What if I told you that theology undergirds every single decision we make — and that having a right theology can help us fight temptation, prevent error, and stand strong for God’s eternal truth? Before you tune me out, thinking theology is only for preachers or seminary students, consider what it actually is.
Theology is just a way of saying what we believe to be true about God. It includes what we believe about His character, His works throughout history, His plan of redemption, His creation, and His way of working in our lives today. And a properly informed theology will be based solely in the truths of God’s Word.
So, what is biblical theology?
If theology is the broad name for what we believe about God, then biblical theology is the name for everything God’s Word says about a given topic.
It can focus on a particular book of the Bible (Leviticus), genre or section (historical narrative), timeframe (ancient Israel), or human author (Moses). For instance, biblical theology considers how the need for a Savior is shown throughout the historical accounts of ancient Israel, what the Psalms teach us about God’s judgment and mercy, how Paul describes the attributes of God, or what the Gospels reveal about Christ’s deity.
If you believe that God’s Word, both the Old and New Testaments, is completely true, then you have a responsibility to know what it says . . . in its entirety. If you pick and choose which verses you like, and ignore others that don’t suit your preferences, then you will not have an accurate picture of God.
But if you choose to understand every part of Scripture in light of the whole, accurately interpreting every verse according to its overall message, then you are much more likely to have a properly-formed view of God.
What is the cardinal rule of learning biblical theology?
Using Scripture to interpret Scripture.
In other words — context, context, context!
Biblical theology places every single verse within its broader context — paragraph, book, genre, testament — before determining what it actually means for us today. We cannot neglect any one verse because it doesn’t fit our preconceived ideas, and we cannot read into anything to make it prove a particular point. We must measure every verse and passage against the whole of Scripture, for the words of God are cohesive and unified.
While most seminaries teach multiple courses on biblical theology, it’s not something best left to a graduate student or full-time preacher. In fact, it can be as simple as using a good study Bible or commentary series to learn the overarching themes of each book of the Bible, who the original audience and human authors were, some of the basic historical-cultural context behind each book, and how its timeless principles apply to us today.
A helpful little book that might aid your understanding of the importance (and how-to’s) of biblical theology is 9Marks’ recent book, Biblical Theology (affiliate link), by Nick Roark and Robert Cline. It is geared towards building healthy churches, but I believe it has merit for the individual believer’s life as well.
The book begins by providing a framework for understanding the “big story” of God’s Word, considering each different section of Scripture at a time. It then considers why knowing these things is crucial for preventing error not only in the church but also in our own private study, and how it shapes our calling to “go . . . make disciples.” Finally, it includes a very helpful appendix with specific verses that are often misunderstood (such as 2 Chronicles 7:14, which has nothing to do with America becoming a more Christian nation).
It has a particular focus on rooting out false teaching from the church, but it’s also very relevant for our own interactions with others outside the church body.
For instance, understanding every verse in light of the whole Bible will help us avoid errors such as proof-texting, moralisms, or the prosperity gospel. It will bring proper balance to our social justice programs, and guide us in rejecting immorality and unbiblical nationalism. Those beliefs affect more than just our preaching on Sundays — they guide every behavior and attitude we have during the week!
To help us work to form a more accurate biblical theology, the book shares five helpful “interpretive lenses” for properly understanding any given verse or passage of Scripture:
- Context — when was it written? to whom and by whom? for what purpose? in what genre?
- Covenant — where does it fit within God’s plan of salvation? how does that affect its application?
- Canon — how does it connect to the rest of Scripture (i.e., cross-references)?
- Character of God — what does it say about God and his attributes?
- Christ — how does it relate to the person and work of Christ?
By considering every verse or passage in light of these five things — and focusing especially on Christ — we are much more likely to maintain an accurate understanding of what God intended in each particular section of Scripture.
Lose sight of any one of these lenses, and you will have a skewed interpretation of God’s divine truth.
Ignore Christ’s place in the Old Testament books, ignore the surrounding context, or ignore how it correlates to other specific statements in Scripture — and you will fail to understand it the way God intended.
As the authors wrote in the book: “Jesus Christ is the fountain from whom all blessings flow, and biblical theology is the scriptural map that helps guide us to this ever-flowing fountain.”
Thankfully, you don’t have to figure it all out on your own!
Besides the book mentioned above, here are some other helpful resources (contains affiliate links — email subscribers may need to click through):
- Women of the Word shares how to approach Scripture with both mind and heart, neither losing sight of the contextual frameworks nor neglecting the devotional aspects.
- Introductions to the New Testament and Old Testament provide helpful information about the historical backgrounds, timeframes, and key themes of each book. Most study Bibles also provide some of this information.
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth explains how to read each genre or section within its proper literary and Christological frameworks. This gets into hermeneutics, but is very helpful for reading Scripture as it was intended!
- New Dictionary of Biblical Theology is a great resource for studying what the whole canon of Scripture says about particular topics (like the atonement or the millennial kingdom). It’s a little more expensive, but is well-worth owning as a study aid.
Learning biblical theology takes some effort — and some resources — but nothing is more important in this life than understanding God’s Word properly!
Have you ever studied biblical theology? How have you found it helpful?