What is Biblical Theology? - extract from 'Introduction to Biblical Theology'


The title of this extract might be a little confusing. We’ll be introducing something called ‘biblical theology’ and it would be understandable if someone responded by thinking, “What other kind of theology should we study?! If the Bible is the Word of God then shouldn’t all theology be biblical?”  Indeed that is quite right. All theology should be biblical in the sense of being based on the Bible, with the Bible serving as its one ultimate authority. In that sense all theology of whatever kind must be biblical rather than being unbiblical.

But the term ‘biblical theology’ is being used here in a different sense – a sense found in biblical scholarship over the last few centuries. In the sense in which it is being used here biblical theology is defined not by its authoritative source (the Bible as opposed to something else), but by the particular form it takes. Biblical theology therefore is not something that is set over against theologies that are unbiblical, but is something that is set alongside other forms of theology which are equally based fully on Scripture.

In simple terms, biblical theology is that form of theology which remains as close possible to the particular form in which God has given us his word in the Scriptures. The Bible is not a manual of theology. You cannot look under ‘P’ for prayer to find out how to pray. The Bible is a story. Of course it is also a theological story: God tells us not only what he did in history but what those events reveal to us about himself and about us, and what that means practically for life in this world. The Bible is a story because of the nature of God’s plan of salvation. God has acted through history in ways that work together over time to unfold that great plan. There is a story element to God’s work of salvation in his world, and thus there is a story element to his revelation of that salvation in Scripture.

Biblical theology is the theological discipline of understanding the Bible story. It traces the unfolding promises of God through the Bible to show how the Bible fits together and presents one coherent story of salvation. It presents themes in the form of narrative in a way that avoids a static or decontextualised reading of the Bible.

Different writers have defined biblical theology in slightly different ways but all try to express this basic point. The contemporary writer Graeme Goldsworthy’s definition is: ‘Biblical theology is the study of how every text in the Bible relates to every other text in the Bible.’[1] Geerhardus Vos is an older writer, a Dutch-American scholar who has been very influential on biblical theology in a number of contexts. In a lecture given in 1894 he said: ‘Biblical Theology, rightly defined, is nothing else than the exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.’[2]

The last four words of that definition are worth noting carefully if we are to grasp the nature of biblical theology well. It examines the historic continuity of revelation as we find it in Scripture. In other words, we find the same God working in consistent ways right through the history of salvation as Scripture tells the story. Thus salvation was by grace, through faith and not through works, right through the whole Old Testament just as much as it is for us. The story of salvation certainly develops but it also contains glorious continuities, and biblical theology seeks to discern these and bring them out.

But biblical theology also seeks to express, says Vos, the multiformity of revelation. We can think of two kinds of multiformity. God revealed himself in multiform ways at particular points in history. Thus the writer to the Hebrews says that ‘God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways’ (Hebrews 1:1). And has also revealed himself in multiform ways as the story of redemption has unfolded: thus the story develops and comes to a climax in God’s acts in his Son Jesus. Biblical theology aims to discern these developments and highlight them, without losing sight of the essential continuities in the story.

The relationship between biblical and systematic theology

In coming to grasp with what biblical theology actually is, it is helpful to see it in relation to systematic theology or doctrine, which you’ll study in other modules and which is a related but different form of theology that can still be – and indeed ought to be – entirely based on Scripture.

There are a number of good ways for expressing the relationship between biblical and systematic theology. Vos is helpful again here. Biblical theology is ordered and structured, he says, in a ‘purely historical’ way, that is, making explicit in its form the historical unfolding of salvation through the story that Scripture tells.  Systematic theology, by contrast, is ‘systematic and logical’ in its structure, ordering its material under headings such as ‘God’, ‘Christ’, ‘humanity’, ‘salvation’, and so on.

Vos has a nice illustration of a tree to help us grasp this relationship between the two:

‘The line of revelation [through the story of Scripture, which biblical theology studies] is like the stem of those trees that grow in rings. Each successive ring has grown out of the preceding one. But out of the sap and vigor that is in this stem there springs a crown with branches and leaves and flowers and fruit. Such is the true relation between Biblical and Systematic Theology. Dogmatics [doctrine] is the crown which grows out of all the work that Biblical Theology can accomplish.’

The relationship between biblical and systematic theology is often expressed, somewhat less poetically, like this:

interpretation of Scripture → biblical theology → systematic theology.

Diagrammed this way, biblical theology is often said to be the ‘bridge’ between biblical interpretation and systematic theology. That’s a reasonably thing to say, as long as we see the limitations of this simple model. We should not conclude that biblical theology is useful merely as a stepping stone to the more significant task of systematic theology. Nor should we conclude that we can do our biblical theology first of all in a doctrine-free environment without bringing the convictions of our systematic theology to bear. That was the desire of the scholar Johann Philipp Gabler (1753-1826), who was one of the first to articulate a strong distinction between biblical and systematic theology.

However it is impossible to study Scripture at any point without reading it in part through the lens of our doctrinal convictions. Instead healthy theology based on Scripture needs to be expressed in both ‘biblical theology’ forms, because Scripture tells a consistent and unfolding story, and also in ‘systematic theology’ forms, because the various aspects of revealed truth are fundamentally united and integrated. Biblical theology should indeed inform the content (and perhaps to a certain extent the shape) of systematic theology, but it’s also the case that we always and inevitably do our biblical theology in light of our systematics. Therefore a more accurate diagram might be this:


This way of diagramming things aims to make a couple of things clear about biblical theology and systematic theology: both are crucial for a proper understanding of Scripture; both are equally drawn from and based on Scripture (biblical theology isn’t inherently more ‘biblical’, i.e. closer to Scripture, than good systematic theology); each needs the other and informs the practice of the other. In other words their relationship is more that of siblings than of parent-child.

(An aside: if you’re thinking that there are a couple of arrows missing from this diagram that would flow from biblical and systematic theology back into interpretation of Scripture, since we always do our biblical interpretation through the lenses of both our biblical theology and our systematic theology, you’re quite right. That would be another story which, for the sake of clarity, we’re leaving aside for now. Our focus here is on the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology.)

If you would like to study the full module on Introduction to Biblical Theology or see other seminary modules you can find them here.

[1] Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centred Biblical Theology: Hermeneutical Foundations and Principles, Apollos, 2012, p.40.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, ‘The Idea of Biblical Theology as a Science and as a Theological Discipline’, available at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d8f2/abcab2724edbd8dbe423f836eac6008ccfe8.pdf.

Beth Butler