Scholars and students have eagerly awaited an English translation of Peter Stuhlmacher’s two-volume New Testament (NT) theology Biblical Theology of the New Testament (Biblische Theologie des Neuen Testaments). We can be grateful to Dan Bailey (with help from Jostein Ådna) for completing this massive task so that the work of one of the giants of NT scholarship is now available to a wider audience. At some specified points Bailey augments what Stuhlmacher wrote, and he adds an important chapter on the meaning of hilastērion (propitiation).
Some evangelicals, especially students, may not be aware of Stuhlmacher’s work, and thus my review will be directed particularly to such readers. Naturally, I can’t address all that is covered in a short review, and so we must content ourselves with some high points. Readers are treated here to Stuhlmacher’s magnum opus, and certainly his work will be consulted for years to come.
The heart of the book is outlined with six major headings: (1) the proclamation of Jesus; (2) the proclamation of the early church; (3) the proclamation of Paul; (4) the proclamation in the period after Paul; (5) the proclamation of the Synoptic Gospels; and (6) the proclamation of John and his School. Stuhlmacher closes the book with a discussion of the canon and the center of Scripture.
Stuhlmacher, who is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at the University of Tübingen, takes a historical-critical approach, out of fashion in many circles today. History is important in doing NT theology, and the tendency to ignore historical questions in some circles is an overreaction. This isn’t to say evangelicals will agree with all his historical judgments, but Stuhlmacher rightly remarks that historical and dogmatic/theological work shouldn’t be segregated from one another. If a new generation sees such historical-critical work as old-fashioned, we can be sure the new generation will take it up in the future, since what happened in the past is critical for Christian faith.
Historical texts must be read with “critical sympathy,” according to Stuhlmacher, and we must avoid Enlightenment conceptions that in effect suppress the spiritual experience reflected in the biblical text. With Adolf Schlatter (1852–1938) he criticizes an atheistic stance in doing NT theology. The biblical text itself opposes “autonomous reason.” We must also take into account biblical inspiration, though Stuhlmacher dissents from the notion that the Scriptures are inerrant. Since Scripture is inspired, Stuhlmacher says, it must be interpreted according to the analogy of faith, as we recognize that Scripture is fully human and fully divine. Scripture must be approached with the fear of the Lord and a desire to know and follow him.
Stuhlmacher departs from a significant stream of scholarship in claiming that the Old Testament (OT) instead of Hellenism is the primary background for NT theology—although he doesn’t subscribe to a simplistic either-or, since he endorses Hengel’s claim that Judaism was affected by Hellenism. Nor does Stuhlmacher content himself with a history of religions or comparative approach; rather he accepts the unique role of NT canonical writings, arguing that these writings must be accepted with a faith commitment. When we realize Stuhlmacher was trained by Ernst Käsemann (1906–1998), who was in turn trained by Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976), Stuhlmacher’s openness to the transcendent and miraculous is astonishing. He contends for “critical sympathy” for the message of the NT and for the historical reliability of the synoptic Gospels. Thus, Stuhlmacher rejects Bultmann’s claim that Jesus is merely the presupposition of NT theology and maintains that he is the foundation of NT theology, seeing the gospel in Jesus Christ as the center of the NT. At point after point he moves away from the Bultmannian agenda.
Evangelicals may concentrate on some of Stuhlmacher’s historical-critical judgments and fail to see how much he has moved in our direction. When evaluating a writer, we always need to keep in mind their social location and where they started on their journey. Certainly, we’ll dissent from some of his conclusions, but we should also recognize that he affirms the same good news about Jesus Christ that we rejoice in.
Proclamation of Jesus and Paul
Stuhlmacher begins with the proclamation of Jesus and argues for the essential historicity of the synoptic tradition. Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom, seeing himself as the Messiah, the Son of Man, and the Son of God. Jesus also conceived of himself as the Servant of the Lord, who died a substitutionary death to reconcile people to God. For evangelicals such conclusions seem quite ordinary, but we must recognize that such historical judgments from one trained in the Bultmann school—where any Messianic consciousness of Jesus is often denied—represent a remarkable shift from Stuhlmacher’s training. I would dissent from Stuhlmacher’s claim that Jesus’s death didn’t assuage God’s wrath, but we can be grateful for the erudition and depth of his exposition of Jesus’s message. Stuhlmacher also affirms that the accounts of the empty tomb and Jesus’s appearances to the disciples are historically credible, and thus Jesus was raised from the dead and installed at God’s right hand. We have come a long way from Bultmann indeed.
Biblical Theology of the New Testament
Since its original publication in German, Peter Stuhlmacher’s two-volume Biblische Theologie des Neuen Testaments has influenced an entire generation of biblical scholars and theologians. Now Daniel Bailey’s expert translation makes this important work of New Testament theology available in English for the first time.
Following an extended discussion of the task of writing a New Testament theology, Stuhlmacher explores the development of the Christian message across the pages of the Gospels, the writings of Paul, and the other canonical books of the New Testament. The second part of the book examines the biblical canon and its historical significance.
We have come a long way from [Rudolf] Bultmann indeed.
Stuhlmacher rightly sees Paul as having a unique role in early Christianity. He accepts seven letters as authentically Pauline (Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon), but also thinks that 2 Thessalonians and Colossians may be genuine, thus excluding Ephesians, 1–2 Timothy, and Titus as Pauline. Even in discussing what he deems to be post-Pauline, Stuhlmacher doesn’t embrace the view that the Pastoral letters are early catholic (a typical reading in German NT scholarship), and on the whole he sees these documents as agreeing with and extending the teaching of the seven Pauline letters accepted as authentic. Once again, Stuhlmacher sees a fundamental theological harmony while pursuing the theological and interpretive task.
Stuhlmacher flies in the face of much scholarship—rightly in my judgment—in affirming that justification distinguished Paul’s gospel from the outset, so that justification of the ungodly dawned on him from his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road. Stuhlmacher offers significant criticisms and reservations about the new perspective on Paul, which has been much discussed in recent years. The law reveals sin and is not the pathway to salvation, but Jesus liberated sinners from the law’s curse and reconciled them to God through his atoning death. Justification isn’t merely forensic but also transformative, and in this respect Stuhlmacher stands in the Augustinian tradition in his understanding of justification and doesn’t distinguish justification materially from sanctification. I would argue that a forensic rather than a transformative understanding accords with the evidence, and Stuhlmacher also wrongly severs righteousness from judgment, restricting righteousness to the realm of salvation. He rejects the Augustinian understanding of original sin, but his conception of sin and death as powers that rule human beings ends up at much the same place.
Christ is the end of the law according to Paul (Rom. 10:4), but now the Torah from Zion has become a reality (e.g., Isa. 2:1–4; Jer. 31:31–34), which he also describes as Christ’s Torah (Gal. 6:2), and this law is fulfilled in those who have the Holy Spirit. It’s quite striking that Stuhlmacher, who is from the Lutheran tradition, has such a positive conception of the law’s role in the life of Christians. According to Stuhlmacher, Romans 7:7–25 doesn’t describe the experience of believers but depicts those living an Adamic life. Stuhlmacher comes close to saying Paul believed that after conversion believers could be entirely free from sin through the Spirit; here Luther’s more complex reading of Christian experience is to be preferred, and it seems Luther’s reading would fit with Stuhlmacher’s embrace of the already-and-not-yet.
According to Stuhlmacher, in Paul’s theology Christ is pre-existent and played a mediatorial role in the creation of the world, and he reaches back to Jewish tradition in seeing Jesus as wisdom and as the image of God. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came in the fullness of time to effect salvation and to introduce the new age of redemption. The promises made to Israel and the nations are fulfilled in his coming. Stuhlmacher represents the Tübingen school in seeing Jesus’s death as inclusive place-taking. The matter is quite complex, but Simon Gathercole elsewhere has offered an effective critique.
In any case, reconciliation and justification are accomplished through Jesus’s work on the cross. Justification, then, isn’t a subsidiary doctrine as Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) claimed, nor was it a gambit for the inclusion of the Gentiles per Krister Stendahl (1921–2008) and E. P. Sanders (1937–), but was a fundamental teaching of Paul. God’s salvation can be summarized in the reconciling work through the cross where atonement and justification are secured. Paul rejected universalism, seeing belief in Christ as necessary for salvation. On the other hand, Stuhlmacher embraces subordinationism where Christ seems to be demoted, according to his reading of 1 Corinthians 15:28, when the kingdom is given to God.
When it comes to James, Stuhlmacher follows Luther in seeing a fundamental contradiction between James and Paul on justification. He argues that the perspective offered by James is inferior to Paul’s and rests on a misunderstanding of Paul. Still, the contribution of James, according to Stuhlmacher, can be welcomed as a corrective for those who misread Paul. Actually, a better way than that offered by Stuhlmacher is to recognize that Paul believed works are necessary for final justification and salvation as well (e.g., Rom. 2:6–11, 13, 26–29; Gal. 5:21; 6:8; 1 Cor. 6:9–11). Thus, the breach Stuhlmacher sees between James and Paul is not as wide as he thinks, and James probably corrects a distorted interpretation of Paul.
The letter of 1 Peter, according to Stuhlmacher, matches Pauline thought in many respects, but we don’t find a carbon copy of Paul here. Instead it’s a fresh development of the gospel, and Stuhlmacher sees the letter as occupying a middle position between Paul and Jewish Christian tradition. He rejects the notion of his teacher Käsemann, namely, that the letter to the Hebrews should be interpreted in terms of a Gnostic model and locates its thought in Jewish apocalyptic and priestly circles. The high christology of Hebrews stands out, but Stuhlmacher finds the view of atonement limiting compared to Paul and John, claiming that Hebrews is closer to James in its warnings and in its claim that there’s no repentance for those who have fallen away.
The differences aren’t as great as suggested, for as Stuhlmacher himself points out, Jesus speaks about the unpardonable sin where there is no forgiveness (Matt. 12:31–32), warning that those who deny him will be denied by the Father (Matt. 10:33). Such statements match what we find in Hebrews. Paul also regularly warns those who fall away that they will be severed from God (Rom. 11:20–22; Gal. 5:2–4; 6:8; 1 Cor. 6:9–11; 1 Cor. 9:24–10:12). Stuhlmacher’s reading of being saved through fire (1 Cor. 3:15), which I think he misunderstands, becomes his hermeneutical lodestar for interpreting Paul, but the warnings in Paul actually have the same import we find in Hebrews.
Even though Stuhlmacher finds 2 Peter and Jude as deficient in some respects, he resists the notion that they are early catholic; both letters have value in resisting false teaching. Such an evaluation might seem unduly negative to evangelicals, but Stuhlmacher actually breaks from his tradition in seeing value in these two letters.
The Synoptic Gospels are seen as transmitting reliable apostolic tradition, and again Stuhlmacher’s move in a more conservative direction is remarkable. He follows the tradition in seeing Mark as an interpreter of Peter, and argues, following Hengel, that the Gospel titles were present from the beginning. He endorses the two source theory and suggests that the proto-Luke hypothesis is promising. At the same time, he agrees with the view promoted by Richard Bauckham and others that the Gospels were written for all Christians and shouldn’t be limited to specific localities. The word gospel has its roots primarily in prophetic traditions, not in imperial inscriptions.
In Mark’s account, Jesus as Messiah, the Son of Man, and Son of God are complementary titles, pointing to Jesus’s pre-existence. The Messianic secret goes back to Jesus himself, since knowledge of Jesus’s person is not disclosed before Easter. Mark has a theology of the cross that conforms to the tradition in 1 Corinthians 15:1–4, with a clear call to discipleship. The catechetical nature of Matthew stands out, particularly in the five discourses and also in his emphasis on the fulfillment of the OT. Stuhlmacher has a helpful discussion of Luke-Acts and emphasizes the reliability of the Lukan account.
Stuhlmacher follows Hagner in seeing material collected by Matthew integrated into the Gospel by a later redactor who is a Christian scribe. Even though the Gospels were written for all Christians, Matthew’s composition was particularly apropos for Hellenistic Jewish Christians from Syria to Rome. Matthew, like Mark and Luke, has high christology, seeing Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God, and the Servant of the Lord, and recounting the virgin birth. Jesus is the messianic wisdom teacher but also attests to his messiahship by his deeds. Jesus has come to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21), and Matthew retains the Markan ransom saying (Matt. 20:28), seeing forgiveness in Jesus’s atoning death (Matt. 26:28).
At the same time, Matthew emphasizes the new life of disciples, and this new life is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven. We find in Matthew the foundational role of Peter and the apostles, and Matthew is the only Gospel writer to speak of the church. The mission to all nations doesn’t exclude the Jewish people but remains open to all. Stuhlmacher rightly sees tendencies in Matthew that remind one of Hebrews and James, maintaining that what Matthew says needs to be balanced by reading Paul and the other Synoptics. At the same time, Stuhlmacher overlooks, as was noted previously, the Pauline emphasis on obedience, which matches Matthew more than Stuhlmacher concedes.
The Johannine school includes the Gospel of John, 1–3 John, and Revelation, according to Stuhlmacher. The distinctiveness of John’s portrait of Jesus and his theology is explicated. The author of the Gospel and the letters isn’t John, the son of Zebedee, but most likely John the elder, and the book of Revelation represents the editing of the elder’s material after his death. Actually, a better case can be made for the apostle John than John the elder, but Stuhlmacher doesn’t hold to the radical theory that John’s Gospel was intended to replace the Synoptics. Instead, it was written to supplement them. High christology is evident in John’s Gospel, but it isn’t confined to the Gospel; it’s also evident in Revelation as well. The theory of Käsemann that John is guilty of docetism is rejected. At the same time, Stuhlmacher argues that John’s Gospel supports subordinationism of the Son, and the word subordinationism is unfortunate, given its meaning in the history of doctrine.
Jesus’s atoning death and resurrection play a central role in John’s thought, along with his emphasis on realized eschatology, which stands out in John’s discussion of eternal life. Stuhlmacher emphasizes, however, that the future dimension of eschatology in the Apocalypse must not be neglected in formulating John’s thought. At the same time, he dissents from Bultmann and others in insisting that references to future eschatology are also present in the Gospel. Faith in John’s Gospel plays a central role and is ascribed to God’s electing grace, and comes from hearing the word of Jesus. Signs don’t necessarily bring people to faith, but they can play a role in bringing one to faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Christ.
John’s teaching on the Spirit stands out, particularly in identifying the Spirit as the Paraclete, which, according to Stuhlmacher has a legal and juristic background and shouldn’t be rendered as “Comforter.” John describes the church in a variety of ways, such as a flock or the vine, and life in the church is marked by love for one another, although John also emphasizes mission toward the world. The role of the sacraments is disputed in Johannine thought, but Stuhlmacher believes they play a significant role in John’s theology, dissenting from those who think the sacraments are absent in John’s Gospel. According to Stuhlmacher, the theology of John complements the theology of Paul, although there are both similarities and differences.
Stuhlmacher accepts in some respects the typical historical-critical judgment on John’s Gospel, seeing John at times as historically reckless. The tradition, in other words, isn’t anchored in the words of the historical Jesus in the same way as the Synoptics. Despite Stuhlmacher’s perspective on John, there are good grounds, as a number of scholars have argued, for accepting the historical accuracy of Johannine tradition.
Canon and the Center of Scripture
In the closing section of the book Stuhlmacher considers the canon and the center of Scripture. He sees the OT canon as taking place in three stages. The Torah was accepted by ca. 400 BC, the prophets in the third-century BC, but the writings weren’t accepted until the time period that spans AD 66–135. Thus the canon in both Hebrew and Greek, in Stuhlmacher’s view, was still open for early Christians. The Septuagint became the Bible for Christians and was deemed canonical. Beckwith argues more convincingly for an earlier closure of the OT canon, and Seitz rightly calls into question Stuhlmacher’s view of the Septuagint.
The impetus for the NT canon, according to Stuhlmacher, was driven by the mission of the church, and the need for such became more urgent as the early apostles and leaders started to pass from the scene. The process for the NT canon accelerated in the second century as other writings were produced. The church discriminated among what was written by accepting as authoritative writings traced to the apostles and their students and writings received by consensus in the churches. We see again the importance of history in Stuhlmacher, since the acceptance of the canon isn’t a leap of faith but rests on solid historical grounds.
When it comes to the center of Scripture, NT students must enter into a dialogue with systematics. The center is found in the revelation of the one true God in Jesus Christ, who is God’s image and shares God’s essence. Christ as center can’t be separated from the gospel, which is summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:3–5, and the gospel is represented in many creedal and traditional statements in the NT. The center of the NT, then, focuses on Jesus’s atoning death and his resurrection by which the kingdom of God is inaugurated and will be consummated. At the same time the message about Jesus Christ will only be accepted through the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s legitimate, then, to speak historically of a “rule of faith,” which was itself founded on Scripture.
Stuhlmacher engages in a fascinating discussion on Luther, Calvin, and the Roman Catholic position at Trent. Such discussion doesn’t eliminate the rule of faith articulated by the early church but gives it more specific contours. We can’t be satisfied with simply saying Jesus is the center of Scripture while eliminating doctrine. Nor can we canonize Paul and reject other writings in the NT as early catholic. Nor are the Reformation confessions our final authority, though we’re informed by them. We must return to the NT, which is itself rooted in the OT.
Still, Stuhlmacher thinks the center of the NT is also described in terms of the justification of the ungodly, arguing that Paul’s thought is “soteriologically deeper and clearer” (786) than we find in some other NT writers. In this respect some of the other NT writings (James, Hebrews, and Matthew) tie works to salvation, while Paul only thinks works are necessary for rewards. Stuhlmacher insists that we need to listen to and heed what we find in these other books so that we don’t misunderstand and trivialize Paul’s view of justification, but Paul’s gospel receives priority. Again, the polarization between Paul and other writers isn’t as pronounced as Stuhlmacher avers, since Paul also believes works are necessary for final salvation.
Many fascinating areas of discussion are neglected in a review, and at a number of points (not all stated here) I dissent from some of Stuhlmacher’s historical-critical conclusions. All will profit, however, from the seasoned judgments and immense learning evident in this work. Also, evangelicals can rejoice in Stuhlmacher’s defense and acceptance of the apostolic gospel.
We have much to learn from Peter Stuhlmacher, and we give thanks to God for his contribution to NT scholarship.