Interviewed by Andy Naselli
Thomas R. Schreiner is James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Associate Dean of Scripture and Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he has served since 1997. He earned his Ph.D. in NT under Donald A. Hagner at Fuller Theological Seminary in 1983, and he served as editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology from 1999 to 2003. His voluminous publications are listed on his faculty page, and many of them are available there as PDFs (excerpts from his books, as well as articles, presentations, book reviews, and editorials). MP3s of some of his lectures and sermons are compiled here.
This interview discusses Schreiner’s latest book: New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 990 pp. A 46-page PDF of the book’s front matter, preface, introduction, and chapter 9 is available here. In order to avoid too much overlap (though there is some), this interview builds on two previous ones:
- Andy Cheung, “Interview with Tom Schreiner” (March 24, 2008)
- Collin Hansen, “Surveying the Whole to See the Parts” (Christianity Today, June 16, 2008)
1. Why and for whom did you write this book? In other words, what is its goal and audience?
I wrote the book mainly for pastors and students. I wanted to write a book that argued for the coherence of the NT message and was informed by modern scholarship. So the primary audience for the book is not the academic community. I wanted to write a book where, as much as possible, I let the NT writers speak for themselves.
2. Why should we prefer a theology of the NT over a theology of early Christianity?
The NT documents are distinct from the other writings in early Christian history, and such a judgment can be defended both historically and theologically. Ignatius acknowledged that he did not write with apostolic authority as Peter and Paul did. The NT documents themselves claim a unique and final authority, which justifies granting them a privileged and authoritative role. Heikki Räisänen, for instance, argues that scholars should go beyond NT theology and the canon, as objective historians, and write histories of early Christianity. But Peter Balla rightly argues that there are good historical reasons to grant the NT an exclusive place theologically.
3. Re structure, what are the major approaches to doing NT theology?
- It is quite common today to investigate the NT book by book. Here we have the fine works of Howard Marshall, Frank Thielman, and Frank Matera (a Roman Catholic scholar) among others.
- On the other hand, George Ladd and Donald Guthrie study the NT thematically.
- Peter Stuhlmacher [vol. 1, vol. 2] engages in a history of traditions approach.
- Naturally, there are many other works published from a variety of perspectives. For instance, Philip Francis Esler has recently advocated an interpersonal and dialogical approach to NT theology.
4. Why did you choose a thematic approach? You explain, “I reject the claim that there is one correct way to write a NT theology” (p. 10), but is there a best way? Is the thematic approach the best way to allow the text to set the agenda and speak on its own terms? Some, of course, argue that conservative evangelical NT theologies do little more than rehash systematic convictions.
I don’t think there is a best way. It all depends upon what an author wants to accomplish in writing a NT theology. If we examine the NT book by book, the specific themes of the various authors have a sharper profile. Some of the distinctive themes of the various authors will be submerged with a thematic approach, unless one writes several volumes. The disadvantage of the book-by-book approach is that the unity of the NT message is not stressed in the same way as with a thematic approach. So, a book-by-book approach could fall into the writing of NT theologies. A thematic NT theology, then, has the advantage of featuring the message of the NT as a whole. Naturally one’s presuppositions and view of the authority of the NT play a major role here. Furthermore, even with a thematic approach, one could structure the book in a variety of ways.
Is there overlap with systematic theologies? Of course. For good systematic theologies have always been rooted in careful work in the biblical text and in biblical theology. Still, there is a difference between systematic theology and biblical theology. I think that is quite evident if one were to read, say, Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology and then read George Ladd’s A Theology of the NT.
5. What is the relationship between your NTT (which is a biblical theology of the NT) and systematic theology?
Biblical theology is a bridge discipline between exegesis and systematic theology. Systematic theology concentrates more specifically on application to the modern world, while biblical theology attends more closely to the storyline of scripture and focuses more on the interests of the writers in their historical contexts.
6. How would you respond to someone who criticized your NTT for duplicating a chief flaw of Guthrie’s NTT (redundancy) without possessing a chief strength (organizational predictability and thoroughness)?
I think the chief flaw of Guthrie is that his NT theology is too much like a systematic theology, so that it can be questioned whether he has really, at the end of the day, written a NT theology. In terms of my own work, I would contend that I have focused on what Matthew, John, Paul, etc. focused on. For example, a large part of my book is Christological, but that is because my task was to listen to the NT writers. And whether we read Matthew, Luke, John, Paul, Hebrews, or Revelation, we find that Christology dominated their writings! Our task is not to concentrate on what fascinates us but what the documents themselves say. Furthermore, I think there is a rich variety in terms of Christology, not a boring redundancy.
7. How does the diversity of the NT (genres, geographical locations, and content) affect your NTT?
My first goal was to attend to what each writer said, whether via gospel, parable, epistle, apocalyptic, etc. Here are a couple examples:
- The narrative in the gospels and its location in the storyline of redemptive history are such that we do not have the same developed teaching on the cross that we find in Paul. One of the reasons for this is that the gospels are not written to relay the full theology of the authors. The purpose of the gospels is to tell the story of Jesus. We know from the storyline in the gospels themselves that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the climax of the story, but the gospel writers relay mainly the significance of Jesus’ death through the narrative.
- We must remember that epistles are occasional. Hence, James’s letter does not represent the whole of his theology. The danger in writing a theology of James is that we can begin to criticize him for not having a theology of the cross! But when we recall the genre and purpose of his letter, we are reminded that we must interpret James in accord with its purposes and intentions.
8. How do you balance analytical description with theological synthesis in your NTT?
The purpose of my NT theology (whether I succeeded or not others must judge) is mainly to let the documents speak for themselves, and hence it is mainly analytical, though, inevitably my theological synthesis shapes my analysis! For instance, my view of the authority of the NT inevitably colors how I read the documents. Still, I would insist that such a reading fits with what the NT itself teaches. For instance, I argue that faith and obedience play a major role in all the NT writings. I am not saying, of course, that all the writers work out in detail how faith and obedience relate to one another. Surely, my theological synthesis affects how I read 2 Peter regarding faith and obedience, and yet at the same time I would claim that there is significant evidence (even in 2 Peter!) to justify the view I defend.
9. What is the role of presuppositions in doing biblical theology?
I have already said a bit about this. Everyone agrees now that we come to the text with presuppositions. I would argue that we cannot prove our ultimate presupposition, that accepting the truth and harmony of the scriptures makes the most sense of the whole of reality, and that those who deny the Christian worldview must borrow from the Christian worldview even to prosecute their own view of reality.
[Editorial note from Naselli: For further elaboration in Schreiner’s NTT, see the appendix’s final section: “Method in New Testament Theology,” pp. 882-88.]
10. What is the role of the OT and literature from Second Temple Judaism in NT theology?
The OT plays a major role since NT writers believed that the OT scriptures were the word of God, and the OT is quoted and alluded to often in the NT. Second Temple literature was not considered to be authoritative, but naturally there is often a stream of tradition from the OT to Second Temple literature that is picked up in the NT as well. Or, there are developments in Second Temple Judaism (e.g., the role of angels) that NT authors seem to accept. On the other hand, in contrast to the OT, we find NT writers rejecting some of the themes in Second Temple Judaism. For instance, Second Temple Judaism emphasized Abraham’s obedience instead of his faith. Paul corrects such an interpretive tradition.
11. What people (e.g., theologians, biblical scholars, pastors) have had the most influence on you as reflected in this book?
I have been influenced by so many.
- George Ladd had a significant influence on me. I read his NT theology after my first year of seminary and fell in love with NT theology.
- Don Carson’s writings on the authority of scripture, his understanding of biblical theology, and his excellent exegesis have been a great help to me.
- John Piper’s focus on the glory of God in both his writing and preaching have been an inspiration to me.
- Tom Wright’s writings have been helpful because he looks at the big picture in a way that is enormously helpful, but I differ from him on many things too, especially re the new perspective on Paul.
12. Is there anything else in Tom Wright’s work that you have found especially helpful, perhaps something reflected in your NTT?
Actually, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.
13. Your “Introduction” opens with this:
The thesis advanced in this book is that NT theology is God-focused, Christ-centered, and Spirit-saturated, but the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit must be understood along a salvation-historical timeline; that is, God’s promises are already fulfilled but not yet consummated in Christ Jesus. . . . I will argue for the centrality of God in Christ in the concrete and specific witness of the NT as it unfolds God’s saving work in history. Another way to put this is that God will receive all the glory for his work in Christ by the Spirit as he works out his purpose in redemptive history. Further, redemptive history is characterized by inaugurated but not consummated eschatology, so that the glory that belongs to God has not yet reached its zenith but it will (p. 23).
You later state the argument of NTT more concisely:
I argue in this book that magnifying God in Christ is the foundation or goal of NT theology, and God works out his purpose in salvation history to reach that goal” (p. 880).
What led you to state the NT’s theme this way? What is the criteria for identifying a theological center to the NT?
If I may be utterly simplistic, I would say that the writings themselves point me to this theme as foundational or central. The NT is clearly the story about how God redeems his people, but there is no doubt that the central characters are the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The texts themselves teach us that God (Father, Son, and Spirit) saves (and judges!), and that his purpose in accomplishing this great work is his own glory. We see this theme in the Lord’s prayer, in Ephesians 1, Romans 9-11, Revelation, etc. If we examine major themes in the NT, is there a way of determining what is foundational? Texts like Eph. 1:3-4 help us to see that redemption or salvation (or covenant) or the people of God cannot be most important. Naturally, we would need to examine many other texts in all of the literature to defend such an assertion. My point is this: there are texts that indicate that God’s glory is foundational and central, and no other theme can compete with it.
[Editorial note from Naselli: Ben Witherington rejected Schreiner’s thesis, and John Piper and Sam Storms briefly responded to Witherington and defended Schreiner’s thesis.]
14. Why do you use the word “magnifying” in the subtitle rather than a world like “glorifying”? A illustration I’ve heard many times is that glorying God is not like using a microscope (making something appear larger that looks and is very small) but a telescope (making something appear larger that looks small but is actually really large). Am I correct to assume that you’re using what the Oxford English Dictionary calls the “archaic” definition of magnify?
Yes. You hit the nail on the head. I wanted to use a fresh word to convey the meaning of “glorifying.”
15. You argue, “The divine meaning is not contrary to the human meaning, but it may transcend it in ways the original author did not grasp” (p. 887). How does your hermeneutic differ, say, from Walter Kaiser?
Kaiser seems to emphasize that NT authors use the OT in such a way that fits with the authorial intent of OT writers. I am in significant agreement with this view, but more needs to be said. When we look at scripture as a whole, we have human authors and a divine author. The divine author does not contradict the human authors, but we gain a profounder understanding of OT texts in light of the whole canon.
So contra to Kaiser, I don’t think Hosea 11:1 was clearly Messianic for Hosea. Still, it can be shown that Hosea argues typologically in chapter 11, and Matthew picks up on this typology (not only in Hosea of course) and argues that Jesus is the new Israel. It is doubtful in my mind that Hosea saw what Matthew saw in Hosea 11:1, but he would have agreed that Matthew’s typological reading of his text accords with his message.
[Editorial note from Naselli: For further elaboration on Hosea 11:1 in Schreiner’s NTT, see pp. 73-75.]
16. Would you consider yourself a covenant theologian (cf. p. 867) and an amillennialist (cf. pp. 815-16)? How compatible is your view of the kingdom of God with dispensational (i.e., pretribulational) premillennialism and historic (i.e., covenant, posttribulational) premillennialism?
I would not identify myself as a covenant theologian or a dispensationalist. I slightly lean toward amillennialism, but I am not completely sure on this point. Revelation 20 gives me pause, so that I often wonder if historic premillennialism is correct. Still, my reading of Revelation as a whole is compatible with approaches that are amillennial.
17. You have written other works that defend Calvinism, complementarianism, and Baptist ecclesiology. How prominently do your views on these issues feature in your NTT?
Complementarianism and Baptist ecclesiology are there, but they are not terribly prominent given the scope of the work. I think my Calvinist reading plays a larger role. Soteriology is a major theme in the NT, and hence one’s decision on this matter affects the interpretation of many texts!
18. How have your pastoral and teaching ministries influenced your NTT?
I have been the preaching pastor at Clifton Baptist Church for 11 years, and taught in seminaries for 22. I think both of these ministries influenced me significantly. When I write, I think, as one who has preached often, about how preachers would be helped by my work.
19. What are some lessons you learned while writing NTT (e.g., discovering new themes, fresh appreciation for themes, lessons about scholarly work)?
I am still influenced by the last question. I think the most important scholarly work has always been done for the sake of the church. When we think of the great theologians of church history, they were pastors and bishops: Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, etc. I gained a fresh appreciation for the high Christology of the NT. I was struck by the high Christology, for instance, in the synoptics (which is often denied). I was also impressed by the centrality of faith in the synoptic gospels and the many metaphors that John uses for believing.
20. Speaking of NT theology, you contributed to the forthcoming ESV Study Bible in several ways:
- New Testament editor
- “The Theology of the New Testament” (pp. 1803-5)
- “Reading the Epistles” (pp. 2147-49)
- notes on Luke (with Wayne Grudem)
- notes on Romans
- notes on 1 Peter
- notes on 2 Peter (with Doug Oss)
- notes on Jude (with Doug Oss)
After working through all the NT contributions to the ESV Study Bible as its NT editor, are you pleased with the result?
I am very pleased with the result. It is amazing how many people have worked on the project, and as the NT editor I am thrilled with the contributors that agreed to write on the various NT books. Naturally, I don’t agree with everything written in the study Bible! In a collaborative effort there is a lot of give and take. Still, I am very excited about the quality of the ESVSB.
21. What other short-term and long-term projects are ahead for you?
- I have finished a semi-popular book titled Run to Win the Prize, which IVP will publish in the UK. The aim is to make the thesis of a previously published book (The Race Set Before Us, co-authored by Ardel Caneday) available to readers in a shorter compass and also to clarify and respond to some criticisms of the previous book.
- Baker has just asked me to abbreviate my NT Theology and write a 250 to 300-page version, so I hope to do that in the near future.
- Baker also asked me to do a new edition of Interpreting the Pauline Epistles, which was published in 1990. [Editorial note from Naselli: Two chapters from this book are available as PDFs on Schreiner’s faculty page: (1) “Diagramming and Conducting a Grammatical Analysis” and (2) “Tracing the Argument.”]
- My big project right now is a commentary on Galatians in the new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series.
22. Many thanks, Tom, for taking time to serve the readers of JT’s blog with such helpful comments!
You are welcome, Andy. It has been my pleasure.