What is Biblical Theology?

     Defining biblical theology can be a very tricky enterprise considering the nature and history of the method. For instance, Richard Gaffin and Geerhardus Vos indicate that the label“biblical theology” has historically designated several contrasting things. Seemingly, the name was first used to allocate a compilation of proof-texts employed in the study of Systematic Theology. Pietists used it to voice their dissent against a hyper-scholastic method in the treatment of dogmatics. Later, biblical theology was defined by Johann P. Gabler as a distinct historical discipline, engaged in discovering “what in fact the biblical writers thought and taught.” However, Gabler rejected the Bible’s authority and drew a sharp line between the task of describing past biblical writers, whose views allegedly could not be accepted today, and the task of propounding present-day belief, which was supposed to agree with the judgment of reason.

     James Barr uses the term “biblical theology” in yet another sense, to label a group which attempted to find authority for modern preaching. However, the search for authority did not come in the teaching of the Bible but in biblical “concepts,” through a word study approach to uncovering key theological meanings. Geerhardus Vos stated that “biblical theology is that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” Under this classification, the focal point is revelation as process, before and up to the time of its deposit. Vos further defines biblical theology by saying that it deals with revelation as a “divine activity,” not as a “finished product” of that activity. Vos’ definition and method looks at the history of special revelation. To Vos, special revelation includes both word and deed, and is signified by natural growth: each phase is flawless in its own shape, but destined according to the plan of God to grow into the succeeding phases.

     Many view biblical theology as a historically focused approach in distinction from the topic focus of systematic theology. However, the two methods are to be viewed as complementary, and in no way competitive.  Ideally, the two disciplines would work together in mutual interaction to form a healthier theological view of the biblical material. However, some theologians, such as Poythress, promote a view of biblical theology that seems to make it a subsumed form of systematic theology. This definition sees systematic theology as the foundation for biblical theology, therefore effectively holding a superior standing.

George E. Ladd wrote A Theology of the New Testament, which included separated chapters on the individual human writers (though he combined the Synoptic Gospels). Ladd saw inaugurated eschatology as a common theme through all of the New Testament books. Thus, in his approach, thematic development through the New Testament becomes key to understanding its message. Graeme Goldsworthy says that biblical theology is the study of the unity of the message of the Bible. In addition, it supplies the means of handling the problematic passages in the Bible by relating them to the one message of the Bible, namely redemption through Christ. The thematic approach of Ladd and Goldsworthy defines biblical theology as the means of looking at one particular event in relation to the total picture or message of the Bible.

     While thematic definitions of biblical theology focus on a centralized theme in which everything is seen to revolve around it, some see biblical theology as having boundaries and no center. In this definition, salvation is seen historically. According to Benny Aker, social scientific criticism plays a key role in understanding the development and meaning of the biblical message. Therefore, it is of vital importance to look at the history, language, and culture involved in the tension between the human and the divine.  Similar to other definitions of biblical theology, this method also traces the story of redemption in the Bible, but it is not confined to a strict central theme. In fact, the main focus of this definition of biblical theology is found in looking at the continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.  This method seems to be the most robust definition for biblical theology because it seeks to recognize the unity in diversity of the text.

     In his work on Biblical Theology, Scott Hafemann says that biblical theology must last as long as the Bible is understood to be God’s word about himself and his relationship to his creation. It would seem then that biblical theology is an attempt to understand the dynamic relationship between God and humanity as recorded in the Bible. Whereas systematic theology would appear to be more prescriptive in its approach, biblical theology looks at the text as historically descriptive. In addition, biblical theology does its work inductively from within the Bible in an attempt to bring out the Bible’s own message. It does not proof text to try and support some arbitrary topic that comes through deductive reasoning. In short, biblical theology is defined by its emphasis on looking to the biblical text first and foremost.

     Biblical theology is not without its problems. In fact, one of the major problems with biblical theology is definition. There are many more definitions and methods for doing biblical theology than can be mentioned in such a short treatise. To name but a few, the definitions and methods of biblical theology include thematic, redemption history, canonical, narrative, systematic, social scientific, and anthropological existential. In fact, it almost seems as though there is a different definition and approach for every theologian who claims to do biblical theology.

     In addition to the problems of definition, biblical theology is so varied within its practice that theologians have used it to both support the biblical record and “demythologize” it. In other words, some have used it to point out the unity in diversity of the biblical accounts and some have used it to point out fallacies that they see in the text. However, it should be noted that all theological systems of study can and have been used in similar ways.  Biblical theology is by no means alone where diversity of practice is concerned.

    Aker uses biblical theology to point out the beautiful unity in diversity of the text and the continuity and discontinuity found within each book and author. In addition, the message of the Bible seems to become clearer as he carefully points out the social historical background. However, Gabler was influenced by evolutionism, which expected to find religious progress from primitive error to enlightened truth. As aforementioned, he used biblical theology to promote rationalistic assumptions which rejected the Bible’s authority. One of the major problems of biblical theology is this broad range of diversified methodologies and practices. While many would use biblical theology as a thorough study and defense of the biblical text, others would use it as a means to rip apart what they saw as errors or myths. In fact, Rudolph Bultmann was possibly the most famous biblical theologian who sort of coined the phrase “demythologizing the text.” 

     One could argue that there is a fundamental confusion among the biblical theologians’ main categories. The problem seems to result from biblical theology’s attempt to situate itself between fundamentalist and modernist measures and stances. Steven Kraftchick says that biblical theology can be half liberal and modern, on the one hand, and half biblical and orthodox on the other (i.e. its worldview or cosmology is modern, while its theological language is biblical and orthodox). The confusion results in using biblical terms but keeping modern context. This means that the claim to use biblical categories is true only in form, not substance.       

      In addition to concerns over the broad range of diversity within the discipline of biblical theology, many have pointed out other potential flaws within the method. Understanding that biblical theology came out of a scientific-historical form, Paul Minear suggests that the foundational method needs to be modified because it is inadequate to fully comprehend and thoroughly express the main concerns of the biblical writers. The primary means of scientific analysis had succeeded in producing hard effort and critical study, which, ironically avoided interaction with the texts it purported to illuminate. The results were contrary to expectations in that they produced a total failure to understand the texts’ primary concerns.  Essentially, he believed that the biblical witness made subjective claims which the historian tried to understand objectively, the result was a failure to experience the actual arguments of that witness.

     Furthermore, biblical theology has been accused of more than resisting the inroads of theology on exegesis. Some biblical theologians have argued that dogmatic theology itself was constructed incorrectly. The assertion that systematic and dogmatic theologies were ill-prepared to read the Bible resulted in a lack of attention on the concerns of those disciplines. The mistake being, that ignoring those concerns did not cause them to disappear. In the case of the early biblical theology movement, they reappeared under a different guise. Though biblical terms were used, contemporary content was implied.  Therefore, biblical theologians soon discovered that dogmatic and systematic concerns were neither arbitrary nor whimsical.

     Another issue within the biblical theological movement is the question of diversity. Several of the studies and discussions in biblical theology are a response to the fact that the diversity of scripture preserves within its pages unresolved tensions. In the past, biblical theologies have taken this tension to be the remains of competing ideological viewpoints that have been imperfectly combined in the historical development of scripture. Hence, the tension was often neutralized by trying to ascertain the best among many voices or by allowing the diversity to stand as unresolved heterodoxy. What seems to be lost in the melee is the cohesion of the Bible into a unified whole.

      Although biblical theology has certainly had its share of issues and problems, many still believe that there are ways to learn and proceed forward using the discipline. In fact, all forms of theological study have gone through various changes in structure and thought over the time of their existence. Perhaps the real question is which direction will biblical theology take? The most imperative issue within the discipline might be within the hearts and minds of the theologians who purport it. Will biblical theology be used as a tool in the hands of liberal scholars to attack the biblical record, or will conservative scholars be able to use it to reveal the beauty and unity of the biblical text.

      Admittedly, there have been many theologians who have attempted to solve the problems and issues within the discipline of biblical theology.  However, some leading examples might help to gain a better understanding on a solid foundation for a move forward. As aforementioned, some theologians have come out against the discipline of biblical theology all together. Meanwhile, other theologians have suggested modifications to the method of biblical study. Some see biblical theology as a way to use critical methods in order to do highly academic and scientific study on the text much like they would any other book. With all of the differing opinions it can be hard to see the best way forward.

      Francis Watson believes that biblical theology is endangered by modern biblical scholarship’s dissection into three independent communities: Old Testament studies, New Testament studies and systematic theology. He views the threefold separation not merely as methodological but also as an ideologically motivated enterprise that results for the most part in a  falsification of what the Bible is all about. Therefore, he seeks to take apart the barriers that at present separate biblical scholarship from Christian theology.

      Paul R. House purports a way forward that delineates a unitary canonical approach to biblical theology. He proposes that the canon be used as a structuring device and that themes be identified and utilized as cohering centering devices. The reason for this is so that the exposition of the Bible’s presentation of the triune God’s personality and saving acts in history might be adopted as the goal of the whole theological enterprise. House tries to stay broad enough to include many biblical theologians and celebrate their creativity, yet specific enough to keep discussions among likeminded persons from losing necessary focus. In many ways what House presents is a blending of concepts already purported by other biblical theologians.

      Still other theologians like Brevard S. Childs hold that biblical theology should have as its fundamental goal to understand the various voices within the whole Christian Bible, as a witness to the one Lord Jesus Christ, the “selfsame divine reality.” Therefore, the enterprise of biblical theology is theological because by faith seeking understanding in relation to the divine reality, the divine imperatives are no longer tied up in the past. The divine imperatives continue to confront the hearer in the present as truth. It is thus constitutive of biblical theology that it be normative and not merely descriptive, and that it be responsive to the imperatives of the present and not just the past.

      In a more narrative approach to biblical theology, Goldsworthy says that the way forward is to look at biblical theology as a means of examining the development of the biblical story from the Old Testament to the New. He says that biblical theology should seek to uncover the interrelationships between the two parts. However, all types and genres are related to the coming of Jesus Christ in some discernable way. Biblical theology should therefore be a methodical approach to showing these relationships so that all of the Bible can be understood as Christian scripture.

      Theologians within what is considered to be the more liberal camp seem to suggest a view of biblical theology that continues to be heavily involved in various forms of criticism while also incorporating new methodologies based upon new understandings. For instance, John J. Collins purports that biblical theology must make room for feministic theological findings while also remaining true to the historical criticism which founded it. Ironically, much of the liberal theological world does not see much issue with the earlier forms of biblical theology. In fact, it would seem that to the liberal mindset it is the false attacks of the conservative scholars that has created an appearance of weakness within the method. Therefore, the discipline of biblical theology should go on much as it has always done in the past.

      In order to make some sort of valid proposition to the future possibilities within the discipline of biblical theology, I think it is important to recognize that there are some issues within the field that need to be resolved.  However, I believe that most of the major issues within biblical theology have more to do with relationship than with scholarship. The true problem in biblical theology is that it was formed out of an attempt to see the biblical material as skeptical. In addition, many current liberal theologians use the biblical theological discipline to promote their own skeptical agenda.

      In essence, Childs is right in his assumption that a proper study of the Bible should involve some foundation on faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible should be looked at as a divinely inspired document of relationship between God and his creation. Lack of belief and skepticism only leads to negative presumptions and false findings concerning the word of God. Aker once said that theology can only be done properly while in proper relationship with God. How can one possibly understand the message of the Bible if they do not know the messenger?

      The beauty of biblical theology when looked at from the perspective of a an open-minded scholar is that it unifies the Bible into one beautiful story.  While I like the approach of Aker to remain unfettered to a centralized approach through historical-social criticism, biblical theology should also always keep the Christ event in view. In fact, Aker would agree that everything in the Bible should be read in lieu of the incarnation. Biblical theology still has much to offer the Church and the scholar if the right relationship is kept and the right methods are used. It is truly the preferred system for a more comprehensive understanding of the biblical message.


1 Comment

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One response to “What is Biblical Theology?

  1. Essentially, I do believe that biblical theology is superior to systematic theology because, if done properly, the only hierarchal structure placed upon scripture surrounds the Christ event. Systematic theology comes from the beliefs/dogma of a certain group. For instance, calvinists often place a higher value on passages such as Romans 9 than on ones like John 3:16 because of their systematic dogma. A good biblical theologian should always ask the questions: What does the entire biblical record say about this? And how does the Christ event affect the theology of this? After all, the biblical record is far superior to Church dogma; just ask Martin Luther. However, I must qualify this by saying that biblical theology should also never lose contact with the Church. The confessional aspect of theology works to keep the biblical theologian honest in his/her assessment of the text (even though he/she may not always agree with confessional dogma).

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