Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a thick forest. You’re trying to reach a specific destination on the other side. But there’s a problem: you have no map. Unless you want to get lost, you need one. A map helps you get your bearings. It gives you a bird’s-eye view. It reduces an area that’s too vast to understand from our limited perspective. Seeing the whole keeps us from missing the forest for the trees.
Many people feel lost when they open their Bible, which consists of 66 books, written over more than a thousand years from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Moreover, each genre has specific “rules” for interpretation. How does one gather their bearings and keep from getting lost in all the details? As Edmund Clowney once said, “It is possible to know Bible stories, yet miss the Bible story.”
This is where the discipline of biblical theology is necessary for rightly interpreting the Scriptures.
What Is Biblical Theology?
Fundamental to our approach to Scripture is the belief that it is a unified whole—that these 66 books have been providentially designed by God for the express purpose of supplementing each other and illuminating each other. The Bible has one great storyline that traces an unfolding drama of redemption through Jesus Christ.
Biblical theology provides a map to help us understand the overall unity of the Bible.
In one sense, all true Christian theology must be biblical theology. However, biblical theology as a discipline has a specific function, which is concerned with the overall theological message of the Bible. Biblical theology provides a map to help us understand the overall unity of the Bible and identify a central message to the Bible, rather than just a bunch of unrelated stories and themes.
How Does Biblical Theology Help Us Understand Scripture?
People rightly argue we must understand the text within its context, but they often limit this to the immediate context. Yet the context must include the whole biblical revelation, as well as the whole book or chapter in which the passage occurs. Biblical theology helps the reader place every passage in the larger context of the Bible’s unfolding storyline.
Biblical theology also helps us resolve many interpretive difficulties. Some parts of the Bible are difficult to understand. We all know that Christians with similar convictions about the Bible can disagree over what it teaches on certain subjects. We’re not suggesting that biblical theology will solve all of our interpretive problems, but we do agree with Graeme Goldsworthy: “Any Christian who wants to develop a sound method of approaching the text of the Bible in order to find out what it really says and means, needs an understanding of biblical theology.”
How Does Biblical Theology Help Us Apply Scripture?
Biblical theology guards us from applying the text in inappropriate ways by providing the proper framework to think through difficult interpretive issues. For instance, how should we view the relationship between Israel and the church? The Old Testament contains many distinctive laws for Israel—how do we know whether (and how) these laws apply to us?
Biblical theology helps us because it examines the development of the Bible’s story from the Old Testament to the New and seeks to understand the interrelationships between the two parts. It argues that there is coherence to the Bible as a whole, but also helps us to apply God’s Word within the context of his progressive revelation.
When one sees Scripture in its larger context, it helps the reader to move away from the modern perspective that the Bible is about us.
Biblical theology also helps us with that greatest of all interpretive challenges: personal application. What questions should we ask and answer before we seek to resolve the question, “What does this text mean to me?” When one sees Scripture in its larger context, it helps the reader to move away from the modern perspective that the Bible is about us. The Bible certainly has implications for us, calling us to faith and deed, but it is primarily about God and his redemptive work culminating in Jesus Christ. Understanding the larger story can prevent our application of the text from becoming a mere springboard for moralizing exhortations.
How Does Biblical Theology Point Us to Jesus Christ?
If every part of the Bible should be understood as a coherent unit, where do we start? Jesus provides a clear answer. In Luke 24:27, we’re told that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” Similarly, he also confronted the religious teachers of his day: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39).
One of the central problems in interpreting the Bible comes from a failure to interpret the texts in relation to the person and work of Christ. As God’s final and fullest revelation, he provides meaning for all the events in history before and after him. All prophecy is completed and fulfilled in him (Acts 13:32–33; Heb. 1:1–2). If Jesus is the central subject of the Old Testament we cannot correctly understand it apart from him. As Goldsworthy writes, “The Old Testament does not stand on its own, because it is incomplete without its conclusion and fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
If the Bible isn’t primarily about you and me, but points to Jesus Christ, then we should seek to understand every text in relation to him.
Simply put, if the Bible isn’t primarily about us, but points to Jesus Christ, then we should seek to understand every text in relation to him. When reading any biblical passage it is critical that we ask two questions before applying the text to ourselves. First, “How does this text relate to Christ?” Then, “How do we relate to Christ?” After answering these two questions, we can move to personal application as a grace-motivated response to the person and work of Christ.
As the one and only mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5), Jesus is the link between us and every part of Scripture. Only he brings to full clarity the promises and shadows of the Old Testament.
Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees
The Bible may be a dense forest, but thankfully we’re not without a map. Like any map, biblical theology is not exhaustive—after all, a map that included every detail would overload us and defeat its purpose. But a good map provides the major signposts, so that we can recognize where we are and be reminded of where we should be going.
There’s a valid place for examining each individual tree—and biblical theology is not the only way to read the Bible. At the same time, one must be careful to not miss the forest for the trees. And that is what biblical theology helps us with: keeping track of where we are and making sure we get where we’re supposed to be going—to the person and work of Jesus Christ.