6. Calvin says in Institutes II.x.2 that the Jews ‘had and knew Christ as Mediator, through whom they were joined to God and share in his promises’. You suggest that ‘The instances of salvation in the OT all depend on Christ’. Could you explain how Christ was Saviour of the OT saints, and whether you understand this in the same sense as Calvin, i.e. the Jews actually knowing Christ?
I agree with what Calvin said. Christ was presented to OT saints both through God’s promises of future salvation and through types (shadows) that prefigured his work, such as animal sacrifices, priests, the exodus, and other instances of deliverance. And even when Christ is not directly mentioned, God reckoned with Christ’s work when he forgave OT saints and when he blessed them in spite of their failings. The benefits of Christ’s mediation were already being made available. The saints in the OT had faith in Christ as the coming climactic deliverer. But they knew less about him that we can know now when we look back on his completed redemption.
"Christ was presented to OT saints
both through God’s promises of future salvation
and through types (shadows) that prefigured his work"
7. For someone coming to biblical theology from a world strongly oriented to systematic theology, how would you explain the differences and the relationship between the two disciplines?
Different people have had different conceptions of both biblical theology and systematic theology, so it is wise to ask what people mean in both areas, as well as to look at the relation between the two areas. I would myself describe systematic theology as study of the Bible’s teaching in which we try to synthesize and then summarize what the Bible as a whole teaches about all kinds of topics—God, man, Christ, sin, salvation, and so on.
In some contexts the expression “biblical theology” simply means theology built on the Bible; that is, it is systematic theology done in the right way. But there is also another possible meaning. Biblical theology, as described by Geerhardus Vos, studies the Bible with a focus on its history, the history of revelation and of redemption. Whereas systematic theology is topically organized, biblical theology is historically organized. It looks at the progress of God’s work and his revelation through time. In addition, biblical theology more broadly conceived can study the themes that are distinctive to a particular book of the Bible, or to books written by a single human author (for example, Paul’s letters).
"At their best, biblical theology and
systematic theology interact
and help to deepen one another."
At their best, biblical theology and systematic theology interact and help to deepen one another. Systematic theology provides doctrines of God’s sovereignty, of revelation, of God’s purposes, and of the meaning of history that supply a sound framework of assumptions for the work of biblical theology. Biblical theology at its best deepens the appreciation that systematic theology should have for the way in which, in interpreting individual texts and in uncovering their relation to a whole topic, the context of texts within the history of redemption colors the interpretation. Biblical theology may also bring to light new themes that can be the starting point for systematic-theological explorations into new topics that can receive fuller attention. For instance, the theme of life and death as it develops in the course of the history of revelation can become the starting point for discussing ethical questions about modern medicine and the issue of euthanasia.
8. Can you comment on what you think the main dangers are in reading the Bible without a grasp of its big picture?
If we do not think deeply about the big picture that the Bible provides, we are likely in practice either not to think about big pictures at all, or to take our big picture directly from some modern worldview like evolutionary naturalism. And then that corrupts our understanding of the Bible.
Even if we do not think about big pictures at all, it does leave us vulnerable to being influenced in a “subterranean” way by modern worldviews. For example, the knowledge industry (media, education, advertising) in modern America is in some ways very materialistic. According to one dominant view, life is about wealth and power and pleasure. God and angels and demons are irrelevant. You don’t have to think explicitly about philosophy in order to be influenced by this atmosphere. Then, without knowing it, you come to the Bible with expectations that are colored by your modern environment. You misread the significance of some of what you read, or you are prejudiced without knowing it about some of the Bible’s claims about the spirit world and about what really matters.
The same goes for the “big picture” that we use with respect to the meaning of history. Does history go on and on until the human race simply dies out or is evolutionarily transmuted into some higher form of animal, as evolutionary naturalism would claim? Or does it culminate in the Second Coming of Christ? It makes a difference as to what kind of world you think you live in. And can a single event in history, namely the resurrection of Christ, have redemptive effects on people who are far separated from it in time? The Bible says yes, but modern rationalistic thinking about history says no.
9. Can you tell us about the biggest influences on your own grasp of Scripture’s coherence? What would feature on your essential reading list here, and why?
My outstanding mentor in understanding the history of salvation was Edmund P. Clowney. He has now gone to be with the Lord, but his books are still a great help, because they articulate the Christocentric character of all of the Bible. I think of Preaching and Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1961), The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the OT (NavPress, 1988); Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Crossway, 2003), and The Church (InterVarsity Press, 1995). Then there are major works in biblical theology: Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (Eerdmans, 1948); O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Baker, 1980); Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962); Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987).
I think that systematic theology, as well as biblical theology, contributes to our appreciation of the unity of the Bible. Even before going to seminary, I was influenced by John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, and by systematic thinkers like J.I. Packer (Knowing God, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God). My whole time studying at Westminster Theological Seminary further deepened my understanding of Scripture’s coherence.
Dr. Poythress, thank you for answering our questions on biblical theology. We are sure our readers will benefit greatly from them.