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What is Biblical Theology Exactly?

This is an excerpt from a book I am working on.

As any reader is aware who has ventured into the literature on Biblical Theology, there is no one agreed upon way of doing it.  This is the case whether one is reading evangelical writers or the works of non-evangelicals.[1]  Not surprisingly several definitions have been offered.  A well-known one is by the great Reformed scholar Geerhardus Vos.  He writes,

Biblical Theology is that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.[2]

This seems to me to be an excellent short description.  He later observes that, “The method of Biblical Theology is in the main determined by the principle of historic progression.[3]  This idea of what is called “progressive revelation” will be an important ingredient in this book.  The present writer believes that a true Biblical Theology must never neglect “the principle of historic progression” if one is to ensure as much as possible that Biblical Theology precedes Systematic Theology.  Otherwise the interpretation of books and themes in the guise of Biblical Theology will end up sneaking in the deliverances of Systematic Theology through the back door.  But I need to add the fact that people mean different things by “progressive revelation.”[4]

In an oft cited article, Brian Rosner provides this definition of Biblical Theology:

What is biblical theology?  To sum up, biblical theology may be defined as the theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church.  It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyse 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.[5]

In our opinion, there is too much crammed into this definition, which permits a slippage of predetermined doctrine into the discipline.  For one thing, despite all the present furor over “theological interpretation”, it appears to be a very elusive thing to pin down.[6]   As well, the meaning of the clause “theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church” can vary depending on one’s eschatological preferences.  So too the “Christocentric focus” is a bit nebulous; often commentators will construe this focus as applying to the First Coming of Christ, not the Second Coming, thus forcing their Biblical Theologies into adopting symbolical interpretive choices prematurely.

Stephen Dempster expresses the view that,

A prime purpose of literary studies is to grasp the literary big picture through analysis of plot and theme, and the goal of biblical theology is to grasp the theological big picture through analysis of the theological views of the various biblical texts.[7]

This may be accepted, although interpretation of the text in its immediate context must determine the role the text plays in determining the theological views to be found there.

As there are many ways to do Biblical Theology, I feel little restraint in proposing the present effort for scrutiny.  While it ranges through the whole Bible, this work is not a whole-Bible Biblical Theology.  What it does try to do is to knit together the main strands of God’s plan for His world until it is delivered back up to Him by His Son as a fitting Testimony to His own Work in the Incarnate One: a Gift sanctified by His blood and ennobled by His righteous reign.

A person needs to follow a prescribed definition of Biblical Theology as they ought always to be able to tell others what they are doing.

To these definitions of Biblical Theology I should like to humbly add my own.  Biblical Theology, as I seek to do it here, is (maximally), the attempt to trace out the Grand Story of Scripture through the examination of the major themes extracted from the Books of the Old and New Testaments.  It may be practiced in other ways.  Minimally, it is the analysis of a piece of the Bible to disclose its theological yield.  But in its broad scale it seeks to fit together the theological teaching of the Bible as it is progressively revealed, displaying the progression as it is traced out in the discipline.

The method of this Biblical Theology is chiefly to track the progress of revelation as it is contained in the biblical covenants as they are mentioned in Scripture.

I do not add my definition as a correction to the ones above.  Men like Vos and Hamilton[8] had certain things in mind when composing their works, and I do too.  A major concern of this study is to try to demonstrate the following three propositions:

1. God means what He says.

2. The biblical covenants amplify the fact that God means what He says.

3. Because God means what He says, and has at places sworn an oath to do what He says, understanding God’s covenants becomes the essential ingredient in getting the Grand Story.

Further to this, because the covenants (plural) deal with peoples, land, kings and kingdoms, priesthood, good and evil, physical restoration and beautification, and even the continuity of nature, not to mention salvation, the Grand Story is multi-dimensional and not a one dimensional redemptive history as covenant theologians often portray it.

Naturally, out of this multi-faceted covenant landscape comes a particular picture with different yet important details.  This picture both augments and reinforces itself if the authors of Scripture are permitted their own voices.  What is more, the picture has in its center, and irradiating everything else, the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ.


[1] For the latter, see especially James Barr’s provocative and quite entertaining work The Concept of Biblical Theology.  For a well written account from a more evangelical perspective, see Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach, 27-80; Charles H. H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach To Biblical Theology, 3-45, or, Edward W. Klink III & Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology, who discuss at least five broad approaches to the discipline.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, 13.

[3] Ibid, 25.

[4] See below.

[5] B. S. Rosner, “Biblical Theology”, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, et al, 10

[6] See the essay by Stanley Porter in the book, The Future of Biblical Interpretation, edited by Stanley E. Porter & Matthew R. Malcolm, 10, where he speaks of theological interpretation presenting a “jumbled mix of contradictory proposals.”

[7] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible, 96

[8] William Sanford LaSor, et al, Old Testament Survey, 2nd edition, 30.  James M. Hamilton’s, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment is a most helpful demonstration of just that theme.  The book has little to say about the covenants of the Bible.

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