“Ignorance of God—ignorance both of His ways and of the practice of communion with Him—lies at the root of the church’s weakness today.” That’s how J.I. Packer began the 1973 preface to his classic volume, Knowing God. Packer reasoned that one trend producing such ignorance of God and weakness in the church was “that Christian minds have been conformed to the modern spirit: the spirit, that is, that spawns great thoughts of man and leaves room for only small thoughts of God.”1
Sadly, Packer’s observation still rings true three decades later. Ignorance of the ways of God and of communion with Him is rampant in all too many instances. Members of Christian churches continue to think small thoughts of God and great thoughts of man. And this state of affairs reveals that too many Christians have neglected their first great calling: to know their God. Every Christian is meant to be a theologian in the best and most intimate sense of the word. And if churches are to prosper in health, church members must be committed to being “biblical theologians” in whatever capacity they are able. This is the second mark of a healthy church member.
WHAT IS BIBLICAL THEOLOGY FOR THE CHURCH MEMBER?
Biblical Theology: Knowing God Himself
We say biblical theologians with two things in mind. First, we must keep in mind that the Bible is the self-revelation of God; it is the source material for developing great thoughts about God. The Christian who is interested in knowing his God is the Christian who wants to know what God says about Himself in the Bible. He or she is not the person that typically begins sentences with “I like to think of God as…” Neither is she the type of person who tries to blend together a little New Age, with a little Hinduism, and a little Christianity in order to arrive at an eclectic but custom-fitted deity for herself. No, the Christian church member who is serious about knowing God is the church member who is committed to the teachings of the Bible about God, because that is where God tells us about Himself.
Biblical Theology: Knowing God’s Macro Story of Redemption
Second, the “biblical theologian” is a person that is committed to understanding the history of revelation, the grand themes and doctrines of the Bible, and how they fit together. In other words, the healthy church member is one that gives himself to understanding the unity and progression of the Bible as a whole—not just isolated or favorite passages. She or he approaches the Bible knowing that they are reading one awesome story of God redeeming for Himself a people for His own glory. And in that story, they see that God is a creating God, a holy God, a faithful God, a loving God, and a sovereign God as He makes and keeps His promises to His people, beginning with Adam and Eve and progressing to the final consummation of all things.2
HOW DOES BIBLICAL THEOLOGY WORK TO PROMOTE THE HEATH OF A CHURCH MEMBER?
In his popular Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem outlines several benefits to studying theology. Those benefits are worth summarizing here.3
- First, studying biblical theology helps us grow in our reverence for God. As we encounter the God of Scripture who establishes and keeps His covenant promises with His people, we come to see something of the majesty of God. The Lord’s working of all things together for good comes into clearer focus, from the promise of the woman’s Seed that would bruise the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15), to the opening of barren wombs so that the Seed would be preserved (Gen. 17:15-19; 21:1-2; 29:31; 30:22;Isaiah 7:14), to the actual birth of that Seed in fulfillment of all that God decreed (Matt. 1:20-23). When we see that God is, always has been, and always will be the same creating, holy, faithful, loving, and sovereign God for us as He has been with others, we are stirred in our faith and awe of God. If we want to know and reverence God truly, we will dedicate ourselves to becoming biblical theologians who understand the narrative and themes of Scripture.
- Second, studying theology helps us to overcome our wrong ideas. All of us encounter various teachings in the Bible that challenge, confuse, or provoke us. Often, we refuse to accept these teachings because of the dullness and sin in our hearts. We can evade one verse here or there that displeases or confronts us. But when we give ourselves to understanding the grand sweep of biblical revelation and the total weight of the teaching of Scripture on a particular subject, we are more readily convinced of our wrong ideas and inclinations. Biblical theology helps us to see how God has consistently spoken to His people in diverse places and diverse ways (Heb. 1:1) the same message that we must all one day bow to and accept (Isaiah 45:22-24; Romans 14:10-12; Phil. 2:9-11). As we prayerfully study biblical theology, we’re lead to joyfully submit to God and to jettison our wrong ideas about Him.
- Third, studying biblical theology helps inoculate the church against doctrinal controversies. Church history is replete with controversies rising within and between congregations and entire denominations. Churches are better able to withstand and productively resolve such controversies when they maintain a good understanding of biblical, systematic, and historical theology. This is true because whatever the Bible has to say about one thing is related to everything else the Bible says. Biblical theology helps to maintain the continuity and consistency of the Bible’s teaching. Studying biblical theology is akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. When one piece of the puzzle appears unfamiliar, we can search for its proper place in the puzzle by relating it to the bigger picture on the puzzle box. The more pieces we have in place to begin with, the easier it is to evaluate and fit in new pieces and the less apt we are to make mistakes. An adequate grasp of biblical theology is much like having the picture of the completed puzzle, allowing us to accept or reject errant theological pieces. The Scriptures “were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (I Cor. 10:11) and knowledge of them protects the church from clever wives tales and endless disputes
- Fourth, the study of theology is necessary to fulfilling the great commission. Jesus commands us to teach all believers to observe all that He commands (Matt. 28:19-20). Without a well-formed theology, including an accurate understanding of how God’s commands are to be understood in their historical development and context, it is difficult indeed to obey the Lord’s command to teach others to obey. What would we teach? What would they obey? How would they know what to apply to their lives? These questions are better answered when Christians are knowledgeable of biblical theology, when they know their God.
But perhaps the most compelling benefit for studying biblical theology is that it deepens our understanding of and facility with the gospel. Jesus and the apostles did not need the New Testament to proclaim the gospel. They relied on the Old Testament and understood that the Old Testament Scriptures pointed to Jesus (Luke 24:27, 44-45). The biblical theologian follows in the steps of Jesus and the apostles by mastering the unity of Scripture, seeing Christ and the gospel throughout.
HOW TO BECOME A HEATHLY CHURCH MEMBER BY BECOMING A BIBLICAL THEOLOGIAN
How can a Christian become a healthy church member conversant with the themes of biblical theology? Several strategies may be helpful.
1. Read a good book on biblical theology. One obvious way to become a biblical theologian is to read a good book on biblical theology. Several works have proven useful over the years. For a good reference work, readers should try The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (IVP). For helpful introductions consider: Vaughn Roberts’ God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible (IVP); Mark Strom’s The Symphony of Scripture: Making Sense of the Bible’s Many Themes (P&R); Peter Jensen’s At the Heart of the Universe: What Christians Believe (IVP) and works by Graeme Goldsworthy, including According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (IVP); and The Goldsworthy Trilogy: Gospel and Kingdom, Gospel and Wisdom, and The Gospel in Revelation (Paternoster). The New Studies in Biblical Theology (IVP) series edited by D. A. Carson provides an excellent series of studies in biblical theology. These works provide solid, very readable overviews of the unity and diversity of Scripture. And for more advanced readers, Dutch-born Princeton theologian Geerhadus Vos’ Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments is still a classic. Use these works in your quiet or free reading times and suggest to your small group leader that you read one or more works like these as a group.
2. Allot some portion of your private devotions to study the Scriptures thematically. The main diet of Scripture intake should probably be a study of books of the Bible verse-by-verse in their redemptive historical context. Supplement this main diet with a study of major themes that run throughout the Bible. Spend some time considering the revelation of the character of God; the unity and diversity of the covenant of God with His people; the prophethood, priesthood, and kingship of Jesus; and the kingdom of God in both the Old and New Testaments. Trace these themes throughout Scripture and make note of the continuities and discontinuities across various periods of redemptive history. As you do this, the excellencies of God and the glories of redemption will come into more nuanced and brilliant view.
3. Adopt the New Testament’s attitude toward the Old Testament. As we stated earlier, the Bible is one story about God redeeming for Himself a special people. When studying the New Testament, train yourself to link what you learn there to the Old Testament. Ask, how is this passage a fulfillment of something promised in the Old Testament? How is this New Testament idea different from or similar to an Old Testament teaching? In what way does this New Testament passage clarify, unveil, or amplify something from the Old Testament? Asking these questions will help to underscore the unity and diversity of the Bible and its message. An excellent book to study with these questions in mind is the book of Hebrews. Study Hebrews and be amazed at the supremacy of Jesus Christ demonstrated in the Old Testament.
4. Study the Old Testament with Jesus and the New Testament in view. As you read and study the Old Testament, ask yourself how it fits together with the revelation of the New Testament. For example, where does this passage fit in the timeline of redemptive history? How does this passage point me to Jesus? How does this relate to the New Testament idea of the church? How is this passage foundational for an understanding of New Testament Christianity? How is this idea or teaching in the Old Testament continuous or discontinuous with the New Testament? Which New Testament passages help me to answer these questions? A student of biblical theology is well versed in the continuing drama of Scripture.
5. Study the books of prophecy in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most neglected books of the Old Testament are the books of prophecy, especially the unfortunately named “minor prophets.” These books contain some of the richest material in Scripture about the life, ministry, and supremacy of Jesus Christ. As you study Isaiah or Zechariah, for example, remember that fulfillment of their prophecies would often occur on different horizons. There were immediate fulfillments in the prophet’s own day. The same prophecy, however, could also be fulfilled in Jesus Christ (a Christological fulfillment). And then, there could be eschatological fulfillments: completions of the prophecies that are to occur at the end of time at the consummation of all things. Studying and understanding prophecy in this way helps emphasize the big picture of the Bible and deepen our knowledge of God.
6. Know and agree to support your church’s statement of faith. When we join a church we should know what the church believes and whether we agree with that teaching. Commit yourself to studying the church’s statement of faith. Is it doctrinally sound? Is it a statement with a special history in that local church? Does the statement of faith agree with or depart from the broader Christian tradition? Do you understand the statement? Some churches have a healthy practice of requiring new members to sign the church’s statement of faith as an indication of their agreement with and willingness to defend the truths expressed therein. Could you in good conscience sign your church’s statement of faith? If so, commit yourselves to upholding the doctrinal integrity of your church.
Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene” (2 Tim. 2:14-17a).7. Seek doctrinal unity and avoid needless disputes. From time to time, doctrinal differences will arise in a local church. The key question for members is “how will you participate in the resolution of such differences?” The maxim is useful here: “in all things essential, unity; in all things non-essential, liberty; and in all things, love.” A healthy church member, committed to becoming a biblical theologian, will work to know the difference between beliefs essential to biblical Christianity and beliefs that are non-essential to the integrity and continuance of the faith. They will commit themselves to defending the essential things of the gospel (Phil. 1:27; Jude 3), while avoiding strife and contention over things that are not essential to the gospel. The Apostle Paul’s instructions to Timothy are appropriate:
On the one hand, we are to be workmen who are skilled in correctly handling the word of truth; on the other hand, we must be innocent of engendering disagreements over things of no value. Quarreling about petty and inconsequential things “only ruins those who listen” and like a gangrenous death leads to more and more ungodliness. Let us work for unity in belief and peace in our churches, remembering: “It is a man’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel” (Prov. 20:3).
According to J. I. Packer, knowing God starts with knowing about Him, about His character. It also involves giving yourself to God based upon His promise to be your God through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, His Son. Consequently, knowing God means following Jesus as a disciple. And ultimately, knowing God means being more than a conqueror by exulting in the adequacy of God in all things. Such knowledge of God comes only from drinking deeply from the message of the Bible with all of its rich themes. And such knowledge of God belongs especially to those Christian church members who commit to becoming biblical theologians.
1. J. I. Packer, Knowing God, 20th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), p. 12.
2. Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), see chapter 2.
3. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), pp.26-30.