Theology and Biblical Studies - What's the Difference?

Are theology and biblical studies the same thing? If not, how do they relate? How are they different? Are they in conflict? This article by Michael Morrison of Grace Communion Seminary addresses these and related questions. For another post on this topic, click here.

In most seminaries and Bible schools, theology and biblical studies are in separate categories. Yet most lay Christians assume they are the same. In this article we will explain why there is a difference, problems that can arise because of the difference, and how biblical studies and theology can both be better if they work together.

A brief history of biblical studies

The early church taught the gospel, and educated pagans said, “Oh really? How does that work?” Some of the pagans wanted to ridicule people who believed the gospel about a crucified hero; others were genuinely interested.

So the early church leaders began to answer some of the philosophical and logical questions about salvation through Christ – often using terms used by the questioners. The Christian faith was put into the words and concepts of philosophy, such as Stoicism or neoPlatonism.

This strategy often worked; some people dropped their objections to Christianity when it was put into those terms. As one doctrine was linked with another, a theological system or superstructure was built, based partly on the philosophical beliefs of the day.

Meanwhile, there was the Bible, which continued to be read in worship services, and which continued to be looked to as a standard. Everyone assumed that the church’s theology was based on the teachings of the Bible. Indeed, biblical texts could be found to support the concepts the theologians had come up with, and this continued for hundreds of years.

Most people did not read the Bible. They would hear portions of the Bible in church – the parts that were in the lectionary. They didn’t worry about the rest. When they heard a passage from Scripture, they were also given a sermon to help them understand what it meant.

How did the church leaders read the Bible and explain what it meant? With a great deal of freedom. There was no standard interpretation. Commentaries written by famous men were held in high regard, but a lot of creativity was also allowed – as long as the Scriptures were read according to the regula fide – the rule of faith.

The Bible was read in such a way as to agree with what the church was teaching. If someone could figure out a way to teach salvation through Jesus Christ in Leviticus 11, then that was great. As long as the conclusions were kosher, the method didn’t matter much.

With this approach, theology had the upper hand. With creative interpretations, the Bible always seemed to support what the church taught.

But along came the Protestant Reformation, which stated the primacy of the Bible over the theological tradition, and the Enlightenment, which stressed a return to the classical sources to see what they said. Various Catholic doctrines were rejected as incompatible with the Bible. That does not come from the Bible, they said – you are reading something into it that really isn’t there. Even if the doctrine might be true, it doesn’t come out of that particular passage.

So eventually the grand plan was conceived to test all things and to hold fast to that which can be proved. Instead of starting with a theological system and seeing if we can find some Bible verses to support it (as if we were starting with the superstructure and trying to locate the foundation), rather we should start with Scripture and see what results we get if we just build on it (start with the foundation and work our way up).

Hopefully the two methods would arrive at the same theological system, but if not, this approach will provide a way for people to test and improve their theology.

Thus was born the discipline of “biblical theology,” as opposed to “systematic theology.” Biblical studies begins with the biblical text; systematic theology begins with a concept of what God is and what God is doing in the world. This division of labor between biblical scholars and theologians reinvigorated biblical studies, but also led it down some unproductive dead-end alleys.

A focus on the text

In biblical theology, we do not begin by asking, Where does Paul support a particular doctrine – such as purgatory, predestination, or the Trinity? That approach, in practice, usually means that we already have our mind made up and are just looking for some support.

We need to start instead with the question, What does Paul actually teach? Maybe he doesn’t address the question of purgatory at all, or maybe it is just a minor point while other things are far more important to him.

So biblical scholars started with the basic question: What does Scripture actually teach? By necessity, church dogma had to be bracketed out of the investigation. That would be like answering the question before the facts had been gathered. The question was focused: What does the text actually say?

That question was then subdivided: What does Deuteronomy actually teach, what does Paul actually teach, etc. The scholars began to examine the documents one by one, starting with fundamental questions relevant to any literature: Who wrote this book? When was it written? Why was it written? What is it trying to say?

Since this approach was devised to throw off the domination of tradition, it should be no surprise that some scholars came to untraditional conclusions. Moses didn't write Deuteronomy, Paul didn’t write Ephesians, parts of Isaiah were written centuries after Isaiah, and so forth. The scholars were not going to let the church dictate to them any of the details.

“What does Deuteronomy teach?” is essentially a literary question, and biblical theology turned into a secular discipline, a history of the religious beliefs of ancient Jews. It did not require faith, and the scholars wanted to keep their faith from dictating what they would find in the text.

They kept a narrow focus: to describe what happened back then, not prescribe what people ought to believe now. The methodology did not allow the scholars to assume that any of it was true. They could believe it if they wished, of course, but they had to keep their beliefs out of their literary analysis. So with this agnostic approach to the documents, they began to dismantle previously held beliefs about the Old and New Testaments.

Just as Augustine was not the final authority on the meaning of Luke, so also the New Testament was not the final authority on the meaning of Isaiah. Each had to be studied on its own terms, independent of outside interference. It became difficult, by definition, to see any Christian meaning in the Old Testament, and it became difficult to write a theology that covered both Old and New Testaments.

As scholars focused on individual books, they began to see variety, rather than absolute agreement. The Gospels had different terminology than Paul did. Matthew, Mark, and Luke had their own emphases, rather than being a repeat of each other – each of them had their own theological interests. People of faith can conclude that God inspired these books to be different, and if we ignore the differences, we are missing part of the way God communicates to us.

It’s important to ask Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. Those are questions we see addressed in books with the title Introduction to the New Testament. We don’t always get definitive answers, but it is still helpful to ask the question because it might help us understand what the message meant.

Adding it all up

Scholars went through the Bible book by book to ask, what does this book teach us about God, Christ, the Spirit, the church, the end times, etc.? They came to the Bible with questions and looked for answers. Fair enough, but what happens if the book isn’t trying to answer our question? What happens if the book is trying to teach us something we didn’t even know to ask about?

It is OK to ask our own questions, as long as we remember that the Bible may not address them. We should not assume that our questions are the only ones worth asking, or the only measuring-stick for truth.

We need to study the texts on their own to see what they teach. We need to see what Romans 1 says about God, then we need to see what Romans 2 says about it, and then Romans 3, and later, to consider how these ideas fit together. If Romans 1 describes a God who wants to punish sinners, and Romans 3 describes a God who wants to let sinners escape, then we need to consider how these ideas fit together. Theology might be able to help us in this.

Passage by passage, we get various teachings about God. We put all the ones from Romans together and see how they fit together. We put all the ones from Corinthians together, and all the ones from Philippians, and eventually we get all the building blocks from Paul and see how they fit together.

In the same way, we gradually build, from the ground up, a theology from Matthew and Luke and John and Hebrews. Each of them presents a slightly different picture, just as Paul happens to mention certain things in 1 Corinthians that he does not cover in Romans. We are building from a piecemeal biblical theology toward a more comprehensive statement of theology.

In a perfect world, the resultant picture is exactly what the systematic theologians are saying. But of course theology is never so tidy. Modern theologians are dealing with questions that the biblical writers never thought to ask, so the systematicians are always trying to say more than the Bible does. There will always be holes in the biblical theology edifice, because the Bible does not directly answer all the questions we bring to it.

The biblical writers were not even trying to say everything. Paul never mentions the Lord’s Supper in Romans, for example. His letters were written in response to problems in various churches, and he never saw the need to address certain questions, such as the proper way to baptize people. If he is silent or unclear on an issue, then we have to let him be the way he is. Romans is not a complete theology of everything, Paul’s epistles put together are not a complete theology of everything, and the New Testament as a whole is not a complete theology of everything, either. It’s a foundation.

Bringing theology back into biblical studies

What is the role of theology in our exegesis? Eventually we take our historical background information, and our analysis of key words and grammar, and ask, So what?

Most of us study the Bible not merely for literary or historical curiosity. The vast majority of biblical scholarship is done by people who are convinced that the Bible speaks to our lives today. Most biblical scholarship is done by people who have some faith in what it says, and a conviction that Scripture is designed to be used in the faith community. Historically it has been the foundation of church teachings and practices.

Scripture is said to be inspired by God. Scholars may debate the manner and extent of inspiration, but the point is that these writings carry some authority for what we believe and do.

Scripture’s purpose is given in 2 Timothy 3:15-17: “The Holy Scriptures…are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

There is a two-fold purpose here: 1) salvation and 2) equipping. Or in other words, things to believe and things to do, or theology and ethics. The entire biblical story is designed to help us be the people God intended us to be – his children, created “in his image,” thinking and acting in a life characterized by divine love. Theological truths should affect our behavior, and our actions should be rooted in theological truths, not just rules.

Some passages have a practical “application.” They tell us how we should respond. But if a passage is telling us what God has done – for our salvation, for example – then we are to expect a theological “use” of the passage. Our response is to believe it, rejoice in it, and worship God.

Sometimes a passage has both theological and ethical applications – we are to love God, and to love our neighbors in response to the way that God loves us.

So we are studying the Bible from an expectation that God uses Scripture to inspire, inform, and transform us. Indeed, it is academically dishonest to pretend that we do not have such beliefs, even at the same time as we do not want our beliefs to cause us to misrepresent what the Bible says. We believe in the Trinity, for example, without trying to assert that Leviticus 11 teaches the doctrine of the Trinity. We do not want to speak falsehood about a doctrine that is true. We want to be honest with what the text actually says, while admitting that the world of “truth” is much larger than any text can be.

We do not bring all our beliefs to the text and claim that it supports them all – that is, we have some humility about the passage itself. We can also ask how this passage fits into what we know about this topic a) from other scriptures, and b) from tradition, reason, and experience. We can state what the passage does teach, and acknowledge the areas in which it does not teach.

Theology and Bible study are mutually informing

We admit that we have beliefs. Everyone has beliefs, either good or bad, true or false. Beliefs can help us see new meaning in a text; but sometimes beliefs can lead us to see a meaning that really isn't there. That’s why it is sometimes helpful to dialogue with people who do not share our beliefs – they can help us focus on what the text actually says. Your belief may well be true, but it is not proven in this passage. You need to focus on the passages that provide better evidence.

In this way, careful biblical study can correct theology that has overextended the evidence, or has gone astray. But theology can also help biblical studies. As noted above, it provides some motivation. Second, it provides guidance. Biblical studies tends to fragment the text into small pieces; theology tends to take a larger view, putting all things together.

Even in a literary analysis, it is good practice to have a comprehensive view of the document before we study any particular part of it in depth. We want to see where it’s all going, so that we can see how individual parts of it help it get there. When we come to the Bible, it is helpful to keep its overall purpose in mind before we study smaller parts.

Scripture is designed to tell us about what God has done for our salvation, who God is, and what salvation is, and how we are to respond to what he’s done. We can therefore take that larger view as an informative tool whenever we examine any particular part of Scripture. For example, how does Matthew 6 support the goals of Scripture? Theology can guide us to ask useful questions about the passage.

We can let the passage have a voice, and we can use categories from systematic theology to see IF the passage speaks to those topics. We can let other verses ask questions about the topic, and allow questions from modern culture. But we cannot insist on answers from texts that were not designed to give us answers.

As an example, let’s take one of the most difficult theological topics, the balance between God’s plan and human choice. Most theologians agree that some biblical passages appear to support predestination, and others at first glance seem to support free will. Theologians on one side have ways of neutralizing one set of passages; theologians on the other side have ways of neutralizing the others.

You might even say, “When Scripture is taken as a whole, it seems to support one view, but this particular passage seems to deny it.” No one passage can give a complete answer to the question, and some passages are genuinely “difficult” for one side or the other. We need to admit where our strengths are.

As another example, we might note that Romans 6 talks about a theological meaning of baptism, but it says nothing about the mode of baptism or the age of the people involved. Romans 6 may not even give the complete meaning of baptism, but the symbolism it uses might be best expressed by mode A and age X. Another passage in 1 Corinthians gives a different metaphorical image, one that works better with mode B and age Y. Biblical studies, in itself, cannot determine whether these views are contradictory or supplementary. That can be resolved only by theology – but by a theology that is rooted in and conversing with the biblical text.

Theological interpretation

All readers exist in a culture, and read from the perspective of that culture. We have our culture, and our beliefs, and that’s OK. Even if it were possible, we are not required to shelve our beliefs when we come to the text. But we also want to be honest about what the passage says and doesn’t say, even while we acknowledge our particular leaning.

We do not want our theology to ride roughshod over the passage, to turn it into a ventriloquist’s dummy that will say what we want it to say. We can just let it be what it is, and yet still bring it into the wider theological conversation of the New Testament or the Bible as a whole. We need some humility about the scope of the text, and some humility about ourselves as interpreters who are attempting to bring all the voices together.

Daniel Trier writes, “Theological interpretation means ‘approaching biblical interpretation with all the interests of systematic theology’…. It means reading the Old Testament christologically; while taking the textual details seriously, we must admit that we always interpret them after Jesus Christ has filled out the rest of the story.”[1]

In the Old Testament, we can say: Here’s what the text says on the surface, and this is what the original audience probably got out of it. But I believe that this is also a scripture for Christians, and I see additional significance in the verse from a perspective informed by Christian faith. This is like a mystery novel – after seeing how the whole story ends up, we can see new significance in details that the author sprinkled in earlier parts of the text – details that the author did not expect us to understand at the time, but were included in the story for later significance.

Or we can do a similar thing within the New Testament: Just as the twelve disciples did not understand some of Jesus’ teachings until after the resurrection, so also we can see new significance in his miracles and teachings when we are informed by the theological explanation from Paul. We let the first voice speak on its own – and we allow the next voice to speak, too, but we don’t let it override the first one. We can let church tradition speak, too, so that we can see how interpreters through the ages have dealt with the passage. All the voices are legitimate, but we do not force them all to say the same thing. Paul said this, and Athanasius said that. They each add something to the total picture.

So we have both exegesis and theology, and we keep them distinct, and in conversation with each other, so that people can see which part of the package we have derived from which part of our analysis. That might even help other people think more clearly about the issues.

There are no easy formulas that guarantee perfect results. We are still learning how to do it better. It requires practice, flexibility and creativity – and the Holy Spirit. May he fill you with the wisdom to grow in this task, of hearing the message of God in the written words.

[1] Trier, 117, citing Watson, Text and Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).