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Biblical Theology (Discipline)

See also Biblical Theology

BIBLICAL THEOLOGY, O.T., The Discipline of (θεολογία, science of divine things). The knowledge of God as displayed in Scripture, esp. the OT.



Modern liberal scholars maintain a skepticism toward the theological consistency and validity of Scripture; correspondingly, they now confess to their inability to agree upon a definition of Biblical theology, other than as a description of what the differing Biblical authors and redactors may have thought to have constituted theological truth (IDB, I:418, 419). Among evangelicals, however, it may be defined as study of the truthful Biblical history of actual divine redemption.


Biblical theology deals with objective affairs and ideas, through a succession of time periods; e.g., the divinely chosen nation of Israel was first raised up (Hos 11:3) and then punished (v. 6). Chronology therefore constituted the organizing factor of Biblical theology. The ever-present and basic question is, “When does a given event or concept appear?” Such points of occurrence may precede the composition of the Biblical books in which the event is related; e.g., the content of Genesis 3:15 dates to the time of Adam, not to the time of Moses who recorded it. Yet the interpretation of an occurrence may, however, appear with its writing rather than with the event described; e.g., the awareness of Satan as indicated in 1 Chronicles 21:1 dates to Ezra(?) who recorded it, not to David who held the census. Biblical theology is thus constructed on a time framework.


The basic commitment of Biblical theology is to the reality of the Biblical God, actively communicating His will in history (Exod 20:1; 1 Kings 18:24, 39). It was because He had actually freed the Hebrews, from Egypt, and because He had answered Elijah with real fire, that Israel knew that “Yahweh [active presence], He is God.” Cf. G. Oehler’s insistence upon Biblical religion as a fact, not simply doctrinal belief, Theology of the OT (1883), pp. 6, 9, 10, 13.

Arising from the divine character of Biblical theology are four corollaries. (1) Biblical theology relates primarily to God. The Sinaitic covenant, for example, was fundamentally God’s binding Himself to save Israel (Exod 6:7; 19:4), though the fact that He confronted Israel with His law assumes certain effects that relate secondarily to man. (2) Since God both acts and thinks, Biblical theology is concerned with both the doings of God, active revelation (revealing), and then as a result His truths, static revelation (knowledge revealed); cf. 2 Peter 1:16. The term “revelation,” however, implies in both instances manward effects as well. E.g., God’s covenant on Sinai resulted actively in things done for men: on earth Israel was granted possession of Canaan, and in eternity true Israelites inherit heaven’s bliss. It also resulted statically in certain truths being revealed to men: the necessity of shedding life-blood (Christ’s) for reconciliation with God, or the illegitimacy of false witnesses; cf. E. J. Young’s insistence that without genuinely divine revelations one is not studying theology, The Study of OT Theology Today (1958), pp. 29-31. (3) Since there is but one God, it follows that Biblical theology is an internally consistent unity, recorded under the guidance of one Spirit. (4) God has, however, spoken at different times in different ways (Heb 1:1). As a result, Biblical theology exhibits variety. It portrays a cumulative knowledge of the many facets of the living God. But because of the unity of Biblical theology, this variation never means theological replacement, correction, or self-contradiction (1 Pet 1:10, 11). Instead, it means variety, supplementation, and clarification.


Biblical theology assumes man’s lost condition; but God is concerned about mankind’s desperate plight: “How can I give you up?” (Hos 11:8). His purpose in history is to bring men back to Himself through Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:19); and, historically, God’s revelation has appeared only in conjunction with God’s redemption.

To this, another four corollaries appear. (1) Since redemption at all times has been in Christ (John 14:6), Scripture presents but one plan of salvation. This is the most important single feature of the general unity of Biblical theology. (2) Since God’s redemptive acts were progressive, preparing the way for Christ who should come in the fullness of time (Gal 4:4), the accompanying truths that were revealed show in most cases a progressive development. That is, God graciously unfolded both His redemption and His revelation in ways corresponding to man’s capacities to receive them (cf. Acts 17:30). The variety of Biblical theology is therefore that of an organic interrelationship, which results in a growing appreciation of God’s redemptive plan. (3) Since redemption reaches its climax in Christ (Heb 1:2), it is Christ who becomes the focal point of both the OT and NT (Acts 10:43). Thus, when Judaism seeks to make the OT an end in itself, it misses Christ who is its center, and therefore fails to grasp its true meaning (2 Cor 3:14-16; IDB, I:423). (4) Since men today need this same redemption that God has revealed in Scripture, Biblical theology constitutes an eminently practical guide to a God-blessed life of faith and practice.


Biblical theology claims but one source of information for its knowledge of the will of God, the sixty-six canonical books of the OT and NT. As the prophet Daniel put it, “I...perceived in the books” (9:2). Much of the Apoc., Pseudep., and the writings of the Qumran community arose, indeed, in the historical period between the testaments. Because of their non-inspired character, they cannot serve as sources for true Biblical theology. Among liberal writers, who consider this study as nothing more than a description of Israel’s beliefs during the Biblical period, “the canon can have no crucial significance,” IDB, I:428. Roman Catholic authors also are accustomed to disregard this distinction, esp. in respect to the Tridentine Apoc. (cf. P. Heinisch, Theology of the OT). Evangelicals, however, equate the two concepts of Scripture and of special revelation. It is true that God historically used various means of special revelation—the Bible was itself one of these means. But the Bible is now the only extant record of the others. Biblical theology is therefore equivalent to the history of special revelation (G. Vos, Biblical Theology, p. 23).

Related studies.

The place of Biblical theology in religious encyclopedias.

Theological study as a whole divides itself into the four major theological disciplines: exegetical theology (the study of the Bible), historical theology (church history, missions), systematic theology (dogmatics, philosophy of religion), and practical theology (homiletics, Christian education, etc.). The first of these may then be analyzed as follows:

(1) Background, the historical appreciation of the Bible:

Biblical geography

Ancient Near East history

Biblical archeology

Religions of the Near East

(2) Content, textual appreciation of the Bible:

Heb., Aram., and Gr. grammar

Related languages



(3) Publication, the literary appreciation of the Bible:

General introduction: lower (text) criticism and canonics

Special introduction: higher criticism

(4) Truth, revelational appreciation of the Bible

Biblical apologetics

Biblical theology

Each of the other exegetical subdivisions provides prerequisites that are necessary for the construction of a valid Biblical theology. The background studies make meaningful the life situations in which God revealed Himself to His people; history was the medium of divine revelation. Furthermore, it is historical knowledge of the religions of the pagans who surrounded Israel that serves to explain certain terms or forms that God chose to use in His own true religion. The very name of God in Biblical Heb., which is a Canaanitish language, illustrates this point. Again, the errors of the pagan religions serve both to underline the contrasting excellencies of the faith of the saints (G. E. Wright, The OT Against Its Environment) and to explain why similar superstitions came to arise among the apostate in Israel (cf. 1 Kings 18:26-28).

Concerning Biblical content, it is only after a careful exegesis of the text of Scripture, in its original language and by sound hermeneutical principles, that the reformulation of its teachings may be undertaken in Biblical theology. This, in turn, assumes the practice of sound textual criticism, to reconstruct as closely as possible the readings of the original, inspired MSS. It also presupposes the determination of the Canon (q.v.), designating which books are the ones from God.

Biblical theology also is dependent upon higher criticism, for it is the date critically assigned to a given Biblical writing that helps determine the chronological position of its ideas, though the reverse is true as well: it is the theology that constitutes the prime factor in determining the placement of undated books, such as Job. This connection with criticism is what vitiates much of the modern writing in Biblical theology for those committed to Scripture. If, for example, Leviticus be dated, not to the time of Moses (as Lev 1:1, Rom 10:5 indicate), but centuries, or even a millennium later, as skeptical criticism proposes, then the chronology of revelation is thrown into chaos; in fact, the certainty and very existence of revelation as a historical reality is brought into question. This in turn illustrates the significance of Biblical apologetics, upon the success of which a true Biblical theology depends. Built, as it is then, upon these prerequisite studies, Biblical theology stands as a crown to the discipline of exegetical theology.

Regarded otherwise, Biblical theology exists as the mid-point in a series of three theological studies which deal with the nature of religion; but it must be carefully distinguished from both of the others.

The history of religion.

Israel’s faith is a subject of study, along with that of the other religions of the Near E. As a discipline, it asks, “What did Israel believe?” It concerns human ideas. But although some of Israel’s leaders were truly taught of God, even the best failed to grasp all that God had revealed (Dan 12:8, 1 Pet 1:10, 11); and the common people could become worse than the surrounding heathen (Jer 2:11). Biblical theology, belonging by contrast to the revelational division of exegetical theology, asks, “What did God reveal?” At given points in Israel’s history this may have been largely identical with the religious beliefs of the nation’s contemporaneous spiritual leaders, but there are still significant differences. Considered as the sum total of God’s thoughts that had been revealed up to a certain time, Biblical theology thus excludes all false human concepts (1 John 1:5). It also adds truths, some of which may have been undiscoverable (Gen 1) or even incomprehensible to the contemporary human insight (John 11:49-52). For messages may be verbally revealed and recorded before being fully appreciated; “revelation” must not be confused with a man’s perhaps delayed understanding.

Systematic theology.

This last subjectarea builds upon exegetical theology, but it exists as a separate theological discipline. Systematic theology concerns timeless knowledge, without direct reference to the circumstances of its communication. It asks, “What is true of God?” It contains the same facts as Biblical theology (provided one assumes true doctrine to be necessarily Biblical); but it arranges them in a topical synthesis, rather than in the order of their revelation as does Biblical theology.

History of OT Biblical theology.


The Protestant Reformation in the 16th cent. reëstablished two principles that were prerequisites to the development of Biblical theology: “the analogy of Scripture” recognized that the Bible is its own best interpreter, and “the literal sense” made possible a revival of interest in the truly historical development of revelation. Later, John Cocceius (1603-1669) organized his “federal theology” around God’s successively revealed covenants—of works, with Adam in his innocency, and of grace, concerning God’s redemptive activity with fallen man—and thus grasped Scripture’s own key to the progress of divine revelation. Johann Bengel then related his practical piety to the progressive stages of historical revelation in his Ordo Temporum (1741); but the conflict with Rom. sacerdotalism restricted the reformers into an understandable emphasis upon the final results of theology, rather than upon the unfolding of its earlier, OT stages.

Nineteenth century.

The birth of Biblical theology may be dated to John Philip Gabler’s oration of 1787, “Concerning the Correct Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology,” in which he described the former as “the religious ideas of Scripture, so as to distinguish the different times and subjects, and so also the different stages in the development of these ideas.” This required the separation of OT and NT theology, and the first theology of the OT was that of L. Bauer in 1796. Since Gabler tended to distinguish Biblical theology from dogmatic by his rationalistic approach to the former, Bible-believing scholars were slow to recognize the possibilities that lay in the employment of progressive revelation to confirm rather than to explain away the supernatural. It was E. W. Hengstenberg who first demonstrated the value of OT theology in his monumental Christology of the OT (1829-1835). Other significant works were Kurtz’s History of the Old Covenant (1853-1858); Auberlen’s Divine Revelation (1864); and the major work of H. Schultz, OT Theology (1869). G. Oehler’s OT Theology (1873-1874), is still one of the most adequate complete treatments of the subject. A. B. Davidson’s The Theology of the OT (1904), has had prob. the most influence among Eng. books and was only partially affected by the author’s final acceptance of destructive higher criticism of the OT.


L. Bauer’s initial OT theology in 1796 had freely dismissed certain aspects of OT thought as but “the weaker philosophy of the Hebrews”; and the “historicists” who succeeded him went on to assume that God did not really communicate His will, that only what could be explained upon a theory of religious evolution might be considered historical, and that Biblical truths must stand trial before the bar of human rationalism. Assuming dominance in Germany, its advocates included DeWette (1813); Von Cölln (1836); Kuenen (1869); Hitzig (1880); Reuss (1886); Smend (1893); Budde (1900); Marti (1907); and Kautzsch (1911). Later works, in Eng., were H. Wheeler Robinson’s The Religious Ideas of the OT (1913); H. P. Smith’s The Religion of Israel (1914); and W. O. E. Oesterley and Th. H. Robinson’s Hebrew Religion: Its Origin and Development (1937). There were a host of others, the very titles to which indicate the historicism of their contents. Most recently, and most extreme, are T. J. Meek, Hebrew Origins (1950), and R. H. Pfeiffer’s posthumous Religion in the OT (1961).

In reaction against rationalistic historicism, there arose in 19th-cent. Europe the two movements of Ger. Heilsgeschichte and Plymouth Brethren dispensationalism. For the former, J. C. K. Hoffmann’s “Sacred History” emphasized the truth of God’s redemptive activity in history, though to the detriment of written revelation. The OT scholar Franz Delitzsch (d. 1890) is considered a product of Heilsgeschichte theology; and, while it ceased in 1931 as a distinct school at Erlangen, its effects appear in the God in History of O. Piper (1939); God Who Acts of G. E. Wright (1944); and the OT theology of O. Procksch (1956). For the latter, J. N. Darby’s (d. 1882) withdrawal from the liberal Church of England led to the Plymouth Brethren rejection of the whole concept of church organization as apostate. The true NT church (subsequent to Palm Sunday) was thus sharply distinguished from organized Israel, either of the OT, or of the future earthly kingdom. Brethren dispensationalism has been widely popularized by the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible of 1917 (rev. 1967). Meanwhile, the dark night of historicism settled over the Church: for almost half a cent., following the posthumous appearance of Oehler’s work in 1873, Protestant Germany failed to produce a single Biblical theology.


The insufficiency, however, of the man-made religion with which historicism left its devotees was made all too clear by the disillusionment that followed upon Germany’s defeat in World War I. Desperate men were seeking a clearer note of authority than hypotheses of evolutionary naturalism, and were beginning to ask of the Biblical scholars not simply, “What did it mean?” but also, “What does it mean?” Instead of a consistent Biblical Christianity, the movement that has arisen to fill the gap is the half-faith variously identified as “neo-orthodoxy,” “Crisis theology,” or “Barthianism” because of its initial dependence upon the writings of Karl Barth (Epistle to the Romans [1919]) and his insistence that while the Bible was not the Word of God it could become the Word of God, namely, the medium for an existential encounter of the living God with a man. The year 1922 then witnessed the publishing of a theology of the OT by E. König, more systematic than historical; and 1926, that of O. Eissfeldt, which categorically denied the possibility of any real activity of God in history, just as had the historicists, but at the same time sought to maintain a theology that was “real” in the existential sense: subjective and distinct from history.

In the next ten years there appeared in Germany three major works of OT theology: none was willing to accept the whole OT as God’s truth, but each did find within it certain teachings that were considered divinely significant. Most important was W. Eichrodt’s three-volumed Theology of the OT, 1933-1939 (Eng., 1961-1967), centering about the reality of God’s covenant with Israel. E. Sellin’s two-volume work (1933), commenced as a history of religion but then accepted as true theology such teachings as Sellin found to be fulfilled in the Gospel, esp. the holiness of God. L. Köhler’s OT Theology, (1936 [Eng., 1957]), sought to bring unity out of the variety of the OT by focusing on the thought of God as Lord.

The effect of these three was revolutionary. T. C. Vriezen (1949 [Eng., 1958]) of Holland and E. Jacob (1955 [Eng. 1958]) of France maintain that the OT is to be understood from its fulfillment in Jesus Christ; cf. the study of Barth’s disciple, W. Vischer, The Witness of the OT to Christ (1949), that appears almost as the work of a Bible believer. Others, such as G. von Rad’s OT Theology (1957-1960 [Eng., 1962-1966]), are limited to reinterpretations of much-varying strata of Israelitish traditions. All continue to cling to the destructive higher criticism of the OT associated with Wellhausen and demand abandonment of the Reformation principle of “the analogy of Scripture” if one is to construct “Biblical theology in the modern sense” (R. Dentan, Preface to OT Theology, p. 6).

Yet however unstable and inconsistent this combination of intellectual self-determinism with a Biblical Gospel may seem to be, neo-orthodoxy has swept the theological scene. In Scandinavia the stress has been upon God’s working through ancient Heb. sociology and upon the cultic origin of much of the OT; cf. J. Pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture (1926-1940). In Israel, Y. Kaufmann’s Religion of Israel (1960), views the OT as dominated by a popular monotheism instituted by Moses. In England the leading neo-orthodox spirit has been H. H. Rowley, The Relevance of the Bible (1941), The Faith of Israel (1956), with a host of specialized studies by A. G. Hebert, C. B. North, W. J. T. Phythian-Adams, and N. H. Snaith, among others. American neo-orthodoxy has produced G. E. Wright’s, The Challenge of Israel’s Faith (1944), the more liberal theologies of M. Burrows (1946), and O. Baab (1949), and G. A. F. Knight’s A Christian Theology of the OT (1959); various works by J. Bright, R. C. Dentan, P. Minear, and others; and articles in the journal, Interpretation, devoted to neo-orthodox Biblical theology, and the dozens of monographs in the Studies in Biblical Theology series, G. E. Wright and H. H. Rowley, eds.

Twentieth-century conservatism.

Though scarcely acknowledged by the historicists and neo-orthodox, Bible believers are becoming increasingly articulate in the realm of Biblical theology. Early 20th-cent. England produced, confessedly, few conservative works (though cf. R. B. Girdlestone’s OT Theology and Modern Ideas [1909]); but the center of gravity had shifted across the Atlantic. For thirty years the stronghold of orthodoxy lay in Princeton Seminary, N.J. There the standard for consecrated OT study that had been set by the publications of Wm. H. Green in the 1890s was maintained by men such as J. D. Davis, G. Vos, B. B. Warfield, and R. D. Wilson. The Princeton Theological Review served as a chief outlet for major articles and reviews, until its discontinuance at the more liberal reorganization of the seminary in 1929. At neighboring New Brunswick, J. H. Raven published The History of the Religion of Israel (1933), commencing with the revelations God granted to Adam, but extending only to the reign of Manasseh, in which Raven placed the Book of Job. Outstanding is G. Vos’s Biblical Theology, compiled in 1948 after his retirement.

The Princeton position has been perpetuated at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, of whose OT representatives O. T. Allis has been the guiding genius: Prophecy and the Church (1945); God Spake By Moses (1951). Until his death in 1968, Westminster’s E. J. Young was perhaps America’s leading evangelical OT scholar; his theological publications include, My Servants the Prophets (1952), and, The Study of OT Theology Today (1958). The acute Bible-centered reasoning of his colleague John Murray is represented in The Covenant of Grace (1953), and Principles of Conduct (1957). In addition, The Westminster Theological Journal publicizes significant OT articles.

The years since 1950 have been marked by a revival of American evangelical scholarship in other independent and small-denominational conservative institutions. Gordon Divinity School, Mass., publisher of varied articles in The Gordon Review, led in the founding in 1949 of the Evangelical Theological Society. By holding firmly to the inerrancy of the Biblical autographs, “E. T. S.” and its quarterly Journal, Annual Papers, and Monograph Series, has proved a rallying point for Bible-believing theologians. J. B. Payne of the Wheaton College Graduate School of Theology produced the comprehensive Theology of the Older Testament (1962). Dispensationalism has received scholarly leadership from Dallas Seminary, Texas, via its journal, Bibliotheca Sacra; witness also M. F. Unger, Biblical Demonology (1952), D. Pentecost, Things To Come (1958), and C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (1965). Baptist conservatism, though on the wane, has produced W. Watts’ two-volumes, A Survey of OT Teaching (1947). In England a similar evangelical revival is represented by the Tyndale Fellowship with its annual Tyndale Bulletin, and with an Australian branch organized in 1956.

On the continent, neo-orthodoxy did all but destroy what historicism may have left of believing scholarship; yet cf. the stress on verbal plenary inspiration in W. and H. Möller’s OT theology (1938), and the outline studies of E. Sauer. Roman Catholicism, prior to its capitulation to negative higher criticism as documented at Vatican Council II, also produced M. Hetzenauer’s OT theology (1908); and P. Heinisch’s Theology of the OT (1940) [Eng., 1955] towers far above the contemporary works of Protestant neo-orthodoxy.


R. Dentan, Preface to OT Theology (1950); N. Porteous, “OT Theology,” in H. H. Rowley, ed., The OT and Modern Study (1951); H. Hahn, The OT in Modern Research (1954), ch. VII; E. Kraeling, The OT Since the Reformation (1955), ch. XVII; E. J. Young, The Study of OT Theology Today (1958); J. B. Payne, Theology of the Older Testament (1962); K. Stendahl and A. Dulles, “Method in the Study of Biblical Theology,” in J. P. Hyatt, ed., The Bible in Modern Scholarship (1965).