Traditionally, the Christians regard the New Testament as the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament. The New Testament narrates tale of the life of Jesus and interprets their theological significance for the early church, concentrating specifically on the new Covenant between God and the Disciples of Christ. The New Testament comprises of 27 books, which include the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, 21 epistles, and the Book of Revelation. Though it is rather difficult to date them precisely, tentatively most of the writing can be assigned to 1st century AD. The identity of only two authors is known; St Paul is credited with 13 epistles, and to St. Luke is attributed the third gospel and the Book of Acts. It was a practice prevalent in the early churches to use these documents as teaching and preaching sources.
Frank Thielman, who is a Presbyterian Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, offers keen and penetrating insight into the theological concerns of the New Testament. Adopting a canonical and systematic approach, Thielman grounds his theory on cultural theory and religious practice, thereby anchoring it to the travails of real life and discussing it as theology rather than theological history of the New Testament or early Christianity. As the New Testament is a collection of 27 different books created by diverse authors who display varying styles of penmanship and curiously different approaches to religious questions, it becomes a nearly Herculean task to embark on the process of creating a theology for the New Testament. Thielman tries to handle these challenges within cultural and historical contexts and places the political and religious concerns in their true perspective.
Critics such as William Wrede and Heikki Raisinen underlined the necessity of early historical study and an account of the exegesis of the Christian religion, but according to Thielman, it is necessary to separate the historical from the theological without giving too much allegiance to the apostolicity and councils who canonized the documents. According to Thielman, the diversities in approach to the various books of the New Testament render several theological statements contradictory and antithetical. For instance, “How can Paul say that there is neither slave nor free in Galatians? (3:28), but slaves should obey their masters with fear and trembling in Ephesians? (6:5) How can Jesus nullify the Mosaic dietary commandments in Mark’s gospel? (Mark 7:15, 19), but claim in Mathew and Luke that not even a dot of the law will become void? (Matt: 5:18); (Luke 16:17)?” However, such contradictions have now become part of the theological question as most theologians agree that both Matthew and Luke relied on material from Mark and the Q Source. Thielman aptly questions the problems of contradictions and cautions people regarding the limitations of rationalism. Such instances of theological contradictions should not influence people to abandon their study of the New Testament. As such, he states that reason it should be aware of its own resources and limitations and address these limitations logically instead of abandoning the quest.
New Testament theological research is plagued by the ideas that as a historical work, it is hopelessly biased and it is hopelessly diverse. Such diversity may range from the merely historical to the canonical and chronological and though efforts had been made by the early church to harmonize the diversity of the gospels, it remains a challenging task until date. Many opponents of Christianity have targeted the discrepancies to challenge the very presence of Christ and the authenticity of Christianity itself. As such, it became almost imperative for the early church to provide accurate historical records of the life of Christ, his ministry, death and resurrection. The Gospel of Peter tries to synthesize the four Gospels but it is incomplete and the motives of production are yet unknown.
According to Thielman, even the theology of Paul that is widely acclaimed as Pauline theology, sometimes lapses to incoherence and inconsistency. Yet it cannot be denied that Pauline theology does try to establish some harmony and unify the gospels, and perhaps it is this effort for which Paul was believed to be the “Prince of Theologians”. Thielman, however, propagates an entirely different view; according to him, Paul was far from a systematic theologian who penned down his letters with the prior assumption that they would stand the test of analysis, exegesis or theological debate. In fact, Paul was writing at times of intense stress and conflict and was desperately trying to validate facts of the Apologetics both intrinsic and extrinsic to the church as per his own convictions. By providing his own personalized viewpoint, Paul effectively renders himself vulnerable to future debates and canonical questions. Thielman suggests that the best of Paul’s theories are to be located in his praxis theology rather than in his letters.
It is an imperative to understand that Paul was essentially an apostle who was trying to interpret the implications of the Gospel to the community whom he was preaching. As such, it can be logically reasoned that his extreme zeal for apostolic reformation led him to overemphasize or misinterpret issues and problems, yet they were always explained with the most sincere theology. It was not until the mid eighteenth century that Paul was redeemed from being categorized as a dogmatic and interpreters came to appreciate the cogent insightfulness of Paul’s letters.
Some critics like E.P. Sanders are of the opinion that Paul was a poor theologian and miserably failed to write about the true significance of his conversion and prior Jewish convictions. Thielman, however, does not agree. He states that Paul was a coherent and passionate theologian and tries to develop a theory regarding the maturational development of Paul’s exegesis. This theory follows the “vanishing bubble hypothesis” which analyzes theological contradictions and states that the contradictions arise from the fact that Paul was actually responding in different ways to different situations.
The non-Pauline letters and the revelations of John are epistolary in character and exhibit varied features. Early Catholicism and Messianic Judaism demarcate the central eschatological concerns of early Christianity, which gradually evolved into a structured religion. Thielman notes that both Paul and Peter emphasize the concept of the Mosaic Law and Jewish participation and Jewish Christianity, thereby bringing about prefect synthesis in the Catholic Church.
Thielman emphasizes the theological unity of the New Testament with the help of the human phenomenon and resorts to God’s answer on the centrality of Jesus Christ. Thus, there is and universal rebellion against the rejection of Christ and the crucifixion defeats all rebellion against God as the death of Christ provides atonement for all mortal sins and offers redemption of the human soul. It is the spirit, which is the actual eschatological presence of divinity in the mortal frame, and faith nurtured by the spirit is a response to the sublime presence and initiative of God. Thielman states that God, through the events of the death and resurrection of Christ sought to reconcile the errant souls and punish all demonic forces. Thus, Thielman effectively handles the five essential concepts of the centrality of Christ in the New Testament, the all pervasiveness of faith, the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit, establishment of the Church as the holy people of God and the conclusive eschatological restoration.
For the scholar as well as for religious enthusiasts and the nonprofessional, the New Testament presents a bewildering labyrinth of exegesis due to the simple fact that the twenty-seven books, scripted by diverse authors present confusingly different perspectives and varying theological orientations, emphasis and nuances. Thielman embarks on the daunting task to elicit a coherent massage from the theological maze and thereby provide accurate historical, doctrinal and cultural contexts to act as stepping-stones for the comprehension of the gospels. Adopting a canonical and synthetic approach, Thielman effectively penetrates into the depth of a unified theological vision and anchors the New Testament in the centrality of Jesus Christ. With extreme care and accurate scholarly instinct, Thielman picks out the differences and similarities between the various gospels and effectively unifies them to ensure the unity of an overall perspective.
Author’s Central Concern
Thielman, in his masterly analysis in Theology of the New Testament, evinces the central concern to create a unified theology from the existing documents and uncertain chronology of the mass of exegetic material related to the study of the New Testament. 27 books of diverse authorship and varying socio-religious perspectives present a daunting challenge to the scholar to seek to establish the synthesis and compatibility between the discourses of the individual books and establish them as cohesive theology with interconnected strands. Indeed, Thielman embarks upon as he navigates through the exegesis of each chapter, minutely studying the dialogues and theories voiced and duly provides a synthetic chapter as a conclusion to the previous chapter and a continuum to the next one this titanic task. In his penetrating analysis of the Gospels, the Pauline and the Non-Pauline letters and the Revelations of John, Thielman surveys the possibility of cohesive theology, but also voices his doubts as to whether the New Testament can be whittled down to represent a coherent and concrete whole without delimiting it within the framework of chronological history instead of pure theology.
Thielman undertakes a unique approach to all the 27 books of the New Testament; he provides an accurate framework to place them in their true social, cultural, political, religious and historical perspective as it is essential to root all theory in real life, instead of setting them adrift on a sea of vague notions and incomprehensible ideals. Yet such approach does not necessarily mean that Thielman is merely writing a historical basis of the New Testament, what he is actually propagating is the creation of New Testament theology.
Thielman’s analysis of the Biblical theology leads him to analyse the various challenges raised by Garber, Wrede and Raisinen. It serve as a clarion call to theologians to focus on the dual perspective of clarity and purpose from the earliest period of Christianity and also to judge the distinction between canonical knowledge and history without assigning undue importance to Fourth Century apostolicity and the various religious institutions who were responsible for canonizing the documents.
The diversity of theological documentations has always been a cause of disagreement for the critics who have continuously fought over points, which appear contradictory and athletically distinctive. Martin Luther tries to solve the problem by claiming that all such apparent contradictions can be answered by unswerving faith in religion. Hegel, however, is of the opinion that attempts to posit a thing in its totality inevitably leads to contradiction. The totality of a thing cannot be explained without referring to its relation to something extraneous to it. According to Thielman, contradictions appear in the Pauline letters simply because Paul was reacting in different ways to different situations. Though the Pauline theology is intrinsically riddled by inconsistencies, yet, as Thielman points out, underlying the apparent inconsistencies are traces of harmony and reconciliation. Historically hailed as the “Prince of Theologians”, Paul was far from a systematic thinker who wrote his letters with the express intention of having them analyzed by later day theologians. Thielman is of the opinion that the very best of Paul’s theology are to be found in the praxis of his work and not in his letters. Thielman further emphasizes that despite his claim to be a transcendental theologian, Paul was only an apostle whose over zealous apostolic activity may well have resulted in overstatements and misinterpretation of ideas and situations. Whatever may be the fact, Thielman reminds the reader that Paul was only human and highlights the profound insight he brings to his documentations.
Thielman stresses the fact that the contradictions and theological diversity should not be used as a contradictory weapon to undermine the study of the New Testament. He provides a note of caution to all those who fail to realize the limitations of realism. According to Thielman, faith comes in when realism fails to define the mysteries of the eternal universe. Early Christians sought to harmonize the diversities inherent to Christianity and philosophers such as Porphyry grappled with the inconsistencies in the four gospels. The gospels of Peter and Tatian also tried to present the four gospels as a unified whole and gained some measure of acceptance. Yet though Paul established churches in Corinth and Ephesus, he was labeled as a “dogmatic” by the church. Thielman suggests that it may so have happened that Paul was converted thirteen or sixteen years before he actually wrote his letters. This leads Thielman to surmise that Paul’s theology was yet to attain its full maturity in all areas. Yet the basic premise of the treatise remains unwaveringly the same. The contradictory ideas that plague the Pauline theology has been effectively analyzed by Thielman as “vanishing bubble hypothesis” which examines all statements and contradictions. Thielman reaches the conclusion that Paul’s commentaries are concretely visualized rationalizations of instinctively held ideas and beliefs and as such close examination reveals that no contradiction actually exists.
Finally, what Thielman seeks to achieve is a theological unity of the New Testament, which recognizes the human phenomenon and believes in the centrality of Jesus Christ.
Strength and Weaknesses
Thielman’s theology provides scholarly insight into the 27 books of the New Testament and through careful analysis of the maze of exegetic material; he encourages sympathetic reading of the canonical texts. His unique perspective reveals the interconnectivity between the books despite the apparent diversities of perspective and ideologies. To facilitate the understanding of the nonprofessional as well as the preachers and scholars he synthesizes and analyses every single chapter and provides the linking strands between the preceding chapter and the following one. The aim of Thielman is to convince the reader of the importance of faith, yet at the same time to anchor theology in the framework of actual history. Theology cannot exist in a vacuum and as such, Thielman provides accurate socio-political backgrounds. Yet, never does he over amplify history, as it tends to draw away from simple faith and theology.
He further emphasizes that the theological unity of the New Testament can be analyzed in the perspective of five essential concepts of the centrality of Christ in the New Testament, the all pervasiveness of faith, the omnipotence of the Holy Spirit, establishment of the Church as the holy people of God and the conclusive eschatological restoration. Thielman’s extensive research into the original languages of the exegetical texts, style of authorship and cultural contexts securely places theology in its timeframe and ascertains sympathetic scholarship. Carefully analyzed epistles bear witness to the stress and tensions of the times that the author was penning down his words, the circumstances, which motivated the writer or the express purpose for which the letters were written. Such detailed examination helps reconcile apparent contradictions as it establishes the fact that the writers were reacting to external stimuli as well as delving deep into the recesses of their mind to create time transcending theology. “On the whole, Thielman does not try his hand at anything too radical…he is conservative in his approach and weaves masterfully through history and religion.”
However, Thielman’s theology is far from perfection personified. He tends to draw severe criticism in his justification of the glaring contradictions inherent in the Pauline letters. He is also criticized because he has drifted far away from the theology of the Reformation and the Westminster Confession of Faith. The concept of faith as a radical power that can redeem both believers and sinners, and the theory that even those who have sinned miserably can appear righteous before God because of the instance of Christ’s unquestioned obedience are rather questionable. Conversely, it also has been analyzed that even though such sanctification cannot establish the prerogative that every Christian is the epitome of perfection, it nonetheless invites faith in Christ as the embodiment of righteousness who inspires all humanity to strive for salvation and redeem their souls. Thielman’s theology regarding the concept of atonement has also come to be severely criticized as many people think that in the modern world of terrorism and violence it is eminently impracticable to love one’s neighbor or be submissive and become the victims of savage oppression. The centrality of Christ to the New Testament theology confounds confusion further in that the very crucifixion of Christ who sacrifices his life to atone for the sins of humanity is in marked contrast to the Scriptural approach to the oppressed and the un-evangelized.
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