New Testament Theology

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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.

Historical Survey

In the centuries following the apostolic era dogma dominated the church and biblical theology was forced to take a subordinate role. The "rule of faith," or the magisterium of the church, was the guiding principle. The change began with the Reformation, when sola Scriptura replaced dogma as the hermeneutic of the church. The true beginning of "biblical theology" came after the Enlightenment within German pietism. The mind replaced faith as the controlling factor, and the historical-critical method developed. J.F. Gabler in 1787 defined the approach in purely descriptive terms, and after him critics treated the Bible like any other book.

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In Tubingen, F.C. Baur in 1864 developed "tendency criticism," which reconstructed NT history under Hegel's thesis (Petrine church), antithesis (Pauline church), and synthesis (the later church of the second century). Later in the century the history of religions school with Wilhelm Bousset and William Wrede looked at the sources of Christianity in terms of the surrounding religions. From that time the basis of NT theology was said to be the early church rather than Jesus. The conservative reaction, via Schlatter and Zahn in Germany, the Cambridge trio (Lightfoot, Westcott, and Hort), and the Princetonians (Hodge, Machen, Warfield, and Vos) argued for the interdependence of biblical theology with exegesis and systematics.

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.

To Exegesis

There is a constant tension within biblical theology between diversity and unity, and a holistic consideration of the biblical material is a necessary corrective to a fragmented approach to the Bible. Thus biblical theology regulates exegesis (Gaffin). Yet exegesis also precedes biblical theology, for it provides the data with which the latter works. The theologian correlates the results of the exegesis of individual texts in order to discover the unity between them. Therefore the hermeneutical circle is now a three-way enterprise.

To Historical Theology

"Tradition" controls not only Roman Catholic dogma but Protestant thinking as well. All interpreters find their data base in their community of faith. Historical theology makes the theologian aware of the ongoing dialogue and thus functions both as a check against reading later ideas into a passage and as a store of knowledge from which to draw possible interpretations. This discipline also enters the hermeneutical circle, within which the text challenges our preunderstanding and both draws upon and reforms our tradition-derived beliefs.

To Homiletical Theology

Nearly every theologian realizes that theology dare not merely describe the past thinking of the biblical authors. It must demonstrate the relevance of those ideas for contemporary needs. This is the task of homiletical theology. Of course, no one is either a theologian or a homiletician; in a very real sense the two converge. Yet it is still valid to differentiate the levels at which we work, so long as we realize that true interpretation must blend all five aspects, biblical, systematic, exegetical, historical, and homiletical. The task itself has been explained best by missiology's "contextualization." The preacher/missionary takes the results of the first four disciplines and communicates this to the current "context" of the church/mission field.

Specific Problem Areas

Unity and Diversity

Many argue that the biblical books are circumstantial and linked to irreversible historical contingency; therefore there was no true unifying theology. Some go so far as to state there was no true "orthodoxy" in the earliest church but only a series of different groups struggling for control. Certainly there is tremendous diversity in the Bible, since most of the books were written to defend God's will for his people against various aberrations. Further, there is a great variety of expressions, e.g., Paul's "adoption" motif or John's "newborn" imagery. However, this does not mean that it is impossible to compile divergent traditions into a larger conceptual whole (cf. Eph. 4:5-6). Through all the diverse expressions a unified perspective and faith shine through. The key is linguistic/semantic; the differences can often be understood as metaphors which point to a larger truth. At this level we can detect unity.


Many believe that doctrines and traditions developed in stages, and that inspiration should be applied to the originating event, the stages in the subsequent history of the community, and the final stage in which it was "frozen" into the canon. This makes detection of any biblical theology very difficult and usually leads to multiple interpretations. However, there is another way, which depends upon the final form and traces only that which is evident in the text. Moreover, we must not allow a concept of tradition to replace the search for a unifying center. Tradition-critical speculation becomes an end in itself, with very little in the way of fruitful results. Still, when placed within the context of the whole process, the method can highlight individual emphases, e.g., in the four Gospels.

Analogia Fidei and Progressive Revelation

When one places too much stress on unity, "parallelomania" can result, i.e., the tendency to apply any parallel (even if a wrong one) to a text. Actually, as evidenced even in the Reformers, "the faith" or dogma can control our exegesis. A better phrase would be analogia Scriptura, "Scripture interpreting Scripture." Here too we must exercise care and stress a proper use of parallels, studying the use of the terms in both passages in order to determine whether the meanings truly overlap. Progressive revelation ties together the seemingly disparate notions of tradition-history and analogia Scriptura. One must trace the historical process of revelation and determine the continuities between individual parts.

History and Theology

James Barr says that ambiguity about the connection between revelatory events and historical causation and between revelation and the biblical text itself causes problems for the possibility of biblical theology. Yet history is necessary for theology. While there is theology in narrative sections like the Gospels, this does not obviate the historical core. Lessing's "ugly broad ditch" between "accidental truths of history" and "necessary truths of reason" is based upon the philosophical skepticism of the Enlightenment. In the post-Einsteinian age this position is no longer viable. There is no reason that theology must be divorced from the possibility of revelation in history. Indeed, history and its interpretation are united, and recent approaches to historiography demonstrate not only the possibility of seeing God's revelation in history but the necessity of doing so. In Kings-Chronicles or the Gospels, for instance, history and theology are inseparable. We know Jesus as he has been interpreted for us through the sacred evangelists.

Language, Text, and Meaning

Recent theorists have drawn such a sharp contrast between modern conditions and the ancient world that the interpreter seems forever separated from the intended meaning of the text. They assert that a text once written becomes autonomous from the author, and the interpreter cannot get behind his or her preunderstanding to make an "objective" reading. The world of the interpreter cannot interpenetrate the world of the Bible. Gadamer argues for a fusion of horizons between the interpreter and the text, and Ricoeur speaks of the "world-referential" dimension, i.e., Scripture draws the reader into its own world. More recent approaches such as structuralism go beyond the text to stress the "deeper structure" beneath it, i.e., the universal patterns of the mind which speak to every generation. It is said that we are moving further and further from the original meaning of Scripture. However, this is not necessarily the case. Wittgenstein talked of the "language games" which language plays, and E.D. Hirsch speaks of the "intrinsic genre" of the text, i.e., the rules of the language game which narrow the possibilities and facilitate interpretation. Meaning in the text is open to the interpreter, who must place his preunderstanding "in front of" the text (Ricoeur) and enter its own language game. Within this the original meaning is a possible goal. When we recognize the NT as stating propositional truth, the intended meaning becomes a necessary enterprise.

OT and NT

Any true biblical theology must recognize the centrality of the relationship between the testaments. Again the issue is diversity vs. unity. The various strata of both must be allowed to speak, but the unity of these strata must be recognized. Several aspects demand this unity: the historical continuity between the testaments; the centrality of the OT for the NT; the promise-fulfillment theme of the NT; the messianic hope of the OT and its place as a "pedagogue" (Gal. 3). Many, from Marcion to Bultmann, have posited an absolute dichotomy between the testaments, yet to do so is to separate the NT from its historical moorings and to cause it to founder in a sea of historical irrelevance. Others elevate OT over NT (A.A. van Ruler) or take a purely Christological approach to the OT (Hengstenberg, Vischer). None does full justice to the two testaments. For instance, while a completely Christological approach guards against the tendency to historicize the OT away from promise-fulfillment, it leads to a subjective spiritualizing of the OT which denies its intended meaning. Therefore, I would posit "patterns of unity and continuity" (Hasel) as the OT looks forward to the NT and the NT depends upon the OT for its identity. Both are valid aspects of God's ongoing redemptive activity in history.

Theology and Canon

Brevard Childs has made the final form of the canon the primary hermeneutical tool in determining a biblical theology. He believes that the parts of Scripture must maintain a dialectical relationship with the whole of the canon. Therefore there is no true biblical theology when only the individual voices of the various strata are heard. However, many critics demur, saying that biblical authority and inspiration are dynamic rather than static, centering not only upon the final form of the text but also upon the individual stages within the tradition process, both before the "final" form and after it, even up to the present day. Childs responds that while the tradition process has validity, any true theology must depend upon the canon itself and not upon the speculative results of historical criticism. Childs's concern is valid, but there are certain problems. First, both the original community and the current interpreter have priority over the author and text.

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.


Since biblical theology is descriptive, dealing with "what it meant," critical scholars deny its authority. True biblical authority, it is said, rests upon its "apostolic effectiveness" in fulfilling its task (Barrett) or upon the community behind it (Knight) or its content (Achtemeier). In actuality the authority of Scripture transcends all these; as the revelation of God, it has propositional authority; as the revelation of God to man, it has existential authority. The text is primary, and the authority of the interpreter is secondary, i.e., it derives its authority from the text. Theology as interpreted meaning has authority only to the extent that it reflects the true message of the inspired Scriptures. The Barthian separation between the living Word and the written Word, with the latter having only instrumental authority, is an inadequate mode, for it fails to understand properly the claims of Scripture for itself. The Bible is both propositional revelation and the dynamic instrument of the Holy Spirit. The authority of biblical theology stems not just from the fact that it speaks to the contemporary situation (which is the task of systematics and homiletics) but from the fact that it communicates divine truth.

A Proper Methodology

The Synthetic Method traces basic theological themes through the strata of Scripture in order to note their development through the biblical period. Its strength is stress on the unity of Scripture. Its weakness is its tendency toward subjectivity: one can force an artificial pattern upon the NT material.

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.

Themes in NT Theology

These final two sections will apply the above proposals first to the basical theological messages of individual NT authors and then to the quest for a unifying central theme in the NT. Since there are separate articles in this volume on the theologies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul, we will present here the rest of the NT corpus, namely the themes of the general epistles and of Revelation.

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.

Unifying Themes

Five criteria are necessary to the search for a central motif that binds together the individual emphases and diverse doctrines of the NT: (1) the basic theme must express the nature and character of God; (2) it must account for the people of God as they relate to him; (3) it must express the world of mankind as the object of God's redemptive activity; (4) it must explain the dialectical relationship between the testaments; (5) it must account for the other possible unifying themes and must truly unite the theological emphases of the NT. Many proposed themes will fit one or another of the strata of OT and NT, e.g., the narrative or the poetic or the prophetic or the wisdom or the epistolary portions, but will fail to summarize all. This theme must balance the others without merely lifting one above its fellow motifs.

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.

Also, see:
Theology of Matthew
Theology of Mark
Theology of Luke
Theology of John

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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