Is Biblical Theology Dangerous?

Biblical Theology is the practice of developing one’s theology by studying the Bible’s progressive revelation, and seeing how truths were revealed chronologically, throughout redemptive history. It means more than deriving theology from a certain book of the Bible, but rather stresses the importance of reading the Bible in chronological order, and seeing how God’s revelation progresses through time. This approach to theology is different from systematic theology, which develops theology by building principals across scripture, without regard to what revelation was in existence at the time.

In Biblical Theology, one starts reading at the book of Genesis and traces the story of God’s revelation until Revelation. This means that the Bible points forward in history, usually finding its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. In this sense, often Biblical Theologians follow the line of thinking that all Scripture points to and is fulfilled in Christ. In the past, the concept of Biblical Theology was an approach reserved for the halls of academia. But more recently it has made the map (often pushed by D. A. Carson) into the mainstream of American churches.

While Biblical Theology (often called the historical redemptive approach to Scripture) can often be used to refine thinking and can result in a christocentric focus in interpretation, I have a concern with this approach to developing theology. I fear that this approach can at times misunderstand, misread, and misapply the Bible, because it paradoxically misunderstands how God reveals himself to us.

My firm belief is that God reveals himself in the Bible in a way that is relevant for all generations of people. The message of Leviticus, for example, while not written to us was written for us (1 Cor 10:11). This is summed up in the Apostle’s Paul words here: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Thus, all Scripture, including books like Leviticus, have an authoritative message for us today.

I believe the Biblical Theology (historical redemptive school) can obfuscate the meaning of God’s revelation by the way it reads the Bible.  Here’s why I believe this.

First, Biblical Theology tends to see God’s revelation as history. While God works in history, the meaning of his activity consists of how he reveals something about himself to us. God has acted in history, but history can be interpreted in so many ways. At the same time, the interpretation of history in the Scripture has one primary meaning — the meaning that God intended to convey. Biblical Theology can lead to a person to believe that history is where  God revealed himself, while missing the point of the passage.

We study the social setting, the archeological data, the geography and so forth. Putting together our historical understanding, we then apply that to the meaning of the text. Hence, Abraham’s purchase of the tomb at Machpelah becomes much more significant when one understands Hittite legal codes (Gen 23). That may be true enough and helpful in a number of ways, but it can obfuscate the point of that passage — i.e. that Abraham now possesses part of the Promised Land, a down payment and a surety of God’s faithfulness even though his people would become slaves in Egypt for 400 years (cf. Gen 15).

Another example is the Exodus of Israel from Egypt (Ex 4–15). The crossing of the Red Sea, where God opened up the waters to allow Israel to walk through on dry land, is not so much about the way the waters parted (did they fold up?), the length Israel had to walk across the river or whatever else. While these historical matters are interesting and can really paint a picture of the scene in our mind, they usually are not the main point. This is especially true in the Exodus event.

Second, this leads me to my second concern: Biblical Theology can lead one to view God’s revelation in history rather than its interpretation or intended meaning in Scripture. I think there is a fine difference between what God has done in history and what God reveals to us in Scripture. While God has acted in history, this may not be revelation in the sense we mean here. This is because history can have many meanings. One simply has to look at a big event in history like William the Conquerer’s invasion of England. Just why did it happen in the way it did? Well, there may be a hundred political, socio-economical and other reasons why William attempted to conquer England. Thus, history can have various interpretations but this is not how God wants us to view his actions in history. Rather, the meaning God intends to share with us is the one recorded in Scripture. A further surety that Scripture is the place where God speaks to us is its inspired nature (2 Tim 3:16). In short, God’s revelation is inspired Scripture.

Any meaning derived from studying God’s action in history can be quite helpful from a historical point of view and even to paint a vivid picture in preaching or teaching. At the same time, what God intends to reveal to us today can primarily be understood through studying the Bible itself. Admittedly, sometimes we need to know social history to understand idioms or word history (etymology or even philology) to understand the meaning of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic words in the Bible. Still, these all serve to give us a better understanding of the meaning of the Bible from the Bible.

Practically, seeing God’s revelation as Scripture transforms how we understand the Exodus of Israel, allowing its message to authoritatively speak to us today. We simply must notice that chapters 4 and 14 bracket the events of the Exodus with the focus on believing in Yahweh and his messenger  (Ex 4:1, 5, 8–9, 31; 14:31). The final word before the Song of Moses (Ex 15) reads:  “Israel saw the great power that the Yahweh used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the Yahweh, and they believed in the Yahweh and in his servant Moses” (Ex 14:31). Just what did Israel believe in? Notice. that Yahweh is used four times in the above verse. It was Yahweh’s great power as God of all gods, the God of creation, the God of the Patriarchs, and the personal God of Israel who they believe in. More than that, the climactic wonder that God performed occurred by sending angels to kill every first born in Egypt unless they provided a substitute lamb (Ex 12).

In short, the Exodus taught Israel to believe in Yahweh because of his decisive salvation of Israel from slavery, while realizing that the only way to live was through substitutionary atonement. Realize, of course, that when Exodus was first read it was read to the second Generation of Israel on the plains of Moab (or probably after they were in the land). Hence, the events of the Exodus were as old to them as World War I is to us. Already the Exodus was history. Hence, the meaning of the Exodus must be for those beyond the generation it was written about. It must speak to those beyond itself. And it did and still does.

This can contrast rather sharply with Bible study that focuses on the historical events in Egypt and the crossing of the sea. This might include trying to understand what Egyptian dynasty was in power or what Egyptian slaves were like during the supposed period of the Exodus. The reason why Israel so desperately desired freedom from Egypt was because of the oppressive nature of the X regime of Egypt, one might reason. Still, the real reason is that God promised to bring Israel out of Egypt after 400 years (cf. Gen 15) and remembered his covenant at that time (cf. Ex 1–3). One might be tempted to explain that the chariots of Pharaoh went awry as they chased Israel, because of the muddy ground and wooden wheels of these chariots. While this may help to think through how God did it, it still was a divine act that stopped the chariots from catching Israel or escaping judgment (cf. Ex 14:25ff).

Studying these issues may help the historian or the archeologist, to understand all the facts of the Exodus event. However, the meaning of this event is the meaning given in Scripture. Thus, adding data where it is omitted in Scripture may serve to obfuscate the point of the text rather than serve to uncover its intended meaning.

The meaning of the Exodus has present relevance and authority as God’s word for our instruction (cf. 2 Tim 3:16). We need to learn to exercise faith in Yahweh, the greatest of all God’s and redeemer of our souls through substitutionary atonement. The Exodus is about the Gospel, the good news that through faith we can be saved from God’s wrath through believing in him and trusting that our sin has been transferred to the lamb of God.

Third, Biblical Theology tends to study the history and progressive fulfillment of Scripture rather than studying the Bible as literature. We need to repent of seeing the Bible as isolated stories in history about an ancient people and place our trust in seeing Scripture as a literary work intended to convey a message to us. By studying the Bible’s structure, composition and so forth, we begin to see how an author organized his message for his audience. It is at this level that we stop reading Leviticus as solely laws for ancient Israel and begin reading it as a message for us today.

So why does Leviticus include all the laws and offerings? It does not appear to be a comprehensive listing of ceremonial religion, per se. Any one reading the first seven chapters soon realize that Leviticus cannot be a how-to guide to sacrifice, since it omits so much detail. No, the priests probably created their own hand books on sacrifice. So it appears that the laws and offerings are somewhat representational. Actually, the laws in the Pentateuch itself do not appear to be concerned with being a comprehensive compendium.  Hence, we are told three times not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk (Ex 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21).

Leviticus is not simply a history of Israel’s religion, though many critical theologians and fundamentalists like to battle on this level. The tendency of Liberal Theology is discount the revelatory meaning of Scripture in place of its scientific historical investigation of the Bible. Ironically, fundamentalists have sought to play the same ball game and argue along liberal lines, through substantiating history. While this is well enough for apologetic endeavors, it practically means that these believers see history as the meaning of Scripture.

Covenant theologians often have tried to find the meaning of Leviticus through analogy to the church. What happened to Israel is like what happens to the church. Israel was the wilderness church, while we are church in exile awaiting our Promised Land. This confuses God’s intended revelation in Leviticus with a meaning that is found in the New Testament. Sure enough, not all covenant theologians say it this simply, but I am trying to give examples of how we misread the Scripture.

New Covenant Theologians can be guilty of seeing the meaning of the Old Testament simply in terms of its prophetic function for the New Testament. The Old Testament is full of promises that Jesus fulfills. Hence, to read Leviticus is simply to see how it points to and is fulfilled in Jesus. Again, this is a broad brushed statement — many NCTers would not say it so simply. Still, is the Old Testament simply a complex of promises and trajectories to be fulfilled in the NT?

All three methods are valid in many respects but are as a whole insufficient to account for the meaning of, say, Leviticus. While a positive presentation of the meaning of Scripture cannot possibly occur here, a suggestion for the meaning of the laws in Leviticus (or the Pentateuch for that matter) follow.

Leviticus shows that failure to trust God results in discipline, human evil, and God’s grace in providing laws to Israel so that they would not be lost in a sea of sin. These laws function to create a barrier between the holy God and disobedient and untrusting Israel. Thus, evidencing their evil and God’s goodness to give them laws, so that they can stay in the presence of God without his holiness demanding their death. God’s grace in giving these laws to Israel is so that they remain God’s people and the coming redeemer would come to bless (cf. Num 24:7–9, 17).

Its message for us today is that sin and unbelief separates us from God, though he is always gracious even in his discipline. Only a faithful clinging to Yahweh and his redeemer can make law doable without being a burden (cf. Gen 15:6 with 26:2–6 and Rom 8:4).

To sum up, the place of God’s revelation is his inspired Scripture, and revelation means that God reveals himself to all people at all times. It is not simply historically conditioned. Hence, the Exodus means more than the rescue of Israel but it teaches us to trust Yahweh and receive forgiveness through atonement. The message of Leviticus is that sin separates us from God and necessitates laws, though God is gracious to us even in our failings. Graciously, the law preserved Israel’s life in the presence of a holy God so that the redeemer (Jesus) could arise from Judah.


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