Theology of The New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach

August 27, 2012

0310211328While it may come as a surprise to some, I managed to get through an entire four year seminary program without reading a New Testament theology. Granted, I read my share of systematic theology, and I read my share of New Testament material. But, because of my overall focus, I never had a class that required me to read a substantial portion of a New Testament theology, much less complete one in full.

That has thankfully changed, and will probably keep changing over the coming years. Now that I am teaching a NT survey class and am hoping to be able to offer theological threads to tie the whole thing together, I’ll be doing some NT Theology research, and I started with Frank Thielman’s Theology of The New Testament: A Canonical And Synthetic Approach.

My introduction to Thielman was hearing that he would be the third plenary speaker at the 2010 ETS meeting alongside Tom Schreiner (who has his own NT Theology) and N. T. Wright (who needs 6 volumes to do the trick). I wasn’t able to go to the meeting but enjoyed Thielman’s article in JETS the following March and even ended up using it in my capstone Romans paper (that argues triperspectivalism solves the New Perspective on Paul issue with evangelicalism). Because of all that, I was curious to see what a NT Theology from Theilman would look like, especially in terms of how he handles Paul’s theology. I asked my contact at Zondervan about a review copy, and here we are.

Overview

Of the many ways one might go about constructing a NT Theology, Theilman lets you know in his subtitle the path he chose. After a introductory chapter laying out the issues surrounding the production of a NT Theology, Thielman proceeds by first grouping the writings of the NT into 3 canonical blocks: Gospels/Acts, Pauline epistles, general epistles/Revelation. In the first section, Thielman opens with a chapter on why having a fourfold gospel account is important. He then offers chapters on each Gospel, treating Luke and Acts as a single narrative, before concluding with a synthesis chapter explaining how the four gospels are offering perspective on the one gospel of Jesus Christ.

The bulkiest section in the book is the one on the Pauline letters, but that should come as no surprise. Thielman opens with a chapter on the questions of both coherence and center within Paul’s theology. He argues that Paul’s theology was coherent and that the center of it is “God’s graciousness toward his weak and sinful creatures” (232). Then, like the previous section on the Gospels, Thielman treats the individual epistles in chronological order of their writing. This allows him to develop the center historically and see how it emerges at different points in the span of Paul’s ministry. Theilman then finishes up the section with a chapter on the recurrent emphases in Paul’s writings and offers a thematic summary of Paul’s theology.

The final section of the book, the general epistles and Revelation, is treated by Thielman as a coherent collection of writings rather than a grab bag of New Testament leftovers. Thielman sees unity in these letters in their thematic treatment of heresy and persecution (493-95). He then works through the individual writings in a loose historical order (James – Jude – 2 Peter – 1-3 John – 1 Peter – Hebrews – Revelation) before finishing up with a synthetic chapter exploring the challenges Hebrews – Revelation posed to the dominant first century worldview they were written within.

Finally, Thielman attempts to take all of his synthetic work on the individual sections and unite them together in a closing synthetic chapter. His major synthetic themes are:

  • The convergence of the human problem and God’s answer to it in Jesus
  • Faith as response to God’s gracious initiative
  • The Spirit as the eschatological presence of God
  • The church as the people of God
  • The consummation of all things

Again, no real surprises there, but it takes some serious scholarly work to assimilate all the New Testament teaching into these categories in a way that leaves no stones unturned.

Strengths/Weaknesses

Thielman’s work on Paul’s theology has to be a major strength of this book. Anyone serious about studying Paul and understanding his theology needs Thielman’s book on their shelf. He interacts with the New Perspective on Paul, and while he doesn’t fully agree with several aspects, he is not dismissive of it either. There is probably a good reason Thielman was chosen as a third voice at ETS alongside Wright and Schreiner. Even though those scholars are presented as the main “sides” in the discussion, Theilman helps readers recognize there is more to the discussion than simply choosing between embracing Wright or Piper (who was originally scheduled to be there at ETS). If nothing else, his careful work through Paul’s epistles and his discussion of Paul’s theology as a whole is worth the price of the book.

Another strength is that while Thielman is working with primarily academic sources (doctoral dissertations published as monographs, articles in journals in German, stuff like that), he presents his work in a way that is accessible to most patient readers. While this might be best used as a seminary textbook, I think it could profitably make it in a Bible school classroom. Granted, it is not the most engaging prose. It still reads like a serious commentary through most of the chapters. But, looking through the footnotes, what Thielman offers his readers is much more easily navigated than most of the sources he is drawing from.

Additionally, Thielman’s synthetic chapters are a highlight of the book. Some readers may be content to have this book on the shelf as a resource, but even those readers ought to make their way through his opening and closing chapters to each section. I wouldn’t have particularly thought of Hebrews – Revelation as having a coherent theme until I read Thielman’s case for heresy and persecuting uniting them. As I prepare to teach the NT in class, I will probably find myself returning to my markings in the synthetic chapters.

If I had to highlight a weakness, my first thought is the writing style. I only bring this up because the companion volume on Old Testament Theology (by Bruce Waltke and coming up later this week) has almost a devotional feel to the individual chapters, whereas Thielman’s chapters flow like a commentary. To be fair, they flow like a good commentary and are easy to read in a grammatical sense (unlike some commentators). I just found it harder to stick with reading through individual book chapters, but not so much on the synthesis chapters. So, maybe compared to other NT Theologies, Thielman isn’t that bad, but compared to Waltke, he is just a bit on the dry side.

Conclusion

Ease of reading aside, I thought this was a great book. That opinion may alter slightly as I start into reading other New Testament theologies (I’ve already got Beale’s in my queue line). But, it won’t change dramatically because Thielman still has plenty to offer and his discussion of Paul’s theology is particularly excellent. While the material is a bit beyond what I can offer my high school students in detail, it does have its share of insights that will find their way into my class in the spring. Overall, this book is a well structured and well executed construction of New Testament theology that is sensitive to historical development and scholarly insights, while remaining evangelical and Christ-centered in its focus. Serious students of the New Testament ought to give Thielman’s book a try!

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Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!