[I wrote the following article for the online journal Theology for Life, a publication of Servants of Grace. A PDF of the whole journal on Hermeneutics: The Art and Science of Biblical Interpretation can be found here].
When Jesus approached his two disciples departing Jerusalem on the day of his resurrection, he asked, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” (Luke 24:17). Deftly, he quizzed them about the events of his own death, burial, and resurrection. To this inquiry, these disciples report the somber facts,
Jesus of Nazareth . . . was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people . . . our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” (vv. 19–24)
What follows is one of the most exhilarating moments in all Scripture, where “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (v. 27). For the two hours it took to walk to Emmaus, Jesus explained how the Hebrew Scriptures foretold of his coming—only the disciples did not know it was Jesus speaking. Indeed, through this guided tour of the Bible, Jesus illumined their minds before opening their eyes to reveal his identity (“And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him,” v. 31). Following this epiphany, the two disciples observe, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened the Scriptures?” (v. 32).
This, I contend, is biblical theology.
Biblical theology is the cohesive interpretation of the whole counsel of God’s Word, which (1) centers on Jesus Christ, (2) unifies the divergent parts of God’s Word, and (3) creates awe in the hearts of true disciples. Or at least, this is how biblical theology began on the Emmaus Road and continues through the New Testament.
After Christ sent the Spirit to inspire the New Testament writers, we find apostles and prophets bearing witness to Christ by means of applying the Old Testament to him and to the church Christ is building. This inspired “biblical theology” continues today, but without the assurance of inspired interpretation of the now completed canon. Indeed, like the disciples who walked with Jesus in Luke 24, all who read Scripture to know and love Jesus through the whole Bible are pursuing a biblical theology.
That said, biblical theology has developed into something far more than just a cursory application of Old Testament texts to Jesus. Accordingly, growing disciples may be helped by understanding biblical theology and how it relates to them today. What follows, therefore, is an introduction to biblical theology that relates the experience of the Emmaus disciples to the larger theological discipline of biblical theology.
Bellying Up to the Bar of Biblical Theology
In his introductory article on “Biblical Theology” in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (henceforth, NDBT), Brian Rosner defines biblical theology in two ways.
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 interrelationships of these within the whole canon of Scripture. (p. 3)
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 analyze 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. (p. 10)
Rosner’s complementary definitions, unpacked in his explanatory article, introduce twelve précising articles on biblical theology. If time and finances permit, order NDBT and read its first 112 pages. In those twelve articles you will find a well-ordered and near exhaustive primer on biblical theology. For instance, you will find concise and annotated statements about
- The history of biblical theology
- The challenges and problems of biblical theology
- The canon of Scripture and its role in biblical theology
- The nature of Scripture and its effect on biblical theology
- The history of redemption as historical discipline underlying biblical theology
- Exegesis and hermeneutics, of which biblical theology plays a key part
- The unity and diversity in the Bible, which biblical theology must analyze and synthesize
- The use of the Old Testament by the New Testament, and how that impacts biblical theology
- The way systematic theology depends on and contributes to biblical theology
- Preaching as the goal and test of biblical theology
As you can see, biblical theology is a theological discipline and hermeneutical tool with lots to offer. To be fair, this list may look intimidating and unappealing. But I pray it has the opposite effect. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus whose hearts burned when Jesus spoke to them, I pray the prospects of understanding how the whole Bible works together, displays the suffering and glory of Christ, and applies to life today might impel you to belly up the bar of biblical theology.
Indeed, more than any other discipline—and here, I’m speaking anecdotally—I have found biblical theology to be more helpful in knowing and marveling at God and his Word. It has given me a firm foundation for tackling every theological or ethical subject that our church has encountered. And it has heightened my adoration for God and his wisdom and power revealed through his Word. In this way, while the discipline of biblical theology should not be confused with the glorious riches of Scripture itself, it is this approach to Scripture which has been most helpful in studying and savoring Scripture. To put it plainly, biblical theology is my cup of choice when drinking from the Word of God.
To introduce biblical theology, I will not explain all its facets. Again, I cannot improve upon the NDBT. Instead, I will make a case why you need to incorporate biblical theology into your personal study, your church ministry, your theological formulation, and your personal evangelism and disciple-making. By putting biblical theology into practice, so to speak, I hope you will better understand what it is, how it works, and why it is a theological discipline worth a life time of study and devotion.
Biblical Theology in Your Bible (Reading)
The first thing to notice about biblical theology is that it takes its cues from the Bible itself. As we saw in Luke 24 above, Jesus’ approach to identifying and explaining himself was to trace “his story” through the Law and Prophets. Indeed, if the books of the New Testament are any indication of the way he taught his disciples (Acts 1:3), we have evidence that Paul, Peter, Luke, and John were all biblical theologians more than systematic theologians. In other words, Scripture is not a systematic theology, written out with propositions and proof-texts. Rather, it is a “theological narrative” promising, recording, and interpreting the works of God. Accordingly, when we read the Bible we should be aware of a number of biblical-theological realities. These realities can be outlined with three questions.
1. What time is it?
Whenever we read the Bible, we must recall when the author is writing. For example, when Peter says, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16), does he have in mind the same application as Moses whom he quotes? Leviticus 11:44 is the verse Peter quotes, but in that context purity and holiness is directly related to food laws, the very thing God told Peter to rescind in Acts 10–11. This is but one example of why the when matters.
The Bible is not a record of timeless truths; it is a covenant document which reveals the ways in which a holy God atones for and dwells with his people. Accordingly, we who take the Bible seriously must employ a biblical-theological category of progressive revelation and learn how to read the Bible in time.
2. Who else said it (before)?
Next, we must pay attention to the middle column of our Bibles, where the cross-references live. While cross-references are not inspired, they do open our eyes to see how the Prophets of Israel read the Law, and how Jesus interpreted the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. In other words, because the Bible regularly cites, alludes, and echoes other parts of Scripture, we must learn to read individual passages in light of their various cross-references.
To be clear, recognizing the cross-references is not the same as reading them rightly. There are whole courses in seminary devoted to intra-biblical exegesis—the practice of reading any part of the Bible in light of the whole. So, exhaustive understanding of all cross-references should not be our goal (yet). What I am commending is a growing awareness of the Bible’s “wormholes,” the ways in which various parts of Scripture separated by space and time are yet related.
So, the growing disciple should read his Bible with an eye to the cross-references. Even better, annotating your own Bible with various cross-references should be a habit to cultivate, as it will help you to see how the Bible is connected. Over time this attention to cross-references will acclimate the reader to the ways in which Scripture refers to itself and more importantly to the God who reveals himself supremely in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1–3).
3. How does this relate to Christ and his gospel?
Finally, we should be aware of the way all Scripture points to Christ (John 5:39; 1 Peter 1:10–12). For instance, when Paul defines the gospel he regularly affirms its origin in the promises of the Old Testament. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4, he says that Christ died for our sins and was raised to life on the third day “according to the Scriptures.” Likewise, Romans 1 speaks of the “the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (vv. 1–2); and Galatians 3:8 speaks of the “gospel preached beforehand to Abraham.” Add to this the evangelistic preaching of Acts, which explains the work of Christ by repeated reference to the Old Testament, and we begin to understand that Scripture’s main message—the gospel—spans the whole canon.
Whether in the New Testament or Old, we should ask ourselves: How does this person, event, institution relate to Christ? In the New Testament this is apparent, as all commands to the church come to those who are “in Christ.” But also in the Old Testament, if we follow the apostles’ lead, we soon learn that the gospel which is fully revealed in Christ (Ephesians 3:1–11), was preached beforehand (Galatians 3:8) and anticipated by the Old Testament Prophets (1 Peter 1:10–12).
For instance, John records how Moses wrote of Christ (5:46), Abraham rejoiced to see Christ’s day (8:56), and Isaiah saw the glory of Christ beforehand (12:41). From just a sampling of New Testament texts, we learn a faithful reading of the Scripture must include an awareness of how any passage relates to God and the Christ who mediates between God and man (cf. 1 Timothy 2:5). Clearly, mediation is a doctrine for salvation, but also for hermeneutics, and thus biblical theology helps us in our daily reading to find a faithful path in the text from the words on the page to the Word become flesh.
This is where we begin with biblical theology, but it cannot be where we end.
Biblical Theology in Your Church
When Michael Lawrence wrote his book on the subject, he entitled it Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry. Likewise, when 9Marks entitled their journal on biblical theology, they called biblical theology a “guardian and guide for the church.” And in its final article on biblical theology, the NDBT followed Edmund Clowney’s book title, Preaching and Biblical Theology. In short, those familiar with biblical theology know it is a discipline given for the life and health of the church.
In particular, biblical theology is important because it explains who Jesus is, as the head of the church, and who the church is, as the people whom God promised to redeem when he told Abraham that through his offspring all the nations would be blessed (see Genesis 12:1–3 and Galatians 3:8ff.). In truth, it is impossible to know who the church’s Lord is apart from both testaments of the Bible. The Old Testament describes who the Messiah is; the New Testament then shows how Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Son of God come to redeem Israel and the nations. Only through biblical theology do we learn who Jesus is. To worship and serve any other Jesus is to worship a false Christ. Therefore, in the church we must regularly identify who Jesus is and who he is not, and there is no better way to do that then to place Jesus in the storyline of the Bible, and to understand how our churches relate to that storyline.
At the same time, biblical theology gives us a grasp of how Israel relates to the Church, how Jesus stands as the promised one of old and the cornerstone of the new. Biblical theology enables us to think carefully about how the Law does and does not apply today. And biblical theology gives us background for all the metaphors about the church (e.g., the church as bride, temple, gathering, and royal embassy, etc.). In short, while various systems of biblical theology (e.g., Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology, Progressive Covenantalism) describe continuity and discontinuity differently, they are all doing biblical theology for the sake of the church.
To be clear, biblical theology in the abstract does not provide a secret decoder ring for Bible doctrines. Rather, it serves as a biblically-rooted pattern of thinking, which defines terms according the unfolding revelation of God, identifies the church according to those terms, and instructs church leaders on how to establish the doctrines and practices of the church. Without biblical theology, the church is left to float in the winds of competing fads and sociology’s best ideas for community-building. For anyone who wants to be “biblical,” they must pursue and possess a robust biblical theology. Individual proof-texts, even collections of proof-texts neutered from their covenantal context, are insufficient.
Biblical Theology in Your Theology
Biblical theology’s role in the church parallels its role in constructing our systematic theology. As mentioned above, biblical theology serves as the baseline for all sound doctrine. Whereas systematic theology can be differentiated from biblical theology, all doctrines must find their “shape” from the progressive revelation of Scripture. To say it differently, every loci of doctrine can and should express its contents according to the contours of the Bible. But what does that mean?
Simply this: Because the Bible is revealed over time, its various doctrines also develop over time. There is no doctrine that comes in the mail pre-wrapped and fully-formed. Rather, every doctrine finds contributions from every part of Scripture—or, at least it should. For instance, when God’s name was revealed in Exodus 3:14, Yahweh defined himself as the God who redeems Israel (vv. 15–16). In other words, it is in Israel’s history, finally realized in Christ and the church that the full doctrine of God is found. Similarly, attention to historical detail is most important as we grapple with the gifts of tongues in the book of Acts. Only by recognizing the transitional nature of Luke’s second volume do we guard ourselves from misreading Pentecost as paradigmatic for every believer’s experience.
Even more clearly is biblical theology seen in the doctrine of Christ. Although the Incarnation is not historically revealed until Christ is born of Mary, there are hints that God’s redeemer will come as the “seed of the woman” (Genesis 3:15), the son of David (2 Samuel 7:9–14), and a glorious son of man (Daniel 7:14) who at the same time will suffer before he rises again (Isaiah 43). While these revelations take the fullness of time to see and understand, the New Testament clearly affirms the Prophets spoke beforehand about the Son, his suffering and his glory (see Luke 24:45–49; 1 Peter 1:10–12).
All our doctrines, therefore, should follow this promise and fulfillment pattern of revelation as we aim to describe various doctrines. In short, biblical theology is the beginning place for all sound doctrine.
Biblical Theology in Your Evangelism
Finally, biblical theology stands as the foundation of any fruitful evangelism and disciple-making. As mentioned above, the gospel does not begin with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Rather, as the apostolic sermons of Acts (and Hebrews) demonstrate, the apostles who first gave us the gospel regularly preached about Christ from the Old Testament. In fact, until the New Testament canon was fully recognized in the early fourth century, the church had the Hebrew Scriptures. And thus, the message of Christ was patterned after God’s own promise-fulfillment schema (see Acts 13:32–33): what God promised in the Old Testament, he fulfilled in Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:20). This is the basic shape of the gospel, and hence as it is modeled by Peter, Stephen, and Paul, it should find its way into our own personal evangelism.
Practically, Two Ways to Live follows this redemptive historical approach to the gospel, as does Matt Chandler in his book The Explicit Gospel. In Chandler’s book, he describes the “gospel in the air” (e.g., Creation, Fall, Reconciliation, Consummation) as an approach that follows Scripture’s own presentation of redemptive history (i.e., God’s work of salvation over time). Similarly, what I call the “horizontal gospel” is an approach undergirded by biblical theology that moves from Creation to Fall to the Law and its fulfillment in Christ and his New Creation—first in individuals (2 Corinthians 5:17), later in all creation (Revelation 21–22).
This ‘storified’ approach to evangelism benefits the individual disciple because it situates Christ in God’s storyline, and it demands that uber-personal narratives be redefined by God’s larger redemptive story. Such an approach makes it impossible to add Jesus to our own stories; it demands sinners submit themselves to God and his gospel, turning from their old stories and placing faith in the resurrected Christ, the Lord (read: star) of God’s story. While salvation remains personal, such a biblical-theological approach places the individual in the larger structures of God’s redemption. At the same time, such a narrative approach to the gospel helps us communicate the gospel to others.
Since we all inhabit the same story, there can be no personal experience that stands outside of God’s world and God’s salvation. To a generation indoctrinated on the belief that individuals have the power to define themselves, biblical theology provides a robust counter-argument to hyper-autonomous self-determination. Indeed, by providing a more majestic story of savior-identification (not self-identification), biblical theology’s natural environment is evangelism and discipleship. Which leads to the final point, young disciples need biblical theology
At the end of Luke’s Gospel, the good doctor finishes his presentation of Christ with the Sermon on the Emmaus Road. Similarly, Matthew finishes his Gospel with an equally climactic presentation. On a mountaintop in Galilee, Jesus tells his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:17–20). He calls them to baptize these disciples and to teach them to obey all that he has commanded them. Like Jesus’ teaching in Jerusalem (Luke 24:45–49), this final instruction is equally attuned to biblical theology. For it calls disciples to know the whole corpus of God’s Word and to be able to teach it to others, so that a new generation might obey all that God in Christ has instructed us.
To be sure, this calling to obey all God has commanded is massive, but that is the very reason why we need biblical theology. Biblical theology gives us an approach to getting our hands around the whole counsel of God. It gives us a plotline, chapters, categories, and emphases. It shows the ways in which patterns repeat in Scripture, and how all the divergent material in Scripture is unified in Christ. For this reason, biblical theology is not an optional discipline, but a necessary part of discipleship and disciple-making. Therefore, it should not be something that is an esoteric part of a seminarian’s education. It should be the bread and butter of any church’s teaching and any disciple’s diet.
Take Up and Read Biblical Theology
For all these reasons, take up the Bible and read, and with it, grab a handful of books on biblical theology to help you put its pieces together. Start with the NDBT, or Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan, or any other resource listed above. In reading them you will find there are some divergent opinions on the best way to “do” biblical theology. But far worse than running into some differing approaches is to remain entirely indifferent to biblical theology.
Therefore, take up and read biblical theology. It will, by God’s grace, prove immensely helpful. It may, as it has for so many others, prove to be one of the ways God matures you and multiplies fruit in your church, your theology, and your disciple-making. Indeed, this was Jesus’ aim on the road to Emmaus, and his ongoing prayer at the Father’s right hand, that the people for whom he died would be sanctified in truth. And his word is truth—all of it, from beginning to end.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds