Biblical Theology: History, Definition, and Top Scholarship

When 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)

Why it’s hard to define

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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Matt Miller
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Written by Matt Miller