What is Biblical Theology?–Part One

I became a Christian at the age of ten, in Greensboro, North Carolina, when I was in the fifth grade.  The conversion was not a dramatic one, but it was a very emotional one.  Almost from the very beginning I had ideas about getting into what has been traditionally called “fulltime vocational Christian service.”  Before I was out of junior high school, I had read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and The Holy War, as well as his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.  Additionally, I had read biographies of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Hudson Taylor, D. L. Moody, David Livingstone, Peter Marshall, and Billy Graham.  I read a number of books by Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon (several volumes of his sermons), A. B. Simpson, F. B. Meyer, D. L. Moody, Fulton Oursler, Billy Graham, David Wilkerson, Carl McEntire, James Stewart (not the actor), D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, H. C. Trumbull, Alfred Gibbs, Andrew Blackwood, Andrew Murray, and Peter Marshall.  I read commentaries on the Bible.  I was even an avid student of the Scofield Reference Bible!   The reading and the study continued on into my high school years, and I had already decided I was going to attend a Bible college in another city about thirty miles away from my hometown of Greensboro.  One thing I had not gotten around to reading was a book of systematic theology; but I was looking forward to be able to dig into one or more volumes of systematic theology when I got to Bible college.  I at least knew what systematic theology was.

During my first semester of Bible college, in the fall of 1971, when I was taking a course in biblical interpretation, the professor noted that, in addition to systematic theology, there was also something called, “biblical theology.”  I don’t remember him saying much about it; but I do remember that he had a bit of a hard time defining it or describing it.  So, I don’t think anyone in our class came away really knowing what it was.  I wouldn’t find out for another dozen years.

When I entered Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 1983, it was for the express purpose of ultimately becoming a professor of Old Testament.  My intention was to get a masters degree at Westminster, and then enter a PhD program at Dropsie College in the same city (the school was not named after a disease; Dropsie was a rabbinical school, named after Moses Aaron Dropsie, and a number of Christian “goyim” would go there to pursue PhDs in Hebrew Bible and Semitic studies).  The first part of the plan went superbly.  I got the masters degree in two years, and was in good position to apply for and pursue PhD studies.  But two things got in the way of my plan.  First, Dropsie ceased being a degree-granting institution and became instead a post-doctoral research center, and so was no longer accepting new students.  I thought about going to another institution where I could get a degree in either Old Testament or Ancient Near Eastern studies; but we would have had to move again.  Just two years earlier, I had uprooted my wife and two young children from our home in North Carolina, and moved to Philadelphia to attend Westminster, and I didn’t want to move them again in such a short time.

The second thing that got in the way was that I fell in love with biblical theology.  I had just finished studying for two years under Tremper Longman, Ray Dillard, J. Alan Groves, and Richard B. Gaffin.  They had introduced me to a whole new way of doing theology.  Well, perhaps not entirely new.  During those dozen years between that class where I first heard the term, “biblical theology,” and when I started my first classes at Westminster, I had continued diligently studying the Bible.  And I had begun to notice all kinds of typologies, literary patterns, repeating themes and incidents and imagery, passages in the New Testament that did not explicitly quote the Old Testament by saying something like “as it is written in the book of Isaiah the prophet,” but rather, teasingly alluded to some phrase, some incident, some scene in the Old Testament that was actually crucial for understanding the New Testament passage.  But it was when I got to Westminster and sat in classes under Longman and Dillard and Groves and Gaffin, that I began to fully understand that all those typologies, and literary patterns, and repeated themes and incidents and imagery, and all those teasing allusions were not just a set of loosely connected atomistic curiosities, but rather designed and cut-to-fit pieces, beautiful mosaic tiles in a great and grand and glorious story, a history of salvation, a redemptive history, a covenantal history, a metanarrative of what God has done in history and in his Christ to procure our redemption.  I wanted to study more of that story and I wanted to study it with those same scholars.  So I entered the PhD program in Hermeneutics and Biblical Interpretation at Westminster.  Though I took all my elective courses in Old Testament, it was not technically a degree in Old Testament. The core courses had to do with both Old and New Testament theology, with hermeneutics, with the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament, with the history of interpretation—in short, with the “whole Bible,” and with the formation of a “whole Bible theology,” or, to use the wording provided by the Apostle Paul in Acts 20:27, “the whole counsel of God.”

So, I got the PhD, and I have now been teaching at Taylor Seminary for twenty years.  And I think it is safe to say that there is not a single course I have taught at seminary that I have not taught from a conscious and very purposeful biblical-theological orientation.  So, I don’t just teach Psalms, or Isaiah, or Ezekiel, or the Wisdom Literature, but I teach each of those books as parts of a canonical whole.  It’s not just what, for example, the book of Ezekiel means, but what it means in the context of the entire canon of Scripture; i.e., Ezekiel means something different by being part of the canon of Scripture than it does as a book by itself.   And, of course, one class I teach allows me to be even more focused on a biblical-theological agenda, “Motifs in Biblical Theology.”

I hope the readers and subscribers will graciously forgive me for being so autobiographical in this post.  I don’t intend for this blog to be about me.  But I thought it was important to do what I have done in this post for two reasons.  First, I want the reader to know that biblical theology is not just a hobby for me.  It is not even merely a vocation.  Rather, it is a passion.  Indeed, I consider biblical theology to be vital for the life and ministry of the church.  Biblical theology is not simply a way to do theology; for me, it is the way to do theology.  It is absolutely foundational to understanding what the doctrine of Christ is, and for understanding what God has done for us in his Son, Christ Jesus.  This is not at all to denigrate systematic theology, and I’ll be saying much more in Part Two (and Part Three?) about the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology; but for now, I just want to impress on you the importance of this thing called biblical theology, and also let you know of the passion that lies behind this blog.

The second reason I have given this short autobiographical account is that it serves to demonstrate the difficulty of actually understanding what biblical theology is.  I didn’t understand what it was in that introductory biblical interpretation class in my first semester of Bible college.  And the professor didn’t do a very good job of explaining it either.  And even though I was kind of doing biblical theology during those twelve years before I started seminary, I didn’t know that was what I was doing.  By the way, have you noticed that I still haven’t defined it?!  I’ve provided some clues, and maybe you’ve gotten some idea, but I still need to actually provide a definition.  That’s going to be a very interesting exercise, and perhaps a mind-stretching one.  But I also promise you, it will be one with a huge payoff.  I hope you’ll stay with me for the ride.

Jerry Shepherd,
August 27, 2013

10 thoughts on “What is Biblical Theology?–Part One

  1. Interesting! This is the first time I have heard of the concept. I am looking forward to seeing it further defined in your next post! I don’t think there was any need to apologize for the autobiography. I actually appreciate it when speakers and instructors do give background before they get going. Knowing where a person is coming from adds nuance you would not otherwise grasp.

  2. As I read your post I was reminded of the story we find in Luke 22:13-35 where Jesus walks to Emmaus with two of his followers. Along the way Jesus says to them, “How foolish you are, and slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” He is asserting the fact that all of the Old Testament points forward to him and his death and resurrection. His comment makes it clear that we need to read the entire biblical story as one metanarrative pointing to Jesus. I have found this to be profoundly helpful but also quite challenging. I am looking forward to reading your future posts on this topic and learning how to practice this more faithfully. I am also eager to hear how you relate discipline of biblical theology to the other theological disciplines like systematic theology.

    • Excellent Dennis. One of the posts later on will be dealing with this very passage. You are also right that this is very challenging. Preaching biblically-theologically is hard work, much harder that preaching topically, or even exegetically if one is focusing very narrowly on a passage without exploring all the text’s connections. We’ll be dealing with that biblical theology / systematic theology relationship in the next article.

  3. Dear Prof;
    I appreciate your touching on Biblical Theology and the inter-relationship of the Older and Newer Testaments…just last week this relationship came home to me in teaching Genesis 19 on Lot when Jesus referenced Lot’s wife in Luke 17:32 and said…“Remember Lot’s wife.”

    I was so impressed when Dr. Dale Moody spoke at N. A. B. C in (1971-1972) and we observed from Scriptures the steady expansion of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit through the Bible!
    Ken Walker

    • “Steady expansion” — This nods in the right direction toward a definition of biblical theology; very good. At the same time, a question that needs to be asked is whether this “expansion of the doctrine” or “progress of revelation” is in fact “steady,” or whether it is not rather “episodic” or “epochal.” We’ll be discussing this in another post.

  4. Jerry,
    I think we must remember to include Ed Clowney as another model of PREACHING Biblical Theology.

    In his honor, here is a link to a song of mine first inspired by his sermon on Exodus 17 (re: “the smitten Rock”) — in my book, perhaps second only to “Sharing the Father’s Welcome” (on the prodigal son… and prodigal Father!).


    • Hi Bruce. Thanks for chiming in. You are certainly correct about Ed Clowney. Every couple of years I teach a class called “Motifs in Biblical Theology.” It was inspired, in large part, by Al Groves’s course, “Old Testament Motifs.” One of the books that students in this course is Clowney’s Preaching and Biblical Theology. I’ll check out that song a bit later and get back to you on that. (For local readers of the blog, Bruce was one of classmates back at WTS in the 80s)

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