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Definition

The Bible is a unique library of religious texts. Biblical theology enriches our understanding of this library by exploring how the different biblical books contribute to its overall theological message and how in turn this overall message influences our appreciation of each book.

Summary

The discipline of biblical theology affirms the theological unity of the Old and New Testaments, while recognizing the diversity of the biblical books in terms of content, genre and provenance. Affirming the divinely inspired nature of the whole Bible, the discipline of biblical theology attempts to explain how this remarkable anthology of religious texts conveys a unified theological message. Responding to those who dismiss the idea of a single theology that encompasses the entire Bible, advocates of biblical theology focus on the coherence of the biblical story of redemptive history. Biblical theology explores the relationship between the Old and New Testaments by drawing on such concepts as promise-fulfilment and typology.

The expression “biblical theology” is used in a variety of ways. Some modern writers employ it to denote any theological interpretation of a biblical text, but traditionally “biblical theology” refers to “the overall theological message of the whole Bible.”1 This latter understanding presupposes that the books that comprise the Bible are sufficiently unified that together they provide a coherent theology.

We often think of the Bible as a single book, but it is actually an anthology of shorter religious writings that were composed in different languages by different authors using different literary genres over many centuries. The very nature of the Bible presents an immediate challenge for those who contend that it has a unified theological outlook. Yet, it is the Bible’s own testimony that although different human authors composed these writings, they were so influenced by God that the whole collection of writings has an authority and unity that comes from its divine author.

Opposition to biblical theology

As a theological discipline, biblical theology has had a checkered history. In the 17th and 18th centuries, biblical theology was closely aligned to dogmatic or systematic theology. The theology of the Bible was explained under various topics, usually about 24 in number,2 and proof texts were gathered from throughout the Bible to illustrate each topic.

From the late 18th century onwards, the academic study of the Bible was heavily influenced by ideas that undermined the concept of a single theology encompassing both Old and New Testaments. It was argued that the different books of the Bible, having been composed over a long period of time by a variety of people, reflected different theologies that were incompatible.3 From the early 19th century onwards, critical scholars argued that the Bible was best approached as a source book illustrating how the religion of Israel evolved and changed over the centuries.4 Even the New Testament was viewed as being far from consistent theologically. In the light of this, the Bible could not possibly provide a single, all-embracing theology.

Against this background, it must be affirmed that doing “biblical theology” is a confessional activity that recognizes the unique authority of the Bible as the inspired word of God. Understanding the Bible to be God-breathed Scripture (2Tim 3:16) provides legitimacy to the idea of a single theology that encompasses the whole Bible.

Complementary or contradictory?

It is often argued that the diversity of the biblical books in terms of genre and provenance undermines the viability of having a single theology for the whole Bible. While it is true that the books of the Bible are not homogeneous, the product of a single human author, critical scholarship even dissected unified biblical texts in order to propagate the idea of disparate theologies. What may be understood as complementary is often taken to be contradictory or incompatible.

An example of this comes in the opening chapters of Genesis. Whereas chapter 1 presents a picture of God being transcendent, overseeing all creation from a distance, chapter 2 highlights the idea of divine immanence as God encounters close-up the human couple in the Garden of Eden. The idea of God being transcendent and immanent is reflected in how God is named in each chapter. In chapter 1, the generic Hebrew term ʾĕlōhîm, translated “God,” is used, whereas the personal name yhwh, often translated “Lord,” is preferred in the Garden of Eden account of Genesis 2. Placed side-by-side the two chapters provide complementary pictures of God, emphasizing different, but compatible, aspects of his nature. While it is argued by some that the two descriptions of creation in Genesis 1-2 reflect contrasting theologies, it is apparent that the author of Genesis intends his readers to view the two accounts as complementing each other. Taken together they provide a single theology that is richer and more sophisticated that either account on its own. Proponents of biblical theology must often resist reductionist tendencies that fail to do justice to how the biblical texts describe the complexity of God’s nature and actions.

Unity in diversity

When assessing the variety of books that comprise the Bible it may be helpful to compare the Bible to a human body. As a functioning organism a body displays unity in diversity. A hand is very different from an eye, yet both are important components within the body. One contributes towards the sense of touch; the other provides the sense of sight. The body requires both to be complete. In the same way, the theology of the Bible is enriched by diversity that is complementary. Sometimes, like the cogwheels in a clock, biblical texts may even appear to move in opposite directions. The book of Proverbs strongly implies that righteous behavior will be rewarded by God. In marked contrast, the book of Job offers a stark reminder that even the most righteous of men may suffer terribly. Job appears to contradict the teaching of Proverbs, yet the different perspectives provided by both books balance one another.5 Despite claims to the contrary, when correctly interpreted the Bible provides an amazing single theology.

An overarching story

In recent years interest in biblical theology has increased with the recognition that it plays a vital role in helping Christians understand better the whole Bible as the Word of God. While systematic theology offers a distillation of biblical truth organized under specific categories, biblical theology focuses on the big story that unfolds from Genesis to Revelation, attempting to explain how the Bible may be best understood in the light of its literary diversity and the historical developments that it records. Whereas systematic theology gives prominence to dogmatic assertions or propositional truths, biblical theology adopts a narrative approach as it seeks to describe the contours of biblical revelation, uncovering the story of how God has interacted with human beings in the past and of how he will act in the future. This narrative approach has the benefit of explaining the diversity within the Bible by showing how things develop and change through time. It provides an understanding of redemptive history.6 It is an interpretation of history that presupposes the historical reality of the events recorded throughout Scripture.

In his book, The Mission of God,7 Chris Wright emphasizes the importance of the Bible as story. He observes that we live in a “storied universe.” The stories we tell shape our understanding of the world around us. Truth comes through stories. Stories, however, are about much more than cold facts. They impact our emotions and shape our imaginations. They can influence our behavior. In the light of this, it is hardly surprising that much of Scripture is in the form of stories and the Bible, in its entirety, tells a compelling story or meta-narrative about humanity’s relationship with God. Importantly, this overarching story establishes a Christian worldview, addressing such fundamental questions as: Where are we? Who are we? What’s gone wrong? What is the solution?8

Recognizing the narrative dimension of biblical theology, various scholars have sought to identity suitable themes that bind together the biblical texts in a meaningful way. Some argue in favor of a single, overarching theme,9 whereas others prefer to recognize the existence of parallel themes.10 Given the multi-thematic nature of the biblical story, many scholars have produced monographs on particular themes that support the theological unity of the Bible, without claiming that any single theme should be viewed as having pride of place over all others.11

Promise and fulfilment

Every story has a beginning. The opening chapters of Genesis set the scene. They describe how the divine-human relationship established by God at creation becomes fractured. Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God in the Garden of Eden has life-changing consequences for the whole world. Failing to exercise authority over the mysterious serpent, who stand in opposition to God, they heed the creature rather than the Creator. For disobeying God, they are punished, as is the one who instigated the rebellion. With appropriate irony, God pronounces that the serpent, elsewhere identified as the devil or Satan, will ultimately be defeated by an offspring of the woman (Gen 3:15). This solemn promise marks the start of a story that in Genesis traces a unique lineage of descendants that will eventually lead to the serpent-slayer. As the line of Eve’s offspring is followed, further divine promises are introduced, creating future expectations about a unique king who will mediate God’s blessing to the nations. The ongoing narrative in the books of Genesis to Samuel links these promises to the Davidic dynasty. Ultimately, they find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.12 Approached in this way, the Old and New Testament are linked together by the concept of promise-fulfillment.

Typology

From another perspective, the overarching biblical story has a typological dimension. Graeme Goldsworthy provides a helpful introduction to the typological dimension of the big story in his book, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations ‎and Principles.13‎ According to Goldsworthy, biblical history begins with creation and, after the tragic consequences of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, has a new beginning with the ‎call ‎of Abraham and the covenant that God makes with him. This covenant ‎‎underpins the Israelites’ exodus from captivity in Egypt and the binding of the redeemed people ‎to ‎the covenant instructions given by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. This, in turn, underpins the ‎responsibility of the people of Israel towards their God as he brings them to the ‎Promised ‎Land, gives them possession of it, raises up a king and establishes Zion and its ‎temple as ‎the focal point of God’s presence among his people.‎

Importantly, Goldsworthy observes how the events ‎from creation to the building of the temple in Jerusalem provide a pattern for the ‎eschatological hopes of the prophets.‎ The prophets expect a second exodus that will lead eventually to people living with God in an extraordinary, new Jerusalem. With this in view, Goldsworthy interprets the post exilic writings as indicating that the return from Babylon at the end of the 6th century BC did not fulfill the ‎utopian expectations of the prophets.‎ Prophetic expectations point towards the advent of a unique Davidic king who will rule on God’s behalf as a second Adam. This king will eventually rule over all the nations, bringing to fulfillment God’s redemptive plan. All of this will climax in the re-creation of the earth, resulting in God dwelling with redeemed humanity drawn from all the nations.

Goldsworthy’s typological approach enables readers of the Bible to see how the events associated with God’s rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and their subsequent settlement in the land of Canaan provide a type for the greater salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. Using typology, the author of Hebrews compares the new covenant that Jesus inaugurates with the old covenant at Mount Sinai. He contends, among other things, that Jesus is a better high priest compared to the Levitical high priest because Jesus has entered the heavenly temple, of which the earthly tabernacle is only a “copy and shadow” (Heb 8:1-13).

Conclusion

The study of biblical theology is not an end in itself. It is rather a tool for understanding better the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Biblical theology helps us see the big picture, appreciate the themes that hold the Bible together, understand how the story develops, see how the promises of the Old Testament, sometimes expressed through covenants, are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, as witnessed in the New Testament, and appreciate how the Old Testament provides patterns or types that explain later developments in the story.

The study of biblical theology is about understanding how each part of the Bible contributes in a distinctive way to the overarching story of the Bible and how an awareness of this story informs our understanding of each part of the Bible. When this is achieved, biblical theology is strongly Christ-centered.

Footnotes

1Brian S. Rosner, "Biblical Theology," in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and B. S. Rosner (Leicester: IVP, 2000), 3.
2In 1644 Henricus à Diest published a work entitled, Theologia biblica (Daventriae: Ioannem Janssonium, 1644) in which he arranged collections of biblical texts under 23 dogmatic topics.
3Even individual books may have been composed from earlier documents that reflected different views of God.
4For example, according to Georg L. Bauer, The Theology of the Old Testament; or, a Biblical Sketch of the Religious Opinions of the Ancient Hebrews from the Earliest Times to the Commencement of the Christian Era (London: Charles Fox, 1838), in the time of Abraham, God was a family God, one of many deities. At the time of Moses, this family God, the God of their fathers, was raised to the rank of a national God. Later, the prophets and sagas expanded belief in a national God into a Monotheistic faith, believing God to be the ‘Creator of all men’.
5The contrast between Proverbs and Job should not be pushed too far. Proverbs itself contains enough comments to dispel the belief that the righteous always prosper materially more than the wicked (see Prov 19:1; 28:6, 11; 30:8-9).
6Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1991); Willem A. VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption: From Creation to the New Jerusalem (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995).
7Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative (Nottingham: IVP, 2006). For a similar approach, see Vaughan Roberts, God's Big Picture: Tracing the Story-Line of the Bible (Leicester: IVP, 2003); Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004).
8Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative, 55; cf. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol. 1, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: SPCK, 1993).
9E.g. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative; James M. Hamilton, God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010); Peter John Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012); J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, God's Relational Presence: The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019).
10E.g. Charles H. H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003); Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, eds., Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007); T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).
11E.g. Gregory K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology, (Leicester: Apollos, 2004); Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007); Thomas R. Schreiner, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013); Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant and God's Purpose for the World, Short Studies in Biblical Theology, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017); T. Desmond Alexander, The City of God and the Goal of Creation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).
12See the TGC Essay on The Messianic Hope.
13Nottingham: Apollos, 2012.

Further Reading

T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, eds. The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Leicester: IVP, 2000, is organized into three sections: a series of articles addressing different aspects of Biblical Theology; a survey of the biblical books, noting their distinctive contribution; a series of articles looking at themes that run across the whole Bible.

For a range of thematic studies that contribute to our understanding of biblical theology, see the series, edited by D. A. Carson, New Studies in Biblical Theology, published by IVP/Apollos.

At a more introductory level, see the series, edited by Dane C. Ortlund and Miles V. Van Pelt, Short Studies in Biblical Theology, published by Crossway.

For an annotated bibliography on books related to biblical theology, see NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible––101 Books in Biblical Theology: An Annotated Bibliography.

  • Alexander, T. Desmond. The City of God and the Goal of Creation. Wheaton: Crossway, 2018.
  • ———. From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009.
  • Alexander, T. Desmond, and Brian S. Rosner, eds. The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Leicester: IVP, 2000.
  • Bartholomew, Craig G., and Michael W. Goheen. The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2004.
  • Bauer, Georg L. The Theology of the Old Testament; or, a Biblical Sketch of the Religious Opinions of the Ancient Hebrews from the Earliest Times to the Commencement of the Christian Era. London: Charles Fox, 1838.
  • Beale, Gregory K. The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. New Studies in Biblical Theology. Leicester: Apollos, 2004.
  • Davidson, Richard M. Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.
  • Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. God’s Relational Presence: The Cohesive Center of Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.
  • Gentry, Peter John, and Stephen J. Wellum. Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.
  • Goldsworthy, Graeme. According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1991.
  • Hafemann, Scott J., and Paul R. House, eds. Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
  • Hamilton, James M. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2010.
  • Roberts, Vaughan. God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Story-Line of the Bible. Leicester: IVP, 2003.
  • Rosner, Brian S. “Biblical Theology.” In The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and B. S. Rosner, 3-11. Leicester: IVP, 2000.
  • Schreiner, Thomas R. Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World. Short Studies in Biblical Theology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2017.
  • ———. The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013.
  • Scobie, Charles H. H. The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2003.
  • VanGemeren, Willem A. The Progress of Redemption: From Creation to the New Jerusalem. Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995.
  • Wright, Christopher J. H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Nottingham: IVP, 2006.
  • Wright, N. T. The New Testament and the People of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God. Vol. 1, London: SPCK, 1993.

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