Recent publications have offered numerous definitions of biblical theology. Some emphasize historical research, while others focus on issues related to theological interpretation. The term itself gives rise to much misunderstanding as people often hear something like “theology based on the Bible” when we talk about biblical theology.
In my recent article in Global Missiology, I defined biblical theology as follows:
Biblical theology is the study of the theological message of the Bible, which proceeds from a literary sensitivity to the diverse texts of Scripture and seeks to expound the unified teaching of the Bible using the theological categories from the text itself.
This is the definition I use in my biblical theology classes. I think the definition is comprehensive without being too complicated. I have tried to cover the main features of biblical theology as I understand it:
-Theological message: a focus on the theology of the biblical message over against strict historical-critical study.
-Literary sensitivity: careful attention is given to the literary forms within the text as related to proper theological exegesis.
-Diverse texts: biblical theology avoids flattening the unique contributions of individual authors and texts.
-Unified teaching: the storyline ties together the diverse texts into a unified theology.
-Categories from the text itself: theology expressed in the themes and categories important to the biblical writers themselves.
Thus, this definition seeks to include the main features of biblical theology in one definition. Yet, I could easily see people feeling overwhelmed with this definition. I recently led a seminar on biblical theology for non-specialists serving overseas. Since the primary aim of the seminar was to help people see ways in which biblical theology could be useful in cross-cultural ministry, I felt that I needed something simpler so that people could understand the basics without needing to spend too much time explaining the definition. So, I simplified the definition down to this:
The Bible’s theological message in themes emerging from the storyline.
While simpler, this definition carries the same meaning as the longer definition, but in condensed form. It serves to highlight the aspects of biblical theology that I felt most important for people to grasp. Biblical theology is most useful in cross-cultural ministry because 1) the variety of biblical-theological themes connections in every culture and 2) the storyline of Scripture is essential for building a Christian worldview. I have summarized the biblical worldview in a single sentence in this post.
Biblical theology may not be as simple as ‘theology based on the Bible,’ but neither is it too complex to be useful.