Much of “biblical theology” has a glaring weakness: it misses one of the major themes of the Bible.
Biblical theology is the study of how to read the Bible as a whole, or how to trace a theme as it progresses from Genesis to Revelation. While systematic theology systematizes the teaching of the Bible (what the Bible says about God’s attributes, the person of Christ, salvation, etc.), biblical theology traces the major themes of the Bible chronologically (how the Passover lamb was instituted, celebrated, neglected, and finally fulfilled).
The study of biblical theology often focuses on themes, types, figures, symbols and motifs that develop canonically in an attempt to show the unity of scripture and the power of progressive revelation.
Most biblical theology books read similarly. They point out the garden-to-garden theme of Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 20-22, with some Isaiah sprinkled in the middle. They talk about the temple in the Torah, the temple’s destruction in exile, Jesus as the true temple, and finally the church as the new temple.
Those are all good and helpful, but there is a glaring omission in much of Biblical theology—namely, Israel.
In fact: if measured by volume, Israel is the theme of the Bible. Obviously I’m not saying that the theme of Israel is more important than the themes of salvation, God’s glory, or the messiah. Nevertheless, more biblical chapters—nay, books—are about Israel than any other theme.
Take Genesis for an example. For obvious reasons, much of biblical theology is rooted in Genesis. We are introduced to sacrifices, Sabbaths, judgement, rescue, global destruction, and satanic intervention; and that’s all in the first dozen chapters. Perhaps most importantly, we learn that God is going to send a savior to the earth through the seed of a man, and that man will restore the paradise lost.
But while all of that is significant in the theme of the Bible, they are by no means the theme of Genesis itself—which is the story of how God got Israel into Egypt.
The same can be said with the rest of the Torah. There are many significant themes and types found there, such as the Passover lamb, the temple, and the nature of law and covenant. But those are not the themes of those books. The Torah describes how Israel is supposed to live.
And Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings: are they not the story of how Israel actually did live?
The prophets obviously have much to say about the future messiah, but by no means does that make up the theme of most of the prophetic books. With the exception of Jonah, you could say that all of the prophets have the future of Israel as their theme.
Why do many biblical theology books ignore this? Mostly (I think) because of the abrupt change in the New Testament. Matthew opens with a genealogy, and it becomes apparent that the theme of the Bible is changing from a nation to a person. The nation of Israel is clearly antagonistic to Christ, and by Acts 13 Israel has exited, stage left.
This is not to say that Israel is forgotten in the NT. Galatians and Ephesians emphatically make the point that redeemed Israelites and gentiles are now part of the same New Covenant, and Hebrews obliterates the idea that any Israelite could be saved by going back to Old Testament worship.
Romans 11 teaches that the Old Testament promises to Israel are not forgotten, and while Israel may be broken off now, it is only for a while. The day is coming when God’s favor will return to Israel, and when that happens, “all Israel will be saved.”
And of course, in Revelation 7 John sees the fulfillment of that promise, as the angels stop the destruction on earth to seal 144,000 from the 12 tribes—a massive group of people who will be preserved through the tribulation.
I know that many premillennialists view biblical theology with skepticism. It’s not because we don’t believe in themes, motifs or types.
It is because it’s hard to take a discipline seriously if its stated goal is to understand the key themes of the Bible, but in so doing it largely misses one of the major ones. Its hard to take the study of Biblical theology seriously when those who write books on the theme of the whole, when the theme of the parts seems so askew.
The best way to improve biblical theology is to include the Bible’s most massive theme: Israel.