New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel

By I. Howard Marshall
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (2004). 765 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
18.2 (Fall 2007) : 261-263

“Here is a New Testament theology that will not only guide students and delight teachers but reward expositors with a lavish fund of insights for preaching.” So promises the book jacket of this magnum opus from the well-known British NT scholar, I. Howard Marshall. For over forty years, a steady stream of writing has come from the pen of the honorary research professor of NT at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, including commentaries on Luke (NIGTC), Acts (TNTC), 1 & 2 Thessalonians (NCBC), the Pastoral Epistles (ICC) [see TMSJ (Fall 2002) 13:290-91], 1 Peter (IVPNTC) [see TMSJ (Fall 1991) 2:213-5] and the Epistles of John (NICNT). From this wealth of background study, Marshall has presented his conclusions concerning NT theology in his latest volume.

With so much material in print, the reader comes to the present work already knowing where the author stands on many historical, exegetical, and theological issues. In this volume many examples re-express previous viewpoints. Though Marshall has much to commend in his positions, the present reviewer rejects some of his statements. For instance, first, he holds that the Pastoral Epistles are best viewed as “allonymous,” i.e., “they contain Pauline materials that have been adapted within a Pauline circle after his death in order to make his teaching available in a form adapted to the needs of the congregations at the time when there was the danger of succumbing to a heresy compounded of Jewish and ascetic elements and some misrepresentation of Paul’s teaching” (398). Second, source criticism of the Synoptic Gospels is a given; Markan priority is assumed (Mark is the first Gospel discussed in the volume [57-94]) with Matthew and Luke basing their books on Mark, sayings of Jesus, and “Q,” a narrative about Jesus (51-53). Third, Marshall’s moderate Arminian position is evident when he states, “[T]he perseverance of believers is simultaneously dependent on their own steadfastness and on the activity of God” (242) and when he declares that the warning passages in Hebrews “seem to allow that a person who has been a believer and enjoyed the blessings of salvation can lapse into a state of unbelief” (619). Fourth, throughout the volume, the church is seen as the “new Israel,” although the author states, “Thus there is not so much a supersession of the ancient promises to the Jews that they be God’s people as rather a spiritual renewal of those promises in the new covenant . . . and the extension of the covenant people to include all who are spiritually descendants of Abraham through their faith in Messiah” (712). Thus, ultimately, he prefers to speak of the Christian believers as the “renewed Israel” (711-2). Though the discerning reader must have his antenna attuned to such viewpoints, profit in the author’s approach to NT theology is still present.

Marshall begins his work with an introductory chapter entitled “How Do We Do New Testament Theology?” However, before he discusses how to write a theology of the NT, he first defends the legitimacy and possibility of the enterprise (17-23). The author claims that despite the problems of occasionality, diversity, and development, “it makes sense in the light of canonization to ask whether there is a common, basic theology in the set of books that the early church canonized” (20). Thus, “the aim of students of New Testament theology is to explore the New Testaments’ writers developing understanding of God and the world” (23). Having defended the legitimacy of NT theology, Marshall describes how it can be accomplished (23-46), concluding the chapter with a helpful summary of his proposal (46-47). The scope of NT theology is the books in the canon of the NT. These books must be understood in historical, “jesusological/christological,” and “missiological” contexts. The stage of description attempts to elucidate the theology of the individual books directed to the specific occasions or purposes for the writings. The stage of analysis seeks to find the central thrust of the books’ theology and its detailed outworking. The stage of studying development explores the way in which these various expressions of theology have developed. The stage of synthesis determines the ways in which these books display common beliefs [unity, harmony] and/or a variety of beliefs [diversity, contradiction]. The stage of application, the ways this NT theology has been and should be taken up into the dogmatic theology of the church, lies beyond the task of the present volume. This methodical approach to NT theology explained and modeled is the strength of this work.

Chapters two through thirty proceed according to the proposal on how to do NT theology described in chapter one. Marshall breaks the NT into four sections: Jesus, the Synoptic Gospels, and Acts (49-206); the Pauline Letters (207-488); the Johannine Literature (489-601); Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, and Jude (603-704). Each section follows a basic pattern. The canonical books are first individually presented. The presentations begin with an introduction that gives data concerning the authorship, the occasion, and, most essentially, the purpose of the book. Then Marshall gives an overview of the book, which he calls “the theological story.” Up to this point, these chapters read like a NT survey. With this “survey” foundation, the writer details the “theological themes” of the books. The book chapters conclude with helpful summaries in a conclusion. Having isolated the theological themes of the individual books, the writer synthesizes the theology of the individual books into a whole for the section in an individual chapter. Here, the common theological themes of the individual books are brought together. In sections two and three, the Pauline Letters and the Johannine Literature respectively, he further synthesizes the theological material of that section with the previously discussed synthesis of the proceeding section(s) in an additional chapter. A similar additional chapter in section four would have been helpful; as it is, Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, and Jude are not synthesized into the rest of the NT by the author.

The volume concludes with a chapter where Marshall discusses “Diversity and Unity in the New Testament” (705-32). He acknowledges, “[W]e have to recognize that the theological languages and concepts used by the early Christians developed and diversified” (711). But he continues by asking, “But to what extent were they still recognizably bearing testimony to the same things and the same experiences despite all the diversity” (711)? For Marshall, the answer lies in the fact that all of the NT writings emerged from and were directed toward mission. In essence, NT theology is missionary theology. The unity of the NT writings can be unpacked in the following way: the context of mission—God the Father; the center of mission—the saving event; the community of mission—the renewed Israel, the response of faith, the Holy Spirit, the church, and the love commandment; and the consummation of mission—the fullness of salvation.

The present volume takes its place in the heritage of the previous evangelical NT theologies of George Ladd (Eerdmans, 1974, 1993) and Donald Guthrie (1981). Many of Marshall’s conclusions echo and update what is in those works. However, he begins the discussion of NT theology with the individual books, whereas Ladd and Guthrie begin with and concentrate more on the theological synthesis. Ladd’s synthesis of the sections of the NT into the Synoptic Gospels, Paul, John, and other NT writings is echoed in Marshall. However, the present volume does not proceed to use the categories of dogmatic or systematic theology as its ultimate organizing principle as did Guthrie. The NT exegete and expositor can now gain a basic understanding of the contemporary “broad evangelical” discussions of and conclusions concerning NT theology by reading, in the following order, Marshall, Ladd, and Guthrie.

Two annoying characteristics of the present typeset of New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel make reading the book harder, particularly for American readers. First, the numeral “1” is consistently rendered by the capital “I” in the text, footnotes, and indexes. Second, in accord with British custom, commas and periods are placed outside, rather than inside, the quotation marks. But the NT expositor should not let these annoyances keep him from reading the volume.