Why study Biblical Theology?


(Full explanation)

Our Curriculum

A big part of the apprenticeship at Cornerstone South LA is rigorous study in a classroom environment. There are four components of the formal instruction:

We believe that it is essential for pastors to be equipped in their ability to rightly divide the word of truth and to hold fast the faithful word. Rather than teaching a certain blueprint for ministry, a robust understanding of Scripture will allow pastors to apply Biblical principles and priorities in a wide variety of cultures and contexts. So here we want to explain our rationale for how we have laid out the curriculum. As you can see, almost half of the program is 'Bible'. This portion involves exegetically walking from Genesis to Revelation, taking seriously the principle of progressive revelation in the process.

This is something Josh has been working on for a long time. Teaching at Eternity Bible College Josh has had the privilege to be a part of developing this curriculum, and then to teach through various aspects of it. Josh is very excited to have recently finished writing the Old Testament portion of the curriculum and having taught through all of it several times. This curriculum consists of a series of study questions and suggested answers for every book of the Old Testament (the New Testament is in process). The questions are designed to push students into the text, and to lead them toward helpful observations that will build mastery in the art and skill of interpreting the Bible.

One of the reasons for working systematically through the Bible is that this allows our students to be focused on fewer subjects at a time. Typically in college or seminary, a student will take at least 4 classes concurrently. However, by grouping nine units together into a single class on the Bible, students can focus on one book of the Bible at a time. Spending nine hours a week thinking about a single book of the Bible allows undistracted meditation on the flow, purpose, message, theology, and application of that book. This allows students to focus, meditate on and apply what they are learning in a unique way. We believe this will be life changing for our students as they spend focused time meditating on and applying the Living Word of God.

Furthermore, studying for three years with the same groups of apprentices is beneficial. Cohorts typically 'gel' as they get to know one another and are familiar interacting with one another. They will often study together, and become good friends. We believe it is beneficial not only to study as individuals, but also to learn how to study and apply the Bible in community. We want students to learn how to sharpen one another's thinking and application of Scripture. We want students to learn how to exhort, encourage and challenge one another with the truth they are learning in the real circumstances of life. Studying together with the very people we are walking in life and ministry with helps Scripture to not be merely academic.

Moreover, having your pastors for your teachers allows the teacher to direct and focus the classroom time on the issues most pertinent for the apprentices. Being in ministry together and then spending over ten hours a week is a long time for a pastor to walk with a group of apprentices through Scripture. This time allows the pastor to actually get to know the apprentices, and thus to counsel and apply the text of Scripture to real situations going on in their lives. This is one of Josh's personal favorites of this new program. In the past when Josh was jumping in and teaching various classes he often felt like he was just offloading information because of the lack of relationship with the students. With our new program, because of the deeper and longer relationships, we are able to invest more into the lives of the apprentices and truly disciple them. This is a difference that is hard to put a price on.

But lastly, we want to explain why we spend so much time in our program simply walking through the text of Scripture rather than taking survey and theology classes that are more typical in seminary. This was fueled by our desire to do Biblical Theology. So next we are going to elaborate on what Biblical Theology is, and then, why we think it is a good approach to studying the Bible.

Before we begin by even defining what Biblical Theology is, we want to note that there are quite a few very different definitions of what Biblical Theology is, and how to do it. The point here is not to debate all of these different definitions, but to merely define what we mean when we say that we are about Biblical Theology, and to give our reasons for using it.

What is Biblical Theology?

So we begin with the question, “What is Biblical Theology?” But maybe we should start with an even more basic question, “What is theology?” The word 'theology' comes from two Greek words which basically boils down to “the study of God.” So in theology we are studying God: what He is like, what He does, what He has planned and revealed. Since God has primarily revealed Himself in Scripture, the Bible is the primary source for studying theology. And thus, the Bible is what forms our theology (or at least it should!).

But to understand what Biblical Theology is, it will be helpful to contrast it with the other types of theology. The three types of theology we would like to introduce briefly are 1) Systematic Theology, 2) Historical Theology, and 3) Biblical Theology.

Since our definition of theology is so broad (everything about God or relating to what He has revealed), we can easily break theology up into different categories. We can systematize different aspects of theology such as 'Bibliology' – the study of the Bible, 'Christology' – the study of Christ, 'Pneumatology' – the study of the Holy Spirit, and so on. This is what Systematic Theology is, a systematic study of what the Bible teaches on a number of different topics, organized systematically by category. Thus, in Systematic Theology we ask the question, “What does the entire Bible teach us about this subject?”

By contrast, Historical Theology is the study of how theology has developed over time. It focuses on what people believed at different points in history. Thus Historical Theology is closely related to the study of church history. There will of course be overlap with Systematic Theology as well, because we can look at the same categories of Systematic Theology and how they develop in history. But the difference between these two types of theology is the organizing principle that guides our study. In Systematic Theology the primary organizing factor is the different categories of theology we have come up with, while in Historical Theology the primary organizing factor is the time period we are looking at. Therefore, in Historical Theology we ask the question, “What did people in this time or place believe about God?”

Now with these brief definitions in hand, we can move to Biblical Theology. As should be evident now, the primary difference between Biblical Theology and other types of theology is what the primary organizing factor is. And yes, you've guessed it, in Biblical Theology, the Bible is the primary factor in organizing our study. So in Biblical Theology we ask the question, “What does this portion of Scripture teach us about God?” The main organizing factor is what portion of Scripture we are going to be deriving our theology from.

Therefore, we can have a Biblical Theology of different books of the Bible, or even of different authors in the Bible (i.e. a Pauline theology, or Johannine theology). We can even have a Biblical Theology of the entire Old or New Testament, or even of the whole Bible itself. Clearly, there will be a lot of overlap between Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology, but the difference is in how you organize what you are going to study about God.

Why do Biblical Theology?

Now that we are armed with a basic understanding of what Biblical Theology is, we will look at why we think Biblical Theology is a good approach in studying Scripture. As we begin to argue for why we have designed so much of our curriculum to focus on Biblical Theology, we need to say from the start that we believe both Systematic Theology and Historical Theology have their place and are important. But hopefully by the end of this article, you'll understand our rationale for starting with and focusing on Biblical Theology.

The first reason for doing Biblical Theology is our desire for students to know the source, not the conclusions of theology. As we noted in defining the different types of theology, Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology are organized differently. Systematic Theology is organized around our categories of theology. Systematic Theology seeks to synthesize what the whole Bible teaches on a given subject or category. For example, when studying the theology of salvation, Systematic Theology synthesizes what the whole Bible says about salvation. Since pretty much every book of the Bible has something to say that interacts with this doctrine, Systematic Theology is forced to interact with a certain number of key passages and bring them together into a cohesive picture of salvation. The student then learns these various aspects that have been brought out of these texts and what they teach about salvation.

As may be clear from this description, there is a danger in Systematic Theology to cover many texts quickly, since there is so much to synthesize to develop a doctrine. There is a danger in the students walking away thinking that they know the answers to the questions we are asking, rather than truly understanding the texts that form these conclusions. We feel that this is especially a danger when teaching younger students. It is not a coincidence that youth and pride are often closely associated! Thus our heart is to walk students through Scripture (which we believe will also teach them how much they don't know!) and teach them how to study Scripture, rather than teaching them the results or answers of studying Scripture.

In contrast, in Biblical Theology we organize our study based on Scripture itself. We start with the question, "What does this passage of Scripture teach us about God?" By starting here, we hope that our students will walk away understanding the text, context, flow, argumentation, background, and purpose of Scripture and how these form our theology and practice. While our students may not walk away knowing all the 'answers' to the typical theology questions that are asked, our desire is that they will walk away knowing how to study Scripture to find the answers to those questions, and others.

From what we have just said, we can look at a related reason for doing theology in this way. Our desire is to let each passage speak its own theology before systematizing that theology with other texts. In other words, we have a desire to understand a text deeply before we try to fit its theology into the theology of other texts.

Because we believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and without error, all of Scripture will be consistent with itself and can be systematized into a coherent and cohesive theology (at least in God's mind!). In other words, there are no contradictions in Scripture. Naturally, when studying Scripture our systematic minds will systematize what we are learning and to try to fit it together with what other parts of Scripture teach. This is natural and good. But the danger is to rationalize together what various portions of Scripture teach too quickly, often allowing the easier, better known, or less offensive passage to explain away what the harder, obscurer, or more offensive passages teach without truly hearing from and understanding those passages.

Also, because our minds are finite, there are times that we must simply acknowledge that we aren't fully able to systematize two apparently contradictory principles of Scripture. Sometimes we just need to hold on to the fact that both of them are true.

On the other hand we don't want to be quick to leave apparent contradictions without thoroughly examining the fact that something may be true in one sense, and not in another. We need to carefully ask in what sense one may be true and in what sense the opposite may also be true. We need to look at the words and the ways that authors are communicating a truth and to wrestle with how they may be two sides of the same coin.

When we put these principles together what we are arguing is that doing Systematic Theology needs to be based upon a thorough understanding of each text that it interacts with. There are many dangers in doing Systematic Theology quickly. If we proof-text a passage without understanding the context and message that passage is in, we will likely interpret one passage in light of another. Different writers have different styles, use words with different connotations, and use entirely different styles of writing. Grabbing a verse from one passage and a verse from another and trying to show how they fit together into one coherent idea is notoriously difficult. We are not saying that it should not be done (it should!), but we think it is best to start by thoroughly studying each passage in its context.

God revealed Himself in time

One of the principles that influences our study of Scripture is the principle of progressive revelation. This principle simply teaches that God revealed Scripture progressively. He didn't just reveal everything that He has told us about Himself at once, but started at the beginning and over time revealed more and more about who He is and what His plan is for the world.

Now we want to acknowledge right from the beginning that later revelation never contradicts anything in earlier revelation. In fact, the more Josh has taught through and study the Torah, the more he sees that God's entire plan is in there! What is missing are some of the details. As time went on, God kept filling in more and more about how that plan was going to culminate in Christ.

This idea that Scripture unfolded progressively has huge implications for how we study a given passage. We do not believe that God merely dictated to each Biblical author what to write, but used the personality, knowledge, experience, etc. of the authors to pen Scripture. Therefore, in Scripture we see authors building upon the foundation of what other Biblical authors have written.

The implication of this is that we shouldn't expect every biblical author to be writing with the same understanding of who God is and what His plan is. Especially in the Old Testament which was written over a roughly 1000 year time period, there is a progressive unfolding of God's plan. Even in the New Testament where everything was written in less than 100 years there are differences between the early and later writers in terms of the development of certain theological ideas.

So, we believe that a progressive approach helps us to take all of this into account. Studying Scripture in order helps us not to read into what an earlier writer is saying from what we know a later writer will say. We can focus on what God is revealing at a particular moment in history to the people that God originally intended to receive His communication. And this will then help us to understand God's intention in Scripture and to be able to develop a proper theology and practice which flows from this understanding.

God emphasized what He wants us to focus on

Finally, probably the most significant reason for doing Biblical Theology from our standpoint is a desire to let the emphasis of Scripture be the emphasis for our study. Since in Systematic Theology the starting point dictating what we spend time studying are the categories of theology we have come up with, how much time we spend on various topics will be largely determined by our categories of theology.

In Systematic Theology, if we don't have a category for some topic, then no matter how much the Bible says about that topic, we won't cover it directly. Conversely, if we have a category about a topic, then it will be covered directly, no matter how insignificant that question is from the standpoint of the Bible. In other words, the categories of theology we have may not be the ones that are the most significant to the Biblical authors and those which they have spent the most time elaborating on in Scripture.

While Systematic Theologians try to address this issue, we all will come to Scripture with the categories that we think are important. What better way to allow Scripture's own emphases dictate our emphases in theology than to simply walk through the text? So we believe our goal should be to simply walk through the Bible and repeatedly ask the the author, “What are you trying to emphasize?”

Our hope is that by approaching theology from this standpoint, we will equip our students to find the answers to all types of theological questions. Whether they head overseas to a culture asking questions very different from our own, or in twenty years, new theological questions arise, we pray that our students will understand how to faithfully study through the text and to build theology from God's unchanging Word.

We believe that one of the best ways to teach students how to interpret Scripture and build theology is to model and practice working through the text. And so that's what we do. We walk through text after text after text, starting with the intended message for the original audience and then building out our implications, applications, and theology from that. And we believe that this will give students a solid foundation to build their lives and ministries upon.

When we put this all together with the many hours of formal instruction, walking with the professor, and walking through the entire Bible together where we can bring out the nuances of Hebrew and Greek, and we believe our program will be a great aid for equipping pastors to be men of the Word.