What Is Biblical Theology?

“What do you mean by ‘biblical theology’” is a great question.  It is being asked often as people hear about BILD resources and its Antioch School being based on “biblical theology.”

Simply stated, we consider biblical theology to be a study of the teaching of God’s Word that deals with it according to the manner in which we have received it.  This means that we treat Bible books as complete documents, not collections of verses or scattered descriptions of events.  We study to find the author’s intention for the biblical document and then proceed to examine its literary design in order to see what teaching is unfolded in the text, (rather than starting with predetermined categories and searching for verses or events that relate to those categories).

This is a simple and straightforward definition of biblical theology that relates naturally to Bible study and application.  However, it is not the only approach to biblical theology.  Lately, I’ve been reading several attempts to address the various definitions and approaches to biblical theology.

The Present and Future of Biblical Theology” by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Senior Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is a significant contribution to this effort.  It was published in Themelios (2012): 445-64.

Here are a few comments that help to summarize Köstenberger’s explanations and contributions, but also provide our perspective based on our definition of biblical theology:

Köstenberger presents a survey of approaches to biblical theology as if they are mutually exclusive options rather than each being legitimate perspectives on the biblical theology process:

  1. Classical Approaches emphasize the hermeneutical methodology of doing biblical theology.  It relies on the handling of the texts themselves as a controlling mechanism.  Whatever biblical theology is, it must be found and/or confirmed in the actual study of biblical books.  This is the same sort of process that is emphasized in BILD Leadership Series II courses.
  2. Central-Themes Approaches emphasize the likelihood that central themes will emerge (or have emerged) during the classical approaches to biblical theology.  It is possible that biblical theology will produce such a diverse array of content that it cannot be brought together into central themes, but the inter-textuality and actual practice of doing biblical theology has shown that indeed central themes are present.  Further, central themes should be understood as something different than common themes occurring often, but not necessarily being central.
  3. Single-Center Approaches emphasize the core that provides unity to the whole.  Perhaps it is best to think of the single-center approach as finding unity in the central themes.
  4. Story or Metanarrative Approaches emphasize the relationship of the central theme of God’s Word with the historical reality of God’s work.  It isn’t just that there is a literary metanarrative, but there is a historical metanarrative to which that literary metanarrative relates closely.  In fact, it could be argued that Scripture is a primary tool in the perpetuation of the historical metanarrative, not just its own literary metanarrative.

So, rather than treat these approaches as mutually exclusive, I would recommend the following based on a combined use of the approaches:   Biblical theology allows texts to speak for themselves (Approach 1) does so in a manner through which central themes emerge (Approach 2) around a truly central core (Approach 3) that is closely related to the historical metanarrative (Approach 4).

Conversely, once we have a sense of the historical metanarrative (Approach 4), it helps us to focus on the truly central core (Approach 3), identify inter-related central themes (Approach 2), and see the literary design of biblical books (Approach 1).  This illustrates the “tension between an inductive and a preconceived [deductive] conceptual approach” (p. 11).  Both are at work as we do biblical theology as part of an actual historical metanarrative.

A few things stood out from my perspective as I read this article:

  1. Apostolic Statements.  Very little emphasis was given to the statements by the apostles themselves as narrators of texts (or as characters in texts) regarding their literary intentions (or metanarrative intentions).  For instance, kerygmatic sermons in Acts or summary statements about Christ in the Gospels should be key indicators of biblical theology.  Further, their own statements about Scripture itself, such as 2 Tim. 3:16 would seem to be determinative of how we use Scripture (in connection with an ecclesiological metanarrative).
  2. Church.  Surprisingly little is said about God’s people and particularly the church in God’s plan.  The references to “God’s people” seem to emphasis only the continuity between Israel and the church, rather than also the discontinuity which is fundamental to the nature of the New Testament as literature written to guide churches and church leaders.  Although it makes reference to the importance of the “original cultural, historical, and ecclesial contexts,” there are no statements that would lead one to think of the New Testament as establishing tools for a church planting movement.  I would think of the New Testament’s historical context as an ecclesial context!
  3. Abstract Doctrine.  There is a strong tendency in the article toward the abstraction of theology.  For instance, Köstenberger calls us to “turn away decisively from ourselves and our time to what was found in the men through whom the church came into being [i.e. the NT writers].  Our main interest should be the thought as it was conceived by them and the truth that was valid for them” (p. 11).  So, what were they doing (these “men through whom the church came into being”)?  They were writing to establish churches, equip leaders, and sustain a church planting movement.  They never seem to be doing theology in a manner that separates truth from church life into something like modern abstract theology.  However, this article wavers on whether the best biblical theology work operates on the fourth level of its significance to the “interpreter’s larger hermeneutical proposal” (which I understand to be their real-life ministry situation).
  4. Scholars.  It seems odd that there is no mention of Kaiser, Childs, Sailhamer, and others who have contributed so much to the consideration of biblical theology.  Perhaps this is an indication of just how many scholars have addressed biblical theology and you can’t refer to everyone.  More likely, Köstenberger leans toward particular approaches to biblical theology that don’t rely on the contributions of Kaiser, Childs, Sailhamer, and others.  It is disappointing that he doesn’t help us see their contributions in light of his analysis of the present and future of biblical theology.

Biblical theology is not merely an academic exercise.  It is a practical endeavor being done by leaders of church planting movements and church networks around the world.  For them, the fulfillment of the Great Commission is at stake and they are using the Bible in a manner similar to those in the Early Church in order to be responsive, not just knowledgeable about the teaching of the Bible.  BILD’s partners truly are the present and future of biblical theology.