Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Peter Stuhlmacher) -- A Review

BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT. By Peter Stuhlmacher. Translated by Daniel P. Bailey. Foreword by G. K. Beale. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018. Xxxiv + 935 pages.

                I will make a confession up front: I did not read this book cover to cover, word for word. I read parts of the book and skimmed in others. As this volume was submitted by the publisher to an award effort I chair, I wanted  to get a sense of this massive study of New Testament Theology (over 1000 pages all told). Although it didn't receive the award, it is a worthy submission. 

                It is, in many ways, comprehensive, thought it does give precedence (at least in my reading) to Paul. It also represents a German/European perspective on the task of biblical theology. As the author notes in his preface to this English edition, he wrote the book some twenty years ago, and that it “reflects the prevailing discussion in Germany at the time” (p. xix). As you read through you will find the author engaging with fellow German scholars, many of which may be known to professional biblical scholars, but not ones the non-specialist would be aware of. It is difficult to know where they stand in the scholarly world. As for the English translation, it was delayed for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, the day has come for its unveiling. While the book was written for a German audience in the 1990s, Stuhlmacher has updated it for this translation, an update which includes interaction with English-language scholarship. I will note that I did not see him engaging with the Jesus Seminar group. Thus no engagement with Borg or Crossan or Funk; not that I find myself in agreement with much of that group's work, but it is an interesting absence.  

The author, Peter Stuhlmacher, is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at the University of Tübingen, thus he has been a colleague of, among others, both Jürgen Moltmann and Hans Küng. I have known of Stuhlmacher for many years, having encountered his works in seminary. Additionally, a friend and colleague was one of Stuhlmacher's doctoral student. 

While Stuhlmacher is a Protestant biblical scholar, because he is German it’s not easy to place him in an American context. The translator and the author of the foreword are both evangelical biblical scholars. Among those who have endorsed the book are Eugene Boring, who is a Disciples of Christ biblical scholar who would be classified as theologically left of center, as well as Donald Hagner of Fuller Seminary, one of my seminary professors, who would be classified as evangelical. Then there is James Dunn, who might be placed somewhere in the middle. When Stuhlmacher engages English-speaking scholars, many are evangelical. It would appear that he finds some connection with them, but I wouldn’t categorize him as evangelical.

Even as it is difficult to place the author in the theological world, it is also difficult to truly describe the book. It definitely covers all the bases, addressing everything from the process of canonization to exploring the biblical authors and their books.

He begins the work with a section titled Foundations, in which Stuhlmacher lays out "the task and structure of a biblical theology of the New Testament." One should note that this is a "biblical theology of the New Testament," signifying that the New Testament is part of a larger canon of Scripture. With this in mind he notes that “a theology of the New Testament must allow the New Testament itself to dictate its theme and presentation” (p. 3). In this regard, he understands the New Testament in its canonical context, making this work different than an exploration of early Christian literature. He also takes into consideration the need to “do justice to both the historical claims to revelation and the ecclesiastical significance of the New Testament canon.” It is related to the church’s experience, and finally it is approached rationally and critically.

Having laid out the foundations of the task of New Testament theology in some detail, he moves into the actual work of doing New Testament Theology. He divides the volume into two books. Book One explores “The origins and Character of the New Testament Proclamation." Book Two focuses on the Problem of the Canon and the Center of Scripture.” Book One fills the majority of the volume’s pages, running from page 49 through page 740.

Beginning with Book One, it is divided into six parts. The way in which he divides the book gives one a sense of his purpose. Part One is titled "The Proclamation of Jesus." This lays out the overarching issues surrounding the message of Jesus, including his life, his uniqueness, and the character of his message. Part Two is "The Proclamation of the Early Church." Here there are chapters on the resurrection, the development of the confession of Christ, and the formation, structure and mission of the first churches. Again, this is setting the stage for exploring the actual books of the New Testament. It is in Part three that he begins his exploration of the canonical books.

Stuhlmacher begins this exploration in Part Three eight chapters focusing on the work of Paul (the so-called authentic books of Paul. This section runs from page 251-408, and covers Paul’s life, the origin of his theology, his relationship to the Law. From there he moves to “The World, Humanity, and Sin. He has a chapter on Christ as the end of the Law, along with “The Gospel, Justification, and Faith. There is a chapter on the Sacraments, the Spirit, and the Church. Finally, he looks into the “Life and Obedience of Grace.” As you can see, he takes Paul in a rather systematic way, walking through his theology, making sure all bases are covered. From Part Three we move in Part Four to "The Proclamation in the Period after Paul." This section includes a look at post-Pauline texts, such as Ephesians and the Pastorals. Then, after an "excursus on eschatology and apostleship in 2 Thessalonians" he turns to what are often known as the catholic or general epistles -- James, 1 Peter, Hebrews, along with Jude and Second Peter. Only after these letters are discussed does he turn in Part five to the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, exploring each on its own. From there he moves to the Johannine school. Having preached on James recently, I found his view of James to be rather traditional, in that he sees James and Paul at greater odds than I might like.  

Book Two is rather short in comparison. It is composed of four chapters that explore "The Problem of the Canon and the Center of Scripture.” Regarding the Canon, he starts with the premise that the Christian canon has two parts, Old and New. You can’t have the New Testament without the Old. Understanding the process by which the Hebrew Bible was formed leads to the manner in which the New was formed. This leads to a conversation about the “Center of Scripture.” In other words, how does this rather disparate set of documents fit together? That takes up a lot of space, as one might expect. Finally, he takes a look at recent and future prospects. In other words, what is the state of scholarship today.

Included with this book is an essay written by the editor, Daniel Bailey, which was drawn from his Cambridge University dissertation, which Stuhlmacher helped supervise. That essay focuses on "The Biblical and Greco-Roman Uses of Hilasterion in Romans 3:25 and 4 Maccabees 1722 (Codex S)." 

This is not light reading. Complicating reading is his use of a format that reminds me of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, in which matters that one might put in a footnote or excursus are intermixed with the text—in smaller print. That takes some getting used to, but once you figure it out you can deal with it. Returning to the matter of Stuhlmacher’s theological vantage point, I would say it is a moderate, German Protestant, exploration of New Testament theology. I would classify it as a form of reference book, which one might dip into for specific purposes. I expect that over time I will do just that.


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