The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/New Testament Theology

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NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY, that branch of theological science which has for its peculiar task to state, arrange and compare the theological doctrines and conceptions found in the New Testament. While it might be combined with Old Testament theology under the name Biblical theology, yet the differences in dates, language, style and contents between the Old Testament and the New are such that their respective theologies have usually been treated separately, although their methods are necessarily identical. It is also possible to state the doctrinal teachings and theological conceptions of any individual author and even those found in any single work of any author, and such contributions to Biblical theology have often proved exceedingly valuable; but the historic unity of the New Testament renders it practically important that the teachings and views of the various New Testament authors should be so presented and compared as to give but a single impression of the whole.

Character and Relations. — New Testament theology is strictly a historical science, neither attacking nor defending the conceptions which it finds, but merely stating, arranging and comparing them. As a historical science it is connected with Ecclesiastical History and might be considered the first volume of the History of Christian Doctrine. But it demands such a mastery of the results of the sciences of Isagogics and Exegesis, on which it depends, that it is usually associated rather with interpretation, of which it might be reckoned the crown. It also presupposes and builds upon Old Testament history and the history of the world in New Testament times, and in its turn it provides much material for Dogmatics.

History. — The name Biblical Theology, which had earlier been employed to designate such a system of dogmatics as was based upon the Scriptures rather than upon either creeds or reason, was first used in its modern sense by Gabler in 1787, since which time the science in its application both to the Old Testament and the New has gradually developed. The first American work in the sphere of New Testament theology was published in 1870, and the first lectures in any American theological school are said to have been given in 1883. Since then it has received a steadily increasing amount of attention.

Difficulties. — The task of the New Testament theologian presents peculiar difficulties. It is impossible for him to increase the amount of the material with which he deals, however helpful for supplementing or verifying his conclusions such increase might be. All expression of thought is defective, and most of all is this true in theology, where upon words derived from the earthly and the human is laid the burden of declaring the heavenly and the divine. Further, the teachings to be considered come in a form due to ancient ages, tongues and conditions, and accordingly accurately and adequately to restate in modern form thoughts which have thus come down in ancient garb cannot be easy. Then, since with few exceptions the theological thoughts contained in the New Testament found expression solely for ends then immediately practical, it follows that the statements are often partial and incomplete, and the emphasis upon certain aspects of truth is only relative, and these statements must be read with constant reference to the thought of the age and the details of the local situation to which they belong. Hence only with difficulty can the incomplete expressions of practical religious thought be fitted together to reconstitute such systems of doctrine as may be credibly attributed to the various New Testament authors.

Grouping of the Books. — There is general agreement as to the grouping of the New Testament books according to the types of thought which they exemplify. The teaching of Jesus demands attention first, if not as a standard for the rest or as of superior authoritativeness, as at any rate prior in time to the other New Testament teachings and as presupposed by them. The records of Christ's teaching are necessarily subdivided into the Synoptic and Johannine reports. The second group of documents represents the type of Christian thought which developed among Christians of Hebrew descent and consists of the first part of the book of Acts, the letters of James and Jude, the two letters of Peter (which, however, show that there had been a development considerably beyond the primitive conceptions current in the Church), and such traces of apostolic or other early doctrine as may be noted in the Gospels. In the Pauline section the Epistles attributed to this Apostle fall naturally into four groups, which differ in theme and matter as well as in date and style. If any of these letters should not be held to be Pauline in origin, they are yet so distinctly in harmony with Paul's views that this would not change their place in the general classification, while the Epistle to the Hebrews is a natural pendant to the writings of Paul. The fourth group of New Testament writings consists of the books attributed to the Apostle John, consisting of his letters, of so much of the Fourth Gospel as is not the teaching of Christ and of the Revelation.

Teaching of Jesus in the Synoptics. — In the Synoptic reports Jesus began his teaching by echoing the proclamation of his forerunner, John the Baptist: "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." While from the beginning of this preaching he seems to have recognized that he himself was to be the head of the promised kingdom, yet his own conception of the character and work of the Messiah was so different from the popular conception, so much loftier and purer, that he could not present himself at once and unreservedly as the Coming King, for, had he immediately and unmistakably advanced his claim, political enthusiasm would have forestalled religious faith, and even on the part of true followers earthly ideals, expectations and plans would have obscured and neutralized heavenly, as, indeed, to some extent actually occurred in spite of caution and reserve. The name kingdom of heaven or of God, however, remained prominent throughout the teaching of Jesus, but in the latter part of it with an altered meaning. Convinced that he had nothing to hope from the leaders of the nation or the people whom they controlled for the kingdom of prophecy, which was intended to reach its spiritual ends through a local, national, political organization, Jesus necessarily substituted individual submission to the sovereignty of God, and retaining the name without the form, the kingdom which he strove to establish became in his teaching universal and spiritual.

While the state of individuals and society which he would establish thus took a new form in consequence of his rejection by his nation, the conditions of entrance, as well as the ultimate ends to be attained, remain unchanged. The first demand upon each and all is for repentance. As a morally transformed and thus fit nation should have met its King come at last, so only a soul turned from evil to good can receive the spiritual blessings which Jesus bestows. More and more clearly as antagonism gave renewed opportunity, Jesus denounced sin and demanded from all without exception penitence and reformation, although in serene consciousness of sinlessness he ever held himself apart from all confession of any evil on his own part.

With repentance as a reversal of moral tendency must come acceptance of himself as Supreme Master and absolute submission to him. His demand for self-denial is a demand for complete self-abjuration; his invitation, “Come unto Me,” is not only an invitation, but no less the presentation of himself to the world as the one fountain of spiritual blessing; to receive him he says is to receive God himself, and personal service to him is regarded as proof of sins forgiven; devotion beyond all other loves is required, and so absolutely supreme is the relation of the soul to him that on confession or denial of him he makes the issues of the future life to hinge. This relation is made still more significant by the few but clear and emphatic teachings as to his death, by virtue of which as a ransom salvation would be rendered possible for men.

The fourth element in the teaching of Jesus which the Synoptists record relates to God. This teaching is almost never metaphysical, only religious and practical. The chief thought in it is God's love. This love, which exceeds that of any earthly father for his child, is shown in the rising of the sun on the evil and the good alike and the coming of the rain on both just and unjust, and in care for sparrows, ravens and lilies, and finds its crown of perfectness in kindness to the unworthy. The climax of this teaching appears in the parables about rescue of the lost, in the third of which, usually called the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” this tender love of God is so winningly presented that it has given a very common name for the love of God, so that all Christ's teaching is said by many to he dominated by the thought of God's “Fatherhood,” a view which should be so held as to include the other conceptions of Jesus as to God's special relation of fatherhood to believers and his unique fatherhood to Christ himself.

Teaching of Jesus According to John. — In the Gospel of John the teaching of Jesus is presented with a superficial dissimilarity at first sight striking, but in essential consistency with the Synoptic reports. As the place of the ministry reported is largely the city of Jerusalem instead of the open country of Galilee, as we have often hostile Pharisees for interlocutors instead of disciples for reverent auditors, so of the four chief elements of the Synoptic teaching, the Kingdom, Repentance and Faith, his own unique supremacy and the fatherly Love of God, the kingdom is scarcely mentioned, repentance is ignored and faith given a different aspect and the paternal kindness of God is much less emphasized, while Jesus insists even more upon his own pre-eminence and shows it in new lights.

The two foci of the teaching reported in the Fourth Gospel are, as might be expected from the author's own statement of his purpose as stated at the end of his writing, the deity of Christ and the duty of Faith. All the discourses in the Gospel are selected with a view to showing Christ's self-revelation to the world on the one hand and to his disciples on the other. While his Messiahship is not here emphasized, there is presented instead a conception of a sonship based on a unique unity with God, combined with hints of pre-existence, suggestions and implications of divinity and, finally, a welcome by Jesus to the assertion of his deity.

The proper relation on the part of his disciples, and, indeed, of all men, toward this personality who thus presents himself is not mere acceptance of statements about him and of truths relating to him, but further spiritual union with him by entering into relations to him, appropriation, in a word.

Judaic Teaching. — The earliest Apostolic teaching and the type of doctrine which seems long to have prevailed among the churches which were of Judaic origin and cast was only to a very slight degree dogmatic and brought on no enlarged or corrected doctrines touching the nature of God or the character of men. Indeed, no New Testament authors ever approach these themes as if intending to communicate fresh truth, but rather to confirm and apply truth already commonly apprehended. The chief thought of the primitive Church was the place and rank of Jesus, and here even the earliest teaching of the Apostles is developed in many respects beyond that of Jesus himself, a fact which is not surprising when it is remembered on the one hand that we cannot rightfully suppose that he exhausted the contents of his consciousness in even his frankest disclosures to his disciples, and on the other hand he himself promised that the guidance of the Spirit whom he would send from God would result in larger knowledge than his own instructions had brought. While the name of the kingdom is dropped at once and permanently out of use, at the same time the Messiahship of Jesus is asserted, and it is insisted upon that by his coming forth from the tomb re-embodied, which was the resurrection to which his Apostles testified, his Messiahship and Lordship were fully confirmed. While it was constantly recognized that Jesus was no less man than other men, he was regarded as distinguished from other men, not only by his character of unique holiness, but also by his Messianic rank which gave him universal sovereignty and Lordship and, further, he was given the title Lord, which had been a familiar substitute for the most sacred of all the divine names. Theological discussions as to the nature, basis and conditions of salvation are not to be expected in such documents as represent Judaic Christianity, but it is plain that it was thought of as release alike from the consequences and the power of sin, provided, especially in the former aspect, by the death of Christ, and to be obtained by repentance.

Pauline Teaching. — The teachings of Paul are much fuller than those of the other Apostles, and in many places, owing to the doctrinal controversies which evoked them, they approach somewhat closely to dogmatic form, while such was the diversity of the occasions out of which the letters arose and of the situations of their first readers, that they cover nearly the whole field of Christian thought. Paul's conceptions of the nature and attributes of God, of his sovereignty and his love, and of the ruined condition of sinful men, while frequently brought out with great distinctness, were in no sense peculiar to himself. His special topics are, besides the rank of Christ, his saving work, the duty of man in relation to it and the activity of the Holy Spirit in completing it. While Paul implies a general knowledge of the life and teachings of Jesus, he looked to Christ as far transcending in nature and rank what might be inferred from these facts. In Paul's mind the unique fact of the resurrection of Jesus at once certified to his unique nature and relation to God and opened to him the way to supreme exaltation and universal dominion which would become fully his when he should return in glory to earth. He shared the divine essence; in his activities before his birth of a woman he created the universe and continues to uphold it, and to him worship is rightfully paid. The life and especially the death of Jesus were a part of the divine plan for the rescue of men from the state into which their sin had brought them. The death of Christ was clearly set forth by Paul as provided in the love of God as a basis indispensably prerequisite for the favorable treatment which he gives to every penitent: the blood of Christ was to Paul the ransom and propitiation by virtue of which redemption and reconciliation are secured for men. Paul was led by controversy to insist with peculiar urgency that Divine forgiveness and favor are conditioned on faith alone, that is, that salvation does not primarily depend on the behavior of a man, but on his acceptance of God's gracious gift, but while faith alone is the condition of entrance on the Christian's state, yet the Christian life in its ideal involves nothing less than the perfect performance of every duty and this ideal is practically attained only by the aid and power of the Holy Spirit, whom he regards as possessing personal, divine attributes, who is imparted to every believer and permanently dwells in him.

Teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews. — The letter to the Hebrews makes no contribution of special novelty to the theology of the New Testament. While somewhat unlike the thought of Paul in that it presents the Mosaic system as helpful preparatory to Christianity which supersedes it, the views which it presents of the transcendent rank and sacrificial death of Christ are in fullest harmony with Paul's. That Christ is a “high priest,” that is, a representative of men before God, and that faith is an unyielding grasp on the invisible, are thoughts which are peculiar to the author of this Epistle.

Johannine Teaching. — The teachings of John relate themselves proportionally more to God himself than those of any other New Testament teacher, but his conceptions of the deity, like theirs, are mainly dynamic and ethical, rather than metaphysical. His thought seems to sum itself up in three words, life, light and love, which suggest that God is the constant source of all power and joy; that he is spotlessly holy and tends unceasingly to manifest himself as such in and to his universe, and that his most central, essential and characteristic attribute is kindness and beneficence, unceasing and all-embracing. In the teaching of John the eternal Logos, or expression of God, became incarnate in Jesus, and thus presents God to men; and in turn by his death he became the “propitiation” in virtue of which forgiveness is promised on condition of penitence and confession. The privilege and duty of Christians is fellowship with God, that is, by refraining from all sin to share his spotless holiness.

Bibliography. — Adeney, W. F., ‘The Theology of the New Testament’; Bevschlag, W., ‘New Testament Theology’; Bovon, J., ‘Theologie du Nouveau Testament’; Estes, D. F., ‘An Outline of New Testament Theology’; Gould, E. P., ‘The Biblical Theology of the New Testament’; Holtzmann, H. J., ‘Lehrbuch der neutestamentlichen Theologie’; Stevens, G. B., ‘The Theology of the New Testament’; Weiss, B., ‘Biblical Theology of the New Testament’

David Foster Estes,
Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Colgate University.