“New Testament Theology” by Howard Marshall.

Introduction

There are numerous books presenting as many different theologies regarding the New Testament on the market today. Choosing one can often be confusing. However, one author continues to appear on the shelves with approachable concepts and conversational language making these ideas easily accessible and understandable. With 20 books now to his credit, I. Howard Marshall can be said to have a mature outlook on his subject and a good deal of clarity in his thought. His 20th book, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (2004), presents the author’s approach to the New Testament and is designed to be quickly accessible by a variety of readers. Asked about the book, Marshall said, “A theology of the New Testament in the sense of a common body of belief held (with variations) by all the writers may be nothing more than a pious hope. Their views may have been so divergent that there is not enough of a common basis to warrant the name of ‘New Testament theology.’ I have tried to show that there is such a common core, while emphasizing that the different writers expressed and developed it in their own individual ways and at times not without problems.” To present his ideas, Marshall takes care to examine the individual New Testament thinkers as individual thinkers and then consider them in relation to one another and as a whole. This approach enables Marshall to discover a fundamental underlying harmony to their ideas as well as a functional difference in each author’s approach to these ideas. His book is divided into six major segments through which 31 chapters are unevenly dispersed. The volume of information contained within this book is best assessed through an initial understanding of its contents followed by discussion and evaluation of the author’s main claims, strengths and weaknesses.

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Discussion

The titles of the six major segments of the book are instructive regarding the book’s format as well as subject matter. Part 1 is entitled “Introduction” and is comprising of a single explanatory chapter. In this chapter, Marshall attempts to distinguish his work from the work of the other authors on the bookshelf, explaining why his approach is unique while upholding the possibility and legitimacy of a New Testament theology. He argues that simply compiling the theological statements found within the New Testament and then setting them to a suitable tune to make them gain the sound of truth forces one to take these statements out of context and thus to lose their intended meaning. He also argues against the common tendency to allow systematic theology to dominate, compartmentalizing ideas into preconceived concepts that necessarily have the affect of projecting 21st century bias and 21st century thought systems onto the first century writers. Missing information from these statements are then easily filled with inappropriate material that clouds true understanding and introduces doubt into the process. Having harshly criticized current tendencies in New Testament theology, Marshall then proposes his own method as the best means of clearing the air. This method begins with a careful study of the individual New Testament documents to discover the theology revealed there. This finding is then compared with other individual documents within a particular sub-set, such as the letters of Paul. This analysis is intended to discover where there are similarities and where there are differences within an individual author’s presentation of theology. Differences are examined to discover if the author was truly contradicting his words or if there was a connection or if it provides unexpected balance. Marshall expects that by discovering the similarities and taking note of these differences within the individual documents written by the same author, then comparing the same to other New Testament authors, a fundamental New Testament theology will be revealed. The remainder of the book is dedicated to doing just this.

Having explained the process he proposes, Part 2 of Marshall’s book is given the title “Jesus, the Synoptic Gospels and Acts.” The six chapters in this segment begin to follow Marshall’s plan. Before fully examining the documents, Marshall acknowledges the general problems inherent in attempting a work such as this. These include the common problems of the Gospel sources as well as the historical reliability of Synoptic accounts of Jesus. Based on his investigations into these issues, Marshall finally acknowledges that the Gospels were written after the Epistles, but, because they deal with material predating the Epistles, they can be trusted to give an accurate image of Jesus’ teachings. Succeeding chapters in this segment then apply Marshall’s approach to each of the Synoptic Gospels and then to Acts. The findings presented on each of these documents are then brought together in Chapter 7 as Marshall reveals a consistent underlying theology beneath the individual interpretations of the early authors. These findings will be used as a base throughout the remainder of the book.

The pattern established, Part 3 of the book is dedicated to “The Pauline Letters.” In chronological order, Marshall examines each of the Pauline letters including those that have been disputed as possibly not Paul’s. Marshall’s justification for this is that these disputed letters are written from the same theological approach as evidenced in the uncertainty of their authorship. That Paul could have written them is considered sufficient proof that the mental approach is greatly similar. The pastoral epistles are treated as a group in one chapter before Marshall pulls together his findings regarding the Pauline Letters together to discover the Pauline theology. These findings are then compared, in Chapter 19, to the findings discovered in Part 2.

An examination of “The Johannine Literature” is conducted in Part 4 following the same pattern as that established in earlier chapters. The first three chapters of this segment of the book are dedicated to individual examination of the Gospel of John, the letters and Revelation. In conducting this examination, Marshall finds a deviation from previous parts in that Revelation is revealed to have a different focus from the Gospel or the letters and is written with a different tone. He finally concludes that this book is reinforcing the Olivet Discourse in the Synoptics and concludes this segment of his book with a further comparison of the Johannine literature with the findings from Parts 2 and 3.

Part 5 presents “Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter and Jude” in six chapters. Because this section covers highly diverse material, it can’t truly be considered a corpus for internal comparison. While there isn’t truly any connection between the various materials, Marshall nevertheless makes a faithful comparison of them as miscellaneous theology before concluding the segment with the now expected comparison with findings from previous segments.

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The book is concluded with Marshall bringing together all his comparisons into a unified theological whole. In this final segment and chapter, Marshall reveals the importance of a much-discussed topic in the modern world, the concept of a worldview. This concept is discussed in detail as it is worldview, and the understanding that there are about as many worldviews as there are individuals walking the planet, that has many Christians confused today. Although readers often take it for granted that everyone in the world sees things the same way they do, Marshall indicates it is more important than ever to discover the ways in which all of the New Testament scriptures reinforce the same worldview as that of the Old Testament. Continuity is not merely the repetition of old motifs, words or concepts but the full belief in the fundamental ideas that were behind them. Through his discoveries, Marshall suggests that the New Testament was primarily intended to nurture the spiritual path of believers of the Old Testament faith while the care of converts to the faith took a secondary position as evidenced by the emphases he’s discovered in their messages.

His various comparisons and careful considerations of the individual meanings, complete with interpretations and personal understandings of the underlying theology thus revealed, lead Marshall to conclude that “there is a significant core of agreement and identity with the theologies of the individual constituents of the New Testament” even as the individual identities help to further define and explain each other. As illustration of how this works, he points out how Paul’s tendency to be misunderstood in his zeal could cause one to take this theology to false extremes except for the balancing effect brought about by the teachings of James on concepts of faith and works. The credibility of the documents is enhanced by a revealed progression and definition of thought over elapsed time. Finally, Marshall attempts to validate his own claims regarding the scriptures by comparing his findings with the findings of other modern writers, listing J.D.G. Dunn and Werner Kummel in terms of their understanding of the core message these scriptures reveal. He concludes that New Testament theology is possible and legitimate when one returns to the originating sources and takes into account their unique visions and understandings to try to define the indefinable.

The author makes his central concern known near the beginning of the book when he says, “the aim of students of New Testament theology is to explore the New Testament writers’ developing understanding of God and the world, more particularly the world of people and their relationship to one another.” His subtitle, “Many Witnesses, One Gospel” also serves as a concise summary of his approach in answering this concern. The entire book is structured nearly as a dialogue between the author of the current work and those of the New Testament. This approach is generally accepted by critics. “A New Testament theology is not a history of the early church; nor is it a study of the religion of early Christianity, although elements from both disciplines will and should be found in it. Rather, it [Marshall’s book] is a genuine work of theology inasmuch as it should present what the New Testament says about God, Christ and the Spirit in relationship to the world of human beings.” The old writers are able to convey through their writings what their individual underlying theology is which, when compared to the other perspectives present within the New Testament, are considered to reveal a single, unified theology applicable to all. The brilliance of the subtitle, though, is in its adaptability to modern witnesses and the suggestion that a single voice can underlie the many different personalities and approaches to the same material when it is truly understood. In this way, the book serves as encouragement to students, which is largely the author’s intent.

As a means of providing the book with an appropriate basis, Marshall’s decision to open his discussion with the message of Jesus as the originating messenger of the theology presented in the New Testament, particularly in the Synoptic Gospels, seems well based. “In his treatment, Marshall seeks to strike a balance between a presentation of the individual, distinct voices of the New Testament and a demonstration of the overarching synthesis of the New Testament message.” This segment, including as it does individual discussion of the Synoptic Gospels, presents the opportunity for Marshall to compare his findings regarding Jesus’ teachings to the messages imparted by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels themselves. “Marshall’s approach is clear and straightforward. He reviews the ‘theological story’ of each writing before proceeding to a statement of its ‘theological themes.’” Each theological story summarizes the contents of the book and provides room for Marshall to insert his own commentary in a section by section approach. “Each of his interpretations is thoroughly argued or the reader is referred to a place where this is done. These sections also deal with any matters of New Testament introduction on questions relevant to discovering the book’s theology.” As the analysis includes a summary of each writing, Marshall develops a strongly instructive volume that makes the New Testament accessible to the general public, creating both an introductory text to the New Testament as well as a professional’s reference for more serious scholars of Biblical literature.

Through his analysis of each book, Marshall is able to answer many of the questions that have interfered with understanding of the New Testament as a single theology. These analyses demonstrate how each individual author had his own approach to scripture and their individual interests and backgrounds had an effect upon their perception of what was most important in these teachings. While one may emphasize witnessing and conversion as the most important element of Christianity, another may emphasize prayer and good works. By examining each, Marshall is able to get to the core of each writer’s theology, peeling away these individual differences to expose the underlying bedrock of faith beneath. As he makes his argument, he continues to relate this underlying bedrock theory with the other writers in the New Testament to illustrate how they enhance and help to further define each other. “The cumulative effect of these chapters, then, is to establish the one gospel proclaimed by its many witnesses.” Rather than negating the individual voices of the authors as many studies have attempted to do when seeking a unifying theology in the New Testament, Marshall allows these individual voices to reveal four stages that are common to all of the writings and elucidated by Matera:

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  1. There is a situation of human need because all have sinned and are under God’s judgment;
  2. God’s saving act is accomplished through Jesus Christ whose death and resurrection must be preached to the world;
  3. Those who respond positively enjoy the new life of the spirit, as individuals and as members of the community of the church;
  4. God will bring the redemptive act of Christ to its completion at the parousia and final judgment, when evil will be destroyed.

In every element of its presentation, then, Marshall’s book continues to highlight the ways in which many voices can bring one idea into closer cohesion.

This element of Marshall’s book, the way in which everything about it contributes to a single voice, has been called one of the most innovative aspects of the book. “Marshall’s comparison of the theologies of different writings with each other in order to determine if we can legitimately speak of an underlying unity in the theology of the New Testament” is particularly admired by Matera while critics such as Kostenberger point out the way in which “Marshall provides an eminently defensible, lucid and well-executed discussion of the theology of the New Testament and its various writers. Clearly, this work represents a crowning achievement of a long and distinguished career.” The individual treatment of the various New Testament texts is very helpful for students, teachers and scholars of the New Testament as a relatively quick reference to the ideas presented from one section to another, making it supremely adaptable to a variety of uses while each chapter finishes with lists of the major points and unique contributions of the book to the primary theology. Marshall’s attention to detail and emphasis on understanding is also aided by numerous helpful illustrations and entertaining analogies that clarify ideas for the modern audience. An example of this is Marshall’s comparison of the journey motif in Hebrews to “people living in hope of a taxi drawing up alongside them to take them the rest of the way.” Finally, Marshall provides a select bibliography at the end of each chapter intended to provide further commentaries on the book for those who wish to explore his findings to greater depth.

Despite the generally positive reception of Marshall’s book, there remain several weaknesses. Matera indicates his disappointment in the relatively shallow analysis offered by the author as a result of his emphasis on theme. “This analysis … is disappointing precisely because it tends to focus on themes rather than establish the inner theological coherency of the particular writing. This is a result, in part, of Marshall’s distinction between ‘theological story’ and ‘theological themes,’ raising the question whether it would not have been more profitable to integrate these two steps.” Another weakness, noted by Kostenberger, lies in the decision to base the discussion with Mark and to attempt to follow an assumed chronological rather than known canonical order in the analysis. However, this weakness is tempered by the fact that there is no unproblematic means of approaching such a study. A more serious complaint is lodged by Lois Fuller: “Marshall often returns to the theme of free will and predestination, universalism and particularism, even though he does not give it a separate heading. This is one of the themes that the New Testament holds in tension, even within books as well as between authors. He insists on maintaining the paradox just as the New Testament does, so that in some way that we cannot now fully understand, both are true.” Author Eric Stewart is most critical of the work in this regard, citing numerous contradictions including making claims that all New Testament texts interpret Jesus’ death as sacrificial atonement, but failing to discuss this within the individual texts themselves and his selective use of the history of the New Testament church development. “Finally, Marshall is unclear whether the underlying unity of the New Testament texts is actually present in all the texts. The most that he can argue, for example, about Paul’s Letters and Acts, Paul’s Letters and James, as well as John’s prologue and the virgin birth stories is that they do not contradict one another. To claim that these texts are not contradictory is different from saying that they form a theological unity.” Perhaps the harshest criticism of the book, however, comes from the lack of strong reader response when given the chance. Most readers have simply indicated they read it or that it is on their bookshelf while one said, “the best thing about it is that it is big, fat and looks impressive on my shelf.”

References

Dunn, J.D.G. (1977). Unity and Diversity in the New Testament. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.

Kummel, Werner. (1974). The Theology of the New Testament According to its Major Witnesses. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

Marshall, I. Howard. (2004). New Testament Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

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