What is Biblical Theology?

II. Question of Biblical Theology 

In considering definitions and descriptions of biblical theology, often these differ with who one asks. Questions arise as to how terminology is defined. What is meant by “biblical”? What is meant by “theology”? Are the two related and if so, how so? On the one hand, biblical theology is viewed as strictly for historical description. On the other hand, others claim it as purely a theological construction. In reality, biblical theology is both. It engages Scripture from both theological and historical perspectives. It attempts to discern the message of the Bible as it relates to revealing God’s plan of salvation. Biblical theology, as a discipline, seeks to explicate the message of the Bible on its own terms without imposed categories. It explores what the Bible says about God, and how it says it.

Elmer Martens describes biblical theology as:

That approach to Scripture which attempts to see the biblical material holistically and to describe this wholeness or synthesis in biblical categories. Biblical theology attempts to embrace the message of the Bible and to arrive at an intelligible coherence of the whole despite the great diversity of the parts. Or put another way: Biblical theology investigates the themes presented in Scripture and defines their inter-relationships. Biblical theology is an attempt to get at the theological heart of the Bible.

Brevard Childs simplifies it further when he states: “Biblical theology is by definition theological reflection on both the Old and the New Testaments.” Biblical theology seeks to discern what the Bible says theologically, in the light of God’s actions in history. Despite the various methods biblical theology uses to determine and communicate the Bible’s message, there is one commonality; belief in a unified structure running through the Bible. Even so, much disagreement remains. Many have given up any attempt to articulate just what the unity of the Bible is and that on its own terms. Disagreement persists as to what biblical theology is. There seems to be agreement that there is unity, but disagreement on what the unifying elements are and how to express it. It is this paper’s purpose to discuss and explain the concept of biblical theology and its unifying aspect. In response to the points of debate as to what is meant by biblical theology, the issues discussed will relate to matters of relationships between the testaments, unity and diversity, how culture plays a role, and what role biblical theology has in the life of the church. 

Doing Biblical theology is not just a method of interpreting the Bible, it is a way of thinking about Scripture. This way of thinking is rooted in one’s personal theology and thinking about the nature of the Bible. What and how one thinks about the Bible, as a religious text, is integral to how one approaches the discipline of biblical theology. For some, the Bible is strictly a history of Israel and their religion and nothing more. Others engage historical matters to glean the theological message. While the points of emphasis will vary, there are at least five different approaches to biblical theology. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss all five approaches. Instead, one approach will be examined in adequate depth to provide an example of biblical theology and how it functions to communicate the theological message of the Scripture. 

Biblical theology as History of Redemption is an approach to biblical theology that sees the whole Bible as a progressive revelation. It promotes a “whole Bible theology.” This approach seeks to look at the Bible in its own historical context to determine the meaning of the Bible, in the whole and in the parts. Its intent is to locate theological themes connecting Scripture together in order to emphasize the patterns of God’s redemptive activity in history. Its view is that the “history of redemption progresses in a chronological manner.” There is an approach to biblical theology that only asks “what it meant.” Biblical theology as history of redemption utilizes historical description as a means to see “what it meant” in order to discern what it means now. This way of doing biblical theology is strongly exegetical and seeks to communicate the Bible in such as way that hearers will be awed at the realization of God’s unfolding purposes for humanity from Genesis to Revelation. What sets this approach apart is its commitment to doing biblical theology as redemptive history.  

The commitment to seeing biblical theology through redemptive history then, means it believes the Bible is God’s word. It understands it as a revelation of who God is and how he functions. This approach believes, “God’s revelation points readers to the real events in history, but a history that is invested with meaning.” It sees redemptive history as a historical and unified progression of God’s saving activity in and for the world. The intent is to help Christians know their place in God’s redemptive plan for them, and for the world. Biblical theology as redemptive history believes the Bible (from Genesis to Revelation) has a context and meaning for which it is intended; to reveal God to the world. In this way, then, this approach functions both descriptively and prescriptively. It describes the redemptive history of the Bible, and sets forth means for Christian living in light of its theological message.

Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller, Robin Parry, eds., Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
Edward W. Klink, and Darian R Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of  Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).
Elmer A Martens, ‘Tackling Old Testament Theology,’ JETS 20 (1977), p, 123 as quoted in Scott J. Hafemann, and Paul R. House, eds., Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in diversity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).
Stephen B. Chapman, “Reclaiming inspiration for the Bible,” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, eds., Craig G. Bartholomew and Anthony C. Thiselton (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).

The Role of Biblical Theology in the Contemporary Christian Church. Why Biblical Theology matters.

 VIII. The Role of Biblical Theology in the Contemporary Christian Church. 

The role of Biblical theology in the contemporary church garners mixed response. On the one hand, there are pastors who lead congregations with a solid perspective of what Biblical theology is. They integrate it into their preaching, teaching, and general ministry. On the other hand, there are pastoral leaders who don’t even know what Biblical theology is. There is a range in between. At the heart of the issue is at least two things: one is how people understand the purpose of the Bible and its place in the life of the church. The other is how people understand theology and its role in our lives a Christians. There is much talk about “the problem of biblical illiteracy” in the church and it is common to hear Christians say “I am not a theologian.” Some of this is connected to the previous question of the prescriptive or descriptive nature of Biblical theology. In their hearts, people know the Bible points us to God and gives direction for life, and yet, all too often anti-intellectualism often pushes theology into the academy. 

What is the role of the Bible for the contemporary church? For many, while it is the Word of God, they remain uncertain what the Bible’s role is for the church. They want it to be practical and for the Bible to speak into their lives. They want to know what a Bible verse means for them. What is often missed is the need for paying attention to biblical and historical contexts so meaning can be understood. Too often the tendency is to want application and meaning before knowing the context. For some context is a non issue, they are not interested in context or in knowing the minds or intents of the biblical writers. Others may suggest we can’t know the mind

of the biblical writer and so create their own meanings. It is thought that meaning should be determined by the reader in the moment. This is the influence of postmodernism in the church – meaning is created by the reader, not the historical or literary context. This is where the discipline biblical theology can serve the church. It seeks to understand literary and historical contexts so meaning can be known,  applied, and safeguarded. Without the help of biblical theology, the meaning of Scripture risks remaining unknown, and the problem of biblical illiteracy will continue unabated. 

From another perspective, David L. Baker suggests people’s perceptions about the Bible overall also lies in misunderstanding the overall context of the Bible and its contents. Often, the Old Testament is thought to be irrelevant for life. He asks, “Is the Old Testament the word of God for Christians? If so, does it have the same authority as the New Testament or a lesser status” Historically, some, such as Marcion, have considered the Old Testament as no longer God’s word for today. Others have said the Old Testament is the essential Bible while the New Testament is merely supplemental. This way of thinking about the Old Testament has carried on through the ages so that even today many see it as having little to no relevance. Others give priority to the New Testament. This has led to some serious consequences. 

One consequence is the misalignment of the Scripture’s authority. Another is the loss of a comprehensive understanding of the Bible. These have contributed to biblical illiteracy in the contemporary church. Negating one Testament against the other downplays the overall authority of the Bible for the church and for Christian living. Again, Baker says the real issue is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Old Testament and its relationship to the New. He writes, “the authority of the Old Testament is not to be measured, in the sense of being more or less than that of the New Testament, but to be understood in terms of function.” He states the function of the Old Testament is not the same as the function of the New so it should not be seen as such. Each have their own function. Though they are connected and interrelated, it is important to engage each Testament on its own terms. He says not all of the Old Testament is applicable to Christians, but neither is the New Testament. “Every biblical book has its specific historical and cultural setting, and was originally written for people other than us.”

What, then, is the function of the Old Testament? Its function is to help Christians know the development of their faith by seeing God’s redemptive acts in history; how he brought about their “great salvation” (Heb 2:3). The Old Testament is relevant because it typifies common human experience. It helps make sense of life and faith. This is important because it highlights the significance of biblical theology for the contemporary church. Instead of the Bible remaining at a distance, the discipline of biblical theology can help Christians better understand the Bible in historical context so they can understand its meaning and relevance for the contemporary church. This in turn reduces the issue of biblical illiteracy.

With a solid understanding of the Bible in its historical context, that is, as a progressive revelation, will come a deeper appreciation for biblical theology. Theology, in general, has long been something that, in the modern world, has been resisted by many Christians. Caught up in the long thread of anti-intellectualism in general religious practice, Christians have touted theology as heady, esoteric, and irrelevant. American society in particular has long been given to pragmatics and sees theology as intellectual and distant. For many, the only theology worth considering is theology that works. If it is not practical it is disregarded. The reason for this is because of experiences with theology that left people wanting. It did not connect. It may have been separated from the Bible. With proper use of biblical theology as a discipline, the Bible and theology will be reunited in such a way that gives life to the church. Experienced in this manner, Christians will then be open to theological reflection in their faith and ultimately on their purpose. Through the discipline of biblical theology, the Bible and theology can be reunited as collaborators in the formation of Christians as the covenant people of God who live in the world for the glory of God and the flourishing of humanity.

Baker, David L. Two Testaments, One Bible (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).
James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1999).
Edward W. Klink, and Darian R Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of  Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012).
Lawrence, M. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).
Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).