What follows is the 2nd part of a series on Biblical Theology.  I welcome any feedback, comments, concerns, corrections, etc.

WHAT IS BIBLICAL THEOLOGY?

This is the question that birthed this reading course, and the one which I was most excited to answer; however, I soon found that one of the reasons I could not identify the definition of Biblical Theology very easily is because very few people agree on a single definition, as D.A. Carson has bluntly put it, “biblical theology is rather difficult to define.”[1]  To answer our question then, we will first look at various ways that Biblical Theology has been defined, and then we will explore the implications of these definitions.  We will then describe what I believe is a growing consensus in definition among conservative Biblical scholars.  Let us start our study with Carson’s list of proposed definitions.

1. Biblical theology is to be identified with systematic or dogmatic theology.

2. Biblical theology is the theology of the whole Bible, descriptively and historically considered.

3. Biblical theology is the theology of various biblical corpora or strata.

4. Biblical theology is the theology of a particular theme across the Scriptures or at least across the corpora of a Testament.

5. Biblical theology is the theology that arises out of “narrative theology” or related literary-critical reading of the Bible.

6. Biblical theology is simply the results of serious study of any part or parts of the Bible.[2]

What we see when looking at such a broad range of definitions is that Biblical Theology can be defined as anything from exegesis to systematic theology.  The implications of such ambiguities are obvious.  First, if Biblical Theology can be defined as anything, discussions about it will be difficult. Second, Biblical Theology can become confused with other practices, thus making it expendable.  Third, if anything is Biblical Theology, then nothing is.  We will speak briefly below about delineating Biblical Theology from other practices, but it must be acknowledge here that if Biblical Theology is to thrive, it must be seen as its own discipline.  Fourth, depending on one’s definition of Biblical Theology, a wide variety of works can be produced.  I mention this because I would argue that one indispensable attribute of Biblical Theology is that it takes into account the entire Biblical message.  It can most definitely start with a single passage or author, but it will strive to then place that information within the widening stream of the Biblical narrative.[3]

            Despite Carson’s list, there does seem to be growing consensus among conservative scholars that Biblical theology is somewhere between the two poles of exegesis (definition 6) and Systematic Theology (definition 1), or more precisely, Biblical Theology is a combination of definitions two through five.  It has been defined as a discipline that “seeks to reconstruct the individual theologies of the writings of the Bible…That task accomplished, the next step of biblical theology is to integrate the various themes across the whole Bible,”[4] “the articulation and exposition of the structure of thought of a particular biblical writer or corpus; and…the delineation of biblical themes across all or part of the biblical corpora,”[5] the attempt “to ascertain the inner points of coherence and development within the biblical narrative and exposition.  It does its work inductively from within the Bible in an attempt to bring out the Bible’s own message,”[6] “the construction of one single theology of the entire Christian Bible…as distinct from individual theologies of Old or New Testament,”[7] “what the Bible teaches about God and his dealings with the human race,”[8] and it is “that branch of theological inquiry concerned with tracing themes through the diverse sections of the Bible (such as the wisdom writings or the epistles of Paul) and then with seeking the unifying themes that draw the Bible together.”[9]  While these definitions do have their differences, and especially their emphases, I believe that we do see several ideas emerge as normative such as commitment to the text, history and narrative, the integration of parts and the understanding of the whole.  This will become even clearer as we compare Biblical with Systematic theology and discuss how the practice of Biblical Theology is accomplished.

            Put simply, Biblical Theology seeks to understand God’s message to man.  This is the same desire of all theological disciplines, but the difference lies in how one goes about discerning God’s message for mankind.  Biblical Theology does this through investigating the defined parameters of the Biblical material.  But what makes this different from exegesis?  Questions like this has led some, like Barr, to question whether Biblical Theology is truly a discipline as it tends to find its definition, not by what it is, but by what it is not.[10]  Osborne, however, argues that Biblical Theology should not be set over-and-against other disciplines such as Exegesis, Systematic Theology, or Historical Criticism, but instead should work together with them, each playing an important role in discerning the Biblical message.[11] In response to the challenge of whether Biblical Theology can only be spoken of by what it is not, it must be said that if Biblical Theology is not one of these other disciplines, then it must be something different, i.e. a unique discipline.[12]

Excursus-Biblical and Systematic Theology

While having just argued that Biblical Theology exists as a unique discipline and does not necessarily need to be spoken of in contrast to other disciplines, it can be helpful to compare disciplines to gain a better understanding of what Biblical Theology is and is not.  One of the questions that I most wanted to answer when beginning my study was “what is the difference between Biblical and Systematic Theology?”  Two contrasting experiences produced this question in me. 

      First, while in college, I read a good portion of a Systematic Theology text.  The book was littered with Scripture references and exegetical insights.  Over and against this, my first semester in seminary, I took a class called Systematic Theology I.  In this class, the books and articles which we read rarely referenced Scripture.  In fact, the Bible was absent from classroom discussion as well.  After that semester, I had a strange feeling that either the Systematic text that I had read in college or the class that I took in seminary was misleading me for there seemed to be very little in common between their uses of God’s Word.  We will compare Biblical and Systematic theology and then draw a conclusion as to which experience was misleading.[13]  We will start with a short case study.

      Christian legend tells us that the Apostle’s Creed was created by the apostles themselves, and that each line is given by a different apostle.  It is unlikely that this is true, but what we do know is that each line of the Apostle’s Creed is taken directly from the Scriptures.  Around two hundred and fifty years after the creation of the Apostle’s Creed, another creed was formed by the Church.  It is known as the Nicene Creed.  Much like the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed attempted to communicate essential Christian doctrine; however, instead of using Biblical language only, the formulators in Nicea used extra-Biblical language.  I am sure that they would have preferred to use Bible language, but unfortunately, the Bible never set out to describe the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, so innovative ways of speaking about Biblical ideas had to be employed.  I believe that this case study is illustrative of the differences between Biblical and Systematic Theology with the Apostle’s Creed demonstrating the former, while the Nicene Creed works as an example of the latter. 

      Let us now look more in depth at the differences between these two disciplines.  I must apologize for the following lengthy quotations, but as it would be very difficult for me to put these ideas into original words, I am compelled to do so. 

 

Grant R. Osborne:

Biblical Theology studies the themes behind the individual books and traditions within the Bible…Systematic theology then contextualizes these into a logical and conceptual whole that reconstructs dogma for the modern period…whereas biblical theology is descriptive…dogmatic theology collects the material generated by biblical theology and restates or reshapes it into a modern logical pattern, integrating these aspects into a confessional statement for the church today.[14]

Similarly, D.A. Carson:

Biblical theology…seeks to uncover and articulate the unity of all the biblical texts taken together, resorting primarily to the categories of those texts themselves… (Systematic theology) seeks to articulate what the Bible says in a way that is culturally telling, culturally prophetic…What is transparently clear about all such systematic theology, however, is that its organizing principles do not encourage the exploration of the Bible’s plot-line, except incidentally.  The categories of systematic theology are logical and hierarchical, no temporal.[15]

After reflecting on the above quotes, we begin to see the differences within the disciplines emerge.  In the chart below, we will illustrate these differences.

 

Biblical Theology

Systematic Theology

Source Material

Bible

Bible

Arrangement

Temporal/Narrative/ Themes

Logical and Hierarchical

Seeks to discern

What it meant for the Biblical peoples

What it means for today

Approach to Time

Diachronic

Synchronic

Language Employed

Primarily employs Biblical language/ categories/ narrative

Can employ philosophy, logic, social sciences, and other language to express the Biblical ideas

Concern

Discerning the Biblical message

Communicating the Biblical message to contemporary society

 

      Are these descriptions perfect?  No.  It should be obvious at this point that Biblical Theology is not only interested in what the Bible meant, but is also deeply concerned with its application.  Our point is that Systematic Theology exists in partnership with Biblical Theology, helping to bring the material gathered by the Biblical Theologian to bear on modern society.  Osborne is correct when he asserts that “In actuality, any attempt to separate the tasks too greatly is artificial, for one cannot be done without the other: they are interdependent.”[16]

      Now, we must decide which experience was misleading in their presentation of Systematic Theology?  I am compelled to argue, “Neither.”  The text that I read did incorporate more Biblical material than the class I attended; however, it was clearly arranging the topics logically as opposed to temporally.  I appreciate its use of Scripture, and regret that such little use is made of the Bible by many Systematic Theologians.  Perhaps Systematic Theology itself (as well as other brands of theology) should be seen on a spectrum as illustrated below.  While the text I read would place itself further to the left of the spectrum, the class would be further to the right.

 

The Systematic Theology Spectrum

 

ß——————————————————————————à

Biblical                                                                           Philosophical

Language                                                                       Language


[1] D.A. Carson, “Current Issues in Biblical Theology: A New Testament Perspective.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995): 17.

[2] These were taken from ibid., 18-24.

[3] This is supported by Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 370.  He gives the following as requirements for doing Biblical Theology: 1. The data must reflect the individual theologies and genres of the biblical literature.  2. We must work with the final canonical form of the documents.  3. The task is two-pronged, beginning with the diverse theologies of individual biblical works…and then delineating the longitudinal themes as they emerge from the individual works and unite them with others.  4. The purpose is to trace the development of individual themes and then to discover the dynamic unity and multifaceted patterns that bind the parts together; in other words, there are two tasks: the study of individual themes and the discovery of unifying themes.  5. The final product must integrate the Testaments, noting both the diversity and the unity between them.

[4] C. Marvin Pate, et al, The Story of Israel: A Biblical Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 12.

[5] Taken from the series preface by D.A. Carson in G.K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission.  NSBT (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 9.

[6] Scott J. Hafemann, “Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect,” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Scott J. Hafemann (Downers Grove: IVP, 2002), 16.

[7] James Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 1.

[8] Brian S. Rosner, “Biblical Theology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T.D. Alexander, et al (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 3.

[9] Osborne, 349.

[10] See Barr, 5-17.

[11] Osborne, 350-356.

[12] So D.A. Carson argues, “The fact that it can be (differentiated from other disciplines) is precisely what gives it its distinctiveness, while the fact that it must be is precisely what makes it such an excellent bridge discipline.”  Taken from “Systematic theology and biblical theology,” in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T.D. Alexander et al (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 91.  I think that Barr ultimately agrees with this point; however, in being true to himself, he must ask these questions and consider their implications.  Biblical Theology will be all the more rich as it is tested and refined through expert interrogators like Barr.

[13] See D.A. Carson, “Systematic and biblical,” 89-104 and Osborne, 353-356 for two basic comparisons.  Much of what follows was influenced by these two works.

[14] Osborne, 353-355.

[15] Carson, “Systematic and biblical,” 100-102.

[16] Osborn, 355.

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