What is Biblical Theology? This question seems simple enough, but over the past couple centuries differing answers have been offered. One could try to build a definition from raw materials; i.e. if “theology” is the study of God and his relations to the world, then Biblical Theology (BT) studies what the Bible teaches about God and his relations to the world. However, it’s not as if we can build such a definition upon an untouched building lot! The history, practice, and methodology of BT have left many tools and materials strewn about the construction site of any definition.
The development of BT as a discipline. Although the early church arguably engaged in BT as they sought to interpret the Bible, BT became a modern discipline after the Protestant Reformation. Following countless battles over dogma (Catholic vs. Protestant, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, etc.) and the proliferation of proof texting and eisegesis, eventually people came back to the basic question: “What does the Bible say for itself?” That same question would be asked afresh in the following centuries as biblical criticism increasingly adopted modernist skepticism towards the church and the biblical text. For many biblical scholars the Bible was no longer the authority for Christian faith and practice. It was one source of guidance among many human philosophies and cultural preferences. These developments challenged the very legitimacy of BT, but Christians with a high view of scripture continued returning to the basic question of how the Bible presents itself. Through these many dangers, toils, and snares, contemporary BT has experienced a revival and settled on some standard elements. These common elements are: The biblical texts contain both unified themes across the canonical text as well as diversity in and between texts. Revelation is progressive in nature. The Bible makes internal claims to truth and divine inspiration, which should affect our reading of the text and church practice.
In the broader scholarly community, literary approaches have encouraged reading the Bible on its own terms first (often called a “close reading” of the text) as one does with any work of literature. This development has advanced BT as many different disciplines now contribute to our understanding of the biblical literature and its authors. While much more could be said about the various theologians and challenges that have affected BT over the years, the good news is that one does not need to know the history of BT to practice BT in the church. So let us return to our original question. What is Biblical Theology? I offer this survey of recent definitions (with some including explanations) as a preliminary answer and as a prelude to practice.
Recent Definitions of BT.
Andreas Köstenberger offers a basic definition: “Biblical Theology is the theology of the Bible. In other words, Biblical Theology is not our own theology, or that of our church or denomination, it is the theology of the biblical writers themselves.” (MJT, 2018 Sizemore lectures)
From New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: “Biblical Theology may be defined as theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church. It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyze and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus.” (pg. 10)
Graeme Goldsworthy in “Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture”: Biblical Theology is “theology understood from the perspective of the biblical writers within their own historical context. . . . biblical theology is concerned with how the revelation of God was understood in its time, and what the total picture is that was built up over the whole historical process.” (pg. 26)
James Hamilton: “Thus, the purpose of biblical theology is inductively to understand the canonical form of the Bible’s theology as it is progressively revealed in its own literary forms and salvation historical development . . .” (pg. 46 in God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.)
Scott Hafemann in “Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect,”: “(B)iblical theology attempts to ascertain the inner points of coherence and development within the biblical narrative and exposition. It does its work inductively from within the Bible in an attempt to bring out the Bible’s own message.” (pg. 16)
From Michael Lawrence’s “Biblical Theology”: “Biblical theology is about reading the Bible, not as if it’s sixty-six separate books, but a single book with a single plot—God’s glory displayed through Jesus Christ. BT is therefore about discovering the unity of the Bible in the midst of diversity. It’s about understanding what we might call the Bible’s metanarrative.” Lawrence’s simpler definition: “Biblical Theology is the attempt to tell the whole story of the whole Bible as Christian Scripture.” (pg.15).
Each of these definitions contains presuppositions and each could be challenged on several fronts. Together, however, they provide a current snapshot of the construction site that is evangelical BT. Practicing Biblical Theology requires more than knowing some definitions, but defining terms is a good first step.
*Alexander, T. D. et. al., editors. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. IVP Academic, 2003.
*Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Eerdmans, 2000.
*Hafemann, Scott. Editor. Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect. InterVarsity, 2002.
*Hamilton, James. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment. Crossway, 2010.
*Köstenberger, Andreas. “The Promise of Biblical Theology: What Biblical Theology Is and What It Isn’t.” & “The Practice of Biblical Theology.” Sizemore Lectures in Midwestern Journal of Theology 17 (2018): 1-27.
*__________. “The Present and Future of Biblical Theology.” Themelios 37 (2012): 445-464.
*Lawrence, Michael. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church. Crossway, 2010.