Understanding Biblical Theology

Biblical Theology is all the rage these days. A quick Amazon search will turn up all kinds of books on biblical theology, many of them written in just the last few years. But if you skim through those books, you’ll quickly notice something rather interesting: no one really seems to know what “biblical theology” means.

Biblical theology is one of those phrases with an obvious surface meaning (who wouldn’t want their theology to be biblical?) that grows hazy the minute you begin to ask some of the difficult questions:

  • What is “theology”?
  • What does it mean to be “biblical”?
  • Whose theology are we after (e.g. the Bible, the biblical authors, the religious communities of the biblical authors)?
  • Given the different perspectives in the Bible, can we really talk about just one biblical theology or are there many biblical theologies?

And we could keep going. With just a few questions, we begin to see why it can be so frustrating to figure out what people mean when they talk about biblical theology. It’s because biblical theology is a label that covers a multitude of differences.

That’s where the new book from Mickey Klink and Darian Lockett comes in: Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Zondervan 2012). In this book, Klink and Lockett set out to help us understand five major approaches to biblical theology, how they differ, and why those differences are important. And, along they way, they offer an outstanding resource for anyone who wants to understand this important discipline better. I strongly recommend it.

[In the interests of full disclosure, Mickey and Darian are good friends who studied with me for a time at the University of St. Andrews. You  have to be careful when reviewing books written by friends because there's always a tendency to give a book higher marks than it deserves in the interests of friendship. There's also the fact that Mickey is much bigger than I am and could probably squish me between two of his smaller fingers. Fortunately, there was no need to be concerned here. This is a great book that I can endorse with complete integrity.] 

Summary

The basic structure of the book is simple and helpful. Klink and Lockett begin by identifying five issues that differentiate various approaches to biblical theology:

  • Old Testament Connection to New Testament: Is there fundamental discontinuity between the OT and NT so that it’s impossible to talk about a single biblical theology? Or is there sufficient unity to see the two are parts of the same theological perspective? And, if so, how do we relate them without distorting the unique perspectives of each?
  • Historical Diversity versus Theological Unity: The Bible contains many diverse perspectives: John is different than Matthew, and Solomon is no Paul. So any attempt to talk about the theology of the Bible will have to consider what elements (if any) provide unity among the diversity.
  • Scope and Sources of Biblical Theology: Since the Bible was written by human authors who lived in particular cultural contexts and wrote for particular religious communities, how much of that background do we need to know before we can really understand their theology? In other words, does biblical theology focus exclusively on the Bible, or does it need to pay attention to these extra-biblical sources? If so, to what extent?
  • Subject Matter of Biblical Theology: What exactly are we studying anyway? Are we after the theology expressed in the texts, the theologies of the people who wrote the texts, the theologies of the religious communities they were a part of, or something else entirely? That seems like a pretty important question to answer.
  • Biblical Theology as a Churchly or Academic Discipline: Finally, who should be doing biblical theology? Is it an academic discipline that we should leave to the experts, or is it something that pastors and lay people can (and should) do regularly?

Obviously, the answer to each question impacts the others. So all five of these overlap in some way. But Klink and Lockett demonstrate that you can use these five guiding issues as a way of differentiating five basic approaches to biblical theology.

The rest of the book unpacks those five approaches. Each approach gets two chapters. In the first, Klink and Lockett offer a theoretical explanation of the approach, showing how it understands each of these five issues. And in the second, they look at how a key proponent of that approach actually did biblical theology.

  • Biblical Theology as Historical Description (James Barr)
  • Biblical Theology as History of Redemption (D. A. Carson)
  • Biblical Theology as Worldview-Story (N. T. Wright)
  • Biblical Theology as Canonical Approach (Brevard Childs)
  • Biblical Theology as Theological Construction (Francis Watson)

This combination of the theoretical and the practical is an outstanding way of unpacking a “five views” taxonomy, and one that I’d love to see implemented in similar books.

Strengths

The greatest strength of the book likes in its clear structure, solid prose, and useful taxonomy. Although it can get a little repetitive by the end of the book to read again about someone’s view of the “scope and sources of biblical theology,” the consistent application of the five issues to each approach makes the book’s argument easy and the differences among the various approaches easy to identify. So a little repetition is quite forgivable.

One of the amazing things about the book is how much territory they cover in less than 200 pages. That means each approach gets less than 40 pages, including both the theoretical explanation and practical example. With that kind of brevity, you’d expect a book like this to be fairly superficial, something useful only for those who know almost nothing about biblical theology. And the book is an excellent resource for the beginner seeking an orientation to the discipline. As Joel Green says in his endorsement, it’s a “point of entry into the whole discussion that is as accessible as it is valuable.” Well said.

But it doesn’t stop there. Klink and Lockett pack a lot of useful information into those short chapters. So even those more experienced in the field will find their analysis helpful.

Weaknesses

The only real weakness of the book is a function of its methodology: taxonomies are necessarily reductionistic. Indeed, the value of a good taxonomy is that it reduces the complexity of some body of knowledge, giving us broad categories as a way of organizing and relating useful information.

And that’s exactly what Klink and Lockett do for biblical theology. Instead of a bewildering array of disparate perspectives, the reader gets five clear approaches to the discipline. But, for the reader, that clarity comes with the risk of forgetting the complexity. I routinely find students misusing taxonomies and forcing people into neat categories where they don’t really belong. People are messier than that, and they rarely fit into the little boxes we create for them.

Don’t get me wrong. I love taxonomies. I think they are an excellent way of organizing information and helping people navigate complex bodies of information. People just need to keep in mind that we need taxonomies precisely because reality is so messy. The taxonomy doesn’t make reality less messy, just easier to understand.

As long as you use the book the way it was intended, this shouldn’t be a problem. Klink and Lockett aren’t trying to suggest that their five categories are comprehensive or that everyone will fit easily into one of these categories. They have simply identified five major approaches to biblical theology, and this will help the reader navigate the complex world of biblical theology.

Conclusion

This is an outstanding book, one that I wish I had been able to read as a student. It clearly explains what various people mean by “biblical theology,” why there are so many different definitions, and why those definitions matter. And the corresponding case studies make each approach far more concrete and understandable than would have been possible with theoretical explanations alone.

I strongly recommend the book for anyone interested in biblical theology: Bible student or theologian, novice or expert, academic or pastor. Everyone should find something to enjoy.

Comments

comments

3 Responses to “Understanding Biblical Theology”

  1. mercadeo en linea November 9, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

    Online Journal devoted to biblical theology and the redeptive-historical approach to interpreting and undestanding Scripture. Articles by Kline, Kuyper, Murray, Ridderbos, Vos and more.

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