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Theology: The Goal of Interpretation

Getting Our Theology from the Bible

Biblical theology seeks to discern meaning from the biblical authors themselves. This task is often called the “historical task” because the meaning given by the biblical author is thoroughly embedded in a history. Moreover, in Invitation to Biblical Interpretation we say that the task of biblical theology is “to study Scripture on its own terms, that is, pay special attention, not merely to the concepts addressed in Scripture, but to the very words, vocabulary, and terminology used by the biblical writers themselves”  698).

The modern expression of biblical theology began with J. P. Gabler’s inaugural address at the University of Altdorf, Germany, in 1787. It was called “An Oration on the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each.” Gabler’s key contribution to the field was the strong distinction between biblical and systematic (or “dogmatic”) theology. Years later, F. C. Baur and the Tübingen School advanced the historical-critical method to such a degree that the study of Scripture became almost entirely historical and much less theological. Scholars such as Brevard Childs and Hans Frei swung the pendulum in the opposite direction, focusing on the literary features of the canon to the detriment of history. Currently, we cannot say that biblical theology is a unified movement, but there are certain schools of biblical theology that are flourishing to this day. Biblical theology represents a vibrant part of evangelical biblical scholarship today and provides tremendous resources for the church.

There are four various schools of New Testament theology that deserve further comment. The first is the systematic/biblical approach. This approach takes topical headings such as “The Christian Life” or “The Future” and examines these topics from a biblical-theological lens. Donald Guthrie’s work serves as an example to this method. George Eldon Ladd and Leon Morris represent the second approach, which studies the New Testament from a book-by-bookapproach. Third, the New Studies in Biblical Theology Series edited by D. A. Carson seeks to “take up a given theme and explore its development throughout Scripture in chronological order and on its own terms” (702). Finally, G. B. Caird represents an integrative or “symphonic” approach that showcases how the various New Testament authors provide diverse voices that make up a unified canon.

There is one more aspect of biblical theology that deserves special mention: the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Readers should seek to discern if an Old Testament quotation or string of quotations serves as the structure or foundation for an entire argument (i.e. Galatians 2–3). There are also many other ways in which the Old Testament is used in the New Testament: prediction-fulfillment, typology, allegory, analogy, and illustration. Finally, New Testament authors will interact with the Old Testament in various ways: direct quotation, allusion, or echo. While interpretation in this important field of biblical theology is not an exact science, readers will benefit greatly from thinking through each of these interpretive issues.

An Interview on Biblical Interpretation

In conjunction with our new course on biblical interpretation at The Gospel Coalition, I was interviewed by Fred Zaspel at Books at a Glance. In Part 6, we discuss theology—the goal of biblical interpretation. You can listen below:

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