The Salvation Historical Fallacy?: Reassessing the History of the New Testament Theology

By Robert W. Yarbrough
Leiden : Deo Publishing (2004). Pages.

Reviewed by
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 290-293

Robert Yarbrough is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies and Department Chair at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. His previous books include The Gospel of John and Encountering the New Testament, which he co-authored with W. Elwell. The Salvation Historical Fallacy? is the culmination of Yarbrough’s reflections on “disparate interpretive strategies informing New Testament theologies,” which began through work on his doctoral thesis titled “The heilsgeschichtliche Perspective in Modern New Testament Theology.”

In the present work, Yarbrough presents a diachronic historical study of approaches to the discipline of NT theology from the early 1800s to the late 1900s. He divides NT theologians into two camps, the historical critical perspective and the salvation historical. He primarily compares and contrasts three scholars from each stream of thought. From the former he explores the epistemology, theory of history, and NT theology methodology of F. C. Baur, William Wrede, and Rudolf Bultmann. Primary adherents examined from the latter perspective are J. C. K. von Hofmann, Adolf Schlatter, and O. Cullmann.

Yarbrough concedes that the Bultmannian perspective has won the day in the majority of NT studies. Most NT theology authors view the NT from a post-Enlightenment skepticism and would see any approach to the NT that takes seriously the history of God’s saving work as recorded by the NT writers as a methodological fallacy. Yarbrough’s thesis is that while this salvation historical perspective may have been ignored and discounted, it did have its notable scholarly proponents who ably defended it and adequately critiqued the critical perspective. He seeks to represent these champions and call attention to their methods as models for future studies.

The book contains an introduction and six lengthy chapters followed by an epilogue. Chapter one sets the stage by comparing Baur’s conceptions of NT theology, epistemology, and history to those of Hofmann. Baur’s starting point for NT theology is the present contemporary perspective of German philosophy, and the NT writings are merely thoughts about things that never really happened. Yet, they provide a religious consciousness that can be explicated by the modern theologian. For Hofmann, the starting point is in the context of the early church, and he seeks to present the content of the NT.

Baur’s theory of knowledge is that man has innate ideas that reside in his religious self-consciousness. These a priori elements are what the modern interpreter will find in the NT, since it is presupposed that these same dynamics gave rise to the biblical expressions. Conversely, Hofmann has no pre-commitment to an epistemology in approaching the NT. He wants to let the texts speak for themselves.

As for the history of the NT, Baur believes that critical thinking stemming from this epistemology can produce an explanation for why the NT writers expressed themselves the way they did. Miracles and divine revelation can be rejected as the cause and substituted by the latent ultimate realities that were unfolding in the minds of the writers. Hofmann counters with a salvation history that views the NT as the record of a sovereign God participating in the everyday lives of His people to fulfill prophecy and act decisively in Jesus toward a culmination of all things.

Chapter two continues the contrast of approaches by juxtaposing William Wrede with Adolf Schlatter. Again the comparisons are made along lines of the concept of NT theology, epistemology, and view of history. Wrede’s concept of NT theology, like Baur, focuses on what supposedly accounts for the authors’ production of the NT rather than the texts themselves. Yet Wrede strives for the history of religion behind the text rather than Baur’s ideals. Schlatter on the other hand presents NT theology as simply “seeing what is there.”

Wrede’s epistemology presupposes that certain elements and values are normative from a history of religion, which must serve as the grid for the NT to be evaluated. What texts can signify is predetermined. Schlatter objects to this constraint and wants instead to be open to having his conceptions of the NT determined by the testimony of the N T itself.

As for NT history, Wrede views the NT as only concerned with theology, not history. He rejects the OT as primary background for NT interpretation and makes it dependent upon the modern critical perspective. Revelation in the past is rejected. Schlatter’s view of history is that God actively works and has worked in history and that the data of biblical history cannot be explained without the perspective testified to by the NT writers.

In chapter three, Yarbrough traces the way various OT and N T theologians “adapted, modified, and rearticulated” (163) salvation historical views to continue the heritage. Men like Schrenk, Weth, Piper, Dodd, Wendland, Stauffer, Goppelt, and Hunter in various ways contributed to the promulgation of the salvation historical perspective. Biblical theology between the wars was divided between the history of religions school and those who saw Scripture testifying to a God who reveals Himself through “historically discerned acts and words” (164).

After World War II a biblical theology movement emerged. Yarbrough discusses the relationship of the salvation historical perspective to this movement in chapter four. Here he interacts with Childs, Pfeiffer, and Filson to show how phrases such as “revelation of God in history” and “unity of the Bible” were used by those whose presuppositions destroyed the very concepts; yet properly defined, these concepts emerged unscathed. He deals with other theologians like Eichrodt and von Rad and concludes that while the biblical theology movement did emphasize revelation in history, it failed to affirm that the acts of God as recorded in Scripture were actual concrete events.

Chapter five takes up the study of Oscar Cullmann and his approach to NT theology. He starts with objective exegesis of the text and focuses on eschatology and the centrality of Jesus Christ in the overall plan of God. Yarbrough shows how Bultmann’s critique of Cullmann deterred him from gaining much of a following, yet popularity does not negate the fact that, in Yarbrough’s view, his perspective of salvation history is indispensible for NT theology.

In the final chapter, Yarbrough shows how Bultmann’s assault of Cullmann coincided with the pessimism wrought by World War II to nearly bury the salvation historical perspective. Yarbrough uses Albertz and Goppelt to interact with Bultmann and again takes up discussion of views of epistemology, history, and NT theology. Though these theologians did not unseat Bultmannian thinking in the universities of Germany, they did provide salvation historical alternatives for future students of NT theology to take up.

Yarbrough concludes the study with six reasons to suspect that the salvation historical alternative will continue to find support, summarized as follows: internal conflicts between critical schools of thought, the shift to postmodernism, the power of the gospel witness itself, the positive connection between the testaments and the positive role for NT theology in other disciplines, its use for the church, and divine grace.

This book is an important read for anyone who is going to practice biblical theological methodology. It also will serve well in any advanced theological education. It gives a good introduction to the history of NT theology studies of the period it covers. However, readers need to have a good background in higher criticism and philosophies like German Idealism, Hegelianism, Kantianism, Cartesian thought, as well as biblical theological methods. Yarbrough displays amazing knowledge of his field and although his writing is tedious and dry at times, the summary sections and logical progressions of thought keep the dedicated reader tuned in.

As the disparate approaches are contrasted, most readers interested in how this impacts biblical theology will yearn for scriptural examples, yet there are very few. This reviewer feels that the work could use greater editing to remove many redundancies, correct typos, and cull the overuse of words like “repristinate.”

Yarbrough is to be commended for compiling and distilling so much information germane to the history of NT theology. It is a fine survey of biblical theology from Gabler to the present and an equally impressive rescue of overlooked biblical theologians and a perspective that must not be forgotten. The committed reader will be sure to grow through interaction with German philosophy, higher criticism, and evaluations of methods and theologians as they consider the enduring value of the salvation historical approach to Scripture guided by the able hand of Robert Yarbrough. In adopting this approach they will be guided in a greater way by the God who acts and speaks in history as they meditate upon His Word focused upon His Son Jesus Christ.