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).