Biblical Theology (BT) is a relatively recent approach to hermeneutics, emerging from Exegetical Theology (ET) and Systematic Theology (ST) as a distinct discipline, largely in response to post-Reformation scholasticism which birthed the “higher criticism” of the scriptures in the 17th and 18th centuries (Mead, 2007; Vos, 2014). Its extraction and distinction from systematics necessitate sufficiently encapsulating principles and definitions for BT, as well as refined definitions of ST and perhaps other theologies, lest BT be ignored or misunderstood (Goldsworthy, 2012). This newness is also revealed in the current multiple approaches to BT and a lack of complete consensus on how BT is executed, although contemporary evangelical heavyweights like D.A. Carson may already have forged a de-facto standard for BT, if not a starting place for most students of BT with many helpful publications (Carson, 2015; Zondervan & Naselli, 2018). A four-part BT promoted by Carson has served as a robust first approach to BT, outlined in this paper. Some examples of the possible power of BT to answer theological enigmas are included.
Biblical Theology emerged from ST, but these are not the only two games in town – other helpful approaches include Natural Theology (NT), Historical Theology (HT), Dogmatic Theology (DT), and Practical Theology (PT), and perhaps Exegetical Theology (ET) as a better category into which we can fit BT as a sub-discipline. Attempts at a hierarchical or causal relationship between the theologies have been attempted, such as in Figure 1 and Figure 2, the latter of which I follow loosely in the descriptions below (Enns, 2014, p. 26; Zondervan & Naselli, 2018, p. 2323).
2.1 Natural Theology
As general revelation is in a way foundational or even pre-existent to specific revelation, so perhaps NT can be seen as informing, if not supporting revealed theologies. The roots of this theology may be credited to the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (A.D. 1224-1274), who attempted to apply Aristotelian logic to the Christian faith, emphasizing a distinction between what can be known about God through nature, vs. that which must come from a revealed source like the Bible (Aquinas, 1975 I, ch.3, n2). The use of our natural epistemological tools of tradition (the accumulated wisdom of those before us), reason, and experience is a proper start to verifying what is true about God. (Outler, 1985; Sinclair, 2011). NT may be seen as the first theology, in that before God spoke scripture, he spoke the creation into existence. As Geerhardus Vos, one of the fathers of BT wrote, “Creation …was the fist step in the production of extra-divine knowledge” (Vos, 2014, p. 4). The primary limitations of NT, however, are (1) the creation itself was corrupted by the fall of humankind, so deductions from the current state of nature may yield faulty theologies, and worse, (2) our noetic abilities (intellect) are affected by the said corruption. Hence the need for the graces of regeneration, revelation, and illumination by the Holy Spirit to avoid doctrinal errors.
Biblical Theology, in contrast to NT, is based solely on scripture, and traces the progressive biblical and historic revelation of God, mapped across the themes and narrative arcs of the scripture. The main consideration is understanding not only the immediate historical context, but the overarching progress of God’s revelation across time. Another way of saying this is that BT includes synchronic studies (within a textual unit or book) and diachronic studies (across textual groupings) (Goldsworthy, 2012, p. 39). Vos helpfully includes BT into a larger category he calls Exegetical Theology, giving a home to the many exegetical tools that do not have a strict home within the other disciplines. Incorporating BT as a sub-specialty of ET is not only helpful, it seems to create a more equal level of abstraction when compared to the other theological categories defined. Vos defines ET as consisting of four sub-disciplines, of which BT is the fourth:
(a) Content: The study of the actual content of Holy Scripture. It is possible that Vos would include Hermeneutics into this category, or consider it a better overall heading, but that is not clear in his writing.
(b) Introduction: the inquiry into the origins, authorship, time and occasion of composition, and dependence on possible sources, etc.
(c) Canonics: answering the question of how the sacred writings came to be collected into the unity of the Bible. This may find a better home in Historical Theology, but Vos includes it here.
(d) Biblical Theology: the “study of the actual self-disclosures of God in time and space”
(Vos, 2014, pp. 4–5)
2.3 Systematic Theology
Systematic Theology may be viewed as a combination of NT and ET/BT, that is, combining our natural revelation and the epistemological tools of logic, tradition, and intuition with scriptural revelation. Unlike BT, ST is not diachronic, but attempts to be comprehensive and holistic in its coverage of the knowledge of God. Again, Vos, whom I rely on for his fine contributions to the definitions of theology, has some helpful differentiators between BT and ST:
Biblical Theology just as much as Systematic Theology makes the material undergo a transformation. The sole difference is in the principle on which the transformation is conducted. In the case of Biblical Theology, it is historical, in the case of Systematic Theology, it is of a logical nature…. Biblical Theology draws a line of development. Systematic Theology draws a circle. (Vos, 2014, pp. 14, 16)
Goldsworthy echoes this same sentiment when he writes “it is the task of Biblical theology to understand the historically contextualized theology, and it is the task of dogmatics or systematic theology to understand the contemporary significance of the theology that has been thus contextualized in ancient history” (Goldsworthy, 2012, p. 48).
2.4 Historical Theology
Historical Theology may be viewed as a subset and output of ST over time – that is, it records what the Church (and others) believed about God over time. These convictions may be refined or even greatly amended over time, as in the Protestant Reformation. Rather than being a dogmatic declaration of what is to be believed, HT is a record of what has been believed in history, and how that has developed and changed.
2.5 Dogmatic Theology
DT may also be seen as a subset and output of ST, but as a distillation of what is to be believed, that is “the doctrinal formulations of the Church,” often captured in credal statements (Enns, 2014, p. 79). It may also be studied by HT however, in that creeds may change over time, even though they are intended to be a timeless formulation of doctrine.
2.6 Practical Theology
PT may also be viewed as a child of ST, and is concerned with application of scripture. It encompasses the sub-disciplines of pastoral theology, homiletics, missiology, apologetics, and Biblical world views on all subjects that have to do with human life and culture such as education, politics, economics, human development, and perhaps Church structure and practice (Ecclesiastical Theology).
There are perhaps three major approaches to BT which I call epochal, thematic and typological. Because BT is primarily concerned with the progress of salvation revealed by God across time, it makes sense that most BT is done by dividing up that time into sections, or epochs. Whether those epochs are covenantal, or based on a combination of additional defining principles such as changes in status, worship, or relationship with God, or based on a broad theological categorical breakdown such as that explained in the next section, they are all still dividing the timeline into distinct epochs.
3.1 Epochal BT
Vos, Clowney, Gentry and others are known for following a covenantal approach, but even their covenantal periods may be broken down into sub-parts by, for instance, a recapitulation or modification of a covenant to a successor (Clowney, 2013; Gentry & Wellum, 2015). For example, God modified the Adamic covenant with Noah, adding a curse for Ham while proclaiming promises upon Shem and Japheth, while also recapitulating the Adamic command to populate the earth. The Abrahamic covenant was passed down through Isaac and Jacob with added details, and Ishmael received a promise from God which deserves separate examination. God also recapitulated the Mosaic covenant to Joshua as he prepared to enter the promised land.
The question of how to cleave the timeline into epochs demands some definition – by what biblical or logical principles do we attempt this division? Goldsworthy remarks:
The criteria for delineating the epochs need to be examine as to whether they are essentially theological or more historical, and to what extent they expose the overall structure of revelation….Are there grounds for preferring one structural picture over another? (Goldsworthy, 2012, pp. 85–86)
For example, if we choose a covenantal approach, do we consider breaking the timeline at the significant changes in worship before and after the Babylonian captivity, before which worship was in the temple and after which Ezra read the law, pioneering Rabbinic Judaism? Is this a subset epoch or unimportant because no covenantal change was made? As another example, does the confusion of languages at Babel rise to the level of an epochal horizon? Even though no new covenant was declared, certainly a huge change to humanity occurred, and was in some sense this confusion was mirrored but reversed on the Day of Pentecost in the New Testament. Certainly, this Old Testament to New Testament relationship here must somehow be connected in our BT. Other major changes, such as the periods of the judges or kings might deserve their own BT analysis.
3.2 Thematic BT
To some extent the thematic approach attempts to address this by monitoring changes to specific topics across the timeline, such as the development of the Kingdom (Roberts, 2003), or the people of God (Wright, 2010), God’s presence (Duvall & Hays, 2019), or even changes demarcated by the milestones of narrative structure (Bartholomew, 2014). The change points in these individual themes mark the epochs we should be concerned with. However, Goldsworthy goes as far as to suggest that no epochal or thematic approach can adequately address all other biblical texts or their interconnectedness. Additionally, if we take a multi-themed or multi-pronged approach (Greidanus, 1999; Hafemann & House, 2007), how do we tie those often disparate themes together?
3.3 Typological BT
Goldsworthy therefore eschews those approaches for one that is purely typological, which, being focused on symbol and type in the Old Testament, is essentially Christological. His approach is broken down into three phases of typology: introduction, recapitulation, and fulfillment. First each type is introduced in scripture, often as a symbol with active spiritual applications at the time, but also exists as a type representing a future Christological fulfillment. The type, then, is a recapitulation of the symbol, or is recapitulated in a prophetic utterance, and later is fulfilled by the Messiah.
Goldsworthy suggests that this model best incorporates all of scripture, since scripture all points to Jesus, from the protoevengelion to Revelation. In addition, it also superimposes a loose epochal structure upon scripture, associating the Pentateuch and Wisdom with introduction, The Prophets with recapitulation, and the New Testament with fulfillment.
One easy to understand, if not oversimplified but robust epochal model is one adopted by many, including contemporary theologian D. A. Carson (Zondervan & Naselli, 2018, pp. 2325–2327). It outlines the historical timeline into four progressive epochs from which we may view the progress of salvation: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
In the creation narrative, we have yet to learn of the existence or need for salvation, but it may be hidden in the existence of the two trees in the garden, and it may be assumed that like the other trees, including the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of life existed with fruit for consumption, quite possibly in order to maintain a state of eternal life (cf. Genesis 3:22-24). In fact, Vos’ theology that Adam and Eve’s status was provisional, and that God wanted them to learn about good and evil by resisting it rather than participating in it, is an intriguing theology with respect to salvation and eternal life, a theme which can be traced like others across the history of salvation. Indeed, the tree of life appears again in Revelation. The need for a tree of life may already prefigure our dependence on God for not just life, but righteousness.
But in addition to this perhaps obscured theme, there is much else we can learn about God in creation, including his esteem for humankind by making him in His image (Gen 1:26), His love for humankind as seen in the beauty and pleasantness of all that he created for and bequeathed to man (Genesis 1:29-30) and His concern over Adam’s lack of a companion (Genesis 2:18). In addition, we see the power of God in his speaking all of creation into existence, and the centrality of his Word as a means of communication.
In Genesis 3, we witness the fall of humankind, the introduction of judgment and a preview of the gospel in the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15. We notice that God’s concern, love for, and desire to fellowship with humankind continues from creation, in that God approaches them after the fall even though he knows of their corrupted state. The later story and covenant with Noah may be viewed as part of this epoch, since no other steps are taken by God in redemption of humankind, though the ark and the Noahic deluge are certainly types of the future Messiah and great judgment. However, the covenant of Noah looks more like the covenant with Adam, including curses for sin that continue.
Perhaps the longest period in this epochal structure, we could mark off its beginning with the protoevangelium, but perhaps we might start with the covenant that dominates the redemption story, the promises made to Abraham, the father of our faith (Romans 4:1). The promise of redemption of all humankind can be seen in Genesis 22:18, in which God promises Abraham, “Through your descendants all nations of the earth will be blessed.” To an almost complete extent, all covenants that follow are merely recapitulations of that to Abraham’s such as to his son and grandson, or subservient to this master story. Even the Mosaic covenant is a milestone along the larger path to the promises made to Abraham. The Wisdom and Prophetic books of the Bible continue the use of symbol and type to predict the coming fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, pointing to a day, not just for redemption for Israel, but for all humankind in the Messiah.
The fulfillment of redemption began with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus claimed to be the predicted Messiah (John 4:26, 10:24-25), and after His resurrection Jesus himself told the disciples on the road to Emmaus that all the Old Testament pointed to his Messianic fulfillment (Luke 24). Verse 27 could be the central rallying cry of BT. However, while Jesus fulfilled many prophecies of the Messiah, and demonstrated many of the works of power and declaration predicted, he did not fulfill them all. Primarily, he did not establish a political rule on earth from Jerusalem. These promises, as well as the Day of Judgement, await the consummation.
Human redemption, though, was accomplished at the time of his resurrection, as well as contemporarily and experientially within each person who is regenerated. However, these works are merely begun, so paradoxically, there is now a time period where the knowledge of that past event spreads to all humanity through the Great Commission, and by the gradual transformation of the regenerated people of God through sanctification. Progress towards full redemption is completed in our future resurrection and the return of Jesus. This curious current state of partial redemption, if you will, mirrors the symbol and type of the Old Testament. The symbols used in the Old Testament such as animal sacrifices had a cleansing power in that time, but they also pointed to a future complete fulfillment in Christ. Similarly, our New Testament sacraments of baptism and communion have a current power and a future fulfillment in mind. Interestingly, by this definition of current effect and future fulfillment, marriage might also be considered a sacrament, since the future union of Christ and the Church is primarily described as a wedding (see for example Matthew 25:1-18, Ephesians 5:25, 2 Corinthians 11:2, and Revelation 21:1-11).
The remainder of the promises made to Abraham, those not yet fulfilled by God and his Messiah, await fulfillment in the Parousia. The final success of Jesus’ kingdom is prophesied in Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7), Jesus Himself describes his return in Matthew 24 and 25, and the final success is described in the apocalyptic narrative of Revelation. The grand events of His return include the judgment of all humankind and the concomitant destruction of the unrepentant, and the establishment of Jesus’ rule over the nations for eternity.
5.0 Using Biblical Theology to Solve Modern Theological Dilemmas
Biblical Theology not only shows us the gospel and the messiah in all of scripture through symbol and types, it can provide historical trajectories by which we can have more input for difficult theological conundrums.
5.1 Using Simple Typology: The Classic Example of Abraham and Isaac
Among the many possible themes or types that could be exegeted, perhaps my most favorite is the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son. The typological significance of God’s seemingly unethical and pagan request to sacrifice Abraham’s own son Isaac, the son of promise, seems counter-intuitive, if not morally objectionable. But the parallels between this story, including the sacrifice of the son of promise (cf. Genesis 22:2, John 3:16), Isaac’s carrying of wood on his back up the hill, a type of Christ carrying the cross (cf. Genesis 22:6, John 19:16-18), and the substitution of the ram (cf. Gen 22:8, 13) prefigure the crucifixion of Jesus in startling detail, almost as strikingly as Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53.
A possible dilemma here is whether or not God would ask one of us to kill our own child today. BT might suggest that (a) no one since then was asked such a thing in scripture, and that (b) Abraham is the Father of the Faith (Romans 4:1), so his example was meant specifically as a foreshadow of the entire faith, that is, in the death of God’s one and only Son. No other prophet, and therefore, no other Christian in the timeline, has been asked to do such a thing.
5.2 Using Symbol and Type: The Clerical Priesthood of High Church
A greater appeal of BT, however, is to use it as a tool to unravel modern controversial theological enigmas, or at least contribute to the disagreement over them. One modern church practice that bothers me theologically is the high church use of clerical priests, as well as altars and incense and other Old Testament symbols. I have a wonderful Anglican Christian friend who is ordained, but we do not see eye to eye on this subject. But if the proper definition of the use of symbols in the people of God is both spiritually effective now as well as predictive of a future time, I think these high church practices lack the current power. We no longer need clerical priests to offer sacrifices in our stead, and we can now pray to God directly, so the incense may be little more than fodder for asthma. True, many of the high church rituals and symbolism look forward to the final establishment of the Kingdom, but they lack the power of true sacrament in that they have no current spiritual power and affect in the life of the Christian.
Vos comes to this same conclusion with respect the Roman Catholic church, writing
“It is possible to commit the opposite error, that of perpetuating the Old Testament typical form of religion through importing it into the New Testament. This the Romish Church does on a large scale. And in doing so, instead of lifting the substance of the types to a higher plane, it simply reproduces and repeats. This is destructive of the whole typical relation” (Vos, 2014, p. 148).
A second contemporary and controversial theological conundrum to which BT could contribute some clarity is that of homosexuality. Beyond the contextual and linguistic arguments regarding the relevant passages in the New Testament, and even beyond the teleological arguments from nature, we can look at the trajectories of scripture, and use those to extrapolate what God may be doing now. One attempt at this approach is Webb and Bock’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals (2009), which argues that in some areas, the trajectories become more permissive, such as God reaching out initially only to Jews, but later to gentiles also, or with the increasing liberality of scripture with respect to slavery and women. For example, women seem to have a much more important and visible role in the ministries of both Jesus and Paul the Apostle than in the Old Testament. However, in some other areas, the trajectory seems to narrow, such as with sexuality. Both Jesus and Paul seem to shy away from polygamy, pushing for a heterosexual monogamous norm (see Matthew 19:1-10, 1 Timothy 3:2).
Biblical Theology is a powerful, if not necessary exegetical process. It provides boundaries within which we can understand more about the immediate context of a passage, book, or timeframe, and in doing so, provides the greater context of an unfolding process, that is the context of what comes before and after in that process. These trajectories have explanatory power, as do the use of symbol and type, and the fulfillment of those types in history. In addition, the power of these types in history are magnified by the fact that many of them occurred in divinely ordered historical events, not just in ceremonial and symbolic practices. That is, God was executing theology in real history. As Vos articulates, “The symbolism…does not lie in the account as a literary form, which would involve denial of the historical reality of the transactions. It is a real symbolism embodied in actual things” (Vos, 2014, p. 27). Regardless of which BT approach we take, we must admit both that our method may not incorporate all of the scriptures, but the better the model, the more it will accommodate all scripture, and in any case, we have a powerful exegetical method to add to our stable of skills.
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