New Testament Theology:
Many Witnesses, One Gospel
I. Howard Marshall (Apollos, 2004)Blurb Review by Dr. Preston Sprinkle
Review by Dr. Preston Sprinkle
Summary of the book
Howard Marshall is perhaps the most prolific evangelical New Testament scholar in the recent decades. He has written major books and articles in various areas of New Testament studies giving him the credibility of writing a New Testament Theology. This work indeed bears the fruit of years of study and reflection on the New Testament. It is a fine contribution to the field.The basic structure of the book is ideal for understanding the Theology of the New Testament. Instead of surveying the thought of the NT, Marshall moves book by book, honouring the different ways each writer expresses their theology through individual writings. Each survey entails two parts. First, he surveys the 'theological story' of the letter that entails a brief movement through the letter summarizing the contents and theological expression. Second, he offers an overview of the dominant theological motifs gained from the survey. This method allows Marshall to analyze and express the theology of each NT book as it arises from the text. This captures the heart of his methodology. He does not wish to place a systematic grid on the text, but rather wants the theological expression of each book to arise on its own terms. Furthermore, by honouring each book/writer in its/his own right, Marshall resists the attempt to flatten out the witness of the NT canon. Different NT writers were writing for a different purpose in different times with different backgrounds and different audiences. Thus, we should expect variations in theological thought in each letter. Nevertheless, the next question that naturally arises from such an approach is, 'is it possible to systematize this diversity?' Marshall writes:
It is the responsibility of the New Testament theologian to tackle this question. There must be two aspects to the discussion. On the one side, there is the duty of setting out the theologies of the several New Testament writers individually and sympathetically in all their difference and variety. On the other side, there is the duty of determining their relationship to one another, not just in historical development but above all in terms of their theology: in what ways do they show a common mind and in what ways do they differ? Can we find a common outlook among them, and if so, how is it to be expressed? (30)
To these last questions, Marshall answers 'yes,' 'a unity is expressed through diversity' (731). This is the labour of the book as a whole and to my mind its greatest contribution. The New Testament canon contains various theologies that differ in expression and outlook, but once they are all examined on their own terms, these differences are not contradictions but are a multifaceted portrait of a core belief and can be unified to some extent into a common theology. Marshall does this with scholarly skill and evangelical fervour without flattening out the witness as in some conservative theologies. Hence, the New Testament testifies to one Gospel, though through the eyes of many witnesses.
After a lengthy introduction centred on methodological issues (17-56), Marshall begins with the Synoptic Gospels. He begins with Mark (most likely the first gospel written), then moves to Matthew, and lastly Luke-Acts (he examines John with the rest of the Johannine corpus). This completes part one (Synoptics and Acts). At the end of this section, Marshall gives an overview and summary of the Synoptics and Acts looking at and analyzing the common and diverse theological expression. As the book moves along, Marshall incorporates the previous analysis in the discussion. For instance, at the end of the second section (Pauline corpus), Marshall not only summarizes the theology of Paul (420-69), but also integrates the previous discussion in a section titled, 'Paul, The Synoptic Gospels and Acts' (470-88). Thus, there is a continual gathering of all the witnesses to examine coherence and diversity. All along the way, Marshall builds proof for his theme that unity of the theologies is expressed through diversity.
I found these summaries at the end of each section the most helpful. Here, Marshall was able to examine all the different authors in light of each other and he made a substantial case for a unified theology expressed in different ways. Also helpful was the introduction on NT methodology. I would highly recommend this introduction to any preacher or student of the NT. In it, he unveiled many erroneous ways of both studying or even thinking about the nature of the theology in the NT. One method, unconsciously popular in the evangelical church, is to flatten out the various witnesses. Marshall writes:
It would be possible to create a compilation of theological statements from the New Testament that was nothing more than a harmonizing assembly of quotations taken at random from any of its books. Such an approach would wrench the statements out of their contexts and lack the careful examination of their nuances to establish precisely what they were intended to affirm and imply. It would also assume that the quotations will all necessarily reflect the same point of view. But is a collection of texts a theology? (24)
Thus, when examining Paul's thought in Galatians, we should be cautious before jumping too quickly to verbal parallels in Matthew or 1 Peter. Each book has a different purpose and different context in which he was writing. Nevertheless, as Marshall labours throughout the work, the NT writers are in essential agreement with each other even in their diversity.
Contributions to Biblical Theology At the very heart of Biblical Theology (as opposed to Systematic Theology or Dogmatic Theology) is the desire to honour the theological expression of the Old and New Testaments as it arises from the text and to resist coming to the text with out own theological questions and enquires. The latter would be, 'to take over an existing plan such as is found in a textbook of systematic theology but without any firm evidence that this framework was in the minds of any of the New testament authors' (24). Marshall argues against this latter approach and pursues the former. This is evidenced primarily in the overall structure of the work, which again first surveys the theology as it arises from the text and then summarizes the thought. At the very least, Marshall attempts to capture the theology of the New Testament as it arises from the text itself.
Another way in which this work is truly a Biblical Theology of the New Testament, is in the way in which it honours the OT framework of the NT. A true Biblical Theology examines each testament (or book, or writer) in light of the rest of the Bible as it testifies to the overriding divine drama of redemption. This too is respected in Marshall's work. He says,
a theology of the New Testament must surely be a biblical theology of the New testament since there is no way that we can avoid the fact that the thinking of the New testament writers is shaped by the Old Testament...the Old Testament provided the New Testament writers with the key categories and broad structure of a theology for which the major structure was given by the saving history which they interpreted so as to bring out its innate significance (39).
Marshall summarizes how he sees this work as a contribution to Biblical Theology:
It follows that an account of the New Testament theology will inevitably offer a biblical theology in that we cannot avoid showing how the biblical revelation as a whole is related to that particular cross-section we call the New Testament (40).
Overall, this work is truly a Magnum Opus that should be kept close at hand by any pastor, preacher or student of the New Testament. Marshall demonstrates a remarkable grasp of various issues in theology and biblical studies. This book offers a thorough introduction to theology of the New Testament and I anticipate that it will be a popular textbook for future classes in New Testament Theology.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature