What is Biblical Theology?

Discover the Bible’s Big Story, Its Symbolic Universe, and Its Love Story

Curated from Material by James M. Hamilton

Course Introduction

About the Course

Biblical Theology is a department of biblical studies that has become increasingly of interest in recent years, and this course is designed to introduce that discipline especially for those who are new to it.

The term “biblical theology” has been around for a long time, and it can be understood in various ways. On one level, biblical theology is, simply, the theology taught in the Bible—biblical teaching. But Biblical Theology as a specific department of biblical studies is so designated primarily to distinguish it from Systematic Theology. Systematic Theology approaches the teaching of the Bible as a whole, in its final, complete entirety, and asks the question, “What does the Bible teach about X?” And the job of Systematic Theology is to provide the answer—what the Bible teaches about God, about Christ, about salvation, the trinity, the church, and so on.

Biblical Theology, by contrast, approaches the Bible as a story and as unfolding revelation, and it does its work in tracking that developing story and revelation. Its work is not driven only by topic but also by time and chronology—how the story or a particular theme (like creation and new creation; promise and fulfillment; exile and return; rest, unrest, and final rest; the presence of God lost and returned) develops and unfolds. It watches and examines “the big story” and its progressive plotline and pays attention to how each book of the Bible contributes to it. It notices themes along the way that are picked up by later authors and developed further. It notices developing concepts, patterns of thought, and symbols or imagery that begin perhaps with some suggestive significance but are later filled with deeper significance.

In this course Dr. James Hamilton introduces Biblical Theology in a very simple way. His book, What Is Biblical Theology?, consists of three major parts:

  1. The Bible’s Big Story
  2. The Bible’s Symbolic Universe
  3. The Bible’s Love Story

Learners will profit by purchasing the book and reading along as they listen to the Dr. Hamilton’s explanations of Biblical Theology in the following audio series.

About Dr. James M. Hamilton

Before coming to Southern to serve as professor of biblical theology, Hamilton served as assistant professor of biblical studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Houston campus and was the preaching pastor at Baptist Church of the Redeemer. He has written God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology and God’s Indwelling Presence: The Ministry of the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments. He has contributed chapters to many other books, and has authored many scholarly articles. He currently serves as the preaching pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church.

Reading Assignment

Read one of the author interviews, above.

Read the introduction and chapters 1–2 of What is Biblical Theology?

Summary of Introduction

In this book Dr. James Hamilton provides an entry-level introduction to Biblical Theology, surveying the Bible’s big story, its leading patterns of thought, and its overall message.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1  A Better World Breaks Through

Chapter 2  What Is Biblical Theology?


Chapter 3  The Narrative

Chapter 4  Plot: Conflict, Episodes, and Theme

Chapter 5  The Mystery


Chapter 6  What Do Symbols Do?

Chapter 7  Imagery

Chapter 8  Typology

Chapter 9  Patterns


Chapter 10  A Song for the Lady in Waiting: The Bride of Christ and Biblical Theology

Chapter 11  The Church’s Identity in the Story

Chapter 12  The Church’s Setting in the Story

Chapter 13  The Church’s Plot Tension and Its Resolution


Summary of Chapter 1: A Better World Breaks Through

Our entire lives revolve around stories; we watch them on television, read them in books, and hear them from other people. Stories, however, also drive our lives. We have a story in our head about the way the world works, what is right and wrong, and so on. But, when it comes time for us to die, our story will show itself very clearly. If we fear or are fearless tells us a lot about what we really believe. The Bible tells the story of reality. The Bible has a big story that tells us how we become people who live in that story. Thus, the topic of biblical theology matters because it helps us think about the entire story of the Bible. Looking at the Bible in this way allows us to see how the Bible develops its teaching in an organic way so that the particular parts of the story make sense in light of the whole. As we grasp that story, we begin to see and, ideally, embrace the worldview of the biblical authors as we come to see the world as God intends for it to be seen. The larger story of the Bible has connections throughout and biblical theology helps us understand them. As the title of this book asks, what is biblical theology? Chapter two will provide that answer.

Summary of Chapter 2: What Is Biblical Theology?

Biblical theology is the interpretive 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.” They use their interpretive framework to interpret earlier Scripture, history from creation to consummation, and the events and statements that they describe, recount, celebrate or address in narratives, poems, proverbs, letters, and apocalypses.

To understand what biblical theology is more clearly, it is also helpful to reflect on what it is not. Biblical theology is not saying that “my theology is more biblical than yours.” That kind of statement reflects a common misunderstanding. Biblical theology, as presented in this book, is not a way to deny biblical ideas about God’s sovereignty, the inspiration of Scripture, and the coherence and unity of the Bible’s message. After the Enlightenment, some heretics have used biblical theology in their process of denying these biblical teachings. This book, however, will assert and focus on the unity of the Bible.

The approach in this book will be to model how to read the Bible as it should be read. That is, as one unified story that Christians should read and learn from. To do that, the story, the symbols presented throughout the Bible, and the church will receive primary focus in this book. Understanding the Bible’s larger story depends heavily on understanding these three things well.

Part 1: The Bible's Big Story

  • The Bible's Sprawling, Ramshackle NarrativeRuntime: 35 min

    James M. Hamilton

Reading Assignment

Read What is Biblical Theology? chapters 3–5.

Summary of Chapter 3: The Narrative

We have probably all heard the word “narrative” before, but what is it? Narratives are stories that have a setting, characterization, and a plot; the Bible’s narrative has each of these elements. The setting of the Bible is set in the world as we know it. It is not a book that presents us with some mythical world like one might find in a novel. The Bible covers past, present, and future. The Bible’s characterization presents us with God as the protagonist and Satan as the antagonist. They are in conflict, though God is sovereign. Humans take either side. Those who trust in Christ are on God’s side and the rest are on Satan’s side. God promised that He would send Christ as the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15). The plot of the Bible can be summarized as creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. God created everything good, mankind sinned against him after being tempted by Satan, God has sent Christ to provide redemption from sin, and one day, God will restore everything through Christ. He will return to judge his enemies and save his people.

Summary of Chapter 4: Plot: Conflict, Episodes, and Theme

The plot of the Bible has conflict, episodes, and a main theme. The conflict presented in the Bible is between Satan and God. Satan is at war with God and His children. Although Satan always seems to have the upper hand since the Fall when Adam and Eve sinned, Satan’s power and position is limited because God is still in control. God can do the “impossible” that Satan cannot do. God can raise the dead. As the plot develops, this conflict can be seen more clearly.

There are five episodes in the Bible:

  1. Exile from Eden
  2. Exodus from Egypt
  3. Exile from the land
  4. The cross
  5. The promised return.

Or again,

  1. God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden after they sinned against him.
  2. The exodus from Egypt recalls the story of the ten plagues and how God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh who wanted to kill God’s people.
  3. The exile from the promised land happened because God’s people did not listen to God himself. Instead, they followed Satan’s influence back-and-forth and disobeyed the covenant God made with them. God sent them prophets to warn them what would happen, but they did not change because their hearts had not been changed.
  4. The cross refers to Christ’s death on the cross for redemption. Jesus is the “new Adam whose obedience overcomes Adam’s sin.” Christ is perfect where Adam failed.
  5. The promised return refers to the second coming of Christ.

The overarching theme that surfaces from the conflict and episodes is that “God shows his glory by saving his people through judgment.” Although the Bible has a variety of themes, the Bible’s central theme keeps going back to this main point. Coming to this main theme does not mean that the Bible is without mystery. Chapter 5 will explain how the Bible’s story contains mystery and how it handles it.

Summary of Chapter 5: The Mystery

The Bible’s story contains mystery throughout the story. Earlier on in the Bible there are patterns and connections that are picked up in surprising ways throughout the rest of the story—sort of like golden coins left throughout the story. The reason why this happens is because the Bible is minted by one Maker. God has authored the story from beginning to end. For example, when God promised to send Christ to crush Satan, that promise is picked up again and again throughout the story of the Bible. These repeated references tell us that God is going to defeat evil and reopen the way to Eden where the seed of the woman will receive the blessing God promised to Abraham.

To summarize the Bible’s mysteries, it is helpful to think of them in terms of promise, pattern, and mystery. First, it is clear that a Redeemer was promised. Second, the problem of disobedience is present in everyone because of sin. Third, there is a repeated theme of persecution and suffering of the seed of the woman to present the coming promised Redeemer. Fourth, the Bible presents promises of a Redeemer who rules and yet will suffer. Fifth, the Bible says that all the families of the earth will be blessed in the seed of Abraham; so the Redeemer must follow from this line. At the end of the OT, we have no answer to these mysteries. The NT, however, provides us with the answer in Christ. Satan seemed to have defeated Christ at the cross, but God used the cross to defeat Satan once and for all. Jesus came, fulfilled all the prophecies, and brought light to how God would fulfill and connect these various matters together in one person who is both God and man. Not even death could undo what God has done in the person and work of Christ.

Part 2: The Bible's Symbolic Universe

  • A Set of Symbols, Images, Types, and PatternsRuntime: 41 min

    James M. Hamilton

Reading Assignment

Read What is Biblical Theology? chapters 6–9.

Summary of Chapter 6: What Do Symbols Do?

The Bible is full of symbols, like any great story. The Bible uses symbol, reinforces them, and presents them repeatedly throughout the development of the story. A symbol is something that is used to stand for something else. Symbols in the Bible can be images, types, and patterns that can be presented on their own and/or laid on top of one another. We use symbols today as well; for example, political parties have certain animals as their symbol. If we don’t understand the symbolism in the Bible, we will not be able to understand their meaning. For example, the symbol of the exile is presented throughout Scripture. Just as Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden for disobedience, so also Israel was exiled from the land because of their disobedience. When it comes to understanding the larger story of the Bible, we have to consider how these symbols are used throughout to be able to summarize the entire story to understand it well.

Summary of Chapter 7: Imagery

The first kind of symbol that we see in Scripture is its use of imagery. Throughout the OT, there are repeated references to major images like the tree, the flood, and the temple. The tree imagery begins in the garden of Eden and continues throughout Scripture, such that Christ refers to himself as the vine of the tree and his disciples as the branches. The imagery of the flood begins with Noah and continues throughout; for example, God saved the people of Israel through water whereas Pharaoh and his army drowned. Temple imagery begins with the temple that God instructed His people to build but in the New Testament, Christ’s body is the temple. The tree, the flood, and the temple are shadows that all point to and are fulfilled in Christ. For example, Jesus is now building a new temple consisting of believers. Symbols are closely related to typology, to which chapter 8 will turn.

Summary of Chapter 8: Typology

Typology is something that the Bible uses throughout. Typology is a person, place, event, or thing, usually an institution of some kind, that historically corresponds to another person, place, event or thing that is escalated in an important way. The latter is typically referred to as the antitype. For example, people like Moses, David, and priests receive a lot of discussion in the Old Testament. Christ comes as a new and better Moses, David, and priest. Sacrifices also receive a lot of mention in the Old Testament; Christ presents himself as a new and better sacrifice. The Old Testament consists of the Law that are part of the covenant. Christ comes to present a new and better law with the new and better New Covenant. Each of these earlier persons, places, or institutions point to and are escalated in Christ. That is the essence of typology.

Summary of Chapter 9: Patterns

The Bible also uses patterns as part of its story. Two patterns that resurface throughout the Bible are the patterns of Israel’s feasts and the righteous sufferer. Israel has several feasts, of which the Passover, Pentecost, and Booths are perhaps most prominent. The pattern of the Passover is to symbolize and inform the hope for a deeper redemption that would be provided in Christ. The pattern of Books is that it would teach Israel that as God provided for them in the wilderness in the past, so also He would provide for them in the future after their new exodus in Christ. The pattern of Pentecost pointed Israel forward to a day when the plowman would overtake the reaper (Amos 9:13). This pattern was also fulfilled in Christ. The pattern of the righteous sufferer comes up throughout Scripture. Cain killed Abel, Jacob suffered, Joseph suffered, David suffered, and so many more. The Bible predicted that Christ would suffer (Isa 53) and indeed He did. These two patterns, then, point to and are fulfilled in Christ.

Part 3: The Bible's Love Story

  • The Church and the Story of the BibleRuntime: 39 min

    James M. Hamilton

Reading Assignment

Read What is Biblical Theology? chapters 10–13.

Summary of Chapter 10: A Song for the Lady in Waiting: The Bride of Christ and Biblical Theology

The Bible presents a love story. But, the story is not like a typical love-story on TV. That is, God loves His people, but they have a problem. They often sin against God. In fact, in the OT, God’s people rebelled from him to such a point that God called it adultery. Now, when it comes to thinking about the church, what are we supposed to think about the church? The story and symbolism in the Bible teach us what we are supposed to understand about the church. It teaches us who we are, what we face, and how we should live as we wait for Christ’s return.

The previous sections of this book looked at how symbolism—imagery, typology, and narrative patterns—summarizes and interprets the larger story of the Bible. This third section will apply all of that to help us think about the church. The following questions will guide this section:

  • What part does the church play in the Bible’s story?
  • Who is she?
  • What is her setting?
  • What creates tension in her part of the story?
  • How is the tension resolved?

The next three chapters will cover these questions separately.

Summary of Chapter 11: The Church's Identity in the Story

The church consists of a baptized group of believers. The Bible has a lot to say about the church. The larger story of the Bible uses several metaphors to describe the church. First, the church is referred to as the sheep of the shepherd. Jesus himself is the shepherd that guides the sheep. He cares for and leads them like a shepherd cares for his sheep.

Second, the church is the bride of Christ. This metaphor does not mean the church is female or a bride about to walk an aisle at a wedding. Rather, just as the bride is faithful to her husband, so also the bride is supposed to be faithful to Christ. We are supposed to be faithful spiritually rather than committing spiritual adultery as Israel did.

Third, the church is the body of Christ. This metaphor follows from the bride metaphor; just as husband and wife become one flesh, so also with Christ and the church. He is the head of the church and the church is His body (Eph 5:30). Thus, His body should be unified around His Word.

Fourth, the church is the adopted family of God (1 Jn 3:1). Although Israel used to be referred to this way, now the church is (Eph 1:5).

Fifth, the church is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Christ is the cornerstone of the temple and his church is being joined together and growing to be a holy temple of the Lord (Eph 2:21).

Summary of Chapter 12: The Church's Setting in the Story

The church’s setting in the larger story of the Bible is still the world. But, instead of focusing on one promised land, Christ sends His Church to the entire world (Matt 28:18–20). In the Old Testament, the temple was a symbol of the cosmos; in the New Testament, the church is the temple. The church, then, is intended to be a preview of what the world is going to become. One day the entire world will serve Christ as the church is doing now. The church is no longer one nation like Israel but transnational. The church is not an ethnic entity with a military but from all nations. In the Old Testament, Israel subdued other nations with the sword. In the New Testament, the church uses the sword of the Word of God to persuade people to follow Christ. In the Old Testament, the people of God worshipped at a certain location; in the New Testament, they worship wherever they meet in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:21–24). One day the church will dwell in the new and better Eden, the fulfillment of the promised land, in the new heaven and new earth.

Summary of Chapter 13: The Church's Plot Tension and Its Resolution

There is plenty of tension in the Old Testament as God and Satan go back and forth. Satan tempts God’s people to sin, they sin, God redeems them, and they still sin. But, when we come to the New Testament, what is the tension of the church? Christ defeated Satan at the cross. But, that old serpent has yet to surrender. Instead of waging war with God in the heavenly field of battle, he has taken his fight elsewhere. The church, then, continues to face Satan’s opposition. Why does God allow this? Recall that the church is the body of Christ. If God allowed Christ to suffer and be killed on the cross, God has also ordained that the body of Christ, the church, experience suffering by Satan. We also have to learn to be faithful to God in Christ unto death in the face of satanic opposition. The New Testament reminds us repeatedly to expect persecution, afflictions, and tribulations for this very reason. We will experience the same messianic suffering and woes because we are united to the Messiah, to Jesus who is the Christ. The only way to avoid suffering is to join the losing team of Satan. Nevertheless, Christ will be with His people through suffering (Isa 43:2). That is why Paul explained that although the world treats as though we have nothing, we have everything (2 Cor 6:8–10) because we have Christ. We know we are on the winning side because we are on Christ’s side. Though we suffer as He did, we win in Christ.