This is a throwback post (what with it being Thursday and all) to something I wrote about two years ago. I’ve updated it a bit to include some things I’ve learned as well as some new book recommendations.
What is Biblical Theology?
First of all, Biblical Theology is not a more biblical form of theology than Systematic Theology is (or other kinds of theology). Most people, if they heard the name “Biblical Theology” and “Systematic Theology” for the first time would assume that the former is more biblical than the latter. I mean, it’s got biblical in the name, right? As if it isn’t obvious, stating that something is biblical doesn’t make it so. The most biblical form of theology is the Bible. God wrote His Word the way He wanted to write it. The various forms of theology are just ways of trying to understand the Bible. Systematic Theology puts things into topical categories, while Biblical Theology tries to understand the Bible in a more chronological or historical manner. Geerhardus Vos (who many consider the father of Reformed Biblical Theology) writes, “The fact is that Biblical Theology just as much as Systematic Theology makes the material [the Bible] undergo a transformation. The sole difference is in the principle on which the transformation is conducted. In the case of Biblical theology, this is historical, in the case of Systematic Theology it is of a logical nature. Each of these two is necessary, and there is no occasion for a sense of superiority in either.” (Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, page 14) That’s why Vos suggests renaming Biblical Theology something like “History of Special Revelation.” Whatever you call it, its purpose is to trace through redemptive history and understand what God had revealed to man about Himself, about man, and about His plan to save man.
Strengths of Biblical Theology
Biblical Theology is constantly getting back to the story in which Scripture takes place. It seeks to understand Scripture as a united whole instead of as a series of disjointed and unrelated stories, acts of God, or dispensations. It starts with the assumption that Scripture’s main point is God and what He has done. It then takes each part of Scripture and asks how it—within its timeframe—helped to reveal Scripture’s main point to man. For example, in Genesis 12 Biblical Theology doesn’t just ask, “What did God say to Abraham?” It also asks how what God revealed to Abraham was an expansion of what God had already communicated and how it was expanded upon throughout all of Scripture. It makes a special point to let books like Galatians aid our interpretation of God’s promise to Abraham. Biblical Theology is thus my favorite form of theology. The story of Scripture is fantastically epic. It takes place over thousands of years, involves cosmic and local forces, and it is the ongoing story of which we find ourselves a part. It makes epic like The Lord of the Rings look small. Biblical Theology always understands and explains theology in light of that story, something that is often lost within contemporary evangelicalism.
The Disadvantages of Biblical Theology
Of course, any time we “transform the material,” there are disadvantages. Biblical Theologians who are not extremely well studied will be prone to interpret a text in light of their understanding of the history of revelation, rather than letting a text define their understanding of the history of revelation. Scripture is more important than theology; therefore the latter must be seen as an aid in understanding the former, not a rule. The other disadvantage to Biblical Theology is that it’s just so complicated. You need to study it quite thoroughly before you can really say you understand it. Reading one chapter of a Systematic Theology book, like a chapter on The Doctrine of Christ, can be extremely helpful. Reading a chapter in a Biblical Theology book, like one on God’s Revelation in the Time of Moses, without reading the chapters that come before and after is likely to be quite confusing and rather unhelpful. Speaking of books:
I’ve read about half of Geerhardus Vos’ Biblical Theology. It’s around 400 pages, though, so it might not be a good place to start. Jonathan Edwards wrote A History of the Work of Redemption, which I highly recommend. It’s also quite long, though, and rather difficult to read. For a brief overview of (reformed) Biblical Theology, I’d suggest John Murray’s Covenant of Grace. It’s extremely short and it serves as a great overview. You can read it online for free. I’ve heard good things about Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church. I heard the author speak on it and really like what he had to say. Of course, since this subject is a passion of mine, you can also expect to read about it on this blog.