A Pastors’ and Theologians’ Forum on Biblical Theology
“In what ways will a congregation’s understanding of salvation and the gospel be limited if their pastors do not have a good grasp of biblical theology?” Answers from:
With a special, extended response from
Because it was to the glory of God to craft a plan of redemption before the creation of the world, and to rule over human history to achieve that plan, so the glory of preaching is bound up in declaring this plan as Scripture reveals it. That is the work of “biblical theology,” a term that refers to the study of God’s plan to redeem sinful humanity by the blood of Christ and to present to himself a perfect people at the end of time. Pastors must have a firm grasp of biblical theology in order to make sense of the Bible’s cohesive story and to communicate it clearly to their congregations.
Without that grasp, the congregation’s understanding of salvation may be limited to reforming their moral choices and improving their quality of life for now, all sweetened with a somewhat vague concept of heaven for later. Their understanding will fall far short of the grandeur of the true picture: the promise of a full salvation worked by Almighty God from all of sin’s damage, resulting in a perfect relationship with God, with God’s people from all eras and all nations, and with God’s world. Congregations naturally have a hard time tracing out this story of redemption through the books of the Bible and through the differing genres of Scripture.
A topical approach to preaching, in which the pastor preaches on relevant topics like prayer, the family, or battling temptation, can further their confusion, as the hearers cannot see the forest for the trees. Even a careful biblical expositor who does not set his expositions in the context of redemption history can get so immersed in the glorious details of the passage that his congregation will lose sight of the forest.
What do I mean by the forest? Charles Spurgeon told his students a story urging them to preach redemptive history’s goal—Christ—from each passage: “From every town, village, and little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London . . . and so from every text in Scripture there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. Your business is, when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now, what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ.” The glory of God’s sovereign control over history is that he is the one who laid those roads to Christ. The glory of preaching is to find them.
Andrew Davis is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina.
If a pastor does not understand or teach biblical theology, the members of the congregation are likely to suffer thus:
1. Congregations will not understand the unity of the Bible or the progressive nature of revelation. They will fall prey to those proclaiming the disunity of the biblical message; and a fragmented Bible cannot be recognized as the inspired word of God.
2. Congregations will not understand the centrality of Christ for interpreting Scripture and the meaning of life in our world. Recourse to people and events—particularly those of the Old Testament—will be valued mainly for their exemplary lessons, and not for their typological contribution to understanding the person and work of Christ. They will not see that Christ in his gospel is the interpreting principle for scripture and, indeed, for all reality.
3. Grace will be eroded by legalism. Preaching that principally points to the examples of Bible characters leads almost inevitably to legalism since the connection with the gospel of grace will be clouded or even completely lost.
4. The application of Bible texts will often be short-circuited. The Bible is reduced to a lucky-dip of texts all of which are perceived as standing in the same essential relationship to the Christian believer, and the progressive nature of biblical revelation in salvation-history is ignored.
5. The presuppositions of the New Testament in portraying Christ as the fulfiller of the Old Testament will be overlooked so that the fullness of Christ’s person and work is undermined. Teaching from the Old Testament is particularly at risk.
6. The doctrinal formulations of the church will be seen as less important in that their relationship to the progressive revelation of the Bible will not be evident. Biblical theology and doctrine work together for a robust understanding of God and his purposes for his people and the world.
Graeme Goldsworthy is the visiting lecturer in hermeneutics at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia. He is the author of According to Plan (IVP, 1991) and Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Eerdmans, 2000).
The answer to the forum question is clear from history, starting with the sad case of the Jewish leaders whom we meet in the gospels. Jesus frequently scolded them for missing the main point of the Scriptures. They misunderstood the messianic promise (John 6:15). They misconstrued the purpose of the law (Gal 3:21-25). They overlooked their own desperate need for true, justifying righteousness (Rom 10:1-4). They ignored the big-picture story of the Old Testament (John 5:37-47). And therefore they reduced the Scriptures to a manual for moralism, legalism, stark sacramentalism, and a hubristic kind of nationalism.
Jesus’ answer, again and again, was to point out that he is the focus of all the Scriptures: “Search the Scriptures . . . these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39 nkjv). “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me” (v. 46). “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (8:56). Even after the resurrection, the disciples did not seem to understand the full import of all this, so on the road to Emmaus, he gave them an extended overview of the whole sweep of biblical theology: “Beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27). Since Christ is the focus of all the Scriptures, no preacher has fully expounded the meaning of any passage until he has shown its relationship to the rest of redemptive history and how it points to Christ. Preaching that omits this vital dimension always breeds the same kind of dull-heartedness and spiritual decline Jesus encountered in Israel at his first advent.
The church today is in the throes of a very similar spiritual miasma, because too many churchgoers have been fed for too long on a steady diet of topical messages, motivational talks, shallow, feel-good homilies, or even thinner gruel. The only remedy, and (I believe) the best recipe for revival in the church, is a powerful wave of biblical preaching and biblical theology in which we recognize and proclaim Christ as the center and focus of everything God’s word has to say.
Phil Johnson is the executive director of Grace For You.
Congregations starve without biblical theology. Pastors who fail to fold biblical theology into their preaching will see their congregation’s understanding of salvation and the gospel whither in several ways. Here are a few.
The congregation’s understanding of salvation and the gospel will be shallow. Pastors too often play one note when, as Mark Strom puts it, the entire Bible is a beautiful symphony. Salvation is more than being saved from debt, loneliness, or a bad marriage. The gospel is even more than the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Congregations should instead be told how every passage fits into the grand storyline of the Bible: creation, fall, redemption, new-creation. I don’t know who said it first, but he or she was right: shallow preaching makes shallow Christians.
The congregation’s understanding of salvation and the gospel will be confused. Today, messages that lack a biblical theological context—such as the ever popular “Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for you life”—will fall on deaf ears because this is the postmodern generation, a generation so self-referential that people come to church as islands without a mainland, cities without a map, souls without a context. They deny an overarching explanation for all of life exists—what philosophers call a “meta-narrative.” To be told that Jesus has a “plan” sounds ridiculous to them because there is no plan! “What am I saved from?” they ask, “What am I saved into?” they wonder. Postmodern listeners need the gospel message explained within the framework of biblical theology. The storyline of the Bible is the mainland, the map, the context. It is the overarching explanation for everyone’s existence. Postmodern ears and hearts may continue to suppress the truth. But in the midst of the shipwreck that is their lives, they will find it harder and harder to deny that the Bible presents a compelling story: creation, fall, redemption, new-creation, which is a rational, even persuasive meta-narrative worth considering.
The congregation’s understanding of salvation and the gospel will be man-centered. What happens when congregations aren’t exposed to the great storyline of Scripture? They see less of God, the Author of history, and more of themselves. They are humbled less by his enduring faithfulness. They turn the Bible into their advice column or quick reference guide. When Christ promises that the gates of hell will never prevail against the church they shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh.” They don’t fall to their knees and worship the promise-keeping Lord of the universe. Pastors who grow in their knowledge of biblical theology, on the other hand, will make much of God and not man. And their congregations will be raised to have great thoughts of God.
Aaron Menikoff is the 9Marks lead writer on the topic of preaching and an elder at Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.
Raymond C. Ortlund Jr.
Left to ourselves, we Christians tend to think piecemeal, as people generally do. More than we realize, we operate out of the vague impressions and half-truths swirling around in our thoughts. At the same time, the tsunami of one, all-encompassing, ungodly worldview is smashing into us, and we are overwhelmed by it. We want to be thoroughgoing Christians, but our patterns of life differ little from unbelievers. Why? Because a few biblical verses sprinkled on the surface of our confusion cannot lift us into Christian greatness. Only a worldview can answer another worldview.
God has called us to step by faith into the worldview that the Bible labors to communicate. To take that step, and to keep taking more steps in that direction, we need constant, Spirit-illuminated discoveries of the biblical drama in its fullness. We need to see each particular biblical truth in connection with the whole, centered not in the law but in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then the message of God becomes clear and compelling. Then the grandeur of it all begins to break upon our hearts. Then we can stand up to that tidal wave of God-denial that is always washing over us.
For example, why should we refuse the sexual recklessness to which we are daily exposed? The answer, “Because you’ll be punished,” is too small to motivate us. Here is the answer that biblical theology gives: “Because you’re missing out on the ultimate love story.” God is our Lover. From the beginning, he has pursued our hearts. From the beginning, we have given our hearts to others. That’s why every temptation is a solicitation to spiritual adultery. But Christ has come to win his bride. He died on the cross because of our flirtations. The way stands open for every spiritual whore to be joined as one with the Lord, to be presented to him in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, and to live happily ever after with him. Now, is the momentary pleasure of any sin worth snubbing that romance?
Raymond C. Ortlund Jr. is the senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and is the author of God’s Unfaithful Wife: A Biblical Theology of Spiritual Adultery (IVP, 1996).
In order to answer this question, we must first understand what “biblical theology” is. In the simplest of terms, “biblical theology” is the discipline which seeks to read specific texts (i.e. exegesis) in light of the entire canonical context of Scripture. Convinced that God’s verbal revelation to us occurred progressively in the course of history and centers in our Lord Jesus Christ (see Heb 1:1-3); and convinced that Scripture is God’s word and thus exhibits a unity amidst all its diversity, biblical theology seeks to examine the unfolding nature of God’s redemptive plan culminating in Christ.
As such, it provides the basis for understanding how texts in any portion of Scripture relate to the entire biblical teaching with the goal of learning better how (i) to read and apply Scripture, (ii) to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), and (iii) to “think God’s thoughts after him.” In short, biblical theology brings us face to face with our glorious triune God as it teaches us how to be biblical in every area of our life.
Now given what biblical theology is, it should be quite evident that a pastor and congregation’s lack of it will lead to spiritual impoverishment. We will not only fail to understand the “big picture” of Scripture and God’s redemptive plan, we will undercut the glory of Christ and the centrality of the gospel. Too often we view Scripture as a series of unconnected pieces apart from an overall storyline and plan. Thus, when we seek to apply the Scripture to our lives (especially the Old Testament), we divorce the episodes of the Old Testament from their canonical context. As such, most of our teaching of the Old Testament is reduced to moralism, instead of driving our hearers back repeatedly to the wonder, glory, and power of the gospel.
I am convinced that the less we preach, teach, and apply a “whole-Bible” viewpoint, the less we will think theologically in the church. Why? Because, in the end, to think theologically is to think canonically. One of the pressing issues we face today in the evangelical church is a rising biblical illiteracy. Too often we do not know even the basic points of Scripture, let alone how whole books of Scripture contribute to the overall plan of God. But our calling as Jesus’ disciples is to know God, enjoy him now and forevermore, and to make disciples of all nations. In our pulpits, in our Sunday school instruction, in our families, and in our evangelism, we must be “whole-Bible” people, committed to loving the Lord with all that we are. Given the pressures of living in a postmodern society, we need to learn afresh how to read and apply Scripture correctly as God’s truth for the life and health of the church. This will only be done in a faithful manner when we take seriously the discipline of biblical theology.
Stephen Wellum is a professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
In this essay I suggest three reasons why pastors should teach biblical theology, not just dogmatic theology.
1. To Understand the Nature of God’s Revelation
There’s an old French oxymoron: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” This is an appropriate aphorism for understanding God’s revelation. The Rainbow Bridge spanning Niagara Falls began as a kite. Those building the bridge flew a kite across the majestic waterway, until it came down on the other side of the gorge, linking the two sides with a thin string. Using the string, its builders pulled strings, then ropes, and eventually steel girders across the gorge. The more the bridge changed, the more it became what it was always meant to be.
The kite string represents, you might say, Genesis’ description of salvation, while the rest of Scripture represents the developing bridge—first strings, then ropes, then steel girders. God’s revelation unfolds before us in this progressive fashion. He does not change or disown his previous statements, but his progressive pronouncements resemble that of the bridge in its development. This continuity and the transformations of key words, motifs, themes, and concepts wind their way through the Old Testament and reach fulfillment in Christ and the Church, and will find their consummation in the new heaven and the new earth. Observing and reflecting upon each stage of the construction causes admiration and understanding of the final form.
2. To Know Ourselves
Our self-identity is the window through which we perceive and engage the world; it determines all that we do. Our identity, or our “inscape,” to use the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins’ term, determines our landscape. This identity or “inscape” is formed by two factors: memory and destiny. Without a memory, a person loses identity. Without a history to sustain it, a society and the world around it become virtually phantom realities. Our memories of the past inform who we are and shape our vision of our destinies; and that vision or hope moves us forward, forging our will and determination. If we were to suffer amnesia, and forget our homes and communities, we would confess that we are lost, uncertain of our identity.
This is not only true for individuals, it is true communities. Our collective history shapes our thinking; our sense of destiny moves us to reach beyond ourselves, motivating us to desire and to strive. As John McKay, the onetime president of Princeton University noted, “The road to tomorrow leads through yesterday.”
Aside from teaching us about God, sin, and the need for redemption, a significant portion of the Old Testament recounts the history of the people of God. These are the narratives that constitute the memories of the Christian community. These memories inform our identity as Christians. Thus, Abraham is our spiritual father. His story becomes part of our past. The exodus, the monarchy of Israel and Judah, and the exile cease to be ancient tales of a distant people, but the triumphs and tragedies of our own history.
Moreover, the Old Testament’s ceremonial laws such as not eating “unclean” foods are “visual-aids” to instruct God’s people of all ages to be pure. Not surprisingly, a large part of spiritual strength, of being rooted and grounded in the faith, is knowing our history, knowing who we are. Moreover, the history of “our ancestors” is given to us as “examples” (1 Cor. 10:6). We do well to remember George Santayana’s often repeated line—”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—tweaked by Mark Twain as “history rhymes.”
3. To Understand the New Testament
By the time of Jesus, multiple text-communities existed across the biblical world whose identity and patterns of thought were shaped by the words of the Old Testament. The authors of the New Testament were members of such communities. Consequently, everything they portrayed about Jesus, they did using Old Testament texts, themes, motifs, and concepts, and using the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period. C.H. Dodd argued that the Old Testament formed the sub-structure of New Testament theology.
The apostles reflected upon Jesus in Old Testament categories. He is the anointed one, the suffering servant, the new Adam, the new Israel, the son of man, the son of God, the Word, the high priest, the paschal lamb, and the pioneer in inaugurating the hoped for kingdom of God. Furthermore, the New Testament authors wrote this way to an audience similarly immersed in the words, themes, motifs, and theological categories of the Old Testament. They cited or alluded to the Old Testament more than 250 times.
D. A. Carson and H. G. M. Williamson, in the book they co-edited It is Written: Scripture citing Scripture, devote separate chapters by a number of authors to these citations in the diverse literature of the New Testament. Only those who have journeyed through the Old Testament can appreciate the full splendor and glory of the New Testament and fully digest its fruit. Those who have not cannot.
The consequence of a general ignorance about the Old Testament among the people of God is a pervasive reduction of the full message of the New Testament to a basic gospel of atonement and individual ethics. I suspect many Christians feel spiritually undernourished because they live out their lives on the basis of about ten biblical texts. The spiritual life of the church would be greatly enriched by kindling a love of the Old Testament through a more thorough program of adult Christian education.
Bruce Waltke teaches Old Testament at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming An Old Testament Theology (Zondervan, January 31, 2007).
1. C.H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1952).
2. “Kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s equivalent of “kingdom of God.” The New Testament terms refer to Israel’s God becoming king on earth, not a placed called “heaven” where saved souls go to live after death. The Jews understood the terms to mean that the King would come to Zion, the Jews of the Diaspora would return from exile, and the King would exact justice, vindicate Israel, defeat the pagans, and bring peace and prosperity to the earth.
3. D.A. Carson and H.G.M Williamson, It is Written: Scripture Citing Scripture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
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