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Biblical theology and discourse analysis – Part 1

Posted by on Apr 7, 2009 in biblical theology, discipleship, scripture | Comments Off

A few weeks ago, in a post called “Macro-structure analysis“, I said that I was researching a paper for a biblical theology seminar examining how discourse analysis could help biblical theologians. In this series, I’m going to present some of that research.

Biblical theologians often examine themes across a book, a group of books, or the entire corpus of Scripture. The selection of themes is therefore very important to the work of biblical theology. If the theologian chooses categories of organization that align with the authors’ themes, then his synthesis will be more in line with the biblical information. If, on the other hand, the theologian’s categories do not align with the themes of the biblical authors, then his findings will be suspect. Any tools or methodologies that help the theologian discover the themes from Scripture will prove beneficial.

Biblical theology begins as an exegetical discipline. Furthermore, the primary difference between systematic theology and biblical theology lies in the manner that the information is categorized. Discourse analysis offers exegetical tools and methods to help the theologian recognize important information at the macro-level of the text and, therefore, organize that information according to the text.


In his groundbreaking monograph, Biblical Theology, Vos places the discipline of biblical theology within the framework of exegesis, or exegetical theology, as he calls it. He says,

Exegetical Theology in the wider sense comprises the following disciplines… d) the study of the actual self-disclosures of God in time and space which lie back of even the first committal to writing of any Biblical document, and which for a long time continued to run alongside of the inscripturation of revealed material; this last-named procedure is called the study of Biblical Theology. (Biblical Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954, 13)

Vos places biblical theology within the same discipline as exegesis, introduction, and canonical studies. Thus, biblical theology is connected to the study of the text of Scripture, while remaining a theological discipline. While the biblical theologian desires to move beyond exegesis of individual passages in order to synthesize the information in a theology of a book, or an author, or a corpus, he must begin with those passages.

According to Osborne, there is an interdependent relationship between biblical theology and exegesis. He says, “There is a two-way relationship between biblical theology and exegesis. The former provides the categories and overall scriptural unity behind one’s interpretation of individual passages, while exegesis provides the data collated into a biblical theology. In other words, the two are interdependent.” (The Hermeneutical Spiral. Downers Grove: IVP, 1991, 165) Furthermore, Osborne states that the biblical theologian remains within the “sphere of exegetical research” while taking a step away from the practice of exegesis. (Ibid., 263-64) Thus, the line between biblical theology and exegesis is often blurred since the two disciplines depend upon one another.

Vanhoozer also recognizes that biblical theology depends upon the task of exegesis. He explains, “The viability of biblical theology as a discipline depends on the ability to interpret the biblical texts ‘on their own terms’.” (“Exegesis and Hermeneutics,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner; Downers Grove: IVP, 2000, 52) Again, according to Vanhoozer, exegesis of the biblical texts begins the task of biblical theology. Without proper and complete exegesis, the biblical theologian cannot perform his task suitably. As such, the analytical work of the biblical theologian must remain with the “sphere of exegetical research” (to use Osborne’s phrase).

Fanning takes this process further by explaining that exegesis is the first step in the work of the biblical theologian. He explains, “Practical steps for doing biblical theology are difficult to lay out, since it pervades the whole process of exegesis in some sense. But we could break it down into two broad stages, the analytical and the synthetic. In the analytical stage we are probing and exploring the text’s theological significance and coherence throughout the exegetical process.” (“Theological Analysis: Building Biblical Theology,” in Interpreting the New Testament Text. Ed. Darrell L. Bock and Buist M. Fanning; Wheaton: Crossway, 2006, 287) While the biblical theologian must think “theologically” about the text throughout the process, the first step remains in the realm of exegesis. Fanning continues, “We must keep theological questions in mind at every step: textual criticism, background studies, grammar, overview and flow of the argument, lexical studies, use of OT in NT, genre considerations, and validation.” (Ibid.) While the biblical theologian thinks “theologically,” he does so in the beginning of his research while analyzing texts, backgrounds, grammars, structures, and other elements of exegesis. Of course, the biblical theologian desires to move beyond analysis in order to synthesize different texts into theological themes. So, again, biblical theology and exegesis remain inexorably linked to one another in an interdependent relationship. (Ibid., 281)

Gamble also concludes that biblical theology is intricately connected to biblical exegesis. He says:

Biblical theology as a separate discipline has tried to keep its theologizing based upon grammatical-historical exegesis. That means theology is within the historical, linguistic and social structure of Scripture. Thus, biblical theology is intimately bound to solid biblical exegesis. The biblical text is comprehended within its proper historic and literary framework. As hinted at earlier, without biblical theology, competent exegesis is impossible. (“The Relationship Between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology,” in Always Reforming. Ed. A.T.B. McGowan; Downers Grove: IVP, 2006, 223)

Thus, according to Gamble, biblical theology is not possible without proper exegesis, which includes understanding the text in its historic and literary context. In the same way, “competent exegesis” is not possible without a theological—specifically, a biblical theological—understanding of the text. Thus, there remains a complementary or interdependent relationship—between exegesis and biblical theology.

Therefore, when considering the relationship between exegesis and biblical theology, extreme care must be taken. It is difficult to separate the two disciplines cleanly. Biblical theology must begin with exegesis, and thus the biblical theologian must be cognizant of the grammar, syntax, structure, semantics, historical background, and literary framework of a text. In fact, this type of analysis (i.e., exegesis) is the first step of biblical theology, and should be completed adequately before the biblical theologian begins to synthesize the biblical information.

In the next article in this series, I’ll examine the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology.


Biblical theology and discourse analysis series
1. Relationship between biblical theology and exegesis
2. Relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology
3. Methods of discovering themes in biblical theology
4. Discourse analysis in biblical theology
5. Case study from Romans 12-15 and conclusion