The Ethics of the New Testament

Written by Wolfgang Schrage (ET by David Green) Reviewed By John Barclay

What should we expect to be discussed in a book with this title? Should the focus be upon what the writers of the various NT documents thought about ethics (its basis, norms and content)? If so, a consistent policy on this matter would not include a section on the historical Jesus (he wrote no NT book) but would study the various gospel writers and other NT documents (see Houlden’s Ethics and the New Testament). Alternatively, one could set out to give a survey of the ethical views of the early Christian movement; in this case it would be natural to begin with Jesus as the founder and go on to discuss not only the NT authors but also the indications of other movements in early Christianity reflected within (as well as outside?) the NT (e.g. ‘Q’, if it existed, the earliest Jerusalem community, the views of Paul’s Christian opponents, etc.).

Schrage’s treatment falls between two stools in this respect. The first third of the book is taken up with the historical Jesus, followed by a chapter on ‘ethical beginnings in the earliest congregations’. Yet he is primarily interested in the views of the NT writers (rather than the movements they represented or opposed) and he makes almost no attempt to connect the various writers in any coherent account of the development of early Christianity. Are we discussing NT ethics or the ethics of the early Christian movement? (Similar issues arise, of course, in relation to the content of ‘New Testament Theology’).

This would be a serious but tolerable ambiguity if it were not conjoined with a much deeper problem. In discussing the ethics of the NT, is it sufficient to outline, as Schrage does with great skill, the theological bases of ethics, the main criteria to which appeal is made (e.g. Jesus, creation, the OT, Hellenistic ethics, love, etc.) and the specific injunctions which are contained in the NT? Or should our focus widen to take account of the social, cultural and historical context in which these ethics are being propounded—for instance, the social and political conditions in which they were issued and the shape of the Christian communities for whom they were intended?

Despite occasional glances at isolated ‘background’ issues (e.g. contemporary attitudes to women, the practice of the emperor cult), Schrage eschews entirely the attempt to place the NT documents (or the early Christian movement) in their social and historical context. At times he makes an explicit statement on this (e.g. ‘the Gospel and Epistles of John cannot be interpreted primarily as arising from a particular historical situation’, p. 297); most of the time he simply ignores such questions. It is thus extremely misleading for the translator to interpret Schrage’s very first sentence as ‘the subject matter dealt with by an ethics of the New Testament is the question of how life was lived in the earliest Christian communities’. In the original German Schrage says nothing of the sort. In this book he is not really interested in how life was actually lived by the early Christians but in how the NT writers (and Jesus) thought it ought to be lived!

The weaknesses of this purely idea-centred approach are particularly evident in the long section on Jesus. Just at a time when the ‘third quest’ of the historical Jesus (Riches, Sanders, Vermes, Theissen, Borg, etc.) is unearthing so much of the religious, social and political context of Jesus’ ministry, and illuminating thereby so much of the meaning and impact of his message, Schrage leaves all that to one side. He battles on in the old style, investigating Jesus’ concept of the kingdom of God, etc. with the familiar but tired contrasts with ‘Judiasm’ (often illustrated out of Strack-Billerbeck!). This is so much out of tune with the mainstream of current British and American NT scholarship that at times I was tempted to ask how useful it was to translate this work.

But that was probably unfair: despite (and, in some cases, because of) the predominance of German bibliography and the inner-Lutheran debates which dominate some sections, there is much here for us all to learn from. Schrage is an extremely skilled exegete, and the care with which he discusses the relevant texts, the attention to detail he displays and the finely balanced conclusions he reaches are exemplary. He also has a keen and admirable interest in theological questions concerning the adequacy and usefulness of NT ethics today. The Introduction contains many suggestive comments on these matters and in the course of the book Schrage does not shrink from highlighting the relevance of some of the material, while also making critical comments on the ‘bourgeois morality’ of the Pastorals or the dangerous dualism of the Johannine material. Those familiar with NT criticism will recognize here and elsewhere the characteristic features of a Lutheran theologian; and this has rich rewards in his particularly fine discussion of the theological characteristics of Paul’s ethics (although the section on the law is surprisingly thin and shows no knowledge of Sanders’ work).

Thus, within his own terms, and as one of the greatest living exponents of his tradition (he was a pupil of Käsemann and echoes many of his theological judgments), Schrage’s work is very impressive. For a complete and thorough survey of the contents of the NT in regard to ethics, it is certainly the best available at present. If they can afford it, students will find here much of value. But I have the feeling that this approach to the subject represents the end of a line. In the future, studies of the theological content of NT ethics will have to march much more closely in step with analysis of the cultural and social context of the early Christian movement.


John Barclay

University of Glasgow