The Bible’s storyline in the life of the church
Members of the Southern Seminary faculty are at the forefront of contemporary discussions of biblical theology, both within academia and the local church. Since 2010, faculty members have published three works of full-Bible biblical theology, and at least three more books within the discipline. In what follows, those members, each of whom publish, teach and supervise in the area of biblical theology, answer questions about the storyline of the Bible and how that story connects and affects the life of the church.
What unique emphases or conclusions about the biblical storyline grow out of your approach to biblical theology?
Thomas R. Schreiner: One feature of my book [The King in His Beauty] is the emphasis on both the human and divine author. The goal is to read the message of the Old Testament in its historical context. For instance, what are the distinct contributions of Leviticus, Lamentations and Luke? At the same time, I try to read the Old Testament as the New Testament authors read it. The historical voice of the biblical writer is attended to and respected, but at the same time the canonical voice of the divine author is also heeded. I don’t limit myself to what Leviticus means within the ambit of the Pentateuch, but also ask what it means in light of the revelation that has come in Jesus Christ. Such an attempt does not nullify the historical meaning of the book. In fact, I spend most of my time on the former, while also considering the contribution the book makes now that the Christ has come.
James M. Hamilton Jr.: I contend that the center of biblical theology, the big idea shared by every single biblical author, the dominant reality in their lives and writings, is that everything exists to display God’s glory, to show his goodness, and that goodness is most clearly seen in God’s just judgments that bring into sharp relief the beauty of his mercy.
I think we get to this conclusion by seeking to understand the biblical authors themselves. The goal is to understand their interpretive perspective, and the glory of God in salvation through judgment is the centerpiece of that perspective.
Stephen J. Wellum, speaking for Peter Gentry as well: It is best to view the discipline of biblical theology as a hermeneutical discipline which allows us rightly to interpret and apply God’s Word on its own terms. Scripture, as a Word-Act revelation, is God’s own interpretation of his mighty actions through human authors, and it is crucial to interpret Scripture in such a way that we do justice to the parts in light of the whole canon and discern God’s own terms for unfolding his redemptive plan centered in Jesus Christ.
It is my conviction that the backbone of the entire metanarrative of Scripture is the unfolding biblical covenants culminating in the coming of Christ and the new covenant era. What this entails for biblical theology is that in order to be truly biblical, we cannot “think God’s thoughts after him” unless we carefully unpack the storyline of Scripture by unpacking the biblical covenants starting with creation and Adam, and seeing how all of God’s purposes are centered in Christ as our new covenant head.
How does biblical theology help the church understand the Old Testament and its role in the canon of Scripture?
Duane Garrett: Biblical theology, if properly executed, forces the Bible reader to grasp two realities when wrestling with an Old Testament text. First, one must determine what that text meant to its original audience or first readers in the context of Israelite history. If we have an interpretation of a text that radically differs from how they would have understood it, something is wrong.
Second, one must determine how the text relates to the broader areas of theology and, where appropriate, to a New Testament fulfillment. This means that one must show continuity and fulfillment between how an Old Testament text is used in its original setting and how it is used in the New Testament. Furthermore, by giving the reader a kind of mental framework, a broad conceptual understanding of how the Bible works, biblical theology enables integration of the Old and New Testament.
How does biblical theology shape specific, individual doctrines?
Brian J. Vickers: Biblical theology shapes doctrine(s) by exploring how a particular doctrine arises and develops across the whole canon of Scripture. For instance, Genesis 15:6 says that “Abraham believed God and it (his faith in God and his promise) was counted to him for righteousness.” That’s the first time the word “believe” is used explicitly in the Bible, and it’s coupled with the word “righteousness.” Righteousness refers, on one level, to what God requires of his people, but God counts Abraham to be righteous by faith, not by doing acts of righteousness. As one reads further in the canon, the relationship between believing and righteousness progresses and develops and then, the New Testament writers, building on the Old Testament, show that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and that it is only by believing in him that people are declared to be righteous before God — that is, justified.
By exploring how both ideas are understood across the canon, biblical theology gives us a fuller understanding of how justification arises organically in the Bible, and so gives us a comprehensive basis for formulating and stating the doctrine.
Why is biblical theology valuable for the church?
Schreiner: If Christians don’t understand the already-but-not-yet, then we won’t and can’t understand the Scriptures. For example, when the kingdom comes in Jesus’ ministry, the dead are raised, demons are cast out and the sick are healed. Satan’s kingdom is overthrown. The Gospel writers clarify that victory over sin and Satan is due to Christ’s death and resurrection. But what does this mean for us today if the kingdom has come? After all, sickness is rampant, death seems to reign over all and Satan is alive and well on the planet earth. The answer is the already-but-not-yet. The kingdom has come in Jesus, and, among other things, the gift of the Spirit demonstrates that the kingdom has come. And yet there is an eschatological proviso. Christ is risen, but we await the day of our resurrection, the final day when disease, demons and death are no more.
The already-not-yet teaches us that we won’t obtain complete and final victory over sin during this life. Perfection won’t be ours until the day of resurrection, and so we are called upon during this present evil age to fight against sin, to wage war against it, realizing at the same time that we won’t be entirely free from it. The already warns us against passivity; the not yet reminds us that we are not all that we want to be or will be.
Hamilton: Biblical theology is valuable for the church because the prophets learned to interpret earlier Scripture from Moses, then (on the human level) Jesus learned to interpret the Old Testament from Moses and the prophets, and then Jesus in turn taught his disciples to interpret the Old Testament the way that Moses, the prophets and he himself understood it. In their writings to the church, the authors of the New Testament are inspired by the Spirit of God to teach the church how to understand Scripture and life the same way that Moses, the prophets and Jesus understood Scripture and life. This is their interpretive perspective. This is what the biblical theologian (i.e., Christian) seeks to understand and embrace.
Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). The church needs biblical theology to understand the Bible, to be sanctified in the truth.
Wellum and Gentry: Given that biblical theology is a hermeneutical discipline which seeks to understand rightly the whole counsel of God, it is essential for the life and health of the church. If we are going to fulfill the commands of our Lord to take the gospel to the nations and to disciple people to obey all that our Lord has commanded, if we are going to apply all of Scripture to our lives so that we are thoroughly equipped for every good work, if we are going to help people know sound doctrine and keep them from being tossed back and forth with every wind of doctrine, then we must know how to read and apply the entire canon of Scripture rightly.
To be sure, biblical theology is not an end in itself; it is a means to the larger end of knowing the Triune God and his Word, and rightly discerning how to put it together in our theological thinking and daily lives. Faithfulness to our Lord and Savior requires living under and in light of God’s most holy Word, and biblical theology is necessary in order to achieve this end.
How can pastors effectively use biblical theology in their ministries?
Vickers: Because pastoral ministry is essentially the ministry of God’s Word in all sorts of circumstances and contexts, biblical theology is an essential tool for carrying out the work of ministry. Take the example of preaching — as the pastor goes about his weekly work of sermon preparation, biblical theology can help him keep an eye on the whole canon while working in the details of a particular text. It also frees him up to preach each text on its own terms, rather than feeling the responsibility of giving a full theological presentation of any and every doctrine connected to his text. Informed by biblical theology, the pastor is aware of what the rest of Scripture says about the issues he is dealing with in a single text, and that helps him hear the particular voice of his text. It also serves as a guide to connecting a text to the larger framework of Scripture, as he works through the textual, covenantal and canonical contexts of each text.
Garrett: The value of biblical theology, in Old Testament studies, is that it draws the preacher or Bible teacher to make real connections between the Old Testament and the Christian life. For example, Leviticus 11 gives the kosher dietary rules for Israel. What are we to make of this? We might give the rules a facile, moralizing interpretation, such as, “The Israelites avoided eating pork, and we should avoid sin.” We might create a fanciful allegory from the kosher rules, ascribing good or bad meanings to the clean and unclean animals. Most often, Christians simply ignore kosher legislation, treating it of historical interest only. A proper biblical theology would consider what the kosher laws meant in ancient Israel, how those principles (but not the specific rules) transfer forward, and carefully relate Old Testament kosher to what the New Testament says about food.
Hamilton: Pastors can and should use biblical theology to understand the Bible in their own devotional reading of it, in their proclamation of it in preaching, in their explanation of it in teaching, in their application of it in counseling and in their incarnation of it in living. We need biblical theology for everything entailed by pastoral ministry. We need biblical theology to know how Jesus and the apostles, Moses and the prophets understood the Bible and life to walk with God. And we want to understand the Bible and life the same way they did, that we might walk with God as they did.
The biblical authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit. We are not. So our interpretations aren’t inerrant and infallible as theirs were. Still, we want to learn how to live and how to read the Bible from the biblical authors themselves. That’s what biblical theology is all about.
Duane R. Garrett serves as the John R. Sampey Professor of Old Testament and Interpretation and professor of biblical theology.
Peter Gentry serves as professor of Old Testament interpretation
James M. Hamilton serves as associate professor of biblical theology
Thomas R. Schreiner serves as the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament interpretation and professor of biblical theology
Brian J. Vickers serves as associate professor of New Testament interpretation and biblical theology
Stephen J. Wellum serves as professor of Christian theology
- The School of Theology
- The King and His Beauty: A Biblical Theology on the Old and New Testament by Thomas R. Schreiner
- What is Biblical Theology: A Guide to the Bibles Story, Symbolism and Patterns by Jim Hamilton
- Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants by Peter Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum
- Justification by Grace Through Faith: Finding Freedom from Legalism, Lawlessness, Pride, and Despair by Brian J. Vickers