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New Testament Theology


New Testament theology is the exposition of the NT in grammatical, historical and cultural terms. The expression itself could be employed to cover the entire period from Christ’s inauguration of the New Covenant to the consummation of the redemptive program in the future, thereby setting in more adequate perspective the seeming disparity between the thousands of years of OT history and the scarce one hundred years of the life of Jesus and the apostles. This would be in full accord with the consciousness of Jesus, the teaching of the NT epistles and the message of the Johannine apocalypse, all of which not only focus upon our Lord’s redemptive mission, spelling out implications for faith and life in the 1st cent. but are concerned to indicate the nature of a life of faith as it is expressed in succeeding ages and look forward to God’s consummation of that redemption promised of old and inaugurated by Christ. New Testament theology, however, has come to signify something more restricted in scope: the exposition of the circumstances and convictions of Jesus, the apostles and the Early Church during the apostolic days, as set forth in the canonical writings of the NT and as elucidated by means of related bodies of lit. and contemporary data.

The nature of NT theology.

As a discipline, NT theology is one segment of the larger enterprise called Biblical theology, which seeks to trace the origins and growth of Biblical teaching and to set forth the various types of doctrine apparent in the different writers. New Testament theology and Biblical theology, accordingly, could be classed among the traditional departments of theology as historical theology; though at the same time they belong essentially to the department of exegetical theology, for their primary task is to furnish a correct grammatico-historical explanation of the teaching of each Biblical writer and to clarify as far as possible the genesis and development of each distinct concept in the canonical Scriptures.

The expression “Biblical theology” has been variously employed, and is somewhat liable to misconstruction. It was used first to designate a product: theological reflection that is in continuity with the presuppositions of the Bible and supported by specific texts. In this sense, Lutheran pietists of the 17th cent. appropriated the term for their more Biblical system of doctrine in distinction to the scholastic treatments of dogma widespread in their day; and it is in this sense that more conservative theologians today often use it. In the 19th cent., however, the expression came to be applied to a method of theological inquiry: the explication of the message of the Bible according to a historical principle of treatment, with full recognition of its various stages of development. In this sense, Biblical theology seeks to discover how the original author and the original readers were influenced by their historical situation, how the message of God was peculiarly suited to their historical situation and what that message meant to them—regardless of how it has been or may be applied in succeding periods of history, our own included. Unfortunately, both the impulse toward such a historical methodology and the manner of its application were originally influenced by the rationalism and scepticism of the day, so that Biblical theology as a method often was set in opposition to Biblical theology as a product. But this was not always the case, as the commentaries and historical works of the Cambridge triumvirate of J. B. Lightfoot, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort or the theological writings of such “Old Princeton” stalwarts as B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos and J. Gresham Machen, to name only a few, indicate.

While many of its advocates today would like to claim the science of Biblical theology as an ally in their crusade against all creedal formulations and/or all forms of orthodoxy, such conclusions are more the result of philosophic scepticism and emotional antagonism than inherent to the method itself. The historical method should not be “killed by association” nor scorned because of misuse. One may prefer to speak simply of OT theology and of NT theology, ignoring the cognomen Biblical theology, either because of its employment in certain schools of thought, or because of what may appear to be its presumption in preëmpting for itself the adjective “Biblical.” But whatever it is called, the study of the canonical writings according to the historical principle is both legitimate and necessary. In spite of its ambiguity and possible inappropriateness, the name Biblical theology to denote the historical study of the Bible has become so fixed during the past cent. in the nomenclature of theological scholarship that it is difficult either to displace it or to speak meaningfully in our day without using it.

New Testament theology, then, belongs to the department of exegetical theology. While it employs the skills and results of the individual disciplines of exegesis, history and criticism, all of which are vital components in the field of exegetical theology, it is not to be equated with any one of these per se, for it endeavors to go beyond these to explicate the origins and development of distinct concepts within the NT in historical terms. On the other hand, it differs from systematic theology not in being more Biblical in product, or adhering more closely to the truths of Scripture, but in its principle of organizing the material with which it works in historical rather than logical fashion. Systematic theology takes the Bible as a completed whole, and endeavors to exhibit its total teaching in an orderly and systematic manner, seeking particularly to relate its message to issues of the present day; NT theology deals with the material from the historical standpoint and with a special concern for origins and development, seeking to cross cultural barriers and to discover what the message meant to the original speakers and their respective audiences. It stands, therefore, as a bridge between the individual disciplines of exegetical theology and the individual disciplines of systematic theology, facilitating fruitful discussion between these two areas of study. In being related as it is to each of these areas, however, it also serves as something of a challenge to each, testing, deepening and modifying where necessary—and is in turn, in like manner, itself challenged by each.

The hermeneutics of NT theology.

Inherent to its nature as a discipline descriptive of God’s revelation in history and as a science incorporating the skills of exegesis, history and criticism are certain hermeneutical factors which constantly must be kept in mind. While it is impossible to speak at length in this regard here, certain major interpretive principles need be noted.

Progressive revelation.

It is possible, of course, to think of revelation in rather abstract and static fashion as a deposit of truth which was given at a particular point in time and which in its earliest form was fully complete. Many religions speak of their sacred writings in this manner, whether given by means of a supposed miracle or expressed by one of the world’s sages. But this is not the case with Biblical revelation, for the revelation of the Bible has been given progressively. Progressive revelation is a necessary category of thought in the hermeneutics of NT theology since “special revelation” (as distinguished from “general revelation”) is intimately and inextricably related to God’s redemptive activity, and redemption is historically successive in that it addresses itself to the generations of mankind in their respective cultures and differing situations during the course of history. Revelation includes both the redemptive acts of God during the course of history and their respective interpretations; it must, therefore, unfold itself in installments as does redemption.

What this means in practice is that the interpreter must keep in balance two seemingly disparate truths: (1) all of the Bible is given by divine inspiration, yet (2) all of the Bible is not equally explicit of the divine will or equally pertinent for Christian faith today. There is greater explication and a fuller sense in the OT prophets than in the Mosaic law, in the later prophets than in the earlier prophets, in the gospels than in the prophets, and in the epistles than in the gospels. It is incumbent upon the interpreter to recognize these facts and to treat the material under consideration accordingly, neither attempting to read a later revelational fullness back into earlier stages of redemption, thereby overflowing the confines of meaning in particular historical settings (except where obviously prophetic of the future in nature), nor restricting later stages too severely by the categories of the former.

Historical revelation.

The process of revelation is not only concomitant with history, but divine revelation has become incarnate in history. In a day when history is disparaged as having revelatory importance, it is necessary to assert anew that the religion of the Bible not only speaks of God acting in history but also views the facts of history themselves as possessing revelational significance because of God’s redemptive activity. This is particularly true of the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, but it applies as well to every aspect of historical redemption. This means for the interpreter that if God has chosen to reveal Himself and His will by means of historical acts and their interpretation by means of selected men in history, details regarding history, culture and language must be given careful consideration in the understanding of that revelation. Interpretation of the Bible, therefore, is only truly explication of the meaning of a text, and not an arbitrary violation of the text, when it seeks to understand what the words meant to the original author and his addressees in terms of the historical situation, their circumstances and outlook, the literary genre employed, and the light thrown on the words by historical linguistics. Only then can the actual meaning of the text, in its historical context, be brought to new life for the present situation of the interpreter and those to whom he ministers.

Organic continuity.

Providential development.

It should also be recognized that theological conviction in the apostolic period (as, indeed, in every epoch of redemptive history and revelational advance) was the product not only of immediate revelation but also of providential development under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that is, that in the formulation of NT doctrine both an initial consciousness and a process of gestation were involved. This is not to deny the “given-ness” of the faith of the Early Church, or to minimize the uniqueness of Christian theology. Nor is it to suggest that an evolutionary scheme in some manner explains Christian thought. Rather, it is simply to point out what the NT itself frequently evidences: that in bringing about the fullness of doctrine contained therein, the Spirit employed circumstances as well as direct revelation. Jesus had promised, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12, 13; see also 14:26; 15:26; 16:14). This is exactly what the apostles and earliest Christians believed they were experiencing in the interaction of their basic convictions and their varied circumstances. As in times past, God was working concursively with men in the expression of His will by a process of providential development of thought as well as by immediacy of redemptive activity and revelation. The NT theologian, therefore, must be prepared to recognize the place of circumstances in the formulation of doctrine and to trace this development, without somewhat woodenly insisting that unity of doctrine must mean uniformity or that continuity excludes a fuller understanding explicated by the Spirit through circumstances.

Circumstantial expression.

Just as circumstances were used by the Spirit in the formulation of NT doctrine, they also played a part in its expression. The NT, therefore, must be understood in terms of both “hard core” kerygma and varying circumstances affecting the life of the Church at given periods and in particular situations. Without denying theological development and diversity, it is at bottom true that the NT, to quote C. F. D. Moule, “debates from a single platform, but from different corners of it.” Some of the variety of expression within the NT is explainable by reference to the fact that various expositions of the Gospel and various defenses of the faith run along rather particular lines, according to the various situations. This means that in dealing with phrases and terms employed in the NT, attention must be paid to such factors as (1) the demands of worship, (2) the requirements of preaching, teaching and polemic, (3) concerns having to do with locality and specific situations encountered, and (4) circumstances arising out of a distinctive ideological milieu. These, of course, are matters inherent in any real-life situation. And they must be taken into account at every point by the NT theologian if he is to be saved from treating the evidence in a sterile or wooden fashion.

Descriptive and normative.

A further principle in the hermeneutics of NT theology, and one that applies widely to a host of subjects, is that care must be taken to distinguish between the descriptive and the normative in the Biblical records. To many, of course, this is no great issue, for what is described is never necessarily normative. To the evangelical, however, once having ascertained the message and original intent of the author in the historical context within which he wrote, the principles of that message become binding for Christian faith and practice today. But more than this needs to be said if one is to be spared repeating only the obvious and to get on with the task of NT interpretation on a sound historical basis.

The fact that God has acted concursively in history, employing both men and events in His joint programs of redemption and revelation, means that divine revelation, in fact, partakes of both the situational and the eternal—of both the cultural and the transcultural. The NT, therefore, reflects at each point an intertwining of the historical situation in which and to which God has spoken and the eternal message which by means of events and words was spoken. It is this intertwining of the situational and the eternal which requires unraveling by the NT scholar, both to elucidate more clearly the cultural so as to understand better the transcultural and to set forth the principles of the transcultural with greater clarity so as to apply better the eternal message to man’s present situation and continuing need.

The task seems fairly clear; though, sadly, there is no simple or clearly marked road to follow in its accomplishment. Almost everyone will agree that certain features described in the NT apply more to the cultural than to the eternal, though the basic principles exhibited in the message to that cultural situation are to be expressed today. The Early Church, for example, cast lots at times to determine the will of God (Acts 1:26); but few church boards and fewer ministers would feel it right to decide regarding issues facing the Church today in such a manner, though they earnestly desire to be led by the same Spirit. The Early Church also had the practice of greeting one another with a kiss (e.g., Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14); but, evidently, when kissing got in the way of greeting, believers found it advisable to alter the form in order to preserve the substance. The line between the descriptive and the normative may seem fairly obvious in such examples as those cited. It is not at all that easy regarding many other matters of the NT, as witness the continuing debates on such items as the succession of the apostolic office, the proper pattern of ecclesiastical organization or the continuance of the charismatic gifts. While there is no simple formula that will guarantee at all times a proper identification of the normative features of the NT presentation, four guidelines may be of help: (1) didactic passages where a theme is developed at some length should be allowed to interpret incidental allusions, historical incidents and symbolic representations of pertinence to the theme in question; (2) universal principles reiterated in various writings should be allowed to interpret particular expressions of those principles, which may be conditioned by circumstances; (3) attention should be paid to historical and cultural studies of the area and the period in question so that the interpreter might become sensitized to particular cultural forms; and (4) the discernment of the Spirit should be earnestly sought, for interpretation of Holy Writ is not only a science but a spiritual art.

The content of NT theology.

The earliest Christian theology was almost exclusively Christology. Belief in a theistic God, the One true God who is both creator and redeemer, was axiomatic for the earliest Jewish believers. What concerned them, and that which they centered their attention upon, was the redemptive activity of God in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. No other consideration loomed so large in their thinking. And all others, whether advances in their apprehension of God, a deepening of their understanding of themselves and their place in God’s redemptive program, developments in ecclesiology or expectations regarding the future, were intimately related to and sprang from their convictions regarding Jesus the Christ. It is necessary, therefore, to begin where they began and to sketch out in brief compass something of the basic content of NT thought.

Functional and ontological Christology.

It is traditional in systematic theology to consider Christian teaching in roughly the following order: prolegomena, theism, revelation and authority, God and creation, anthropology, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology and eschatology—and in Christology, to treat the doctrine of Christ’s person prior to a consideration of His work. Logically, this is the true order. It is because of the existence and the nature of God that all else follows. It is because He was who He was that Jesus did what He did. But for the writers of the NT, and for the Early Church generally, it was essentially the other way around. Their knowledge of what may be called Christian doctrine began at the point of God’s resurrection of Jesus from the dead, moved on to a reconsideration of Jesus’ earthly ministry and work, gained perspective from a re-evaluation of the OT, and culminated in a proper understanding of who Jesus was and is.

The resurrection perspective.

It has become fashionable of late to account for the origin of NT Christology and the various stages of its development by the theory of an original futuristic orientation and a series of gradual adjustments necessitated by the delay of the parousia. On this thesis, Christological thought, it is asserted, began some time after the resurrection, but neither because of it nor in continuity with the self-awareness of Jesus. Evangelicals, on the other hand, desiring to express the aspect of continuity that exists between the self-consciousness of Jesus and the theology of the Early Church, often have grounded Christology entirely in Jesus’ own understanding of Himself—insisting that if He thought in ontological fashion of Himself the disciples must also have done so from the first. Without denying Jesus’ self-understanding as portrayed in the gospels, and while acknowledging that our Lord made a decided personal impact upon His followers during His earthly ministry, it nevertheless remains true to the NT to assert that it was His Resurrection from the dead (as first demonstrated by Jesus Himself and thereafter witnessed to by the Spirit) which was the historical point of departure in early Christian thought. The two on the road to Emmaus, for instance, had their conceptions about Jesus radically altered by His appearance to them (Luke 24:13-35), as did also the ten disciples gathered in a closed room for fear of Jewish repression (Luke 24:36-48; John 20:19-23). Thomas, having seen the resurrected Christ, was compelled to confess Him as Lord and God (John 20:24-29); Peter proclaimed at Pentecost that as a result of the resurrection, “God has made (epoiēsen) him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Paul, possibly quoting early catechetical formulae, rec ords that Jesus was “designated Son of God in power, according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4) and that He is to be confessed as Lord as a result of His sacrificial work and God’s exaltation of Him (Phil 2:9-11).

From the perspective of the Resurrection, the earliest followers of Jesus were able not only to surmount the scandal of the cross but also to appreciate the cross as the climax of a ministry which was throughout the fulfillment and apex of redemptive history. Now that God had so wondrously vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead, and now that He had ministered to them for forty days and was continuing that ministry in His exalted presence through the Spirit, they were able to view Christ’s earthly ministry and death in the context of the divine redemptive program and to interpret the OT Scriptures in a distinctly Christocentric manner—as the fulfillment theme in Matthew’s gospel, for example, so amply illustrates. The Christology of the NT therefore, (1) found its initial point of departure in the Resurrection and exaltation of Jesus; (2) gained support from the remembrance of Jesus’ own consciousness and ministry, though neither were properly understood until after the Resurrection; (3) derived substantiation from the OT Scriptures, as those Biblical portions that were employed were Christologically understood; and (4) received development through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who used circumstances to deepen reflection. On the basis of these factors, the early Christians came to understand the true character of their Master: Israel’s promised Messiah and their Redeemer and Lord.

Man, sin and the law.

God and His redemptive program.

Stemming from their resurrection convictions about Jesus were also a number of affirmations regarding God and the divine program of redemption. Having become convinced of Christ’s deity, yet knowing that He spoke of and to God the Father as a person distinguishable from Himself, and of the Holy Spirit as another like Himself, Jewish Christians could no longer think of God in terms of strict numerical monotheism. Their Lord had referred to the Godhead in terms of both monotheism and plurality; His teaching regarding Himself concerned both an equality with and a subordination to the Father; and His ministry among them expressed the fact of deity directly at work, yet also dependence upon the Father. And the Father had attested to the truthfulness of such a relationship at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11), at His Transfiguration (Mark 9:7; cf. 2 Pet 1:17), and, preeminently, in raising Him from the dead (Rom 1:4). Christians were compelled, therefore, to speak of their Lord in terms of both equality of person with and subordination of function to God the Father, and of the Holy Spirit in similar fashion in His relationship to the Father and the Son—thereby laying the basis for the later formalization of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Likewise, having been confronted by the resurrected Christ and baptized on the Day of Pentecost by the Spirit, Christians were confident that God had ushered in the long-awaited Messianic Age. These are, Peter proclaimed, “the last days”—the days in which God is inaugurating the final epoch of His redemptive program (Acts 2:15ff.). Or, as Paul wrote, “the fulness of time” has come in God’s sending His Son (Gal 4:4). The focus of attention has shifted in the NT from a future activity of God for His people, as in Judaism, to Christ’s work of salvation and His exalted presence. God has, of course, still a future in store for His people and His creation, but that future is inextricably rooted in and stems from the completed redemptive work of Christ. Therefore, to know God’s salvation in the present and to share in the final consummation of His redemption in the future is to receive Christ Jesus by faith now as Savior and as Lord, “for there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; cf. Rom 10:9, 10; John 1:12; Heb 2:9, 10).

The Church and its mission.


G. B. Stevens, The Theology of the New Testament (1901); M. S. Terry, Biblical Dogmatics (1907); A. Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (1958); G. Vos, Biblical Theology, Old and New Testaments (1959); K. Stendahl, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962), I, 418-432; O. Betz, “Biblical Theology, History of,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962), I, 432-437; O. Kaiser and W. G. Kümmel, Exegetical Method (ET 1967).