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What is Biblical Theology?
Part One in a Three-Part Series on Theology
This is the first in a three-part series on theology, covering Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Historical Theology—including biographies. If you missed the introduction to this series, you can find that here. I hope this series will provide a starting point for those who want to dig deeper and form a robust understanding of Theology.
Tuesday 17th - Broad Brush Strokes (What is the Raven’s Writing Desk?)
Thursday 19th - Systematic Theology (The Theology Series Part 2)
Tuesday 24th - Why Should Christians Read the Quran? (1200 Years - Part 2)
Thursday 26th – Historical Theology & Biographies (The Theology Series Part 3)
Tuesday 31st – Review of John Jenkins by Hywel George
Thursday 2nd - Free eBook of The Strange Case of Dr Jeykyl and Mr Hyde - A Christian Reader’s Guide
At the tail end of last year, the world was set ablaze with the fire of football, the World Cup was upon us whether we liked it or not. Every four years I’m surprised by the people who come out of the woodwork and don the national colours to support “our boys” even though for the 3 years and 10 + 1/2 months previous they’ve shown no interest in grown men kicking a ball around a pitch. What made this even more bizarre last year is the fact that I’m in a church plant here in the UK with a large population of Americans, all of whom—it seemed—were thrilled at the prospect of celebrating the game for the first time.
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Although, of course, very few of them understood the rules…
While I’m by no means an expert—I don’t even enjoy football—I was one of the very few who could answer questions about the game. People would come with misunderstandings, bewilderment, and hushed questions about the off-side rule, and I would do my best to answer. All the while I would sit on my phone and take note of the real experts who knew the game inside-out and try to discern the wisdom in their predicted statistics, as well as their insights into prior and future games.
This process plays itself out in similar ratios throughout the church; there are those who know next to nothing, those who know about some things, and others who know why those things are so.
All of this sits under the umbrella of Systematic Theology—or Footballology. The reason I bring this up is that no matter which angle I try to come at Biblical Theology from, I get stuck thinking about all the questions I have been asked over the years about the Bible and all of the people who’ve I’ve come across who approach Bible reading with questions like:
“What is the Bible saying to me today?”
“How do I apply this to my life right now?”
“What relevance does this have in the 21st Century?”
Before they ever ask:
“What does the Bible say?”
This would be like someone hoping to become a “football expert” asking questions like, “How do the rules relate to this part of the game?” without ever asking, “Can I read the rules?”
The same is true of all sorts of documents today, this mentality is not an exclusively Christian issue. Whether it’s the Magna Carta or the Constitution, Jane Austen or Shakespeare, the Bible or the Quran, the world around us has a tendency to read historical works not through the eyes of the original audience or the author, but rather through the lens of 21st-century western thought.
How do we, as Christians, learn to treat the Bible differently?
It all comes down to this:
Scripture. Scripture. Scripture.
Whilst it’s necessary that we use outside sources to help us—and make sure we don’t go into rogue territory—these resources1 should be those which help us to understand the original intent, geo-political landscapes, languages, cultures, and otherwise foreign concepts which are not accessible to us simply by merit of owning a Bible. With that said, our first and most important resource in learning Biblical theology is not a course, a book, or this article; we need the Bible, God’s word, the Scriptures.
In the beginning…
Imagine you’re sitting across from someone who has never opened a Bible before in their life.
Where do you reckon they should begin? Genesis? The Psalms? Matthew? Why?
I think a good place to start would be 2 Timothy 3:16-17:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
This assertion that every book, chapter, verse, word, and syllable of the Bible is breathed out—or inspired—by God must be central to how we approach the Bible and Biblical theology. A few years ago I heard about a bottle that “flavoured” water without adding anything to it. Instead of sugar, or flavourings, the bottle contained a small ring with an intense smell trapped inside which was released when you drank the water. As a result, it tricked your brain into thinking you were drinking coke, for instance, even though all you were consuming was sparkling water. When we read the Bible as Christians we are not only absorbing words on a page, rather, we are trusting in the spirit that we will be breathed into and that the word of God would transform us, and that as we drink the life-giving water of the word, that the Spirit would make it sweet to us.
Reading the Bible isn’t just an academic endeavour.
When we read, we should do so with a posture of worship, and eagerness to get to know our God more intimately, to understand his words more clearly, and while the study is a part of that, if it’s the only part, we might as well forget the whole thing entirely. To study the scriptures without loving the Lord would be like me asking my wife questions in order to write an essay about her, rather than to love her. Don’t get me wrong, I could write books about Anna, probably even poems if I put my mind to it, but my primary reason for getting to know my wife isn’t anthropology, or literature, but romance.
If I sat you in front of a stranger for the first time and I asked you to get to know them, how many hours do you think it would take before you truly knew them? Two? Two-hundred? Two-thousand? Likewise, Biblical Theology isn’t something you can crack in an evening or a single sitting, in fact, even John Gill, who wrote the first comprehensive commentary on the whole Bible, did not understand it in all its majesty until after he arrived in heaven. Biblical Theology isn’t a goal, it’s part of the process of our sanctification. Whilst there are those who have rightfully and helpfully made a career out of plumbing the depths of Biblical Theology for the good of the Church and for Orthodoxy, it would be incorrect to assume that the average Christian doesn’t have an understanding of Biblical Theology, even if it’s a false understanding! We must, therefore, be careful to make sure that we build guardrails for ourselves so we don’t trespass into fields of heresy; and risk inviting others to join us there.
In the introduction to this series, I gave a simple explanation of Biblical Theology:
“What does the Bible say?” This is the heart of Biblical Theology.
— Navigating the Pilgrim's Path
While simple, when we consider the ramifications, we’re left with what is, essentially, an impossible task. Take any verse of the Bible, write it down, and ask, “What does the Bible say?” and promise not to get up from your seat until you’ve plumbed the depths of just that verse, you might never get back up again! At the other end of the spectrum—taking the Bible as a whole, one-cohesive storyline—the more you read, the more you’ll see how connected the Bible is, and the more connections you see, the more you’ll expect, and the more you’ll expect, the more you’ll…well…you get the point.
As true as it is that we cannot ever hope—in this life—to fully understand God or his word, we must remember that having received the Spirit upon receiving the gift of faith, the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was revealed to us, not by man but by God. That truth will not change no matter how much we study and cannot be taken away. Our study, whether once a day or once an hour, is not concerned with discovering something new, but with getting to know our God more dearly, glorifying him, sharing his word with the nations, and blessing the people of God.
Day and Night
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Psalm 1:1–2, ESV
These verses encapsulate perfectly what I’ve been saying in this article so far. We meditate on the Bible day and night because that’s where our joy is found, we don’t seek to walk in the way of the world, nor listen to the false gospels it preaches to us daily. We are truly blessed.
While I believe that the best way to get started on this journey or to continue on it well, is to dig daily into the word of God, I would be irresponsible not to suggest some ways that you can do so wisely, and with wise counsel alongside you2. I mentioned earlier that there are some academics, pastors, and theologians who have helpfully gone ahead of us and done the hard work of studying historical records, original languages, cultures and other religions mentioned throughout the Bible, and much more. In addition, some have traced patterns through the storyline of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation and can help us to see those patterns too. Some of these books are dense, every one of them is imperfect, and none should be placed above the Bible. With that said, here are some suggestions about where to get started.
The easiest and most cost-effective way to get started with studying the Bible is to choose a book, and then find a commentary about that specific book. While there are good commentaries which cover the whole Bible, I would suggest building a small library of specific commentaries over buying one of these larger volumes. Part of this is that each book will, hopefully, be covered in more detail, but also that you’ll have the chance to learn from a wider range of authors.
I would suggest following this simple framework for study; Context, Comparison, and Consistency.
When you first start the book, read the commentary to give you a wide-angle lens view of the broader context and culture, but this is the only time I recommend you pick up the Commentary first. After that, each day, read a section—this could be a chapter, or just a few verses—as well as the sections before and after (the Context). Think about what the verses are saying and then make notes. If this text is confusing, before you look it up in a commentary, try and think about other places in the Bible which explain this same point in more detail, or look in the margins of your Bible, which may have suggested verses elsewhere which you can read (Comparison). Once you’ve done this comparative study, then you can open the commentary (Consistency). What you’re hoping to find is:
Explanations which affirm your thinking so far
Explanations which challenge how you’ve thought about the text
Points and insights you would never have thought of
To find good and consistent commentaries on any book of the Bible, I suggest you go to the aptly named www.bestcommentaries.com and look up the book of the Bible you’re planning to study.
The New Testament Theology Series
In addition to commentaries, I would recommend the New Testament Theology series by Crossway, which is the most accessible series I’ve come across dealing with Biblical Theology, whilst still remaining robust. I’ve written about a couple of these books, but the one I suggest you begin with is the Mission of the Triune God by Patrick Schreiner.
Here’s a quote from my review of that book:
“This book is not about Acts alone, it’s about God, his plan, and the fulfilment of that plan, one which did not find its beginning and end between “In my first book, O Theophilus…” (Acts 1:1) and “Boldly and freely he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 28:31), but from and into eternity. Oh, that we would grasp that.”
With that, I’ll end this article, but please do come back next week to check out the next instalment of the series, which will be on Systematic Theology.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
Click here to catch up on the latest article in the “On Reading Well” series:
The first “outside source” most of us use is the Bibles in our hands. For most Christians throughout history and in the world today, the biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic) are inaccessible, so we use translations to provide the words of the Scripture to the masses. In addition, you may have a study Bible at home, or trusted commentaries, all of which—depending on their origin, of course—are great resources for digging into the Scriptures, and gaining deeper insight and understanding.
I have talked about Bible study in the past and will do so again soon, but this article in particular has been more about understanding what Biblical Theology is and is not meant to be a “How-to” guide.