What is Biblical Theology?

'And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.' Luke 24:27

'Biblical theology' can seem a strange phrase at first for a number of reasons. Some can take it as almost a tautology - isn't theology obviously biblical? How could it be otherwise? Others, perhaps, can take it as a simple description of orthodox theology as distinguished from liberal or unbiblical theology.

Although the phrase can bear those meanings, neither of them are what we mean by biblical theology as used in The Briefings. We use the term as it refers to a specific theological discipline that takes its place alongside, and in relationship to, other disciplines such as systematic theology, historical theology, apologetics and so forth. It is a particular way of doing theology, with its own literature and scholarly output on its nature, definition and methodology and the way in which it relates to the other disciplines. So what actually is it? Here are some evangelical definitions from leading practitioners:

Biblical theology is principally concerned with the overall theological message of the whole Bible. It seeks to understand the parts in relation to the whole and, to achieve this, it must work with the mutual interaction of the literary, historical, and theological dimensions of the various corpora, and with the inter-relationships of these within the whole canon of Scripture 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 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. B. S. Rosner, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (IVP, 2000)

Biblical theology, as its name implies, even as it works inductively from the diverse texts of the Bible, seeks to uncover and articulate the unity of all the biblical texts taken together, resorting primarily to the categories of those texts themselves. In this sense it is canonical biblical theology, 'whole-Bible' biblical theology; i.e. its content is a theology of the whole Bible, not a theology that merely has roots in the Bible, or merely takes the Bible as the place to begin. D. A. Carson, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (IVP, 2000)

From the evangelical preacher's point of view, biblical theology involves the quest for the big picture, or the overview of biblical revelation. It is of the nature of biblical theology that it tells a story rather than sets out timeless principles in abstraction. It does contain many timeless principles, but not in abstract. They are given in an historical context of progressive revelation. If we allow the Bible to tell its own story, we find a coherent and meaningful whole. G. L. Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, (IVP, 2000)

These quotes are far from being the last word on what biblical theology is. However, for our purposes, the above quote is particularly helpful. What we are trying to do with The Biblical Theology Briefings is state as clearly as we can that the Bible has a storyline and that this big picture must by necessity affect the way we approach individual biblical texts - because the texts of the Bible themselves are born out of what has gone before and what is still anticipated in the future. The texts themselves demand that we interpret the part in the light of the whole and vice-versa.

In practice, then, this means that to preach on OT texts about sacrifice or the covenant, say, without explicitly preaching the direction that the Bible develops those trajectories is to preach incomplete sermons. To preach on NT texts that rely for their meaning on OT backgrounds without explicitly making the connections that the text wants us to make is to distort the text. Luke 24:27 is just one of many NT axioms that underpin evangelical biblical theology and it provides part of the rationale for recognising that the whole Bible resonates with Christological significance and that all our preaching must aim to preach Christ in a way that reflects, and that is shaped by, the overarching biblical plotline.

If this all seems rather abstract, check out The BT Briefings to see it in action - and The BT Library for further biblical theology reading.

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