Should I have been a (NT) theologian?

November 23, 2009

Every once in a while one finds oneself in a situation which is so stimulating and profitable that one wishes that he had followed a different course of specialty. I’ve just had one of those moments. Thought I will not be attempting to change tracks at this late stage in the game (to mix metaphors freely!), I’ve just returned from a two and a half hour session on NT theology at SBL. This was not the typical paper-presentation session (which on average at such conferences are often not well read even if they are reasonably well written—and they aren’t always that).

No, this was a “big guns” session focusing on the release of Udo Schnelle’s NT Theology (Baker, 2009). Schnelle was present from Germany (and, BTW, the final ‘e’ is not silent) to respond to reviews of his work by James Dunn, Frank Matera, and D. A. Carson (often S, D, M, & C below). After each speaker had their 20 minutes we got to the “fun” part—a vigorous, lively discussion/debate between the four—which was quite animated at times. I’ll not attempt to retrace the entire course of the discussion, but I’ve included a few highlights below.

SBL2009_SchnellePanel.JPGLeft to right: D. A. Carson, Udo Schnelle, Frank Matera, James Dunn

I’ve not yet read Schnelle’s NTT, so I have no firsthand knowledge of it; I did buy it earlier this week, but it was shipped home with Paul on Friday along with other books that I bought so that I’d have more room in my single suitcase for more books! It’s a pretty hefty volume, though thankfully a lot less expensive than a much slimmer volume that I bought from Mohr/Siebeck today!

Dunn led off with comments on four areas in which he disagreed with Schnelle’s approach: the influence of the OT (which S apparently minimizes) on NTT, the influence of Jesus, the experience of the Spirit, and his handling of the new perspective on Paul (for which Dunn claimed to have “a paternal care”).

S’s response included these points—which are not complete or well ordered here (I’m not a good stenographer), and were not contiguous as I’ve presented them here. These “quotes” probably reflect my wording in many instances, but I think they expresses the sentiment fairly well—though obviously you’re getting them without much context. S introduced his comments with the explanation that his presentation was to be done in a “new language”: German-English! (He handled it very well.)

• NTT is a discipline which attempts to bridge the ideas of the 1st C Mediterranean world to the 21st C.

• Jesus created a “new symbolic universe.”

• I’m not asking for the real history or the real Jesus; there is no such thing; there is no “real” Jesus, only the one in the text. [That may bother some people, but his point was that we only have access to Jesus through the text—there is no other way to get past the text to something or someone behind the text.]

• We first delineate Jesus’ thought world, then that of the NT writers, so as to present the comprehensive thought world of the authors.

• The Gospels are creative transformations in response to crises in later historic times.

• There is NO unity in the theology of the NT; it is unhistorical abstraction.

• Biblical theology is not possible because the OT is silent regarding Jesus of Nazareth.*

• A resurrection from the dead cannot be integrated into any ancient system of meaning.*

• [*Both of these statements had been cited by Dunn in his critique—you should find something pretty close to them in the book—and S reaffirmed then with considerable force and deliberateness in his reply.]

• Each NT writing is an individual/independent theology; there is not NTT in the singular.

• Theological unity is alien to NT authors; that is an aesthetic concept which irons out difficulties.

• There is no “no man’s land”/neutral place to start from; we cannot break out of our own history. [i.e., be objective, avoid perspectivalism]

• The NT authors present new, attractive pictures of God.

• The NT authors DID think that they found Jesus in the OT, but they were not correct. The OT did not speak of Jesus of Nazareth.

Matera (from CUA) spoke more positively (or perhaps I should say “diplomatically”!) of S’s work, though I thought his formal critique was a bit “toothless.” He spent more time summarizing his own approach—which was not hesitant to speak of the unity of the NT. (In the later discussion, however, his critique was much more pointed and effective.)

Carson’s presentation was quite interesting in that he used several highly complimentary descriptions of Schnelle’s NTT (“magisterial,” “extraordinary achievement”), yet also was easily the most “severe” critique of his work. That suggests to me that there is more to S that I would have otherwise guessed from the presentations of the three reviewers. Until I’ve read it, I don’t know why. Carson did not elaborate on either description, but it did not appear to be “vain flattery.” C’s critique ranged over a half dozen or more points, the first several of which compared S to a rather wide ranging sampling of recent NTTs, concluding in each case that regardless of the theological perspective of their authors, that S’s work in each case seemed to be “strikingly out of step.” These areas included the NT’s relationship to the OT, the historical Jesus, and diversity in NTT. S “has made talk of unity [in NTT] pretty challenging.” C also pointed out that although the macro structure of S’s NTT appear to be framed as biblical theology (or at least, NTT), the actual organization of the chapters discussion the various parts of the NT were all arranged in systematic theology fashion, using parallel outlines of theology proper, soteriology, Christology, ecclesiology, etc. Blurring the distinctions of the two disciplines is not helpful. C also observed that S is rather “scathing” on modern agenda-driven theology [which I take to be a compliment by C]. He concluded with two major criticisms: the dismissal of eine gesamtbiblische Theologie is surprising, and there is a conspicuous lack of any exegetical discussion of how NT author’s cite/used the OT.

From the final oral discussion by all 4 speakers:

S: We must start with a hermeneutical theory. *We* are constructing a NTT; it is *our* theory of Paul’s theology. We cannot go back 2000 years and say what they thought.

C pushed S pretty hard on a perceived inconsistency in regard to epistemology: how can you be so absolute/definite on what the NT authors did NOT think/believe, yet so dismissive/skeptical of what they DID believe?

A major question debated is the place of Jesus in NTT. S and D argue that one must begin with a reconstruction of the “pre-Easter Jesus” [i.e., reconstruct this from the Gospels, etc., but figure out what Jesus really said—in contrast to what the Gospel writers put in his mouth]. M says, no, do this from the Gospels themselves, not a reconstruction distinct from the Gospels. [C agrees with M here.] C: the Gospel writers can and do give us info on the historical Jesus and explicitly distinguish between what was understood/known before and after the resurrection.

S: historically Luke was wrong [i.e., to attribute to Jesus the claim that OT prophecies referred to him].

It was quite fascinating to track the discussion at the end, especially when it moved back and forth among the presenters in both English and German, S (& sometimes C—with M and D tracking both, seemingly with equal fluency) shifting back and forth from one sentence to the next in an attempt to communicate carefully the argument being made. S would occasionally consult with C as to the best way to put a German phrase into English, and once calling on Eugene Boring, the translator of S’s NTT, in the audience for help with a particularly tricky one.

Now this potted summary doesn’t do justice to the overall discussion and is surely not entirely accurate. I scribbled as fast as I could, but then I’ve had to read those scribbles… ☺ I hope to see at least some of the reviews from tonight in print in due time. Carson’s would be particularly helpful in that regard, and Dunn’s as well. It’s a pity that the session was not recorded.

Baker Books, who sponsored the event, is to be thanked for making it possible.

Note added later: Carson’s review has since been published; it is well worth reading:

Carson, D. A.  “Review Article: Locating Udo Schnelle’s Theology of the New Testament in the Contemporary Discussion.” JETS 53.1 (March 2010): 133–41.

5 responses to Should I have been a (NT) theologian?

  1. Thanks for a glimpse of the session. I am one person that is thankful you chose the path you did. My understanding of Greek is better because of it.

  2. Thanks for scribbling and reporting. You’ve given us a nice glimpse even though it cannot possibly capture the real essence of everything that was said.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Rod. Makes me wish I could have stayed around for SBL.

  4. In developing curriculum for my kids, I’m finding that there is a lack solid resources for NT & OT Theology. Texts often jump too quickly from exegesis to systematic theology.

    Dr. Stallard often said there needs to be another level of theology between biblical and systematic. I wonder if the larger issue is the under development and/or teaching of biblical theology. I’ve heard ot biblical theology described, but never clearly taught through. I wonder, could this be BBS contribution academically?

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