New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel

Article by   January 2006

Since his 1970 publication of Luke: Historian and Theologian, I. Howard Marshall has been a significant player in academic New Testament scholarship. His recent 765 page New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel may be his magnum opus. This 35-year seat at the academic-scholarship table is somewhat surprising given that his conclusions are usually compatible with evangelical views. Currently, Marshall is the Emeritus Professor of New Testament Exegesis at Aberdeen University and the Chairman of (the evangelical) Tyndale Fellowship.

In the mostly "critical"/liberal world of academic scholarship, a book on the theology of the New Testament usually describes the theology of each writer or book, tries to trace a history of the development of the various theologies, and concludes that many of the theologies in the New Testament are incompatible. Marshall's New Testament Theology also describes the theology of each writer and book, and makes conclusions about the compatibility of the theologies. However, he has set out to show that there is a "common, basic theology that can be traced in all [the New Testament] witnesses" (p. 726). As with most of his writings, Marshall intends to do this using a similar (enlightenment) methodology as critical scholars. (Marshall does not deal with the development question.)

Marshall does admit many of his presuppositions. For the three Synoptic Gospels, Marshall accepts their "substantial authenticity" as to their presentation of Jesus' theology (p. 54). He does agree to the two-source hypothesis, but this minimally affects his conclusions as he evaluates each Gospel on its own terms. Marshall takes "a high view of [Act's] historical reliability" but admits that some of the details "may be open to question" (p. 157). Concerning the Pauline letters, Paul wrote all of them except for the Pastoral Epistles. However, Marshall prefers to speak of the earlier and later Pauline corpus rather than the authentic and post-Paul letters. John and 1, 2, 3 John were all written by the same author. Revelation was written by another author. Peter wrote 1 Peter, but it "seems wisest to admit that we do not know who wrote [2 Peter]" (p. 670). Jude, the relative of Jesus, "likely" wrote Jude (p. 660). The Old Testament is the background for New Testament theology. For the most part, Marshall simply states his presuppositions and refers the reader elsewhere for a justification, many times to previous books he has written.

The majority of New Testament Theology (22 out of 28 chapters) is spent describing the theology of each of the 27 books of the New Testament. For each book, Marshall separates his description into (1) "theological story," which explains the theological flow/logic of each book in its given chapter order, and (2) "theological themes," which summarizes and analyzes various themes in each book. Inevitably there is overlap between these two roughly equal sections. Marshall also adds few chapters summarizing the theology of the major New Testament witnesses; hence, he has a separate chapter on the theology of Synoptics/Acts, the theology of Pauline Letters, and the theology of John. The "theological story" sections are the best and most useful parts of New Testament Theology; most other New Testament theology books barely describe each book, or do no description at all and simply summarize Paul or John's theology.

Allow me to list some of Marshall's miscellaneous theological conclusions that readers of Reformation 21 might find interesting. Marshall sees a large emphasis in the New Testament documents on "mission"; the mission is evangelism primarily through proclamation, although "evangelism" includes both bringing people to faith and nurturing of converts (p. 709). He comments often on the personal-relationship-with-Christ aspects of various writers. "Son of Man" in Mark does relate to Daniel 7. The writers of the New Testament simply assume that Old Testament moral commands are valid (i.e., third use of the law). Although eschatological redemptive-historical issues are important, they are not the heart of Paul or New Testament theology. Marshall often emphasizes that Jesus is presented as both human and divine. The New Testament church is the continuation of Israel. Marshall's view of Pauline justification fairly well matches the traditional Reformed view, excepting that the imputed "righteousness of Christ may be a fair inference . . . but it goes beyond what Paul actually says" (p. 312 n. 10). Marshall is strongly against the New Perspective of Paul promoted by many current Pauline scholars. He often, although politely, argues against various aspects of the five points of Calvinism and promotes a Wesleyan Arminian view (to Marshall's credit, he does strongly argue for the penal substitution view of the Atonement and not the governmental view). Revelation covers the same events several times (recapitulation theory), and there is no premillennial kingdom.

The remaining several chapters of New Testament Theology argue that there is a substantial unity of theology among the New Testament writers. The diversity is not incompatible and is explained by the specific circumstances of each book, different wording but similar concepts, and reasonable trajectories of thought. One of Marshall's major conclusions is that the unity is shown by four core aspects that are common to all writers (pp. 717-18): (1) Men are sinners and under judgment. (2) God's saving act is in Christ and centered on his death and resurrection. It must be proclaimed to the world. (3) There is new life for believers mediated by the Holy Spirit and is experienced individually and corporately. (4) At the Second Coming will be judgment and destruction of evil and a new world for believers.

Marshall notes that his New Testament Theology has shown that there is a "common, basic theology," but that he has not "developed this theology in detail" (p. 726). Also, he has not "undertaken the task of relating New Testament theology to the systematic, dogmatic theology of the Christian church today" and considers his book as a "starting point for a biblically based systematic theology" (p. 708).

Brief Critique: As a New Testament professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, I applaud and agree with much in this book, as any evangelical would. There were several issues that his analysis made me rethink or added new insights into my prior-held positions (e.g., "mission" emphasis, personal relationship with Christ in Hebrews). Of course, I disagree with his Arminian views and occasional "critical" conclusion.

His succinct dismantling of the New Perspective was interesting. He noted that he and most other critics agree that Ephesians 2:8, 2 Timothy 1:9, and Titus 3:5 all indicate a more traditional view of justification. However, critics discount these passages because they are not written by Paul. Marshall counters that the critics should admit that these passages are at least the earliest interpretations of Paul and should be used to interpret the justification material in Galatians and Romans instead of their hypothetical reconstructions. Showing one of my biases, I enjoyed his hesitation of making eschatological redemptive-historical categories the center of Paul, as many Reformed scholars do.

As noted above, Marshall's "theological story" and "theological theme" sections for each New Testament book are very useful, especially "theological story." This is the majority of the book, and makes it worth having because there are so few books available that do this. Before a pastor begins a study of a book of the Bible, reading through Marshall's treatment of that book would be valuable. Again, I disagree with some of Marshall's conclusions, but there is enough in common between us for me to recommend that any discriminating pastor use this book.

As is true with many "British evangelical" writings, the sub-topics, issues, methodology, and general tenor are driven by "critical" concerns. For most sections of the book, Marshall is talking to another critical professor or one knowledgeable and interested in critical issues. At a certain level, this is useful. However, when one wants to make a full and big-picture argument, such as this book attempts on the unity question, one must admit to and take into account the reality that the Triune God has acted/acts in history and the Scriptures are uniquely inspired. This is needed to adequately and correctly explain the unity of the theology of the New Testament. Hence, while I see value in showing aspects of the unity of the New Testament within Marshall's methodological constraints, I would prefer a more full-orbed argument based on true reality.

In sum, buy New Testament Theology for its theological analysis of each New Testament book.

I. Howard Marshall - Downers Grove: IVP, 2004
Review by Robert J. Cara





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