A Review of Two Theologies of the New Testament


When Christian people hear about biblical theology, most of them understand this expres­­sion to mean theology that has the Bible as its ultimate standard and source. In this sense all theology ought to be biblical. In theology as an academic discipline, bibli­cal theology has a somewhat different meaning. In theology as an academic discipline this part of the theology stands between exegesis and systematic theology. Exegesis is the exposition of Scripture. Its focus is the single text or a single passage. Systematic theology reflects on the Bible as a whole. Under­stan­ding and recapitulating the content of the Bible is done in community with the church of all ages. Systematic theology is always confessional in character. The doctrinal content of the Bible is underlined.

Biblical theology focuses on the content of biblical revelation from the view point of its un­folding in history. The history of revelation or redemption is one of the leading viewpoints in biblical theology as an academic discipline. Biblical theology asks calls attention to the indi­vi­dual biblical witnesses and treats biblical themes in the context of the history of revelation and redemption. The emphasis falls on the diversity of the individual biblical witnesses within the greater unity of the Bible as a whole.In biblical theology the great distinction is between theology of the Old and the New Testament.

When we speak about the theology of the Old and New Testament the under­lying presupposition is, that the writings of the Old and New Testament, although diverse in character and each having its own accents and distinctive, ultimately form a con­sistent and coherent unity.At the same time I must say that quite a lot of scholars, who have written an Old or New Testament theology, only accept the canon for pragmatic reasons. Then we are not writing biblical theology, but the history of religion. Actually, theology, in the strict and real sense of the word, is only possible, when the Bible is accepted as the infallible and inerrant Word of the living God.

I stress, that we cannot draw exact distinctions between exegesis, biblical theology and syste­matic theology. In fact, it is a spectrum and besides that, we must reckon with the so called hermeneutical spiral. It is a great misunderstanding if we think that exegesis and biblical theology can be done in a neutral way. The exegetes and scholars who suggest that neutrality is possible in biblical theology are unaware they are the most dogmatic scholars we have come across.

Finally, I state emphatically, that biblical theology can never replace systematic theology. The Bible as a whole confronts us with questions, which can never be solved solely by an appeal to biblical texts. I think about ques-ions with regard to the relation­ship between time and eternity and the relationship between the Creator and his creation. That was the reason that already some years ago, Carl Truman wrote an article with the somewhat provo­cative title ‘A Revolutionary Balancing Act Or: Why our theology need to be a little less biblical?’

When theologians want to restrict themselves to biblical theology at the expanse of systematic theology, you always see that they have an antimetaphysical bias. They do not want to speak about God in himself, but only about God in his relationship to his creatures. But this is a very important dogmatic decision with far reaching consequences. You use to see in that case, that the narratives of the Bible are in a certain sense read as dogmatic treatises. Because in the biblical narratives God reacts to the actions of man in many cases, the conclusion is drawn that you cannot speak about the immutability of God. But what actually is the case, is that the genre of narrative is not really taken seriously.

I must add that when we take the Biblical narratives as a whole, their clear message is that God is completely in control of all history. History is his story. The whole reality depends on him and he himself is independent. In theology we have the term the aseitas Dei.Having tried to make you aware of the limitations of biblical theology, I am convinced that studying the content of the Bible focusing on the history of redemption and on the specific contribution of each book of the Bible and each writer of the Bible to the complete revelation, can be very fruitful.

So after these important remarks by way of introduction, now I call your attention to two theologies of the New Testament that were published in the last years. The first one consists of two volumes and is written by the American New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III. The second is written by Udo Schnelle, an outstanding German New Testament scholar.

The Indelible Image

Witherington has given his two volume study the title The Indelible Image. By means of the concept of the image of God Witherington explains the relationship between theology and ethics in the New Testament. The first volume treats the individual witnesses of the New Testament and the second the collective witness. Witherington states that in quite a several of the studies of New Testament theology, ethics are not given its due emphasis. He wants to remedy this fault.

Witherington does not mention it, but in former days actually no separation was made between systematic theology and ethics. Gisbertus Voetius, the father of the Dutch Further Reformation, can serve as a good example here. Many of the disputations of Voetius centered around questions related to the practice of piety. The fostering of piety was seen as the end of (systematic) theology. So Witherington is not that new in his treatment, as he perhaps suggests.

Whiterington has a high view of the authority and historical reliability of the New Testament. He stresses that theology and history must not be seen as each others rival. The gospels must be seen both as theological and historical writings. In the case of the gospel of John the word ‘theological’ must be underlined and in the case of the synoptic gospels the words ‘writing of ‘historical’.All four gospels are based on what eyewitnesses saw or heard. Witherington is convinced that also in the case of the fourth gospel, we are confronted with real history. Witherington also defends the historical reliability of Acts. In painting the portrait of early Christianity, Luke gives a selection of the facts, but not an idealized story that is far from highly unrealistic. 

It is remarkable that in the gospels Matthew and John, both written by persons who belonged to the circle of the Twelve, the frequency of the use of the name of Father is much higher than in the other gospels. Among the synoptic gospels, Matthew in this respect most closely resembles the gospel of John.The unity of the New Testament writings is seen in the way they speak about the person and the work of Christ. In almost all writing of the New Testament Jesus is called either Lord, Christ or/and Son of God. Only in 3 John do we not find any of these three words/expres­sions. But the reason is simple – its content as a letter of exhortation and its shortness. Jesus is everywhere portrayed as the one in whom redemption is found. He is the Savior.

Jesus himself and his activity and teaching while he was on earth, are the fountain of the expressions of faith with regard to his person. Witherington rightly makes this statement without denying that compared to the self revelation of Christ when he was on earth there is in the New Testament a further development in the presentation of the person of Christ after his exaltation and after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.The witness of the writers of the New Testament not only when they record the teaching of Jesus when he was on earth, but also when they are instructed by the resurrected and glorified Christ, confronts us with the real Christ. We cannot make a distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history, but only between Jesus Christ when he was on earth and Jesus Christ as he is in heaven.

Witherington’s finding that according to Paul the gospel does not annihilate the order of creation but intensifies it, is very important. Homosexual behavior cannot be reconciled with the bearing of the image of Christ. Homosexual orientation – just as all sinful desires – can be seen as a result of the fall of man. Persons who have this orientation must be called to self denial in the light of the order of creation and the gospel of Christ and never be given the impression that homosexuality can be allowed under certain conditions.

Witherington denies that Paul or other New Testament witnesses can be seen as defenders of the view of sinless perfection. There are mature believers, but also a mature believer has reasons to confess his sins and shortcomings.According to the new perspective, justification has only to do with the boundaries of the community of faith. It is an ecclesiological and not a soteriological doctrine. The new perspective denies the rightness of the view of the Reformation on justification. Withe-rington cannot be seen as a defender of the new perspective on Paul, but he does not sufficiently highlight the great importance of the message of justification in Paul’s writings. Rightly he states that Paul and James do not really contradict each other with regard to justification and faith. They each use both the word ‘justification’ and the word ‘faith’ in different ways.As you understand.

I think that the two volumes of Witherington are very valuable. They are goldmines full of useful information and useful insights. Honestly I must point to what I consider as a very serious defect, a defect that is seen again and again in the way Witherington presents the message of the New Testament. Witherington is a thoroughgoing Arminian. He denies the particular nature of the atonement, although nowhere in the New Testament it is ever said to unbelievers/persons outside the Christian church that Christ died for them.

A complete Savior is preached and must be preached to unbelievers, both Jews and gentiles.Not just a blessing connected with the work of Christ (Christ died for you) but Christ himself must be presented to unbelievers. The message that we will never be separated from the love of God in Christ, because Christ died for us and prays for us, is a message of consolation for believers. It makes clear to them the depth and the total character of Christ’s love for them.Witherington cannot give a satisfying explanation about the sayings in the New Testament about election and predestination. Final election depends in his view of man’s faith. But in the New Testament we read just the reverse. This is the main reason that I bring attention to another work in the field of New Testament Theology published within the last couple of years.

Theology of the New Testament

The study of Udo Schnelle, originally written in German and translated in English, has its own defects and shortcomings, but Schnelle makes clear that in the New Testament faith is seen as a gift of God. Faith completely rests on God’s grace and that is the reason that the fountain of faith is personal election. Especially in John’s gospel and the Pauline epistles the unconditional and personal nature of election is stressed.It is impossible for the language of election to refer only to the election of the congregation and not the election of individuals. It contrary to the central tenets of the witness of Paul, that the final salvation of believers depends on his own perseverance and is not guaranteed by the predestination and covenant loyalty of God.

The study of Schnelle can also be praised for other reasons. The fact that the history of Jesus and his church is not treated in a neutral way in the New Testament, does not mean that the information cannot be seen as reliable. All writing of history is selective and is done out of a certain perspective. Schnelle underlines that Jesus himself, while he was on earth knew that he had a unique relationship to God and had a unique place in the history of salvation.

I would make an even stronger statement, but as such we can agree with Schnelle. He emphasizes the continuity between what happened before and after Easter. He is convinced that the resurrec­tion of Christ is real history and not a myth. Schnelle has no patience with the view that originally there was a low Christology and that a high Christology points to a later date in development of presentation of the person of Christ.

At the same time we must say that Schnelle does not have a very high view of Scripture. He thinks that the gospel of John can only be accepted in a very small measure as a source of historical information. He thinks that the Pastoral Epistles and the epistle to the Ephesians were not written by Paul. His argument is not only the style in which these letters are written but also their theological content are different.He thinks that Paul cannot have written these letters, because both the Pastoral Epistles and the letter to the Ephesians are less charismatic than Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians. This is a circular argument.

The emphasis on the gifts of the Spirits in the two letters to the Corinthians is related to the problem in the congregation of Corinth. Besides that, it is perhaps no coincidence that in later letters this problem is not so acute.The extra ordinary gifts of the Spirit became more and more accidental. The differences in style can related to differences in content. In addition, we know that Paul made use of secretaries. Perhaps he gave them more freedom in the framing of his later letters.

The fact that Schnelle thinks that there is a real disagreement between Paul and James, must perhaps, at least partly, related to his Lutheran background. With regard to his view of Scripture, we have to prefer Witherington, but it is a remarkable that Schnelle although he has a lower view of Scripture, does much more justice to the full implications of the New Testament teaching of grace defending the personal and unconditional character of God’s election. So finally, I think that we can learn from both of them and must at the same time read their studies with critical discernment.

Udo Schelle, Theology of the New Testament, trans. M. Eugene Boring (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), hardcover 912pp. (ISBN 978-0-8010-3604-0) herdruk 2020, paperback, $60,– (ISBN 978-1-5409-6303-1)

Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament: Volume One. The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), hardcover 856 pp. (ISBN 978-978-8308-3861-5), herdruk 2016, paperback, $40,– (ISBN 978-0-8308-5133-1)

Ben Witherington III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament: Volume Two. The Collective Witness (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010), hardcover 838 pp.,$ (ISBN 978-978-8308-3862-2), herdruk 2016, paperback, $40,– (ISBN 978-0-8308-5134-8)

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