The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology

Written by Colin Brown Reviewed By Max Turner

1975 has proved a memorable year for those who collect English editions of German theological dictionaries. Within about twelve months we have received no less than four significant volumes. Pride of place goes to the final volume (barring indexes) of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Kittel and Friedrich (henceforth TDNT): this draws to a close an era of NT scholarship which made its opening contribution in Germany in 1932. We have also seen the publication of the first two of twelve scheduled volumes of a Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament edited by Botterweck and Ringgren—and what we have seen whets our appetite for the future offerings. Now we also have the first instalment of a three volume New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT) edited by Dr Colin Brown.

The NIDNTT is a translation, revision, extension and complete rearrangement of the Theologisches Begriffslexikon zum Neuen Testament, edited by L. Coenen et al., and published from 1965 onwards. Almost inevitably it will be compared with TDNT, its bigger brother, and fundamental questions are liable to be asked about whether there is any real place for this enterprise. In the reviewer’s opinion the distinctive qualities of NIDNTT certainly justify its publication and indeed, guarantee it a role of considerable importance in the future.

TDNT is a research tool. Its articles are often major and original contributions of considerable length (120 pages on pneuma) and complexity of detail. Latin, Hebrew and Greek are given without transliteration or translation, technical terms abound and the style of articles is usually so concise that the average student quickly develops mental indigestion. By contrast NIDNTT bends over backwards to help the uninitiated. A 25-page glossary gives guidance to technical terms, from the more familiar ‘Allegory’ and ‘Plato’ to the less well-known ‘Pesher’ and ‘Tosefta’, and includes a total of 128 entries. Greek and Hebrew are given in transliteration and usually accompanied by a translation. The style is lucid (for which we must thank quite a team of translators). In addition there are no less than 75 pages of indexes which assist the reader to trace Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek words referred to in the volume and to follow up subjects which have not been allocated separate articles.

The articles in NIDNTT are competent sketches giving a fair indication of the semantic range of the words studied, and notes on development of ideas, as well as discussion of the particular theological nuance in important NT contexts. For the most part they successfully steer between the Scylla of enigmatic brevity and the Charybidis of excessive technicality and detail. The material on the Greek background is usually held well in rein: compare, for example, the brief (but helpful) two paragraphs in the first section of the article on sōma(body) with TDNT’s 19 pages which are rather beyond the reader who is without any background in the classics. Examples could be multiplied. Handling of the Jewish background is usually fuller and that of the NT, naturally, the most detailed. Even so, the longest article, on ‘Faith, Persuade’, is a mere 19 pages and only 23 of the major articles exceed 5 pages. The brevity, lucidity and compactness of NIDNTT will commend it to all students, teachers and pastors who are concerned with serious grammatico-historical exegesis but who have not the time to explore the riches of TDNT or who feel they need an orientation course before dipping more deeply into them.

Again in favour of NIDNTT is that it is up to date. Half of the TDNT was produced in the ‘pre-Qumran’ era and most of it before Barr’s criticisms of its method and structure. All of the Begriffslexikon has been produced since these two factors became matters of pressing importance. The results are seen on almost every page in the widespread reference to the DSS, in the comparative lack of ‘linguistic mysticism’ (that fogged so many issues in TDNT) and in the structure of the work as a whole. Articles corresponding to material that appeared in the earlier volumes of TDNT are occasionally longer (cf. Abraham, Adam, Bread, etc.) and where they do not take more space than TDNT they may still give a fuller picture in the light of recent findings (e.g. on Angel, Gabriel, Michael, Apostle, Covenant, etc.). Only very rarely do we find occasions when a Begriffslexikon article appeared before the corresponding section in TDNT (or its German counterpart); though this is felt in (e.g.) NIDNTT on ‘Anoint’ and it may account for the rather ‘thin’ nature of (e.g.) the article on hyios under ‘Child’ (despite the appearance of TDNT viii. in the bibliography). Part and parcel of this up-to-dateness are the excellent bibliographies at the end of each article, usefully divided into (a) English and (b) foreign (mainly German) literature.

NIDNTT will commend itself to an English readership as it is more conservative in its orientation (both in the Begriffslexikon and more particularly in the English translation and revision under Colin Brown—on which see later). The student reading TDNT may occasionally be deluged with a mass of religionsgeschichtlicheparallels which wash him away from his chosen moorings. He will rarely be in a position to judge whether the account is a balanced or an extreme one. This is never a real danger with the NIDNTT, and while there are occasional remarks that will worry some, the attitude as a whole is reverent towards both the Scriptures and the Lord.

Owners of the English edition have a number of advantages over those who possess the Begriffslexikon.The claim of the latter to be an international, interdenominational work looks a little thin when the only English contributor was G. R. Beasley-Murray. NIDNTT has a further 14 contributors from outside the continent (mainly British, drawn from a broad spectrum of churchmanship) which in turn means that the Begriffslexikon has been considerably expanded. Part of the increase is accounted for by the presence of new articles. Only one of these is a major article: that by A. C. Thistleton on hermeneuo under ‘Explain, etc.’ The others are shorter though not unhelpful. The rest of the extension is in the form of additions to articles. Many of these are insertions correcting what the editor considers to be a misleading or erroneous statement in the Begriffslexikon: the longest and most important being the note on Apostleship in Luke-Acts which, like the rest, represents the more conservative stance of British evangelical theology. On a few occasions the original articles have been extended to include aspects not previously taken into consideration (e.g. Colin Brown on hyios, under ‘Child’, and on ‘Conscience’). This fortunate policy has allowed A. C. Thistleton to bring what must rank as one of the finest contributions to the whole work—the addition to the article on ‘Flesh’. Paternoster are to be thanked for producing such a fine piece of workmanship that is both more attractive and more manageable than the Begriffslexikon.

There are inevitably points of criticism. On content I shall restrict myself to a few random examples. It is only a half-truth to say that the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are examples of pre-Christian apocalyptic (p. 124). The article on ‘Advocate’ is thoroughly unhelpful when it comes to discussing the Sitz im Leben in John’s theology—recourse should be made to R. E. Brown’s article in the bibliography (which incidentally misses out the very significant contribution by D. E. Holwerda, The Holy Spirit and Eschatology in the Gospel of John, Kampen, 1959). It is unlikely that ‘the call to Christian apostleship is bound with a duty of mission amongst the Gentiles’ (p. 129). Nor do I think that we can say from Targ. Cant. 2:12 that the dove was regarded as a symbol of Israel (rather the sound of a dove is interpreted allegorically of the Holy Spirit speaking) and the article omits one of the most influential interpretations of the dove motif in the account of Jesus’ baptism—that by Von Baer (p. 175). The article on ‘Parts of the Body’ makes no reference (even) to eye, tongue, finger, arm, head (!—though we know from elsewhere that this is forthcoming), hand, mouth, ear and others, a number of which are more important than any of the parts actually dealt with. I think that the statement ‘Paul distinguishes man as God created him … from Jesus, “the second man”, whose origin is heavenly, not earthly’ (p. 520) is either misleading or wrong. Paul’s assertion is not about origins (in which case it would be Gnostic) but contrasts modes of existence in this age and in the age to come, both of which have application to Jesus.

On the form of the work, its excellent qualities notwithstanding, criticism is liable at a number of points: (1) The editorial corrections are often unnecessarily wordy, occasionally clumsy and, once or twice, unconvincing (stronger argument being required). (2) The headings CL and Old Testament are slightly misleading for what is covered in the respective sections. Under Old Testament we find discussion of inter-testamental writings, Qumran literature, Rabbinic Judaism, Philo and Josephus! The Begriffslexikon was better here. (3) A number of articles have virtually no theological significance: they would be better left out. (4) The additional article on ‘Infant Baptism’ (the only one to get two sets of triple exclamation marks from the reviewer’s pencil for its improbable content) is superfluous. While my sympathies are with the paedobaptist position I can see no good reason for including what amounts to a major article on the subject (6 pages), especially after Beasley-Murray’s judicious comments earlier (pp. 148ff.). (5) A quick survey of the index shows that a number of important subjects have not been allocated articles and it does not appear likely that future volumes will deal with them (e.g. Ascension/Exaltation). (6) Frequent reference is made in the Begriffslexikon articles to Strack-Billerbeck: this is useless for most of NIDNTT’s readership. If the references are important they should be translated, or alternative sources given for the same information. (7) Lastly it may be said that the organizational aims of the dictionary are by no means clear. Usually articles on Greek words are clustered round a key idea, so we find, under ‘Conversion’, articles on epistrephō, metamelomai, metanoia and prosēlytos. Similarly under ‘Disciple’ there appear articles on mathētēs, ‘to follow’, ‘to imitate’, and ‘after’. But this is not always the case. Under ‘Fruit’ we find ‘fig’, ‘thorn’ and ‘thistle’. Between these there is an obvious botanical link but what theological connection is there? Similarly we might throw a question mark over the appearance of an article on ‘proselyte’ under ‘Conversion’; ‘Well-born’ (=noble) under ‘Birth’ and so on.

The same basic difficulty appears in other guises. What unity other than lexical is to be found in the various different uses of sarx? Surely we cannot speak of a concept of sarx embracing all the meanings listed under that heading (‘Flesh’). But if there is no conceptual unity, the parts of the article should be split up. Where sarx=body (NT l.a.) it should be discussed in the article under that heading (where it is conspicuous by its absence!). Where sarx calls attention to man’s frailty and creatureliness (pp. 678f.) then the issue should be discussed under ‘frailty’ or ‘creatureliness’ as subsections of ‘Man’. The indexes are the right place for tracing the various different concepts linked by the lexical unit sarx, not an article on the word.

The confusion between whether the aim is to discuss words (and their many uses) or concepts (for which there may be many words or none) is a mark of this dictionary and its greatest weakness. The articles under ‘Conversion’ (to take a random but representative example) need to be simultaneously pruned, rearranged and extended before they are really of use as a Begriffslexikon (lit. ‘concepts dictionary’) entry. They need to be pruned in the sense that all the material that is irrelevant to the idea of conversion (much of the material on ger/prosēlytos and the semantic range of epistrephō etc., outside the concept of conversion) should be excised. They should be revised in the sense that we should not be faced with a completely separate treatment of epistrephō, metanoeō and metamelomai when in most of the incidences of these words (where they are relevant to conversion) there is no basic difference in meaning: they are simply alternatives, in the lexical stock from which the writers were free to choose, to represent the same idea (pace Laubach, p. 355; line 8 from bottom!). The articles need to be extended in the sense that a handful of word studies on the lexical units which are sometimes associated with the idea of conversion is quite inadequate for a coverage of the concept of conversion. For a discussion of (say) Paul’s idea of conversion one would require, in addition, an analysis of (or reference to) ‘man outside Christ’; the challenge of the proclamation about Jesus; a discussion of various aspects of ‘calling’ and ‘election’ and of ‘choice’ and finally some treatment of the status of the convert (‘new creation’, ‘man in Christ’, etc.) and his relationship to the baptized community. In other words the concept is only elucidated in the context of a multidimensional study which comes to the problem from as many perspectives as possible. (Word-studies merely provide one of the avenues of approach.) The aspects of repentance, call, choice, election etc., that are not actually relevant to conversion should be dealt with elsewhere.

Despite these criticisms I would personally wish to express my gratitude to the many who have laboured to provide such a useful tool.

Max Turner

London Bible College