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Bible, Theology of

Holman Bible Dictionary

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Biblical theology is one of four primary types of theology and needs to be carefully distinguished from the other three. 1. In common usage, the single word “theology” usually denotes the study of doctrine in a systematic or orderly, organized form. It draws insight both from the Bible and from history and numerous other fields of study to give the widest possible application of the biblical principles. Systematic theology may be done in a denominational context. For instance, Baptist theology or Methodist theology is the Christian doctrines presented as Baptists or Methodists understand them. Such a doctrinal statement of belief may be strongly influenced by biblical teaching, but insight is also drawn from the history of Baptists (or Methodists, etc.). No denomination's theology is a presentation of “pure” biblical thought; its theology draws insight from its own history, and seeks to apply biblical principles to its current life setting. Systematic theology seeks to give a comprehensive statement of belief, describing all of the major points of belief in their contemporary significance.

2. Historical theology is a study of the doctrinal teachings in various ages, usually tracing the development from ancient times to the present, bringing out the distinctive and changing emphases from age to age. This discipline is closely related to church history, but it is historical study narrowly focused on theology or doctrine.

3. Philosophical theology is a statement of Christian belief which seeks to take the basic elements of the teachings of the Bible and translate them into philosophical concepts. It may also seek to use the creative powers of human reason to create a system of belief. Such a statement may be fairly closely related to biblical thought. On the other hand, such a system of belief may be entirely speculative, going far afield from biblical teachings.

4. Biblical theology is a narrowly focused field of study, as compared to these other types of theology. Usually, biblical theology does not even seek to give the doctrinal or theological teachings of the Bible as a whole. It seeks to isolate and express the theological teachings of a specific portion of Scripture, such as the theology of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament), or the theology of the prophets, or the theology of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), or the theology of John, or the theology of the Pauline writings, etc. Such study seeks to show the development of thought from early times to the close of the New Testament. As some people do biblical theology, such a study only emphasizes the diversity found in the Bible. Others find an overall unity of theological thought, but trace considerable diversity within that unity. Some will interpret the theology of the Bible in such a way that there is only unity, allowing for no development of thought, or diversity, from Genesis to Revelation. Some who seek to develop biblical theology will finally synthesize the teachings of the Bible as a whole as the end product of their study of the theology of the Bible. They choose not to leave biblical theology as a series of statements of differing beliefs found in various periods of the Bible. Such a statement should not be taken to mean that the Bible teaches exactly that point of view at every point in the Scriptures. Rather, this is a statement of the biblical teaching in its completed form, allowing for development of the various themes from the beginning to the end of the Bible.

Origen. Biblical theology, or study of the doctrinal theology of the Bible, is a relatively recent development. One might assume that biblical theology has been a basic element in Christian studies from the beginning of Christian history. Such is not the case. In ancient times, most theological thought was heavily influenced by philosophical studies. An enormous amount of attention was given to historical theology, especially the history of the teaching of the church fathers, the teaching of the church leaders in the first five centuries after Christ. Much attention has also been given to the development of doctrinal studies with regard to individual denominations or special points of view, drawing upon much more than the Bible itself for these formulations.

Biblical theology as we know it today actually began after the Reformation (1517). Prior to the Reformation, most biblical study was done primarily to bolster the teachings of the church which were developed out of several sources. Luther and Calvin placed renewed emphasis upon the Bible in the life of the church. However, while the Reformers and their followers made new and fresh use of the insights of the Bible, they did not in any sense seek to develop a theology of the Bible. They too were using the Bible selectively to undergird the doctrinal points of view that they were trying to emphasize. In the years of the Post-Reformation period (1600-1800), biblical study was tightly held in a straightjacket of doctrinal conformity to rigid statements of belief. These rigid standards of belief were originally adopted in an attempt to guarantee the preservation of the basic doctrinal teachings of the Reformers. This extreme emphasis on conformity of belief actually had a deadening effect on the life of the churches and resulted in a breakdown of the doctrinal positions they were designed to preserve.

The Enlightenment, which began after 1700, was a period in which many fields of modern learning either took shape or were greatly expanded. This period gave birth to the field of biblical theology as such. Various people began to emphasize studying the Bible apart from preconceived doctrinal standards. They wanted to study the Bible alone, with complete objectivity, letting it speak for itself. Most of these persons wanted to approach the Bible just as any other ancient document is approached, without any preconceived ideas, subjecting it to rigorous historical, literary analysis.

Many credit J. P. Gabler, German biblical scholar, with beginning the field of biblical theology. In his inaugural address in a professorship in 1787, Gabler called for a sharp distinction between dogmatic (systematic or doctrinal) theology and biblical theology. For Gabler, biblical theology must be strictly a historical study of what was believed in the various periods of biblical history, independent of any modern denominational, doctrinal, philosophical, or cultural considerations.

In general, the principles that Gabler called for were right, and he influenced the development of biblical theology for many years to come. However, it should be noted, that there is no such thing as “a study of the Bible alone with complete objectivity.” Every interpreter brings certain presuppositions to the task. These have considerable influence upon the process of interpreting the Scriptures. As a result, the field of biblical theology is a checkered field with every imaginable variation in what is held to be the theology taught by the Bible.

Biblical theology is utterly dependent upon the hermeneutics of the theologian (See Bible, Hermeneutics; Bible, History of Interpretation ). The methods employed in interpreting Scriptures are crucially important to doing biblical theology. One's biblical theology can be no better than his methods used to interpret Scriptures.

Content. What, then, is the theology of the Bible as a traditional conservative theologian views it? Biblical theology today needs to give due consideration to the real history recorded in the Bible and seek to interpret the Scriptures in the light of historical considerations, with due regard for their literary form and construction. Such theology recognizes an overall unity of the Bible. The Bible is much more than a book of miscellaneous, disconnected religious ideas that emerged over a period of nearly two thousand years. These theologians recognize a development of teaching, a progressive revelation, as God has worked with His people leading them from a point of beginning to the climax of New Testament Christianity. Many New Testament teachings are not found, or even hinted at, in the Old Testament. These New Testament advances are the completion or fulfillment of what was started in the Old Testament, not a contradiction. Later revelation does not contradict earlier revelation; the later expands, fulfills, or interprets the earlier. With the development, historical diversity, and progression, God has led to a unity of teaching. A distinct difference separates the Old Testament and the New Testament, but a fundamental unity joins the two Testaments. The Old Testament is the preparation for the New. The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old. Theological themes begun in the Old Testament are often carried to completion in the New Testament. For instance, the practice of sacrifice which began as early as Genesis 4:4 (apparently without any divine command) and became an officially commanded practice of the Old Testament under the law given through Moses, was carried through to the climactic once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.

Central Theme. One central theme runs through the Bible from first to last. God is the central character in the Bible. His work to bring redemption to humans is the central theme. The Bible is a religious book, focused narrowly upon redemption and its implications for our lives.

The Bible begins with the religious teaching that God created humans and the world in which they live. Human responsibility to God is grounded in the religious truth that humans come from God's creative hand. The first man and woman sinned in deliberate rebellion against God, breaking their fellowship with God. Their sin spread from them to all of their descendants, making sinful alienation from God the number one problem of all of us as human beings. The spread of this sin is not an automatic process but one which involves the personal, willful act of each of us so that we are all accountable for our sins. The Bible then proceeds to develop the theme of God's redemptive grace, tracing various stages of God's revelation of Himself: the call of Abraham; the establishment of the covenant with the Israelite community as His chosen people; the institution of the sacrificial system, teaching the people the proper way to approach God for forgiveness; the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the provision of forgiveness and regeneration for those dead in sin; the church as the new covenant community, the redeemed people of God on mission for Him in the world; finally, the life to come, in heaven for the redeemed, and in hell for the unregenerate.

The theme of the two covenants is crucially important to the unity of the Bible. God's plan of redemption, bringing people into a right relationship to Himself, begins with the call of Abraham and the establishment of a covenant with him. Subsequently, this covenant was reaffirmed with his son Isaac; with Isaac's son Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel; and finally the covenant was reaffirmed with the whole nation of Israel. It was an unconditional covenant on God's part but a conditional covenant from the human side: God's people must live up to the covenant responsibilities. The major portion of the Old Testament is the story of repeated failure to live up to the covenant responsibilities. The prophet Jeremiah looked forward to a new day when God would write His covenant on the hearts of the people so that it could not be broken (Jeremiah 31:31-34 ), a prophecy of the new birth referred to by Jesus in John 3:1-8 . Jesus termed His death on the cross as the sacrifice instituting the new covenant referred to by Jeremiah (Luke 22:20 ). This shows the remarkable unity of the Old and New Testaments as anticipation and fulfillment.

God. The doctrine of God begins in the Old Testament with the work of God in creation. The Old Testament has four major emphases concerning God. 1. First, and most basic, is the unity of God : one and only one God exists and rules this world. The theme was hard to establish in the minds of the people who repeatedly fell into worship of idols and pagan deities. 2. The holiness of God teaches the wholly otherness of God. God's holiness is the qualitative difference between God and all else. It is supremely important for humans to learn that God is holy and must be treated with reverence. 3. God's sovereignty is often expressed as His lordship. Since God is sovereign, He must be obeyed at all costs; all persons must give account to Him. 4. God's faithfulness . God is not fickle and changeable like the gods of the pagans. He is faithful and unchanging. The New Testament completes the doctrine of God by sharpening the focus on God as Father and the primacy of God's love.

A person is a creature of God but a very special creature. A person is made in the image of God. This means that God has created a spiritual being, made primarily to live in fellowship with God and act responsibly in maintaining God's creation. In an act of selfish rebellion the first people sinned against God. Sin corrupted human nature, leaving all people highly susceptible to sin. Except for Jesus Christ, each person who has lived since Adam and Eve has followed in their footsteps, sinning against God.

A person's need for redemption has at least five aspects: 1. guilt must be forgiven and removed; 2. people must learn responsible obedience; 3. they must learn reverence and respect for God; 4. they must learn to live by faith; 5. they must learn to live for God's purposes, not selfish whims. The whole Bible is the unfolding story of how God has met each of these needs through the salvation that unfolded finally in its completed form through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God who took on human life, living as one Person who was both God and human in a single human life on this earth. His coming was prophesied in the Old Testament as the coming of a Messiah, a Suffering Servant who would redeem His people. In the New Testament, His life unfolded as a revelation from God of what God Himself is like. He spoke the ultimate message from God, in clearer, more forceful ways than God had ever spoken by prophet or priest in other times. He died on the cross and was raised the third day as the ultimate fulfillment of the ancient sacrificial system. New Testament writers saw His death variously, not only as the ultimate sacrifice, but also the ultimate expression of God's forgiving love. They saw Jesus' death and resurrection as the way in which God conquered sin and death, and opened regeneration to mankind as God shares the power of Jesus' resurrection with those who come to Him by faith.

Following Jesus' personal ministry on the earth, He ascended to the Father in heaven to resume His rightful place at the right hand of God. In His place, the Holy Spirit of God came as the very presence of Jesus with the disciples of Jesus, dwelling in each believer. The Holy Spirit is the agent of regeneration and supplies both nurture and guidance to the Christian, equipping each believer for an effective life of service to God in the church and in the world.

Salvation . Salvation comes to the individual person upon a response of faith in receiving the free gift of God's grace. Salvation includes both the forgiveness of sin and the regeneration of the sinful human nature. Salvation issues in a new style of living under the leadership of God, with the Christian living for the purposes of God in this world. Salvation, properly understood, should include a life of spiritual growth, ever moving towards the goal of Christlike living.

The church is seen as the new covenant community, the fulfillment of the old covenant community in the Old Testament. It is not a radical break with the old covenant community but is the logical outgrowth of the people of God in the Old Testament era. It is described as the body of Christ, with Christ as the head of the body, His life flowing out into all parts of the body, as He gives direction to it and works through it in the world just as once He worked through His own physical body in the world.

The Bible points to a time of ultimate fulfillment when God shall complete what He has been doing in this world from the beginning of creation. Jesus will return to this earth, the kingdom of God will be consummated, the dead will be resurrected, and all persons will have continued existence, with the unregenerate spending eternity in hell and believers in Christ spending eternity with God in heaven.

This is the broad outline of the theology of the Bible, expressed in a very condensed, summary form. Many other doctrinal themes could be developed as the theology of the Bible. Much greater detail could be given concerning the doctrines only briefly referred to here. Notice that this sketch of biblical theology centers on the theme of God's redemption and interprets everything in the light of that theme.

J. Terry Young

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Bible, Theology of'. Holman Bible Dictionary.​dictionaries/​eng/​hbd/​b/bible-theology-of.html. 1991.