Surveying the Whole to See the Parts

Surveying the Whole to See the Parts

Tom Schreiner’s New Testament Theology searches for Scripture’s unifying themes.

Interview by Collin Hansen | posted 6/16/2008 09:24AM

Thomas Schreiner boldly argues in his New Testament Theology (Baker Academic, 2008) that the 27 books of the New Testament present two unified themes. First, in Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom has come, the New Testament (NT) advances the redemptive history of the Old. Since the first century Christians have lived in an “already not yet” tension, awaiting the kingdom’s full consummation. The second theme is the book’s subhead: “Magnifying God in Christ.” The goal of the kingdom is to magnify God through the work of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. CT editor at large Collin Hansen spoke with Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

What separates your New Testament Theology from other recent projects with a similar goal?

My work is distinctive in pursuing a thematic approach. We have had two recent and excellent NT theologies by I. Howard Marshall and Frank Thielman that concentrate on examining the distinctive message of each book in the NT. A book-by-book approach is valuable, but it is also helpful to consider the message of the NT as a whole. The danger of a thematic approach is that it may squeeze out the particular emphasis of a writer in order to defend a larger unity. On the other hand, it is also true that understanding the whole helps us to see the parts more clearly.

How long did you work on this project, and how did you proceed to complete such an ambitious goal?

I worked on and off for about seven years, though I took time out to do some other projects along the way. I wanted to write a work that was helpful to students and pastors mainly, though I hope scholars might find some usefulness from the book as well. I approached the task as follows. First, as I read through the NT, I took notes on the major themes in the writings. Second, I wrote a first draft of the entire book from my notes. Third, I revised the book two more times after that. Fourth, I tried to read widely in NT studies to test my results against what was being said in scholarship. I revised and rewrote in light of what I read. Naturally, that explanation oversimplifies the process. I had read quite a bit in NT studies over the years even before writing my first draft. Hence, I was certainly influenced by others even during the first stages of the project.

You treat New Testament theology thematically, even after observing that our Western culture distrusts metanarratives. What do we miss if we do not look for the New Testament’s overarching message?

We fail to see the beautiful coherence of the NT message. The authors of the NT preached the same gospel (1 Cor. 15:11). Naturally there is diversity in the NT witness, and scholars today often focus on such diversity. We can learn something as well, however, from the history of the church. Christian pastors and scholars from previous generations rightly emphasized the common faith proclaimed in the NT. As Christians we do not know the truth exhaustively. Postmodernism has reminded us of our finiteness, and that we see through a glass darkly (though many Christians have known this throughout history). On the other hand, the partiality of our knowledge can be exaggerated. We believe in a God who speaks his Word to us, and the Spirit of God grants us understanding of the truth of God (1 Cor. 2:6-16). We do not master the truth. But we must also beware of relativism. We do not know all things comprehensively, but we do know truly.

Can you share a couple of examples of how this project illumined your understanding of New Testament theology?

I could choose so many examples here, but I will limit myself to two. First, I was struck by the amazingly high Christology of Revelation, indicating, by the way, that Revelation does not deviate from the rest of the NT. Second, the importance of faith in the synoptic Gospels was quite striking to me. I had not spent as much time in the Gospels before working on this project, and I became even more convinced that the centrality of faith in Paul stems from the teaching of Jesus.

Why do other scholars miss what you describe as the New Testament’s central theme, God magnifying himself in Christ?

First of all, scholars dispute vigorously whether there is such a thing as a center at all. Good arguments can be made for several key themes instead of a single center and for studying the NT from a variety of perspectives. Still, it is striking how few emphasize the centrality of God in Christ. One of the reasons for this, I would suggest, is quite interesting. To say that honoring God in Christ is what the NT is about is so obvious. Hence, we are drawn to other themes that are not as readily apparent and may seem more creative.

A great deal has been written about the New Testament theme of God inaugurating his kingdom, which he has not yet consummated. How does your book expand on this theme but differ from other works?

On the whole I don’t think my book breaks new ground there. It should be obvious to readers that I have been influenced significantly by George Ladd, and I think Ladd is essentially right. I suppose the only difference is that I follow Jonathan Pennington’s new work on the kingdom of heaven. Pennington argues that Matthew did not use the phrase “kingdom of heaven” to avoid using the word God. Instead, kingdom of heaven emphasizes the disjunction between God’s ways and ours. His kingdom is heavenly, in contrast to those that are wicked and earthly. Naturally, more could be said here, but I provide a little taste of Pennington’s work in my book.

The theme of God’s kingdom as “already not yet” is less apparent in Paul’s writings. How does the apostle express this idea?

First, Paul uses the term “kingdom of God” more than some have suggested. And yet it is certainly not as pervasive as the term is in the Gospels. In any case, the already-not-yet theme permeates Paul’s writings. For instance, believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit now, but the Spirit is the guarantee of our future inheritance (Eph. 1:13-14). Believers are adopted as God’s children now, and yet they await their final adoption in the Resurrection (Eph. 1:5; Rom. 8:23). Speaking of the Resurrection, the new age has dawned with the resurrection of Christ (Rom. 1:4), and yet Christians will not enjoy the resurrection of the body until the last day (1 Cor. 15:20-28). The new creation has arrived in Christ, but we await the day when the created order is liberated from its slavery (Rom. 8:18-25).

What objections are typically raised against the effort to summarize New Testament theology?

I will mention two. Some scholars argue that the NT writers contradict one another. Hence, an approach like mine forces, they allege, a harmony on the NT. I would respond by saying that Paul believed that the message proclaimed by him and the other apostles (Gal. 2:1-10; 1 Cor. 15:11) was coherent. Peter affirms Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Of course, the standard view in critical scholarship is that Peter did not write 2 Peter, but I argue in my commentary on that letter that there are solid grounds for affirming Petrine authorship. At the end of the day, those who think the NT contradicts itself buy into a philosophical worldview opposed to the NT message. Adolf Schlatter rightly observed that too many do NT scholarship from atheistic presuppositions.

Second, others think that the NT is fundamentally harmonious but worry that a thematic and summarizing approach levels out the distinctive message of each writer. In response, it is imperative to see that we need different kinds of NT theologies. The subject matter is too vast for one totalizing NT theology! I do not claim that my work is the definitive last word on NT theology. That would be supremely arrogant! We need thematic NT theologies and NT theologies that investigate the particular themes of various writers. We must not make the mistake of positing an either-or here.

How do you envision this book edifying the church?

First, I hope and pray that preachers and teachers will preach and teach the greatness of our God and his saving work in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. In other words, my prayer is that my book will contribute to the proclamation of the gospel. Second, I hope that readers will grow in their trust in God’s Word. In other words, they will see that the NT message is fundamentally harmonious. Third, I know my book is long, but I hope that readers will see that the main message of the NT is clear. Our knowledge is limited, but God has revealed himself clearly to us in Jesus Christ. The gospel we proclaim wasn’t invented by us; it has been revealed to us. And we can understand it, live it, and proclaim it.

Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and the author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists.

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