New to Biblical Theology? Here’s Where to Begin

Posted On December 01, 2022

Written by Dr. Matthew Dudreck, associate professor of New Testament

For some, the phrase “biblical theology” can be confusing. After all, if someone cares about theology, why wouldn’t they want it to be biblical? However, when we begin to study theology more closely, we discover that there are sub-disciplines such as biblical, historical, practical, and systematic theology. This distinction is not meant as a negative critique of the other disciplines in theology as if they weren’t based on the Bible. Rather, it means highlighting the different principles that the branch of biblical theology uses to organize and present the teaching of Scripture.

Systematic theology, for example, focuses on the principle of logical coherence to present the teaching of Scripture as a single interconnected system of truth. Biblical theology, in contrast, focuses on the principle of history to present the teaching of Scripture as a single progressively revealed story of God’s self-revelation in redemptive history. It seeks to demonstrate how the various portions of Scripture and the persons, themes, events, and institutions contained therein are organically part of one biblical narrative. Geerhardus Vos famously illustrated this distinction by describing systematic theology as seeking to draw a circle, while biblical theology seeks to draw a line. To learn more about this distinction, see the opening chapter in Vos’ classic book Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments. Vos can be challenging to read, but his introduction, at the very least, is well worth taking the time to study.

One of the most foundational observations when studying biblical theology is the prominence of God’s use of covenant throughout Scripture and how the individual covenants all relate to one another. Understanding the nature of these covenants, their interconnected significance, and their function in advancing redemptive history will likely govern much of how the rest of your biblical theology and systematic theology take shape. Essential to Reformed biblical theology is the understanding that all the covenants of Scripture after the fall are various administrations of the covenant of grace following Adam’s failure to keep the covenant of works that he had entered with God at creation. The administration of the covenant of grace was the provision of the divine covenant before creation between the persons of the Trinity to secure the redemption of God’s elect. Stephen Meyers has recently written a great introduction and survey of covenant in Scripture titled God to Us: Covenant Theology in Scripture.

The new covenant and the coming of the kingdom of God in the latter days are the culmination of the successive administrations of the covenant of grace. However, another foundational observation in biblical theology is how these find their fulfillment for God’s people in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. Essential to this task is observing and taking into account the inaugurated nature of fulfillment in the New Testament, avoiding distorted understandings of what has taken place in redemptive history, which can be the result of an under- or over-realized view of fulfillment. A classic introduction and survey of what is often called “inaugurated eschatology” is found in Anthony Hoekema’s book The Bible and the Future.

Appreciating the mutually affirming but distinctive relationship between biblical and systematic theology, the importance and significance of covenant in the Bible, and the inaugurated nature of fulfillment of God’s promises for his people through Christ are three crucial places to begin the life-long endeavor of studying biblical theology.