Relationship to Systematic Theology
To help us have more clarity, it is often helpful to explain its relationship to other theological disciplines. Along these lines, Biblical Theology refers to a specific method of theological interpretation that stands in harmonious contradistinction to systematic theology.
The latter is characterized by a method of study that attempts to summarize the Bible’s entire teaching on a particular topic. It takes into consideration all of the most important and relevant texts on a given theme and seeks to harmonize them logically into a coherent system of doctrine. It answers questions such as, “What does the whole Bible teach about the love of God?” and “What is justification according to the whole of Scripture?” It is primarily categorical in nature, summarizing the traditional topics of the doctrines of revelation, Scripture, God, man, sin, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the church, and the last things. It functions thematically on a canonical level (from Genesis to Revelation).
On the other hand, Biblical Theology consists of studying the Bible on its own terms, according to the contours, structure and shape of its own progressively unfolding revelation of God and redemptive truth. It involves the study of Scripture according to its own historic process of special revelation which revolves around the unveiling of the glory of God in Christ. It is the nature of special revelation itself that guides the method of Biblical Theology. Since this revelation as it is found in Scripture takes place through word and deed as those words and deeds come to expression in real historical events which have their climax in Christ, it studies the historical context of these words and redemptive deeds and seeks to understand the inter-relatedness of their organic unity according to the main storyline of Scripture.
Both Biblical and Systematic Theology are necessary disciplines of the theological process. When done correctly, they are both faithful to the text and biblically sound. However, in the logical method of theology, Biblical Theology precedes Systematics because it deals with handling the text exegetically according to its own historical process of revelation before moving on to consider the abiding theological doctrines that can be logically deduced from the text and categorized into timeless truths that are applicable to every person in every age.
Without Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology tends to be anachronistic, imposing dogmas on the text of Scripture that can’t be properly demonstrated exegetically. But without Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology tends to be historically-oriented and lacking in theological robustness and practical application. Both are necessary, inter-dependant and complementary. It is imperative that every preacher and teacher be well-grounded in both in order to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) and be faithful to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
The Old Testament a Christian Book
Many new believers, when they begin to read the Old Testament, get bogged down and discouraged by large amounts of text that deal with past history rather than present circumstance. At first glance, it all appears to have little to do with their beloved Lord Jesus or with their practical daily lives as believers. While many understand the Old Testament to be a book about God’s past historical dealings with Israel, with primary application to the Jew, Biblical Theology helps us to recover the Old Testament as an integral part of the Christian canon –as a distinctively Christ-centered book that is useful for the Christian church and applicable to every believer (Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16).
As we interpret the history and stories of the Old Testament in the light of the great, over-arching drama of God’s redemptive plan which leads up to and culminates in Christ, we begin to understand how each individual story contributes to the unfolding of this redemptive plan. This, in turn, helps us to see how these Old Testament stories form a necessary part of the progressive revelation of God in the Gospel which shines in all its glory in the pages of the New Testament. Rather than viewing these stories as isolated and unrelated historical events whose primary usefulness consists in providing us with virtuous examples and moral maxims, Biblical Theology helps us to see how these stories shed light on the weighty truths of the Gospel, and this adds greater clarity to our understanding of the Gospel itself which, in turn, helps us to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and be transformed into His image.
It is the redemptive-historical method of interpretation that is peculiar to the process of Biblical Theology that helps us to see how the history of the Old Testament reveals Christ, leads up to Christ, consummates in Christ and primarily applies to Christ. Once we understand this, we can then bring the teaching of the Old Testament to its correct practical application in our lives since we are “in Christ” and the promises which are fulfilled in Him are applicable to us as beneficiaries because of our union with Him (2 Cor. 1:20).
It is by means of this very method of interpretation that the Apostles used the Scriptures of the Old Testament to preach Christ and to instruct gentile believers in the church regarding the great issues of salvation, ethics, and practical piety. We would do well to follow in their inspired footsteps and imitate their example in handling the text of the living oracles of God as found in the pages of the Old Testament through a Christ-centered hermeneutic of reading the written Word in the light of the incarnate Word.
Below is a recommended reading list for those who desire to become acquainted with Biblical Theology. These books represent basic summaries at an introductory level while avoiding scholarly technicalities, and are therefore useful for everybody who desires to learn more. (The only exception is Vos whose reading level is intermediate; I’ve included him here because his book is a modern classic and is therefore a must-read.)
Goldsworthy, Graeme; Gospel and Kingdom (Currently published as a part of the Goldsworthy Trilogy)
. Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments; Geerhardus Vos; page 5.
I am a worshiper of Jesus Christ, husband, father, missionary to Mexico, preacher, church planter, pastor, who loves to read ancient dead preachers, study Systematic Theology, fantasize about revival, strategize about missions, and enjoy God.