Biblical Theology and Special Revelation

Biblical theology is one of the newer, up and coming, broadening branches of theology. The term itself has been used to indicate three different aspects of the discipline; firstly it can simply refer theology that is biblical; secondly, biblical theology became attached to a movement that arose in the 1940’s, flourished in the 1950’s, declined in the 60’s, and buried in the 70s’; Brevard Childs documented this movement in his book Biblical Theology in Crisis. Thirdly, biblical theology refers to a distinct movement that grew from German soil as part of the Enlightenment in reaction to the alleged failure of orthodox dogmatics to do justice to the historical character of the Bible. J.P. Gabler is customarily viewed as defining the principle of this movement, but the real pioneer from the Reformed perspective was Geerhardus Vos at Princeton in 1893. My discussion will focus on the third kind of biblical theology.

John Murray parroted Vos’s definition as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” The focus is on the process of the historically progressive redemptive character of special revelation. Biblical theology underscores historical diversity, while systematics tries to bring everything together. Both Vos and Murray insist on the organic character of the revelation process; they therefore prefer the title, “History of Special Revelation.”

The real question that these men pose is that of the interrelationship between special revelation of Scripture and systematic theology. All three of them are on the same page: although both disciplines are exegetically based and of a coordinating nature, they are distinct from each other in terms of method and structuring principles. The approach of biblical theology is primarily historical and that of systematic theology is primarily logical. Biblical theology deals with process of revelation while systematics deals with revelation as a finished product. J.J. Davis makes the distinction between what revelation means (systematics) and what it meant (biblical).

The weakness of biblical theology is that there might be a tendency to dwell on what it meant to the original audience. Systematic theology, the circle, can never ignore the line, biblical theology. When we root systematic theology in biblical theology, we achieve its true function and purpose. Biblical theology serves to guide exegesis. This is important because the Bible is not an encyclopedia of doctrine; rather, the Bible itself is revelation and a record of that revelation and leads to a culmination of redemptive history. It is fundamental then for systematic theology to keep in view the historic progressive character of revelation. A biblical theology emphasis will help to restrain systematic theology from surrendering to abstraction, from de-historicizing Scripture, and from ripping truths from their historical context. Systematic theology at the same time helps biblical theology to keep a sense of unity in the midst of historical diversity.

**This post was first seen at Place for Truth, A Voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

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