February 15, 2014

The Pregnancy of Biblical Theology, or Biblical Theology's Children

Biblical Theology* is hot these days. Yes, it has always been present in the shadows of the academy, a specialized discipline with ardent devotees, but rarely glimpsed outside the seminaries except in polemic upheavals of Reformed and Dispensational "dialogue", perhaps more aptly named "mud-slinging" in some cases (in more polite company, "speaking past one another"). However, those previous earthquakes appear to have released at least some of the pent-up pressure on theological tectonic plates, allowing a realignment with much less, shall we say, stress, between the camps.

We are now seeing (in the past twenty years or so) exercise of the discipline of Biblical Theology across a broad range of Evangelicalism. What was a trickle of readily available publications openly engaging in Biblical Theology has become a wide river as books flow from the presses with the subtitle "a Biblical Theology". To be fair, "Gospel Centered" owns the titular heavyweight belt for now, but "Biblical Theology" is hungry and training hard to The Eye of the Tiger.

The energy invested by Christian scholars is beginning to pay off, as we now see popular-level books which quite capably introduce the discipline to a much broader audience, such as What is Biblical Theology by Jim Hamilton and According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy. Should this pregnant moment continue, it will result in birthing new resources for Bible study unlike many current offerings. These new studies, like the lay-level introductions noted here, will impact everyday believers who would never imagine picking up a thousand-page tome on Biblical Theology proper. And yet, in due time, Biblical Theology will have its day in the sun for every believer in the Son.

A few words about a lot of words

The Bible uses a lot of words. Important words. Words which demand real investment of energy to understand. Today we have ready resources at hand which enable deep study of Biblical words. But words alone, or should I say, words considered alone apart from their context, are insufficient to fully understand what is being said. ["Context, context, context" says the voice inside your head.] Beyond individual words, reading and studying words in their context is absolutely essential to understanding what is meant.

Context must be considered on at least three levels: immediate, epochal, and canonical.  For this article, we will focus solely on the first level, immediate, and demonstrate how to remove some present-day hurdles which obscure this context.  Immediate context itself is also at least a three-level discipline, consisting of how a word is used in its sentence, paragraph, and the entire book (as in the single book of the Bible you are reading). For the modern reader, paragraphs are the fundamental context that simply must be kept in view to avoid skewing or misunderstanding a word within a passage. As more and more books in the evangelical sphere introduce, develop, and expand the practice of Biblical Theology, broader concepts of context will gain traction and eventually take hold.

When sand gets in your eye

What gets in the way for you, dear reader,potentially obscuring context as you read your Bible?  [Sidebar: I assume that you do read your Bible. It's kind of a big deal - pretty much the necessary ingredient of this whole exercise.] Answer: verse numbers. Yup, verse numbers. The verse divisions in your Bible are not inspired. While incredibly useful and necessary for group navigation of the Bible, verse numbers can have a subtle, nearly imperceptible impact on your thinking as you read. If I could draw a word picture (using a picture as well), it would sound (and look) something like this. You begin reading chapter 1, verse 1. All is well with the world. We have subject and verb clauses. Everything is clicking along without a hitch. You reach the end of the verse, and your mind goes...

... so you clamber over the fence and begin playing in this wildly different, other-worldly place called "verse 2".

Ok, a bit of hyperbole, I know. But versification does enable us to consider, write about, discuss, study, and claim all sorts of things based on very tiny segments of What God Has Said. When you take a vacation to enjoy the beach, does that mean you enjoy the beach one single grain of sand at a time? Of course not. Yet, through habit and example, versification has given us permission and even goaded us into picking up each grain of biblical sand in the scenic beachfront panorama painted across the entire Bible.

A Small Eye-Wash Station to Clear Your Vision

What can you do today to supplement your regular daily Bible reading which could help you see context in a larger sense? I'm suggesting, for those of you with smartphones and tablet computers, that you setup a Bible reading program with specific settings which remove the numbering of versification. I use and recommend Olive Tree, and have made the following setup changes for the main window text. Basically, set the background and everything not text to match (in this example - Black).

Which will result in the following appearance. Chapter numbers and added subheadings are still visible, but it will give you a cleaner, more continuous text to read, without the need to climb over verse numbers as the words flow on.

Feedback, Please

Give these settings a try for a few weeks, starting with one of the shorter books in the New Testament. I would love to hear back from you, whether the experience is good or bad. Throw your comments onto this post, or email me.


*Biblical Theology - Not a matter of extracting theology from the Bible (all Christian theologies do this), but rather the practice of looking for the over-arching themes of Scripture and unifying the Bible's message across its various historical contexts.

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