Sometimes when I write about some of the courses Mark teaches, it occurs to me that the name of a class may not make it very clear what the class is about. Biblical Theology has the added burden of begging the question, ‘If it isn’t biblical theology, then what kind of theology is it?!’
Theology can be seen as something pie-in-the-sky, not-for-ordinary-folk oddness that only intellectuals and scholars and, well, odd people are interested in.
Mark says, “Many people would like to say, I don’t believe in theology, I just read the Bible, but the minute the words go from the page into your mind, you’re doing theology. In all of this, we can do theology well, or do it poorly. Do it such that it’s a good reflection of what the text says, or do it such that we’re only confirming our own thoughts, wants, and understanding – confirming what we want it to say.”
So it’s actually pretty important for all believers.
Theology is a field of study that looks at what the Bible says and means about God, his attributes, his creation, and how he relates to the world. But the Bible says it is God’s word to us, “Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Ti 3:16), and as such, we need to be careful in how we read it and understand it.
If you were to look up theology, you might find that there are a lot of different kinds of theology – systematic theology, biblical theology, historical theology, practical theology, exegetical theology, natural theology – which could be rather confusing. Theology comes from the Bible and is based on the Bible, but getting from the Bible to our daily lives – understanding it in order to apply it – can be a complicated process. Most of the time, though, each of these types is attempting to address specific questions, and may be an application of a specific method of study.
Systematic theology, for example, is the process of understanding the Bible in order to understand modern questions. It usually starts with who God is – theology proper – and then systematically works through how we know God – revelation, the Bible – on out to creation and how God interacts with creation.
The ‘modern questions’ part is determined by the time period when the systematizing is being done. Questions about Christ’s nature – his humanity, his deity – are a good example of this. The Bible says that Jesus became like us, but in what way did he become ‘like us’? How human was Jesus? In exploring Jesus’ human nature, terms borrowed from Greek philosophy helped explore how human he was – terms like will, nature, person. Over time, those terms changed as understanding of the mind grew. More terms were added – soul, spirit. In the present, we think in terms of the brain and intelligence and memory and thought. How does the biblical language of the heart, soul, and spirit relate to the electro-chemical operation of the brain?
Each generation brings questions to the text that biblical authors had no idea they were going to need to answer.
Another area where the passage of time influenced the questions being asked is the creation. In reading theologians in the first century, they weren’t trying to answer questions of how a world-wide flood occurred. Over the course of time, questions about creation were influenced by a growing understanding of gravity, heliocentricity, relativity, and a host of other more modern studies. When Moses wrote, ‘Let there be light’, he wasn’t thinking about photons and light particles.
And every generation since the first century has identified signs of Christ’s coming and has felt like the signs indicated that their generation had all of the elements for Christ to appear.
In biblical theology, Mark tells his students, “We’re asking about how the different parts of the bible relate to each other. With systematic, we try to bring it into the modern world.”
“We study biblical theology because we believe that, for all its different parts, the Bible tells one large story. Biblical theology is the study of the plot and development of that story, with the goal of seeing ourselves as continuing that story in our lives.”