What Is Biblical Theology and Why Does It Matter? — Part 1

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“If God’s Word is why churches gather, they need to understand it, teach it, and apply it faithfully. To that end, biblical theology is the playbook for preserving the ongoing witness of the Church.”

WILLIAM WOLFE

This is part 1 of a two-part series on the importance of biblical theology. Read part 2 of this series here.

Recently, while scrolling through Facebook, I came across some ads for satirical Christian items — things like t-shirts, signs, and coffee mugs. One mug I saw had a picture of a young man with a sling squaring off against a giant with a spear. The giant is labeled “Goliath,” as he obviously is, and the other character, obviously David, is labeled “Not You.”

While I doubt very much that a convivial coffee mug poking fun at evangelical tendencies to read themselves into biblical narratives as the hero is exactly what Graeme Goldsworthy had in mind when writing Gospel and Kingdom in 1981, but no doubt he would appreciate the point of the cartoon: Sorry, dear Christian, but you aren’t David.

But how do we know that “we aren’t David”? That’s where biblical theology comes in (the subject of Goldsworthy’s book). Understanding what biblical theology is will help us avoid such interpretive missteps and better help us interpret our Bibles in light of the entire storyline of Scripture. In particular, this means learning how to read and apply the Old Testament to ourselves as Christians today.

Goldsworthy’s book was written in many ways to answer the question, “How should Christians rightly understand and apply the Old Testament to our lives today?” So I want to particularly commend this book, as well as another one by Dr. Jim Hamilton called What is Biblical Theology: A Guide to the Bible’s Story, Symbolism, and Patterns, and use them to help you understand biblical theology better — so you can read your Bible better.

Defining Our Terms

To begin, what is “biblical theology?” Theology, as you may know, is the study of God. Of course, we want all of our theology to be biblical — that is, based on Scripture and teaching only true things about God. But in the practice of theology, there are (largely) two main divisions: 1) systematic theology, and 2) biblical theology.

One theologian has defined systematic theology as “The application of God’s Word by persons to all areas of life.” You may have heard of (or read books by) Wayne Grudem. He is a well-known systematic theologian. Systematic theology answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach us today about any given topic?”

But biblical theology is different. Biblical theology, according to Hamilton, is the “interpretative perspective reflected in the way the biblical authors have presented their understanding of earlier Scripture, redemptive history, and the events they are describing, recounting, celebrating, or addressing in narratives, poems, proverbs, letters, and apocalypses.”

Another way to put it is that “the Bible teaches Christians how the Bible should be read.” According to Goldsworthy, good biblical theology helps in “bridging the gap” between modern readers and the particular culture and era the Bible was written in, thereby enabling current readers to understand and apply it correctly. He explains that biblical theology describes the “process by which revelation unfolds and moves toward the goal, which is God’s final revelation of his purposes in Christ.”

In short, then, biblical theology is the effort to understand how the entire canon of Scripture fits together, seeking to do justice to what Scripture is and what it says about itself. Biblical theology helps us understand what is happening in the Bible and when it is happening, which provides the necessary context for applying it to our lives today.

If systematic theology answers a question like, “What does the Bible teach about abortion?”, then biblical theology helps answer a question like, “How can we understand the different covenants we see God make with people in the Bible?”

One short way to summarize the narrative of Scripture, according to Goldsworthy, is like so: The Kingdom of God is about “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule” as progressively revealed from the Garden of Eden, through Israel’s history, and finally in Jesus.

Another big way of thinking about the movement of biblical theology is through the formula of “Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation.”

It’s important to note that all of the Bible should be read in light of Christ. Goldsworthy does exactly this, zeroing in on Christ as the indispensable interpretive lens:

“The whole Bible [must] be understood in light of the gospel…Jesus Christ is the key to the interpretation of the whole Bible, and the task before us is to discern how he interprets the Bible.”

Biblical Theology and the Local Church

What then is the importance of biblical theology for the life of the local church? First and foremost, biblical theology is vital because God’s Word gives birth to God’s people, the Church. Christians are called to be “people of the book.” Who we understand ourselves to be, both in nature and purpose, is fixed and declared to us by the Bible.

When it comes to mankind’s relationship with God, and by extension all of reality, we are receivers of revelation — not revealers or inventors in and of ourselves. God gives us life through His Word, both individually in the act of conversion and corporately as the Church. As Goldsworthy puts it, “The most important concern in the study of the Bible is the revelation of God: What is God saying to us in the records of his acts?”

Without biblical theology, we would be like the proverbial blind men in the pit with an elephant, each of us feeling a different piece of the whole and proposing a different option for how to understand what we are encountering.

In the life of a church, this can run the gamut from unsound personal applications of Scripture, like the “Jesus Calling” devotionals all the way to blatant heresy from the pulpit, like the prosperity gospel. In other words, churches can either let the Bible reveal God to man on God’s terms or they can reconstruct an understanding of God on their own terms, but that God will never be the true God of the Bible.

Biblical theology is important for the life of a local church because a local church should be centered around God’s Word as the purpose for its gathering. If the main thing a church is “doing” is giving God’s Word to its members, through preaching on Sunday, weekly Bible studies, etc., then understanding God and His purposes rightly is imperative.

To put this in another context, professional football teams exist to be excellent at the sport of football, but to do this they must devote themselves to knowing a playbook expertly engineered with the specific intent to win football games. If when they came together to practice, each coach, instead of studying the playbook, shared his personal subjective opinion or the latest stroke of untested inspiration with the players, or even began to use a baseball instead of a football, they would soon stop winning games and ultimately cease to even be a football team.

The same is true for a church. A church that forsakes a biblical understanding of the character of God, the sinfulness of man, the person and work of Christ, and a clear understanding of the Gospel, instead focusing on personal opinions or pragmatic church growth fads, will quickly fail to perform its primary task and ultimately cease to be a true church.

If God’s Word is why churches gather, they need to understand it, teach it, and apply it faithfully. To that end, biblical theology is the playbook for preserving the ongoing witness of the Church.


To learn how biblical theology helps in the life of a Christian and helps guard the Gospel, read part 2 of this series.


Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe

Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.