On Biblical Theology

Biblical Theology is often defined as the historical unfolding of God’s revelation, or of God’s revelation and of the history of his covenantal redemption and transformation of humanity and the world. In practice, Biblical Theology is usually broader than this, and also includes the study of literary structure and of Biblical themes. We shall include these in our understanding. For our purposes, Biblical Theology includes the following large areas of concern: Covenant Theology, Literary Theology, Typology, and Ritual Theology. Again, in no particular order:

First, covenant theology. Covenant theology can be defined as the study of the form or structure of God’s relationship with humanity. In addition, it deals with God’s intra-trinitarian personal relations as they are revealed through His relations with us. Since Covenant Theology is concerned with history, it also seeks to describe how God’s covenantal relationships with humanity change in time, as God transfigures one covenant into a new one throughout the course of Biblical history. As we become familiar with covenant theology, we gain perspectives that will help us understand our history and the times in which we live. Covenant Theology is roughly equivalent to Historical Theology, with the investigation of particular covenants as roughly equivalent to the study of historical creeds and confessions.

Second, Literary Theology. We are concerned here with the shape of the text of the Bible. Since the second Person of God is the Word of God, human beings are also words of God, made in his image. Human language in its shape is related to the shape of human life. The Bible provides literary shapes that show us how we are to think and how we are to exist and move as God’s images. Thus, the shape of the Biblical text is an important area of theological concern. We can see the study of Literary Theology as roughly equivalent to Systematic Theology, in that the literary architecture of a given passage, book, group of books, or of the whole Bible provides us with a kind of “system” for the literature under consideration.

Of course, investigation of literary structure or shape involves us in detailed grammar and in textual questions, and is interwoven with such matters. But Literary Theology is concerned with larger areas of the text. Investigating the shape of the text, especially its parallel structures, provides us with much insight not only into how God has chosen to reveal himself, but also into deep structures and pervasive themes in the Bible.

Third, typology. Covenant Theology focuses on the actual events of Biblical history, on what God and man actually did. We must affirm that this history actually happened, and that it moved progressively toward the goal of the new creation in Jesus Christ and his Church. But God’s way of presenting the meaning of that history involves an abundant use of symbols and symbolic structures, symbols and structures that are transformed and renewed covenant by covenant over the course of Biblical history.

Hence, we must become familiar with the basic symbolic furniture of the world as God created it, and with how he has used and transformed that furniture covenant by covenant. We want to know, for instance, about the heavenly sea of Genesis 1:7, how that sea baptized the world in the Flood, how it found symbolic expression first in the Tabernacle laver, then in the Water Chariots and Bronze Sea of Solomon’s Temple, and then in the Temple River of Ezekiel 47. We want to understand how that heavenly sea relates to the various baptisms of the Old Creation and to the Christian baptism of the New, and to the rivers that flow from God’s throne in Revelation 22.

We must also become familiar with how these pieces of symbolic furniture are positioned in space, investigating symbolic geography (north, south, east, west, up, down) and symbolic architecture (Tabernacle, Solomon’s Temple, Ezekiel’s Temple, the New Jerusalem, etc.). Such configurations in space are world models, and they change covenant after covenant as God transforms the world.

Additionally, we must become familiar with the symbolism of human beings and of human life: ear, hand, foot, clothing, hair, clean and unclean flesh, various kinds of animals and plants, priest and king and prophet, etc.

We use “typology” as the term for all of this investigation. Typology presents the Biblical philosophy of history, and symbolism presents the Biblical philosophy of the world and of human life. Thus, Typology corresponds roughly to Philosophical Theology.

Finally, Ritual Theology. Rituals are acts that symbolically encode history and prophecy. Rituals are means by which we affirm what God has done for us in the past, and show our trust in what he has promised to do for us in the future. As we move through rituals, we are being taught and reminded to walk in a new way. This is not merely intellectual, for when we move through true ritual we are getting into step with God, and we are to keep moving this way as we go out into our larger life in the world. As images of God, we are also images of the Spirit, who is the Motion of God. Rituals help us get into step with the Spirit.

Biblical architecture, such as the Tabernacle, is a microcosm of the world, a small symbolic model of the cosmos. Similarly, Biblical ritual is a microchron of history, a small symbolic sequence of events that duplicates history. Understanding the Biblical nature of ritual, and its form, must inform how the Church does her Liturgical Theology.

James Jordan is Scholar-in-Residence at Theopolis.

This article is an excerpt from a paper entitled “Introduction to Biblical Theology,” which can be found on our media page HERE.