What is Biblical Theology?
In this article, we will examine the scholarly discipline known as Biblical Theology. We will begin by examining how it relates to and is distinct from other key theological disciplines, especially Systematic Theology. We will then analyze the overarching storyline of Scripture through the lens of Biblical Theology, seeking to build a foundational understanding of the Bible by breaking it down into four phases: creation, rebellion, redemption, and consummation. During this analysis, we will examine each phase in turn, weaving in various biblical themes and utilizing Scripture and assorted scholarly sources. Finally, we will take a look at three distinct examples of Biblical Theology, each focusing on a different theme found in Scripture.
The Essence of Biblical Theology
The idea of Biblical Theology (BT) as a distinct scholarly discipline dates back to the late 18th-century. The term “biblical theology” was used initially by J. P. Gabler, a professor at the University of Altdorf, in Nuremberg to distinguish this area of study from Systematic Theology (Gabler, 2004). While some today may use the term to refer to the theology taught in the Bible (in other words, biblical teaching), the scope of “Biblical Theology proper” is limited to the organization and interpretation of biblical data without the systematic analysis and doctrinal approach that Systematic Theology emphasizes. (Carson, 2000, p. 102).
Whereas Systematic Theology seeks to answer the question, “What does the Bible as a whole teach about X?” (where X can represent topics such as God, Christ, salvation, the Trinity) BT instead examines the overarching story of the Bible, tracking its plotline as it is progressively revealed over time. BT, like Systematic Theology, considers content topically, but it does not attempt to systematize those topics. Instead, BT tracks how different themes develop and unfold through the books of the Bible chronologically. Themes tracked by BT can include creation, covenants, promises, exile, and rest. By tracing these themes, BT takes note of typology, symbols, imagery, and other repeated patterns that occur and evolve over the timeline of the Bible and seeks to uncover their theological significance.
Thus, BT highlights the progressive nature of revelation in the Bible. God did not tell us everything at once. Rather, He chose to reveal His plans and His will to mankind progressively over time. As Graeme Goldsworthy (2000) explains,
“Biblical theology, as defined here, is dynamic not static. That is, it follows the movement and process of God’s revelation in the Bible . . . Biblical theology is not concerned to state the final doctrines which go to make up the content of Christian belief, but rather to describe the process by which revelation unfolds and moves toward the goal which is God’s final revelation of his purposes in Jesus Christ”Goldsworthy, 2000, pp. 45-46
As Distinct from Other Theologies
Biblical Theology is distinct from other key theological disciplines. For example, Historical Theology shares a chronological approach with BT. However, the scope of Historical Theology extends well beyond the confines of the Bible. Grenz, Guretzki, and Nordling (1999) explain that Historical Theology, “seeks to understand and delineate how the church interpreted Scripture and developed doctrine throughout its history, from the time of the apostles to the present day. The twofold function of historical theology is to show the origin and development of beliefs held in the present day and to help contemporary theologians identify theological errors of the past that should be avoided in the present.” (p. 59).
Practical Theology (or Pastoral Theology) is another theological discipline that varies from BT because its scope extends beyond Scripture. Practical Theology seeks to understand how the teachings and theology of the Bible can be applied to everyday living (Latini, 2011, p. 55). There is also Natural Theology, which is the antithesis of BT. Whereas the scope of BT is limited to the Bible, Natural Theology seeks to understand God without referring to Scripture or church tradition at all; it is an approach based on reason and ordinary experience of nature (Eddy, 2013, p. 102).
Biblical Theology: The Big Picture
Biblical Theology typically breaks down the storyline of the Bible into four stages or movements; creation, rebellion, redemption, and consummation. These are the primary plot points on which the overarching story of the Bible hangs. We will examine each stage of the story, in turn, weaving in various themes along the way.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1)
In ancient Hebrew, there was no word for the universe, so the idiom “the heavens and the earth” was used to refer to everything that existed. Although the creation phase of the biblical story spans only the first two chapters of Scripture, it establishes many foundational truths. Moreover, it introduces themes that are repeated and expanded upon throughout the rest of the story. It’s important to note that the creation story is an ancient Hebrew cosmology, not a scientific rendering of events. So it is best viewed as a way of describing and defining the kind of world we live in, namely one that was created. “As the Creator, God is separate from his creation, distinct; he is transcendent. The Creator is not the creation. This point distinguishes the biblical view of reality from most other worldviews” (Hunter, 2019, pp. 74-75).
In the opening chapters of Genesis, we see God turn a dark, watery chaos into a world teeming with life, a world we could think of in typological terms as a “temple.” God then creates humans in His image, and in a sense, installs His images in His temple. Astoundingly, God’s purpose for creating the world was to share it with us (Gen 1:28). He invites us to join Him in His work and intends that His temple (the world) should be ruled by His images (humanity).
“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”Genesis 3:6-7
If humans are to rule the world on God’s behalf, it stands to reason that as we do that, we will need to make decisions between what is good and what is not good. God intended that we would trust and depend on His perfect wisdom as we rule (Prov 3:5-6). However, ultimately, Adam and Eve wanted to define good and evil for themselves. This disobedience fractured humanity’s relationship with God and with His temple (creation). Because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, evil entered the world, bringing with it discord, violence, and injustice.
Although the word covenant is not found in these passages, biblical theologians sometimes sees a covenant in God’s promises to Adam. This Adamic covenant is said to have two parts. Part one, sometimes called the Edenic covenant, outlines the blessings and responsibilities God gave to Adam in the garden. God promised to provide for him, commanded him to fill the earth and subdue it, and warned him not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 1:26-30; 2:16-17). Part two is how God dealt with the breaking of the Edenic covenant. Amazingly, amid the curses and punishments that God pronounced for mankind’s rebellion (Gen 3:16-19), He also provided another promise. God told the serpent (who we later learn was Satan) that He will “put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen 3:15). This is the first specific reference to Jesus in Scripture. Hunter (2018) notes, “This short verse is a seed—a small promise that will eventually grow into the full-blown tree of God’s good news, the storyline of Scripture” (p. 95).
Here begins the section of the grand story that accounts for the lion’s share of the text in the Bible; God’s long-term plan of redemption. The rest of the Old Testament and almost all of the New Testament shows God working out His plan of redemption through history. We see the pattern of God’s covenant, followed by man’s rebellion, followed by God’s merciful new promises over and over again.
In the story of Noah, we see God loving his creation enough that, despite our rebellion and rampant disobedience, He does not utterly destroy us. Instead, He washes the world clean with the flood (Gen 6-9). However, the flood still does not prevent humanity from rebelling. In fact, the rebellion continues on a larger scale as the nations decide that, like Adam, they want to strive for autonomy. So they build a tower up to heaven in the hope of displacing God Himself (Gen 11).
This culminates in God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12 in which He promises that He will bring salvation to the world through Abraham and his offspring:
“The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you’”Gen. 12:1–3
In this covenant, God makes a three-part promise to Abraham: descendants, land, and a blessing for all the nations. The rest of the Bible shows God fulfilling these promises; Abraham’s descendants become the nation of Israel to whom God gives the Promised Land and through whom God sends a savior, Jesus, to bless the nations.
Next we see Israel fall into slavery in Egypt, and we are introduced to Moses, who ultimately leads the Israelites in a dramatic escape through the parting of the Red Sea. God continues to love and lead His newly-freed people, albeit in a circuitous route, through the desert to the Promised Land. He is with them, providing for them and giving them a spiritual education as they head for Sinai, where the next major milestone in God’s plan for redemption is revealed.
At Sinai, God comes down to meet Moses, delivering the Mosaic covenant—sometimes called the covenant of blessings and curses—along with the Law, which represents the terms of that covenant. Scholar Tom Schreiner sheds light on the relationship between this newly-given law and the salvation of Israel as a nation:
“Observing the Ten Commandments did not constitute the basis upon which Israel would gain life. Israel was rescued by the Lord from Egypt and borne upon eagle’s wings (Exodus 19:4). Before the Ten Commandments were given, the Lord declared, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). The giving of the law followed the salvation of Israel, and hence such obedience signified Israel’s grateful response to the redemption accomplished by the Lord.”Schreiner, 2010, p. 26
At Sinai, God’s promise to make a nation of Abraham’s descendants was fulfilled. And as the story unfolds, God also fulfills His promise to provide Abraham’s descendants with a land. Under the leadership of Joshua, Israel enters the Promised Land of Canaan, where they struggle to be faithful to God. After being ruled by judges for 300 years, the Israelites demand that God give them a human king so they can be like the other nations around them (1 Sam 8). God warns Israel what that will bring, but they don’t care. So God raises up Saul, then David, then Solomon. These three kings rule over all 12 tribes of Israel for about 120 years until, once again, things go horribly wrong.
The kingdom of Israel is divided. Ten tribes split off into a northern kingdom called Israel, which is eventually wiped off the face of the earth by Assyria. The other two tribes become the southern kingdom of Judah, which is eventually defeated by Babylon and sent into exile as the lone remnant of Israel. Through her disobedience, Israel is destroyed as a nation and kicked out of the land that God gave her.
Nevertheless, God did not forsake or abandon His people. During this time, He raised up many prophets to reveal His unfolding plans to them. As Vos (1948) notes, “Next to Mosaism, Prophetism marks in epochal onward movement in Old Testament revelation” (p. 185). The prophets arrived on the scene before Israel was sent into exile, speaking to the nation even as things were going wrong. They continued bringing God’s word during Israel’s exile, prophesying that God was going to send a messiah, a King from the line of David, who would make a new covenant (Jer 31:31-34) and one day lead them into true faithfulness to God. In his everlasting mercy, God eventually allowed the remnant of Israel back into the Promised Land, where they rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. Nevertheless, when the Old Testament ends, the promised Messiah and King had not yet arrived, and God’s people were left in the dark.
Enter the Gospel. After silence from God for more than 400 years, the next move He makes is astonishing. The Author enters the story Himself; the Word became flesh and dwelled among us (John 1:14). Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil 2:6-7).
Jesus had come to succeed where all before Him—Adam, Noah, Moses, David, and even Israel herself—had failed. Jesus begins a three-year earthly ministry by proclaiming that the time has come, saying, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). As N.T. Wright (2019) notes in his book The New Testament in Its World, “Jesus is making a bold claim that the salvation hoped for by generations of Israelites has arrived and he is the Spirit-anointed agent through whom all forms of oppression will be lifted” (p. 621). Indeed, Jesus proceeds to fulfill the Messianic prophecies and introduce an upside-down understanding of the kingdom of God. As He does so, we are shocked to see the leaders of Israel betray and ultimately crucify their own Messianic King.
“No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:18)
Thus, we see Jesus humble himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross (Phil 2:8). The Cross is the place where God’s desire to bless His creation and His need for justice meet. Instead of destroying humanity, He chooses to absorb the consequences of our evil into himself. “The Son did not regard equality with God as excusing him from the task of redemptive suffering and death; his equality with God uniquely qualified him for that vocation.” (Wellum, 2017).
And then comes the most important event in all of human history, the event on which all else hangs (1 Cor 15:19), namely, the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus walked out of the grave after three days and appeared to man, giving many convincing proofs that He was alive (Acts 1:3). The resurrection vindicated Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and King and opened up the way for mankind to be reconciled to God. We then see Jesus taken up into heaven and the Holy Spirit sent down to Earth to start the process of building the kingdom of God here on earth. The gospel begins to spread; first in Jerusalem, then in all Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8). We now see how God is going to rescue and redeem His world and bring about the new creation.
Although the war was won and the enemy defeated at Christ’s resurrection, the battle continues even to this day. As an analogy, think back to World War II and the Allied victory in Europe that secured the surrender of Nazi Germany:
“As a result of that day, the enemy was decisively defeated and it was only a matter of time before final victory would be achieved, even though the war was not over yet. This can be compared to the first coming of Christ, which, in principle, has ushered in the ‘age to come,’ but not yet in its fullness.”Gentry & Wellum, 2015
In the kingdom established at the advent of Jesus in the first century, we find, in spiritual form, the new creation, which is anticipating its ultimate consummation at the end of history. As theologian Ken Gentry (2004) notes, “the new heavens and new earth presently exist within the bosom of the church. Just as Scripture links the present spiritual and future physical resurrections, so also it links the present spiritual and the future physical new creation.”
Although we do not get an exact picture of new creation from Scripture, we are given many hints of its magnificence. In the book of Revelation, we discover that, among many other amazing things, the present fallen order passes away (21:1, 5), our physical world will be dazzling in grandeur (21:11, 18–21) and bathed in the glory of God (21:23; 22:5), and peace will reign. In our final, eternal state, we will dwell with God on a cleansed and transformed earth similar to—and some would argue better than—Eden before the Fall (2:7; 22:2). As Bartholomew and Goheen (2014) point out, “John’s vision in Revelation, indeed, in the whole New Testament, does not depict salvation as an escape from earth into a spiritualized heaven where human souls dwell forever. Instead, John is shown (and shows us in turn) that salvation is the restoration of God’s creation on a new earth” (p. 232).
Examples of Biblical Theology
There are many ways one could use the discipline of Biblical Theology to organize and understand the story of Scripture. Following are three examples.
One compelling way to create a BT would be to focus on Jesus throughout the Bible. Hunter and Wellum (2018) note that, “Without trying to minimize the diversity of Scripture, we can say that the Bible is centrally about what our triune Creator-covenant God has done to redeem us and to make everything new in Jesus” (p. 39). In other words, Jesus is the hero of the biblical story.
One could work their way through the storyline of Scripture, starting with creation and find Jesus all along the way. Both in the Old Testament—in the fall, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, etc.—and, of course, in the New Testament. As Jesus’ earthly ministry unfolds, He fulfills the Old Testament by being our willing sacrifice once for all (Heb 10:10). Jesus can then be traced further as He sends the Holy Spirit and His nascent church begins to grow. And even on into the future when Jesus will ultimately be ruling over the new creation (Rev 22:1-5).
Another approach to BT would be to look at the progression of God’s covenants with His people as Scripture unfolds. As author and scholar Matthew Barrett (2020) explains, “God spoke a saving word in and through the cutting of covenant with his people, covenants that not only explained Israel’s genesis but maintained their relationship with Yahweh as his chosen people” (p. 20). Gentry and Wellum (2015) took this approach in their book God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants, noting, “We do not assert that the covenants are the central theme of scripture. Instead, we assert that the covenants form the back bone of the Bible’s metanarrative and that it is essential to “put them together” correctly in order to discern accurately the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27)” (p. 17).
The covenants in the Bible—creation, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus—are part of God’s progressive revelation to mankind. While the overarching theme of the Bible is God’s redemptive movement from creation to new creation, the covenants serve as important signposts along the way, making a great framework on which to build a solid Biblical Theology.
The Story of Israel
Among the numerous themes in the Bible, one that seems to be attracting a lot of recent attention is the story of Israel. Pate et al. (2004) argue that “the story of Israel, conceived in a particular way, is a prevailing pattern in Scripture” (p. 12). One can trace the story of Israel as it grows from a man (Jacob, see: Genesis 32:28), to a family, to a tribe, and ultimately a nation called by God (Ex 19:6). There is a recurring pattern with Israel—sin and unfaithfulness leading to curses and exile leading to restoration and salvation—which can be seen as a microcosm of the ongoing universal drama of humanity. And out of the nation of Israel comes the answer to that dramatic tension; a blessing for all nations, Jesus. The seed of Abraham arrives as the Messiah, the redemptive solution and Savior not just for Israel, but for all nations!
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