Sample text for Theology of the New Testament : a canonical and synthetic approach / Frank Thielman.
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Theology of the New Testament
Copyright © 2005 by Frank Thielman
Requests for information should be addressed to:
Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Theology of the New Testament : a canonical and synthetic approach / Frank Thielman.
Summary: "A basic resource for serious teachers, pastors, scholars, or lay people
interested in learning about the theology of the New Testament"--Provided by publisher.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN-10: 0-310-21132-8 (alk. paper)
1. Bible. N.T.--Theology. 2. Bible. N.T.--Canonical criticism. I. Title.
This edition printed on acid-free paper.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible: New
International Version(r). NIV(r). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used
by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or
transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or any
other--except for brief quotations in printed reviews, without the prior permission of the publisher.
Interior design by Sherri Hoffman
Printed in the United States of America
05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 /?DCI/ 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
The Theology of the New
Testament: The Basic Questions
Since the eighteenth century, the discipline of New Testament theology has come
under close scrutiny. Should the discipline be abandoned? Some have said so.
Does it only need to be restructured? Some have offered new models. In the discussion,
two problems with the discipline have repeatedly emerged as most significant.
The first problem, it is said, is an unhealthy blend in the discipline of dogmatics
with historical concerns. On the one hand, theological convictions influence New
Testament theologians both in the conclusions they draw about the meaning of the
New Testament texts and in their insistence on examining only the canonical documents.
On the other hand, since the church values these documents largely for the
historical claims made in them, New Testament theologians find that they must work
as historians in much the same way that any historian would work with ancient texts.
Is it possible to bring together faith and reason in this way, or must New Testament
theologians bracket their own dogmatic presuppositions about the importance of the
New Testament and place the canonical texts on a level with all other ancient texts?
If so, then they should shift their attention away from the theologically biased investigation
of "New Testament theology" to the more objective and universally useful
task of describing the history of early Christian thought.
The second problem arises from the theological diversity of the New Testament
texts. The New Testament documents not only express a variety of theological themes,
but sometimes they speak in different ways on the same theme. Do these differences
sometimes amount to contradiction? If not, why is the theological coherence of the
New Testament sometimes so hard to detect? If so, is it accurate to speak of "New
Testament theology" at all, as if we are speaking of some coherent whole?
Theology or History?
Since the sixteenth century, biblical theologians have struggled with the relationship
between interpreting the Bible to find support for the church's traditional theological
teachings and interpreting the Bible within its own historical context without
consideration for the theological convictions of the church. Because the church has
traditionally held to the primacy of Scripture over its traditions (even if extrabiblical
tradition is given great weight), ideally no conflict should arise. In fact, the church's
traditions and the theological emphases of the Bible have often been incompatible,
and so any study of biblical theology has often been characterized by the tension
between theological conviction and historical analysis.
Biblical theology arose early in the Reformation era as a discipline intended to
chasten the church's unbiblical theological speculations and to hasten its reform. The
emphasis at this time was more on theological reform than on sensitivity to the historical
situations in which the biblical documents were composed. Later, biblical theology
fell under the spell of Enlightenment rationalism, and some of its practitioners
began to define the discipline in terms of a historically motivated and theologically
independent study of the Bible that could use human reason to sit in judgment not
only on the teachings of the church, but on the content of the Bible itself.
Out of this link between biblical theology and the Enlightenment arose a criticism
of the discipline itself. Why speak of "biblical" theology at all? If the student of
the biblical texts is to be truly an historian, then it is necessary to speak only of the
history of Jewish and Christian thought and religion--to speak of the Bible, or of
the New Testament, is already to speak in dogmatic language that the historian interested
in the objective study of the past must find unacceptable.
Over the last three centuries, three criticisms of the discipline as theologically
rather than historically grounded have been particularly influential. J. P. Gabler,
William Wrede, and Heikki Raisanen, writing at the turn of the nineteenth, twentieth,
and twenty-first centuries respectively, called for the liberation of the historical
study of the Bible or early Christianity from the dogmatic concerns of the church.
Gabler's seminal challenge differs from that of Wrede and Raisanen because it is simply
a call for methodological clarity in the theological enterprise rather than a disparagement
of the theologically motivated study of the Bible. Nevertheless, both
Wrede and Raisanen understand themselves to be standing on the shoulders of
Gabler. It is important, therefore, to consider Gabler's challenge to the discipline
before evaluating the more direct attacks of Wrede and Raisainen. In order to understand
all three thinkers and to put our criticisms of their challenges in historical perspective,
it is necessary first to survey briefly the historical roots of biblical, and
specifically New Testament, theology.
The Early History of the Discipline
The development of a "biblical theology" had its roots in the age-old commitment
of the church to govern its theology and practice by the canonical writings of
the Old and New Testaments. One of the most important concerns of the Reformation
was that the church reform its doctrine and worship so that it might be more
faithful to the standards laid down in the Bible. In 1521, Luther's close friend and
colleague at the University of Wittenburg, Philip Melancthon, published one of the
earliest theological treatises of the Reformation--a brief treatment of important theological
topics based on Luther's lectures on Paul's letter to the Romans given in the
summer of 1519 and repeated the following year.
This treatment of Loci communes rerum theologicarum ("Fundamental Theological
Themes") provided a list of important theological topics and then briefly
explained the teaching of Scripture, and Scripture alone, on each topic. Melancthon
was weary of reading the lengthy speculations of medieval scholastic theologians on
Christian theology and wanted instead to discover how the Bible itself, and particularly
"Paul's own compendium of Christian doctrine" in Romans, described the
Christian religion. This urge to tap speculative theologians on the shoulder and point
them back to the Bible remained a constant theme in the early history of biblical
theology as a discrete discipline. Melancthon puts it this way:
I am discussing everything sparingly and briefly because the book is to function
more as an index than a commentary. I am therefore merely stating a list of the
topics to which a person roaming through Scripture should be directed. Further,
I am setting forth in only a few words the elements on which the main points of
Christian doctrine are based. I do this not to call students away from the Scriptures
to obscure and complicated arguments but, rather, to summon them to the
Scriptures if I can.
As the Reformation matured into Protestantism, however, Protestant thinkers
began to refine their theological commitments and to develop complicated theological
arguments of their own. In their works, Scripture was often used not so much
to set the theological agenda but to demonstrate that the various theological principles
that Protestants considered important, and which were now growing increasingly
complex, were, in fact, biblical. Those who first used the term "biblical
theology" to describe their theological studies made this proof-texting of preexisting
theological systems their goal. A new Protestant brand of scholasticism began to
develop with "biblical theology" as its handmaid.
Under the influence of German pietism on one hand and rationalism on the other,
biblical theology began to break away from this role as a prop for systematic theology.
Pietism sought to remind Protestant orthodoxy both of the preeminence of the Bible
in Christian belief and practice and of the place of religious experience in Christian
commitment. It viewed a return to the study of the Bible for its own sake as a necessary
antidote to the sterile theological debates that seemed to dominate Protestant
scholasticism, much in the way they had dominated the theological scene prior to the
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Bible. -- N.T. -- Theology.
Bible. -- N.T. -- Canonical criticism.