For thousands of Southern Baptist Christians around the world, the recently released small group curriculum The Gospel Project has introduced new concepts and ideas, such as the disciplines of biblical theology and systematic theology. As a matter of fact, both the introduction and the scope & sequence of The Gospel Project lists biblical and systematic theology as two of the four components on which the material is based. But what exactly is biblical theology? How does it relate to systematic theology?
Like so many terms within the sphere of evangelicalism, biblical theology can mean different things to different people and finding an absolute definition can be a bit tricky. In many contexts, including to a large degree the average Sunday School class, biblical theology simply means studying the bible in a way that is faithful to the text. While there is certainly nothing wrong with this kind of explanation, the foundation for The Gospel Project uses the phrase in a slightly more nuanced way.
With that in mind, I would suggest thinking of biblical theology as God’s unfolding and progressively revealed work in history culminating in the person of Jesus Christ. Biblical Theology, then, is a discipline that deals with time and history; we are able to look at the whole canon of Scripture and follow God’s redemptive plan. Sometimes we refer to this as “the big picture.” In addition, biblical theology helps identify themes that might be highlighted in a particular book in the Bible, or themes that might show up with a particular author. For example, a few weeks ago I preached in John 15 and we spent time discussing the significance of Jesus referring to himself as the “true vine.” This was then placed in the redemptive context of the “the big picture” where we were able to see how Israel was the unfaithful vine throughout the Old Testament. We were doing biblical theology.
One of the great practical helps for thinking of biblical theology in this way, and a much needed help for small group classes around the world, is the manner in which this will gradually guide us away from “proof texting” – that is to say, forming final conclusions on a topic based on one or two verses. When faithful to biblical theology, those verses are to be appropriately placed within the greater context of the author’s words, then in the greater context of the Old or New Testament, and finally in the greater context of the Bible as a whole.
So how does this relate to systematic theology? Where biblical theology deals more with the time and history of God’s working, systematic theology tries to bring together what the Scriptures say about a given topic, which we typically call doctrines. What does the Bible specifically say about God? What does it say about the Holy Spirit? What does it say about sin? When we synthesize the various teachings throughout the entirety of Scripture to reach conclusions about a particular topic, we are doing systematic theology.
You can pick up a systematic theology textbook, such as Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and you will find chapters divided by these topics. However, pick up a biblical theology book (of which more are being written) and you will notice chapters typically dealing more with covenants, continuity, typology, prophecy, and so forth. The former is topical based where the latter is time based (I am simplifying for the purpose of clarity).
Your small group can be strengthened by thinking through these concepts. The Gospel Project is attempting to do this very thing, which is why many folks have been overwhelmed by the depth of the material, but after giving it some time, are seeing the benefit of being pushed a little further in their thinking about the text. Here are just a couple of ways your small group can be strengthened by biblical theology:
1. The bible story for the day will be placed in its appropriate context within the narrative of the Scriptures. Instead of just “standing alone” with no framework, biblical theology will help make the story relevant beyond just a moral lesson.
2. Learners will be led to avoid proof texting. Opinions on topics will be formed and evaluated based on the whole counsel of Scripture, not just one or two verses.
3. Bible study will inevitably become more gospel-centered and Christocentric. God’s agenda is all about Jesus; transferring us out of the domain of darkness and into the kingdom of his son.
4. The Scriptures will become more exciting to learners, deepening an appreciation for how the Bible is “alive” (Hebrews 4:12).
5. God’s bigness and providence will be more clearly seen and learners will develop more and more confidence in God’s plan for their own lives.