New Testament Theology is that branch of the Christian disciplines which traces themes through the authors of the NT and then amalgamates those individual motifs into a single comprehensive whole. Thus it studies the progressive revelation of God in terms of the life situation at the time of writing and the delineates the underlying thread which ties it together. This discipline centers upon meaning rather than application, i.e., the message of the text for its own day rather than for modern needs. The term employed most frequently for the current state of biblical theology is "crisis," due to the growing stress on diversity rather than unity and the failure to attain any consensus whatever as to methodology or content. However, this is hyperbolic.
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Karl Barth and dialectical theology (1919) rescued the old liberalism after its collapse following the First World War. He said that God speaks to man through the Bible. Therefore the testaments were studied along theological rather than historical-critical lines. Oscar Cullmann with his salvation-history approach represented the conservative wing, and Rudolf Bultmann with his demythologization and existential interpretation controlled the liberal faction. Following Bultmann, Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling developed the new hermeneutic, and influential school which considered the Bible to be encounter or "word-event." They reacted against the Bible as propositional truth and said that in it man is called to a new relationship with God.
There are several more recent approaches, such as Wolfhart Pannenberg's return to the historical approach as a scientific discipline and Brevard Childs's canon process, which considers the Bible as a unity and states that biblical theology must begin with the final canonical form rather than the developing stages of the biblical books. The major characteristic, however, has been disunity. No voice has gained ascendancy and no single system dominates as did Baur, Bousset, or Bultmann in the past. However, the interest is greater than ever before, and several voices, notably those of the canon-critical camp, are turning interest back to biblical theology. Relationship to Other Disciples. To Systematic Theology. Since biblical theology began as a reaction against dogmatics, there has always been tension between the two. Many like Ernst Kasemann have argued that the fragmentary nature of the NT data makes any attempt to unify the diverse theologies impossible. However, this is doubtful (see below), and the two are interdependent. Biblical theology forces systematics to remain true to the historical revelation, while dogmatics provides the categories to integrate the data into a larger whole. However, the organization itself stems from the text; Scripture must determine the integrating pattern or structure. Biblical theology is descriptive, tracing the individual emphases of the sacred writers and then collating them to ascertain the underlying unity. Systematics takes this material and reshapes it into a confessional statement for the church; it bridges the gap between "what it meant" and "what it means." At the same time, systematics provides the preunderstanding that guides the interpreter, so the two disciplines interact in a type of "hermeneutical circle" as each informs and checks the other.
Second, Childs admits that with his approach the original meaning of the text cannot be recovered. Many canon critics see the true meaning as encompassing not only the canonical thrust but also the meaning of the original event/saying, subsequent developments, and current interpretations. The text is reduced to a mere voice in a cacophony of sounds. Third, many other critics reduce Scripture to a "canon within the canon" (e.g., Kasemann). One chooses a theme as center and stresses only those passages which fit this so-called core of Scripture. This reduction must be avoided and the whole of Scripture allowed to speak.
The Analytical Method studies the distinctive theology of individual sections and notes the unique message of each. The strength is the emphasis upon the individual author's meaning. The weakness is the radical diversity, which results in a collage of pictures with no cohesiveness.
The Historical Method studies the development of religious ideas in the life of God's people. Its value is the attempt to understand the community of believers behind the Bible. Its problem is the subjectivity of most reconstructions, in which the scriptural text is at the mercy of the theorist.
The Christological Method makes Christ the hermeneutical key to both testaments. Its strength is its recognition of the true center of the Bible. Its weakness is its tendency to spiritualize passages and force interpretations foreign to them, especially in terms of the OT experience of Israel. One should not read everything in the OT or NT as a "type of Christ."
The Confessional Method looks at the Bible as a series of faith statements which are beyond history. Its value is its recognition of creed and worship in NT faith. Its danger is its radical separation between faith and history.
The Cross-Section Method traces a single unifying theme (e.g., covenant or promise) and studies it historically by means of "cross-sections" or samplings of the canonical record. Its strength is the understanding of major themes that it provides. Its weakness is the danger of arbitrary selection. If one selects the wrong central theme, other themes can be forced into harmony with it.
The Multiplex Method (Hasel) combines the best of these and proceeds hermeneutically from text to theory. It begins with grammatical and historical analysis of the text, attempting to unlock the meaning of the various texts within their life settings. Here a sociological analysis is also helpful, since it studies those life settings in terms of the social matrix of the believing communities. As the data are collected from this exegetical task, they are organized into the basic patterns of the individual books and then further of the individual authors. At this stage the interpreter has delineated the emphases or interlocking forces in the strata. Once these various traditions (e.g., Markan, Johannine, Pauline) have been charted, the student looks for basic principles of cohesion between them, for metaphorical language which discloses larger patterns of unity between the authors. One must seek the unified whole behind statements of election and universal salvific will, on the one hand, or behind realized and final eschatology, on the other. Paul's stress on justification by faith will be united with John's use of new-birth language. These larger unities are charted on two levels, first with respect to overall unity and second concerning the progress of revelation. Finally, these motifs are compiled into major sections and subsections, following a descriptive (biblical) method rather than an artificial reconstruction. In other words, the data rather than the dogmatic presuppositions of the interpreter control the operation. From this will emerge a central unifying theme around which the other subthemes gather themselves. Within this larger unity the individual themes maintain complementary yet distinct roles. The larger cohesive unity must result from rather than become the presupposition of the theological enterprise, i.e., the texts determine the patterns.
Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish Christians, perhaps in Rome, who were in danger of "apostasizing" due to persecution. As a result, the author stresses the pilgrimage aspect of the Christian life (see Kasemann). The believer is to recognize that he or she lives between two worlds, the present age of trouble and the future age of salvation. The key is a faith which makes hope a concrete reality (11:1) and makes the "powers of the age to come" a present reality (6:4-5). In light of the superiority of Christ over the old Jewish economy, the Christian must cling to the high priest "after the order of Melchizedek" (7:1-2). While many have made the high priestly Christology the major theme of Hebrews, it is more likely that the pilgrimage aspect, rooted in the exhortation passages, is central.
James, probably the first NT book written, is addressed to a Jewish Christian audience, perhaps in Palestine. The church was poor, without influence, and passing through a time of persecution in which wealthy Jews were confiscating their property (2:6, 5:1-6). The book is immensely practical, dealing in a pastoral way with weak believers and their tendencies. It draws upon wisdom themes regarding trials and temptation, social concern, the problem of the tongue, and interpersonal conflicts to underscore the necessity of putting one's faith into practice in the practical Christian life.
I Peter utilizes a great deal of creedal or catechetical material, i.e., formal statements on Christian doctrine composed by the apostles for the early church, to speak to a further situation of persecution on behalf of a mixed church of Jewish and Gentile Christians in northern Galatia. It combines an eschatological perspective (i.e., the end has begun and glory is near) with an ethical emphasis (i.e., exemplary behavior must result from the experience of God's salvation in light of the world's opposition). Christ is the model of the righteous sufferer (3:18), and his exaltation is shared by the one who endures similar hostility. Therefore, in the midst of this evil world the believer is an alien whose true citizenship is in heaven and who rejoices even when suffering (1:6-7) because it is a participation in the humiliation/exaltation of Christ.
II Peter and Jude are sister epistles written to combat false teaching of the Gnostic type which rejected the lordship of Christ (II Pet. 2:1) and the parousia (II Pet. 3:3-4) and degenerated into immorality (Jude 4). In light of this, there is a decided emphasis upon the primacy of apostolic teaching (II Pet. 1:16, 20-21; 3:2) and upon the return of Christ in judgment (II Pet. 3:3-4; Jude 5-6). The coming day of the Lord is central in II Peter, and the judgment of those who oppose God, either human or angelic/demonic, comes to the fore in Jude. Both stress the stringent responsibility of the church to oppose the false teachers.
The Covenant (Eichrodt, Ridderbos) has often been utilized to express the binding relationship between God and his people. It includes both the legal contract and the eschatological hope which results, both the universal dimension of the cosmic God who creates as well as sustains and the specific communion which results. The problem is that this is not universally attested in the testaments as the central core. A better theme might be "election" as expressing the act of God or "promise" as the hope which results (see below).
God and Christ (Hasel) have been stressed a great deal lately, noting the theocentric character the NT. This is much better than stressing aspects, such as the holiness or lordship or kingship of God, and better than making either God or Christ the center, which would do a disservice to OT or NT respectively. However, while we may view the theme dynamically to allow for the individual expression of subthemes, this too may be narrow since the community of God's people is not a natural part of it.
Existential Reality or Communion has been stressed (Bultmann et al.) as the true purpose of the Bible. Proponents argue that this ties together the other themes and expresses the dynamic work of God among his people. Yet as expressed by many it ignores too readily the propositional and creedal content of Scripture. While communion is certainly a primary motif, it is not the unifying theme.
Eschatological Hope (Kaiser) is often stressed, in either the sense of promise or of hope. The strength of this is the way it unites the testaments, since both look to the future consummation of God's activity in history. It also unifies the other three above, which can be said to express aspects of this hope. Its weakness, as often noted by various scholars, is the absence of stress on this in many portions of Scripture, e.g., the wisdom literature or the Johannine writings. Again, this is a major emphasis but not the unifying theme.
Salvation History (von Rad, Cullmann, Ladd) may be the best of the positions, for it recognizes God's/Christ's redemptive activity on behalf of mankind, in terms of both present and future communion. More than the others above, it subsumes each of the categories into itself. Those who oppose this as the unifying theme argue from two directions: (1) its artifical nature, since there is no single instance in OT or NT where it is directly stated; and (2) the lack of emphasis upon it in the entire NT, e.g., it fits Luke-Acts but not John. However, any "unifying theme" is by its very nature artifical, since it is a principle derived from the individual themes of Scripture. Also, while it is not "central" to every book, it is behind those diverse motifs and is thereby able to bind them together. Every theme here has a viable claim, so we must see which of the five best summarizes the others. Therefore, salvation-history has the best claim to the title "unifying theme."
G R Osborne
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
J. Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible; C. K. Barrett, "What is NT Theology? Some Reflections," Horizons in Biblical Theology 3; H. Boers, What is NT Theology? B. Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis; R. Gaffin, "Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology," The NT Student and Theology a III, ed J. H. Skilton; D. Guthrie, NT Theology; G. Hasel, NT Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate; U. Mauser, ed., Horizons in Biblical Theology: An International Dialogue; E. Kasemann, "The Problem of a NT Theology," NTS 19:235-45; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the NT; R. Morgan, The Nature of NT Theology: The Contributions of William Wrede and Adolf Schlatter; J. D. Smart, The Past, Present, and Future of Biblical Theology; G. Vos, Biblical Theology.
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