What is biblical theology?
I use the phrase biblical theology to refer to the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors. So what is an "interpretive perspective"? It's the framework of assumptions and presuppositions, associations and identifications, truths, and symbols that are taken for granted as an author or speaker describes the world and the events that take place in it.
What do the biblical authors use this perspective to interpret?
First, the biblical authors have interpreted earlier Scripture, or in the case of the first author on record (Moses), accounts of God's words and deeds that were passed down to him.
Second, they interpreted world history from creation to consummation.
And third, they interpreted the events and statements they describe—Moses didn't recount everything Balaam said and did in the instances presented in Numbers 22-24. Moses selected what he wanted, arranged it with care, and presented the true story. The presentation of Balaam's oracles Moses gives us in the book of Numbers is already an interpretation of them, and because I believe Moses was inspired by the Holy Spirit, I hold that his interpretation makes his account of the Balaam oracles more true, not less. The way Moses selected, arranged, and presented (i.e., interpreted) enables his audience to fit what Balaam said and did into the true story of the world Moses tells in the Pentateuch.
To summarize, by the phrase biblical theology I mean to refer to the interpretive perspective reflected in the way the biblical authors have presented their understanding of earlier Scripture, redemptive history, and the events they are describing, recounting, celebrating, or addressing in narratives, poems, proverbs, letters, and apocalypses.
The last phrases of the previous sentence mention different kinds of literature. The Bible is a book, and the men who wrote the 66 books that make up the Bible were authors. That means we have to think about literature as we think about interpreting the Bible.
Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Interpretation
We should remember, too, that our struggle is not against flesh and blood. The study of biblical theology is like a quest to become someone who can pull down strongholds with weapons mighty to God. For the quest to succeed we must learn to destroy arguments and lofty opinions raised against the knowledge of God, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:3-5).
Our aim is to trace out the contours of the network of assumptions reflected in the writings of the biblical authors. If we can see what the biblical authors assumed about the big story of the world, the symbols they used to summarize and interpret that story, and the role the church plays in it, we will glimpse the world as they saw it. To glimpse the world as they saw it is to see the real world.
I hasten to add that the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors. That inspiration gave them a level of certainty about their interpretive conclusions that we cannot have about ours, because the Holy Spirit does not inspire us and guarantee our inerrancy. If he did, our books would be added to the canon of Scripture, which is not happening. Still, we're called to follow the apostles as they followed Christ (cf. 1 Cor 11:1), and part of doing that means learning to interpret Scripture, redemptive history, and the events that happen to us the way the biblical authors did, even if absolute certainty eludes us.
Reading Scripture Like Jesus
The Bible teaches Christians how the Bible should be read. Studying biblical theology is the best way to learn from the Bible how to read the Bible as a Christian should. By the same token, studying the Bible is the best way to learn biblical theology.
How should a follower of Jesus read the Bible? The way Jesus did. Jesus of Nazareth did not write any of the books in the Bible, but he taught the writers of the New Testament how to interpret earlier Scripture, redemptive history, and the events they were narrating and addressing. On the human level, Jesus learned the interpretive perspective he taught to his disciples from Moses and the Prophets.
So I'm arguing that the biblical authors operated from a shared interpretive perspective. They inhabited the same thought-world, breathed its air, and shared its assumptions. The world they lived in isn't Darwin's. In their world we might find things for which we have no analogy and of which we have no experience. There is no analogy for the God of the Bible. He stands alone. We will only experience him if he reveals himself. In the Bible he has done just that. How do we come to know him? From his revelation of himself, from learning to read the Bible from the Bible itself. To learn to read the Bible is to learn to understand this world from the perspective of the biblical authors, which is to learn a divinely inspired perspective.
Moses learned and developed the ability to see the world this way from the accounts of God's words and deeds that he received, from his contemplation of what God had done in his own life, and from the inspiration of the Spirit of God. The biblical authors who followed Moses in the Old Testament, whether historians, prophets, psalmists, or sages, learned the interpretive perspective that Moses modeled for them and had it confirmed by other Scripture available to them. Jesus then learned to read the Bible, history, and life from Moses and the prophets, and he taught this perspective to his followers (Luke 24). What we find in the New Testament, then, is Christ-taught, Spirit-inspired biblical interpretation.
Interpreting the Bible Like Its Authors
The biblical authors model a perspective for interpreting the Bible, history, and current events. Should we adopt that perspective today? Absolutely. Why? I'm convinced that the biblical authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit, that God guided them to the truth by his Spirit, and that therefore they got it right. The fact that the Spirit is not ensuring the inerrancy of our conclusions does not mean we should adopt an un- or a-biblical perspective when reading the Bible, thinking about redemptive history, or trying to understand our own lives.
If biblical theology is a way to get into another world, the world inhabited by the biblical authors, I hope you cross the bridge into their thought-world and never come back. My hope is that you will breathe the air of the Bible's world, recognize it as the real Narnia, and never want to leave.
If this happens, you will have come to inhabit the Bible's story. My prayer is that its symbols and patterns will shape the way you view the world, and that your understanding of the church's place in story and symbol will make you know the riches of God's inheritance in the saints (Eph 1:18), the great power "he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead" (1:19), and the glory he displays in the church and in Christ Jesus forever (3:21).
In brief: I hope that you will adopt the perspective of the biblical authors, and that you will read the world from the Bible's perspective rather than reading the Bible from the world's.
Editors' note: This is an excerpt taken from What is Biblical Theology? by James M. Hamilton Jr., © 2013. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187.