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


Because biblical theology seeks to understand the content of the Bible in terms of the story which the Bible itself tells, it is essential and central to reading the Bible correctly, both the Old and New Testaments. Simply getting our doctrine of Scripture right - that is, understanding what Scripture is as the inspired, sufficient, clear and inerrant word of God - does not automatically guarantee getting its interpretation right.  After all, well-meaning and doctrinally orthodox people can sometimes just get parts of the Bible wrong.  Biblical theology is crucial for helping us understand the meaning of a passage of Scripture by showing us its place within the unfolding story of Scripture.

But biblical theology is also essential and central to ‘reading life’ correctly. The Bible story is not simply the context in which the Bible was written. It is our story. It is the story of the world. If you had asked an ancient Israelite who God is and who they were, they would have answered by telling a story, probably starting with the story of the exodus. In the same way, if we are to understand who God is, if we are to understand our world and its culture, if we are to understand ourselves, if we are to understand what it means to be the people of God, if we are to understand our role in the mission of God then we need biblical theology.

As well as helping with interpretation, biblical theology can also feed back into our doctrine of Scripture by strengthening our conviction that the Bible is indeed the word of God. Significant parts of secular biblical scholarship assume that Scripture cannot have God as its single, ultimate author because they see the contents of the Bible as far too disunited and even self-contradictory. However biblical theology, by studying the unity that runs through the unfolding story of Scripture, reveals that (in the words of Geerhardus Vos) ‘in the Bible there is an organization finer, more complicated, more exquisite than even the texture of muscles and nerves and brain in the human body; that its various parts are interwoven and correlated in the most subtle manner’. This is likely to convince us further that the Bible is not ‘the chance product of the several human minds that have been engaged in its composition, but the workmanship of none other than God himself.’

The foundations of biblical theology

At the most simple level biblical theology is a legitimate and necessary exercise because the Bible itself ultimately tells one story. Of course this story contains many episodes within it but these are all part of one story. It is therefore not possible to understand biblical theology or to do it well for ourselves if we do not have a firm grasp of the story of salvation found in Scripture.

We need to refine the language we have used so far of the Bible telling ‘one story’. The Bible tells one story because its content is ultimately a message about one person: Jesus Christ. He is the ‘word of God’. He is God’s revelation. And so the revelation of God in the Bible is ultimately a revelation of Jesus. This is how Jesus himself describes his relationship to the Bible:

“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

‘He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself … He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: the Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’ (Luke 24:25-27, 44-47).

On the first Easter day, the risen Christ expounds the Scriptures. He shows that the whole Old Testament (law, prophets and writings) points to him: to his death, his resurrection and his proclamation to the nations. It is not just that there are a few messianic prophecies dotted around. The whole Bible is about Jesus from beginning to end.

Two implications follow from this:

We need Christ to understand the Bible. This especially needs to be said of the Old Testament. We can only understand the Old Testament when we see how it points to Jesus. Jesus gives the Bible meaning. Jesus is ‘the hermeneutical key’ to the Bible. (‘Hermeneutics’ is the theory and practice of interpretation.)

We need the Old Testament to understand Christ. The New Testament writers understood Christ in Old Testament categories (he is prophet, priest, king, shepherd, true Israel, atoning sacrifice, and so on). They wrote of Christ as the fulfiller of the Old Testament.

Biblical theology enables us to read the Old Testament as Christians. Most people read detective novels from beginning to end, pitting their wits against the author, trying to pick up the clues and work out ‘who done it’. But some people like to read the last chapter first. They want to know from the beginning how it will end. Then, as they read the rest of the book, it makes sense straight away. As Christians we should read the Bible – and especially the Old Testament – in that second way. We read it all the time through Jesus Christ so that we can make sense of it as we go along. That is a good and right thing to do because he is indeed the centre of the Scripture.

Thus the fact that Scripture tells one big story with Christ as its centre is one foundation for the practice of biblical theology. We should add two more that underlie this. The first is the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. This doctrine states the truth that all of the Bible is ‘breathed out’ by God, as Paul puts it in 2 Timothy 3:16. That means that all Scripture has its origin in God: he is the speaker and author who is responsible for producing it.  Thus although it remains true that the Bible is written collectively by many different human authors, it is also true, at one and the same time, that it is the product of just one author, God himself. As a book with ultimately one author, we are right to expect to find in it the kind of unity which biblical theology sets out to find.

A final foundation underlies the previous one. Here we move from the doctrine of Scripture to the doctrine of God. Inspiration is a doctrine about Scripture’s identity as the word of God, and it rests on the identity of God himself. His very nature as God is that he is three persons (diversity) in one God (unity). There is a unity-in-diversity at the very heart of who God is, and so it is right for biblical theology to expect that the content of the book he has authored will match who he is: that is, there will be a striking unity through the diverse unfolding stages of his revelation.

Moreover, in all his ways God is faithful and consistent. This is how he is within himself: the Father, the Son and the Spirit relate together as who they are in ways that each can rely on: the Son knows that the Father will be the Father and will act as Father towards him for all eternity, for example. And we know that God acts towards us with the same faithfulness and consistency: whatever differences there may be between one stage of redemptive history and the next, it is the same God acting in fundamentally consistent ways who lies behind it all. Therefore the task that biblical theology sets for itself is not built on some arbitrary approach to the Bible, but flows from the very nature of the God who is the author of the Bible.

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

Beth Butler