Biblical theology is notoriously difficult to define. As one clever theologian has quipped, “ … everyone does that which is right in his or her own eyes and calls it biblical theology.”1 One reason for the confusion: a slim monograph on the theme of social justice in the book of Amos, and a massive overview of the entire Bible could both properly be called biblical theology.
How could such a diverse array of resources be a part of the same discipline?
One biblical encyclopedia manages to bring these seemingly disparate aspects of the discipline together in a single, concise definition. According to the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, biblical theology is:
. . . the branch of theological inquiry devoted to identifying distinctive themes in various sections of the Bible (e.g., the OT or the writings of the apostle Paul), tracing them from one section to another, and discovering any overall unifying theme that draws the whole Bible together.
Suffice it to say, biblical theology is an important discipline for understanding both the high-level narrative of Scripture and the development of key themes across the canon (or in individual passages, books, or a single author’s body of work.)
Appreciating the overarching narrative of Scripture and the development of themes across the Bible can significantly impact the way you study God’s Word. Here are just three ways.
Biblical theology helps you see the Bible as a whole
No one—well, probably no one—settles in and attempts to read the entire Bible in a single sitting. It’s just impractical. Cover to cover it would take the average adult 52 hours of non-stop reading to complete. Sensible devotionals and reading plans segment the Bible into more digestible pieces.
But this fragmentation can lead to a schizophrenic theology if one is not studying in light of unifying themes—themes within a particular writer’s corpus, themes within a book, sets of similar books, each testament, and the Bible as whole. Biblical theology’s focus on themes helps you as a student of the Word get a holistic, cohesive picture of the Bible to develop a holistic, cohesive theology.
Biblical theology leads to worship
When you study the Bible, it doesn’t take long to notice the progressive nature of revelation; over time, God revealed more and more about himself to his people. Each biblical author is writing from his perspective in that continuum of revelation. That means some biblical writers are writing with more information than others.
One could point to those differences and try to build a case for a lack of biblical unity—many have. But the biblical theologian identifies the essential unity of Scripture, reading each passage through the lens of redemptive history, kingdom, covenant, or other unifying themes.
When you see the Bible through that lens, you begin to identify how seemingly disparate messages are intimately connected. And when considering how the eternal God chose to reveal himself in different ways, at different times, to different writers, to serve different purposes, all as part of his singular plan to reconcile humanity to himself—you cannot help but stand in wonder.
Biblical theology points to an overarching metanarrative
Every culture, every belief system, every worldview—even atheism!—has at its heart a metanarrative or story that infuses reality with meaning. And for centuries, the story of Western culture was one of a people in relation to the God of the Bible—a story of covenant, redemption, and hope. But with postmodernity came the emphasis on self-defined truth, subjectivity, and the wholesale rejection of metanarratives—at least theoretically.
There’s no longer a single story uniting all of Western culture. In fact, there’s no story at all; subjective truth requires each person to make sense of his or her own reality, to self-infuse meaning into the time between birth and death. It’s a hopeless narrative, a non-story that has superseded the story of God.
But humans crave story, a metanarrative that gives life meaning and purpose beyond our own limited experience of reality. Now more than ever, the world needs the beautiful, incredible story of God’s redemptive love and hope. Biblical theology is, in part, the pursuit of that narrative, the careful unveiling of how each passage of Scripture contributes to that story. Biblical theology can open our eyes to the Story of the Bible, and prime us to share that narrative with others.
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- D. A. Carson, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 91.