New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel
A review of Howard Marshall's, "New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel," by Dr. Craig Blomberg.
I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel. Leicester and Downers Grove: IVP, 2004. $40.00. 765 pp. ISBN 0-8308-2795-1
One of the amazing features about George Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament is that a majority of his summaries of the state-of-the art of the understanding of the dominant and distinctive theologies of each major portion of the New Testament in 1974 still aptly encapsulate evangelical understanding thirty-one years later. Still, research has progressed, major controversies related to such issues as the nature of Palestinian Judaism and Paul’s theology of the Law have emerged, and the time had become overripe for a new, comprehensive, evangelical New Testament theology. For several years, it has been known that Howard Marshall, Greg Beale and Frank Thielman were all working to fill this gap, but no one knew who would finish first. Now we know and are profoundly grateful. Marshall, who taught an entire generation of doctoral students in Aberdeen, writing prolifically at the same time, most notably in producing commentaries of many different sizes on Luke, Acts, Philippians, Thessalonians, the Pastorals and 1 Peter, has now demonstrated his mastery of the entire New Testament and its central themes in this most welcome volume.
Two of the major criticisms of Ladd’s work had been that he devoted no space to separate treatments of the theologies of Matthew, Mark and Luke, simply lumping the Synoptic Gospels together and treating them as databases for the theology of Jesus, and that he never explicitly compared and contrasted the varying parts of the New Testament to deal with the complex questions of unity and diversity. Donald Hagner, in updating the bibliography, opening chapter and an occasional footnote, for the 1993 edition, commissioned two short articles on these two topics, by R. T. France and David Wenham, respectively. Proportionate to the size of the volume, however, they only compensated a little for the original omissions. Marshall now rectifies these problems “in a big way.” In fact, unlike most New Testament theologies, he even allows each of the letters attributed to Paul (treating the Pastorals as one unit) to be heard on their own, too, before synthesizing the overall emphases of this corpus.
The result is a work that begins with a detailed methodological overview, proceeds to treat the individual theologies of Mark, Matthew, Luke and Acts, and then compares the similarities and differences among these works. Afterwards, the book turns to the Pauline letters, one by one, with a closing synthesis of Paul’s theology followed by a comparison of Paul with the Synoptics and Acts. Then proceeds a section on the Johannine literature, with the Gospel, the letters and the Revelation each scrutinized on their own, and with intra-Johannine comparisons along with comparisons among John, Paul, and the Synoptics and Acts rounding out that section. Finally, Marshall surveys the theologies of Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, Jude and 2 Peter, again summing up the results in dialogue with what he has discovered with each of the other major sections of the New Testament. A detailed conclusion wraps up his overall findings concerning unity and diversity.
In his methodological introduction Marshall defends the possibility of doing New Testament theology against those who find it either impossible or undesirable (or only possible descriptively rather than prescriptively). He explains why it is still meaningful to limit one’s study to the canon, why he proceeds according to the divisions and sequence of material that he does, why he has no section on Jesus himself (the main emphases of the Synoptics may be taken to approximate the major contours of the historical Jesus, as earlier works of his have defended in detail), and why he will review each book, section-by-section, highlighting the theological emphases before itemizing thematic emphases and distinctives, even within each discrete chapter. A somewhat unique emphasis is the missional context of the New Testament documents, though in the actual unpacking of the theology of each book or group of books, this is not highlighted as often as the introduction might lead one to expect.
A short review can but skim some of the theological highlights and distinctives of this volume. Mark’s theme can be summed up as “the Messiah and Son of God who proclaims the kingdom and who acts it out in ways that express who he is” (p. 77). Part of the Messianic secret may involve Jesus’ use of Son of Man to identify himself with the heavenly figure of Daniel 7. Matthew largely resembles Mark but highlights the new way of life expected of the kingdom’s subjects, via a radical obedience to the Law as fulfilled in Jesus and expressed in love and compassion. The Gospel of Luke boils down to “the coming of the Savior who brings salvation to the needy” (p. 152), while Acts expands the focus to the exalted Lord who dispenses the Holy Spirit and forgiveness as the community of God’s people shifts from national Israel to Jews and Gentiles alike who identify with Jesus as Messiah.
As he discusses Paul’s epistles, Galatians becomes the logical springboard to outline a sensible middle way between wholesale acceptance and rejection of the “new perspective on Paul.” In his survey of Thessalonians, Marshall introduces his well-known centrist-Wesleyan approach to God’s sovereignty and human freedom: “the perseverance of believers is simultaneously dependent on their own steadfastness and on the activity of God” (p. 242). First Corinthians highlights the weakness of the cross as the divine wisdom which contrasts with this world’s. But the resurrection proves equally central, against those who would pit one versus the other. Paul’s treatment of spiritual gifts shows that congregational meetings are primarily occasions for God to communicate with his people through as many as he gives the appropriate gifts of communication. Worship thus is a natural by-product but not the primary purpose of church! Second Corinthians boils down to the mysterious combination of joy and suffering, death and life that characterizes Christian living. One creative take on Romans is that, to the extent to which it answers the objection that God is not being faithful to his promises to Israel, it may be considered a theodicy. On the thorny problem of 7:14-25, Marshall helpfully concludes, “It seems that believers have some kind of freedom to decide which master they will follow; the Spirit sets them free to live by the Spirit, but they must make the decision to submit to the Spirit” (p. 321).
Philippians returns to the cross as central to sorting out conflicts, with the V-shaped Philippian “hymn” of Christ’s condescension and exaltation paradigmatic. Philemon is actually “quite shattering” in its command to welcome Onesimus as if he were Paul himself (p.364). Colossians is preeminently Christological, emphasizing the full deity and humanity of Jesus against the local heresy, while Ephesians focuses more on the unity of Jew and Gentile in the church as the outcome of a similarly high Christology. As in his ICC commentary, the Pastorals are best viewed as “allonymous” (pseudonymous but without the attempt to deceive) but remain remarkably similar and faithful to the authentically Pauline epistles in attempting to call the churches addressed back to Paul’s theology from a peculiar and threatening form of Jewish Christianity.
John’s Gospel remains in contact with the historical Jesus but is much more covered with theological overlay. Jesus is now the exalted Lord who provides eternal life and is fully conscious of his pre-existent relationship with his heavenly Father. The Epistles more directly confront false teachers who may be docetic but John is more concerned with proper Christian behavior by his readers even than correct doctrine. Despite all the conundra in the Apocalypse, the main theme “is to prepare God’s people for the difficult future that lies ahead of them and to issue an evangelistic appeal to those who have not yet responded to their witness” (p. 560).
Not surprisingly, Marshall believes that Hebrews warns real believers about the real possibility and danger of apostasy and forfeiture of salvation, while highlighting the comparison between Melchizedek and Jesus as the most distinctive feature of this book’s theology. James draws on two major Jewish strands of thought—Wisdom in literature in general and the theme of the righteous sufferer in particular. Using these strands, he weaves an exhortation to Christian perfection via a life of active faith that resists temptations, particularly those produced by money and the misuse of the tongue. First Peter is an epistle of hope, counterbalancing Christian sufferings with the promise that believers can have a very positive impact on their world even in this age along with their eschatological compensation in the future. Jude calls believers to contend for the faith against the immoral false teachers, while 2 Peter incorporates similar material into a broader reply to the apparent absence of the fulfillment of God’s promises about the future.
Marshall’s final chapter, like the provisional summaries on unity and diversity of the New Testament works that punctuate the above treatments of the theologies of a given book, shows that the distinctives of each discrete section in no way contradict one another (while acknowledging there are deliberate paradoxes like the sovereignty-responsibility tension that actually pervades many individual works themselves). He can hardly be accused of playing these down, but he nevertheless shows that the same central concepts, even when phrased in different language, keep emerging again and again. Marshall resonates with Wenham’s four main categories in his supplementary chapter in Ladd’s Theology and utilizes them to unpack his central emphasis on mission: the context of mission: God the Father; the center of mission: the saving event; the community of mission: the renewed Israel, the response of faith, the Holy Spirit, the church, and the love commandment; and the consummation of mission: the fullness of salvation.
It would be possible to quibble with a handful of exegetical conclusions here and there, but the points would be so comparatively minor as to hardly be worth it. One might have wished for a briefer summary of the contents of each book in sequence and a correspondingly larger synthesis of the key themes in topical sequence, as readers have come to expect from biblical theologies of almost every stripe. It remains to be seen if readers will find the individual surveys of the various Pauline letters sufficiently valuable in their own right to outweigh the relatively brief thematic synthesis of Paul’s theology overall.
The bibliographies at the end of each chapter are up-to-date, immaculately chosen and abreast of the most important recent German as well as English literature. One might have hoped for a few more footnotes that tied directly in with these works; a large number of the comparatively sparse footnotes are content rather than reference in form. The author index thus looks small for a book of this size, but the subject and Scripture indexes more than compensate with their detail.
Overall, the book is very lucid, readable and free from typos. There is an odd (errant?) triple negative (“not unsurprisingly unavailable”—p. 13), an example involving Matthew and John as a purported illustration of the differences among the Synoptics (p. 34), “that suggestions” instead of “the suggestions” (p.168), and a “made be made” instead of “may be made” (p. 730).
It will be interesting to compare the format and detail of Marshall’s tome with Frank Thielman’s which is being advertised as due out in 2005. My suspicions are that Greg Beale’s still has a way to go. Meanwhile students and scholars alike should be profoundly grateful for the magnificent compendium of theological exegesis and synthesis represented in this volume; if the format noticeably differs from Ladd, that will probably keep Ladd in print that much longer and readers looking for a scholarly, evangelical, accurate and thorough analysis can utilize both works without as much overlap as might otherwise have appeared. We are all in Marshall’s debt for his perseverance, and for God’s sovereign guidance of him in the process, in a project that wound up taking much longer than originally anticipated.
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament