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1. Introduction to Theological Development in the New Testament

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October 2008


One of the typical chasms between conservative and liberal New Testament scholarship is over theological development within the canon. Generally speaking, more liberal1 scholarship has seen extensive theological development while more conservative scholarship has seen little to none. Part of the reason for this disparity is related to the range of dates assumed for the various books. Conservatives tend to place all the NT writings within the first century, while liberals tend to put some of the books in the second century. The further to the left of the theological aisle one sits, the more books he or she considers to be pseudonymous; conversely, the further to the right one sits, the more books he or she considers to be actually authored by the purported author. The timeframe in which the books were written is thus perceived differently and colors the way in which a particular scholar may view the amount of theological development.

This goes back to F. C. Baur, the Tübingen scholar who, in the mid-19th century, applied Hegelian dialectic to the NT. He saw the Petrine school and the Pauline school as opposed to one another and saw the synthesis that emerged between the two schools as occurring well into the second century. Thus, he regarded Acts as a synthesis of the two schools and John, too, dating the latter to sometime after 160 CE. He embraced only four letters of the corpus Paulinum as authentic: Galatians, 1–2 Corinthians, and Romans (known collectively to this day as the Hauptbriefe or main letters). The Religionsgeschichtliche Schule which was hitting its stride at the beginning of the 20th century systematically applied Baur’s overarching thesis to the NT and concluded that Christology, inter alia, was altered significantly from the early days of the Christian faith till the time of the second-century church. Wilhelm Boussett’s Kurios Christos is the preeminent example of this approach.

By contrast, conservatives tended to make a guilt-by-association judgment on any who would see theological development within the NT. Often, conservatives are suspicious of any view that sees, say, a high Christology as something that was not consciously embraced on the day of Pentecost, or a viewpoint that does not see a consciously-formed and articulated high pneumatology within the pages of the NT.

The list of theological areas in which this chasm exists could be multiplied: bibliology (especially canonicity), soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, etc. In all of these areas, as well as scores more,2 there is a general tendency in one group to see theological development and in another to see status quo. The counter to Baur’s extremism is found in the (often subconscious) view that Paul’s soteriology was exactly as Luther found it or that the Chalcedonian definition of 451 CE was clearly in the minds of the apostles.

One of the reasons why many conservatives have resisted the idea of theological development is simply that they view such a notion in terms of evolutionary development in which an original construct morphs into something entirely different. With quite a bit of justification, they have been resistant to seeing, for example, Christological development along these lines,3 for it would imply that Jesus the man was not God in the flesh but became, in the minds of the early Christians, deified. But one of the nagging issues is whether all such development must be seen in this way. Is it not possible that theological development can occur within the NT in terms of understanding and articulation without being a development in terms of macro-evolutionary alteration? It is this issue that we will explore.

At the outset, it is important to ask three questions.4

  1. Can there be progressive revelation within the New Testament?
  2. How does one biblical author learn about the new insights of a previous author?
  3. Is progressive revelation always linear? That is, are the later revelations always the most advanced?

We will not address all of these questions yet, but they should be in the back of our minds as we wrestle with the various issues related to theological development in the NT. We will, however, mull over the first question in this essay.

This first question presupposes that we already embrace theological development between the Testaments. This is something that is easy to demonstrate, and will take up no more time here.5 However, this raises a very significant point: If it is true that there is theological development between the testaments, then we can have no theological argument against theological development within the NT.

Any arguments against this supposition must be other than theological, for otherwise we have become marcionite in our bibliology. That is, if a high bibliology allows progressive revelation between the OT and the NT, and even allows it within the OT, to deny it within the NT on theological grounds is to become bibliologically schizophrenic. Any arguments against this must be founded on other pillars.

It should be noted that I am speaking to those who have a high bibliology in the first place. In other words, I am speaking to theological conservatives. It is not necessary to address theological liberals at this stage since they already embrace theological development (but of a macro-evolutionary kind, which I am not arguing for). My argument here is simply that a conservative cannot maintain the argument that theological development within the NT is against his or her bibliological convictions because that person already embraces theological development between the Testaments. Thus, if the whole Bible is treated as the inspired text, a revelation from God, or canonical, then any bibliological arguments against NT theological development end up being bibliological arguments against any theological development within the Bible. And since the latter cannot be affirmed, neither can the former.

What other reasons are there for denying intra-NT theological development, then? The fundamental reason that is usually put forth is historical. The NT was written over a period of no more than about half a century—and covering a period of no more than a hundred years, while the OT took over a millennium to produce. Thus, to argue for theological development in the OT is both reasonable and necessary, while in the NT it is neither. The timeframe of the NT is too collapsed to allow for theological development.

One irony in this historical argument is that it is sometimes found on the lips of modern-day theologians—theologians who have witnessed more technological progress in their lifetime than the previous twenty centuries of theologians combined! Knowledge is doubling so fast nowadays that printed encyclopedias have become obsolete. I submit that what the 20th and now the 21st century was to technology, the first century CE was to theology. In the history of mankind, what could be more cataclysmic, more revolutionary, than the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of the theanthropic Person? The Christ-event is the middle point in all of history, as Conzelmann so eloquently noted in his Die Mitte der Zeit.6 All that came before anticipates it; all that comes after builds on it. Suffice it to say for now that the historical argument against intra-NT theological development does not seem to do justice to the monumental revelatory significance of Jesus of Nazareth.

But the greater irony is that those who argue against theological development within the NT actually assume something much more radical than what I am proposing. They assume that all the theological development from the OT to the NT has occurred already before the first books of the NT were penned. What I am proposing is that we can trace out the lines of development within the text of the NT to some degree and thus such development was not a done deal prior to the penning of the first books.

To conclude this introduction, I want to clarify what I am and am not affirming.

First, I hold to a high bibliology—that is, I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. I confess verbal-plenary inspiration and embrace both infallibility and inerrancy.

Second, I believe that the NT is the final revelation of God in terms of a revelation for all his people. That is, whether there is the prophetic gift today is not what I am speaking against (or for): the final revelation for the invisible church is found in the NT. Nothing after the completion of the NT can add to the foundation of our credo.

Third, in agreement with Alister McGrath (The Genesis of Doctrine), I would affirm that all of the elements for sound theology are found within the Bible, but that this does not mean that they have necessarily been put together in the articulated theological affirmations that would come later. Thus, all the ingredients for a Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead, for example, are to be found within the Bible, but this does not mean that the apostles necessarily ‘cooked up’ such ingredients into such an understanding. But it does mean that the post-apostolic church has no right to add any ingredients to the deposit of revelation that is the NT. The sufficiency of scripture and the revelatory status of the text argues that there is a great divide between the apostles and the apostolic fathers, as the latter admitted.

Fourth, the NT books were written for ad hoc reasons and were not originally intended to be systematic treatises of major theological issues, created in a historical vacuum. Thus, although we can extract theological definitions and beliefs from the NT, to approach the NT without regard for chronology is to miss, to some degree, what it is saying.

Fifth, I believe that Baur and the History of Religions School were on to something when they applied the Hegelian dialectic to the NT. That is to say, the theological development that they saw was not all wrong. Nor is seeing no theological development all wrong. I think there is a tertium quid that takes into account the data as they are given to us in their historical contexts and formulates such data into meaningful theological statements.

With such lofty beginnings, one might assume that the several essays on this topic that are to follow will be covering rather vast topics, or making remarkable and controversial statements. If you assume that, you’ll be let down immediately. I will be focusing on various themes, issues, concepts, expressions, phrases, words, metaphors. At times, a particular essay will be dealing with minutiae—but minutiae that are often overlooked by one’s predisposition to see a flatline development in the NT. But in the end, I hope to construct a building that is solidly based on the data and engages some of the larger issues in the theology of the NT. I must also confess to one of my objectives in this study. To borrow a phrase from Dr. David Scholer, this series of essays is intended, in part, to dispose of any notions of a docetic bibliology. Just as it is possible to hold to a high Christology without being a docetist, so also it is possible to hold to a high bibliology without seeing the Bible as only the Word of God. To read the NT in its historical context, then, down to the level of when each of the books was written, and to trace out themes and concepts chronologically, is not only justified but necessary.

1 For the reader, I should define what I mean by ‘liberal’: the litmus test for liberal theology, in my view, is the bodily resurrection of the theanthropic person. A ‘conservative’ embraces such, while a ‘liberal’ does not. To be sure, not all define the two groups this way, but I think it is helpful to make this distinction for it focuses on the great miracle of the NT as the watershed issue. Bound up in this definition are implicitly Christological and soteriological views. That some conservatives assume that ‘liberal’ means a denial of inerrancy, the authenticity of 2 Peter, the virgin birth, or even dispensationalism (and sometimes a certain form of dispensationalism!) is the result of a rather narrow theological perspective due to a rather narrow engagement with others of a different persuasion. At the same time, when I speak of ‘more liberal’ or ‘more conservative’ I mean that one is tending toward one realm or another. There is a pattern of viewpoints usually found in conservative schools and a pattern of viewpoints usually found in liberal schools of thought. Although the stereotyping of these two approaches can be easily misunderstood, I trust that the reader will realize that I am using these labels for convenience’ sake as a way to get a handle on the issues. It should be noticed as well that I do not like to use the term ‘critical’ for the view that is to the left of conservative, because I believe any good scholar will be a critical scholar—that is, he or she will wrestle with the historical, grammatical, sociological, textual, and lexical data from the perspective of a scientific investigator who is seeking the truth. A non-critical approach simply assumes a position then seeks evidence that will support it. There are uncritical liberal ‘scholars’ just as there are uncritical conservative ‘scholars.’

2 I have used systematic categories above, but only because they require less explanation. But on a biblical-theological level and especially a notional/lexical level, the possibility of theological development occurs scores of times in the NT.

3 See the introductory chapter in C. F. D. Moule, Origin of Christology (1977), for a helpful clarification on the difference between evolutionary development and development of growth or understanding (as in the development of a seed into a flower).

4 The following material is adapted from my paper, “Is Intra-Canonical Theological Development Compatible with a High Bibliology?” (a paper delivered at the southwestern regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Criswell College, Dallas, 1 March 2002).

5 See ibid.

6 Hans Conzelmann, Die Mitte der Zeit: Studien zur Theologie des Lukas (Tübingen: Mohr, 1960). The English translation of this work follows the subtitle, The Theology of St Luke.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Theology

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