1. What is Meant by Biblical Theology
“Theology” is language (logos) about God (theos). We can distinguish two broad kinds of theology: Biblical Theology and Ecclesiastical Theology. Biblical Theology concerns the way God presents himself and his actions in the Bible itself, while Ecclesiastical Theology concerns how the Church has applied the content of the Bible since the close of the canon of Scripture.
Let us begin with what we are calling Ecclesiastical Theology. Ecclesiastical Theology is performed when the Church studies how the content of the Bible is applied in new ways and to new matters. We can roughly distinguish four branches of Ecclesiastical Theology, in no particular order.
First there is Historical Theology. Here we are concerned with the development of doctrine through the ages of the Church. The study of creeds and confessions is a sub-set of Historical Theology, which can be called Creedal or Confessional Theology. When doing Historical Theology, it is important to pay attention to how language is used by a given writer or preacher, or a given age of writers or preachers. For instance, the Westminster Catechisms consist very largely of definitions of terms. This is a literary style, one arising from the “terminist” branch of the “nominalistic” philosophy current at that time. An earlier Reformed catechism, the Heidelberg Catechism, is written in a different style.
Second there is Systematic Theology. We have to be careful with this discipline, because the Bible does not “contain” a system, and there is no one “system” of the true religion. If we say that the Bible contains a system, then we reduce the Bible to that system, and exclude from consideration things in the Bible that do not seem to fit our system. Our minds are not infinite or mature enough to grasp how all of the Biblical revelation fits together with all of human history and inquiry. The only “system” in the Bible is the Bible itself, all of it, exactly as it is written. God is three and one. Instead of one “system,” we should be open to various “perspectives,” to more than one “system,” by which we can rightly organize the data of theology.
No systematic theologian tries to summarize and systematize the whole Bible. We do not find chapters on hair or clothing in Systematic Theology — though these are important areas of concern in the Bible itself.
What Systematic Theology actually does is summarize and reflect upon great issues that have arisen in the history of the Church. We can divide these into Dogmatic Theology, dealing with things that must be believed, and Polemical Theology, dealing with areas of difference between groups of Christians. Of course, Systematic Theology also deals with creeds and confessions, and so Creedal or Confessional Theology is a kind of mixture of Historical and Systematic Theology.
The areas of concern to Systematic Theology have arisen progressively in the history of the Church. The early church was largely concerned with saying who God is and who Jesus Christ is, against heresies, thus giving birth to Theology Proper and Christology. The Western medieval Church was largely concerned with how God has redeemed humanity from sin and death, and thus began more intense reflection on the nature of man (Anthropology) and of salvation (Soteriology). The Protestant Reformation was concerned with how that salvation is given to sinners, and thereby raised into fuller consciousness the study of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology) and of the Church (Ecclesiology and Sacramentology). Questions about the last things and of the nature of the afterlife (Eschatology) have been debated all along, but are coming into greater prominence today.
In all of these areas, Systematic Theology translates the language and content of the Bible into a new language designed to deal with errors arising from pagan thinking. At the outset, for instance, it was necessary for the Church to define God as the creator of the universe, and not fall into the pagan notion that God is merely the highest part of some “scale of being” within the universe. One way or another, all early Church heresies are infected with this pagan notion. The Bible does not address this question directly, but provides the data and concepts that the Church translated into new language to address these questions. In contrast, Biblical Theology is concerned with how the Bible uses its own internal language to address the questions that are internal to it.
A third area of what we are calling Ecclesiastical Theology can be called Philosophical Theology, from philo (love) of sophia (wisdom). Philosophical Theology happens when men reflect, speak, and write about matters that are more broad than the concerns of Systematic Theology, that are not matters of dogma or of polemical definition, but of wisdom and reflection. We can think of Political Theology as one aspect of this, but also theological reflection on the family and marriage, on the arts, on science, and so forth.
Finally, for our purposes, a fourth form of Ecclesiastical Theology is Liturgical Theology. Liturgical Theology seeks to answer the question of how the vast amount of liturgical data in the Bible is to be applied in the liturgical life of the Church in the New Gospel Age. Liturgics, which is the actual performance of worship and liturgy, is a branch of Liturgical Theology.
Of course, all of these branches of Ecclesiastical Theology overlap and are intertwined. We cannot study one area without being partly informed about all the others.
Having looked at how the Church applies the Bible in these new ways, we are now in a better position to understand what Biblical Theology is. Biblical Theology is concerned with matters internal to the Bible itself: what the Bible says and how it says it, in its own terms. In Biblical Theology we subordinate our special Church language and categories to the inspired language and categories of the Bible itself.
Biblical Theology is often defined as the historical unfolding of God’s revelation, or of God’s revelation and of the history of his covenantal redemption and transformation of humanity and the world. In practice, Biblical Theology is usually broader than this, and also includes the study of literary structure and of Biblical themes. We shall include these in our understanding also. For our purposes, Biblical Theology includes the following large areas of concern: Covenant Theology, Literary Theology, Typology, and Ritual Theology. Again, in no particular order:
First, covenant theology. Covenant theology can be defined as the study of the form or structure of God’s relationship with humanity. In addition, it deals with God’s intra-trinitarian personal relations as they are revealed through his relations with us. Since Covenant Theology is concerned with history, it also seeks to describe how God’s covenantal relationships with humanity change in time, as God transfigures one covenant into a new one throughout the course of Biblical history. As we become familiar with covenant theology, we gain perspectives that will help us understand our history and the times in which we live. Covenant Theology is roughly equivalent to Historical Theology, with the investigation of particular covenants as roughly equivalent to the study of historical creeds and confessions.
Second, Literary Theology. We are concerned here with the shape of the text of the Bible. Since the second Person of God is the Word of God, human beings are also words of God, made in his image. Human language in its shape is related to the shape of human life. The Bible provides literary shapes that show us how we are to think and how we are to exist and move as God’s images. Thus, the shape of the Biblical text is an important area of theological concern. We can see the study of Literary Theology as roughly equivalent to Systematic Theology, in that the literary architecture of a given passage, book, group of books, or of the whole Bible provides us with a kind of “system” for the literature under consideration.
Of course, investigation of literary structure or shape involves us in detailed grammar and in textual questions, and is interwoven with such matters. But Literary Theology is concerned with larger areas of the text. Investigating the shape of the text, especially its parallel structures, provides us with much insight not only into how God has chosen to reveal himself, but also into deep structures and pervasive themes in the Bible.
Third, typology. Covenant Theology focuses on the actual events of Biblical history, on what God and man actually did. We must affirm that this history actually happened, and that it moved progressively toward the goal of the new creation in Jesus Christ and his Church. But God’s way of presenting the meaning of that history involves an abundant use of symbols and symbolic structures, symbols and structures that are transformed and renewed covenant by covenant over the course of Biblical history.
Hence, we must become familiar with the basic symbolic furniture of the world as God created it, and with how he has used and transformed that furniture covenant by covenant. We want to know, for instance, about the heavenly sea of Genesis 1:7, how that sea baptized the world in the Flood, how it found symbolic expression first in the Tabernacle laver, then in the Water Chariots and Bronze Sea of Solomon’s Temple, and then in the Temple river of Ezekiel 47. We want to understand how that heavenly sea relates to the various baptisms of the Old Creation and to the Christian baptism of the New, and to the rivers that flow from God’s throne in Revelation 22.
We must also become familiar with how these pieces of symbolic furniture are positioned in space, investigating symbolic geography (north, south, east, west, up, down) and symbolic architecture (Tabernacle, Solomon’s Temple, Ezekiel’s Temple, the New Jerusalem, etc.). Such configurations in space are world models, and they change covenant after covenant as God transforms the world.
Additionally, we must become familiar with the symbolism of human beings and of human life: ear, hand, foot, clothing, hair, clean and unclean flesh, various kinds of animals and plants, priest and king and prophet, etc.
We shall use “typology” as the term for all of this investigation. Typology presents the Biblical philosophy of history, and symbolism presents the Biblical philosophy of the world and of human life. Thus, Typology corresponds roughly to Philosophical Theology.
Finally, Ritual Theology. Rituals are acts that symbolically encode history and prophecy. Rituals are means by which we affirm what God has done for us in the past, and show our trust in what he has promised to do for us in the future. As we move through rituals, we are being taught and reminded to walk in a new way. This is not merely intellectual, for when we move through true ritual we are getting into step with God, and we are to keep moving this way as we go out into our larger life in the world. As images of God, we are also images of the Spirit, who is the Motion of God. Rituals help us get into step with the Spirit.
Biblical architecture, such as the Tabernacle, is a microcosm of the world, a small symbolic model of the cosmos. Similarly, Biblical ritual is a microchron of history, a small symbolic sequence of events that duplicates history. Understanding the Biblical nature of ritual, and its form, must inform how the Church does her Liturgical Theology.
With this introduction in mind, we now turn to particular topics of Biblical Theology.