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Book reviews >

NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY: Many witnesses, one gospel

Inter-Varsity Press £24.99 (1-84474-047-1); Church Times Bookshop £22.50

IN RECENT years, Cambridge University Press has completed the series "New Testament Theology", edited by James D. G. Dunn. Each volume in the series concentrated on the theology of one book, or a small group of writings, in the New Testament;  and Howard Marshall contributed a study of Philippians to the volume on the shorter Pauline letters.

His present volume, although more than 750 pages long, has fewer pages than the Cambridge series, but it is organised in the same way, to allow each New Testament book to speak for itself.

There are large sections on the Synoptic Gospels and Acts; the Pauline letters; the Johannine literature; and finally Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, and Jude. This is preferable to the alternative way of doing New Testament theology,  which is arranged systematically by themes, and tends towards harmonisation from the start.

As with the Cambridge series, too, this volume will be invaluable as a student textbook and as a wider source of reference.

Serious questions have been raised in recent decades about the viability of doing biblical theology, from the scholarly point of view. Old Testament theologians have had to confront this question more often than their New Testament counterparts, but Howard Marshall is right to commence his introduction (written at the conclusion of the enterprise) by asking these awkward questions, in dialogue with Heikki Räisänen's criticisms, and some examples of good practice.

One of the problems is that many of the New Testament writings are "occasional", belonging to particular situations rather than being timeless systematic expositions.

Howard Marshall acknowledges both the limitations imposed by particular contexts, and also the multiplicity of witness in individual writings. But he seeks to identify some unity within the diversity, regarding a synthesis as a real possibility. As he proceeds, he makes constant comparisons, short of reconstructing a historical development of theological thought. The broadest statement of a unifying factor is that all are concerned with Jesus and the religion that developed around him.

More specifically he claims them as "documents of a mission": the subject is not Jesus in himself, but "Jesus in his role as Saviour and Lord". The mission has two parts: the mission of Jesus to inaugurate the Kingdom of God; and the mission of Jesus's followers to continue his work, effectively "the confirmation of the gospel" (as W. C. van Unnik described Acts). The Church is included, not so much as an institution, but - more dynamically - a community as an agent of mission.
Dr Court is former Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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