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What I Mean by Biblical Theology

OldBook01How hard could it possibly be to find agreement on the meaning of a phrase as simple as biblical theology?

In truth… harder than I’d like. Biblical theology is not, after all, merely theological ideas that are “biblical,” and the history of the phrase biblical theology is, unfortunately, often sullied by association with systems that ended up reflecting modern scholarly prejudice more than the coherent message of biblical texts as we have received them from the ancients.[1]

I can, however, tell you what I mean by the phrase biblical theology when I use it to define the bulk of my work and the framework of my soul. I am a biblical theologian, after all… hear me roar… or, at least, hear me hem and haw when many a church folk ask my opinion on some fine point of systematic theology that has about as much interest for me as discovering with certainty how many licks it does take to get to the center of a tootsie pop.  While I have consumed more than my fair share of these delicacies, I’ve never cared to count.

Biblical theology, as I practice it, is an approach to Scripture[2] that has as its ultimate goal the discovery and presentation of the intended theological message of biblical literature, unit by unit, in each author’s own terms and categories.

Biblical theology is, then, both a process and a product.  I can do biblical theology, and I can present a biblical theology.

  • As a process, biblical theology defines specific attitudes and steps taken toward an understanding of the biblical text as the author meant it to be understood, hearing the message he meant to deliver the way he meant to deliver it.
    • These attitudes involve a desire to understand the author’s theological intention, as opposed to trying to force a passage to address our own questions, or striving to argue down the text, to drive it into submission beneath our own modern sensibilities.
    • These steps involve the practical means by which this understanding is gained through a variety of interpretive techniques all rooted in understanding the historical context, the language context, and the literary context of each passage.
  • As a product, biblical theology seeks to make that message understandable to people in different settings, speaking different languages, enmeshed in different cultures and having different worldviews.
    • This usually involves creating, for all involved, a new set of mental categories—categories that are native to the author, but foreign to the modern reader.
    • For example: helping modern secularists[3] grasp the notion of the holy, corporate solidarity, or social order as ancient Near Eastern people thought of them.
  • As a product, biblical theology can take a variety of shapes depending on what “unit” one sets his or her sights, or what “native topic” one wishes to investigate.
    • One could, per chance, write a biblical theology of Mark, something my course “Meeting the Jesus of Mark” sets out to do.
    • One could also write a book like Gregory Beale’s We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, which follows a single topic of discussion wherever it appears in the Bible, analyzing authorial intention in its every appearance.
    • One could write a biblical theology of the Pentateuch, or of the Old Testament, or of the whole Bible, focusing on the theological intention of each writer (however complicated that idea might be in some cases), each unit of literature, and how these relate to one another in either comparison, contrast, or development.

Before I ask, “What does this passage mean to me?” I ask, “What did this passage mean to the author?” The answer to that question is the heart and soul of biblical theology.

 


[1] For a good survey of historic approaches to “biblical theology,”  I recommend reading Leo Purdue’s The Collapse of History: Reconstructing Old Testament Theology.

[2] This will be important later when I contrast this with systematic theology, which is an approach to theological issues that uses Scripture as one of its tools.

[3] By this I mean modern scientific minded souls… including modern Christians.

7 thoughts on “What I Mean by Biblical Theology

  1. JD says:

    Good starting point looking forward to reading some more in the weeks ahead.

  2. John Carnes says:

    Good foundation to jump off of, bro. Excited to follow along.

  3. Thanks, I was torn as to whether or not to start with a rumble or a lightning bolt… when with low rumble. Thursday will be a lightning bolt.

  4. Nathan says:

    (And by i.e. I mean e.g.)

  5. Blessing Jacobs says:

    Good stuff. Look forward to reading more.

  6. M4Faith says:

    “Before I ask, “What does this passage mean to me?” I ask, “What did this passage mean to the author?” The answer to that question is the heart and soul of biblical theology.” A rare occurrence I think, but an approach that in my humble opinion we should be teaching in the earliest stages of discipleship and Christian Education.

    1. I agree. Almost everything worth while stems from it. It is too easy to make the Bible reflect me, rather than allowing it to confront me.

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