This book gave me deeper knowledge and appreciation of the Bible. It is great for beginners who know relatively little about theology but it also offers profound insight and helpful nuance for those who have been reading the Bible for many years. The book has two main parts: tools of biblical theology and stories of biblical theology. I discuss the tools in this essay and the stories in a separate essay
Chapter 1: Exegetical Tools: Grammatical-Historical Method
When discussing how to understand the Bible, you have to start at the beginning: how do we get at the meaning of the text? Postmodernism and reader-interpretation approaches argue that we have no access to the original or fixed meaning of the author. All we have is our construction or interpretation of the text. Lawrence disagrees. He argues that we can find the meaning of the text, at least most of the time, by using the grammatical-historical method:
Discerning the meaning of the text in this way immediately plunges us into an exploration and study of the grammar, syntax, and literary and historical context of the words we’re reading--thus the phrase: grammatical-historical method….
Lawrence discusses seven genres in Scripture that have different rules for constructing meaning. They all need to be read literally, but reading them literally means reading them according to their genre and their context. The seven genres are:
Reading thematically also helps us understand why things happen. Was physically healing the point of Jesus’ ministry? No. “by healing lepers and lame men, Jesus wasn’t just proving how powerful he was; he was showing us what he had come to do--not make our bodies well, but to make our hearts clean, and so bring us back into a relationship with God.” (pg. 52)
Chapter 2: Biblical Theology Tools 1: Covenants, Epochs, and Canon
Lawrence argues there are three “horizons” of God’s self-revelation in Scripture: “the textual horizon, the epochal horizon,” and the canonical horizon.” (pg. 55) These horizons help us relate the meaning of particular stories, prophecies, or books to the broader context of Scripture.
An example of the textual horizon would be studying the story of Absalom’s rebellion against his father David and relating it to the rest of David’s life. Certainly we can focus in on the details of the rebellion, what happens, who is involved, and how it plays out, but when we step back we notice more of what it means. We see that it is a fulfillment of prophecy made by Nathan that, because David dishonored God by murdering Uriah and committing adultery with Bathsheba, trouble would come out of his own house.
It should also remind us of how God raised David up as king to replace Saul, who also sinned and had the kingdom taken from his hand and given to another. Unlike Saul, however, David was a man after God’s own heart and we see his deep repentance in Psalm 51 and in the rest of his life.
The epochal horizon reminds us of where David fits in God’s work with Israel. He lives under the Mosaic law in the promised land. He is one of the first human kings over God’s people. There is still hope of God dwelling among his people - hence David’s desire to build God a temple. Yet sin still reigns. Sacrifices are still necessary and even the king, the man after God’s own heart, fails repeatedly. Though some of God’s promises have been fulfilled, the serpent from the Garden of Eden has not been crushed.
The canonical horizon captures the entire sweeping story of redemption. It involves looking back at David’s life, and the Old Testament more broadly, and interpreting it in light of Jesus Christ. Now David is important as a type of Christ, a foreshadowing. Christ is the perfect king coming out of David’s line. He does what David could not: live sinlessly, atone for his people’s sin, defeat Satan and death.
Chapter 3: Biblical Theology Tools 2: Prophecy, Typology, and Continuity
Lawrence delves more deeply into the kinds of tools needed for understanding the Bible well. He discusses the ideas of “multiple horizons of prophetic fulfillment,” typology, continuity and discontinuity, and errors of interpretation to avoid.
As I mentioned earlier, often prophecies have multiple levels of fulfillment. So the passage in Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” is first fulfilled not in Jesus, but in Isaiah’s son who is born after this prophecy. But of course the primary point of this passage, from a canonical perspective, is not to tell us about Isaiah’s son (or Abraham’s son), but to tell us about God’s Son, who will be called Immanuel.
And this is, is also an example of typology. God promises a child to Abraham, and a child to Isaiah, and a child to Elizabeth. The promised children here are types - they foreshadow the fulfillment or antitype. They point to the culmination of God’s blessing: Jesus Christ the promised Son of God.
The process of interpretation requires context and typology. One problem people run into is that they simply moralize whatever they are reading. David and Goliath becomes a story about the underdog winning through preparation and courage. Instead, we ought to consider the meaning of passages within their Old Testament context or time horizon, understand how it fits a certain “type” or theme when we do that, look to the fulfillment of that theme in Jesus (the antitype), and then consider what it means for us on this side of the cross and as part of God’s church.
Chapter 4: Biblical and Systematic Theology: Do we Really Need Both?
Often biblical and systematic theology are pitted against one another. Advocates of either side argue that their approach is both superior and sufficient. Yet, Lawrence argues, we need both. At the risk of oversimplifying, biblical theology helps us to know God intimately and personally. It also helps us to understand what is going on in the Bible and how to interpret it. Systematic theology provides rigor, definition, detail, and application.
I like to think of systematic theology as the borders of a puzzle - defining which Scriptural interpretations (placement of puzzle pieces) are legitimate and which are illegitimate. Biblical theology is like looking at the cover of the puzzle box to see the different elements of the picture to help us know how to group the puzzle pieces and where they fit in the overall picture.
On the other hand, if we leave things at biblical theology, we are left with a compelling story but we may have abandoned objective or “propositional” truth. There are many things that are deeply and universally true about God, Man, Sin, Salvation, and Nature that can be glossed over or distorted if we don’t think systematically about these topics. Systematic theology can help us think through thorny and complicated moral issues and situations that may not have a clear “proof-text.” Birth control, stem cell research, and how much or what kinds of media to consume are a few examples where we need a robust theology rather than a proof-text to discern what is God-honoring.
Chapter 5: Systematic Theology Tools: How and Why to Think Theologically
Every problem we face has some theological dimension. Conflict, anxiety, lust, laziness, hopelessness, anger, you name it and what we think of God has something to do with it. And this is true whether or not we are theologians. That’s the shocking thing - you are living according to theological beliefs. If you haven’t worked them out and built them in submission to God’s Word, then you are living with implicit beliefs that are almost certainly counter to God’s Word and his kingdom - and will result in bad choices and brokenness in your family, friendships, workplace, or church.
Lawrence argues that we need to bring three types of knowledge together to live well theologically. We need biblical knowledge, personal knowledge, and situational knowledge. The preceding chapters, and then the second part of the book explore how we gain biblical knowledge. The personal knowledge comes from reflection and meditation - considering ourselves and our situation in light of God and his plans. Situational knowledge comes from studying the world. It involves looking at the details of a particular law, or company policy, or scientific practice, or cultural activity.
When we bring these types of knowledge together, we are equipped to walk as Jesus did. Certainly we will stumble and make mistakes. We will be stumped at times, even with careful thinking. But on the whole, our lives will reflect the Creator and will give life to those around us when we have a proper view of God and ourselves and others, and when we have submitted to living as God intends for us to live.
Paul Mueller is a Senior Research Fellow at AIER, a research fellow and associate director for the Religious Liberty in the States project at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and the owner and operator of The Abbey Bed and Breakfast.