What is biblical theology and how does it differ from other disciplines such as, say, systematic theology or movements like the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS)?
Biblical theology pursues the theology of the biblical writers themselves through sustained listening to the various texts of Scripture. The way we see it, biblical theology is about connections, while systematic theology is about construction. In biblical theology, we draw connections between the different voices in the canon, between earlier and later Old Testament books, between New and Old Testament books and texts, and so forth. In some cases, we see a New Testament author cite an Old Testament text which in turn cites an earlier Old Testament text. For example, Jesus’s “I am” sayings in John likely reflect Isaianic language about YHWH in Isaiah 40–66, which in turn harks back to God’s self-identification to Moses in the book of Exodus as “I am.” Since biblical theology is a historical, inductive, and descriptive discipline, we seek to understand texts on their own terms and draw intertextual connections delicately and with care while respecting biblical terminology, the original historical setting, and their place and time in the history of God’s dealings with his people. Systematic theology ideally is based on biblical theology and engages in theological construction based on a taxonomy of important biblical topics such as God, Christ, salvation, the Spirit, the church, and so on. It arranges the biblical material topically, logically, and in the contemporary context so as to show the relevance of Scripture in addressing today’s questions.
When it comes to the theological interpretation of Scripture, the key question, as we see it, is how people define “theological.” If by that we mean that we recognize God as the author of Scripture, that the Bible is revelation from God and written to reveal God, his character, and his ways, there is much common ground between biblical theology and TIS. We believe it is important to recognize, however, that TIS did not invent the theological interpretation of Scripture. Far from it; the best commentators have always asked theological questions of the text. That said, it seems that for TIS, starting with God is a broad, deductive presupposition when coming to Scripture, while in biblical theology we seek to interpret texts inductively and to draw connections between related scriptural passages in keeping with the beliefs and convictions held by the biblical writers themselves. We certainly believe that biblical scholars, with their competence in the biblical languages and exegesis, have a vital contribution to make. Therefore, we believe the best model is one of genuine partnership between the various disciplines where practitioners each bring their relevant expertise to the table and work together. Conversely, we reject any strawman arguments and approaches that pit biblical scholars against theologians or unfounded claims that a given group are the only ones who are interpreting the Bible theologically.
For those who cut their teeth in seminary on works by Kaiser, Schreiner, Thielman, Guthrie, or Marshall, how does your approach differ from theirs? How does your use of “canon” and “ethics” sections for each book play into your unique approach?
That’s a great question. I’m sure a lot of people will want to know that. First of all, several of the people you mention have only written New or Old Testament theologies, while ours is a whole-Bible biblical theology. In fact, I believe there are only a handful of current evangelical English-speaking Biblical Theologies on the market. I’m thinking here of Beale, Schreiner, Thielman, and Witherington, in particular. Interestingly, in each case one scholar, whose primary expertise, I think, is in New Testament, tackled the entire project. In our case, we each bring our respective areas of expertise to the table and engage in a genuinely collaborative project. Greg and I work together on the basis of a common methodology, which understands biblical theology as an inductive, historical, and descriptive discipline, with important ethical implications.
We are also united in our belief that canon is very important as we draw connections between various writings that together make up the biblical library of 66 books. We are united in the belief that each one of those books should have a place at the table, which is why we start out with a book-by-book approach. For each book, we discuss its major themes, ethical teachings, and canonical contribution, that is, their place in the storyline of Scripture. Then, we synthesize our findings and include discussions of, say, the ethics of the Pentateuch or major themes in the Gospels.
Our final chapter provides a grand synthesis of the entire book, where we discuss about a dozen central Old and New Testament/biblical themes such as kingdom, covenant, the cross, mission, and the love of God. Finally, we identify the love of God in Christ and God’s desire for us to reciprocate that love as being at the heart of the biblical metanarrative (though not its single center), which, we believe, is a distinctive contribution to the field of biblical theology, as to our knowledge no one has yet argued this thesis in a major Biblical Theology.
You, along with Carson, dismiss some of the totalizing trends in biblical theology. Why do you find these kinds of efforts problematic?
I assume by “totalizing trends” you are referring to the quest for a single center. Yes, we resonate with Don Carson’s skepticism that the “Holy Grail” of a single center actually exists and concur that such efforts inevitably end up being reductionistic. We also agree with Carson’s wise counsel that the measure of a biblical theology is how well it handles the diversity of Scripture. So, in our Biblical Theology, we try to strike an appropriate balance between the unity and the diversity of Scripture. We use the metaphor of a moderated family conversation, where the parents ensure that everyone has a place at the table and every voice is heard. Applied to biblical theology, we seek to moderate the canonical conversation in such a way that all biblical voices have a place at the table as we draw connections and synthesize the biblical material. As a result, we identify about a dozen Old and New Testament/biblical themes that each make an important contribution to the canon of Scripture. At the same time, we do believe God’s love for the world is at the heart of the biblical metanarrative. Jesus taught that loving God with all our heart, soul, mind sums up the entire Old Testament (Matt 22:37), while Paul wrote that the greatest of all Christian virtues is love (1 Cor 13:13), and John’s love ethic and signature verse John 3:16 are well known. That said, we’ll let our Biblical Theology speak for itself, as we discuss a large number of themes and ethical teachings in about 750 pages.
Throughout the book, you emphasize the importance of the order of the canonical books and the way that ordering shapes our understanding of the text. What’s the most significant example of where canonical ordering influences your understanding of the Bible? How do various schemas for canonical ordering affect your approach?
Let me provide a couple of examples, if I may, one from the Old Testament (courtesy of my co-author Greg Goswell) and one from the New Testament, where the position assigned to a book has an influence on how it is understood and how it functions in relation to other books. The placement of Lamentations after the prophecy of Jeremiah in the Greek Bible makes the link with Jeremiah fundamental to a proper reading of the book, and if one of the voices heard lamenting is that of Jeremiah, this leads to a rapprochement between the prophet of judgment and the people who suffered at the hands of God, for the suffering of God’s people is acknowledged and felt by the prophet who condemned them. The position of Lamentations in the Hebrew canon reflects its liturgical use as one of five festal scrolls (Megillot). This placement does not tie the book to any one historical crisis and affirms its usefulness in future crises, too.
Turning to Acts, this book is never placed next to Luke’s Gospel in any ancient manuscript or canon list, despite their common authorship and a connecting verse such as Acts 1:1. The Gospel and Acts lived separate lives in the New Testament canon, and their lack of proximity is a statement about the differing contexts in which each volume should be read. In terms of canonical relations, Acts is linked to the Gospels as a canonical block rather than to Luke in particular, and it helps to unify the witness of the New Testament by bridging the four Gospels and the letters, for it describes the mission of Paul in founding many of the churches that subsequently received letters from him.
How would you recommend a busy pastor apply the practice of biblical theology to his sermon preparation? How does a sermon shaped by sound biblical theology differ from one that isn’t?
Pastors should not merely preach expository sermons; they should preach biblical-theological sermons. Therefore, whatever book they are preaching on, they should view this book in its overall canonical framework. This means that they will seek to draw connections with other portions of Scripture that are relevant for their given book or text. For example, when preaching on the story of Joseph in Genesis 37–50, they should relate the story to God’s promise to Abraham earlier in the book and draw connections with the later biblical material. In particular, they will want to explore ways in which the story of Joseph relates to the story of Jesus. It will not be difficult to find numerous points of connectivity.
If a preacher approaches study and sermon preparation in this way, they will be personally enriched and their horizon be enlarged. They will draw their readers into the biblical metanarrative and model a holistic, canonical approach that will greatly enhance their audience’s ability to understand the message of Scripture for themselves. Such sermons will be shaped initially by a close reading of the text itself in its original historical context and, based on such a close reading, discern genuine points of connection between the spiritual and theological message of the text and people in the congregation. In our experience, people in our churches are hungry to connect with God and to have Scripture speak to them in their own life challenges and existential situation.
What do you see as the emerging trends in biblical theology that you’re most excited about? Where are some new and fruitful directions you anticipate future scholars will explore over the next 20 years? Which trends in biblical theology do you see as concerning in years to come?
It’s easy to see when you survey the burgeoning field of biblical theology that biblical theology is a vibrant discipline that has an incredible amount to offer to the church, and to the academy as well. There are several series that will continue to produce important contributions on individual themes in various books or corpora of Scripture. The 8-volume Biblical Theology of the New Testament (BTNT) series, which I edit, awaits completion with volumes on Matthew (Wilkins), Hebrews (Guthrie), and Revelation (Duvall). The Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (EBTC) series is a projected 40-volume series of which only a fraction has appeared in print to date. Other helpful series include New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT), Essential Studies in Biblical Theology (ESBT), and Short Studies in Biblical Theology (SSBT). Biblical theology is such a large field that, I say, the more the merrier!
One concern is that the term “biblical theology” is capable of multiple definitions and methods. This calls for care in defining what we’re after when engaging in biblical theology and scrupulous attention to method. Greg and I aimed to be clear in matters of definition and method. But some practice what we would consider a type of hybrid approach which seems to collapse the distinction between biblical and systematic theology. They presuppose a theological system and then pour biblical-theological content into this grid. The way we see it, however, in such approaches biblical theology is no longer purely inductive. We realize, of course, that pure induction is an impossibility, but we continue to believe that induction is what we should aim for while keeping presupposed theological systems at bay. So as you’re reading this, buyer beware: Not everything that is sold under the banner of biblical theology is necessarily proceeding on the basis of the same definition and method!
In the last section of our Biblical Theology, Greg and I consider the future of biblical theology. We don’t claim to be able to foretell what that future holds, but we do discuss what we’d like that future to be. We believe that biblical theology has a bright future and suggest things to strive for and things to avoid. Our hope is that a new generation of scholars will produce biblical theologies that are theoretically responsible, methodologically nuanced, and theologically refined. In order for that to happen, (1) a clear definition of BT and a proper distinction from ST will be essential. We also hope for (2) a greater spirit of collaboration and openness to the findings of others and, conversely, less competitiveness, as scholars in the field (3) abandon the search for a master key and instead adopt a multiplex approach.
It will be important to strive for (4) greater integration between BT and ethics, and we’ve tried to show the way in this regard in our volume, in which we have embedded an entire biblical ethics. We should continue to (5) give proper attention to the theology of each book of the Bible in conjunction with major themes, the storyline of Scripture, and canonical interconnections. We also hope for (6) greater nuance in the way we understand OT Scripture to be related to Jesus. We contend that (7) BT starts with creation, not redemption, which offers the promise of a truly global approach in which God’s love and mission receive the attention they deserve.
Our greatest hope is that (8) BT will serve the church, not just the academy, by nurturing a new generation of preachers, and thus entire congregations, with a fresh, exciting way of reading Scripture. As we conclude our volume, “Biblical theology this side of the final coming of God’s kingdom is an effort to come to terms with who God is and what he has done and is doing in his world, and to carry out his express will for his people and his world. Biblical theology shares the frailty and brevity of our present existence, and as such, requires constant revision and repair, but what will never change is God’s love for his people and the response of love it calls forth, love for him and love for all people.”
Note: This interview was conducted by Phil Thompson and was first published on the The Gospel Coalition website under the title, “How to Make Sense of the Whole Bible,” on April 21, 2023.