February 13, 2024

Biblical Theology

Barry Cooper
Biblical Theology

To make sense of the many details in Scripture, we need to get to grips with the overarching story of the Bible, following God’s unfolding revelation chapter by chapter and book by book. Today, Barry Cooper introduces the important discipline of biblical theology.


The word Bible comes from the Greek word biblia, meaning “books.” What you hold in your hands when you hold a Bible is a library: a collection of documents.

But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this “library” is a random grab-bag or, as we say on my side of the pond, a hotch-potch. The books hang together as a whole. They’re more like single episodes in a sixty-six-episode TV season, with each “episode” developing and expanding and deepening the overall story line. The Bible as a whole has many, many themes that run all the way through it, all the way from Genesis to Revelation.  

That is what biblical theology is all about: tracing those themes across the timeline of Scripture as a whole, to see how they develop.

Biblical theology is often contrasted with systematic theology. At the risk of oversimplifying, systematic theology is like reading an encyclopedia, and biblical theology is like reading a story. The first takes individual subjects—for example, “salvation”—and tries to summarize everything Scripture says on the subject. But biblical theology traces the theme of salvation as it grows and develops across Scripture from start to finish. Biblical theology recognizes that Scripture itself is not an encyclopedia. It is a story, a true story, played out across the stage of human history. Like any story, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we won’t be able to understand the story as a whole if we don’t attend to all those pieces, in sequence.

Like any good story, although the biblical narrative involves many different characters, there is a hero at the heart of it all, and the story, ultimately, is about Him. Jesus Himself is clear about this when He says that all of Scripture “bears witness about me.” 

After His resurrection, Jesus shows two of His disciples (on the road to Emmaus) how all of Scripture relates directly to Him. The text says that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Now notice that Jesus began with Moses and the Prophets. He could presumably have just pointed to Himself and said, “Don’t worry about all that old stuff. I’m here now.” But no, Jesus encourages them—and us—to begin with Moses and the Prophets. That’s because if we don’t understand the “then,” we won’t properly understand the “now” or indeed the “not yet.” That is why we do biblical theology. 

Read Scripture in this way, and you begin to see that there’s a progressive revelation at work, meaning that biblical truth becomes progressively clearer and clearer to us as the story develops. By the time we reach Revelation, we are able to see things in Genesis that we would have missed if we’d only had Genesis to go on. And we see things in Revelation we never would have seen had we not read Genesis first. As Augustine put it, “The New [Testament] is in the Old concealed; the Old is in the New revealed.” 

Perhaps it might help us to see the value of biblical theology if we think for a moment about what might happen if we neglected it. 

Let’s say I really want to understand Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (amazing book, by the way). It wouldn’t work if all I did was to dip in and out of it at random spots, pointing at individual sentences and saying, “Ah, so that’s what Jane Eyre’s all about.” It would also be unwise to start reading in the middle of the book without reference to what’s gone before. My picture of who Jane is, or who Mr. Rochester is, would be seriously impaired if I’d ignored the first nineteen chapters. 

The best approach would be to read it from start to finish, to see how it unfolds as a story (that’s biblical theology). And then also, once I’ve done that, it would be good to dip in and out of it in different places to concentrate on particular themes (that would be systematic theology). 

But to make sense of the “micro,” the details, we really need to get to grips with the “macro,” the overarching story of the whole book—the way the story unfolds, chapter by chapter, with each chapter building on the one before, revealing more and more about character and plot.

So it is with Scripture. And that’s why we do biblical theology.