinous;3 but the LXX4 rendered it as ξύλων τετραγώνων/xylōn tetragōnōn, or “squared wood.” Origen considered that to be a clear reference to the cross, rather than to marine timber and planking. And as for the ark’s dimensions: “The length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits” (Gen 6:15):
300 = 3 x 100
Trinity + a full number
the number of forgiveness
30 = 3 x 10
Trinity + a number of fullness
His calculations didn’t describe a boat 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high; rather, he concluded that it shows that Jesus Christ is a spiritual “Noah” who “established these numbers in the church,” which is the ark of the New Testament.
Origen insisted that it was important to get to the spiritual meaning, because the bare letter kills.5 He allowed that the literal historical sense had some value, but it was mainly for common people who could never understand the spiritual sense. So one wonders if Origen felt like it was okay for the common layman to be killed by this “letter”-level understanding.
It’s worth noting Christian allegorizers didn’t necessarily wander from orthodox doctrine; indeed, they tended to work their allegorizing magic to pack as much of that orthodoxy as possible into any particular text they were studying.
Nonetheless, we can’t conclude, “no harm, no foul.”
Heretics could use the same method to load up the biblical text with their own doctrine; and no objective natural interpretation of Scripture could challenge it. Once the interpreter adopted the allegorizing mindset, the interpreter and his theology rather than the text was in control of the teaching.
The method took the Bible away from the ordinary people and handed it to the church hierarchy. This is a natural and even unavoidable corollary of the allegorizing approach. Once you opt for “another” meaning, some authority outside the text has to validate that meaning.6
Antiochene School of Interpretation
In contrast, the Antiochene school of interpretation fostered a more natural interpretation of the biblical text. Methodius († ca. 311), Chrystostom († 407), and Theodore of Mopsuestia († 428) are some proponents. And Augustine of Hippo († 430) essentially followed the Antiochene method. Even though he displayed allegorizing tendencies,7 he denied that the contrast between the letter that kills and the Spirit that gives life (2 Cor 3:6) has anything to do with allegorizing the text. Instead, he said the “letter” was the Mosaic covenant, which meant death because it condemns all men as sinners.8 And in his Christian Instruction, he set out some rules for what we might now call historical-grammatical interpretation:
He warned against blind adherence to the letter without attention to its practical meaning (2 Cor 3:6). This sounds about like a homiletics prof warning students not to stop with exegesis but move on to application so they don’t end up “preaching” a commentary rather than a sermon. Or the reader being told to learn and then heed the word (Rom 2:13; Jas 1:22).
He insisted that that we must follow the author’s intention, or we’ll undermine the authority of Scripture and go astray. And this rule is the Achilles heel of allegorization—and a good warning in this postmodern interpretive environment.
He noted that there are “problems” in the Bible; so he said we must interpret the difficult passages by the plainer passages.9
He warned against treating figurative expressions literally—and vice versa—noting that what is clearly figurative cannot be taken literally, such as “eat my flesh and drink my blood” (John 6:54–56).
He said the seven rules of Tyconius were like “keys to open the secrets of Scripture.”10
That finishes the discussion of allegorizing for now, although we’ll deal with it everywhere as we talk of the various types and how to read them—and how not to read them.
In the next blog, we’ll discuss various attempts to rehabilitate the typological method, which had been compromised by too much allegorization. You might wonder just how to follow a more controlled exegesis while doing typology—how typology and grammatical-historical exegesis work together.
Questions & Reflections
How would you distinguish typological interpretation from allegorization? Do you think such a distinction is necessary or even useful?
This is my response to a Facebook post that asked the following question: “Why would I ever preach from the Old Testament until after I have preached everything in the New Testament?” With some editing, here’s how I responded on Facebook:
Because you would immediately and permanently remove the largest part of Scripture from your preaching rota. How long would you have to preach before you “preached everything in the New Testament”?
Because you would be living in practical denial of Paul’s declaration that all Scripture is useful for preaching, teaching, and Christian discipleship (2 Tim 3:16). And of course the only Scripture Paul would have been speaking of is what we now call the Old Testament.
Because you would be ignoring the core path to preaching a proper understanding of Christ, which Jesus himself taught during the Emmaus encounters (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47). It was Christological interpretation of the Old Testament that opened their minds to understand Scripture; so excluding the Old Testament from the pulpit would be closing your mind and the minds of your congregation to the understanding of Scripture.
Because you would be violating core apostolic commands about preaching: (1) Preach Christ, and (2) preach the Word—which would have been the Old Testament at that time.
Because you would be modeling Marcionite practice, effectively rejecting the Old Testament. In doing so, two things would very likely happen: (1) Your congregation would infer that the Old Testament wasn’t really Scripture, but maybe second-level stuff like the Apocrypha. I suppose it wouldn’t be long till your congregation saw “Daniel” and “Tobit” on about the same level. (2) You would move toward idolatrous worship in the following sense: You would create “Jesus” in a fashion that fulfillment of the Old Testament would never countenance—even if you figured you had successfully managed it in the New—and then worship that “Jesus.”
This question sounds like the flip side of another question about how we might be able to preach: “Is it possible to preach a biblical sermon without mentioning Jesus Christ?” To this question and the one in the OP, my answer is this: “Why would you ever want to?!”
I think the real issue isn’t about preaching the Old Testament, but how to go about preaching Christ from the Scriptures—all of it, Old and New Testaments. I think I’ll use one of the very next blogs to recommend some preaching resources that help on this:
How to avoid moralizing sermons and preach the genuine biblical-theological substance of a text. For example, you don’t preach the David and Goliath story and encourage your congregation to believe that if they really trust God, they can kill bad people. Hint: David isn’t a type of you, he’s a type of Jesus, who triumphs over all his enemies.
How to avoid allegorizing and preach the genuine biblical-theological substance of the text. For example, you don’t preach the David and Goliath story and encourage people to believe that if they really trust God they can slay the “giants” in their lives—like depression, alcoholism, wife beating, and pornography. Hint: David’s life isn’t an allegory of your walk with God; he’s a type of Christ, who has already triumphed.
In that Facebook response, I promised to write this blog and recommend some useful resources, so here goes:
Resources for Preaching Biblical-Theological Sermons
I think preaching expository sermons is the most robust way of preaching in general; however, I think a biblical-theological frame of reference can rescue and recommend the topical sermon. An example of that would be a sermon on “The ‘Immanuel’ Principle,” which I believe I’ll use for the blog that follows this one.1
Here are the two key textbooks I use when I teach preaching at Bible college or seminary level. You could use either for an self-guided study to freshen up your expository preaching skills.
Chapell, Bryan. Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005. This is an outstanding textbook on preaching, and he’s exceptionally strong on moving from solid exegesis to genuine application that’s rooted in preaching Christ from all the Scriptures.
Carter, Terry G., J. Scott Duvall, and J. Daniel Hays. Preaching God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Preparing, Developing, and Delivering the Sermon. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005. This is more broadly homiletical than Chapell; however, Carter et al. are excellent on how to move from exegesis to application and on identifying the Christological point anywhere in Scripture.
Besides textbooks on homiletics, I’ve found anything by Edmund Clowney, Sidney Greidanus, or Graeme Goldsworthy to be really helpful. So here’s some of their works that focus especially on preaching.
Clowney, Edmund P. Preaching and Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1961. This short book by one of my former professors is a foundational work on the subject. It may be hard to find a copy nowadays, but it’s worth hunting.
_____. “The Singing Savior.” Moody Monthly 79 (1980): 40–43. This is a magazine article that’s a wonderful example of what biblical theology looks like in a devotional work. If you would like a copy, I can email it. And once I figure out this blog site well enough, I’ll probably be uploading and linking it on my site.
_____. Preaching Christ in All of Scripture. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2003. I think you’ll love this work, even for devotional reading. And if you’re a preacher, you’ll probably be telling yourself, “I’m going to preach that one,… and that one,…” and so on.
Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1999. As you can tell from the title, this focuses on methodology. It warns against some erroneous ways of preaching from the Old Testament, and it sets out a solid methodology that “will preach.”
_____. Preaching Christ from Genesis: Foundations for Expository Sermons. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007. This is Greidanus himself applying that method to the book of Genesis.
_____. Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes: Foundations for ExpositoryPreaching. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010.
_____. Preaching Christ from Psalms: Foundations for Expository Preaching. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016.
Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000. Goldsworthy is the gold standard on this matter, as far as I’m concerned.
Finally, R. Kent Hughes, a great preaching pastor, is producing a fine series called Preaching the Word. So far, I know of the following works in that series. These volumes are not the thin gruel you often find in homiletical or expository commentaries; they’re robust application of the biblical-theological method to the Bible book each one treats:
Hughes, R. Kent. Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2004.
_____. Luke: That You May Know the Truth. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998.
_____. Mark: Jesus, Servant and Savior. Preaching the Word. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1989.
_____. Acts: The Church Afire. Preaching the Word. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1996.
_____. James: Faith That Works. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1991.
_____. Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990.
_____. Colossians and Philemon: The Supremacy of Christ. Preaching the Word. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1989.
_____. 2 Corinthians: Power in Weakness. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2006.
_____. Hebrews: An Anchor for the Soul. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1993.
Mathews, Kenneth A. Leviticus: Holy God, Holy People. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2009.
Ortlund, Raymond C. Proverbs: Wisdom That Works. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012.
Ryken, Philip Graham. Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory. Preaching the Word. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2005.
I won’t spell out the method in this post; rather, I’ll refer you to the stream of this blog. It’s all about the biblical-theological method. Because this question about preaching and biblical theology has come up, I think I’ll try to focus more on preaching and biblical theology than on just academic biblical theology as we go forward.
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.
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)
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 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).
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.
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.
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
When you think of the expression “biblical theology,” what do you think of?
How does this blog distinguish biblical theology from systematic and historical theology?
Thanks for joining me as we check our road map and begin our journey through the grand narrative of the Bible.
I started this blog to share my thoughts on biblical theology. I’ll talk of Old Testament, New Testament and whole-Bible theology. I hope my academic peers will begin to discover this blog and want to comment and contribute to the discussion of biblical theological exposition of Scripture. But I also want this to benefit the industrious lay Bible reader. So when I use technical terms or theological jargon, I’ll try to define and discuss my usage—call me out on this if you catch me slacking on that promise.
A significant driving thought in how I teach and think about biblical theology is the role of typology. For now, I’ll just define “biblical typology” as divinely intended forward-looking symbolism. For example, some symbolic aspect of the Old Testament’s contribution to the grand narrative of Scripture finds its fulfillment in the New Testament, generally in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
I suppose when I mentioned “typology” readers had one of three possible reactions, and I’ll address each of those briefly:
Typology? Oh, I love typology!—If that was your response, there’s a good chance that we’re not yet on the same wavelength. You’re probably loving how people find specific New Testament truth in the tiniest little details of the Old Testament. I don’t think of that as typology at all. I call that “allegorization,” because people doing that are imposing an allegorical reading upon something that was never written as an allegory.
Typology? Most of that just disgusts me!—If that was your response, you’re probably having a justifiable allergic reaction to allegorizers who are trying to operate under the cover of “typology.” So we’ll do a lot to distinguish solid biblical typology from this allegorizing business.
Typology? I’m not sure what that is.—If that was your response, you’ve come to the right place. The earliest blogs will be all about how to understand what it is and isn’t.
So let’s get going.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
Questions and Reflections
Would you like to learn how to read the whole Bible as Christian Scripture and not just think of it as finding some mottoes and memory verses?
What part of the Bible do you find especially hard to access as Christian Scripture, even though you know “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Tim 3:16)?