A good idea with a not-so-good name...
Thursday 05 February 2015 by Tom Underhill
When I mentioned the other day that I was studying a module on 'Biblical Theology' this term, I got the predicable comment: "what, as opposed to the other modules on un-biblical theology?".
It's a fair point - the term biblical theology probably isn't the most helpful. It sounds like 'theology that is in accordance with what the Bible teaches' - which is what we're after as Christians, but it seems slightly unnecessary to say so.
But that's not what the phrase 'Biblical Theology' has come to mean within Christian theology. And because 'Biblical Theology' describes a good thing, it's worth knowing what Christians mean by it even if we might wish someone could have found a better name...
So what is Biblical Theology?
Let me start with a definition, and then try and unpack it:
Biblical theology is the theology of the Bible, descriptively and historically considered
A couple of things are important here:
- Biblical theology involves going to the Bible and recounting what we find there. Instead of looking for an answer to my questions in the Bible, we look at what the Bible writers have chosen to say. The content and the agenda is set by the Biblical material.
- Biblical theology involves looking at how God's revelation has progressed through time. The emphasis is appreciating the distinctive theological perspective of each Biblical author in each different period of the Biblical history and what each adds to the whole.
So to do biblical theology is to try to get to grips with the theological content of the Bible, in it's individual books, in the two testaments and as a whole.
There are different ways we can go about this. One is to trace themes through the whole Bible and see how they develop. For example, think of how the theme of rest turns up all the way through the Bible: God 'rests' on the seventh day in Genesis 1, God holds out the promise of 'rest' in the promised land to Israel, Israel is to 'rest' every seventh day, Jesus claims to be able to give 'rest' to those who are weak and heavy laden, Hebrews speaks of the promise of entering God's 'rest'.
Alternatively, we could try and work out the message of a particular book of the Bible and it's distinctive contribution to the theology of the whole Bible. For example, what does Isaiah have to say, in distinction to Jeremiah? They are both prophets, both talking about the end of national Israel, both rebuking the people for not being faithful to God, and both yet holding out some future hope. But we would be missing a lot if we only had one of them in the Bible!
Ultimately, the Bible is one story because it has one divine author behind all the different human authors. So biblical theology isn't about playing one bit of the Bible off against another - it's about appreciating how God's revelation has been unfolded to us in an organic and richly diverse way. By doing that we better appreciate the depth and beauty of the one unified message that the Bible speaks - about the one great salvation plan of the one triune Lord.
If you want to see a simple example of biblical theology in action, look no further than Vaughan Robert's book, God's Big Picture - which effectively traces the theme of God's kingdom (God's people in God's place under God's rule) through the whole Bible.
Next post I'll try and clarify further by contrasting biblical theology with systematic theology, and thinking about how they fit together.