Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Robert Morgan on Conservative NT Theologies
Robert Morgan, probably the foremost expert on the discipline of NT Theology in our time, writes as follows:
‘The tendency of textbook NTTs to become compendia of the biblical material is always present in conservative or Biblicist presentations whose authors assume that saying what the Bible says is sufficient, or is all that biblical scholars can offer. But to repeat in a new historical situation what was said in an old one is inevitably to say something different. The problem of interpretation cannot be evaded, especially when reading religious texts still considered authoritative in a changed intellectual milieu. All NTTs are interpretations, though some modern theologians stand closer to the letter of scripture than others. The main question for them all is how the biblical material is aligned with the interpreter’s own understanding of the subject matter. The older textbooks had answered this by organizing the conceptual material according to the framework supplied by traditional dogmatics. Conservative NTTs retain more of this than more critical ones do. Doctrinal themes can provide a language for historical descriptions After all, these topics emerged in large part from the church’s engagement with scripture. But NTT needs to distinguish the historical descriptions provided by biblical theology from the accounts of modern belief constructed by dogmatics. Conservative NTTs which make extensive use of dogmatic vocabulary have been suspected of minimizing the distinction. They react against NTTs which exaggerate the gap between the New Testament and modern Christianity, but themselves underestimate it. Among these G.E. Ladd (1974) especially, but also D. Guthrie (1981) and L. Morris (1986) have served their evangelical market well, not least by making room in it for a cautious historical criticism, but they have not significantly advanced the discipline’ (pp. 474-75). 
I certainly feel the gravity of Morgan's objection. Some NTTs often feel like quasi-systematic theologies merely restricted to the New Testament for their material. Even so, I think one could be a little fairer on the Biblicist/Conservative approach for a number of reasons:
1. A NT Theology should, as a matter of form, include some element of synthesis and applicatio (as I think Morgan is saying), so it is not entirely illegimate to import notions and frameworks from modern theology as long as you recognize that you are using modern theology on the basis of the text rather than finding a modern theology in the text. In fact, my Tyndale House lecture was about "NT Theology Reloaded" which has urged a more socio-historical approach in NT Theology, but without undermining the theological nature of the texts, the theological nature of interpretation, and the necessity of dogmatic inquiry which begins, somewhat, with a biblical theology itself.
2. Notably Morgan does not provide any examples of over use of dogmatic theology in the nominated volumes. Does a stratification of topics like the 'christology' of Hebrews, the 'eschatology' of Revelation, and the 'soteriology' of Romans represent a crass and unhistorical approach even though the categories are drawn from systematic theology? Potentially so, but not necessarily and such an approach is not limited to theological conservatives, e.g. see the NTG series published by CUP.
3. I would not describe the named trio (Ladd, Guthrie, and Morris) as woodenly dogmatic. Ladd had drunk deeply from a well of German scholarship and is more in line with the salvation-historical school. Guthrie is certainly highly thematic and not given over to historical critical discussion, but many German theologies also take a thematic approach. Morris' theology is built on the idea of historical development and he proceeds largely in the chronological order that the NT was written, starting, I believe, with Galatians!
4. In terms of utilitity and homiletical preparation, like for preaching a series of what the NT has to say about Christ, I have to confess that in my experience (though I am of the evangelical camp), Guthrie has been more useful than Bultmann.
. Morgan, Robert. ‘New Testament Theology Since Bultmann,’ ExpT 119.10 (2008): 472-80. I should add that this is a jolly good read for those who want a heads-up of NT Theologies in the last 40 years.