One of the 28 essays included in the excellent NIV Zondervan Study Bible, based on the most recent NIV translation (2011), is “The Bible and Theology” (2633-2636), written by D. A. Carson, the general editor. This was recently published as a stand-alone essay entitled How to Read the Bible and Do Theology Well
The essay begins as follows:
It’s 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. But we can never exhaust its depth. After decades of intense study, the most senior Bible scholars find that they’ve 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. (emphasis mine)
From here, Carson further addresses the five interdependent disciplines associated with the study of the Bible. He explains them through the questions they answer. I include pertinent excerpts, not the complete explanation.
Careful Reading: “‘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.”
Biblical Theology: “BT answers the question, “How has God revealed his word historically and organically.”
Historical Theology: “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 other 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.”
Systematic Theology: “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?”
Pastoral Theology: “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.”
Although each of these disciplines can be a stand-alone discipline, they must be integrated, so not only is it important to understand the foundation but also the interrelationship between them. Exegesis is the ground, which forms and shapes, influences, each of the other disciplines. As Carson notes, “The final authority is the Bible and the Bible alone.”
After explaining how exegesis relates to the disciplines of biblical, historical, and systematic theology, he then delineates how the various disciplines relate to one another.
Carson concludes this essay with a reminder that although the study of the Bible is something to which we diligently give ourselves, the goal is not to master it but rather to be mastered by it. That is a mark of growing maturity, and one who rightly understands his relationship to God through his Word.
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).
As you study the Scriptures, what is your posture? In what discipline(s) do you need to grow? Are you aware of the resources that will guide you in that growth? Turning from the individual to the corporate, as we engage in this further study, which is important, remember that the Bible and the Bible alone is our final authority, and our posture before it reflects our posture before God. Might we be humble, contrite and tremble at God’s Word, and in this way bring honor and glory to Him.