The Greatest Story Ever Told: Defining Biblical Theology

Biblical theology has become a well ingrained field that is daily explored by many scholars, pastors, and those engrossed in biblical studies. It is such a common field that one will perhaps even encounter it in passing on an internet blog or a discussion after the church service. If only in passing, it almost seems self-evident what a person casually mentioning “biblical theology” means. Some think that the technical term “Biblical Theology” simply refers to a theology that is biblical. However, while all theology or any organized thought concerning God ought to be “biblical” in the sense that its core and foundation comes from Scripture, that is not what we mean when they we are talking about “Biblical Theology.” So just what is Biblical Theology?

There are many definitions provided by qualified pastors and teachers that an individual may consult (see below for recommended reading). For our purposes, Biblical Theology may be defined as a method of studying the Bible and organizing the many ideas it teaches from a literary, historical, and redemptive progression. Principally, it is a methodology for understanding Christ’s whole Word in a better and more organized fashion that flows from a narratival and progressive reading of the text. Thus, it is a literary approach because it is sensitive to the fact that Scripture is, as the late theologian Geerhardus Vos notes, “…largely a historical narrative filled with dramatic interest…” (Vos, 17). It is historical because it tries to understand how God gradually reveals himself and his purposes over the course of earth’s history. It focuses on the redemptive progression as the story of the Bible is witnessed through  God’s redemptive acts towards a fallen humanity and creation. In essence, Biblical Theology is used to see how everything in Scripture fits together as a progressive unfolding of history.

Generally, specific themes are picked as an organizing principle through which the biblical theologian will survey the progressive development of that theme from the beginning to the end of Scripture. Unlike Systematic Theology, which seeks to logically organize everything Scripture has to say about a given doctrine, Biblical Theology traces the historical progress of a particular doctrine or theme in order to properly appreciate how it is developed organically through the passing of time. Geerhardus Vos famously contrasts Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology with the imagery of a circle versus a line (Vos, 16). He notes that Systematic Theology’s organizing principle is “one of logical construction” of all the relevant Scriptural data, which creates a circle, presumably to show the overarching interconnectedness of all the Bible has to say about a particular doctrine (Vos, 16). For Biblical Theology, he suggests its organizing principle is the historical flow of Scripture, seen as a progression of a line (A ——- Z as it were) (Vos, 16).

Biblical Theology provides a constant reminder of the complexity of how we have learned what we know about our faith, as well as reminding our hearts afresh of the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” which He reveals over the span of millennia his plan to save a people unto himself. From this perspective, G. K. Beale (relying heavily upon Vos’ insights) notes that Biblical Theology examines each book in its literary context in light of where it is in redemptive history and then considers what came before it and what comes after it (Beale, 9). Thus, literary, historical, and redemptive-progressive aspects are essential to Biblical Theology . On account of this, one can better understand the “progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity” (Beale quoting Vos, 9). Or in other words, Biblical Theology allows one to appreciate the harmonious unity of Scripture’s overall story and pick up further upon its complex beauty.

Now, while I have contrasted Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology to help show how they are different methodologies, this should not be confused for separating the two disciplines. In an age where specialization is an inescapable fact of life and the university does nothing to universalize the various fields of study occurring within its halls, it is easy to isolate different theological methodologies from one another. The Biblical Theologian does their thing, the Historical Theologian does theirs, the Systematic Theologians does theirs, while the Practical Theologian and Missiologist are in their own worlds entirely. This is a tragic casualty of specialization, and while there is nothing wrong with having interests or strengths in one method over the other, it is detrimental to them all when they are not being harmonized. Biblical Theology needs Systematic Theology or it loses its orthodox moorings and degenerates into an allegorical free-for-all. Systematic Theology needs Biblical Theology or it risks ignoring less obvious parallels that would strengthen it as a whole, or at worse become a mere exercise of logical prowess without an ounce of poetic sentiment. With that necessary qualification aside, we must explore what Biblical Theology actually looks like in use.

An easily relatable example of Biblical Theology in action would be to ask, “How does Scripture reveal who God’s Messiah is going to be?” Of course, the Biblical Theologian already begins with the knowledge that Jesus is the Messiah or Christ, but the many ways the New Testament proves this point come to greater light when one examines the unfolding revelation of the Messiah’s identity through the Old Testament. The easiest beginning to this would be Genesis 3.15, where God promises a single “he” will crush the head of the “serpent,” implying salvation for the offspring or children of the woman in contrast to the children of the serpent. From there, the Biblical Theologian will trace through the godly line where various figures exemplify a life lived through faith (Abel, Seth, Noah) until they arrive at Abraham. God promises to bless all the nations in his seed (Gen 12), which picks up the need for saving the nations because of Babel (Gen 11). Abraham is eventually promised a particular seed will bless the nations (Gal 3.16, Gen 17.7). Isaac is shown to be the child of promise (Gen 17), but then his line is narrowed with the coming of Jacob (Gen 25).  The line of promise seems to widen again with Jacob’s twelve sons (Gen 29-35). However, of his sons, only Judah is promised a scepter or kingship from his line (Gen 49.8-12). While Moses is a faithful servant in all God’s house (Heb 3.2), Aaron’s line within Levi is given the priesthood (Lev 8), and Joshua lives up to his forefather Joseph’s (the father of Ephraim) name (Josh 24.31), the kingly line is nevertheless confirmed by the rejection of Ephraim (Ps 78) and Benjamin (1 Sam 15) and given to the descendent of Judah, king David (2 Sam 7). David is then promised a dynasty that will never cease and that his “son” will build God a house (1 King 8, 2 Chron 7, John 2). Solomon’s house is later destroyed by Babylon (2 King 25), and the Davidic kingdom seems shattered. But, when Israel has been left without a voice for centuries, an angel appears to Mary, a descendant of David who is betrothed to a descendant of David, and promises that she, a virgin woman, will give birth to the Son of God and he will inherit his “father” David’s throne (Luke 1.26-37). Thus, Matthew’s genealogy highlights Jesus is the Son of David and the Son or seed of Abraham (Matt 1.1). The promised offspring of the woman, the “he” has come to crush the head of the serpent by offering himself (bruising of his heel) up as a perfect sacrifice to God. Thus, the historical unveiling of the Messiah is shown through the tracing of the genealogies of mankind.

Of course, just that examination alone could be greatly enhanced, but it must be observed that this interpretation is assisted by an illustrious history of theologians throughout church history (thus Historical Theology aided this). Systematic theology can also assist the biblical theologian by reminding them that the Messiah is understood in Scripture, summarized in the Creed of Chalcedon, as being the eternal Son of God, yet taking to himself a full human nature, body and soul. In exploring this truth, the systematic theologian would point out that John begins his gospel by discussing the preexistent divinity of the Son, while also noting that in Psalm 2 and Psalm 110, God speaks of appointing a “Son” and a “Lord” over the nations. They would also note that the plan for Christ to reconcile all things in himself stems from the eternal plan of God from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1). With these helpful contributions, the Biblical Theologian would then push their examination of the identity of the Messiah before Genesis 3.15 and begin with Genesis 1.1. The Son who will become the incarnate Messiah, through whom God is reconciling all things to himself, is creating all things through the Word before his incarnation. Thus, when they are considering the question of “the identity of the Messiah”, they will broaden their vision to see that the coming Messiah’s new creation activity flows from the fact he is already the one who created all things good before the Fall (Col 1.15-20).

Presumably, even for readers who are unfamiliar with the term “Biblical Theology”, they are used to reading and understanding the Bible from the vantage point of Biblical Theology. Thinking chronologically of a story is something everyone is used to by virtue of their own birth and growth. Some insights of Biblical Theology are at times startling upon first examining them, but make sense upon further reflection (if they are actually exegetically sound insights). Most people instinctively think of at least portions of their theology in a Biblical Theological manner. So, while it did not come into its own as a particularized field until the 1800s (and this under suspect intentions, see Vos’ introduction in his Biblical Theology), the work of Biblical Theology is as old as Scripture itself. The church father Irenaeus (2nd to 3rd century) in his work “On Apostolic Preaching” examines the Christian message as it is prophesied in the unfolding movement of the Old Testament. Even before Irenaeus, the authors of Scripture utilized Biblical Theology.

A superb example of a Biblical Theological method modeled is through Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7. There are several charges laid against him in Acts 6: he speaks words against the temple, the law, Moses, and he is a follower of Jesus. Thus, the “themes” are set before him: temple (and land), law, Moses, identity of the Messiah.

His response to these charges is to survey God’s faithful workings throughout the history of Israel in order to disprove these charges. Even beyond this, he utilizes his theological survey to point to the greater reality that Moses and the Temple were looking forward to: Jesus Christ. He begins by highlighting that the God of glory appeared to Abraham in the land of the Chaldeans (future day Babylon) which means Abraham began life as a Gentile before God came to him. He reminds them that Abraham went to the land they are presently standing upon, but he himself never owned any of it, save a tomb. This implies that the land itself, and the later physical temple it would be built upon, was not his ultimate reward. He was promised that his offspring would inherit it and they would receive the covenant of circumcision. He then jumps to Joseph, who starts a theme of “a chosen leader” who is persecuted and rejected by his fellow countrymen. Joseph is sold into an estate of humiliation with slavery, but raised to exaltation as the one who saves Egypt and his family. Jacob and all the others die and are buried in the tomb that Abraham bought in the promised land. Stephen then shows that God’s promises progress further as the Israelites multiply and Egypt oppresses them. Yet, Moses seeks to defend his brothers since God had sent him to be salvation to Israel, but again, he notes that his “chosen leader” is rejected by his fellow countrymen. Stephen is careful to highlight that Moses was “rejected” by them, but he was sent by God to be a ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This Moses performed wonders and promised that another prophet would be raised up from among the Israelites. Nevertheless, the Israelites continually rejected God’s chosen servant Moses and God’s choice of how he would be worshipped and approached.

Stephen then turns to the issue of the temple, saying it began as a wandering tent in the wilderness and was built according to a pattern Moses had been shown by God (thus a pattern of something greater). After Joshua gives them the land, they are without a temple until the days of David, but it was Solomon who built an earthly house. Stephen quotes Scripture saying God cannot be contained by a human house (Solomon says something similar). Finally, he brings this redemptive survey to a close by making his point: his opponents are descended from their forefathers who have always resisted the Holy Spirit. They have always rejected God’s chosen people, including Moses. They rejected the ones who prophesied the Righteous One (Jesus), and they who received the law have refused to keep it. Thus, in a 50 verse sweep of the Old Testament, Stephen proves that his opponents are the ones who have actually misunderstood Scripture and supremely so by their killing and rejecting of God’s promised Messiah, which is something their forefathers were always doing. Through this Biblical Theological survey, Stephen shows the true intent of the temple, the land, the law, Moses, and the Scriptures while proving that his audience, in spite of their external piety, are the ones who actually reject the true intent of the temple, land, law, Moses, and Scripture.

In brief, his highlighting of the deaths and burial of the patriarchs and prophets contrasts with the risen Jesus, whose resurrection proves he was the promised messiah. His constant emphasis that beloved leaders like Joseph and Moses were raised by God to be rulers and redeemers but were rejected by their brothers is ultimately fulfilled in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the prophet Moses predicted, and he did greater wonders. Finally, Jesus is the true temple (John 2) who fulfills the promises given to Abraham. Beginning to end, it is about Jesus.

Through Stephen’s example, we see Biblical Theology wisely used and faithfully applied. Based on his understanding of Scripture, he could see how it all was fulfilled in Christ. This emboldened him to faithfully serve widows at the table while also powerfully proclaiming the gospel to all his neighbors. His devotion to Christ led to his being the first martyr after the resurrection of Christ, but his faithful interpretation of Scripture was recorded for all the faithful to read and understand. Therefore, Biblical Theology, like all theological study, ought to produce a deeper and richer faith that manifests itself in love of God to the point of death and love of neighbor within and outside the church. Mindful of this, may all God’s followers seek to understand the depths and riches of Christ as revealed from the Law, Prophets, Writings, Gospels, and Epistles.

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