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What is "Biblical Theology"? by Prof. Michael J. Glodo
January 11, 2013
by Michael J. Glodo
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
To ask “What is biblical theology?” might seem like a question which doesn’t need asking. After all, should all theology be biblical? The answer is “Absolutely!”. But we can’t take this for granted. After all, many who claim the Christian tradition do not have a genuine commitment to the Bible as the final authority for matters of faith and practice.
However, the term “biblical theology” is often used in a more specialized sense to distinguish it from “systematic theology.” While the latter looks at the Bible’s teaching all at once through a consistent topical arrangement, biblical theology looks at the Bible’s message as it developed over time with particular attention to the historical context, the inspired authors and their original audience(s). Systematic theology and biblical theology are complementary approaches. We can’t rightly do one without the other. Our systematic theology should come from sound biblical interpretation, yet we have to have good theological foundations in order to read the Bible rightly.
There is also a need to distinguish between good biblical theology and bad biblical theology. In scholarly circles biblical theology is often used to undermine or challenge systematic theology. Such scholars focus on the variety within biblical theology to suggest or even argue that we shouldn’t reduce the Bible’s message to a single unified system of doctrine. Under this view, there are many biblical theologies within the Bible and they shouldn’t and can’t be reconciled with one another. This approach ignores the Bible’s own teaching that it presents a unified message (e.g. Luke 24:27, 44).
Besides biblical theologians who wish to create a distance with systematic theology, there are also those who wish to minimize the place of history. New insights into literary analysis along with continuing challenges on the historical front leave them retreating from the historical truthfulness of the Bible. Under this approach, they emphasize the Bible only as a literary artifact, even at times accepting the assumptions of historical skeptics. A biblical approach to biblical theology requires that we recognize and embrace God’s work in history. God’s great acts of salvation are accomplished in history and inspired scripture interprets the meaning of those acts.
Therefore, biblical theology necessitates a certain view of history – that history from God’s point of view is the arena in which He redeems His people. Therefore, the Reformed tradition in particular read the Bible from a “redemptive historical” point of view, a term often used within the Reformed tradition as virtually synonymous with biblical theology.
Therefore, a truly biblical theology will not only pay attention to the unfolding variety of the various biblical authors and books, but will do so under the conviction that the Bible’s message is ultimately a unified message, not a variety of competing theologies, and that history as interpreted by Scripture is the arena where God’s one purpose is being unfolded. God’s purpose and plan has not changed since the beginning (for example, compare Genesis 3:15 with Romans 16:20 and Revelation 12:9).
So biblical theology, in contrast to systematic theology, looks at biblical revelation as it is given over time with particular interest in the historical context of each individual book. But a final significant element must be part of our definition.
Biblical theology must also read the Bible with an awareness of its unfolding nature. Even though the plan of God is one plan throughout history and even though the Bible tells one ultimate story, that plan is progressively unfolded.
Hebrews 1:1 teaches us that God spoke in the past at many different times but that he also spoke in a variety of ways, even though in all of these times and ways he spoke one message about Jesus Christ. For example, God revealed the need for and His provision of a substitutionary sacrifice in Genesis 14. In Exodus 12 God revealed more about this in the Passover lamb and made it a standing ordinance in Israel. But as King David later said (Psalm 40:6), more than the Old Testament sacrifices were needed. They were only signs pointing to the greater, ultimate and once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 10:1-14). This progressive feature of biblical theology means that the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the maturing and developing of the Bible’s unfolding message over time, similar to the relationship of an acorn to an oak tree. The acorn is a genetically, though not chronologically, a complete oak tree. The two have an organic unity even though one is the full expression of the other.
Biblical theology is a way of reading the Bible initially to learn what each scripture passage means in its original historical context and ultimately to what its full significance is in Jesus Christ in order to uncover not only the rich variety of the Bible’s message but the glorious unity of God accomplishing his purposes through Jesus Christ. As Paul wrote
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5, ESV)
Reading and ultimately preaching the Bible in this way will give the Christian preacher a biblical variety which a lifetime of sermons can’t exhaust and at the same time enable him “know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)