New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate

Professor Gerhard F. Hasel has produced New Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate; of course, being written and published in 1978, the idea of “current” may not apply without further considerations of the debated topics of 2018. Even with that consideration, Hasel has given us an overview of the issues in New Testament (NT) theology that is both instructive and germane to the contemporary theologian. The work is divided into five major sections: beginnings and development of NT theology, methodology, center and unity, NT theology and the Old Testament (OT), and the presentation of a “multiplex approach” to NT theology. The work has a sizable bibliography and an index of names and subjects included at the end. Total word count is approximately 47,500.

Hasel begins with a review of the historical trends in NT theology, which is an offshoot of the larger field of Biblical Theology. It is noted that the early Christians did not develop a Biblical theology per se since the essential dogma of the Church was established by the canon of scripture rather than individual interpretation and tradition. It was during the Reformation that distance was created from “ecclesiastical tradition and scholastic theology,” and the principle of sola scriptura became the basis of scriptural interpretation (14). During the age of Enlightenment, the field of biblical theology began to separate from “dogmatics,” and Hasel identifies Georg Lorenz Bauer (1755-1806) as the “first scholar to publish a NT theology” which went beyond a historical-critical interpretation and considered philosophical questions (24).

After the Enlightenment came a period identified as Dialectical Theology. The movement from Dialectical Theology to the present is seen as beginning after World War I and attributed to such factors as: a decrease in faith in evolutionary naturalism, a rejection that truth may be obtained by purely scientific objectivity, a return to the idea of revelation in neo-orthodox theology, and a renewal of interest in theology as such (53). Hasel observes that his review of the development of NT theology has sought to highlight “the major roots in the present debate on the nature, function, and limitations of NT theology” (71), and one agrees with that observation.

The next section tackles the various methodology used in NT theology. The first method Hasel identifies is the Thematic Approach used by Alan Richardson. This approach views the Christian faith as a necessary preunderstanding for NT theology, and Hasel observes that this is a “confessional method” also used in OT theology (75). Second, Hasel identifies an Existential Approach to NT theology and uses Rudolf Bultmann and Hans Conzelmann in his examination. Although Hasel goes into an extended examination of Bultmann’s theological approach, the existentialism is noted to dismiss the supernatural events of history, a process known as demythologizing (82), and “explicate the theological thoughts of the NT in their connection with the ‘act of living’” (83).

The third method identified is the “modern historical” approach of Werner G. Kümmel and the “positive-historical” approach of Joachim Jeremias. This method seeks to set the teachings of Jesus and the theology of Paul against the background of the “primitive community” and “inquire about the unity which is exhibited” in the various forms of proclamation (102). Lastly, Hasel recognizes the Salvation History (Heilsgeschichte) approach to methodology used by Oscar Cullmann and George E. Ladd. As opposed to the existential approach, the salvation historical approach purposefully identifies the work of God in the history of humanity and the key to understanding the NT is between the “already” and the “not yet” (118). Hasel makes some interesting observations in the conclusion of this section, but the most important is likely that this section “highlighted the fact that there is no agreement among the leading practitioners of NT theology” regarding methodology (132).

Regarding the center and unity of NT theology, Hasel rightly observes that an overarching and unifying theme in the NT has been a hotly debated topic. Ultimately, as noted, the question of an adequate center of NT theology remains as well as the question of the need for a center of NT theology for that theology to occur (144). Hasel presents a discussion of four premises that have been identified as possible centers for NT theology: anthropology; salvation history; covenant, love, and other proposals (i.e., rulership of God, kingdom of God, communion between God and man, or promise); and Christology. Also noted by Hasel is the current debate of canon criticism, and the interwoven question of “the canon within canon” (165). Three difficulties are described as hindrances that might lead to a canon within the canon: preunderstanding, reductionism, and the process of selection. Alone or together, these difficulties must be guarded against so that NT theology is derived from the whole of the Scriptures. By doing so, the integrity of the Church is maintained on one hand, and crass denominationalism is avoided on the other.

The separation of NT theology from OT theology has existed since 1800 when Georg Lorenz Bauer published the four-volume set Biblische Theologie des Neuen Testaments. Hasel notes that since that time few works have been produced that treat both NT and OT theology under the one heading of Biblical theology, but there remains an interest in the “subject of the relationship between the Testaments” (171). The second century produced Marcion who stressed the total disunity of the Testaments, Israel and the Church, and between the God of the OT and the Father of Jesus. Thus, Marcion rejected the Hebrew scriptures outrightly (173). Beyond this Hasel breaks the treatment of the Testaments into two groups, either an overemphasis of the NT and an underemphasis of the OT, or the converse – and overemphasis of the OT and an underemphasis of the NT. This question is related to the relation of “the theme of Christ and the OT,” and is a key consideration for theology as a whole (184).

Hasel quotes H. H. Rowley and reminds us that “there is a fundamental unity so that with all their diversity they [the Testaments] belong so intimately together that the NT cannot be understood without the Old and neither can the OT be fully understood with the New” (emp. Hasel, 185). To this end eight areas are presented that reflect the essential reciprocity between the Testaments: historical connection, scriptural dependence, vocabulary, themes, typology, promise fulfillment, salvation history, and unity of perspective. There is a complex nature to the interrelatedness of the Testaments which, according to Hasel, demands a “multiplex approach” to theology since no single category, scheme, or concept can be expected to exhaust the varieties of interrelationships (201). This leads directly into the final chapter of the work – “Basic Proposals Toward A NT Theology; A Multiplex Approach.”

A skeleton of Hasel’s Multiplex Approach is as follows:

  • Biblical theology must be understood to be a theological-historical discipline. This is to say that the theologian’s task, in NT, OT, or Biblical theology, is to discover and describe what the text meant and also to explicate what it means for today (204).
  • The Biblical theologian engaged in NT theology has his subject outlined prior to beginning since it must be founded on material taken from the NT. The NT comes through the Christian church as part of the inspired Scriptures; and as such, understanding culture and archaeology helps to provide the historical, cultural, and social setting for the Bible (214).
  • A presentation of NT theology will best begin with the message of Jesus as it is available from the NT documents. This also applies to Pauline theology, Petrine theology, and Johannine theology (216-217).
  • NT theology not only seeks to know the theology presented in the various documents of the NT, but also seeks to draw together and present the major themes of the NT. These themes must be allowed to present themselves from the scripture and frees the theologian from a unilateral approach determined by a single structuring concept (217).
  • The final aim of NT theology is to present the unity that binds together the various theologies and themes. The constant temptation to impose a single theme or concept must be avoided (218).
  • The Biblical theologian should understand that NT theology is part of a larger whole, a context composed of both Testaments. The Christian theologian should recognize the character of the Scripture and will constantly reflect on what this means in relationship to the other Testament (219).

“This approach seeks to do justice to the various NT writings and attempts to avoid an explication of the manifold witnesses through a single structure, unilinear points of view, or even a compound approach of a limited nature.” (219)

Professor Hasel is to be commended for his efforts with this work. The presentation is well researched and documented. His conclusions present a rational and workable method which, if employed, will serve the Christian theologian well in dealing with the manifold variety inherent in the Scriptures.

Quotes from the work:

“Gabler’s famous definition reads: ‘Biblical theology possesses a historical character, transmitting what the sacred writers thought about divine matters; dogmatic theology, on the contrary, possesses a didactic character, teaching what a particular theologian philosophizes about divine matters in accordance to his ability, time, age, place, sect or school, and other similar things.’” (22-23)

“It appears that a NT theology needs to maintain its independence over against confessional or creedal domination.” (76)

“The presupposition of history as a closed continuum of horizontal causes and effects is unable to deal with the reality expressed in Scripture. Therefore, any approach adequate to the content of the Bible must be in harmony with presuppositions taken from it and be in harmony with the total reality expressed in the Bible.” (120)

“The quest for the center of the NT (and the OT) as based on the inner Biblical witnesses themselves is fully justified. It seems undeniable that the NT is from beginning to end christocentric. Jesus Christ is the dynamic, unifying center of the NT.” (164)

“We need to emphasize strongly that Biblical events and meanings must not be looked for behind, beneath, or above the texts, but in the texts, because the divine deeds and words have received form and found expression in them.” (199)

“If one’s view of history is such that one cannot acknowledge divine intervention in history through deed and word, then one is unable to deal adequately and properly with the testimony of Scripture.” (211)


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