Mar 2008

KEDS Tutor Andy Cheung interviewed New Testament scholar Tom Schreiner (professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) on his forthcoming book, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ.

Andy Cheung: Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about yourself?

Tom Schreiner: I grew up as a Catholic in the state of Oregon, the sixth of eight children, but in my teenage years I lost all interest in religion. As a Catholic I just didn't hear the gospel well. I was converted when I was 17 through a number of factors including the person who is now my wife! I immediately felt called to ministry.

Later, I went to a Baptist seminary to study for my Masters and then I did my PhD at Fuller Seminary under Donald Hagner. Don is a very insightful scholar, and it was an honour to work under him. He has been very supportive of me over the years. I then taught at Azusa Pacific for three years until 1986. I then taught at Bethel Theological Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota until 1997. Since then, I've been at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

I'm married with four children: Daniel, Patrick, John and Anna. They are a great delight of course!

Let's talk about your next book titled, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Can you tell us about the aims or purposes of the book?

My purpose is really to assist pastors and students understand the New Testament as a whole. My purpose wasn't to try to offer some new kind of discovery or theory regarding New Testament Theology. Instead, I felt there was a need for a textbook that focused thematically on the message of the New Testament as a whole.

I've been a preaching pastor for 11 years at Clifton Baptist Church. I hope my academic work is shaped by my pastoral ministry. Good academic work is crucial but my aim is that it will have an impact on the church so that too was one of my purposes. I would hope that those who read it would be moved to praise God for his saving work in Jesus Christ and that those who read it would see that the New Testament calls upon us to give our lives unreservedly to Jesus Christ. Our God is to be trusted, for he fulfills his saving promises.

What do you mean by a 'thematic' approach?

In examining the New Testament, I try to locate the major themes, subjects, areas of interest to the writers. I'm not just restricting myself to one writer such as Matthew. I'm looking at what they share in common and how they cross-fertilise each other. So naturally one of the themes that is common is Christology. Hence, a huge part of my book is on what God has done through Christ. Another major theme that informs the whole of the New Testament is salvation history.

So when we do a thematic New Testament theology, we try to discern what subjects or themes are held in common by all writers, as well as where the emphases are different. My goal is to say something about the unique contributions of the writers as well but that's not my focus. Of course the danger of a thematic approach is that you will have skipped over some of the distinctives of the various authors. On the other hand, the strength of the approach is that it helps us to see the whole of the New Testament message. We need to observe the central themes in the documents themselves.

A number of other theologies are written book by book. Do you like that approach?

The works by Howard Marshall and Frank Thielman are both outstanding pieces of work. Their approach is different from mine: both looked at New Testament theology book by book which is a fine way to go about it - you can discover things going book by book that you don't discover going thematically.

I would argue that there is no one right way of doing a New Testament theology. We can do it from many different perspectives and find it illuminating. I think a book by book approach is a helpful approach. In fact, if there were many New Testament theologies out there that were thematic, I would probably do one that was book by book to fill a gap. Still, the advantage of a thematic approach is that it can help you see the whole and in my approach I tried to answer the question of what the most important issues for the writers themselves are, but I don't think that excludes other approaches nor does it diminish the value of them. The weakness of a book by book approach is that one may not really have a New Testament theology, but a theology of Matthew, Mark, etc.

Can you explain what we mean by the term 'New Testament theology' as opposed to, for example, systematic theology?

Well systematic theology looks at the canon as a whole from an atemporal perspective. That is, systematic theology does not necessarily look at the progress specifically of revelation and the historical meaning of the documents. Systematic theology, of course, is informed by biblical theology, and any good systematic theologian takes that into account. Biblical theology, however, intentionally locates itself in the story line of the Bible, and attempts to discern the interests of the writers themselves. So, for example, Luke is interested in what we do with our money. Such a topic is rarely tackled in a systematic theology, but in a biblical theology we pay heed to Luke's intention. Perhaps another way of saying it is that if I were doing a whole biblical theology I would try to charter the biblical story line from Genesis through Revelation. I'm restricting myself to New Testament theology so I don't engage in that gargantuan task!

Systematic theology will also consider church history and philosophy but that's not the task of New Testament Theology. We wouldn't for example in New Testament theology look specifically at the views of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and others. A good systematic theologian of course would consider the views of others in the historical tradition of Christian theology

You've previously written a book on Pauline theology titled, Paul, Apostle of God's Glory in Christ. Is your new book on New Testament theology a follow up on that?

I wanted to write a Pauline theology first since I had done so much work in Paul, and because there was so much to say just on Paul. I thought it would be a good foundation before writing a NT theology. Incidentally, when I wrote New Testament Theology, I didn't look at my Pauline theology book except for in a few cases which I note in the new book. I just wrote it fresh because I didn't want to be distracted by what I had written before. Comparing the two, in my new book, I spent more time looking at secondary sources.

As you wrote this new book, were some aspects harder to deal with than others? I assume the Pauline sections were more straightforward?

I think just in terms of research, it was the gospels. I haven't written a commentary on the gospels and there is so much written but I really did a lot of reading on the literature and that personally was one of the most rewarding things. There are so many monographs that are enormously helpful and I was struck by how many helpful dissertations are out there as well as commentaries of course.

One of the most frustrating aspects of writing this theology was in terms of the Synoptics and Luke-Acts. For example, should I write about the Son of Man in Matthew and then Mark and then Luke or should I synthesise? Or should I put Luke with other Synoptics or should I look at Luke-Acts together? One person I asked about this said you have to do it all! Well I don't have space to do that, I would have to write to 2000-3000 pages! So that was one of the frustrating things, having to make decisions like that.

I don't know if you've read my preface, but I don't think anyone can write a totalising New Testament theology. It's not humanly possible to grasp the depth and breadth of the subject. So for example I covered the Son of Man synthetically - I didn't separate it out for Matthew, Mark and Luke. I did that basically for all the Christological aspects but for the Holy Spirit, I put Luke-Acts together.

Let me pick up on your comment about not using your Pauline theology when writing your new book. You state in the introduction that you were very careful to anchor your analysis in the New Testament and not (initially at least) draw from the works of other people.

Let me clarify a little bit more because naturally I stand in the debt of many throughout history. When I was a seminary student in my first summer I read George Eldon Ladd's A Theology of the New Testament, and that had a huge impact on me. It was so helpful in enabling me to understand the New Testament as a whole and I think anybody who reads my theology will see that the "already not yet" theme that Ladd proposes has played a major role in my thinking of the New Testament.

When I say that I didn't look at others, of course I'm not saying that I'm not influenced by others. I mean that in writing I didn't consciously use others but nevertheless I have been influenced by so many. I've done a lot of reading on Paul over the years and that comes through in my writing. The other writer who comes to mind is N. T. Wright. Although I have differences with him on things such as the New Perspective on Paul, I have really profited from his work. I think Wright's core understanding of the story of the Bible as a whole is enormously helpful and insightful.

Let's consider two things that you focus upon in your book. The first is the theme of magnifying God and the second is the theme of salvation history. Taking the first of these, what do you mean when you say, "the New Testament is radically God-centred"?

What I mean by that is that the New Testament's ultimate aim is to lift us up into God's presence so that the purpose of the New Testament is not merely intellectual but is doxological, that we will glorify, honour, and praise God for his saving work in Christ. I have 10 plus chapters on the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit but the majority focus on Jesus Christ, for the person of Christ is central in the NT witness. My book is subtitled, Magnifying God in Christ because that is the interest of the New Testament writers themselves. It seems obvious, but if we don't centre on what God has done in Christ through the Spirit, then our NT theology does not accord with the documents themselves. Our first task is not to be creative, but as Schlatter said to observe the subject matter before us, to try to see in depth what is laid before us in the New Testament.

Do I detect some influence here from Dr John Piper?

John has had a huge influence on me - I was in John's Church for 11 years and he's a good friend and I heard John exposit the Scriptures year after year and I am convinced that he is on target so yes I credit John in my Pauline theology and also my Romans commentary. I am so grateful for his ministry and his influence on me.

You state that, "the focus of New Testament theology is the supremacy of God in Christ." I understand there's been some criticism of your position that God seeks to bring glory to himself. How would you respond to that?

Yes, there has been criticism of that. Some think this is a wrong way of speaking about God and that it depicts him as selfish. But we must start first and foremost with exegesis and not our own conceptions. We must observe what is before us. In text after text after text we see that God's glory in Christ is paramount. Note that in the great Philippian hymn of Phil 2:6-11 that Christ's ministry, death, and exaltation bring glory to God the Father. Or, we can think of texts like Ephesians 1, or John 17, or the Lord's Prayer. In every case we see that God's aim is to glorify and honour himself.  Three times we are told in Ephesians that God chose us to the praise of the glory of his grace. Jesus tells us in John 17 that the purpose of his ministry was to glorify the Father. Jesus instructed us to pray, "Hallowed by thy name." 

God aims to glorify himself but he does so through the saving work of Christ, by loving and delivering us. We glorify God when we delight in him and trust in him. Yes, there is more than a hint of John Piper there, but we find the same themes in Augustine, Edwards, and many others. We must remember that God is the Lord. He is a transcendent God and we must beware of inverting the image (so to speak) so that we read God through our own lenses and our own experiences.

Let's talk about the second major theme in the book: the perspective of salvation history, sometimes called the "already not yet" paradigm. Can you explain what we mean by salvation history?

Another term for it of course is redemptive history. What I had in mind especially when I think of the kingdom of God or this age and the age to come, is that when we read the Old Testament story, the world is plunged into sin and curse and death and that God promises in the history of salvation to redeem his people, to bring in his kingdom. I think this is described in a lot of different ways in the Old Testament such as a new exodus or in terms of a new creation or a new covenant.

This is picked up in the New Testament with the language of the kingdom of God and my argument is that those saving promises of God are fulfilled in the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection itself signals that the age to come has arrived, the age of salvation is here. But we say "already not yet" because even though that age of salvation has arrived and is inaugurated, it's not consummated. We enjoy the new creation that has begun but we do not yet enjoy it in its fullness because death still exists and the curse is not completely gone.

As many others have said, we live in the overlap of the ages between the already and not yet. We are already saved and yet we await final salvation. We are already adopted but we await the full adoption of the restoration of our bodies. I find that to be immensely practical as well.  Many errors in NT theology will be avoided if we understand the already and not yet tension.

Perhaps we can talk about your next writing projects. Will you write a whole Bible theology as well?

I don't know! It took a lot out of me to write this New Testament theology and currently I'm working on a commentary on Galatians (in a new series called the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series) and I'm contracted to do two other books. I don't know if I have the energy to write a whole Bible theology. But in fact one of my students, Jim Hamilton, is working on a whole Bible theology, and I am excited to see his work!

This new book on New Testament theology is nearly a thousand pages. How long did it take you to write?

I think it took me about five to seven years but I don't remember exactly. I did some other things in between of course. My Romans commentary took about five to six years but I'm hoping my Galatians commentary won't take so long!

Finally, can you recommend some other books for people who are interested in this subject, including books on the Old Testament?

Very helpful are Old Testament Theology by Paul House and An Old Testament Theology by Bruce Waltke. A small but very insightful book is Dominion and Dynasty: A Biblical Theology of the Hebrew Bible by Stephen Dempster. I've also enjoyed reading From Paradise to the Promised Land by T. D. Alexander.

On the New Testament, there is Theology of the New Testament by Frank Thielman and also New Testament Theology by I. Howard Marshall.

Thank you Dr Schreiner for your time.

The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School. Thomas R. Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation (1997) and Associate Dean, Scripture and Interpretation, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. His faculty webpage can be found at:

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