Myth #1: Biblical theology is just theology that is biblical.
When we first hear the term biblical theology, we may think it refers to sound doctrine—truth that accords with Scripture. But it more commonly refers to a way of reading the Bible that focuses on the story of the whole Bible. It explores the unity of Scripture by focusing on how God progressively reveals himself and his Christ–centered plan for history.
One way to understand biblical theology is to contrast it with systematic theology. Systematic theology wisely organizes and systematizes the Bible’s teaching on various topics of interest. It answers questions like, What does the whole Bible teach about the nature of God? What does the Bible teach about humanity? What does the Bible teach about the work of Christ? It organizes the Bible’s teaching according to various topics of historical and contemporary interest.
The agenda of biblical theology isn’t driven by the questions we bring to the Bible, but by the focus of the Bible itself. We listen to the focus of the biblical authors—the categories and themes that they emphasize. As we do this, we learn that the Bible has a coherent and unified storyline. It presents history as a narrative: a very good beginning in Eden, the fall into sin and brokenness, a tension with sin and Satan that rises to a climax and resolution through Jesus’s saving work, all of which ultimately leads to the consummation in the new creation to come.
Myth #2: Biblical theology is only for scholars.
Because the Bible is incredibly intricate and infinitely deep, we should expect it to invite rigorous study at the highest levels. But this doesn’t mean that it’s reserved for professional academics. Like an ocean, there are shorelines to wade into and enjoy as well as depths to explore and examine.
Where do you begin? The best first step is to begin reading through the Bible with a view to its overarching storyline. Have the whole in mind as you read the parts, and let the parts inform your understanding of the whole. As you read, pay attention to key themes and patterns that recur. Seek to gain the perspective of the biblical authors. What is important to them? How does their writing connect to and contribute to God’s unfolding plan of grace through Jesus?
Myth #3: Biblical theology is not necessary for understanding the Bible.
We may wonder, How important is Biblical Theology? If the Bible tells one overarching story, then if we miss this, we will miss the point of the whole and the point of the parts. Every mini-story in the Bible finds its ultimate significance within the larger sweep of the larger gospel story of which it’s a part. If we miss the larger story, then we’ll misunderstand the smaller parts. It will be like analyzing a 30-second movie clip without watching the movie.
This will lead us to treat the Bible as mainly something that it’s not: a handbook for life, doling out bits of advice. A rulebook calling us to perform. An ancient history book filled with interesting facts. A self-help book telling us how to do our best. An heirloom for display as an artifact.
Instead, the Bible is really about the triune God’s mission to redeem us and perfect all things. It’s a story of God’s unfolding grace for sinners and sufferers through Jesus. Jesus told people that the details of the Old Testament ultimately pointed to him (Luke 24:25–27, 44–47; John 5:39–40). So, we can’t understand the parts without understanding the whole.
Myth #4: Biblical theology is in competition with systematic theology.
As we’ve seen, biblical theology and systematic theology are distinct. But is one better than the other? Some think that systematic theology is more important because it answers the questions that seem most relevant to our contemporary world. Others think biblical theology is superior because it makes the Bible’s focus our focus. But both are important and both need one another.
Systematic theology needs biblical theology so that it doesn’t devolve into mere proof-texting. We may quote verses to support our doctrines, but we may miss what those verses actually mean in their original context. If the Bible is our highest authority for our theology, then we need to understand it properly. We may also miss what the Bible actually emphasizes about certain topics. For example, resurrection isn’t just about rising from the dead. Biblical theology shows us that it is about the end-time restoration of all things, and it has already begun in the present age through Jesus.
Sound doctrine provides guardrails for our interpretation of Scripture and is also an application of biblical theology. If we understand the whole storyline and themes of the Bible, it should lead to faithful answers to the important doctrinal questions. To use biblical theology is to focus on the glories of our triune God.
Myth #5: Biblical theology isn’t relevant or practical.
If we’re used to searching out the Scripture for mini nuggets of inspiration, then we may wonder how studying the big story and themes will be practical. I’ve found that studying biblical theology has changed every part of my life, including the way I see the world every day.
It does this by telling me what story I’m a part of. What we think about who we are and why we’re here largely comes from what kind of world and story we think we’re a part of. One of my favorite moments in the Lord of the Rings occurs when Sam and Frodo talk about great stories and then Sam says, “I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into.” If the material universe is all there is, and if we’re here as a result of mere chance, then what kind of purpose or ultimate hope can we really have? But the biblical story shows us our identity: God created us in his image with dignity as kings and priests. Our purpose is to reflect his rule and spread his glory. As the story unfolds, we learn that even though we’ve sinned, God loves us and redeems us through Jesus to be restored to his presence and to reflect this rule. Our great hope is the coming ages when God will “show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). We matter, we are loved, and we have a purpose and hope.
Biblical theology gives us an identity that isn’t based upon what other people think of us. It gives us a hope that brings joy in the midst of the sorrows of this age. It gives us a purpose: to reflect God’s character and love our neighbor through our vocations. We still live with many unanswered questions, but we know the One who has the answers. And he has accepted and befriended us through Jesus, so we’re never alone. To use biblical theology is to focus on the glories of our triune God. And that will change the way we step into every moment of every day.
Drew Hunter (MA, Wheaton College) is the teaching pastor at Zionsville Fellowship in Zionsville, Indiana. He previously served as a minister for young adults at Grace Church of DuPage and taught religious studies at College of DuPage. Drew and his wife, Christina, live in Zionsville, Indiana, and have four children.