Poythress on Biblical Theology and Biblical Theologies

Vern Poythress, in the Westminster Theological Journal (70/1 [2008] 129-42), writes a thought-provoking article about different “Kinds of Biblical Theology.”  His aim is “to reassess the present-day possibilities for biblical theology’s relation to systematic theology” and to show how one cannot be done without the other.  To start, Poythress sketches a brief history of the term, “biblical theology,” contrasting Geerhardus Vos with Johann Gabler and James Barr.  Following Vos, and leaning on the earlier work of Richard Gaffin, Poythress argues for reading the Bible with attentiveness to the divine unity of ‘biblical theology’ and nuanced recognition of the different ‘biblical theologies’ espoused by various biblical authors.   He compares biblical theology to a historical, linear representation of Scriptures, while systematic theology attempts to encircle various biblical themes into logical spheres.  Both approaches are necessary and heuristically viable, and both should be employed by biblical exegetes.

Moreover, Poythress encourages faithful systematicians and biblical theologians to use both BT and ST to read the Bible.  This two-fold approach coheres with the unity and diversity, the history and the logic of the Scripture.  Speaking of this, he writes cautioning against oversimplifications in biblical theology:

Why not write the theology of Paul with resurrection and union with Christ as a central organizing theme, while a theology of the Synoptics would have as a central theme the coming of the kingdom of God? Then a theology of Hebrews would focus on the superiority of Christ, particularly in his high priestly ministry; a theology of John might make central the theme of the revelation of God in Christ; a theology of Revelation might choose theophany and spiritual war as central; a theology of James might make wisdom central; a theology of 1 Peter might choose suffering for Christ as central. A theology of 2 Thessalonians–why not contemplate such a thing?–might make central the hope for the Second Coming. A theology of the Pastoral Epistles might choose the theme of gospel ministry as central.

In laying out such a proposal, Poythress encourages us to read the Bible more carefully.  Affirming Scripture’s divine origin, inspiration, and coherence, he cautions that we should not force themes, systems, or concepts on the Bible. Instead, we should read each Spirit-breathed book, author, and genre with attention to the details of the text. BT and ST should work together to unpack the riches of God’s Word, and we should boldly proclaim the spiritual unity and contextual diversity that is found in God’s redemptive history.

May we do so with power and precision. 

(HT: Justin Taylor)

Was Martyn Lloyd-Jones a biblical theologian?

Over the last two weeks, I have been making my way through Preaching and Preachers by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Not surprisingly, I have appreciated Lloyd-Jones’ pastoral forthrightness, his homiletic wisdom, and his overwhelming confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture, but what I have been surprised by is his emphasis on biblical theology. He writes:

If then I say that preaching must be theological and yet that it is not lecturing on theology, what is the relationship between preaching and theology? I would put it like this, that the preacher must have a good grasp, of the whole biblical message, which is of course a unity. In other words, the preacher should be well versed in biblical theology which in turn leads on to a systematic theology.

It is not enough merely that a man should know the Scriptures, he must know the Scriptures in the sense that he has got out of them the essence of biblical theology and can grasp it in a systematic manner. He must be so well versed in this that all his preaching is controlled by it (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, 1971, p. 66, 117).

As I ponder these quotations, the question forms in my mind, does Lloyd-Jones conceive of biblical theology in the same way that we do today? Or does his mention of biblical theology simply mean theology that comes from the Bible? Not being a Lloyd-Jones expert—having only read Preaching and Preachers once, listened to John Piper’s biography a handful of times, and heard a couple audio sermons—I am not the best one to answer the question, but let me propose a few thoughts.

First, Lloyd-Jones radical commitment to expounding the Scriptures, sometimes one word at a time, reveals a doctrine of God’s Word that affirms inspiration, authority, sufficiency, and perspicuity. The significance of this is that, though his sermons were often atomistic, they exalted the Scriptures in the same way that modern biblical theologians do.  Both biblical theology and Lloyd-Jones believed that all Scripture is God-breathed and thus at every level is useful for teaching, reprooving, correcting, and training in righteousness.

Second, from the passages quoted above, it is evident that Lloyd-Jones recognized the unity of the Bible. He commends and demonstrates in his preaching an intratextual approach to preaching that again is commisserate with biblical theology.  He could be criticized for filling his sermons with too much extraneous theological content, but in so doing he was drawing from vast resevoirs of Scriptural Truth.  So, this too demonstrates a biblical-theological commitment.

Third, as a Reformed pastor, Lloyd-Jones would have been familiar with Princeton’s Geerhardus Vos and his Biblical Theology. First published in 1948, this landmark volume would have been released in the middle of Lloyd-Jones’ pulpit ministry.  Moreover, Banner of Truth claimed the copyright of this book and began publishing it in 1978.  Certainly, he must have been aware of Vos’s redemptive-historic approach to the Scriptures.   With this said, it is unlikely that Lloyd-Jones would use “biblical theology” in a non-technical sense.

Fourth, another reason for believing that Lloyd-Jones used the term “biblical theology” in its technical sense and not just as a passing reference to theology that adheres to the Bible is that Edmund Clowney was in the audience when the Welsh doctor gave these lectures (see Lloyd-Jones preface where he thanks Professor Clowney).  It seems probable that in his presence, Lloyd-Jones would have used the term in its more technical sense.  Since, eight years earlier, Clowney had published his own treatise on Preaching and Biblical Theology.

So considering this scant evidence, should we say that Lloyd-Jones is a biblical-theologian? Tentatively, I respond in the affirmative because it seems that Lloyd-Jones usage of the term was done with specificity to commend the importance and place of biblical theology in preaching.  Likewise, the context in which he spoke certainly would have required a technical usage. However, the more pressing question becomes, did Dr. Lloyd-Jones adhere to a biblical theology in his own preaching? Here I must concede to those of you who have read and heard more of Lloyd-Jones than myself. Still from the little I have read and heard, it seems that his surgical precision with the text masked any overt notions of biblical theology. Nevertheless, from his comments in Preaching and Preachers and his absolute commitment to reading the Scriptures theologically (64-65), I would conclude that underneath his preaching mantle the good doctor was also a well-informed biblical-theologian. Certainly, his preaching was marked by theological acuteness and biblical faithfulness, and together I think this commends at least tendencies towards biblical theology, if not a purposeful use of the discipline.

In that spirit, may we continue to study the story of redemption found in history and then unleash its power in faithful exposition of its individual texts. This is what Martyn Lloyd-Jones did and is something that young preachers should consider and imitate as they see his faithful application of a biblical theology.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss

Biblical Theology: Word-driven, Kingdom-focused, Christ-centered

One month into my blogging at Via Emmaus, I have begun to consider, what is the overall aim and purpose of my writing. Why do I take time to sit at an impersonal computer screen and write thoughts that may never be read? If they are read, will they simply be deconstructive arguments against the fallen world in which we live, or will they be something more constructive and positive? Will they simply respond to events in the world at large and my world in particular, or will they endeavor to offer something substantive? Will they be an exercise in simply cataloging ideas from my studies at Southern and the array of weekly readings I am assigned, or will they offer anything fresh? Will they be a follow-up to lessons I have taught and/or sermons that I have preached, or will they consider other relevant matters of biblical thought? Well, perhaps they will include some or all of these elements, but as I have thought about it this week, I think the focus is becoming more clear. And my hope is to consider more intentionally a Word-driven, Kingdom-focused, Christ-centered Biblical Theology and how this vision of redemptive history and the gospel call intersects all of life.

Prior to coming to SBTS, Biblical Theology was a subject matter that I enjoyed and considered often. Since arriving in Louisville in 2004, it is something that has grown and developed–perhaps more than any other area of discipline in my academic life. Taking classes with Drs. Russell Moore, Thomas Schreiner, and Steve Wellum has stimulated this kind of thinking; reading books by these professors along with works by Graeme Goldsworthy, Edmund Clowney, Wiiliam Dumbrell, Geerhardus Vos, and others many has contributed significantly to this growing passion. Biblical Theology and its intersection with the church, ministry, and daily living is something that interests me greatly and something of worthy of greater consideration.

For instance, most recently a friend of mine mentioned how he currently serves in a position of administration at an evangelical school. It is something that he enjoys as he continues his education, but it is not something he sees himself doing forever. Similarly, I am working in a position of administration at Southern Seminary. And in hearing his thoughts, which resonate with mine, the thought(s) arose: What is a biblical theology of administration? How does administration fit in the plan of redemption and in the world that God created? How does a school administrator at a divinity school carry out the Great Commission? In what ways can my daily service be improved by a biblical understanding and vision of administration? In short, what does the Bible say about administration? Who were administrators in the Bible? Certainly Joseph, Daniel, and the seven deacons chosen in Acts 6 served in such a capacity. Who else?

All that to say, thinking biblical-theologically about all these things helps me understand the life that God has given me, the world in which I live, and the nuanced application of how I can participate in the Great Commission, and how we together are to do church and proclaim the gospel. These are all things that interest me and hopefully will receive much more specific attention on this website. As the old adage goes, if you aim at nothing you will hit it every time. So in opposition to this danger, I take aim at thinking more about Biblical Theology and writing more intentionally about the subject.

May the Lord Jesus Christ be pleased to allow such conversation, discussion, and reflection on his all-wise plan of redemption–according to his Word, about His kingdom and His church, and for the glory of His name.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss