Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach

By Frank Thielman
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2005). 798 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
20.1 (Spring 2009) : 126-127

Frank Thielman, Presbyterian Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama, has written the second of three major NT theologies that have been published so far in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The NT theology of I. Howard Marshall was published in 2004 (see TMSJ, 2007, 261-63). In 2008, the NT theology of Thomas Schreiner was released by Baker. Thielman’s work lies in the middle of the three works both historically and methodologically. He does not begin with the theological story of each NT book before isolating the book’s theological themes like Marshall, nor does he give as detailed a theological synthesis of the entire NT as Schreiner attempts. Therefore, Thielman’s NT theology is a valuable bridge between Marshall and Schreiner while at the same time being an excellent work in its own right. Thielman expresses his desire for his volume: “I hope that the book will serve the needs of serious students of the New Testament for a brief theological orientation to each New Testament text. I also hope to make a persuasive argument that although each text is rooted in its own cultural world, all twenty-seven texts, when read sympathetically, are theologically unified” (9).

Before embarking on his theological description, the author poses and answers two basic questions in the study of the theology of the NT in his first chapter (19-42). The first problem posed is the blend of dogmatics and historical concerns. Thielman answers the attacks of Gabler, Wrede, and Raisanen and avers that one can be a Christian believer committed to the NT canon as God’s revelation and at the same time successfully listen to the texts as a secular historian. The second problem arises from the diversity of the NT texts. Thielman argues that underlying the obvious diversity is a basic theological unity implicit in the nature of Scripture as God’s W ord. He states, “It is necessary for the diversity of the canon to stand as a witness both to the nearness and to the otherness of God, who, despite his infinite wisdom, has met us where we are through His Word” (40).

In chapters two through thirty-three, the writer describes his understanding of the theology of the NT (43-677). The NT canon is divided into three sections of material; the Gospels and Acts, the Pauline Letters, and the Non-Pauline Letters and the Revelation of John. Each major canonical part is approached in the same way. First, an introductory chapter orients the reader to the leading question that affects the theological description of the section, the problem of a fourfold gospel for the Gospels and Acts, the coherence and center of Paul’s theology for the Pauline epistles, and “early Catholicism” for the rest of the NT. Second, the individual NT books in each section are discussed in a roughly chronological order for that part. Thus, Mark begins the first section, First Thessalonians the second, and James the third. Third, each section concludes with a synthetic chapter where the various texts are placed in conversation with each other so that the overall theological emphases might emerge. Finally, in chapter thirty-four, the volume concludes with the author’s delineation of the theological unity of the NT, which comes from his previous syntheses (679-725). A bibliography of works cited (727-62), a Scripture and Apocrypha index (763-86), an index of other ancient literature (787-90), and a subject index (791-98) bring the book to completion.

Thielman is to be commended for his thoroughly orthodox and evangelical contribution to the study of NT theology. He has produced a book that will not only introduce the reader to the discipline of NT theology, but also enhance his understanding of the NT text itself. His conclusion that Jesus Christ is central to the theological vision of the NT (725) is supported by the NT and heartily agreed to by all Christian believers. The one weakness in Thielman’s NT theology is his insistence that the church is the restored Israel. He admits that the NT affirms that God will eventually prove faithful to his promises to ethnic Israel even though he believes it also teaches that the church is the restored Israel of prophetic expectation. He declares, “Paul never explains how these two understandings of the prophetic promises fit together, but his easy movement from one to the other shows that he does not believe them to be incompatible” (710). However, the NT never explicitly states that the church is the restored Israel even though there are many analogies in the NT between the church and Israel. Despite this weakness, Theology of the New Testament is a book well worth reading.