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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



New Testament Theology

James D. G. Dunn

What is New Testament Theology?

The concept of ‘New Testament theology’ is more contested than is often appreciated. By convention, ‘theology’ denotes not only talk of God as such, but the corollaries of an active belief in God, including the understanding of the world as ‘created’, of human living as responsible before this God, of divine revelation and redemptive purpose, and so on. So ‘New Testament theology’ could mean simply a description of the beliefs on such subjects as adduced from the writings of the New Testament (NT). But that simple definition at once raises a variety of questions which need at least to be posed if the task of ‘NT theology’ is to be adequately appreciated.

For example, is NT theology only a descriptive exercise, an exercise in historical literary archaeology—the task of merely grouping and sequencing various pronouncements on such topics in the NT? Or is the real task to search out principles and teachings which can be argued to be of continuing relevance and importance for the twenty-first century, a prescriptive rather than a descriptive exercise? In other words, is what is envisaged the task of reporting NT thought or of doing theology by drawing on NT thought? Or again, is NT theology the province of the historian or literary scholar, or only that of the Church which historically recognized these writings as New Testament and for whom the NT by definition is Scripture?

Another set of questions arises from the lack of clarity as to whether the subject-matter of NT theology is what the writers of the NT themselves believed or simply what they wrote. Is it to be assumed that the writers in each particular instance were drawing on a larger well or fountain-head of theology, which can (and should) be deduced from the particular language of each text? Or should the concern be only with the text itself? Either way, the further question cannot be ignored: to what extent does our understanding of the particular text depend on our knowledge of the contexts from which and to which it was directed? And even if we eschew the attempt (or possibility) to enquire behind a text to the mind of its author, what weight should be given to the allusions and echoes in the texts themselves—echoes of other texts, allusions to issues not fully elucidated in the texts themselves?

Then there are the implications of using the qualifier ‘New Testament’ in talking of ‘New Testament theology’. Few would want to claim that there is a single, uniform theological teaching on any subject within the NT writings. These writings certainly form a unified body of texts, united above all by their common focus on and devotion to Jesus Christ. But round that common core there is considerable diversity. Consequently, it is rarely wise to talk simply of ‘the NT teaching’ on any particular subject. For in some cases the teaching referred to is to be found in only one or two of the NT writings, attitudes to homosexuality being a case in point. And in other cases, there is a marked tension between the different views expressed on a particular theme, as for example, in attitudes to the (Jewish) law. Or should we go down the road of ‘canonical criticism’ and insist that, as part of ‘the New Testament canon’, individual texts should be read only canonically—that is, within the context of the canon as a whole? Here the unifying factor—that just these texts came to be reckoned as canonical, as ‘the New Testament’—would become in effect the perspective of the fourth-century Christian church which dubbed just these and rejected others as ‘canonical’. And the scope for recognizing a prickly individualism, such as Paul's theology could be said to have evinced, might then be closed down, and important theological input be devalued.

Questions like these have constantly bubbled up in modern scholarship, particularly in the last 100 years. What is known as the History of Religions school in Germany at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries was in large part a reaction against treating religion as merely theology. The NT should not be seen as simply a repository of doctrine. Rather, it bears witness to religious experience and to early Christianity's interaction with other religious movements of the time. For example, William Wrede in 1897 argued that we should abandon the name ‘New Testament theology’ and speak instead of ‘early Christian history of religion’, or ‘the history of early Christian religion and theology’. And Wilhelm Bousset's famous study of 1913 of the development of early Christology (understanding of Christ) took its point of departure from the practice of the early community's worship.

The middle decades of the twentieth century saw a reassertion of theology—the NT as in some important sense speech from God and not merely about God. Here the names of Rudolf Bultmann and the most influential Bultmannian of the following generation, Ernst Käsemann, command attention. And latterly the debate has diverged in several directions, with some insisting that the NT texts should be read primarily as historical sources, others concerned more with the literary and aesthetic appeal of the texts, others emphatic that the texts can be properly understood only within the Christian tradition itself. Within the resulting confusion the possibility and desirability of NT theology has become something of an open question.

All that being said, however, if theology is a viable exercise, then a role for the NT within that exercise certainly cannot be excluded or ignored. For the NT is the primary witness to the beginnings of Christian theology, and remains a primary source for Christian theology in all ages. Indeed, it can be fairly argued that the NT writings define and provide the subject-matter for Christian theology, on which all subsequent Christian theologizing is ultimately commentary. And even if some would regard that last statement as something of an overstatement, it nevertheless remains an inescapable fact that the NT writings provide the literary basis for all Christian theology. So, despite the difficulties of defining the objects and scope of NT theology, some attempt to describe the theological contribution of the NT is unavoidable.

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