The Theological Content of the New Testament
The NT itself is not a theological treatise. Yet it is a significant theological sourcebook. This significance derives from two factors: (1) the nature of the Bible, which recounts God's revelation in human history, and (2) the importance of the NT as the norm for Christian faith and practice. The NT bears witness to Jesus Christ, the revelation of God in human flesh, born to save all humankind; in addition, it is in the NT that we have reliable data for a theology deriving from Jesus and interpreting his significance.
Parts of the NT are more theological than others. (Perhaps at this point is should be recalled that the NT represents a collection of disparate materials that contain personal exchanges and historical narratives as well as sermon briefs and theological arguments.) Yet all of it is set within a theological framework: the NT is the story of Jesus Christ and the witness of the early church to the significance for all the world of his person and work. Thus, even the narrative parts serve a theological purpose. That purpose is aptly described in John 20:31: “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
The NT stands in a stream called revelatory or redemptive history. It is known in scholarly circles as Heilsgeschichte, “the history of salvation.” This history has its origins in the OT. The NT declaration of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1), i.e., the Messiah, shows its linkage to the OT as well as its sense of both historical and soteriological fulfillment.
NT theology is not a system of ideas or doctrines. It is, rather, the description and interpretation of God's saving activity in biblical history, which finds its fulfillment in the Messiah who gave his life for our redemption.
“Redemption is the divine activity whose objective is the deliverance of men, both as individuals and as a society, from their sinful predicament and their restoration to a position of fellowship and favor with God.”George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 26. The point is that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn 3:16-17).
Everything else in NT theology flows from that fact and the acknowledgment of its significance. “The Gospels record the words and works of Jesus; the Acts relates the establishment and extension of the movement set up by Jesus' ministry; the epistles explicate further the meaning of Jesus' redemptive mission; and the Revelation outlines the consummation of the redemptive work of Christ for the world and human history.”Ibid., 28.
The earliest confessions of faith centered on Jesus: “Jesus is Lord” (Ro 10:9; cf. 1Co 12:3); “Jesus is the Son of God” (1Jn 4:15; cf. Heb 4:14). A fundamental creed, predating Paul, declared “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (1Co 15:3-5).
Some of the most essential elements of NT theology are represented in this early creedal formulation. First, the theology of the NT is consistently Christocentric. Second, it accords with “the Scriptures,” i.e., the OT. Third, it is based on historical events, most notably Jesus' death and resurrection. Fourth, it consists of affirming (“on the third day”) and interpreting (“for our sins”) the meaning of these events. Such are the quintessential characteristics of “doing” NT theology today as well.
There have been in the twentieth century numerous outstanding studies of NT theology that have contributed significantly to our understanding of both its form and content. First to be mentioned are those exploring salvation history. They have illumined the relations between God and his people: history and revelation, salvation, and eschatology; the OT and the NT.
A second area that has been thoroughly researched is the Christology of the NT. Several scholars have studied the titles ascribed to Jesus, investigating their origins in the OT, their use throughout religious history, and the meaning and significance that they carry in the NT. The Christology of the gospel writers has also been examined. Their selection, ordering, and interpretation of materials influence our knowledge and understanding of Jesus. So their own perceptions of his words and work are critically important. Other scholars have focused on the theology of Jesus himself insofar as that can be ascertained from sayings attributed to him. Another approach has been the study of individual NT authors and/or books. In particular, the Christology of earliest Christian communities and of Paul have been fruitful areas of investigation. The “hymns” of the NT church (e.g., Php 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20) have also been thoroughly mined for their Christology.
A third area receiving major attention has been the teaching(s) of the NT concerning humankind. One scholar (Bultmann) organized his entire treatment of Paul's theology under two heads: “Man prior to the revelation of faith” and “Man under faith.” While this approach must be, and has been, criticized as off-center, it contributed significantly to our understanding of such topics as humankind in relation to flesh, sin, and the world; God's righteousness and reconciliation; grace and faith; freedom from sin; and walking in the Spirit. Other studies have also helped us to understand these important matters, extending the investigation to other NT materials.
Word studies represent a fourth area in which significant contributions have been made in this century. A massive ten-volume work, translated from German into English, The Theological Dictionary of the NT (TDNT) epitomized the tremendous effort modern scholars have invested in understanding the NT on its own terms. In this work, thousands of Greek word families are investigated against the background of their usage in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in extrabiblical sources; then their usage and meaning in the NT are described in some detail. Still a monumental scholarly resource, the TDNT has been replaced in evangelical circles with the Dictionary of NT Theology. This three-volume work is more accessible; its entries are in English, though the language underlying word studies is Greek.
These major works by no means exhaust the list of available resources that have been published in this century. Warner Press has published essays by evangelical Wesleyans on the following topics: salvation, the Bible, Christian ethics, the church, the Holy Spirit, and last things. The general title of this five-volume work is Wesleyan Theological Perspectives.
For the following reasons, the continuing study of NT theology is vital to the health of the modern church: (1) Bible study brings believers into direct, personal contact with the documents essential to formation of their faith; (2) the study of NT theology helps to develop perspective and balance with respect to that which is most important to Christian faith as viewed by the NT; (3) inevitably, an infusion of NT theology enriches the vocabulary of faith and broadens the categories of contemporary Christians; (4) Bible study is invigorating as it brings new vitality and freshness to the church.
Wesleyans have benefitted immeasurably from their continuing study of the Bible (as part of the tradition of Wesleyanism). Contemporary Wesleyans have also been immensely helped by scholarly contributions to NT theology in this century. However, in both areas rich treasures remain to be mined.