A Theology of the New Testament

Written by George Eldon Ladd Reviewed By N. T. Wright

It is refreshing to have an English New Testament theology making its appearance alongside recent continental works; it is greatly encouraging to have a full-scale work of this kind from the pen of a well-known conservative evangelical; and those who have profited from G. E. Ladd’s previous works will sit down to this magnum opus with eager anticipation. Whether or not they will be satisfied will depend on what they hoped for; we should be careful to judge the book in the light of its stated aims. The author tells us that he wrote it to meet the challenge of doing constructive theology rather than negative criticism of other views; but at the same time he makes it clear in his preface that it is the seminary student, and not the researcher, for whom the book is primarily intended. To that end, the bibliographies are confined almost exclusively to works available in English (though German technical terms are by no means always explained; perhaps the phrase ‘Sitz im Leben der Urkirche’ is now part of the American language?) and we are warned (p. 5) that the book ‘does not purport to be an original contribution or to solve difficult problems, but to give a survey of the discipline, to state its problems, and to offer positive solutions as the author sees them’. Greek and Hebrew words are transliterated (though again, oddly enough, not always translated). The material is set out clearly; unlike some recent works in this field, it is not difficult to find one’s way around in this book, whose chapters are conveniently subdivided into sections of between a paragraph and three or four pages in length.

My over-all impression of the book was mixed. There are a great many things in it for which I was profoundly grateful; yet at the same time I felt unsatisfied. This double reaction was particularly called forth by the basic methodology. Ladd argues clearly the need for an analytic method rather than a thematic treatment which draws material indiscriminately from all over; and yet, having thus divided the book up into sections on the Synoptics, John, Paul and the rest, he proceeds to give systematic treatments within each of these divisions, with almost no regard for the underlying principle of his original argument—that the particularity and individuality of each writer, and of different works by one writer, are all-important for true understanding of each text. Thus I was sad to find no treatment of, say, Matthew qua Matthew (Ladd acknowledges, when turning to John, that all the Gospels are ‘theological’, but does not allow this to determine the shape of his previous material), but rather a series of synoptic studies entitled ‘The Need of the Kingdom’, ‘The God of the Kingdom’, ‘The Mystery of the Kingdom’, and so forth; such ‘subjects’ seem inevitably to impose a pattern rather than to discover one. This is probably not so much a criticism of Ladd as of the idea of writing this kind of book at all; yet, in view of his stated preference for an analytic approach, to say nothing of the last decade or two of Gospel criticism, it seems only fair to ask whether he always does full justice to the material. The danger of the resultant halfway-house method is that the different writers can still be squeezed into the same mould; it may be true that the whole concept of the kingdom is the key to the synoptic Gospels, but to come to the other New Testament writers determined to ask questions about the different sorts of eschatological dualism they exhibit is not necessarily the best way of letting them speak for themselves. Ladd explicitly sets out to avoid a monochrome presentation (p. 33): but the indefinite article in the title is too accurate a description of the book for my liking.

It would be quite wrong, however, to suggest that this query about over-all structure undermines the book’s many great merits. As a summary of current debating-points it is often extremely lucid and helpful, giving due weight to all shades of opinion, treating opponents with courtesy and being scrupulously fair to those with whom the author disagrees, from Bultmann right across the board to modern American dispensationalists (whose frequent inclusion—J. D. Pentecost has as many references in the index as Käsemann—may seem a little odd to English readers). When dealing with the perennial problems of the historicity of the Gospel narratives and of Acts, Ladd hits several nails cleanly and firmly on the head, in a way which should help and encourage many young students as they meet continental scepticism for the first time. As one might expect, the eschatological problem is tackled at some length, and the ‘already-not yet’ conclusions reached by the author elsewhere are backed up at point after point. It is still not proven, however, that his analysis of the kingdom as ‘fulfilled but not consummated’ is the best possible way of tying the problem down; it would have been good to see a discussion of the respective merits of this analysis and, say, the ‘present but hidden’ view of Cranfield et al. There are very helpful charts—of, for instance, all the synoptic ‘Son of Man’ passages (pp. 149ff.). The whole question of the background to the New Testament—Hebrew or Greek—is discussed in some detail, though without letting the reader get bogged down in a morass of gnostic false trails; it might have saved trouble if the basic discussion at the heart of this issue could have been drawn together in an introductory chapter, instead of being repeated each time the problem reared its head. I liked in particular the clear and thorough discussion of propitiation (pp. 429ff.) and of the nature of Jesus’ resurrection (pp. 317ff.); it is a fine thing to have a scholar of international repute writing (p. 322) ‘Is faith its own support? In the case of the disciples, NO! Faith did not produce the visions, and visions did not produce faith. There is no adequate explanation to account for the rise of the resurrection faith except this; that Jesus rose from the dead.’

All these points, and many more beside, mean that the book deserves to be used and used again by students—and, despite the preface’s disclaimer, by research students; I heartily wish it had been available four years ago when I began my theology course. But at the same time there are weaknesses in its detail which mean that the student will need to watch his step. I was surprised, for instance, that the gnat of the ascension caused so much trouble once the camel of the resurrection had been swallowed so well; and the chapter on Paul’s view of the law I found confusing and confused. (Inter alia, Murray’s commentary sees ‘an unregenerate man under conviction of sin’ in Rom. 7:7–13 only, and not in the whole chapter as is stated on p. 500, n. 33: and, on p. 507, pareisēlthen does not mean ‘was added’!). It comes as something of a shock, again, to find that the Apostolic Fathers appear to have been ignored entirely. The bibliographies are sometimes too full and recherché for the ordinary seminary student, while not being full (or recherché!) enough for the research worker and some basic articles are not mentioned which might well be useful to conservative-minded students and others (e.g. Cranfield’s in New Testament Issues, ed. Batey). English readers should take note that reference is to American titles of books where that is different from English ones; as there are no indications of the place of publication, this could cause frustration. Again, spot checks reveal that the indexes are far from exhaustive; and quite a few standard works are referred to in early editions now superseded (e.g., NBC for NBCR, and Guthrie’s Introduction in the three-volume set now combined in one volume: it is precisely the seminary student who could be confused by this). Finally, the book is marred throughout by misprints, of which the following are a selection. P. 137 n. 7 should read Amos 9:11, not 15.11; p. 266 1. 16 should read 1.18, not 1.12; p. 419 n. 40 should read F. F. Bruce, not E. F. Bruce; p. 447 1. 17 should read 9.7; 13.23, not 9.7, 13, 23; p. 495 1. 17 should read 10.5, not 1.5; p. 526 para. 3 1. 2 should read Rom. 1:29–32, not 29–37; p. 538 para 2 1.10 should read 2.28, not 3.28. Source critics will have fun with the statement on p. 461 that ‘we have already seen’ material ‘above ch. 34’, since p. 461 is in the middle of ch. 33 and the material in question does not appear for another twenty pages! Again, those who doubt the possibility of the same thing being said by the same man in two different ways within a short space of time should compare the two references to Ridderbos’ book on p. 57.

It is to be hoped that these blemishes will be removed in a second edition; the book deserves to be widely used.

N. T. Wright

Chaplain of Downing College, Cambridge