The Bible consists of 66 books written by about 40 divinely inspired authors over a period of 1500 years. Yet it teaches one cohesive message of God’s glory in the creation and salvation of his image-bearers. Every story of the Bible leads us to the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and one key to unlocking that truth is understanding Biblical Theology.
Childhood Old Testament Stories
Many of us grew up going to church, attending Sunday school, and learning Old Testament stories such as the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, Queen Esther and Mordecai, and many others. Most of us were captivated by them. Yet, in most cases, we did not learn how they fit into the bigger story of the Bible, how they point to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s where Biblical Theology comes in.
A Definition of Biblical Theology
The term itself can be confusing, as some may think it simply means theology based on the Bible—as opposed to unbiblical theology. If that were the case, all good theology would be biblical theology. And Biblical Theology is not a way of saying, “My theology is more biblical than yours,” either. The term biblical theology has a narrower meaning than that.
Biblical theology is a way of understanding and approaching the Bible that recognizes that even though the Bible is made up of various kinds of literature and was written over centuries by a number of human authors, it is telling one cohesive story about what God is doing in the world through Christ. Biblical Theology recognizes that the Bible has a number of central themes that span from Genesis to Revelation, each serving to communicate a coherent message about the person and work of Christ.
Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology
Some may be familiar with the term “Systematic Theology,” and may even own Wayne Grudem’s popular-level book on the subject. Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology are not in competition with one another. Rather, they are complementary disciplines.
Systematic Theology approaches the teaching of the Bible as a whole, in its final, complete entirety, and asks the question, “What does the Bible teach about X?”.
Biblical Theology, by contrast, approaches the Bible as a story and as unfolding revelation, and it does its work in tracking that developing story and revelation. Its work is not driven only by topic but also by time and chronology... It watches and examines “the big story” and its progressive plotline and pays attention to how each book of the Bible contributes to it... It notices developing concepts, patterns of thought, and symbols or imagery that begin perhaps with some suggestive significance but are later filled with deeper significance.
The illustration of gardening might help us understand this point. A theme we see in seed form in Genesis may grow into a sapling later in the Old Testament and to complete fruition centuries later with the advent of Jesus Christ.
Reading the Bible as Jesus Did
The question may arise in your mind as to how we’re supposed to discover these themes and follow their trajectory throughout redemptive history. According to Jim Hamilton, the answer lies in reading the Bible the way Jesus did. Because, during the incarnation, our Lord may not have written a single book of the New Testament himself. But he certainly did model for his disciples how to interpret Scripture, redemptive history, and the very events they were witnessing. And Jesus himself learned this, humanly speaking, from Moses and the prophets. So, when the NT authors put quill to parchment, they applied these same principles of interpretation.
Themes of Biblical Theology
- Creation/Decreation/New Creation
- Exodus/Exile/Promised Land
- Image of God/Idolatry
- Gentiles/The Nations
A. Theme of Creation, Decreation, New Creation
Genesis 1:2 tells us that the earth was formless and void. Genesis 1-2 goes on to paint a portrait of God making everything out of nothing. Genesis 3, however, introduces humanity’s rebellion and the sin that, in a certain sense, results in a decreation. And we see that pattern repeat itself and build upon itself throughout the cannon, beginning in Genesis, with the accounts of the flood, and again at the Tower of Babel, in which God does a system reboot twice following humanity’s further rebellion. We thus see cycles of creation, decreation, and recreation. The birth of Israel as a nation in some senses is another picture of creation, particularly under the era of kings David and Solomon. And its exile due to its rebellion to the covenant is, in a sense, a decreation.
New creation begins to break through most clearly at the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, where Scripture says that we who believe are made a new creation (2 Co 5:17). But that reality will not be fully realized on a cosmic level until Revelation 22 with the inauguration of the new heavens and the new earth.
B. Theme of Famine
Think about how many times famines force migrations of clans and people throughout redemptive history: Famine causes Abraham to go down to Egypt in Genesis 12. And it leads his descendants to do the same in Genesis 46. It’s also what drives Elimelech to take his family to Moab in Ruth 1.
Deuteronomy 28:23-24 helps us understand the concept of famine even more. This passage speaks of the blessings and curses for covenant faithfulness or disobedience. An element of this curse is famine. As does Psalm 107:33-34, which speaks of judgment through famine. Physical hunger and want, moreover, point to spiritual hunger and want, as we see in Amos 8:11. Thus, often in Scripture, physical realities are meant to point us to spiritual ones.
C. The Theme of Feasting
Psalm 34:8 develops the imagery of feasting. This comes across more clearly In English, which literally says, “Goutez. And see that the Lord is good.” This psalm invites its hearers to banish worldly fear, to embrace the fear of the Lord, and to feast on and take refuge in him. The same psalm, in v. 10/11, uses similar imagery to describe the Lord’s gracious provision with a contrast between the hunger of young lions.
And in Psalm 23:5, God prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies, a picture of a conquering king who sets a feast before his vassals as honoured guests in his home. Once again, a physical imagery points us to the greater reality of the overflowing cup of God’s spiritual blessing. And as new covenant believers, we enjoy this spiritual blessing in Christ, the bread of life, even as we anticipate the future spiritual feast we will share as his Bride at the Wedding Supper of the Lamb.
D. The Theme of Blessing and Curse
Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm, highlighting the way of righteousness and the joy and benefits of walking in it. Psalm 1:1-2 draw a portrait of the blessed man, and v. 6 then contrasts him with the wicked. The psalmist continues developing this contrast between the blessed and the wicked in Psalm 2 and concludes in v. 12 with an invitation to choose life over death, blessing over cursing, a kiss over wrath.
E. The Theme of Tabernacle/Temple/Dwelling
Psalms 42 and 43, much like Psalms 1 and 2, are two psalms that form one literary unit. They are psalms of lament, which contain repeated phrases and ideas, including the theme we’re considering. The author is a Levite (of the sons of Korah). And he appears to be in some sort of exile, far from God’s Temple where he served. Verse 6 tells us he is in Jordan, which is to the north of Israel.
Psalms 42 and 43 develop this theme with reference to God’s presence, his dwelling, his temple, and his tabernacle. In Psalm 42:4/5, the psalmist speaks of leading the throng in procession to the house of God with shouts of joy. One could make the connection with Palm Sunday as Christ entered Jerusalem accompanied by the shouts of the people receiving their King.
Then, in Psalm 42:5, he writes, “Why are you in despair, O my soul…” In John 12:27 Jesus quotes this verse from the LXX on Thursday night of Holy Week, as he celebrates the Passover with his disciples. And in Psalm 42:10, the psalmist writes of his adversaries taunting him while saying, “Where is your God?” We hear echoes of these twin psalms in the words of the mockers who hurled insults at Christ as he hung on the cross.
These are only a few examples of the many ways in which we can trace themes from their seed form in the Old Testament to Christ in the New Testament. May these fuel your own studies as you seek to make much of Christ in all of Scripture.
Implications of Biblical Theology
We can only love and serve Christ insofar as we know him. And we can only know him as he is revealed in his Word. If all of Scripture points to Christ, then it’s essential that we discover how to interpret his Word so as to know and love him more. Biblical theology is an interpretive key that unlocks the Scriptures for us. Or to use another metaphor, it’s like a roadmap. And just as “Every path leads to Rome”, every passage leads to Christ, if we learn how to read the map.
Learning how to interpret each story of the Bible in the light of the Great Story of Redemption, with Christ at the center, will help us disciple the children around us, whether they are our own or those of our friends. Let’s tell them the captivating stories of the Old Testament. Let’s sing them the songs based on the Psalms. But let’s also tell them about how the themes point us to the second Adam, the greater Moses, the Greater David. Let’s learn to bring these stories to life for those we disciple, young and old, so that they will see and savour Christ.
Further Reading on Biblical Theology
What Is Biblical Theology? (Geerhardus Vos)
Biblical Theology occupies a position between Exegesis and Systematic Theology in the encyclopaedia of theological disciplines. It differs from Systematic Theology, not in being more Biblical, or adhering more closely to the truths of the Scriptures, but in that its principle of organizing the Biblical material is historical rather than logical.
Whereas Systematic Theology takes the Bible as a completed whole and endeavours to exhibit its total teaching in an orderly, systematic form, Biblical Theology deals with the material from the historical standpoint, seeking to exhibit the organic growth or development of the truths of Special Revelation from the primitive pre-redemptive Special Revelation given in Eden to the close of the New Testament canon.
Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2003), v–vi.
Together with her husband Dan, Angie served the Lord in Senegal for 10 years in leadership training with Crossworld. Based in Montreal with their 2 daughters since August 2017, they continue to serve as missionaries in leadership training in the FEB/AEBEQ. Angie holds an MDiv from Moody Theological Seminary.