What Is Biblical Theology? And Do We Need It?


Audio Transcript

For the next three days, we welcome a guest to the Ask Pastor John podcast, Dr. Don Carson. He was with us at the end of June with a valuable perspective on the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. I want to shift gears from recent events to ancient trajectories. And for the next two days I want to talk about biblical theology — one of your specialties. Let’s start with a definition. What is biblical theology, and why does it matter for us today?

The term biblical theology is used differently by different people. But as I use it, it has two or three different foci.

In one focus, you work really carefully with each biblical book or corpus by corpus. I mean something like the John corpus, John, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Revelation or the synoptic corpus (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) or the Pauline corpus or something like that. You work carefully with each particular book or corpus to make sure you understand what God is saying through that corpus at that time in history with their words, vocabulary, and so on before you ask what contributions they make to the entire canon. In other words, biblical theology is interested in the careful exegesis of individual books and corpora within the canon and their place in the progress of redemption, not because it wants to despise systematic theology or canonical theology or big picture theology, but because it insists that, if you don’t ask those kinds of questions, you can sometimes blur over distinctions that God himself has placed in Scripture and miss connections that are a bit different.

Even the most casual reader of Scripture knows that John’s vocabulary is not the same as Matthew’s. And Paul’s vocabulary is not the same as Peter’s in 1 Peter. And their emphases are a bit different and so on. They are mutually complementary. They tie together, but if you work only at the canonical or systemic level, then there tends to be a very important set of inferences about what the whole Bible teaches that is right, but sometimes at the expense of listening carefully to the particular messages of these particular biblical books. And ideally, a good preacher will not only handle the individual texts at hand, but show how this text at hand — not in every sermon, but in some sermons — is tied to the book or corpus in question. And then it is tied to the whole Christian confessional stance. Now that is one form of biblical theology. And from this form comes New Testament theology and Old Testament theology and so on.

The other form of biblical theology tracks themes that run right though the whole Bible. There are about 20 biggies, give or take, and 50–70 small ones that aren’t quite so prominent or don’t touch quite so many books. But the biggies include things like Jerusalem and temple and atonement and sacrifice and priesthood and covenant and kingdom and so on. And they really do run right through much of Scripture and tie it together. And biblical theology makes you alert to those trajectories, those lines, those ligaments that tie together the whole of canon. And it is helpful for the ordinary Bible reader to be reading Ezekiel and to know where you are on the trajectory of what the Bible says about temple to figure out where you are on the storyline. It is part of what ties narratives together.

And so even when it comes to themes like preaching Christ in all the Scriptures and Christocentric preaching, the way you get there is not by some imaginative, topical imposition of later material, but it is by following the trajectories that are actually in Scripture that trace the way through Scripture to bring you to Jesus Christ. And to understand how those themes work is usually helpful. It increases our faith. It makes us see the wisdom of God unfolding Scripture in these ways and we sometimes, as we see these themes unpacked before our eyes, bow in worship as we begin to glimpse something of the mind of God in putting these stories together when individual writers along the line themselves could not see all that they were contributing to, even if they could see the current bit where God was using their words to speak to us with infallible truth.

Yes. This is a burden you feel and it led you to edit the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, which releases next month. The major contribution the Bible makes is a focus on whole-Bible biblical theology for personal Bible reading. And the Bible closes with a wonderful collection of essays to this end. So why is a Study Bible that focuses on whole-Bible biblical theology so important for lay readers?

Well, I think it is important to see that the best Study Bibles, even when they are written from slightly different points of view, have more in common than they have in difference, in contradistinction. A good Study Bible devotes its notes to explaining difficult thoughts in the text and explaining what is going on and trying to keep the language simple and avoiding too many technicalities so that, as you read the Bible, there is enough introduction to explain when the book was written and so on. All Study Bibles do that. And there are some very good Study Bibles out there.

So there is no way I want to push this Study Bible as if it is the be-all and the end-all of Study Bibles, but it does emphasize biblical theology; that is to say, not only in the notes, but in, as you mention, 28 or 30 essays at the end. We are trying to track out how certain dominant themes run right through the whole Bible to enable readers to see where they are in the Bible at any particular point and, thus, put it all together.

Now another Study Bible might use the final pages to build a whole systematic theology and I won’t criticize that. That too needs to be done. And so they rush, as it were, immediately to creating a whole confessional stance out of the Bible. And it is good to read the Bible in such a way as to see how the various parts contribute to the big picture theology.

But on the other hand, Christians find it hard to see how you move from exegesis of particular chapters all the way to big picture theology without seeing how you get there. And the way you get there is through the tracking out of these particular emphases in biblical books and these trajectories or these typologies, these ligaments, these tendons that tie the whole Bible together until you see how the big picture is actually coming together. And that is what this NIV Study Bible is trying to do.

is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is a founding member and currently president of The Gospel Coalition.