What is Biblical Theology? Two Definitions

What exactly are we talking about?what is it

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.

keep-calm-and-simplify-8While 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.


My Global Missiology Article

The latest issue of Global Missiology is out and includes an article I wrote titled “Biblical Theology and Cross-Cultural Theological Education: The Epistle to the Romans as a Model.”

In this article, I argue that biblical theology is an essential tool for cross-cultural theological educators. There are many reasons for this, including the nature of Scripture itself as a cross-cultural book. In fact, the use of biblical theology to teach theology is not new – it was Paul’s method of instruction in Romans.

My article can be downloaded here (for free!).

The entire issue is available here.

I’d love to hear your feedback.

Exodus 14 as Missional Motivation

“Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” (Exodus 14:15)

crossing the sea paintingThe exodus is a central event in the Bible and has clear goal – for God to plant his covenant people in their land and to dwell with them. While the goal is central, the process of achieving the goal is important and, in many ways, directly applicable to the work of mission.

Exodus 14 is a clear example. This is the familiar story of the Israelites escape through the sea on dry ground. Perhaps the story is so familiar that we miss some of the details. I’d like to draw attention to a few of these and apply some biblical-theological thinking to mission.

1. God’s ways are not always the easiest or most pleasant. 

In verse 1, the Lord tells Moses to lead the people to turn back. Remember the context – they had only just escaped from Egypt and likely had the feeling of ‘run for your life’ within their hearts. Yet, instead of continuing to run, God calls them to turn back toward the enemy. This was an angry enemy coming with a powerful army. The situation is less than comfortable. Why does God do this?

2. God’s ways are for his glory and our good

Repeated throughout the passage is the clear statement of God’s purpose – “that I may gain glory over Pharaoh” and so that “the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.” God does all things for the glory of his name. In his grace, the achievement of glory and honor also results in the rescue of his people. While sometimes strange, God’s glorious acts are also our greatest good.

3. God’s ways are always consistent

Throughout the first 13 chapters of Exodus, there have been constant reminders that the events taking place are in keeping with God’s covenant promises to Abraham. He promises to make Abraham into a great nation and to bless the world through his family. What if Abraham’s family dies at the hands of Pharoah or in the sea? God’s promises would fail, which is impossible. Thus, the rescue of Israel is a certainty.

But, there’s more. The escape through the sea is depicted in creational terms. Notice the following:

Light and Darkness (Ex. 14:20-21)
Separation of waters (Ex. 14:21)
Dry land emerges from the sea (Ex. 14:21)
Wind – same word as Spirit (Ex. 14:21)

Of course, like the creation account, everything in this chapter takes place by the word of God.

The point of this seems to be 1) to demonstrate the consistent character of God in keeping his creational and covenant promises and 2) to remind the Israelites that their God is the God of creation. Therefore, they need not fear. He is creating his covenant people in fulfillment of his original purposes for creation. The Sinai covenant will fill out the details, but the connections with creation make clear that God is at work for his glory and the good of his people. They need only to trust him and move forward.

How might this apply to mission?world map

The work of mission will always include suffering and the temptation to quit or complain. In those times, our motivation to continue is in the character and faithfulness of God. The exodus event served as a constant reminder of identity of Israel’s God and thus as motivation for faithfulness to the task to which they were called.

Biblical theology helps us see the faithfulness of our God to rescue his people, keep his promises, and glorify his own name. The call of mission is to join him in this work, resting in his power to complete the task.

Sometimes God takes us down the less than pleasant path, but this is for his glory and our good. The question is whether we will cry out or move forward.

Mission, New Creation, and Genesis 1-2

Genesis 1-2 points beyond itself to new creation and this is important for missions.

new-creationWhile it is obvious that new creation comes into focus after the fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, there are a number of clues within the creation account that indicates new creation was the original goal. That is, there are aspects of the story that point forward to new creation as the ultimate objective.

Notice the following:

1. Beginning Implies End

First, the creation is the story of beginnings – the beginning of the world as God’s kingdom, the beginning of God’s kingdom people, and the beginning of the grand story of Scripture. Yet, beginnings by nature point beyond themselves to something yet to come. While this does not necessarily mean new creation, it is at least future-oriented, which sets the stage for later emphasis on new creation. In any case, having a beginning implies that there is a middle and end, which points forward to a goal.

2. The Impermanence of Creation

Second, it is clear that the first creation was not permanent. One of the primary ways we see this is in the possibility of corruption. After creating all things good (indeed, “very good”), God told his people that disobedience would lead to death. Thus, though very good, the first creation was not eternal since it was possible for death and corruption to enter.

3. Garden Expansion

Third, Adam and Eve were commissioned to “multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). As G.K. Beale has demonstrated, this includes the expansion of the Garden of Eden to fill the earth (see his A New Testament Biblical Theology).

expansionThe Garden was a special dwelling place for God with his people and thus is pictured like the most holy place in the tabernacle and temple. This creational most holy place was to expand, filling the earth with God’s glorious presence. Again, the point is that the Garden pointed beyond itself to a greater goal, which turns out to be new creation.

4. Sabbath Rest

Finally, the goal of creation comes into view on the seventh day – sabbath rest with God. It is well-known that the seventh day is unique in that it had no conclusion as the other six days. This establishes the sabbath as the goal – God’s unending dwelling with his people. Since the reader is very aware that this rest is yet to be achieved, the sabbath points to a future fulfillment.

What does this have to do with mission?

humanityIn short, the movement of Scripture from creation to new creation provides the goal and impetus for mission. It is not that we are able to bring about new creation through our mission efforts. Rather, the point is that in mission, we are spreading the message of King Jesus to invite people to participate in the new creation. Through faith in Jesus, people enter the kingdom of God and become covenant kingdom citizens.

Thus, the church’s mission is participation is God’s mission to fill the earth with his glory. As we proclaim Jesus as King, God is restoring his people in glory such that he is honored throughout the earth. And this is but a dim picture of new creation.

This is vastly different from “saving souls” or “getting people into heaven.” Instead, mission is about preparing people to be kingdom citizens in the new creation. This profoundly affects our evangelism and discipleship.

In addition, the hope of new creation provides the impetus for mission. We go for the honor of God’s name knowing that new creation is a future certainty. His glory will fill the earth. And, by his grace, we get to participate in this glorious work.