What is Biblical Theology?

I. Most of the history and representatives of the discipline of biblical theology would make one shy away from the discipline altogether. However, there is a proper way of doing biblical theology, and Scripture itself guides the way. e.g.,

a. Neh. 9: Prayer of the Levites
b. Ps. 78, 105, 106
c. Acts 7: Speech of Stephen
d. Acts 13: Sermon of Paul

II. Biblical Theology is the discipline that examines the history of biblical revelation in a way that highlights the progression and coherence of its main themes and teaching.

III. The difference between BT and ST has been articulated as follows:

C. Hodge: “The Bible is no more a system of theology, than nature is a system of chemistry or of mechanics. We find in nature the facts which the chemist or the mechanical philosopher has to examine, and from them to ascertain the laws by which they are determined. So the Bible contains the truths which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other. This constitutes the difference between biblical and systematic theology. The office of the former is to ascertain and state the facts of Scripture. The office of the latter is to take those facts, determine their relation to each other and to other cognate truths, as well as to vindicate them and show their harmony and consistency. This is not an easy task, or one of slight importance.  source

A. A. Hodge:  “Exegesis proper is the actual application of all the knowledge gathered, and of all the rules developed, in the preceding departments of Introduction to the Interpretation of the sacred text, as it stands in its original connections of Testaments, books, paragraphs, etc.  Following the laws of grammar, the usus loquendi of words, the analogy of Scripture, and the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Exegesis seeks to determine the mind of the Spirit as expressed in the inspired sentences as they stand in their order.  There are several special departments classed under the general head of Exegetical Theology, which involve in some degree that arrangement and combination of Scripture testimonies under topics or subjects, which is the distinctive characteristic of Systematic Theology. These are—

1st. Typology, which embraces a scientific determination of the laws of biblical symbols and types, and their interpretation, especially those of the Mosaic ritual as related to the person and work of Christ.

2nd. Old Testament Christology, the critical exposition of the Messianic idea as it is developed in the Old Testament.

3rd. Biblical Theology, traces the gradual evolution of the several elements of revealed truth from their first suggestion through every successive stage to their fullest manifestation in the sacred text, and which exhibits the peculiar forms and connections in which these several truths are presented by each inspired writer.

4th. The Development of the principles of Prophetical Interpretation and their application to the construction of an outline of the Prophecies of both Testaments.  source

B. B. Warfield:  “This is not to forget the claims of Biblical Theology. It is rather to emphasize its value, and to afford occasion for explaining its true place in the encyclopedia, and its true relations on the one side to Exegetical Theology, and on the other to Systematics—a matter which appears to be even yet imperfectly understood in some quarters. Biblical Theology is not a section of Historical Theology, although it must be studied in a historical spirit, and has a historical face; it is rather the ripest fruit of Exegetics, and Exegetics has not performed its full task until its scattered results in the way of theological data are gathered up into a full and articulated system of Biblical Theology. It is to be hoped that the time will come when no commentary will be considered complete until the capstone is placed upon its fabric by closing chapters gathering up into systematized exhibits, the unsystematized results of the continuous exegesis of the text, in the spheres of history, ethics, theology, and the like.

The task of Biblical Theology, in a word, is the task of coördinating the scattered results of continuous exegesis into a concatenated whole, whether with reference to a single book of Scripture or to a body of related books or to the whole Scriptural fabric. Its chief object is not to find differences of conception between the various writers, though some recent students of the subject seem to think this is so much their duty, that when they cannot find differences they make them. It is to reproduce the theological thought of each writer or group of writers in the form in which it lay in their own minds, so that we may be enabled to look at all their theological statements at their angle, and to understand all their deliverances as modified and conditioned by their own point of view. Its exegetical value lies just in this circumstance, that it is only when we have thus concatenated an author’s theological statements into a whole, that we can be sure that we understand them as he understood them in detail. A light is inevitably thrown back from Biblical Theology upon the separate theological deliverances as they occur in the text, such as subtly colors them, and often, for the first time, gives them to us in their true setting, and thus enables us to guard against perverting them when we adapt them to our use. This is a noble function, and could students of Biblical Theology only firmly grasp it, once for all, as their task, it would prevent this important science from being brought into contempt through a tendency to exaggerate differences in form of statement into divergences of view, and so to force the deliverances of each book into a strange and unnatural combination, in the effort to vindicate a function for this discipline.   source

Geerhardus Vos: “The specific character of Biblical Theology lies in this, that it discusses both the form and contexts of revelation from the point of view of the revealing activity of God Himself. In other words, it deals with revelation in the active sense, as an act of God, and tries to understand and trace and describe this act, so far as this is possible to man and does not elude our finite observation.”

John Murray: “Biblical theology deals with the data of special revelation from the standpoint of its history; systematic theology deals with the same in its totality as a finished product. The method of systematic theology is logical, that of biblical theology is historical.” “Systematic theology will fail of its task to the extent to which it discards its rootage in biblical theology as properly conceived and developed.”

Edmund Clowney: “Biblical theology is a contradiction in terms unless the Bible presents a consistent message. Its essential presuppositions are the principles of revelation and inspiration claimed and assumed in the Bible itself” (13). “Biblical theology formulates the character and content of the progress of revelation in these periods [epochs of revelation of redemption], observing the expanding horizons from age to age” (15).

IV. It is worth noting what importance the Scripture gives to the historical process. Vos observes that God has chosen a revelation in historical progress. One reason for this may be bound up with the finiteness of human understanding.  “By imparting the elements of the knowledge of Himself in a divinely arranged sequence God has pointed out to us the way in which we might gradually grasp and truly know Him.” Moreover, the fact simply is that God chose to redeem his people through a history of redemption, not simply one act all at once. Besides using words, God employed acts to reveal his truth. This historical character of revelation has an “eminently practical aspect.” “Revelation is connected throughout with the face of Israel. Its disclosures arise from the necessities of that nation and are adjusted to its capacities.”
This development should not be conceived as eternal accretion, but rather internal expansion, that is, “an organic unfolding from within”: “the Gospel of Paradise is such a germ in which the Gospel of Paul is potentially present; and the Gospel of Abraham, of Moses, of David, of Isaiah and Jeremiah, are all expansions of this original message of salvation, each pointing forward to the next stage of growth, and bringing the Gospel idea one step nearer to its full realization.” The definition of BT is: “The exhibition of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity and multiformity.”

V. Sadly, many biblical theologians have embraced the errors of Rationalism. Here is what Vos recommends to avoid falling into this pitfall.

  1. Maintain the objective character of revelation.
  2. Keep the historical character subordinated to its revealed character.
  3. Never Bend on the truthfulness of Scripture
  4. Do not confuse Scripture and Theology.  Scripture is revelation.  Theology is the practical, historic knowledge of God imparted by revelation and deposited in the Bible.

VI. The value of Biblical theology is at least threefold:

  1. Cognitive: To understand the unity and organic unfolding of the Scriptures, showing Christ in the OT, and the culmination of the themes of the OT in the NT, and our relationship to the people of God in every age.
  2. Polemical: To discern and dispute invalid claims regarding the progression of the revelation of biblical truth, the unity of the Scriptures, etc.
  3. Homiletical: Edmund Clowney: “Biblical theology furnishes a charter for preaching, a declaration of the authority, urgency, and relevancy of preaching Christ from the Scriptures. The preacher who finds in this approach a fresh calling to his labors in the gospel will also discover in biblical theology the key to new richness in sermon content” (87).