Biblical Theology

What and How?

While systematic theology is probably my favorite theological discipline, biblical theology holds a special place in my heart. Now, one might say, “Wait a minute, is systematic theology not biblical?” In other words, “Isn’t all good theology biblical?” The one asking these questions is using the term “biblical” in this way: good theology is biblical in that it is in accord with the Bible, it agrees with the Bible, and its thoughts and conclusions are from the Bible. Here, I am talking about a certain type of theological discipline called “biblical theology.” There are different types of theological disciplines (e.g., systematic theology, exegesis, historical theology), and these can indeed be biblical in that they agree with what the Bible says. So then what do I mean by “biblical theology”? In short, for now, the theological discipline known as "biblical theology" is a way of analyzing and synthesizing the Bible in such a manner that honors the unified nature of the Bible's narrative of the history of redemption.

Aim and Purpose

My aim and purpose in this article is to offer a definition of biblical theology and help others understand how to do biblical theology and thus, interpret their Bibles with a biblical theological (whole canonical) lens. There will be four points to this article: (1) explain four theological disciplines; (2) further expound what biblical theology is; (3) explain how biblical theology can be practiced; and (4) give a brief example of biblical theology working itself out.

A Survey of Theological Disciplines

As stated above, there are four primary, theological disciplines (methods of study): exegesis, historical theology (HT), systematic theology (ST), and biblical theology (BT). Here is a brief explanation of all of these.

1. Exegesis
Exegesis is a technical term that simply means to obtain and understand the original meaning from a specific writing. In other words, biblical exegesis observes, analyzes, and draws out the author’s intent from a particular passage. That is, it focuses on understanding the original, intended meaning of a writing.[1] In sum, the object of exegesis is a specific passage of an author, the manner is observing and interpreting the text, and the purpose is to take or draw out what the author intended to communicate.

2. Historical Theology
Historical theology seeks to understand how certain theologians have understood particular topics in theology. It often asks, “How did this topic become the way it is understood?” Or, “How did the early church fathers understand atonement?” Or “What did Augustine say about this?” Or, “How did this group fight off this particular heretical teaching?” Thus, historical theology often studies significant, historical figures in theology and church history who have played a major role in developing an understanding of a theological topic or exegetical insight.

3. Systematic Theology
Systematic theology seeks to find out what the whole Bible says about a certain topic. It builds itself on exegesis, biblical theology, and historical theology. It asks, for example, “How does the whole Bible address sin?” This is a good starting place for systematic theology, but there's far more to it. Systematic theology ultimately has two topics: (1) God, and (2) everything else in relation to God. Its primary topic is God’s inner life and its secondary topic is everything else. It studies the latter by studying a particular topic as it relates back to God. It often asks, for example, “Where does the incarnation fit within all the Christian doctrines?” Systematic theology is often known for its use of logic, which is not necessarily bad, but systematic theologians must be tethered to the Bible.

4. Biblical Theology
Biblical theology seeks to understand how the whole Bible coheres, progresses, and culminates in Christ. It focuses on redemptive history and all its patterns and promises in the biblical narrative and sees how they are fulfilled and accomplished in Christ. It considers and confesses the Bible to be organic and unified. In other words, biblical theology studies the progression of the Bible as a unified book that climaxes in Christ.

Biblical Theology: What Is It Again?

Here’s another definition of biblical theology: “Biblical theology is a way of analyzing and synthesizing the Bible that makes organic, salvation-historical connections with the whole canon on its own terms, especially regarding how the Old and New Testaments integrate and climax in Christ.”[2] In other words, biblical theology seeks to understand the narrative, themes, and progression of the whole biblical storyline of the history of redemption in such a way that it recognizes and honors its organic and unified nature as one story. When we say organic, don't think of expensive food that rots right away. Rather, think of an apple seed that grows into an apple tree and then produces apples. There's a natural progression of multiple, different parts that fit together as a whole and is thus one. The Bible is very similar: one story with multiple parts that are all naturally unified, interconnected, and related.

Biblical theology focuses on evident themes, promises, patterns, and turning points in the unified story of creaturely redemption. It also makes natural connections and recognizes progressions and thereby acknowledges that one part relates to the entire storyline. Further, it attempts to trace evident and prominent themes in the Bible as portrayed in the four main movements of the history of redemption: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation (i.e., restoration). Also, because biblical theology rightly attests to the unity of the Bible, it attempts to see how the Old and New Testament integrate with one another.[3] Finally, biblical theology seeks to study and show how Christ is the climax of the Bible and the history of redemption––all things point to, work towards, and culminate in him.

How Can One “Do” Biblical Theology?

One can “do” biblical theology in many different and exciting ways. Five ways of making organic connections will be noted in this article.[4]

1. Trace a Theme:
My favorite way of “doing” biblical theology is by tracing a theme in the Bible. To do this, one just needs to pick an evident theme in the Bible, for example, the temple, and trace its revealed progression throughout the Bible and show how, as portrayed in the Bible, it climaxes in Christ.

2. See the Relation between Old and New Testament:
Here, one could, for example, see and study the similarities and differences between the people of God in the OT and the NT.

3. Study Promise and Fulfillment:
One can also see how the promises in the OT find their fulfillment in the NT. For example, one could study the promise of Genesis 3:15 and see how the “seed” is Christ in the NT.

4. Follow the Type and Antitype:
Typology is quite fun (probably my second favorite on the list). Typology is the study of types. For something to be a true type, there needs to be correspondence (connection) and escalation (progression) in real historical people, events, or things. Hence, there’s often a pattern of similarity in the Bible that foreshadows something greater to come. For example, David –> Jesus. For another example of a type, see Romans 5:14ff. In sum, typology traces the pattern and progression of historical, biblical events and people and finds the culmination and fulfillment in Jesus (the antitype). For a far better explanation see chapter 8 of James M. Hamilton Jr.’s little book, What is Biblical Theology––I heartily recommend it.[5]

5. The New Testament Use of the Old Testament:
If you read your NT, you will notice the NT quotes the OT quite often. If you pay really close attention, you will notice the NT alludes to the OT very often. You can study how the NT authors were using the OT and how it affects the interpretation. In fact, there is an entire book that does this: The New Testament Use of the Old edited by G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson––one of the most important books on my shelves.

Example: Tracing the Theme of Sonship

To conclude, I will briefly offer an example of a study in biblical theology on the theme of sonship. In the creation account, God creates all things (Gen 1:1) and he does so by the work of his Son (John 1:3). God made man. The first man, namely, Adam, who is called a “son of God” (Luke 3:38), disobeyed God and consequently he and all his sons (i.e., children) would taste death. Nevertheless, a son from Eve would restore all things (Gen 3:15). Later, Abraham is promised offspring and through him, a nation would come forth. This nation was Israel, who is considered as God’s son (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1). But like Adam, this Son, Israel, was disobedient. God thus brought judgment and punishment for those who did not believe nor call upon his name. Nevertheless, God promised that there would be a time when some would be called, “sons of the living God” (Hos 1:10).[6] Finally, at the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son to save man and thus adopt many as sons (Gal 4:4–6). Early in Mark we see the Son, Jesus, be baptized and the Father says to him, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). It is this Son who does everything his Father gives him to do (John 5), even die on a cross (Phil 2:8). Where Adam and Israel failed, the true Son prevailed and brought pleasure to his proper Father. Because of this perfect obedience, God vindicated and raised the Son from the dead (Gal 1:1) and in all of this, the Son would bring “many sons to glory” (Heb 2:10). Those who believe in him are given the right to become God’s children (John 1:12–13). Through Jesus, we have adoption as sons (Eph 1:5). Further, we now have the Spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit) and are thus united to the Son and therefore are led by the Spirit and are then sons of God (Rom 8:14). And as ones who have the Spirit of adoption as sons, we can call and cry out to God as our Father. This Spirit will cause us to obey God’s statutes (Ezek 36:27) and will conform us to the image of the Son par excellence––his proper Son who pleases Father.

This is just a brief example of tracing one theme in the Bible. There is much more to study in this vein of theology and it is breathtaking and worshipful.

[1] Note: exegesis can be done with anything, the Bible, an email, a letter etc. Exegesis aims to understand an author’s intended meaning.

[2] Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 226.

[3] Ibid., 231–233.

[4] These five ways are from, ibid., 226–227.

[5] This little section is taken from my, David Larson, blog here: (David A. Larson, “Creation and Resurrection: A Connection on the Third Day?”).

[6] Translation mine.