What Is Biblical Theology?–Part Two

To be somewhat cute and trite about it, the simple answer to the question, “What is biblical theology?” is that there is no simple answer.  As D. A. Carson observes, using a refrain from the book of Judges, everyone does what is right in his own eyes and calls it biblical theology.

In their recent book, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice, the authors, Edward Klink and Darian Lockett, attempt to lay out a taxonomy for the different models of biblical theology. They lay out five broad categories, which they label BT1, BT2, BT3, BT4, and BT5.  They also note, however, that such a task is not simple.  First of all, within each category, not all the scholars or practitioners would necessarily agree with others in the same category.   For example, for the category which I myself would most identify with, which the authors designate as BT2, “Biblical Theology as History of Redemption,” they also note there are significant subdivisions within the category, which they dub as the “Dallas School,” the “Chicago School,” and the “Philadelphia School” (I’ll go ahead and note here that my own brand of biblical theology was largely formed by the “Philadelphia School,” though I also have great affinities with the “Chicago School,” and even the “Dallas School,” though to a much lesser extent).  But, secondly, sometimes the distinctions which they suggest separate schools BT2 through BT5, appear, at least on the surface, to be distinctions without a difference.  For example, in their description of BT5, which they call, “Biblical Theology as Theological Construction,” the authors emphasize this model’s focus on Christocentricity and call for adherence to the rule of faith; but both of these would be important within the BT2 model as well.  In any case, we see here that the task of definition is not an easy one.

I will come back in a later post and look at the differences between these models.  But for now, my immediate purpose will be to define what biblical theology is, and, to do so within the “History of Redemption” model.

In some respects, the easiest way to describe biblical theology is to say what it is not.  And what it is not is systematic theology.  Biblical theology and systematic theology are two different enterprises.  But sometimes the nature of that difference is misunderstood, and it is misunderstood because of the word “biblical.”  The difference is not that biblical theology is more biblical than systematic theology, at least not inherently.  Rather the difference is one of organization.  Systematic theology mines the biblical content by organizing the information contained in the Bible into topical categories.  Biblical theology, on the other hand, examines the biblical content according to what it believes are biblical categories.  And for the “History of Redemption” model, those categories are historical.  That is, the Bible is a book of history, not a book of systematic theology.  Biblical theology, then, seeks to trace the path of God’s self-revelation in the biblical text, and the history of redemption which stands behind that text.  One metaphor which might help to understand this difference is that systematic theology is a collection of snapshots gathered together into a photo album, and without much concern as to when those snapshots were taken.  Biblical theology, on the other hand, is a movie.  Another way of imaging the difference is that systematic theology is a topical essay, but biblical theology is a dramatic play.  A movie is not necessarily better than a snapshot.  A play is not necessarily better than an essay.  So biblical theology is not necessarily better than systematic theology.  It is simply a different way of looking at the biblical content.

Now that’s the theory.  However, quite often, in practice, I believe that biblical theology does, in fact, end up being more biblical than systematic theology.  I will come back to this issue in Part Three.

For now, though, I want to reinforce my understanding of what biblical theology is with some quotes from various practitioners of biblical theology, with some of my own comments interspersed.

Geerhardus Vos – “Biblical theology, rightly defined, is nothing else than the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historical continuity and multiformity.”

“It is certainly not without significance that God has embodied the contents of revelation, not in a dogmatic system, but in a book of history, the parallel to which in dramatic interest and simple eloquence is nowhere to be found.”

“The Bible is not a dogmatic handbook but a historical book full of dramatic interest.”

“Biblical Theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.”

Notice several elements in these quotations from Vos, who is often referred to as the father of modern Reformed biblical theology.  The revelation and the historical events recorded in the Bible constitute an organic progress.  That is, the history contained in the Bible is not a collection of unrelated and disconnected vignettes, but a purposeful, organic, connected narrative of the revelation of God’s actions in redeeming a people for himself.  It is a history of salvation, a history of redemption.  It is not a dogmatic theology, meaning that its shape is not that of a systematic theology, but rather, it is a dramatic narrative.  Let me add here, however, that just because this narrative is not dogmatic or systematic in character, does not mean that it is any less theological.  History is the way the Bible does theology.

Peter Stuhlmacher – “A biblical theology . . . must attempt to interpret the Old and New Testament tradition as it wants to be interpreted.”

Stuhlmacher here emphasizes that biblical theology conforms to way the Bible wants, begs, to be interpreted.  This way is the way of the historical, which, again I emphasize, is no less theological than systematic theology.

Brian Rosner – “The task of biblical theology is to present the teaching of the Bible about God and his relations to the world in a way that lets the biblical texts set the agenda. . . . In other words, biblical theology subscribes to the primacy of the text; the interpretive interest of biblical theology corresponds as closely as possible to what the text is about.”

“What is biblical theology?  To sum up, biblical theology may be defined as theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church.  It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyze and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus.

Notice here Rosner’s contention that biblical theology lets the Bible set the agenda.

Kevin Vanhoozer – “The task of biblical theology, as traditionally understood and as defined . . . is to present the theology of the Bible—the parts and the whole—in a manner that lets the texts, in all their peculiarity and particularity, set the agenda.  In short, biblical theology is the attempt to provide a holistic yet historical account of the biblical testimony to the God of Israel and Jesus Christ.”

“The ultimate goal of biblical theology, of course, is not to impose an alien framework onto Scripture but rather to let the Bible’s own theological framework come to light.”

“To state the claim more positively, biblical theology corresponds to the interests of the texts themselves.”

“Biblical theology aims to give theological interpretations of the Bible on its own terms.”

“Biblical theology is nothing less than a theological hermeneutics, a regula fidei (a rule of reading).  As such, biblical theology is not merely a matter of repackaging the conceptual content of the Scriptures, but a way of having one’s heart, mind, and imagination alike schooled in the ways of seeing and experiencing the world according to the many literary forms and the one canon, which together constitute the word of God written.”

Notice here how Vanhoozer, just like Rosner, argues that biblical theology follows biblical categories.

D. A. Carson – “Ideally, biblical theology, as its name implies, even as it works inductively from the diverse texts of the Bible, seeks to uncover and articulate the unity of all the biblical texts taken together, resorting primarily to the categories of those texts themselves.  In this sense it is canonical biblical theology, ‘whole-Bible’ biblical theology; i.e., its content is a theology of the whole Bible, not a theology that merely has roots in the Bible, or merely takes the Bible as the place to begin.”

Notice here that Carson emphasizes that biblical theology’s categories are the Bible’s own categories.

Graeme Goldsworthy – “From the evangelical preacher’s point of view, biblical theology involves the quest for the big picture, or the overview, of biblical revelation.  It is of the nature of biblical revelation that it tells a story rather than sets out timeless principles in abstract.”

Goldsworthy here emphasizes the story character of the biblical revelation.

Scott Hafemann – “At its most fundamental level, the subject matter of biblical theology is the Bible’s understanding of God’s character and purposes. . . . Moreover, since biblical history focuses on God’s rescue of humanity from its rebellion against its creator and sustainer, it can be called the ‘history of redemption’; or ‘salvation history’.  Thus God’s relationship with his people within salvation history recounted in Scripture is the subject matter of ‘biblical theology’.  To call it ‘theology’ is especially apropos in that the intention of biblical salvation history is unequivocally theocentric, being focused on God’s self-revelation of his righteous character in and through his relationship with his people, the nations and the world.  Biblically speaking, the purpose of theology is doxology.”

Notice Hafemann’s emphasis here on biblical theology’s attempt to represent “the Bible’s understanding of God’s character and purposes” in the Bible’s own categories, i.e., a “history of redemption.”  Note also that the end goal of this theology, as should be the goal of all theology, is doxology—the praise of the living God.

I could multiply the quotations here from the various scholars and practitioners of biblical theology, but I will let what I have here be sufficient (I will also come back later and edit this article to provide documentation for these quotations). But what I want you to notice here is the broad agreement that:

(1) Biblical theology attempts to use the Bible’s own categories for the presentation of the biblical content.

(2) Biblical theology understands those categories to be primarily historical in character.

(3) In this history, God progressively reveals his character, his plan, and his purposes.

(4) This history is not organized on the pattern of works of dogmatic or systematic theology.

(5) However, what is given to us in the Bible, though not organized along the lines of a systematic theology, is no less theological than systematic theology.  The biblical authors present us with a theology.

(6) For all the diversity and multiformity contained in the Bible, the theology is a unified theology.  The theology may be diverse, but it is not contradictory.  Later revelation in the Bible adds to, nuances, and clarifies earlier revelation.  It does not, however, deny earlier revelation.  The revelation contained in the Bible is organic.

(7) The goal of biblical theology is doxology.  Biblical theology seeks to trace God’s progressive revelation of his character in the Bible in such a way that his beauty shines forth and he receives the glory and praise he is so richly due.  One of the best titles ever given to a volume of biblical theology is that of Thomas Schreiner’s, The King in His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments.  Going back to what I said in the “Introductory Article,” the biblical authors, as Irenaeus said, have constructed a mosaic of the Great King.  Biblical theology’s task is make sure that this beautiful mosaic is presented as is, without rearranging the tiles to form an inferior or distorted picture of the King.

Perhaps the reader still feels they do not have a good handle on what biblical theology actually is.  But an important goal for this blog is to show biblical theology in action.  So, in later posts, with concrete examples, we will hopefully be able to get a good picture of what biblical theology does with the biblical text.

In Part Three, I will come back to the biblical theology versus systematic theology distinction.  You’ll remember that I said that biblical theology is not inherently better than systematic theology.  Indeed, there have been a number of scholars over the years who have been practitioners of both.  A good systematic theologian is also a good biblical theologian.  But what happens when systematic theology does not take the results of biblical theology into account?  We will look at that in Part Three as well.

Jerry Shepherd
September 4, 2013

12 thoughts on “What Is Biblical Theology?–Part Two

    • A good friend of mine often says to me when we get into systematic theological discussions (I know…we’re both a bit geeky), “Trust the text.” He tries not to let his opinion about a particular topic, influence his reading of the text but tries to let the text speak and being someone who understands writing, he lets the larger context speak. What I have come to love about those discussions is that he really does trust that the text can be trusted and that even if it seems foreign and incomprehensible in today’s context, somehow it will fit with the rest of the redemptive story. inevitably our conversation ends up in recounting history. I am thinking that though his field of study and expertise is philosophy, he tends to wards Biblical theology.

      • Hi Len,

        Geeky is good if geeky means talking theology! I believe your friend’s motto is a good one. I would, however, throw in some caveats. First, there are–and more often that many would care to admit–a good number of occasions where text-critical work needs to be done. So, for example, I don’t trust the text contained in Mark 16:9-20. There are several reasons why that passage is suspect text-critically. Allowance must always be made for less than ideal scribal transmission histories. Second, while “trust the text” is a great motto, an equally necessary parallel axiom is, “be suspicious of yourself.” As John Calvin said, our hearts are idol factories, and the factory doesn’t necessarily stop production when we start interpreting the biblical text. But, with these caveats in place, and perhaps a few others, “trust the text” is certainly the faithful, worshipful attitude with which biblical interpretation should proceed–a hermeneutic of trust and consent rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion.

  1. Hi Jerry, thanks for the great blog. I get this feeling like I am wading along the shores of some heavy duty stuff. It is refreshing to partake in this modern conversation. What would be some examples of Biblical categories and how are they to be identified?

    • Hi Cam. I’ll be saying much more about this later on, but a very quick answer is that, for the type of biblical theology which I practice (and you might remember this from the Old Testament Foundations class), the biblical categories of redemptive history are primarily covenantal. Named after their mediators, the covenants would be: Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, culminating in the New Covenant, or, if we continue using the mediator’s name, the Christ covenant. So, again, much more to come.

  2. Where is ‘What is Biblical Theology’ Part One? Is it The Church and the Kingdom post? I feel like it’s WAY over my head – but, I’ll read and lurk.

  3. Hi Jerry. I am currently reading Klink and Lockett’s book. So far, I too identify mostly with the BT2 model. One thing I am wondering about though: Are you comfortable with the idea (in the book’s description of that model) with BT being relegated to the status of a “step” that leads inevitably to dogmatic/systematic theology? Just curious.

    • Hi Brent. This is an important question, and I’ll be talking more about it when I finally get “What Is Biblical Theology?–Part Four” posted. But, just very quickly for now, you’ll notice that there the three schools Klink and Lockett describe for BT2, Dallas, Chicago, and Philadelphia, are on a continuum on this very point. Both the Dallas and Chicago schools regard BT as a “step” toward dogmatic/systematic theology, though the Chicago is further along on the continuum than the Dallas school. But the Philadelphia school, as the authors say (pp. 70-72) regards BT as “more than a ‘bridge.'” So, I am much more in line with the Philadelphia school, even to the point that I’ll be asking in that “Part Four” post whether there is really any need for systematic theology.

      • Thanks. Some helpful clarification there. On the (possible?) relationship between BT and ST, I found the following somewhat helpful. although perhaps the author delineates too sharply between BT and ST:

        “…biblical theology assumes and depends on a number of things demonstrated by systematic theology: things like the infallibility and inerrancy of revelation as it comes to us in Scripture, the objectivity of the knowledge of God through revelation, and the trustworthiness of inspiration.” [Michael Lawrence, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church, p. 26]

        • We appear to be reading a lot of the same stuff lately! I like Lawrence’s book generally; but what I didn’t agre with was his suggestion that ST is applied theology, that ST’s purpose is application. When you get to my Part Three for “What is Biblical Theology?” you’ll see my concerns with that way of framing things.

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