Study of the Bible that seeks to discover what the biblical writers, under divine guidance, believed, described, and taught in the context of their own times.
Relation to Other Disciplines Biblical theology is related to but different from three other major branches of theological inquiry. Practical theology focuses on pastoral application of biblical truths in modern life. Systematic theology articulates the biblical outlook in a current doctrinal or philosophical system. Historical theology investigates the development of Christian thought in its growth through the centuries since biblical times.
Biblical theology is an attempt to articulate the theology that the Bible contains as its writers addressed their particular settings. The Scriptures came into being over the course of many centuries, from different authors, social settings, and geographical locations. They are written in three different languages and numerous literary forms (genres). Therefore analytic study leading to synthetic understanding is required to grasp their overarching themes and underlying unities. Biblical theology labors to arrive at a coherent synthetic overview without denying the fragmentary nature of the light the Bible sheds on some matters, and without glossing over tensions that may exist as various themes overlap (e.g., God's mercy and God's judgment; law and grace).
Preliminary Assumptions Study of any object calls for assumptions appropriate to that object. An African witch doctor's assumptions would probably not yield many empirically valid observations regarding the cause and cure of whooping cough. Likewise, biblical theology calls for certain assumptions without which valid observations about the meaning of the Bible's parts and whole are sure to elude the observer.
Inspiration. The whole Bible is given by God. While it unabashedly affirms and reflects its human authorship, it is no less insistent on its divine origin and message. Attempts to separate God's word from Scripture's words, a feature of academic biblical theology since its inception in Germany in 1787, have often resulted in the interpreter airing personal critical convictions rather than laying bare the theology of the writings themselves.
Unity. While contrasts and tensions exist within the biblical corpus due to the local and temporal soil from which its components first sprang, a solidarity underlies them. This solidarity is grounded in the oneness of God's identity and redemptive plan. It is also rooted in humankind's sinful solidarity in the wake of Adam's fall. Scripture's undeniable diversity, commonly overplayed in current critical discussion, complements rather than obliterates its profound unity. Scripture is its own best interpreter, and uncertainties raised by one portion are often legitimately settled by appeal to another.
Reliability. Since God is the ultimate author of the Bible, and since truthfulness characterizes his communication to person, biblical theology is justified in upholding the full reliability of the Bible rightly interpreted. Scholars indifferent or hostile to the Bible's truth claims have impugned its integrity from earliest times. In the modern era a panoply of critical methods, with their underlying assumptions, makes skepticism toward the Bible as historically understood in the church the accepted order of the day. But thinkers of stature remain convinced that the Bible contains no material errors, although it does present conundrums that do not yet admit of universally accepted answers. Even critical tools, when employed judiciously rather than only skeptically, have helped confirm to many that assuming the veracity of the biblical text and message may not be any more uncritical than wholesale rejection of it.
Christ the Center. Jesus explicitly stated that the Scriptures point to him ( Luke 24:27 Luke 24:44 ; John 5:39 ). The New Testament writers follow Jesus in this conviction. The Old Testament writers are aware of a future fulfillment to Yahweh's present promises to his people; that fulfillment, while multifaceted, is summed up in Jesus messianic ministry. While biblical theology can err in overstating the ways the Old Testament foreshadows and predicts the Messiah, and the ways in which the New Testament finds its meaning in Jesus Christ, it may likewise err in denying him his central place in the grand drama of both biblical and world history.
Overview of Biblical Theology. Biblical theologians have proposed various methods of going about their task. Some stress the Bible's key integrating themes: covenant, the exodus, the kingdom of God, promise and fulfillment, God's glory, reconciliation, and many others. Some stress the relationship of Scripture's various parts to Jesus Christ. Some see the proper center of biblical theology as being God himself or his mighty Acts of deliverance. Still others stress the similarities between biblical statements of the past and confessional statements that have arisen in the history of the church.
While there are strengths to each of these approaches, there are also limitations. None alone is adequate. This is not surprising, since God, his ways, and the writings that convey knowledge of him defy reduction to even the most skilled human organization and exposition. Many would agree that the best method must be multiplex in nature.
Moreover, any approach must factor in the progressive and historical dimension of the Bible's theology. What God brought about, he accomplished gradually over the course of time. The theology of the Bible unfolds in the course of the events it describes and sometimes precipitates. Below is a survey of biblical theology centering on its historical rise and progression.
Creation and Fall. The early chapters of Genesis, corroborated by subsequent statements in both Old Testament and New Testament, affirm that God created the world by fiat decree ("And God said cf. Heb 11:3 ), not out of preexisting matter. God alone is eternal; matter is not. In its primordial state the created order was pristine and unspoiled "very good" ( Gen 1:31 ).
Crowning six days (whether literal or metaphorical) of creative activity, God brought humankind into being. Both male and female were part of God's creative intention from the beginning ( 1:27 ), yet Adam was created first and then Eve as his companion (2:18). Their complementary (not interchangeable) natures and roles precede rather than rise out of the sin into which they fell.
Evil's origin is shrouded in considerable (not utter) mystery, but it was personified in a serpentine figure of intelligence and beauty who beguiled both human inhabitants of Eden (chap. 3). The outcome was estrangement from God and a future marked with pain and woe. Yet the curse of sin is ameliorated from the start by a God who seeks sinners to redeem them (3:9). His majesty in creation is, if anything, exceeded by his graciousness in redemption.
Covenant and Captivity. Genesis 4-11 moves rapidly through the vicissitudes of early humankind to the time of Noah. Humankind becomes so corrupt that a sweeping response is called for. Despite Noah's faithful preaching ( 2 Peter 2:5 ), few repent in view of the coming flood. Nearly universal loss of human life results. God covenants establishes terms under which redemptive relationship to him rather than judgment are possible with the remnant, Noah and his kin ( Gen 9:1-17 ), foreshadowing the covenant par excellence with Abraham lying yet in the future.
Despite God's covenant initiative, the debacle at Babel ( 11:1-9 ) documents humankind's continued disposition to rebellion. Yet God's disposition to save is greater still. He chooses Abram through whom to redeem a people, thereby blessing all the nations of the earth ( 12:3 ). To Abram, later called Abraham ( 17:5 ), the Hebrew people trace their ancestry. Subsequently this people becomes known as the Jews, from whom Christ is descended. The line from Abraham to the Savior of humankind is in that sense direct.
Abraham is saved through his trust in God's saving mercy alone, as atonement for sin and hope for the future ( 15:6 ). This trust does not exclude but rather presupposes his obedient responsiveness to God's revealed will ( 22:18 ); "faith" and "faithfulness" are mutually conditioning. Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, halted by an angel, foreshadows God's own sacrifice for sin millennia hence, just as his wife Sarah's conception of a son at the age of ninety prefigures resurrection from the dead ( Rom 4:17-25 ).
Abraham's descendants (Isaac, Jacob) bear the responsibility of the covenant God made with their father, but they seldom rise to his level of integrity in seeking the Lord. From Jacob's, or Israel's ( 35:10 ) sons come heads of Israel's twelve tribes. One of the youngest of these, Joseph, is preserved by God through kidnapping and imprisonment in Egypt. His rise to power there as adjutant second only to Pharaoh himself sets the stage for a captivity of Israel's descendants some four centuries in length, in keeping with God's promise to Abraham ( 15:16 ). The closing chapters of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus chronicle this saga.
Torah and Theocracy. By God's own initiative and power, Moses arises to lead God's people out of their bondage. Their deliverance is a direct result of God's covenant with Abraham ( Exod 2:24 ). Following revelation of his own name for himself (Yahweh) to Moses ( 3:14 ), God breaks Pharaoh's stranglehold on the hapless Israelites. The first Passover (chap. 12) averts the death angel's visitation. It also sets the stage for the dramatic exodus from Egypt through the Red (or Reed) Sea ( 13:17-22 ), a historical precedent and enduring symbol of divine deliverance by God's own hand in all ages since.
While knowledge of God's moral character and will was not unknown among God's people prior to Moses, it is revealed in fuller and more definite form, and in a more discrete social context, at Mount Sinai (chap. 19). This instruction, epitomized by the Decalogue or Ten Commandments, does not set aside, but rather, gives a vehicle for living within the Abrahamic covenant. In the law Israel receives a moral, social, and religious charter through which God will further his redemptive will for centuries to come. His aim to bless all nations in keeping with his promise to Abraham is still at work. While parts of this law appear to have their fulfillment primarily in their own day and time, others are restated in the New Testament, and all retain value and relevance ( Rom 15:4 ; 1 Cor 10:11 ). The basic dynamic of God's people honoring their Lord through fidelity to his revealed written word is basic to the faith that both Old Testament and New Testament model and prescribe.
Along with Moses a precursor of the Messiah ( Exod 18:18 ; cf. Acts 3:20-23 )and the law, come Aaron and the priesthood. Bloody sacrifices could not in themselves furnish atonement for sins any more than legal adherence to the Mosaic moral code. Yet both sacrificial cult and legal requirement were continual reminders of God's disapproval of sin and his offer of reconciliation to the contrite of heart. As such they pointed to the perfect sacrifice and fulfiller of the law, Jesus Christ.
The five Old Testament books of Moses, the Pentateuch, set forth a lofty practical and spiritual agenda. The Israelites in Moses' wake at first uphold God's honor, crossing the Jordan under divine leadership as administered by Joshua. They then submit to circumcision ( Josh 5 ), a reaffirmation of submission to the Lord revealed at Sinai in contrast to their parents' chronic disbelief ( 1 Cor 10:5 ; Heb 3:19 ). Yet even as Joshua passes from the scene, the Israelites succumb to the idolatry of the lands they have conquered. A pattern of spiritual degeneration and periodic divine deliverance marks the era described by the Book of Judges.
God's tenacious striving with his people for their deliverance takes a new turn in the time of Samuel. As a prophet, one especially called and enabled by God to speak on his behalf, it falls to him to appoint Israel's first earthly king, Saul.
Monarchy and Apostasy. From the time of Saul (ca. 1020 b.c.) to the fall of Jerusalem (586 b.c.), God works through kings and their subject peoples to achieve his ends. R. Bultmann's quip that the Old Testament is not a history of redemption but of disaster (Unheilsgeschichte) is overly dour, yet captures an important dimension of this segment of Old Testament history and thus its theology. God faithfully raises up and blesses leaders who are charged with guiding God's people in God's ways. There are signal successes, but the general drift is lower than the high calling God extends.
David is the central figure, his reign prefiguring the messianic kingdom itself. His hymns of praise, contrition, and instruction (the psalms, not all attributable to David) are timely yet timeless models of spiritual insight and thus central to the focus of biblical theology. Likewise the wisdom (given explicitly by God: 1 Kings 3:12 ) of his son Solomon stands at the center of an equally weighty literary corpus for biblical-theological work, the so-called wisdom literature. This material furnishes a gnomic counterpart to the more prevalent Old Testament literary forms of narrative and law. Biblical theology minimizes the theology distinct to any of these Old Testament forms at the peril of attenuating Scripture's full message.
During the monarchy, as already in centuries previous, prophets consistently warn of drifting away from the Lord and toward the religious though godless ways of Israel's neighbors. Nathan rebukes David; Ahijah and Iddo speak to Solomon's times; Elijah and Elisha minister to the northern kingdom of Israel after its split from Judah to the south following Solomon's reign. The office of prophet is central to the Old Testament. Like the Old Testament office of priest and king, it not only actualizes God's redemptive work in Old Testament times but also foreshadows the offices fulfilled by the Messiah yet to come.
The drift that God's prophets decry is documented by writing prophets like Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and Amos. The northern kingdom falls into apostasy and finally judgment at the hand of Assyria (722 b.c.). The southern kingdom is favored with spiritual renewals under noble kings like Hezekiah and Josiah. Yet it, too, fails to give God his due, as Jeremiah particularly makes clear. In 587 b.c. Babylonia appears to shatter forever the regnancy of the line of David. Jeremiah's doleful lamentations bespeak the despondency of those who await, now with virtually no visible consolation, the deliverance and glory promised to their forefathers since Abraham.
Restoration and Remnant. Jeremiah's hope ( Jer 31 ), grounded in God's revelation to previous prophets like Moses, David, and Isaiah, finds eloquent expression in Ezekiel and Daniel. They too experience the ravages of deportation to Babylon but cling to and proclaim the continued validity of God's earlier promises. Inspired no doubt by this prophetic guidance, small bands begin to return from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem (ca. 520 b.c.), spurred on by Haggai and Zechariah. Other waves of repatriates under Nehemiah and Ezra give a boost to the work some decades later (ca. 450 b.c.). The final book of the Old Testament testifies to their labor, yet decries a people still divided in their loyalties between God and their own willfulness. That same book upholds the promise of vindication for all who turn to the covenant God in repentance, and pliant trust in a coming deliverer ( Mal 4 ) whose work will furnish the means of their vindication. That deliverer will also mete out eternal judgment to those hostile or indifferent to the covenant God.
The truly faithful few their number seems seldom if ever to constitute a hegemony among Abraham's physical descendants throughout Old Testament history appear to dwindle steadily once the Old Testament period proper ends. The children of Abraham and the land of promise languish under the rule of Persia, which is terminated abruptly by the Greeks in the 320s b.c., who are in turn succeeded by Egyptian and then Syrian overlords. During these decades the religious forms and theological idioms of the Old Testament, diverse in themselves, are transformed into patterns that give Judaism as seen in New Testament times its distinctive faces. A period of Jewish independence (165-163 b.c.) is cut off by the Romans, who appoint Herod the Great as administrator of Galilee, Judea, and their environs around 38 b.c.
Isaiah had spoken of a time of great darkness when the Lord himself would visit his people ( 9:1-7 ). A biblical-theological survey of the Old Testament and its aftermath finds that time to have arrived in the days of Jesus' birth.
Fulfillment and Deliverance. The genealogies of both Matthew and Luke testify to the intrinsic connection of Jesus' coming with God's purpose and work in previous epochs. Luke 1-2 describes the Old Testament hopes of figures like Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna as these all voice confidence in the fidelity of God to his Old Testament promises.
In Jesus of Nazareth God's deliverance and fulfillment arrive. God's reign, graphically and variously prefigured in Old Testament events and institutions, is actually at hand. John the Baptist electrifies a religiously fragmented and politically oppressed nation as the divine voice echoes once again through the prophetic ministry. Jesus, who is also seen as a prophet ( Mark 8:28 ), reaps the benefit of this excitement. Like John, he preaches repentance and the imminence of God's kingdom. Unlike John, who pointed to another, Jesus calls men and women to himself.
Over a span of some three years Jesus traverses the lands of Galilee, Judea, Samaria, and adjoining districts. He devotes special attention to a group of twelve who will carry on his work once he departs, but he also issues a call and instruction to the (predominantly but not exclusively Jewish) masses. His message targets ethnic Israel but has application to all peoples, even during his lifetime. His teachings, sublime by any reckoning, cannot by separated from a consciousness of unique filial relationship to God. He appeared to be asserting that he was in some sense God's equal. His teaching must also be seen in the light of his insistence that he came to bring deliverance, not through mastery of knowledge he transmits, but through personal trust in the sacrificial, saving death he undergoes ( Mark 8:31 ; Mark 10:32-34 Mark 10:45 ). The four Gospels concur in presenting the climax of Jesus' coming, not in his miracles, wisdom, or ethics, great as these are, but in his atoning death and vindicating resurrection.
Jesus' ministry, then, is the culmination of God's saving plan established in Old Testament times. His call to repentance and offer of new life fulfills the prophetic office; his sacrificial death and mediatorial role fulfill the role of an eternal high priest; the rule he possesses ( John 18:37 ) in David's train establishes him as King of kings, the invisible God's incarnate regent over all space, time, and history. The messianic deliverance already foretold in Eden ( Gen 3:15 ) finds definitive expression in the Messiah Jesus. But his story outlives his earthly life.
The Age to Come. Not clearly foreseen, apparently, by either Old Testament prophets or the earliest New Testament disciples, was the already-not yet complexion of the messianic age. While it dawned with Jesus' advent, and in particular with his resurrection, the full sun of the heavenly day awaits his return.
Jesus established the church as the focus of the Father's ongoing redemptive presence, through the Spirit, until the time of the Son's return. While all the New Testament writings play a role in testifying to this, Acts describes how it was lived out in the first three decades following Christ, while the New Testament Epistles instruct and steer the postresurrection people of God in those same generations and beyond.
Original disciples of Jesus, like Peter and John, play central roles in the church's early rise, but in retrospect pride of place belongs to Paul in important respects. The clarity of his God-given insights into the apostolic office, the nature of life "in Christ, " justification by grace through faith, the mission of the church to Jew and Gentile alike, the ongoing place of ethnic Israel in the divine plan, the sanctity of marriage and the sex roles God ordained, the practical outworkings of Christ's Spirit all these and more are the priceless heirlooms granted to the church, largely Gentile since first-century times, through Paul, an ex-Pharisee. He not only proclaimed but was perhaps the most notable example of the efficacy of the cross of Christ he preached.
Meanwhile, the spiritual descendants of the apostles still look for the full manifestation of the kingdom Jesus promised to establish at his second coming. They await that day in ongoing worship, sacrificial regard for one another (love), growth in the grace and knowledge that Christ and Scripture impart, and outreach to a world both hungry for and hostile toward the gospel. Eschatologically oriented portions of both Old Testament and New Testament, in particular the Book of Revelation, furnish rich resources for reflection and guidance.
Past and Future of the Discipline The role of the Bible in Christian thought over the centuries has varied widely. Until relatively recently biblical theology as a distinct discipline did not exist. Theology drew its verities directly from the biblical text, often with little linguistic, historical, and hermeneutical sophistication. The theological (and sometimes political or philosophical) commitments of church leaders dominated the way the Bible was read. This too seldom resulted in interpretation that was sensitive to the Bible's original meaning in its setting.
With the rise of critical thought associated with Descartes (1596-1650) and Kant (1724-1804), the teaching of the church (as well as the Bible) was seen in a new light. Critical rationality could separate the temporal husk of the biblical writings from their enduring kernel. Thus one dogma, that of the church, was replaced by another that of Enlightenment rationalism and its progeny. It was at this time that biblical theology as a distinct discipline made its appearance.
Since that time biblical theology has tended to draw its certainties from trends in the larger academic world. Most biblical scholars "have allowed their world-view and historical method to be given them by their culture" (R. Morgan). For much of the twentieth century Bultmann's existentialist reading of the New Testament has dominated. In Old Testament theology, works by luminaries like Procksch, Eichrodt, Vriezen, Jacob, and von Rad have commanded attention. Yet both Old Testament and New Testament theology, like mainline theological thought generally, are currently in disarray. Many Old Testament and New Testament scholars openly reject classic Christian understanding of the Bible, finding neither unity nor a saving message in it and certainly not definitive truth. Some even reject the possibility of Old Testament or New Testament theology, let alone biblical theology as a combination of the two, convinced that critical analysis of the Bible can result in nothing more than what ephemeral and disputed literary or social science methods yield.
Many scholars will continue to walk in the lights, or shadows, of the disintegrative, pluralistic, and deconstructive impulses that characterize Western thought at the end of the millennium. Evangelical thinkers can learn much about the Bible from their observations and even more about articulating the Bible's message in the idioms of the age.
Yet biblical theology has suffered enough at the hands of idioms that have garbled the Bible's message through the enthronement of conceptualities foreign to it. In 1787, J. P. Gabler inaugurated the discipline, calling for it to rescue the Bible from the dogmatic chains of the church. Today the dogmatic bonds of modernity atheism, post- and Neo-Marxism, relativism and reductionism, selfish materialism, narcissistic individualism, New Age spiritism, feminism are as destructive of biblical theology as any chains ever imposed by the church.
To avoid furthering merely one more -ism, interpreters faithful to the biblical subject matter need to let the sources' certainties furnish them with their own. (With all due respect to current critiques of foundationalism, if all statements are ultimately functions of selves wrapped up in their basic beliefs, then all human expression is solipsism, and the possibility of not only biblical theology but all rational inquiry is called in question.)
Biblical theology will move forward, if it does, as its practitioners know, love, and submit to the God of the Bible rather than the ideologies of the age. God is not a composite of the latest critical theories. This is not to denigrate scholarship but to recognize that God's word, if living and true, calls for substantially (not totally) different approaches to it than post-Enlightenment academic theology in its present forms furnishes. Biblical literacy in the church, to say nothing of biblical redemption in the world, is at stake. Both church and world could gain transforming conviction from the fruit of a discipline humble enough to discern, and brave enough to advocate, the ancient yet contemporary verities that biblical theology is charged to bring to light.
Robert W. Yarbrough
Bibliography. W. Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, 2 vols.; D. Guthrie, New Testament Theology; G. Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate and New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate; B. Ollenburger et al., eds., The Flowering of Old Testament Theology; R. Muller, The Study of Theology; H. Rä sä en, Beyond New Testament Theology; A. Schlatter, The Nature of New Testament Theology; K. Scholder, The Birth of Modern Critical Theology; G. Vos, Biblical Theology.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Biblical Theology'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".