No, Biblical Theology is not just theology that is biblical. All theology should be biblical, but that’s not what “Biblical Theology” typically refers to.
Rather, Biblical Theology, simply put, is the theology of the Bible. That is, it is not our own theology but that of the biblical writers themselves. It is their convictions about God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit and God’s work in human history as revealed in the writings of Scripture.
Understanding Biblical Theology as the theology of Scripture itself, in turn, requires a certain method, a particular way of reading Scripture (a hermeneutic). Think of it as a three-legged stool: we best use a method that is historical, inductive, and descriptive.
Our approach is historical: we don’t merely arrange the biblical teachings topically, such as: What does the Bible teach about giving? Rather, we understand each pertinent biblical passage in its original historical setting. For example, we consider Malachi’s exhortation, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse” (3:10) in its proper context in the history of Israel, rather than taking it out of context as a mere timeless, abstract principle.
Our method is also inductive: as much as possible, we make every effort to approach Scripture with an open mind, employing an “authorial-intent” hermeneutic: What did the biblical author intend to convey in a given passage? Think of it as a conversation. We’re trying to be good listeners to Scripture rather than imposing our own preconceived notions or preferred meanings onto the text.
Finally, the biblical theologian aims initially to be primarily descriptive. This means he or she will attempt to restate the biblical teaching on a given subject, such as sanctification, by respecting the terminology used by the writers of Scripture themselves. If so, he or she will discover that in Scripture, sanctification refers both to God’s initial act of setting believers apart for his holy use and to the process of the Spirit’s work in helping us grow in Christ.
Biblical Theology, therefore, flows naturally from careful biblical interpretation as it tries to explore the teachings and major themes of Scripture within the orbit of the overall biblical storyline.
At the same time, Biblical Theology will inexorably be complemented and completed by biblically grounded systematic reflection. Rightly understood, Biblical and Systematic Theology are equal partners who work together to instruct and guide us in understanding and applying the Bible’s teaching to our lives both individually and corporately.
And yet, there is a natural sequence in the way in which Biblical and Systematic Theology work together. First, the biblical theologian gets to work and engages in historical, inductive, and descriptive Biblical Theology. Second, the systematic theologian gratefully takes what the biblical theologian gives him and frames the biblical teaching using categories and concepts that will be helpful in guiding the church’s apprehension and application of biblical truth.
To be sure, there will be a few exceptionally gifted individuals who try to combine both tasks into one, engaging in Biblical Theology first and then moving on to Systematic Theology. It may even be that in the hands of some the line between Biblical and Systematic Theology is almost imperceptible.
Nevertheless, I would argue that we do best if we respect the boundaries between the two disciplines and distinguish between their respective tasks.
Above all, we should remember that Biblical Theology is not a modern invention.
If by “Biblical Theology” we mean later biblical writers building on earlier writings in Scripture, we can see how the psalmist reflects on Israel’s experience as narrated in the book of Exodus or Deuteronomy – the use of the Old Testament in later Old Testament writings. We also see how New Testament writers regularly cite or allude to various Old Testament passages. That’s Biblical Theology!
By engaging in Biblical Theology – connecting the dots between various biblical passages in keeping with the original authors’ intention – we thus enter into the illustrious and noble tradition of a previous “cloud of witnesses” who sought to understand God’s gracious self-disclosure and redemptive work.
As biblical interpreters and theologians, we will therefore be faithful servants and witnesses of the great God who has revealed himself throughout Scripture and who has provided redemption in Jesus Christ for all who believe.
This article was originally published in Midwestern Magazine, Issue 38 (October 2019).