A Critical Analysis of the Theology of Thielman and Schnelle

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Introduction

Udo Schnelle’s Theology of the New Testament and Frank Thielman’s Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach are two of the greatest theologies produced in the early twenty-first century.  Despite both works sharing part of their name, the content and approach of each author differ from the other, providing for argumentation and conclusions that are unique and significant for modern theological studies. The structure of Schnelle’s book is first a discussion of his philosophy of how theology should be studied and then he moves through the development of Christian theology through Scripture chronologically. Thielman also starts his book with his views of theology as well, but the rest moves through each book of the New Testament in canonical order.

Theological Philosophy

There is great diversity within the field of theological studies. In order to keep the discussion limited, this paper will only speak of Christian theological studies based upon the Protestant canon and Catholic canon. Even though the theologies are all developed from the same writings, there can be great variance in how they are interpreted. Some theological views can be distinguished as whole branches of theologies or even “families.” One such example could be the branch of Reformed theology. While it may be referred to under an umbrella term, it would be foolish to think it was a singular theology or that there is no diversity within it. Throughout all of the Christian theological studies, there is great diversity, and this is due to a multitude of factors.

Every theologian that reads Scripture brings several presuppositions that influence their interpretation. Thus, it can strengthen or weaken the perceived impact of a recorded event in a narrative or even the intent of an epistle. These presuppositions can be caused by the personal beliefs of the theologian, their experiences in their faith, cultural and social influences, and even their understanding of the historical and social setting of the Biblical text. To mitigate these influences as to extra accurate meaning from the texts, theologians must be aware of their presuppositions, and then they must try to work through the texts objectively with the relevant historical information to aid in understanding the author’s intent or choices were influenced by.

  Both Thielman and Schnelle open their books with their philosophy of how theology should be determined. In doing so, they are upfront with how they have come to their conclusions.  Further, by their awareness of how they view the development of theological positions, they can fairly apply the same methodology across the entirety of Scripture instead of using uneven measurements and methodology for each writing. Without a consistent methodology used across the entirety of Scripture, the conclusions derived will lack consistency and unification. In the worst-case scenario, the inconsistent methodology may lead to absolute falsehoods, not merely differences in opinion. Within theological studies, disagreement in views is always welcomed, but the aim is always toward discovering the truth; however, an inconsistent methodology will only mislead.

Schnelle’s Approach

Udo Schnelle approaches theology with the concept of “meaning-formation” at the forefront of his interpretation. He posits that the “early Christian authors were faced with the task of fitting the chaotic contingency of the crucifixion and resurrection into a meaningful theological structure—and they did this through narrative.”[1] As such, the crux of this meaning-formation was the product of trying to find meaning from the events of the cross and resurrection for application in the lives of the faithful and humanity.[2]

While many in academia have disconnected the historical events in the Bible from the kerygma, Schnelle argues that all the New Testament authors viewed these as inseparable.[3] Their meaning-formation was neither derived merely from the kerygma of the gospel nor the historical events of Jesus, but through the entirety of the gospel story within the culture, history, and work of Jesus Christ. In developing theological meaning from the whole of the New Testament texts, tensions arise due to the heterogeneous cultures and social statuses existing at the time of the Biblical events and the diversity of culture and social status of the writers.

Within the narrative of Jesus, one notable cultural tension is between the Jewish people and the Samaritans, from which Jesus told a parable about how to show love to others despite such disunity. Further, we see the tensions between Jesus and the Pharisees, Sadducees, and other ruling classes. Along with the cultural tensions within the narrative, the writers came from different backgrounds that certainly caused their writings to emphasize these historical events differently from the others.

As such, each author contributed to the overall meaning-formation found within Scripture with their influence through the lens from which they wrote. Similarly, each theologian that interprets Scripture adds to the overall understanding of it by asserting their conclusions derived from the lens through which they view the writings. As the authors each brought different cultural influences to the table, their meaning-formation as a whole created a new cultural identity.[4]

Thielman’s Approach

Thielman approaches the theology of the New Testament through reading the Bible for what it is in its own context. He views the greatest problems with theological studies are the inability for theologians to read the Bible outside of the church dogmatics and the difficulty of understanding the theological diversity within the New Testament documents.[5] As mentioned in the paper previously, theologians are always in a battle with their presuppositions—the baggage they bring into their thinking. Presuppositions are not always a negative attribute, especially if the theologian is aware of theirs and how that might influence their conclusions.

Church Tradition and Dogmatics

For Thielman, the influence of church traditions prevents many theologians from ascertaining the theological truths of the New Testament texts. Speaking to this problem, he states,

Since the sixteenth century, biblical theologians have struggled with the relationship between interpreting the Bible to find support for the church’s traditional theological teachings and interpreting the Bible within its own historical context without consideration for the theological convictions of the church.[6]

After thousands of years of theological development and traditions, theologians often default to the views that the churches teach them. While the church cannot be viewed as a monolith of homogeneity, every denomination brings its own traditions and theological views to the table.

While there are certain universal truths among Christian churches, there is an even larger list of differences within traditions and their teaching. As previously discussed, the influences upon the theologian can lead one to a certain conclusion, but a different theologian may read the same text and draw a differing conclusion. Such diversity drawn from the same texts can and has led to the creation of different theological teachings. From the theological teachings, in combination with the cultural and social influences of groups, traditions are formed, and, given time, these become accepted as norms for the group. This acceptance without questioning can cause theologians to fail to realize they are influenced by their presuppositions. In a way, a fish accepts water as its environment as the norm and likely never calls into question that other creatures may find it odd to live an aquatic life.

Thielman offers criticism for those that claim to be searching for “biblical theology,” arguing that throughout much of the church age, many have claimed to undertake the endeavor to correct the church’s theology. Still, in doing so, they committed numerous fallacies.[7] While theologians should always strive toward truthful theological conclusions, which in turn are “biblical theology,” presuppositions tend to mar the integrity of the process. For this reason, many theologians have attempted to interpret the New Testament texts through a historical only approach, but this too has its drawbacks. Looking through the texts through such a narrow scope limits the conclusions that may be drawn from them as each element must be examined as a historical fact or mere Christian mysticism and tradition. Later in this paper, the historic-only approach will be discussed further, but no longer in this section. Ultimately, Thielman argues,

There is nevertheless no reason in principle why New Testament theologians cannot be as successful at listening to the texts as secular historians. Every historian, including one who argues against theological bias, is engaged to some extent in proclamation.[8]

Ultimately, if the theologian does their due diligence in studying the texts and examining their presuppositions, they should be able to determine a reasonably objective theological conclusion. One could easily argue that the secular historian brings no more objectivity to the table. In fact, the secular historian could bring more presuppositions and influences if they are motivated to disprove the Christian faith.

Diversity within New Testament Texts

The second problem Thielman identifies for theological studies is the difficulty of understanding the diversity within the New Testament Texts. Because of the diversity of theological views found within the texts, it can cause difficulty for theologians in recognition of coherence of the texts, or even contradict itself, according to Thielman.[9] While he recognizes some statements may appear to be contradictory, after careful analysis of the New Testament texts, he argues, “many of the theological “problems” in the New Testament evaporate.”[10]

While diversity can certainly pose a puzzle for theologians, it is not a problem that cannot be mitigated without careful study and analysis. While Thielman may state that this is a problem in theological study, one could argue that it is the very essence of why theological study exists. Life is vastly complex and cannot be summed up into simple statements. Like analogies, it’s near impossible to make generalizations that are true in every case. At least one example may be given that will cause the statement to be fallacious in extreme cases.

It is the duty of the theologian to carefully examine the theologies drawn from the New Testament texts to identify those that seemingly contradict and determine if they may be reconciled. For the evangelical, the theologies must be reconciled, for Scripture is the infallible Word of God. If they cannot be reconciled, then the conclusion drawn from them must be in error, and the texts must be reexamined to determine the accurate theological conclusion. On the other hand, a secular or even non-evangelical theologian may accept that contraindications exist. They could argue that the diversity in the authors, cultures and societal influences may cause such occurrences.

Criticisms

The world is full of diversity of cultures, societal norms, and schools of thought. As such, it is no surprise that there is great diversity within New Testament theology; it should be expected. To find a theologian that another agrees with within every aspect is akin to finding a needle in a haystack, and most would argue that the needle would be far easier to find. Despite this, most will agree that they all believe the same essentials but disagree only on the “non-essentials” of the faith. Even a secular historian may agree with much of the historical conclusions of the most devout theologian.

A theologian should always be aware of the presuppositions they are burdened with when they examine the New Testament texts and then be careful of how they draw conclusions to their discoveries. Similarly, when a person studies the works of a theologian, one should pay careful attention to the presuppositions of the theologian. It is easy to identify the influence of popular theology of the time and even the popular subjects at the time of their writing. Additionally, historical context, cultural influences, and church dogmatics play roles in the development of even the best theologians. The key to understanding them and their theologies is to be honest with these attributes, and if the theologian is honest with themself, then they may minimize those influences.

So, it is expected that criticisms exist in this assessment as the diversity of theology is like the grains of sand on a beach. But these criticisms should not be understood to discredit these authors and their works. Indeed, both are wonderful works, albeit with some drawbacks, as discussed below.

Schnelle

It is unfortunate that Schnelle’s wonderful work is tainted with allegations that are neither proven nor consistent with the Scripture being the infallible Word of God. He examines a theory that suggests that the pre-Easter Jesus could not be the same one proclaimed in the four gospels.[11] Further, he spends time on a theory that “After the crucifixion, the disciples, faced with the destruction of their dreams, stole Jesus’s corpse and devised the message of his resurrection.”[12] Schnelle does argue that every portrayal of Jesus is a construction of the one interpreting the text at the time, but to even use ink addressing such statements seems ludicrous.

While he does not make active statements against the veracity of these claims, based upon his own theology, he either does not believe them or finds them unimportant. He does spend time aggressing the “sayings source” for the Synoptic gospels, which is another product of theological academia without merit. While it could be possible, there is no evidence of a Q source. Instead, it is a theory based upon conjecture, which cannot be proven as true. Many years from now, it’s believable that the Q source will not be addressed by theologians, and it will only be known as an academic exercise of theologians of this era. Schnelle examines the theorized Q source in-depth, but ultimately it feels as if it is to satisfy the academics of this day. The popular opinion of the day is to support the notion of the Q source, and it may be difficult for one’s academic career if one stands against it.

Thielman

Many academics find the study of Christian theology incomplete without looking into extra-canonical writings. Although the history of the church has remained consistent in the core canon, academia seems to put more emphasis on some writing, like the Gospel of Thomas, than certain canonical books that they claim are now of the disputed Paulin corpus. While church tradition cannot be trusted with impunity, the church has generally been correct in many aspects. If a new theory goes against thousands of years of church history, it could be argued that the new theory is likely the one that is incorrect.

Thielman believes that these non-canonical writings are integral for a complete study of Christian theology. The issue with this is that it seems there were only a few small groups that recognized these texts, so to include them in the study of Christian theology seems almost as unnecessary as studying the Book of Mormon for the endeavor. While learning is always an enjoyable task, within the scope of Christian theology, it seems unrelated, except that a small group wanted to include it. Mormonism claims to be Christian, but the Book of Mormon is not included in Christian Theological studies.

Along with that slight issue, Thielman tends to place a great emphasis on studying a with a purely historical approach as to avoid errors due to presuppositions. While he does not go as deep as a historic-only approach, it is foolish to think great meaning can be derived from historical events alone without also looking into the rest of the narrative and opinions of the authors of the New Testament texts. Further, one cannot be foolish enough ever to think that one can get to a purely historic view without presuppositions. The best that can be achieved is awareness of them so that they can be minimized. Even the secular historian will have presuppositions. Instead, the approach that will best help the church is the one that truly looks into the New Testament texts as a unifying work and uses every aspect to derive theological meaning. Further, the Old Testament should not be unhitched from the New Testament but used to provide insight into the New Testament. Without both, the fullness of meaning is lost. It is difficult to think of a New Testament theology that does not also reference the Old Testament writings.

Conclusion

Both works are wonderful additions to any seminarian’s library. The authors spend a great deal of time thoroughly researching topics, and they bring benefits in their unique ways. While Thielman investigates the New Testament writings book by book, Schnelle offers a chronological approach to the Biblical events. In reading these, it became clear that these are intended for those that have a seminary education or for the dedicated Christian that is ready to take a deep dive in their studies. And while these are great works, it is unfortunate that they are not written with a more pastoral direction. For the average Christian, these works are not accessible, but they will help influence future pastors and theologians for all the better.


[1] Udo Schnelle, Theology of the New Testament, trans. M. Eugene Boring (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 37.

[2] Ibid., 54-54.

[3] Ibid., 55.

[4] Schnelle, 55-56.

[5] Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 19.

[6] Thielman, 19.

[7] Thielman., 20.

[8] Ibid., 34.

[9] Thielman, 34.

[10] Ibid., 35.

[11] Schnelle, 62.

[12] Ibid.

Gordon Bland

I am a seminary student working toward my M.Div. While I grew up Pentecostal, within my first semester of seminary, I came to a different understanding of the Word and theology. I am now Reformed Baptist. #1689 I love teaching others about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, for it was Christ that transformed me. For a number of years, I was a militant atheist and substance abuser. If God can change me, I know he can do the same for you! I am but a wretch, yet He still chose to give me grace. He truly is amazing and deserves all our praise!