New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ

Written by Thomas R. Schreiner Reviewed By Michael F. Bird

Thomas R. Schreiner has produced a near exhaustive New Testament theology that takes a distinctive thematic approach to the task. Schreiner defends the thematic approach (as opposed to a corpus-by-corpus method) since it emphasizes the coherence and unity of the NT. The corpus approach can be repetitive, and it gives a theology of the entire NT, not just its constituent parts. Schreiner does not deny the value of the corpus approach (cf. the work of I. Howard Marshall and Frank Thielman), nor does he deny the value of various approaches to NT theology (written from the vantage point of eschatology, Christology, etc.). Schreiner is also aware that a thematic approach can flatten out the distinctives of the biblical authors and lead to over-systematizing. Yet in his view, because no NT author intended to write “theology,” a NT theology can emerge only from a synthesis of the whole. Furthermore, for Schreiner, the centre of a NT theology is God’s purpose to bring honor to himself and to Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of his saving promises. These two nodes are combined in order to comprise Schreiner’s ultimate centre: “God works out his saving plan so that he would be magnified in Christ, so that his name would be honored” (p. 14).

Part 1. In the introductory chapter Schreiner gives a broad overview of the NT by surveying the centrality of God and God’s kingdom in Christ, and he emphasizes the importance of the now-and-not-yet in biblical eschatology. Part one focuses on inaugurated eschatology in the NT with the fulfillment of God’s saving promises. In chapter one (“The Kingdom of God in the Synoptic Gospels”), Schreiner identifies the kingdom as being central in Jesus’ ministry and pays attention to its inaugurated character and its manifestation in the person and work of Christ. In chapter two (“Eternal Life and Eschatology in John’s Theology”), Schreiner argues that even though John emphasizes “eternal life” rather than “kingdom of God,” he has not evacuated future eschatology from his theological horizon. An eschatological dualism permeates the Fourth Gospel and the emphasis on the present experience of eternal life still looks forward to a future consummation. Chapter three (“Inaugurated Eschatology outside the Gospels”) traces how the now-not yet scheme permeates the rest of the NT. Though the contrast between ages can be made in different ways by different authors, the consistent feature is that God has begun to fulfill his saving promises in Jesus Christ and believers still await its ultimate consummation.

Part 2. Part two addresses the saving work of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In chapter four (“The Centrality of God in New Testament Theology”), Schreiner shows how God is the foundation for all of NT theology as Creator and Redeemer. Then in chapter five (“The Centrality of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels”), he lays out the Gospel accounts that describe Jesus as the climax of redemptive history and his divine nature. Chapter six (“The Messiah and the Son of Man in the Gospels”) was a particular highlight with some sane remarks about complex topics of messianism and the enigmatic Son of Man. Jesus was a messianic claimant despite his unwillingness to use the title due to the political unrest it might cause. In Daniel 7, Schreiner sees the “one like a son of man” as both a symbol of the saints and an individual figure. Son of Man is a title in the Gospels that indicates Jesus’ role in establishing the kingdom and that the kingdom comes precisely through the Son of Man’s travails. The substance of chapter seven (“Son of God, I Am, and Logos”) examines important aspects of NT Christology and shows that it is indebted to the Jewish background supplied by the Old Testament and its subsequent reception rather than to Hellenistic influences.

In chapter eight (“Jesus’ Saving Work in the Gospels”), Schreiner focuses on how the Servant of the Lord from Isaiah is appropriated by the Evangelists, an outline of the story of salvation in the Synoptics, and a very good sketch of the cross in the Fourth Gospel. However, this chapter lacks one crucial thing, namely, showing how the story of the cross also relates to the story of Israel in God’s ultimate plan for salvation in the Gospels. But Schreiner is definitely correct that Christology and soteriology are indissolubly connected together in the NT. Into chapter nine (“Jesus’ Saving Work in Acts”), there is analysis of the kerygmatic materials in the Acts of the Apostles, and, importantly, Schreiner shows how Luke retains a genuine theology of the cross. In the tightly compressed chapter ten (“The Christology of Paul”), there is a survey of the centrality of Christ, Christological titles, and Jesus as God with emphasis on Jesus’ equal stature with God.

Chapter eleven (“The Saving Work of God and Christ according to Paul”) is the most rewarding and most frustrating chapter of the book. Schreiner examines the various metaphors and expressions for salvation and rightly summarizes Pauline soteriology as “salvation is of the Lord” (p. 379). This is Schreiner at his best and it shows that he is a true Paulinist at heart! Even so, I find some grounds for objection: (1) Schreiner organizes his explication of Paul’s soteriology around Rom 8:29, starting with foreknowledge, God’s love, election, predestination, etc., but this unfortunately elevates an ordo salutis over Paul’s historia salutis. Paul begins his most theological letter not with foreknowledge but with “gospel” (Rom 1:3–4), and his central thesis is redemptive-historical, apocalyptic, evangelic, and theocentric (Rom 1:16–17), not personal individual soteriology! (2) On justification, Schreiner sets forth an excellent case for the forensic nature of justification and gives a wonderful explanation of its link to the new life that believers receive (see esp. pp. 352, 361–62). Yet he reads Phil 3:9 into Rom 1:17 (and into 10:3–5) and defines the “righteousness of God” as a genitive of source, understanding the gift of righteousness as a declaration of not guilty. Contra Schreiner (p. 357), the absence of the preposition ek from Rom 1:17 is decisive! God’s saving righteous indeed results in a righteous status for believers, but it cannot be equated with it. Rom 1:17 introduces not merely Rom 1–4 but Rom 5–11 as well, which includes forgiveness, redemption, transformation, life in the Spirit, union with Christ, victory over evil, and eternal life to name but a few themes. (3) Much of Schreiner’s discussion of justification seems to ignore the historical contingencies in which Paul argued for justification as being rooted in his efforts to legitimize the identity of Gentile believers as Gentiles in the face of Jewish Christian proselytizers. Schreiner no doubt would recognize this ecclesiological implication or horizontal dimension (see his discussion of reconciliation on p. 364), but I think that he should have expounded it a way that reflects Paul’s own concerns and priorities (e.g. Rom 3:21–26 is followed by 3:27–31 and Rom 10:3–11 is followed by Rom 10:12). (4) Lastly, I would point out that the apocalyptic and participationist approach to Paul’s theology is not necessarily at odds with a juridical articulation of righteousness by faith in Paul. Although I have focused here on aspects of this chapter that I find unconvincing, Schreiner exudes and oozes Paul.

In chapter twelve (“The Christology of Hebrews—Revelation”) there is a condensed but useful exposition of the Christological themes of the Catholic Epistles and the Apocalypse which demonstrate Schreiner’s thesis that an exalted Christology secures salvation. Chapter thirteen (“The Holy Spirit”) contains a description of the Holy Spirit, and Schreiner taps into various debates that require an answer (e.g., is the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts charismatic or soteric, and is the baptism that the coming one dispenses meant to signify cleaning or entering into the fires of judgment?). Schreiner successfully identifies an incipient trinitarianism in the NT as well.

Part 3. Part three involves the matter of experiencing the promise as it relates to believing and obeying. Chapter fourteen (“The Problem of Sin”) includes an exposition of the cause, nature, and depth of sinfulness in the human condition. Chapter fifteen (“Faith and Obedience”) contains some very useful discussions about the priority of faith and new obedience in the Gospels, Paul, and James on good works and justification, apostasy and falling away in Hebrews (Schreiner opts for the view that the warnings themselves are instrumental in producing perseverance and implies that believers will be shown to be false if they apostatize), and overcoming in the Book of Revelation. In chapter sixteen (“Law and Salvation History”), Schreiner engages one of the most perplexing topics of biblical theology. He performs a satisfying exercise of showing how the NT authors consistently think of the Law as fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Though Schreiner appropriately describes the nuances of each NT author, I think he does flatten out some of the more specific differences here as evident from a comparison of 1 Corinthians (8:1–13; 10:25–33) and Revelation (2:14, 20) on whether one can eat idol food.

Part 4. Part four seeks to explain the life of church in the context of God’s promise for his people for their future. Chapter seventeen (“The People of the Promise”) provides a basic survey of how the NT authors see the Abrahamic promises fulfilled in the church. Schreiner identifies the discipline, sacraments, offices, and covenantal life of the church as the “true” Israel. Chapter eighteen (“The Social World of God’s People”) is one of the most salient of the book, and Schreiner focuses on five main areas: (1) riches and poverty, (2) the role of women, (3) marriage, divorce, and children, (4) relationship to governing authorities, and (5) slavery. I think Schreiner gives a fair and balanced summary of these matters although sometimes he would do well to add a prefatory note when he is speculating (e.g., “Junia probably worked particularly with other women in propagating the gospel” [p. 772]—but the fact is that we just don’t know what her “apostolic” work consisted of). In this chapter Schreiner provides a capable demonstration of how eschatological and theological perspectives shaped Christian engagement with social issues. Chapter nineteen (“The Consummation of God’s Promises”), the final chapter, provides a discussion on Jesus’ second advent, the future reward of believers, and the final judgment, with an excursus on the future of Israel. I think Schreiner rightly identifies the Olivet Discourse as showing that the judgment that fell upon Jerusalem in AD 70 is a typology of the final judgment. He also gives a sober appraisal of the future of ethnic Israel, who will find salvation at or near the second advent of Christ.

In the epilogue Schreiner sums up the book as showing how God’s promises made in the OT are fulfilled in Christ and the Spirit in the NT. Ultimately, to believe in Jesus Christ is participate in the story of God’s saving actions. The book then closes with an appendix on “Reflections of New Testament Theology.” There Schreiner surveys various approaches to NT theology and rightly critiques secular and history-of-religion perspectives in favor of those who see biblical theology as part of the movement toward a systematic theology. In terms of method, he states that no one has a God’s-eye-view and that presuppositions inalienably shape interpreters and interpretations. In his own view, it is a presupposition of the NT as the inspired Word of God that is the presupposition that is most appropriate to the task.

In response, I find myself in two minds about Schreiner’s thematic approach on how to do a NT theology. I think, on the one hand, that a thematic approach is the simplest and easiest way to organize the materials of the NT so that it is accessible and useful for students and pastors. However, in terms of following the text, the inductive corpus-by-corpus approach lends itself, I think, to providing the closest reading of the text as the basis for one’s theological reflections. Ultimately, both methods are needed and have their relative strengths and weaknesses. The challenge for any NT theologian is to balance contingency with coherence and to perform evenly an inductive study with adequate theological synthesis. Schreiner’s book is a worthy model in that task.

The only major criticism I have of the volume is Schreiner’s theological centre of God working out his salvation plan so that he would be magnified in Christ. First, it does not jump out at me when I read the Gospel of Mark, the Epistle of Jude, or the Epistle to Philemon. Schreiner’s centre is a synthetic interpretation and an inference drawn from the texts, but does not directly manifest itself in the NT. Something akin to God’s salvation revealed through Jesus Christ would have a better claim to being the centre in my reckoning.

Second, while there is ample grounds for postulating that God acts out of a concern for his glory (e.g., Exod 14:4; Isa 48:11), I think it is important to add that God’s self-magnification relates intimately to God’s love as well. For instance, in Ps 115:1 (ESV) we read, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” whereby God’s glory is something placed in service of his covenant love. God’s love and glory are complementary aspects of his character and actions, so we can properly say that God’s glory and God’s love are different sides of the same coin. God is glorified in order to love, and God loves in order that he would be glorified. The love and glory of God are centrifugal, and they invade a world that rejected his glory and spurned his love so that all of creation would be filled with his love and glory. Thus, while God’s self-magnification is a genuine biblical theme, we should stress also the inter-permeation of God’s self-giving love with God’s concern for his own glory and so disarm suspicions that God’s self-magnification is a form of divine self-interest. In this sense, I would like to have seen Schreiner tease out this relationship between love and glory and so synthesize Eph 1:3–14 and John 3:16.

Those questions and criticisms notwithstanding, this is a book that should be on the bookshelf of every interested Christian. May it be read for many years to come!

Michael F. Bird

Highland Theological College, Dingwall

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