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)


CC: frted (https://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/5512468531)

Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel?

(Note: This is an attempt at answering a possible exam question and is therefore sketchy in places)

Did Paul and Jesus teach the same thing? Is Paul a follower of Jesus, or the actual founder of Christianity? Many critical scholars hold a view that Paul taught a different gospel to Jesus. They claim that Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith in Christ apart from the Jewish law and available to all who believe, is at odds with the historical Jesus. Contemporary documentaries, books and articles are quick to cast Paul and Jesus as opposites: the Harvard heavyweight versus the homespun rabbi; the Witness versus the Word. In light of these concerns, what is the evidence for continuity between the teachings of Jesus and Paul?

1. Circumstantial support for continuity between Jesus and Paul

First, Paul himself claims to be a teacher in continuity with Jesus Christ. He opens his letter to the Galatians with: “Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by men, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father…” (Gal. 1:1) He is at pains to assert that his gospel came “through a revelation of Christ” (Gal. 1:12, 1:16b-17a). Paul’s apostleship denoted a responsibility to accurately share the teaching of Jesus (see also Eph 1:1, Rom 1:1).

Secondly, through Paul’s epistles, he employs the term “tradition” and “passed on” (or “handed over”) to indicate the continuity of his teaching to Jesus (see 1 Cor 11:2, 15:3, Phil 4:9, Col 2:7, 2 Thess 2:15, Rom 6:17). I personally find Paul’s words in 1 Thess. 4:2 to be the most persuasive: “For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.” By using these terms, Paul is indicating that his teaching is not an off-shoot of Jesus’s teaching, but continues from it. The inclusion of “we” in Paul’s statement highlights the consistency and ubiquity of Jesus’s teaching through him and others. In other words, Paul’s teaching has been peer-reviewed, and has the authority of the Lord.

Thirdly, Paul’s incidental information about Jesus in his letters are consistent with the four gospel accounts. Paul Barnett in Jesus and the Logic of History, pp57-58, summarises what Paul states about the historical Jesus, including that:

  • Jesus descended from Abraham (Gal 3:16) and David (Rom 1:3, 1 Cor 15:3)
  • Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4) – indicating at least Paul’s awareness of the virgin birth
  • Jesus lived in poverty (2 Cor 8:9)
  • Jesus was “born under” Jewish law (Gal 4:4)
  • Jesus had a brother, James, and other unnamed siblings (Gal 1:19, 1 Cor 9:5)
  • Jesus was betrayed (1 Cor 11:23), cruelly treated (Rom 15:3), testified before Pilate (1 Tim 6:13), was killed (1 Thess 2:14-15), buried (1 Cor 15:4) and rose again on the third day (1 Cor 15:4-6)

2. Biblical support for the continuity between Jesus and Paul

We now look to examining the biblical teachings of Jesus and Paul directly – is there an irreconcilable divide?

First, Jesus taught salvation by grace through faith, in alignment with Paul’s central message (e.g. Rom 3:21-30). In the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus addressed those who sought to justify themselves by telling a story where a despised tax collector ends up being justified before God by humbling himself before Him for mercy. In contrast, the implication is that the Pharisees are condemned. Jesus’s other parables highlight similar themes to Paul’s emphases, such as undeserved favour and welcome from the father (Luke 15:11-32) and  the crediting of wages not earned (Matt 20:1-16). Paul seems to take what Jesus teaches in story form and presents it propositionally, but at its heart there is continuity between the two.

Secondly, Jesus taught salvation based on his death and resurrection. All four gospels climax on the death and resurrection of Jesus, using the narrative form to self-consciously emphasise the centrality of the cross. Mark and Matthew’s gospel accounts show Jesus repeatedly explaining to his disciples that “the Son of Man came to die as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45), and that He would rise again three days later, according to Scripture. It is also instructive that in Luke 22:37, Jesus connects his impending death with the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.

A common objection to the idea that Paul was in continuity with Jesus is the assertion that Jesus was primarily focused on the Kingdom of God, whereas Paul’s emphasis is on individual justification by faith. However, upon closer inspection, it becomes patently clear that Paul’s letters are replete with references to the Kingdom of God. For example, the sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God (Eph 5:5), and neither is the Kingdom of God a matter of eating and drinking (Rom 14:17), or of talk but of power (1 Cor 4:20).

Other than the kingdom of God, Paul makes numerous quotations or allusions to the teachings of Christ. By doing so, he shows an intimate familiarity with Jesus’s teachings on divorce and remarriage (1 Cor 7:10f, Mk 10:2-12), His return like “a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5:2-5, Lk 12:39), His declaration of all foods being clean (Rom 14:14, Mk 7:15), His command to pay tribute to whom it is due (Rom 13:7, Mk 12:17), his injunction to love one’s enemies (Rom 12:14, 17; Lk 6:27-28) and many other areas. It is irresponsible to conclude that Paul opposed or corrupted Jesus’s teachings when he coheres with them on so many fronts.

3. Genuine differences between Jesus and Paul’s emphases

While I have tried to show continuity between Paul and Jesus, there are still distinct differences between them. For example, Paul has far more to say about the doctrine of the church and of eschatology. This difference in emphasis may be attributed to a number of reasons.

Jesus and Paul taught at different points in the salvation-historical era. Jesus’s audience were mainly Jews living prior to the cross and the arrival of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is understandable therefore, that Jesus’s teachings are designed to answer and reframe Jewish expectations of what the Kingdom of God will look like (Mk 1:14-15, see also the Parables of the Sower, the Mustard Seed, and others). As a travelling preacher, Jesus’s teaching is heard and recorded in story form.

In contrast, Paul’s audience are a mix of Jews and Gentiles living post-cross and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s teaching comes from the context of his role as a missionary and church-planter addressing the pastoral concerns of the early church. As a result, he necessarily takes the teachings of Jesus and restates them for his specific audience. His emphasis on grace and eschatology may also be a result of his theology being refracted through the lens of his unique conversion. As S Kim explains in Dictionary of Paul an His Letters, “Damascus in seed form has everything Paul emphasises.”

4. Conclusion

Rumours of a divorce between Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching are untrue. A close reading of their teachings reveal differences in emphasis, but not differences in theology. Both Jesus and Paul attest to salvation by grace through faith, and both attest to the death and resurrection of the Son of Man.

(time: 1 hour)

Sources and other links:

Wishing tree thoughts

On the first day of the Lunar New Year, we were walking through a local shopping mall and saw they’d put up this tree:

It turned out to be a wishing tree – people were invited to write their wishes on a card, and hang them on the tree. The branches were full of notes.

Some were predictable:

I wish for endless love! And lots of money!

Good health for my parents

To find a good job

Some were lovely:

That Josh proposes to me

Dear God, May we love each other just as you have loved us.

Some expressed pain and longing:

For us to fall pregnant with a healthy baby

For my parents to choose who I love

For my son to come home

Some were sad:

For my Mr Grey to find me

For my family to get along, 

For my parents to stay together

I think what kept Cheryl and I there for over an hour, reading message after message, was this: what we wish for is a window into our hearts.

So I started to pray to the Triune God for each card I read. After all, who else can answer our prayers? Who are we wishing to? God? A Higher power otherwise undefined?

I found it hard to stop thinking about the messages afterwards, so jotted a few lines of verse down.


Under the Wishing Tree hopes expressed
dreams declared
reunions requested
and names signed
Among them
Tamara pleads for a family in heaven
A prayer that God in Christ sought to answer
When he too dangled his message on wood
Jesus Messiah laid bare for sinners
Our names bound to him by scarlet thread
His death and revival
Brings the arrival of riches exceeding red packet provisions
This New Year lift your eyes to true prosperity
God’s Son wishing life from his death on a tree.



Hebrew Aleph Bet Song and Vowel Song

Cheryl and I have just started learning Hebrew this year at SMBC. To keep things fun we’ve been using a variety of methods. We learned the Hebrew consonants using this song we found online (here’s us singing it):

Then we came to the pointed vowels (they’re similar to pinyin in Chinese, but in dot/dash form). We couldn’t find a memory song that went through all the Hebrew vowels in our Elementary Biblical Hebrew textbook (Athas and Young)… so I played around with the words from Carole Grover’s song and we came up with this:

Sing to the tune of “Arise My Soul Arise.”


A pair of eyes: tsere

A bar below: patakh

A T-shape is qamets

Or called qamets khatuf

Three dots that make a smile: segol

But if three dots swoop down: qibbuts

We’re halfway through the vowel song

A dot beneath: khireq

That dot on top: kholem

Inside a waw: shuruq

Two dots below: shewa

One dot and yod makes khireq-yod

Three dots and yod makes segol-yod

Those are the Hebrew vowels in song

Hope it’s useful to other budding Hebrew learners, young and old!

Book review: Going Deeper with New Testament Greek


Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (B&H Academic, 2016).

by Andreas Köstenberger, Benjamin Merkle and Robert Plummer

Genre: Biblical Reference / Language Study

Size: 550 pages.

What’s the big idea: The book aims to “stir in you a passion, and to provide you with the necessary tools, to ‘go deeper’ in your pursuit of your master of NT Greek” (p.1).

There’s a quip in New Testament Greek circles that, for every 9 Greek lecturers, there are 10 Greek grammars. The most recent contribution to the scene is Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (B&H Academic, 2016). I first heard about this volume through Rob Plummer’s Daily Dose of Greek videos, and thought it would be a good complement ahead of my second year of learning biblical Greek.

Easy to read? Surprisingly enough, yes. It’s certainly more readable than Daniel Wallace’s grammar (as excellent as it is). I think part of the charm of Deeper Greek is that it’s organised in a way that blends the traditional grammar with other helpful content (like a Swiss Army knife). Each chapter ends with practice exercises, a vocab list and tables summarising the content just covered. I came away enjoying, rather than enduring each chapter I read.

What I appreciated? Several things.

  • I loved how every chapter features a short introduction where the author takes an example from the Bible to illustrate the practical relevance of the content to follow. For example, Chapter 2 on The Genitive Case begins with a translation issue in the Bible: should Luke 2:14 read “Peace on earth, good will towards men” (KJV) or “Peace on earth to those whom his favour rests” (NIV)? Lo and behold, it all hangs on whether there’s a genitive noun, and I’m hooked into going deeper into the rest of the chapter. Contrast this with Wallace, who writes assuming that you’re motivated to plow through 33 types of genitives without being convinced of its usefulness.
  • I found the first chapter on the history of Greek and textual criticism very helpful to kick things off and bolster my confidence that in 99.9% of cases, we have in our Bibles God’s authoritative Word preserved for us.
  • There’s a very interesting and informative chapter on verbal aspect, an area of debate among NT Greek scholars today.
  • The last chapter gives practical tips to keep up your Greek. You really feel like the three authors are encouraging you to keep studying and mastering Greek.
  • The book contains charts summarising each chapter. These are fantastic and would be worth the price of the book alone, though seems like you can purchase them separately.

What I would have liked to see:

  • Section numbers. The lack of them throughout the textbook. It made it more difficult to find specific concepts more easily and to cite them.
  • Less derivative content. Some chapters on noun cases seemed to lean on Wallace quite heavily, where it would have been nice to see the authors just present their own study of NT grammar and syntax
  • An answer key for the Practice Exercises would have been helpful for students.

Who I’d recommend it to: Any Greek student with a year of Greek behind their belt, or a pastor who’s “apostasised” from their Greek in seminary and wants to get back on the saddle. If you’re a whizz at Greek and love getting into the details, the thoroughness of Wallace’s grammar might be more suitable.

Verdict: This book will help you to understand the language of the New Testament better, and to become excited about studying God’s Word more deeply.

More info:

  • Deeper Greek website – coming soon, a website that will hopefully dive into some of the topics covered in this textbook. A video discussion on verbal aspect would be very helpful.

(I’m grateful to B&H Academic who provided a review copy of this textbook, which has not influenced my opinion of the book.)