Category Archives: doctrine

What is sin? Where did it come from? How is it transmitted?

(Note: This is a practice exam response and is sketchy in some places)

Scripture presents the history of how humanity is separated from God because of their sin, and how God orchestrates a plan in order to remedy humankind’s state. But what is sin, and how has it come to us today?

1. A definition of sin

In Western culture, it is common to talk about certain socially harmful activities as sins – smoking, overeating and so on. However, biblical sin must be understood primarily in reference to God, not to personal or community standards. Therefore, Grudem summarises biblical sin as: “Any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude or nature.” This definition covers not only things we do which go against what God requires of us, such as lying, stealing or committing adultery (Ex 20:2-17), but extends to sinful thoughts such as anger (Mt 5:22) or lust (Mt 5:28), and even our very essence (Eph 2:3, Rom 5:8).

The Bible describes sin using many different words and pictures. The most common term for sin in the Bible (OT: חתא; NT: ἁμαρτια) carries the meaning of missing the mark, or falling short of something. While the idea of sin as falling short is most well-known, it is by no means the only one in the Bible. Since sin is our disposition before a Holy God, it can variously stated and described, depending on which aspect of God a writer is presenting. For example:
– If God is King, sin is rebellion (OT: פשׁע)
– If God is Husband, sin is adultery (e.g. Hosea 1:2, Ezekiel 16)
– If God is Judge, sin is lawbreaking (NT: ανομια, παραβασις)
– If God is Glory, sin is idolatry (e.g. Romans 1:23)
– If God is Wisdom, sin is foolishness (e.g. Proverbs)
– If God is Holy, sin is impurity or uncleanness (e.g. Leviticus, Isaiah 6)
The variegated images of sin in the Bible underscores both its ubiquitous nature, but also the limits of employing a single definition.

Despite sin’s variegated nature, there are three core characteristics of sin: a distrust of God’s Word (Gen 3:1), a misplaced desire (Gen 3:6a), and consequently a disobedience of God’s Word (Gen 3:6b). The prototype transgressions of Adam and Eve is seen time and time again throughout the biblical narrative – in the lives and actions of the patriarchs, arrogant judges, adulterous kings, disobedient Israel and bloodthirsty nations, and through to the moral depravity of our own generation. Behind every sin is a desire to displace God with something else that absorbs our heart and affections more – whether ourselves (i.e. pride) or something else (i.e. idoltary). Romans 1:18-32 offers an anatomy of sin, where the worship of the Creator is replaced with the worship of creation, resulting in a corrupt state that is beyond our own ability to remedy.

2. The origin of sin

Where did sin come from? To affirm the good and just character of God (Deut 32:4) we must clearly affirm that God Himself is not responsible for sin. Rather, each person is “tempted when, by his own desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” (James 1:14) Yet we should not say either that sin is some kind of eternal power equal to God (i.e. dualism). If we assume the truthfulness of the historical fall of Adam and Eve (3:1-16, see also 2 Cor 11:3), then sin originated with them – firstly with the distrust, covetousness and disobedience of our first parents, yet also inside every subsequent human heart (Mk 7:20-23). Yet by assigning the responsibility to humanity, we are not then placing sin outside the foreknowledge or providence of God (who works all things according to the counsel of his will, Eph 1:11). While God is not the author of sin, He has permitted sin in His world with a predetermination to overcome it at great cost to Himself, through the cross of Jesus Christ.

3. The transmission of sin

There are a number of ways in which the sin of the first humans described in the Bible (Gen 3:1-16) affects us today. The first is that, because of Adam’s sin, all humans inherit a sinful nature (depravity). Oliver Crisp calls this “the morally vitiated condition from which all subsequent human beings suffer.” The Bible presents this inherited sinful nature as a matter of fact. For example, David, while confessing his sin, mentions in Psalm 51:5 that “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” The Apostle Paul notes that prior to our salvation by grace, we were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:3). Because of God’s kindness and restraint through civil laws, societal norms and our own consciences, this “inherited tendency” to sin does not mean that every human being is as bad as they could be. Yet without the work of Christ, every person is “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance in them, due to their hardness of heart.” (Eph 4:18)

The second way which Adam’s sin affects us today is that all humans share in Adam’s guilt – though Christians differ on their views regarding the nature of our relationship with Adam’s sin. Some argue that we inherit both Adam’s sinful nature and his guilt (Federal View). The clearest passage outlining that we inherit his guilt is Romans 5:12-21. While comparing Jesus with Adam, Paul states that “Just as the result of [Adam’s] trespass led to condemnation for all men…” (Rom 5:18a), and that “just as through the disobedience of the man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” (Rom 5:19) Paul’s point is that Adam served as our legal representative before God, and we are counted culpable before him (just as in Christ we can be counted righteous through faith in Him).

Some disagree that Adam serves as our federal head – often because of a moral or legal objection to the idea that Adam’s sin is imputed directly to the rest of humanity who were not there to “sin with him”. Instead, some argue that Adam’s guilt was transmitted to us because we were united to him in a real sense – we were actually in Adam when he sinned (Realist View). In this view, we are either literal chips off the block of Adam (the individualised nature argument), or were pre-existentially united to him (the fission / “Interstellar” argument), or share in his nature directly as members of the human race (the participation argument). Still others would argue that Adam’s guilt was not shared with us, but only his morally deficient nature (the Zwinglian view).

The overriding concern from those who reject the Federal View seems to be a sense of legal injustice – how can I be held guilty for Adam’s sin? This objection fails to recognise that we are also guilty before God in a real sense because we have sinned ourselves: “For there is no difference: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Rom 3:23) The charge of unfairness could also apply to Christ serving as our righteous representative – how is that fair either? So an appeal to our limited sense of fairness cannot be the only criteria for assessing this point. The Bible itself does not speculate extensively on whether this sin is mediately or immediately imputed to us, but simply acknowledges that humanity shares in both Adam’s sinful nature (Rom 5:12, 17) and his guilt (Rom 5:16, 18). How marvellous it is then for God to orchestrate the reversal of sin’s penalty and effects “through the one man, Jesus Christ”! (Rom 5:17)


(Time: 2 hours… too long!)

Sources and helpful links

  • Adams, Mark. “Doctrine of Sin.” NT601 The Knowledge of God (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Grudem, Wayne. “Sin.” Pages 490-514 of Systematic Theology. Leiceister: IVP, 1994.
  • Crisp, Oliver. “Sin.” Pages 194-215 of Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic. Edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016.

What are the key elements of justification in Paul’s letters?

[Note: this is a practice essay response, and is therefore sketchy in places]

How does a Holy God forgive guilty sinners? How is one justified, or made right before God? This question lies at the heart of the entire Bible, and is answered in full by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul, the NT author who writes most about the doctrine of justification, teaches that there are three main elements to justification: a removal of God’s wrath against our unrighteousness, a crediting of Jesus’s righteousness to us, and that it is received by grace through faith in Christ.

1. Justification is the removal of God’s ANGER

The first element of justification is that it is the removal of God’s settled opposition to human sin – His wrath. Paul opens his letter to the Romans by reminding them that “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:17, quoting Habbakuk 2:4). The reason that faith is the basis for righteousness is given in the very next verse: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth…” (Rom 1:18) These transgressions are not merely horizontal in nature (e.g. Gentile-Jew relationships), but a self-centred rejection of God Himself (Rom 1:21) and is evidenced in all kinds of ways. Paul’s argument over Romans 1-3 culminates in the summary that “there is none righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10).

It is inconsistent with God’s character and actions over history to “justify the wicked” (Ex 23:7, Prov 17:15). As a result, the fair response from God “for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth” must be “wrath and anger” (Rom 2:8). Given this state of affairs, in order for God to clear the guilty and “declare righteous the ungodly” (Rom 4:5), some kind of action to turn away this wrath is required.

Paul repeatedly teaches that Christ’s death solves this dilemma; in His death, he bears God’s wrath for sin in our place. Romans 3:24-25 states that sinners have been justified (δικαιούμενοι) freely by God’s grace through Christ, of whom God presents as a propitiation (or atoning sacrifice) for our sins. This language of Christ taking our penalty as a substitute is also evident in other passages such as Galatians 3:13 (“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”) and 2 Cor 5:19 (“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”) So to understand what it means to be justified, we first recognise that it involves the removal of God’s wrath against our unrighteousness.

2. Justification is a righteousness TRANSFER

Justification is not merely the removal of guilt; a mnemonic like “Just as if I never sinned” actually falls short of fully covering what occurs. According to Paul, the second element of justification is that God in Christ credits, or imputes His genuine righteousness to us. Paul summarises chapter three by stating that one is “justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” (Rom 3:28) Then, in Romans 4:2-6, citing Abraham’s response to God, Paul uses a new term, λογίζεται (reckoned, credited), to illustrate a close connection with justification. culminating in the use of both terms his summary in Romans 4:6:

“just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works

The last clause (underlined) mirrors the syntax of Romans 3:28, except that Paul swaps the term “justified” with “reckons righteousness”. This language of crediting helps us to visualise that justification is also a transfer of Christ’s righteousness. In Romans 5:18-19, Paul states that “through the obedience of the One many will be appointed righteous” – he does this to emphasise that when sinners are justified, Christ’s obedience is genuinely transferred to our account.

Therefore, justification does not only mean “just as if I’ve never sinned”, but also “just as if I’ve always obeyed” – because the righteousness of Christ’s perfect life has really been transferred to us.

3. The MEANS of justification is “by grace through faith”

How is the removal of God’s wrath and the crediting of Christ’s righteousness appropriated to us? Paul uses the terms “by grace” and “through faith” repeatedly throughout his writings to emphasise the only means of being made right before God (e.g. Rom 3:24, 4:16, 5:17, Tit 3:7, Eph 2:8). The distinction between the two is that God’s grace is the source of our justification, while our faith is the means by which we receive this justification.

For example, while explaining how Abraham was justified by faith not works, Paul explains that justification is received by “the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:5). Other passages in Paul’s writings clearly portray faith as the instrument for receiving a righteousness from God (e.g. Rom 3:22-30, 4:6, 5:1, Phil 3:9). This faith is also in view when Paul states in Romans 10:10 that “for with the heart one believes, [resulting] in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, [resulting] in salvation.” The appropriate response therefore, is to “declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)

In conclusion, Paul’s teaching on justification is that firstly, it is a removal of God’s wrath against sin, it is a crediting of Christ’s righteousness, and that this “great exchange” is obtained through a personal response of faith in what Jesus has done on our behalf.


[60 minutes]

Sources and helpful links:

  • Thompson, Alan. “Righteousness and Justification in Paul.” NT635 Romans and Pauline Theology (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Thompson, Alan. “Greek Exegesis: Romans 1-6.” NT635 Romans and Pauline Theology (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • PSALLOS, Romans album.

What are some different views of how the Bible is inspired?

(Note: This is a practice answer to a possible exam question and is therefore sketchy in places)


How can the Bible be both a divine book and a human book? How should we understand the words of Scripture to be God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16)? Christians have proposed a number of views regarding the inspiration of the Bible, which we will survey briefly. Each view attempts to explain how the Scriptures can be written by humans and divinely given at the same time.

At the outset, we should clarify that the technical term “inspiration” is potentially misleading, given the contemporary use of the term to describe far less than God’s divine supervision (e.g. songwriters, athletes and performers are “inspired”). Some have suggested abandoning this term: for example, AT McGowan prefers the term “divine spiration”, while Wayne Grudem avoids the term altogether and simply states that Scripture is God’s own words. For our purposes we will retain the term inspiration, acknowledging its longstanding use.

Firstly, the mechanical (or dictation) view states that humans were passive in the process of recording God’s Word. They functioned like typewriters or instruments and played little part in the process. Most patristic writers and some Fundamentalists today hold to this view. For example, Athenagorus wrote: “the Spirit [made] use of them as a flute player breathes into a flute.” While this view is attractive because of its simplicity, there is a docetic assumption behind it which devalues the human authors’ contribution to Scripture (for example, Luke’s polished historical narrative, or Mark’s marketplace narration). Christians need not resort to an Islamic or Mormon view of inspiration, where the human authors were merely downloading Scripture from God.

Another view formulated by German theologian Karl Barth is the encounter view. In this view, the Bible is not viewed as God’s revelation; rather, Jesus Himself is. The Bible, rather, functions as a witness to “the event” – an existential encounter with God. Only once this encounter occurs does the Bible become God’s Word. Barth’s view of inspiration arose from a broader desire to form a theology around the Word, as well as him being wary of bibliolatry. As a result, he chose to define revelation so that it is not an objective item to be dissected and analysed (i.e. the Bible). The encounter view therefore, would not affirm that the Bible in its essence is God’s Word. This view is attractive to some as it avoids the issue of attributing difficult passages or human elements to divine supervision (since the Bible is merely a witness to revelation and not the revelation itself). However, the encounter view fails to consider the possibility that God’s Word can be both the content of the revelation and the revelation itself. Ian Maddock offers the analogy that, while a handwritten marriage proposal becomes a proposal (the event) once it’s opened, even if it is not opened the document (the content) is still intrinsically a proposal. In other words, using Barth’s terminology, the Bible can certainly be God’s Word in itself, and become it.

Given the limits of the two views above, it seems best, therefore to embrace both the divine supervision and human contribution to the formation of God-breathed Scripture. A verbal plenary view of inspiration states that all of the Bible, down to each word, ultimately comes from God. For example, 2 Peter 1:21 describes this process: “…men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Again, this is not to subscribe to a mechanical view of inspiration: rather, God superintends the background, heritage and circumstances of individual writers so that their written work is both their own free compositions, and the very Word of God. The meticulous research of Luke’s history in Luke and Acts is as divinely inspired as John receiving the letters in Revelation 2 by dictation.

The verbal plenary view of inspiration is held by many evangelical Christians today. A verbal plenary view contends that every word written is superintended and guided by God, regardless of the means. Michael Horton notes that biblical writers were moved to say things, both by God entering their lives and thoughts, as well as by his Spirit preparing and guiding their lives to make His Word come forth from their own minds and hearts. This dual-authorship view of the Bible upholds both divine and human agency so we are able to confidently believe that the Bible is truly God’s Word to us.


Evaluate the ‘verbal-plenary’ view of inspiration in relation to alternative theories of inspiration.
(40 minutes)

Sources and helpful links:

  • Maddock, Ian. “Characteristics of Scripture: Inspired and Authoritative.” NT601 The Knowledge of God (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Grudem, Wayne. “The Authority of Scripture.” Pages 73-89 of Systematic Theology. Leiceister: IVP, 1994.
  • Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
  • Frame, John. Review of AT McGowan’s The Divine Spiration of Scripture, 2007. https://frame-poythress.org/review-of-andrew-mcgowans-the-divine-spiration-of-scripture/

 

What part does Romans 9-11 play in the structure of the whole letter?

(Note: This is a practice exam question response and is therefore sketchy in parts)


How Paul’s extended discussion of Israel in Romans 9-11 fits into the wider argument of the letter is debated. Views range across a spectrum: some see Romans 9-11 as an unrelated segué from Paul’s exposition of the gospel (cf Dodd); others see it as a systematic treatment on the topic of predestination (cf Augustine, other Reformers); while some go further and champion Romans 9-11 as the “germ and centre” of the letter (cf FC Baur). My contention is that Romans 9-11 is not a random sidebar, but a necessary and timely response to what Paul has presented so far in Romans 1-8 concerning the gospel of God.

1. Background to Romans 9-11

Paul’s magisterial exposition was written to a mixed audience of Jew and Gentile believers. If we take the lead of Luke’s description of the Jews being expelled from Rome in Acts 18:2, and allow for a subsequent return, it seems plausible that a power shift has occurred within the church in Rome. Jewish believers formerly in leadership roles have now been replaced by the remaining Gentiles. In addition, Paul’s anguish for his kinsfolk seems to imply that, despite their privileges (Rom 9:4-5), Jewish people are not experiencing the blessings of salvation (Rom 9:1-3). A natural question from a Jewish person would be: “Has God’s Word failed?”

Doug Moo also notes that this tension is partially Paul’s own doing, since in chapters 1-4 he has argued strongly that the Mosaic law has no salvific benefit, and since in chapters 5-8 he has attributed to Gentile believers numerous Old Testament prophecies, the promises of Israel, and even the language of sonship and adoption into God’s family. A question naturally follows: if Jews aren’t responding to the gospel in faith, while Gentiles are being “grafted in”, has Israel been excluded from God’s promises? This is the underlying question that likely prompts Paul to switch to the extended discussion in Romans 9-11.

2. Summary of Romans 9-11

We see in Paul’s exposition of the Old Testament (a third of his OT quotations in Romans are found in these chapters) a desire to rebuff the objection that God’s Word regarding Israel has failed. In Romans 9-10, Paul uses several OT examples to underscore the fact that Jews and Jewish Christians do not have a salvific birthright due to their ethnicity. For example:
– God chose Isaac and not Ishmael to bear Abraham’s descendants (Rom 9:7; Gen 21:12)
– God chose Jacob and not Esau to be loved (Rom 9:12);
– Hosea records God’s unexpected mercy for an adulterous Israel
– Gentiles have accepted the gospel, and not Israel (Rom 10:16-21)

Paul’s argument is that God’s kindness through history has always depended on his sovereign choice, and Jewish people therefore cannot presume to inherit salvation. One might then ask: “Has God rejected his people then?” (Rom 11:1) The reply is an emphatic no! (Rom 11:2). Paul defends God’s character by making two important points to his original hearers: firstly, that Israel’s present rejection is not total (Rom 11:1-10, in particular citing the example of a remnant who do not bow down to Baal in 1 Kings 19:18), and secondly, that Israel’s current plight is not final (Rom 11:11-32). God is faithful to keep his promises, and there will be salvation among national Israel (Rom 11:25-26). Regardless of one’s view regarding the nature of “all Israel”, Paul’s main point is clear – God has not abandoned Israel.

3. Conclusions from Romans 9-11

Paul’s overall argument is sophisticated, as he balances between the gospel’s scandalous assertion that “Christ is the fulfilment of the law to all who believes” (Rom 10:4) with the need to show that this gospel finds support in the OT scriptures. By echoing the theme of God’s unexpected mercy through chapters 9-11 using a plethora of OT motifs such as lineage, grafting and remnant, Paul shows how the gospel of God’s righteousness revealed can be supported by his Jewish audience, and should elicit a response among them of praise at the depths of God’s wisdom, knowledge and might. Furthermore, given that Israel’s plight is not final, it also behoves Gentile believers to avoid our own ethnocentric attitudes, and to pray earnestly for God’s promises to be fulfilled for their Jewish brothers and sisters.

In conclusion, Paul’s discussion in Rom 9-11 is a necessary response to the charge that Israel’s rejection of the gospel undermines the trustworthiness of God’s promises (Rom 9:6). In addition, Rom 9-11’s overall theme of God’s unexpected mercy is closely tied to the letter’s overall message of God’s righteousness revealed through the gospel – the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection for all who believe – both Jew and Greek (Rom 1:17).


(45 minutes)

Sources and helpful links:

  • Thompson, Alan. “Israel and Romans 9-11.” NT635 Romans and Pauline Theology (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.
  • Thielman, F. “Unexpected Mercy: Echoes of a Biblical Motif in Romans 9-11,” Scottish Journal of Theology 47 (1994): 169-81.

Extra notes: Four main views regarding the interpretation of Romans 11:25-26

“I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. In this way all Israel will be saved.” (Romans 11:25-26, NIV2011)

View 1: All Israel refers to a spiritual Israel, made up of Jew and Gentile

  • Held by John Calvin, OP Robertson, RP Martin, NT Wright
  • Yet the preceding verses (Rom 9:6, 11:27-24, 11:25) and following (11:28) are clearly national Israel

View 2: All Israel refers to all Jewish people, regardless of whether they have faith in Christ

  • A universalist, non-evangelical view
  • Paul’s sorrow and anguish for his Jewish brothers and sisters (Rom 9:2-3) makes no sense with this view

View 3: All “elect” Israel will be saved throughout history, i.e. refers to Jewish people now

  • Held by Donald Robinson, H Ridderbos, A Hoekema, Sam Storms, Colin Kruse
  • AT: Most common view in Sydney
  • If οὕτος means “in this manner” (e.g. NIV2011, ESV) then the logic of v25-26 is: Israel hardens, Gentiles accept. In this manner, Israel will be saved (through history)

View 4: A large group of Jewish people representing Israel will be saved in the future

  • Held by DA Carson, John Piper, CEB Cranfield, James Dunn, Ian Murray, others
  • If οὕτος means “then” or “and so” (e.g. NIV1984, NET, KJV) then the logic of v25-26 is: Israel hardens, Gentiles accept, and then Israel will be saved (at a future date)
  • “All Israel” in Josh 7:15, 1 Sam 7:5 and 1 Kings 12:1 refer to a representative group

The overall point, whether one holds to 3 or 4, is that Paul has not abandoned Israel. God will keep his promises!

What kinds of theology are there? Which is more important, according to the Bible?

(Note: This is an attempt at answering a practice essay question within a time constraint, so is sketchy in places.)


Theology, simply stated, is the study of God with the goal of relationship with Him. For Christians, it is to know God as He presents himself to us, particularly in the Holy Scriptures. John Calvin suggests that:

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

In saying this, he frames true wisdom within a relationship with God, who moves from being a stranger we never meet to the One we can relate to.

Christians have employed a variety of ways to analyse the teaching of Scripture. These approaches are categorised as specific types of theology, systematic, exegetical, biblical, historical and sometimes practical (or pastoral). Scripture does not privilege one over the other: rather, we see these methods used interdependently throughout the Bible.

Systematic theology aims to understand what the whole Bible has to teach us today about a particular topic. It is to ask: “What’s the bottom line?” At its best, it provides Christians (who already do systematic theology on a regular basis) with the ability to explain what the Scriptures teach about a certain topic: for example, God’s Word, God himself, creation, humanity, sin, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the work of Christ, the church, and the last things. The Scriptures show some evidence that the early NT church practised systematic theology, such as the creedal statements in 1 Tim 3:6, Phil 2:5-10, Rom 10:9 and 1 Cor 15:3-4.

Systematic theology is important because what we do is shaped by what we believe about God. Theology shapes our worship (John 4:23), witness (Acts 17:11) and discipleship (John 8:31). Our duty therefore, is to become the best theologians we can be for the glory of God. Yet what we will see is that good systematic theology is only possible in conjunction with other methods of studying the Bible.

Exegetical theology aims to understand what a particular part of the Bible teaches. It is to ask: “What’s in the line?” John reminds us in the prologue to his gospel that Jesus exegetes God for us – in other words, he makes him known to us. Exegetical theology is to seek to derive meaning out of (ex-) the text. Through careful grammatical and historical study, we seek to understand what the author intends the reader to hear. Exegetical theology is indispensable to conducting proper systematic theology and to avoid “proof-texting” a conclusion that is not actually supported by Scripture. However, exegetical theology is not sufficient, as once we understand a text, we still interpret it in light of some kind of overarching framework.

Biblical theology is a technical term referring to understanding how a doctrine moves and progresses throughout the Bible’s chronology. It is to ask: “What’s the timeline?” For example, Luke 24:27 presents how Jesus “beginning with Moses” explained what was in the Scriptures concerning himself. Stephen (Acts 6) and other evangelists self-consciously present the truths of God as part of a redemptive history. Goldsworthy explains:

“The systematic theologian is mainly interested in the finished article… the biblical theologian on the other hand is concerned rather with the progressive unfolding of truth.”

Employing biblical theology helps us to see how a doctrine is understood and applied at a certain point in the development of salvation history. The distinction is that systematic theology is broadly thematic in its treatment of God’s Word, while biblical theology is chronological or programmatic in doing so. A good systematic theologian will at times employ biblical theology, but it builds on its results to offer a collection and summary of teaching about a particular subject. For example, the writer of Hebrews offers an organised (systematic) summary of faith in Hebrews 11:1-2, but he then proceeds to go through biblical history in order to show how faith is seen from a biblical-theological perspective. The Bible therefore does not pit one against the other, but presents both as interdependent approaches.

Historical theology refers to the study of how Scripture is interpreted and doctrine is formulated by the church of the past (Allison, HT, 23). It is to ask: “What is the church’s line?” It can either be synchronic (i.e. focused on a specific time period or thinker) or diachronic (i.e. focused on how a doctrine has been understood over time). Good systematic theology is reliant on the work of brothers and sisters before us. Understanding what the church has believed in the past serves as a medicine that prevents and cures us from believing untrue things in the future. In a highly individualistic age which favours new over old, historical theology reminds us that we are members of a kingdom which transcends space and time. For example, we learn to appreciate how Christians in the past have wrestled with difficult topics (such as the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15), and how they have employed systematic theology to form statements of what they believe, such as the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession of Faith, the 1689 London Baptist Confession and so on. Each example was relevant in their time, and has much to teach us today.

Some writers distinguish practical (or pastoral) theology as asking how a particular truth is relevant to our lives. It is to ask: “What is our line?”, or, “How then shall we live?” One could argue that most of the NT epistles are examples of pastoral theology: how the truth of the gospel impacts day to day living. However, my opinion is that, rather than treating it as a separate discipline, practical theology should be the goal of any theological discipline. Without wrestling with the implications of doctrine, we run into the danger of presenting any theology as an academic exercise, with no tangible call for change in our lives.

Finally, a word of caution. In subcategorising these disciplines, we can be in danger of building unnecessary walls between them. John Frame reminds us that:

“Biblical theology is no less biblical than exegesis or systematics. Exegetical theology is no more exegetical than the others, nor is systematic theology more systematic than the others.”

In conclusion, the Bible employs a range of approaches when it comes to theology. It seems wise to employ each of these disciplines — systematic, exegetical, biblical, historical and practical — as valuable and necessary for a deeper knowledge of, and relationship with, the God revealed to us in Scripture.


(50 minutes)

Sources and other links:

  • Maddock, Ian. “Foundation.” NT601 The Knowledge of God (Lecture Notes), Sydney Missionary Bible College, 2018.
  • Grudem, Wayne. “Introduction to Systematic Theology.” Pages 21-43 of Systematic Theology. Leiceister: IVP, 1994.
  • Calvin, John. “The Knowledge of God.” Pages 1-28 of Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated from the first French edition of 1541 by Robert White. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2014.
  • Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel and Kingdom. Rydalmere: Crossroad, 1981.
  • Allison, Greg. Historical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
  • Trueman, Carl. The Creedal Imperative. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.
  • Frame, John. Salvation Belongs to the Lord. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006.
  • George, Timothy. “Brief Thoughts on the Future of Theological Education.” Foreword in David Dockery (ed.), A Theology, Church, and Ministry: A Handbook for Theological Education. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017. Adapted version retrieved from: http://www.centerforbaptistrenewal.com/blog/2017/10/24/brief-thoughts-on-the-future-of-theological-education. (He outlines the history of our different divisions and points the finger at Scheiermacher’s 1811 publication, A Brief Outline of Theology as a Field of Study in 1811)