Surveying the Whole to See the Parts
Thomas Schreiner boldly argues in his New Testament Theology (Baker Academic, 2008) that the 27 books of the New Testament present two unified themes. First, in Jesus' announcement that the kingdom has come, the New Testament (NT) advances the redemptive history of the Old. Since the first century Christians have lived in an "already not yet" tension, awaiting the kingdom's full consummation. The second theme is the book's subhead: "Magnifying God in Christ." The goal of the kingdom is to magnify God through the work of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. CT editor at large Collin Hansen spoke with Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
What separates your New Testament Theology from other recent projects with a similar goal?
My work is distinctive in pursuing a thematic approach. We have had two recent and excellent NT theologies by I. Howard Marshall and Frank Thielman that concentrate on examining the distinctive message of each book in the NT. A book-by-book approach is valuable, but it is also helpful to consider the message of the NT as a whole. The danger of a thematic approach is that it may squeeze out the particular emphasis of a writer in order to defend a larger unity. On the other hand, it is also true that understanding the whole helps us to see the parts more clearly.
How long did you work on this project, and how did you proceed to complete such an ambitious goal?
I worked on and off for about seven years, though I took time out to do some other projects along the way. I wanted to write a work that was helpful to students and pastors mainly, though I hope scholars might find some usefulness from the book as well. I approached the task as follows. First, as I read through the NT, I took notes on the major themes in the writings. Second, I wrote a first draft of the entire book from my notes. Third, I revised the book two more times after that. Fourth, I tried to read widely in NT studies to test my results against what was being said in scholarship. I revised and rewrote in light of what I read. Naturally, that explanation oversimplifies the process. I had read quite a bit in NT studies over the years even before writing my first draft. Hence, I was certainly influenced by others even during the first stages of the project.
You treat New Testament theology thematically, even after observing that our Western culture distrusts metanarratives. What do we miss if we do not look for the New Testament's overarching message?
We fail to see the beautiful coherence of the NT message. The authors of the NT preached the same gospel (1 Cor. 15:11). Naturally there is diversity in the NT witness, and scholars today often focus on such diversity. We can learn something as well, however, from the history of the church. Christian pastors and scholars from previous generations rightly emphasized the common faith proclaimed in the NT. As Christians we do not know the truth exhaustively. Postmodernism has reminded us of our finiteness, and that we see through a glass darkly (though many Christians have known this throughout history). On the other hand, the partiality of our knowledge can be exaggerated. We believe in a God who speaks his Word to us, and the Spirit of God grants us understanding of the truth of God (1 Cor. 2:6-16). We do not master the truth. But we must also beware of relativism. We do not know all things comprehensively, but we do know truly.