What’s the Best Way to Define Biblical Theology?

why-biblical-theologyWhen I was in my final year in seminary, another student suggested to me that the church needed to focus more on “biblical” theology instead of “systematic” theology. The latter, he argued, promoted the “doctrines” of man rather than the Bible. Having studied the Reformation and twentieth-century theology, I was a bit amused by the false dichotomy. Still, his comments showed how confusing the distinctions between these separate but related fields can be.

Definitions of biblical theology abound and most of them, understandably, tend to align with one’s views on the nature and role of Scripture in the Christian life. Brevard Childs famously quipped in Biblical Theology in Crisis, “The real question is not whether to do Biblical Theology, but rather what kind of Biblical Theology does one have.”

Attempting to provide a constructive, more lucid definition, Anthony Thiselton posits that “Biblical theology attempts to use biblical exegesis and interpretation to provide a coherent and constructive account of biblical data.” (1)

Biblical theology through the ages

To understand why this discipline has been notoriously difficult to define, we must go back to its origins. Early biblical theology (1750–1930) set out to distinguish between critical-historical questions and Christian doctrine. While those early proponents did not explicitly endorse a conflict between faith and history, that was the effect their work had. Unsurprisingly, early biblical theologies had a tendency to become histories of religion, especially those focused on Old Testament theology.

Later, Walter Eichrodt (1934) and the Biblical Theology Movement (1954–1974) led by Oscar Cullman and Alan Richardson used the biblical data to explain how theological concepts rising out of Scripture’s writings shaped historical faith communities in Judaism and Christianity. BTM stressed the unity and uniqueness of the Bible’s theological vision and the centrality of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. Critics of BTM, most notably James Barr, argued BTM’s work was biased by a “high view” of Scripture. In some ways it’s a legitimate contention, though one might just as easily point out Barr’s unqualified belief in critical-historical exegesis. The conflict exposed an inherent problem within biblical theology: what kind of biblical theology does one have?

The eventual demise of BTM in the late ‘70s did not spell the end for biblical theology. But it did propel confessional biblical scholars to seek greater nuance between critical-history and biblical exegesis. This group included George Eldon Ladd, Gordon Fee, Hermann Ridderbos, O. Palmer Robertson, and William J.Dumbrell, G.K. Beale, N.T. Wright, Tom Schreiner, D.A. Carson, and many others. The success of their project has changed the academy and the church, allowing us to expand our definition of biblical theology beyond a task-based discipline to an articulation of what it must achieve. Craig Bartholomew provides such a definition:

[B]iblical theology is precisely a contemporary explication of the Rule of Faith, demonstrating its grounding in Scripture and providing invaluable help in reading parts of Scripture within tota Scriptura (all of Scripture). (2)

Added to Thiselton’s definition, we now have a robust articulation of not only how to do biblical theology, but what it should aim for. The Rule of Faith allows Christians to embrace critical scholarship, explore salient theological themes freely, and calls us to scriptural and confessional fidelity.

Top scholarship in biblical theology today

The New Studies in Biblical Theology series exemplifies this definition of biblical theology. Edited by D.A. Carson, the series represents a diverse set of studies on themes, genres, interpretive problems, and concepts in biblical theology. I have found four books in this series to be especially good models of Bartholomew and Thistelton’s definition of biblical theology.

  1. Possessed by God by David Peterson
    Many Christians believe that sanctification is a process by which we become increasingly holy; Peterson challenges these assumptions and in fact rejects this claim by providing a thorough examination of the relevant terms associated with holiness and sanctification in both the Old and New Testament. Peterson shows sanctification to be a state of being wherein one is “set apart” by God as holy, rather than a process involving daily struggle to throw off the taint of sin.
  2. A Mouth Full of Fire by Andrew G. Shead
    Shead’s work explores Jeremiah’s use of “word” theology and its prophetic and literary role in Jeremiah’s tragic experience as God’s prophet during Jerusalem’s demise. “Word” is a powerful concept in Hebrew and Greek culture, and Shead’s has revealed yet another fascinating cross-testamental theme.
  3. Hear, My Son by Daniel Estes
    I never guessed the Bible would have so much to say about education. But Daniel Estes’ monograph helps readers think through the function and intent of education using Proverbs 1–9. In Estes’s treatment, education ceases to be “stuff you learn how to do” and becomes an enveloping life experience through which one grows into mature relationship with God and others. Education is so much more than simply learning; it is the foundation for creaturely worship.
  4. Now My Eyes Have Seen You by Robert Fyall
    The topic of Sin within Creation is typically confined to reading and discussing Genesis, but the book of Job exposes so much more of the relationship between God’s providence and the world’s evil. Drawing on Job’s imagery, Fyall exposes just what it means to know God in a fallen world and uses a complete reading of Job to ground his interpretation of its striking imagery. What emerges is a biblically rooted account of God’s love for his creation and his desire to save it despite the darkness filling it.

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Comments

  1. Hamilton Ramos says:

    God bless:

    Very interesting, I have a couple of questions:

    1) Do you think is possible to have a Biblical -systematic theology? Many persons think it cannot be done, what do you think, and how would you go about it.

    2) What do you recommend to get clear insights in the possibility of constructing a truly integrated Biblical and systematic theology? what mobile ed courses, resources etc. in L6 would you consider helpful?

    Thanks ahead of time for any guidance. Blessings.

    • “Do you think is possible to have a Biblical -systematic theology?”
      This is a question of methodology.
      If you bring a set of categories to Scripture so you can structure what you believe in a coherent manner, you’re building a systematic theology.
      If you try to read Scripture as a coherent narrative, doing justice to each story and allowing it to define the categories to use, you’re building a biblical theology.
      The reality is that all of use both methods to some extent.
      A systematic theology is easier to create and share, especially if there is some agreement about what the categories are (as there is within Reformed sys theol.)
      A biblical theology tends to be more messy since it lacks the pre-imposed framework. I might see the kingdom of God as the core narrative, while you might see it as covenant or some other topic. It’s much more difficult to create and communicate–like playing football without marking out the grounds first. But that also means it has more potential: biblical theology provides a far better means of taking us outside our cultural blindness, away from our starting assumptions, opening us up to things that don’t fit our pre-defined categories. And if theology is ultimately about God, he tends to be bigger than the boxes we create to fit him in.

      • Barry Torlage says:

        In my opinion, a true Biblical theology would consist of at least 66 “theologies” – i.e. a unique theology per book of the canon. Of course books like Isiah would produce at least three theologies…

        Through the ages Systematic theology has not been produced or studied with honesty and integrity – socio-political circumstances and allegiances had too much influence in this regard.

  2. LeRoy Whitman says:

    There is another sense of “Biblical Theology” as well, used by Geerhardus Vos of Princeton, in his book by that name. He looks at the self-conscious development of theology through history as shown in the Bible itself; the Biblical history of progressive revelation (or increasing human acceptance) of God.

    While I do not agree with him in all respects (and disagree with him vehemently in his assertion that God could have posited ANY laws for the period of law; because my respect for God’s Wisdom leads me to affirm that even in revelation to those who are children in their thinking, He is not arbitrary, but consistent with fuller revelation), Vos’ concept is helpful to anchor even our musings about systematizing symphonic theological concepts into historical context of texts in question. We are not dealing merely with texts, but with revelations to 3D historical figures.

  3. Matthew Miller says:

    That’s a really good question, Hamilton.
    I would point to Calvin’s Institutes for a possible example of “biblical” theology blurring the lines with “systematic” theology. I don’t consider myself Reformed, but I think its worth noting that Calvin believed the Institutes were a systematic expression of his biblical exegesis. Though many would probably disagree with me, I believe Barth also followed in this tradition.

    Luther is interesting in this respect because his theology was obviously rooted in rigorous exegesis, but his work was occasional, not systematic.

    I would heartily recommend Craig Bartholomew’s Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics. It is far, far more than your average introduction.

  4. Hamilton says:

    God bless:
    Thank you very much Matthew, very helpful input.
    One last question, if you were to make a collection of the above mentioned resources, what would be the rule you would use?
    If is too hard to do a rule, would you do it manually?
    Your input has also sparked ideas: I want to eventually try to get all systematic, Biblical and other resources that deal in detail with prolegomenatic issues to synthetize key factors.
    In another thread, I mentioned some points, that got a lot of affirmations, but little answers:
    “Yes Dan, I am aware, but where do the following fit?
    modes of revelation (Bible is not the only one) Christian Orthopraxis
    Moral theology (christian ethics)
    spiritual warfare
    Kingdom of God
    Election
    manufactured / false believers Spiritual abuse (church) collective good deeds
    radical moral transformation
    Means of grace
    holiness
    types of Faith, (and possible measures of it) culture (worldview, purpose, goals, customs, etc.) grace (types)
    rapture
    christian stewardship
    christian development
    discipleship
    spiritual formation
    evaluation and development of doctrine apostasy
    Law of Christ
    etc.

    [second time I try to post this]

    Blessings.

  5. Burkhard Zimmermann says:

    Interesting discussion that changed my view on the topic. I found the following pre-pub that might be a good round up fore the list above:
    https://www.logos.com/product/81279/new-studies-in-biblical-theology-upgrade
    one topical + one NT + OT book study
    I will go for that pre-pub and add Here, my Sun – as my collection.
    My last sermon was titled gods training plan an next to proverbs I mainly end up in Hebrew. Very interesting to see this focus in Daniel Estes book.
    Be blessed, Burkhard.