by Timothy Keller and D. A. Carson


Timothy Keller

Taken from NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible.

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre famously illustrates that stories are necessary if we are to assign meaning to anything. He imagines standing at a bus stop when a young man he does not know comes up to him and says, “The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” He knows what the sentence literally conveys, but he has no idea what the young man’s statement and action mean. The only way to know that is to know the story into which the incident fits. Perhaps, alas, the young man is mentally ill. That sad life story would explain it all. Or what if yesterday someone had approached the young man in the library and asked him the Latin word for the wild duck, and today the young man mistakes the man at the bus stop for that person in the library. That trivial story would explain it as well. Or perhaps the young man is a foreign spy “waiting at a prearranged rendezvous and uttering the ill-chosen code sentence which will identify him to his contact.” That dramatic story would make sense of the incident too. But without a story, there’s no meaning.

The title of this article includes an all-important assumption: the Bible is not just a diverse assortment of stories and materials; it altogether comprises a master narrative. This is not to say that the Bible is written like a novel with a tight, simple plotline — not at all. It contains many individual stories and a lot of nonnarrative material. But just as J. R. R. Tolkien produced thousands of pages of narratives, poetry, articles, maps, and even lexicons over the course of decades in order to tell one very sweeping story, so God, the author of every part of the Bible, is also telling one overarching story about the real world he created. There is a basic plotline to which all the parts relate and which makes sense of all the pieces.

The Bible begins with God making the world “very good” (Gen 1:31) — without the corruption, decay, and death that now dominate the world (Rom 8:20 – 21). In the world he placed human beings as his masterpiece, made in his image to reflect his own glory (Gen 1:27). We were created to adore and serve God and to love others. If we had chosen to live like that, we would have enjoyed a completely happy life and a perfect world. But instead, we wanted God to serve us and do what we wanted because we made our will the sovereign measure of all things. Instead of living for God and loving our neighbor, we turned away to live self-centered lives (Gen 3:1 – 7). Because our relationship with God has been broken, all other relationships — with other human beings, with our very selves, and with the created world — are also ruptured (Gen 3:8 – 19). The result is spiritual, psychological, social, and physical decay and breakdown. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”) — that describes the world under sin now.

How did God respond? Did he respond with wrath toward the human race or with love? The answer is yes — to both (Rom 1:18; John 3:16). God insists on truth, demands that we do right, and threatens to punish all disobedience and evil. Nonetheless, he pursues the human race in love, declaring his intention to save and not allow all to perish in their sin. The Lord calls a people to himself in order to create a new human society — people who know his holy character and his law, his love, and his grace. This community began as an extended family (Gen 12:1 – 8) out of which God created an entire nation: the people of Israel, whom God delivered from slavery and established under Moses. With this people God made a covenant in which he promised to be their loving God and they promised to be his faithful people (Exod 19:1 – 8). But the history of this covenant relationship is one of almost unrelieved failure of the people to be what God called them to be.

All stories have plot “tension” and, in the most gripping narratives, it is intense. It comes from the clash of seemingly intractable forces in the struggle to restore things. And here we can see why the Bible is indeed a story. Through two-thirds of the Bible, the part we call the OT, an increasingly urgent, apparently insolvable problem drives the narrative forward. God is a God of holiness and is therefore implacably opposed to evil, injustice, and wrong, and yet he is a God of infinite love. He enters into a relationship with a people who are fatally self-centered. Will he bring down the curse he says must fall on sin and cut off his people, or will he forgive and love his people regardless of their sin? If he does either one or the other, sin and evil win! But it seems impossible to do both. Is the covenant relationship he established with his people conditional (so that failure is punished) or unconditional (so that the covenant is maintained despite the people’s failure)?

Again, the answer is yes — to both. This resolution is largely hidden from the reader through the OT, though Isaiah comes closest to unveiling it. The glorious King who brings God’s judgment in the first part of Isaiah is also the suffering servant who bears God’s judgment in the second part. It is Jesus. And in the NT, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, comes as our substitute — living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, in our place. By living a perfect life, he earns God’s blessing for obedience; by dying on the cross, he takes the curse for disobedience (Gal 3:10 – 14). When we believe in him, he receives the punishment we deserve, and we receive eternal life as a gift (2 Cor 5:21). And he does this in order to not only pardon our guilt but also to eventually free us from all sin and give us glorious new bodies and even a perfect, renewed world (Rom 8:18 – 39).

The best and most compelling stories have high stakes and astonishing, unexpected resolutions. If that is the case, there has never been a greater story than this. The stakes are literally cosmic: everyone and everything is at stake. It seems impossible that God could be true to himself — fully good and loving, fully righteous and just — and still save us. It seems impossible that after all we have done there should be any hope. But victory is achieved through one man’s infinite sacrifice on the cross, where God both punishes sin fully yet provides free salvation, where he is revealed as both just and justifier of those who believe (Rom 3:26). Jesus stands as the ultimate protagonist, the hero of heroes.

Because the Bible’s basic plotline is the tension between God’s justice and his grace and because it is all resolved in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Jesus could tell his followers after the resurrection that the OT — “the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44) — is really all about him (Luke 24:27,45). Paul says that all God’s promises throughout the Scripture find their fulfillment only in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). So everything in the Bible — all its themes and patterns, main images and major figures — points to Jesus.

The Bible, then, is not a collection of Aesop-like fables, fictional stories that give us insights on how to find God and live right. Rather, it is both true history and a unified story about how God came to find us in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived and died in our place so we could be saved by grace through faith and live with him forever in a remade world, the Garden-City of God (Rev 21 – 22). From this basic plot there emerge profound insights, principles, and directives on how to live. But the Bible is not primarily about us and what we should do. It is first and foremost about Jesus and what he has done.

This is the Greatest Story not merely because of its infinitely high stakes and the endless wonder of its resolution but also because of its transforming power. How different is the Bible’s story from the dominant one told in the Western world today — that we are accidents, here for no purpose other than what we create for ourselves, living in a world that is marked by one operative principle: the survival of the strong over the weak. Just as MacIntyre’s response to the incident at the bus stop will be completely determined by what he discovers the story to be about, how we respond to suffering, death, sex, money, and power will be profoundly influenced by whether we understand and believe the story of the Bible about Jesus — or not.


D. A. Carson

Taken from NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible.

It has been said that the Bible is like a body of water in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim. The youngest Christian can read the Bible with profit, for the Bible’s basic message is simple (see “The Story of the Bible: How the Good News About Jesus Is Central,” p. 2319, and “The Gospel,” p. 2372). But we can never exhaust its depth. After decades of intense study, the most senior Bible scholars find that they have barely scratched the surface. Although we cannot know anything with the perfection of God’s knowledge (his knowledge is absolutely exhaustive!), yet because God has disclosed things, we can know those things truly.

Trying to make sense of parts of the Bible and of the Bible as a whole can be challenging. What kind of study should be involved when any serious reader of the Bible tries to make sense of the Bible as a whole? Appropriate study involves several basic interdependent disciplines, of which five are mentioned here: careful reading, biblical theology (BT), historical theology (HT), systematic theology (ST), and pastoral theology (PT). What follows looks at each of these individually and shows how they interrelate and how they are more than merely intellectual exercises.


“Exegesis” is the word often used for careful reading. Exegesis answers the questions, What does this text actually say? and, What did the author mean by what he said? We discover this by applying sound principles of interpretation to the Bible.

Fundamental to reading the Bible well is good reading. Good readers pay careful attention to words and their meanings and to the ways sentences, paragraphs, and longer units are put together. They observe that the Bible is a book that includes many different styles of literature — stories, laws, proverbs, poetry, prophecy, history, parables, letters, apocalyptic, and much more. Good readers follow the flow of texts. For example, while it is always worth meditating on individual words and phrases, the most important factor in determining what a word means is how the author uses that word in a specific context.

One of the best signs of good exegesis is asking thoughtful questions that drive us to “listen” attentively to what the Bible says. As we read the text again and again, these questions are progressively honed, sharpened, corrected, or discarded.


BT answers the question, How has God revealed his word historically and organically? BT studies the theology of individual biblical books (e.g., Isaiah, the Gospel of John), of select collections within the Bible (e.g., the Pentateuch, wisdom literature, the Gospels, Paul’s letters, John’s writings), and then traces out themes as they develop across time within the canon (e.g., the way in which the theme of the temple develops, in several directions, to fill out a “whole Bible” theology of the temple). At least four priorities are essential:

1. Read the Bible progressively as a historically developing collection of documents. God did not provide his people with all of the Bible at once. There is a progression to his revelation, and to read the whole back into some early part may seriously distort that part by obscuring its true significance in the flow of redemptive history. This requires not only organizing the Bible’s historical material into its chronological sequence but also trying to understand the theological nature of the sequence.

2. Presuppose that the Bible is coherent. The Bible has many human authors but one divine Author, and he never contradicts himself. BT uncovers and articulates the unity of all the biblical texts taken together.

3. Work inductively from the text — from individual books and from themes that run through the Bible as a whole. Although readers can never entirely divorce themselves from their own backgrounds, students of BT recognize that their subject matter is exclusively the Bible. They therefore try to use categories and pursue agendas that the text itself sets.

4. Make theological connections within the entire Bible that the Bible itself authorizes. One way to do this is to trace the trajectory of themes straight through the Bible. (That’s what the following articles in this study Bible do.)

BT often focuses on the turning points in the Bible’s storyline (see “A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible,” p. 2325), and its most pivotal concern is tied to how the NT uses the OT, observing how later Scripture writers refer to earlier ones.


HT answers the questions, How have people in the past understood the Bible? What have Christians thought about exegesis and theology? and, more specifically, How has Christian doctrine developed over the centuries, especially in response to false teachings? HT is concerned primarily with opinions in periods earlier than our own. But we may also include under this heading the importance of reading the Bible globally — that is, finding out how believers in some other parts of the world read the text. That does not mean that they (or we!) are necessarily right; rather, it means that we recognize that all of us have a great deal to learn.

Carefully studying the history of interpretation is one of the greatest helps in freeing us from unwitting slavery to our biases. It induces humility, clears our minds of unwarranted assumptions, exposes faulty interpretations that others have long since (and rightly) dismissed, and reminds us that responsibly interpreting the Bible must never be a solitary task.

The study notes in this study Bible are informed by HT and reflect such knowledge when they pre sent viable alternative ways to interpret texts. But the study notes focus primarily on exegesis and BT.


ST answers the question, What does the whole Bible teach about certain topics? or put another way, What is true about God and his universe?

At the risk of stating the obvious, ST is systematic: it is organized on principles of logic, order, and need. ST is systemic: it is concerned with how the whole Bible logically coheres in systems of thought. It often organizes truth under headings such as the doctrines of God (theology proper), the Bible (bibliology), humans (anthropology), sin (hamartiology), Christ (Christology), the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology), salvation (soteriology), the church (ecclesiology), and the end times (eschatology). ST is generally framed so as to interact with and address the contemporary world. Even systematic theologians who cherish the narrative of Scripture and make much of the varied ways the Bible addresses its readers end up with highly ordered structures, sometimes calling them “theodramas.”

The Bible’s unity makes ST not only possible but necessary. The biblical data must control ST; however ST must in turn challenge alternative world-views. Sometimes it is especially important not to “go beyond what is written,” for some Christian truths include within their sweep substantial areas of unknown things. For instance, there are important things we do not know about Jesus’ incarnation, about the Trinity, and about God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. To pretend we know more than we do generates shoddy ST that can prove misleading and dangerous. A large part of orthodoxy resides in listening carefully and humbly to all of Scripture and then properly relating passage with passage, truth with truth.

Everyone holds to some sort of ST. The quality of ST is based on its foundational data, constructive methods, principles for excluding certain information, appropriately expressive language, and logical, accurate conclusions.


PT answers the question, How should humans respond to God’s revelation? Sometimes that is spelled out by Scripture itself; other times it builds on inferences of what Scripture says. PT practically applies the other four disciplines — so much so that the other disciplines are in danger of being sterile and even dishonoring to God unless tied in some sense to the responses God rightly demands of us. PT may well address such diverse domains as culture, ethics, evangelism, marriage and family, money, the cure of souls, politics, worship, and much more.


Before we reflect on the way these various approaches to theology interact with one another, something must be said about the literary structures of the Bible. Just as the Bible is not cast as a systematic theology, with separate topical chapters on “God,” “Human Beings,” “Sin,” and so on, so also it is not cast as a series of books that march in tight order through history, each book taking up the story where the previous book stopped.

Some of the different literary genres — i.e., kinds of writing — that make up the Bible are introduced in articles such as “Introduction to the Historical Books,” “Introduction to the Wisdom and Lyrical Books,” and “Introduction to the Letters.” When we look more closely, we find in the pages of the Bible literary genres as diverse as genealogies, parables, laments, confessions, psalms of praise, divine utterances from God, beatitudes, discourse, narrative, government documents and decrees, and even a fable. (A fable is a story without human characters but where animals or trees or other objects represent human beings. See Judg 9:7 – 15).

God displays his providential wisdom in providing us with a Bible made up of all these literary genres, and more. The diversity constitutes a great advantage, for each genre has a slightly different way of appealing to us, of making its impact on us. Together they do even more than instruct our minds: they fire our imaginations, prompt us to meditate, call up mental pictures, invite us to memorize, appeal to our emotions, shame us when our thoughts or actions are tawdry and unworthy, and make our spirits leap for joy. So while we work through the ways in which exegesis is (for example) tied to BT and to ST, we must always remember that God in his perfect wisdom gave us the fundamental texts, the books of the Bible, in spectacularly diverse forms. Nothing about Bible study is boring or mechanical. Here we come into contact with the instructing, evocative, creative, incredibly rich mind of God.


Some might think it convenient if we could order these disciplines along a straight line: Exegesis→BT→[HT]→ST→PT. (The brackets around HT suggest that HT directly contributes to the development from BT to ST and PT but is not itself a part of that line.) But this neat paradigm is naive because no exegesis is ever done in a vacuum. Before we ever start doing exegesis, we already have a ST-framework that influences our exegesis. So are we locked into a hermeneutical circle? See Hermeneutical Circle.

No; there is a better way. We might diagram it like this. See Feedback Loop.

In other words, there are always feedback loops — information loops that go back and reshape how one does any exegesis or theology. The loops should not take over the final voice, but they shape the process whether one likes it or not. It is absurd to claim that one’s ST does not affect one’s exegesis. But the line of final control is the straight line from exegesis right through BT and HT to ST and PT. The final authority is the Bible and the Bible alone.

Exegesis and Biblical Theology

BT mediates how exegesis influences ST, partly because it helps one remember that there is promise and fulfillment, type and antitype, development, organic growth, anticipation and consummation (see “A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible,” p. 2325). The overlap between exegesis and BT is the most striking among the theological disciplines: both are concerned to understand texts, and BT is impossible without exegesis. Exegesis tends to focus on analysis and BT on synthesis. BT reflects on the results of exegesis in the light of individual books and in the developing stream of the narrative of the whole Bible. Exegesis controls BT, and BT influences exegesis.

Exegesis and Historical Theology

The ancient creeds and the history of exegesis and of theology are invaluable, but they do not have the ultimate authority of the Bible itself. Nevertheless, without HT exegesis is likely to degenerate into obscure debates far too tightly tethered to twenty-first-century agendas. Responsible exegesis wrestles with earlier Christian exegesis and theology. It is possible, however, to become so expert in secondary opinions that one never ponders the text of the Bible itself. Reading the history of interpretation must never usurp the place of reading the Bible.

Exegesis and Systematic Theology

Some think that their exegesis neutrally and objectively discovers the text’s meaning and that they build their ST on such discoveries. In reality, ST profoundly influences one’s exegesis. Without realizing it, many people develop their own lists of favorite passages of the Bible that then become their controlling grid for interpreting the rest of the Bible; to a large degree this accounts for conflicting exegesis among Christians. This problem may develop in at least two ways.

1. A church tradition may unwittingly overemphasize certain biblical truths at the expense of others, subordinating or even explaining away passages that do not easily “fit” the slightly distorted structure that results. For example, how one understands justification in Galatians may control how one understands justification everywhere else in the NT.

2. A church tradition may self-consciously adopt a certain structure by which to integrate all the books of the Bible with the result that they automatically classify and explain some passages and themes artificially or too narrowly. Even worse is using parts of the Bible to support one’s ST without worrying very much about how the whole Bible fits together.

Historical Theology and Systematic Theology

When studying what the Bible teaches about a particular subject (ST), one must integrate HT. In some measure, ST deals with HT’s categories, but ST’s priorities and agenda ideally address the contemporary age at the most critical junctures.

Biblical Theology and Historical Theology

Both BT and HT are aware of the passage of time in their respective disciplines: BT focuses on the time during which the biblical documents were written and collected, while HT focuses on the study of the Bible from the time it was completed. Otherwise put, BT focuses on the Bible, while HT focuses on what significant figures have believed about the Bible. BT functions best when interacting with HT.

Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology

BT is historical and organic; ST is relatively ahistorical and universal. Unlike BT, which is deeply committed to working inductively from the biblical text so that the text itself sets the agenda, ST may (legitimately) be at a second or third or fourth order removed from Scripture as it engages, say, philosophical and scientific questions that the biblical texts themselves do not directly raise. But ST is the most comprehensive of the various theological disciplines.

Exegesis and BT have an advantage over ST because the Bible aligns more immediately with their agendas. ST has an advantage over exegesis and BT because it drives hard toward holistic integration.

ST tends to be a little further removed from the biblical text than does BT, but ST is a little closer to cultural engagement. In some ways, BT is a kind of bridge-discipline between exegesis and ST because it overlaps with them, enabling them to hear each other a little better. In some ways, ST is a culminating discipline because it attempts to form and transform one’s worldview. BT is important today because the gospel is virtually incoherent unless people understand the Bible’s storyline. ST is important today because, rightly undertaken, it brings clarity and depth to our understanding of what the Bible is about.

Pastoral Theology and the Other Disciplines

PT applies exegesis, BT, HT, and ST to help people glorify God by living wisely with a biblical worldview. It answers the practical question, How then should we live?

Although it is possible to treat pastoral theology as an independent discipline, it is wiser to recognize that the Bible was never given to stir up merely or exclusively intellectual questions. It was given to transform people’s lives; it was given to be practical. The notion of impractical theology — theological study that is unconcerned with repentance, faith, obedience, conformity to Christ, and joy in the Lord — hovers somewhere between the ridiculous and the blasphemous.

We may so quickly pursue “what the Bible means to me” (greatly emphasizing “to me”) that we completely ignore the distance between ourselves and the text and compromise the Bible’s historical specificity and thus the nature of God’s revelation. It is far better to read each part of the Scripture, think it through on its own terms, discern its contribution to the whole Bible, and ask how such truth applies to us and our church and society.

Since God created the universe, we are accountable to him, and he has authoritatively spoken in the Bible. Even if we earnestly try to understand God’s gracious self-disclosure on its own terms, that is insufficient if we do not respond to God as he has disclosed himself. Interpreters are inseparable from the interpretive process, and our attitude toward the text is important. Desiring merely to master the text is not enough; we must desire to be mastered by it. For one day we will give an account to the one who says, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isa 66:2).


D. A. Carson

Taken from NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible.

In “The Bible and Theology,” we observed how biblical theology is related to other disciplines, including careful reading, systematic theology, historical theology, and pastoral theology. Biblical theology studies the theology of individual biblical books (e.g., Isaiah, the Gospel of John) and of select collections within the Bible (e.g., the Pentateuch, wisdom literature, the Gospels, Paul’s letters, John’s writings), carefully thinking through their place in the Bible’s developing story. It also traces out themes as they develop across time within the canon.


As currently practiced, biblical theology wears one or more of three “faces”:

1. Face One. Here one seeks to understand, e.g., the theology of Jeremiah, of Luke-Acts, of the Pentateuch, or of Hebrews. Textbooks abound with the words “Theology of the New Testament” in the title. In most cases these are books with discrete chapters devoted to the distinctive theological emphases of each book or corpus in the NT. The best of these chapters locate the biblical book or corpus within the Bible’s entire narrative, not just within the narrative of the NT, and thus they are rightly considered biblical-theological studies.

2. Face Two. Alternatively, one may trace certain themes running through the entire Bible, carefully observing how the passage of time enlarges and enriches them. Many of the ensuing articles in this study Bible are devoted to that kind of biblical theology. For example, the study of how the theme of the temple develops across time within the Bible not only generates insight on that theme but also enables us to see more clearly how the entire Bible holds together.

3. Face Three. Some writers have recently studied a particular biblical book, then carefully noted how that book uses earlier biblical material, and then examined how later biblical books cite or allude to that book. For example, one might study the theology of the book of Daniel, paying close attention to the ways in which Daniel picks up themes and specific passages from earlier OT material, and then study how Daniel is cited and used in the rest of the Bible. This is another way of saying that even though biblical theology sometimes focuses initially on one book of the Bible or on one theme running through the Bible, sooner or later it is interested in understanding how the Bible holds together, how in God’s providence it develops across time to become what we hold in our hands today.

What is striking about all these faces of biblical theology is that they keep one eye focused on the passage of time — i.e., on where any biblical document or theme is located in what is often called “salvation history” (the history of redemption). God did not choose to disclose everything in one moment of spectacular revelation. Rather, he chose to disclose himself and his purposes progressively, through events and words spread across many centuries, climaxing in his Son, Jesus Christ.


Although the word “history” sometimes refers to what has taken place, it more commonly refers to the story or account of what has taken place. No human account of what has taken place can ever be exhaustive: we simply do not and cannot know enough. For example, a history of the Roman Empire cannot possibly tell us everything that took place within the Roman Empire during the centuries the empire existed. Any history of the Roman Empire will necessarily be selective. A history will be judged as excellent or poor on the basis of how representative it is, how the parts are made to cohere, how evidence has been handled, and the like. However the history is organized, it involves sequence (keeping an eye on time), cause and effect, trends, and evaluation of significance.

Salvation history is thus the history of salvation — i .e., the history of events that focus on the salvation of human beings and issues involving the new heaven and the new earth. Even when the focus narrows to one man, Abraham, and his descendants, that man is given the promise that in him and in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen 12:3). Biblical Christianity is not an abstract or timeless philosophy (though of course it involves abstractions): at least in part, it is the account of what God has done, of the events and explanations he has brought about in order to save lost human beings. (Even what “salvation” means, what it means to be “saved,” is disclosed in this history.) From this, four things follow:

1. Salvation history is part of world history. It may tell of some events that other historians are not interested in, but it so describes real events that it necessarily overlaps with other histories. The Bible tells of some events bound up with Tiglath-Pileser (2 Kgs 15:29), Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 39), and Pilate (Matt 27:11 – 26), but we also know of these men from sources with no connection to the Bible.

2. Salvation history is real history. It depicts events that really did take place. This may seem a rather obvious thing to say, but it has to be said, because some theologians have argued that salvation history — biblical history — is often not historical. Sometimes, they say, it relates things as if they really did take place even though they did not take place. The importance of these “events” that never happened, it is argued, lies in their aesthetics, their important themes, or their ability to stir the imagination. But salvation history is real history.

3. Salvation history includes not only events caused by other events that take place in the natural world but also events caused directly by God. Sometimes, of course, God works in providential ways through the natural order. For example, although biblical authors know about the water cycle — water evaporates from oceans and seas to form clouds that send their precipitation back to earth to run in rivulets and streams and rivers back to the sea (Eccl 1:7) — they generally prefer to say that God sends the rain (e.g., Matt 5:45). Thus, God works through the natural order. But when God raises Jesus from the dead, there is nothing natural about God’s action: this is the direct intervention of God, displaying his might in contravention of nature. Nevertheless, Jesus’ resurrection happened; it took place in history. This must be strongly asserted against those who say that genuinely “historical” events are those that have natural causes. Such a stance rules out what the Bible makes obvious: God can and does directly intervene in history beyond his providential reign that utilizes natural causes. Salvation history includes events like Jesus’ resurrection, events that take place but that are caused directly by God.

4. Although the Bible contains a good deal of salvation history, it contains things other than salvation history. For example, it includes wisdom literature, lament, law, prophecy, and much more. But even these disparate kinds of literature that make up the Bible are written at discrete points along the Bible’s story line. In other words, salvation history provides the backbone to which all the parts of the Bible are connected.


One might summarize salvation history in four words: creation, fall, redemption, consummation. That is the entire story, painted with the broadest brush. Then again, one might add in, after the fall, a number of other turning points: the call of Abraham and the beginning of the Abrahamic covenant, the exodus and the giving of the law, entrance into the promised land, the establishment of the Davidic dynasty, the exile and the end of the exile. Under redemption, one might break down the category into constituent parts: the incarnation, Jesus’ atoning death, Jesus’ resurrection, and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.

Of course, one might then further refine the details of this history. For example, one might specify David’s seven-year rule in Hebron over two tribes before he captures Jerusalem, makes it his capital, and simultaneously becomes king over the twelve tribes. In discussing the Davidic dynasty, one might list the various monarchs and what they did for good or ill. One might describe the tabernacle and its function as stipulated in the law of Moses, then trace its history until it is displaced by the temple built by Solomon, observing further the destruction of the temple under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, and the building of another temple under the ministry of prophets like Haggai. Likewise, one might expand the discussion of the exile to distinguish the onset of the exile of Israel in 722 BC by the Assyrians from the onset of the exile of Judah in 586 BC by the Babylonians. The distinction between these two dates is of more than antiquarian interest; e.g., the prophets build on the fact that Israel is taken off to captivity long before her “sister” Judah to argue that Judah ought to learn some lessons from the wretched experience of Israel, while in fact she learns nothing and seems committed to duplicating all Israel’s sins, with far less excuse (e.g., Jer 3:6 — 4:31). And so far nothing has been said of the salvation-historical contributions of, e.g., Ruth, Esther, Daniel, and Nehemiah.

All these historical details, many of them significant historical turning points, make up the history of redemption. And all of them, rightly configured, draw lines toward the greatest turning point of all in salvation history: the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Messiah.


Five things might usefully be mentioned.

1. The story line of the Bible, the sweep of salvation history, provides the framework on which so much else in the Bible depends. For example, it would be impossible to trace such themes as the tabernacle/temple, the priestly ministry, the Davidic dynasty, and the Messianic hope apart from the salvation-historical framework in which these themes are embedded. Thus, the discipline of biblical theology is grounded on an appropriate grasp of salvation history.

2. The Bible’s salvation history largely establishes the direction of its movement. To return for a moment to the simplest outline of salvation history: we begin with creation, with God as the Creator and all that he makes declared to be good; we move to the fall, which establishes the nature of the problem throughout the rest of the story; we arrive at redemption, which is God’s answer to the horrible defiance of human rebellion and guilt, turning as it does on the cross and resurrection of Jesus; and we finally reach the consummation, when in the wake of redemption God finally brings to pass all his purposes, secured in Christ and now brought to completion. Salvation-history is cohesive and discloses God’s purposes in the direction in which the narrative unfolds.

3. The trajectories that run through and are part of the history of redemption gradually point to the future and become predictive voices. For example, the promise of a Davidic dynasty (2 Sam 7:11b – 16), a promise made about 1,000 years before Jesus, a dynasty that endures forever, is fleshed out in Ps 2, given new and rich associations in the eighth-century BC prophecies of Isaiah (Isa 9), and provided with further images in the sixth-century BC ministry of Ezekiel (Ezek 34). Once this trajectory is established, thoughtful readers look along this trajectory and cannot fail to discern ways in which the depictions of Davidic kings point forward to the ultimate Davidic king. Similar things can be said of many other trajectories that run through salvation history. For example, the theme of the exodus is picked up and developed in the return of the people to the promised land after the exile and culminates in the new exodus theme in the NT (see “Exile and Exodus,” pg. 2347).

4. Very often these trajectories (or "typologies," as they are often called) in the history of redemption become intertwined to form rich tapestries. For example, although it is possible to follow the themes of tabernacle/temple, Jerusalem, and the Davidic dynasty as separate trajectories (these are teased out in various articles in this study Bible), they come together in 2 Sam 6 – 7: the ark is brought to Jerusalem and the groundwork is laid for the temple, David’s dynasty is established, and Jerusalem, now the capital of Israel, is becoming the city of the great King. From this point forward these themes repeatedly wrap around each other, so that mention of one often pulls in one or both of the others. The destruction of Jerusalem at the onset of the Bab ylonian exile means the destruction of the temple and the suspension of the Davidic monarchy. Eventually Jesus is hailed as the Messianic King as he rides into Jerusalem (Matt 21:1 – 11), cleans out the temple (Matt 21:12 – 17), and is crucified as the king who reigns from the cross (Matt 27:27 – 37), providing the atonement long anticipated by the rites in the temple (Heb 9:1 — 10:4) and pointing the way forward to the Jerusalem that is above (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22).

5. Above all, salvation history provides the locus in which God has disclosed himself in events and in the words that explain them. As salvation history is the framework of the Bible’s story line, so it is the locus of the revelation of the living God, the Lord of history.

Taken from NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible Copyright © 2018 by Zondervan.