Biblical theology is the study of the doctrines of the Bible, arranged according to their chronology and historical background. In contrast to systematic theology, which categorizes doctrine according to specific topics, biblical theology shows the unfolding of God’s revelation as it progressed through history.
Biblical theology may seek to isolate and express the theological teachings of a specific portion of Scripture, such as the theology of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) or the theology contained within John’s writings, etc. Or it may focus on a particular period of time, such as the theology of the unified kingdom years. Another branch of biblical theology may study a particular motif or theme in the Bible: a study of “the remnant,” for example, might search out how that motif is introduced and developed throughout Scripture.
Although most speak of biblical theology as a particular method or emphasis within biblical studies, some scholars have also used the term in reference to its distinctive content. In this understanding, biblical theology is limited to a collation and restatement of biblical data, without the logical analysis and dialectical correlation between texts that systematic theology emphasizes.
Although the distinction existed prior, the beginning of biblical theology as a significant and separate discipline can be traced to J. P. Gabler’s 1787 address upon his inauguration as professor at the University of Altdorf, when he used the term and called for a separate discipline apart from the dogmatic emphasis of the confessions.
Some scholars focus on the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and falls in the field of Old Testament theology. The field started out as a Christian endeavor written mostly by men and aimed to provide an objective knowledge of early revelation, working as much as possible only with these biblical texts and their historical contexts, in the twentieth century it became informed by other voices and views, including those of feminist and Jewish scholars, which provided new insights and showed ways that the early work was bound by the perspectives of their authors. Key scholars have included Walther Eichrodt, Gerhard von Rad, Phyllis Trible, and Jon Levenson.
Others focus on the New Testament; the field of New Testament theology likewise seeks understanding from within the bounds of these documents and their historical contexts. Key scholars have included Rudolf Bultmann, Hendrikus Boers, and N. T. Wright.
In evangelicalism biblical theology is a discipline of theology which emphasises the progressive nature of biblical revelation. Graeme Goldsworthy explains the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology as follows:
Biblical theology, as defined here, is dynamic not static. That is, it follows the movement and process of God’s revelation in the Bible. It is closely related to systematic theology (the two are dependent upon one another), but there is a difference in emphasis. Biblical theology is not concerned to state the final doctrines which go to make up the content of Christian belief, but rather to describe the process by which revelation unfolds and moves toward the goal which is God’s final revelation of his purposes in Jesus Christ. Biblical theology seeks to understand the relationships between the various eras in God’s revealing activity recorded in the Bible. The systematic theologian is mainly interested in the finished article – the statement of Christian doctrine. The biblical theologian on the other hand is concerned rather with the progressive unfolding of truth. It is on the basis of biblical theology that the systematic theologian draws upon the pre-Pentecost texts of the Bible as part of the material from which Christian doctrine may be formulated.
The work of Gregory Beale, Kevin Vanhoozer, Geerhardus Vos (Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments), Herman Nicolaas Ridderbos (The Coming of the Kingdom), Meredith Kline (Kingdom Prologue), Graeme Goldsworthy (According to Plan, Gospel and Kingdom), Vaughan Roberts (God’s Big Picture), James Hamilton (God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment), and Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum (Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants) have helped popularize this approach to the Bible. Especially important for bringing this field of study into the confessional tradition was Old Princeton theologian, Geerhardus Vos (Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments). They summarize the message of the Bible as being about “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing” (in Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom, Paternoster, 1981).
Biblical theology movement (1940s–1960s)
The biblical theology movement was an approach to Protestant biblical studies that was popular in the United States, particularly among Presbyterians, between the 1940s and early 1960s. Heavily influenced by neo-orthodoxy, the movement sought to escape the polarization of liberal theology and Christian fundamentalism. Important themes included: “1) The Bible as a theological resource; 2) The unity of the Bible; 3) The revelation of God in history; 4) The Bible’s distinctly Hebraic mentality; and 5) The uniqueness of biblical revelation.” Scholars included G. Ernest Wright, Floyd V. Filson, Otto Piper and James D. Smart.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia