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What is the Discipline of Biblical Theology?

By Graeme Goldsworthy


Why do we deal with Biblical Theology as a distinct discipline? It is regrettable that most theological institutions do not offer it as a separate subject.  There has been much debate in the last half of this century about the viability of such a subject.  It is often suggested that it really got going as a distinct branch of theology in 1787 when Johann Philipp Gabler at the University of Altdorf gave his inaugural lecture entitled: A discourse on the proper distinction between biblical and dogmatic theology.  But Gabler was a child of the Enlightenment and thus one of the progenitors of theological liberalism. His concern was not so much to set up a new study as to find a justification for the old study of dogmatics.  His purpose in studying the historical nature of biblical theology was so that he could discard the historical aspects and keep hold of the abstract and eternal truths that he believed were enshrined within it.  We can take comfort in the fact that Gabler did not invent biblical theology, he merely helped put the name on the map with a dubious mthodology.


1. The Bible defines the Bible

It is a matter of simple observation that underpinning the biblical message is a time-line embracing the history of God’s actions from creation to new creation.  Once we accept the Bible’s view of itself; that it is revelation from God, then we recognise that God has revealed his truth over a period of time and within the context of a particular history.  We may wish to suggest that aspect of the truth revealed are timeless, but must at the same time assert that all revelation comes within history.  It thus has a dynamic to it, a movement and a progression towards a goal of completeness.

To say that the Bible defines itself, including its inspiration and authority as the word of God, is a circular argument.  But it is not a vicious circle.  It does not bind us to futility, but leads to freedom and eternal life. We cannot hope to prove the authority of the Bible on the basis of criteria from outside of the Bible, for that would be like shining a pocket flashlight on the sun to see if it is real.[1] God’s word is the ultimate authority and only such a word can authenticate itself.


2. Biblical Theology: definition 

There is an inevitable difficulty in formulating a definition of biblical theology that will find general acceptance.  The history of the discipline and the present debates show us that there are differing opinions as to what is meant by the term.  Most seem to agree on these points:

a. biblical theology can be distinguished from systematic theology; and

b. it is in some sense descriptive of what is in the Bible.

We can define Biblical Theology only in dynamic terms because it does not look so much at the permanence of theological truth as at the process by which truth is revealed.  At its simplest it is theology as the Bible reveals it (that is, within its historical framework). 

G. Vos defines it thus: "[Biblical theology is] that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible."[2] This involves:

a. the historic progressiveness of the revelation process;

b. the embodiment of revelation as the word of God within history; and

c. the organic nature of the historic process observable in revelation.

Vos's relating of biblical theology to exegetical theology (exegesis with a view to getting at the theological content of the text) reminds us that it is one of the first fruits of exegesis of the biblical text.  It may be helpful to some to compare and contrast the nature of biblical theology with other theological disciplines.  In doing this we should not overlook the difficulty in strictly defining the parameters of each, or in assessing the relationship they bear to one another.


3. Systematic or Dogmatic Theology

Some would distinguish the two disciplines of systematic theology and dogmatics in that the former follows a logical or philosophical organization, and the latter follows a church confessional organization. For our purposes we will treat them here as one.  This is Doctrine, and doctrine is systematic because it involves the organization of biblical teachings on a logical basis. Biblical theology, on the other hand, uses mainly historical and thematic approaches.  Doctrine is dogmatic in that it is the orderly arrangement of the teachings of a particular view of Christianity.  Dogmatics involves the crystallisation of teachings as the end of the process of revelation and as what is to be believed now.  Biblical theology looks at the progressive revelation that leads to the final formulation of doctrine.  While systematic theology is derivative of biblical theology, the two continually interact.

The relationship of biblical and systematic theology is subject to ongoing debate.  Some of the early impulse for biblical theology came from dissatisfaction with sterile orthodox approach to dogmatics.  Yet early biblical theologies were often driven by dogmatics so that the categories of dogmatic theology were used for the organization of biblical theology and its concepts.

While there is broad agreement about the distinctions between biblical and systematic theology, it needs to be recognised that the relationship is not so clear-cut as some might think.  In starting to do biblical theology we have already assumed some of the assertions of systematic theology.[3]  Our presuppositions for doing biblical theology are likely to be elements of doctrine concerning revelation and the Bible. Thus, while it may be said that dogmatics is derived from biblical theology, we will use dogmatic truths as the presuppositions for doing biblical theology.


4. Historical Theology

If biblical theology is an historical discipline, how does it differ from historical theology?  The latter is usually taken to be the study of the history of Christian doctrine or, more broadly, the history of Christian ideas.  It looks at the way the Church came to formulate doctrines at different periods of history.  It is interested in key Christian theologians and thinkers, and in the struggles that so often led to the formulation of doctrines and confessions of faith.  It is thus an important dimension of Church History. Biblical and systematic theologians are concerned with the history of theology because we do not want to reinvent the wheel. Or, to put it another way, we don't do theology in a vacuum but from within a living and historical community of believers.

In one sense historical theology is a continuation of biblical theology in that it reflects on the theology of God’s people at any given time.  But note this well: the theological views of Israel at any give point in history do not necessary coincide with the theology of the Old Testament.  So too in the history of the church, the theology of the people is not necessarily, in fact never is completely, the theology of Jesus and the apostles.  The most important distinction is that historical theology looks at how people responded to the gospel revelation, and biblical theology seeks to understand revelation itself as it unfolds.


5. Practical or Pastoral Theology

In general terms we are here talking about formulations of different aspects of the way the Word of God impinges on people's lives.  Theologies of evangelism, church ministry and life, Christian education, counselling, marriage and human relationships, pastoral care etc., would all fit into this category.  If systematic theology is derivative of biblical theology, then pastoral theology is derivative of systematic theology.


One way of viewing the relationships of the various theological disciplines is represented in this diagram:


Mutual Interdependence of the Theological Disciplines 






6. Synchronic or diachronic?

Here are two technical terms often used by biblical theologians.  They refer to different methodological standpoints that affect the kind of results we get from our investigations. 

i.  Synchronic

This refers to an approach that looks at synchronous events; things that happen at a given time. We might enquire about the theology of a particular prophet, book, or corpus.  This is the “cross-cut” approach, as some refer to it, because it involves us cutting across the progressive revelation and taking a look at what is going on at any given point in time. Biblical exegesis at least begins at this level.  However we may then want to understand the text as part of the progressive revelation, and this will take us beyond the synchronic approach.

ii. Diachronic

This refers to the approach that looks at the developments or changes over time.  This is the “long-cut” approach.  It is particularly important in understanding the dynamics of biblical revelation.  We may trace a particular concept or theme through the whole process that may take us from (say) Abraham to Jesus and ultimately the consummation of the kingdom.

You may come across discussions on which approach is the more valid.  I would suggest that both are important and that neither in itself is either right or wrong.


7. Different approaches to recent biblical theology

The history of modern biblical theology shows a number of different approaches.

a. Early uses of the term were more concerned simply to give proof texts to substantiate the doctrinal statements of systematic theology.

b. Once the two Testaments became separate objects of study, particularly in Old Testament theologies we find the material organised according to doctrinal headings.

c. Some more recent biblical theologies take the material of each book (or corpus, which may include more than one book) in turn. This can lead to a lack of integration of the various corpora into the one canon of Scripture.

d. Another approach is to deal with the material thematically, and to try to show the unifying links between the various parts of the text (books or corpora).


8. The curse of fragmentation

In the development of modern biblical theology two kinds of distinction have actually become almost complete separation to the detriment of all. Biblical studies have been regarded as the domain of the exegete and not the theologian, while theology is regarded as off limits for the exegete.  No evangelical can accept this state of affairs because the two disciplines are interdependent. The more obvious separation has been aided and abetted by some evangelical theologians. Commentaries, particularly on the Old Testament, are written at the exegetical level with very little, if any, reference to the connection with the fulfilment in Christ.  This is often a result of the division of biblical theology into theology of the Old Testament and theology of the New Testament. 

Two reasons are often given for this:

a. The two Testaments are dealt with separately because no one person can adequately deal with the whole Bible.

b. It is maintained that there is no real theological unity in the Bible, so why try to hold it all together?

Whatever the practical difficulties, we need to remember that Jesus and the apostles indicated very clearly that the Old Testament is a book about Christ. Despite the difficulties in doing so, we should always strive to show the connection of the Old Testament to its fulfilment in Christ.[4] 


Further reading:


G. Goldsworthy, “‘Thus says the Lord!’ - The Dogmatic Basis of Biblical Theology”, in P.T.O’Brien and D.G.Peterson (eds), God Who is Rich in Mercy: Essays Presented to D.B.Knox (Homebush West: Lancer Press; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986).

G. Goldsworthy,  According to Plan (Leicester, Downers Grove: IVP, 1991).

G. Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). 

G. Goldsworthy, “The Ontological and Systematic Roots of Biblical Theology” Reformed Theological Review, 62/3, Dec. 2003.

G. E. Ladd, “Biblical Theology” in  International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.


G. Vos, Biblical  Theology Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948) Chapter 1.


See also relevant articles in Part One of T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner (eds), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press; Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2000). 

[1] An illustration used by Cornelius Van Til.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), p. 13.

[3]  G. Goldsworthy, "'Thus says the Lord': the Dogmatic Basis of Biblical Theology," in P. T. O'Brien and D. G. Peterson (eds), God Who is Rich in Mercy: Essays Presented to Dr. D. B. Knox  (Homebush West: Lancer; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986)., 25-40.


[4] G. Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).