Biblical theology reads the Bible on its own terms
Rather than coming to the Bible with a list of topics and questions, people who engage in biblical theology are reading to discern the questions the Bible itself is asking, seeking to determine the categories with which the biblical authors themselves are operating. This approach can be referred to as a sympathetic reading of Scripture. We want to read past our own pressing concerns to discern the concerns of the biblical authors. Instead of demanding that they answer the questions we are asking, we read to determine what questions they seek to answer.
As an example of the kind of thing I am talking about from my own life, I can remember reading the book of Acts closely and, because penal substitutionary atonement was a hot topic in my circles at the time, wondering why that topic was not being addressed more often. As I continued to read and ponder Luke’s narrative in Acts, I began to realize that what Luke emphasizes is the resurrection of Jesus. As I thought on that reality, it became apparent to me that in Luke’scontext, many held that the crucifixion proved that Jesus was not the Messiah(see Acts 5:34–39). Luke counters this assumption by insisting on the resurrection of Jesus, which overturns the negative verdict that the crucifixion seemed to render.
A sympathetic reading applies the golden rule to our interpretation of what we read: We must treat others the way we want to be treated. Biblical theology seeks the intent of the biblical author, and it seeks to read the biblical authors sympathetically — on their terms, not ours.
Scripture has a divine author
The Bible is God’s Word. The Scriptures are breathed out by God (2 Tim 3:16), and the prophets who wrote Scripture “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:20–21). The fact that the biblical authors were inspired by the Spirit ensures that they communicated a unified message.
This unified message means that the biblical authors operate out of a shared worldview. They agree with one another on the big questions humans face in life: the identity of God (who he is), where we came from (God made us), what this place is (God’s world), what went wrong (man sinned), and how God promised to make things right.
The account in Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch builds out the shared worldview that the biblical authors embrace. The shared worldview creates a shared perspective from which the biblical authors interpret the world, their own lives, and earlier Scripture. The task of biblical theology is the attempt to understand and embrace the interpretive perspective of the biblical authors.
The Bible is literature
The biblical authors sometimes write overt theology the way Paul does in Romans and his other letters. But in much more of the Bible’s content, writers like Moses, David, Isaiah, and Mark do theology by means of literature.
Moses tells the story of how the world began and where things went wrong in Genesis, embedding in it the way God made initial promises to set things right as he spoke judgment over the serpent. Later in the story Moses recounts how the promises got passed down and elaborated on to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and on to the nation of Israel.
David teaches through Psalms in songs that sing God’s praise, call on him for help, and reflect on the Scriptural narratives that teach God’s love and holiness — his character of steadfast love. Like David, Isaiah engages in theology by means of poetry. The artistry of the Bible’s poets and narrators turns its truths into culture-shaping epic, giving the stories an enchanting quality that mesmerizes audiences, transforming lives and reforming societies.
To understand the Bible, we have to be able to read literature, to know how authors show rather than tell, and to reflect on what they’re telling in the sho>wing. Developing skill in reading literature is like developing any other skill: it takes practice, sustained over weeks, months, seasons, and years. We must keep reading the Bible with open hearts, active minds, and prayerful souls.
The Bible uses imagery
Writers — and the biblical authors were writers — accomplish a variety of things by using imagery. A word picture can summarize and interpret a big idea. For instance, Daniel styles the world’s kingdoms in rebellion against God as beasts. They are not literally beasts, of course, but they stand against the son of man who brings God’s kingdom. Further, they stand in solidarity with the serpent who seeks to usurp God’s reign.
The image of the beast also provokes an emotional, visceral reaction. We know that beasts are dangerous, that lions and bears can maul and kill, that they devour their prey, and that they have no human sympathy but only a ravenous desire for blood. The imagery of the beast communicates all that, called up by a mental picture of fang and claw.
The biblical authors’ use of imagery also taps into and engages the wider story of the Bible. We can see this from consideration of the way Jesus is depicted as a lamb. He is not literally a four-legged, woolly beast, but he does come as the atoning sacrifice, through whom God will bring to fulfillment the prophesied new exodus, the sacrificial system, and the sin-bearing lamb of Isaiah 53.
The Bible uses patterns
Joseph’s brothers rejected him, sold him as a slave, and against all expectation he was exalted as a ruler over Gentiles. Then he forgave his brothers and provided for them. Moses was rejected by Israelites and fled to the wilderness, where he took a Gentile bride. The Lord then sent him back to Egypt to bring the people who had rejected him out of slavery into the land of promise. David’s brothers spoke harshly to him, and Israel’s king, Saul, sought to kill him. David fled into the wilderness and ruled over a Philistine city. Then he returned to Israel to be king over Israel and Judah.
In each of these instances we see a pattern of God identifying Joseph, Moses, and David as his chosen representative. Next, God’s own people reject the one God identified as his chosen one. In one way or another, that rejected leader then finds acceptance among Gentiles before accomplishing for Israel what God said he would do.
This pattern comes to culmination in Jesus, who was anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, then rejected by Israel, only to be embraced by many Gentiles as Savior and Lord. Romans 11:25–27 indicates that when Jesus returns he will save all Israel, completing the pattern seen in the likes of Joseph, Moses, and David.
The fact that the biblical authors were inspired by the Spirit ensures that they communicated a unified message.
The Bible uses types
When we see repeated use of the kinds of patterns we have just discussed above, we are looking at typology. Typology consists of historical correspondence and escalation. Historical correspondence refers to the way that God sovereignly orchestrates actual events that really took place in history to match one another. And escalation refers to the way that, as we notice historical correspondences and patterns, we feel a gathering, growing, increasing sense of anticipation for more like this in the future.
The biblical authors draw attention to historical correspondences by using important words or phrases from earlier Scripture, by repeating patterns of events seen in earlier Scripture, or by highlighting thematic correspondence with earlier Scripture. The historical correspondences produce the escalation in expectation. Typology involves historical correspondences between people, events, and institutions in patterns that recur across the Scriptures with escalating significance until fulfilled in Christ.
The New Testament writers are right when they read the Old Testament
We can be confident that the New Testament authors correctly interpreted the Old Testament for both historical and theological reasons. From a historical perspective, the book of Acts records how thousands and thousands of people (Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 5:14) thoroughly familiar with the Old Testament were immediately convinced by the way the apostles interpreted the Old Testament as fulfilled in Jesus, including priests responsible for teaching the Scriptures (Acts 6:7). There were many interpretations of the Old Testament on offer at the time, and those who became followers of Jesus did so because they became convinced that the Old Testament was fulfilled in him.
Theologically, Jesus is the incarnate Word, one with the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit inspired the Old Testament authors to communicate what the Father wanted them to write about his forthcoming Son. So as God, Jesus would know what the Father meant for the Spirit to communicate through the Old Testament.
On the human level, as Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52), his understanding of what the Old Testament authors meant to communicate was developed, taught by Moses, interpreted by the prophets, psalmists, and sages. Jesus understood the Old Testament in accordance with the intent of its human and divine authors.
Jesus then taught his followers how to understand the Old Testament (Luke 24:44–45), and he and the Father sent the Spirit to ensure that Jesus’ followers would understand it correctly (John 14:26; 15:26–27; 16:13). The New Testament authors were inspired by the Spirit that they might communicate only true things about the Old Testament writings, which were inspired by the same Spirit.
The Father, Son, and Spirit do not contradict or misunderstand one another, so the Christ-taught, Spirit-inspired followers of Jesus who wrote the New Testament neither contradict nor misunderstand the Spirit-inspired, Christ-prophesying writings of the Old Testament.
As we engage in the task of biblical theology, we do this for the sake of accomplishing the Great Commission. Jesus told his followers to go make disciples, teaching them to obey all he had commanded (Matt 28:18–20). To do this, we must understand and embrace the way that Jesus interpreted the Bible, which is to say, we must do biblical theology.