Monday, November 12, 2007

New Testament Theology - Method

How does one identify the theological contribution of a NT book? Often this is done in categories drawn from systematic theology, e.g. Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology, etc. While this approach is not always unhelpful, it can obscure the language and framework in which a biblical author operates. I think that a way to unearth the theological contribution of a given book is in the following method:
1. Examination of Contextual Concerns
By this I mean looking first of all at the distinctive literary form of each document, examining issues of provenance, background, sources, and even the occasion for its composition. The problem here of course is that these matters tend to be highly disputed (e.g. dating of Hebrews and Revelation). It is quite tempting to presuppose them as they long essentially to the genre of "NT Introduction", but one needs to grasp the nettle here before launching into a NT Theology.
2. Inter-textuality
I am convinced that the OT indeed forms the sub-structure of NT Theology (C.H. Dodd) and further to that, that the underlying story of Israel has paramount significance for the story of the Christians and their own theological constructions (e.g. Marvin Pate et. al.). It was reading Peter Stuhlmacher and Craig A. Evans that really drove this home to me as to the importance of the OT in the NT for NT Theology! That's why I'm definitely gonna have a careful read of the new volume by Carson and Beale as a point of entry into the topic. Use of the OT in any given NT document shows their distinctive use of OT types, patterns, and promises and how they connect the story of Jesus, and the church, to the story of Israel.

3. Intra-Canonical Relations
Another feasible direction to take is to situate a NT document in the wider context of early Christianity. The best example of this that I have seen is in Craig Koester's Hebrews commentary where he tries to situate Hebrews against several contexts, e.g. Paul, Hellenists, Jewish Christianity, etc. (see also L.D. Hurst's monograph on Hebrews). How does a given document compare or contrast to other NT documents? For example, Hebrews and Colossians may be at one in criticizing angel-devotion. How does Hebrews on the Law square with Galatians?

4. Theological Consideration
An obvious task is to explicate the theological content of each biblical book. The problem, however, is that usually the topics for discussion are directly importedt from Systematic Theology which can create a round peg vs. square hole situation some times. Any biblical theology worth its salt should allow the author to speak to the issues that he wishes to address in his own language and towards his own purposes. Nonetheless, it would be good to have a number of fixed topics that each NT writer could contribute in a seminar style discussion (a la G.B. Caird). For me these fixed points are: (1) The relationship between Jesus and God; (2) The construal and effect of eschatology of the document; (3) Contribution to community and spiritual formation; (4) analysis to ethics and praxis of the Christian life; and (5) Relationship of the believer to Christ.

5. Reception-History
A final area worthy of investigation is how a document was initially received and interpreted in the early church as a key into its theological meaning.


Tony Stiff said...

Great post,
I was wondering what you thought about the socio-rhetorical style of studying scripture and how that model relates to New Testament Theological development?

Kelly Liebengood. Ph.D. said...


I enjoyed this post. One follow up question. I too am convinced that the OT provides the substructure for doing theology. You mention Stuhlmacher and Evans has having an influence on your thinking here. Can you point to any particular works that they have written that address this issue?

Thanks. I hope to see you at SBL!