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R e v ie w A r t ic l e

Toward a Christian New Testament Theology:

A Response Thomas Hatina

R ogan
F uller T h e o l o g ic a l S e m in a r y

Thomas R. Hatina. New Testament Theology audits >uestfor Relevance. London:

Bloomsbury, 2013. Pp. 288. ISBN: 9^0-567-65471-7. $29.95.
New Testament theology is a modern ereation, born out of the desire
to renderapurely historical, descriptive account of the theology of the NT.
In his seminal lecture from 1787, j p. Gabler sharply distinguished b e ^ e e n
dogmatic theology and biblic^ theology, assigning to the latter the tasks of
analyzingideas found in Scripture according to their historical, cultural, and
contexts and of determining which ideas contain universal truth.
These ideas then form the raw m ateria for dogmatic theology. More than
a century later, in 1898, Ernst Troeltsch published an influential essay ad-
vocating for the subjection of all history and tradition to historical-critical
analysis, over against a dogmatic method that presupposes the disclosure
of history by revelation. Another century later, in 1 9 9 0 , Neikki Risnen
chronicled the failure of N T theology to abandon folly its dogmatic pre-
suppositions called for a thoroughgoing h^toricd-critical approach to
the discipline that consists in reconstructing the history of early Christian
thought. Thomas Hatinas recent work. New Testament Theology audits ' uest
forRelevance, forcibly challenges this purely historical-critical approach to
N T theology and proposes an alternative that is as provocative as it is, from
my perspective, problematic.
The first section of this essay is a summary critical evaluation of
Hatinas challenge to N T theology and his proposal for the ture of the
discipline. His challenge to the dominant fostorical-descriptive a p p r o a c h
to N T theolo^r is formidable; the discipline must progress or perish. His
proposal for the future of the discipline, however, fails to overcome his
own devastating critfoue and ascribes unwarranted imerpretive authority
to a relativistic understanding of pluralism. In the second section of this
essay, I propose that N T theology should be redefined in theory according
118 Journal o f Theological Interpretation 201) .$)

to what it is in practice, namely, an integrative reading of the N T that care

folly attends to the historical and linguistic ^rticu larity of the text and
that assumes the theoretical significance of canon, creed, and ecclesial
community I call this redefined discipline Christian N T theology.

H a tin a s C h a llen g e to N ew T e s t a m e n t T heology

Hatina defines N T theology not by its content but by its methodolo-

gical sensibilities. Following Gerhard Ebelings bifurcation of the disci
pline, Hatina categorizes N T theolo^r into foundationalist dialectical

approaches. The foundationalist approach is a study of theology which
is exclusivelyfound in or limitedto the New Testament with little or no re
gard for later interpretations or traditions (p. 19). It attempts to distill
through the filter of historical-critical analysis a pure theology from the
N T that is unpolluted by dogmatic presuppositions. Though this approach
is historical descriptive
in its intent, its practitioners tend uncritically
to transform their historical $ into modern meaning. In other words,
the foundationalist approach assumes historical-critical itself pro-
duces meaning, thereby foreshortening the wide hermeneutical chasm
between text modern
reader. The hermeneutical misstep that
Hatina later makes in his proposalthat religious conviction can be tem-
porarily suspended at some stage in the interpretive process-already be-
gins to appear in his a c c e p t e of the modern dichotomies between fact
meaning between history and theolo^r. Nevertheless, Hatinas
heuristic is clear captures
well the intent of much of foe discipline.
The di^ectical approach is a study of that theology which is based
upon or rooted in or in accordance with foe New Testament (p. 19). This is
the approach taken by Rudolf Bultmann in his N T theology foe one
in which Hatina finds promise for the fa ture of the discipline. In this ap-
proach, historical-critical ^ is oriented not toward historical recon-
struction but toward foe interpretation of the ancient text for readers
whose cultural, social, cosmological
presuppositions ate vastly differ-
ent. In other words, foe dialectical approach is oriented toward interpreta-
tion meaning
for present readers. It incorporates a robust hermeneutic
to bridge the chronological chasm. Although Hatinas explication of the
dialectical approach is generally helpfol, he ascribes unwarranted author-
ity to modern convictions in determining relevance, as in, for in s ^ c e , the
case of sexuality. Nevertheless, Hatinas Reference for approach to N T
theology oriented toward present m e ^ n g is compelling for those with the
conviction N T has something to say to us today.
Hatinas critique of the foundationalist approach to N T theolo^f
foe approach that has defined the discipline for more th two centuries
that is represented by scholars such as I. H. Marshall F ^ k Thiel-
R ogan: Towarda Christian New Testament Theology: 119

manis concise and devastating. He exposes the epistemologicai impos-

sibility of objective historical-critical analysis and the spectacular failure
of the foudationalist approach to deliver on its promises. He levies five
challenges against the foundationalist approach. First, the consistent appli-
cation ofhistorical-critical methods delivers anything but objective results,
as evidenced, for example, in the ^Im plication contradictory scholarly
reconstructions of the historical Jesus. Second, langage does not contain
in itself transhistorical, absolute meaning. The meaning of language is dis-
Hosed not through universal rationality but through the traditions of par-
ticular reading communities. Third, efforts to discover unity within the N T
tend *mintentionally to impose unity from without and to form a canon
within a canon. Fourth, apart from dogmatic presuppositions, there is no
NT. That is, a purely historical approach to the N T has no criteria bywhich
it may justifiably separate the 27 texts of the N T from other early Christian
writings. Fifth, the diversity of early Christian thought and the dearth of
theology in early Christian texts undermines historical-critical attempt
to discover unity from within the N T itself. These arguments persuasively
substantiate Hatinas contention that the reliance on historical-critical
exegesis as an isolated method that promised objectivity has actually un-
dermined the quest for a New Testament Theology (p. 65). The future of
N T theology must he elsewhere.
Harina advances his argument and lays groundwork for his proposal
by situating N T theolo^f in the history of biblical interpretation and by
classifying its practice according to a fivefold taxonomy of differing struc-
tures: chronological, author-by-author, sHvation-history, dogmatic,
existentialist. Harinas survey of biblical interpretation from early Judaism
to the Enlightenment reveals the continuities and discontinuities between
N T theolo^r and the history of biblical interpretation. New Testament
theology shares the conviction with ancient and medieval exegetes alike
that the sacred texts speak to readers in every age. Its disciplinary moor-
ings in the Enlightenment make it unique, however, in its attempt to read
Christian Scripture apart from ecclesiastical tradition.
Hatina classifies the chronological approach (represented by Km-
mel and Jeremias) and the author-by-author approach (represented by
Marshall Caird) as foundationalist, because they attempt to distill a
unified N T theology through historical criticism and without recourse to
dogmatic presuppositions. These approaches are incapable of producing
a unified N T theology and against their stated intentions impose unity
from outside the NT. Their consistent application of the historical-critical
method renders them incapable of adequately presenting the meaning of
the text for contemporary readers. Hatina classifies the sHvation-history,
dogmatic, and existentialist approaches as dialectical, because they accept
in varying ways the positive role of external factors in the formulation of
120 Journal o f Theological Interpretation p.i (2015)

N T th010gy. Hatina critiques the salvation-history approach (represented

by CuUmann and Wright) for its circularity and for its bifurcation of his-
tory into sacred and secular spheres. He critiques the dogmatic approach
(represented by Schlatter and Richardson) on the grounds that it is too pa-
rochial and particularist to be relevant in a pluralistic culture. Hatina finds
the existentialist approach (represented by Bultmann) most promising for
the future of the discipline because it is broadly oriented toward meaning
for the modern human and because it incorporates within its practice a
robust hermeneutical process.
H a t in a , s P r o po sa l fo r N ew T est a m en t T h eo l o g y
IN A P lu r a listic A ge

Having persuasively argued that the dominant approach to N T theol-

ogy is not viable, Hatina sets forth a provocative proposal for the practice
of N T theology in a pluralistic age. He distinguishes religion (an observ-
able social universal identified by anthropological characteristics) from
theology (an enterprise concerned with a gods revelation to humanity).
Following Risnen, Hatina argues that N T theology should be assimilated
into modern religious studies in order to facilitate critical scholarship and
to create common ground for public engagement. Hatina advocates for a
three-step process for N T theology that moves from raw faith to religion
to theology. NewTestament theology becomes an exercise in mythmahing
that recastls} the ancient stories, events, and preaching in ways that ad-
dress contemporai-y life (p. 224).
Hatinas proposal for the ture
of N T theology seeks to advance the
normative project of Bultmann and broaden its scope. Two primary con-
viciions motivate his proposal. First, the practice of N T theology must be
dialectical, oriented toward meaning and relevance for the modern world.
This dialectical task requires a well-developed hermeneutic to bridge the
vast chronological chasm between the N T and the modern reader. Second,
the context of N T theology is, broadly speaking, the modern pluralistic
world. This pluralistic context not only does shape, but should shape, our
understanding of N T theology. These two convictions are what motivate
Hatina to assimilate N T theology into religious studies. Religious studies
becomes the vital hermeneutical step between exegesis and theology, the
common ground making dialogue possible in a pluralistic public square.
In Hatinas program, N T theology becomes a three-step process mov-
ing from raw faith to religion to theology. The concept of raw faith is
drawn from Ninian Amart and Feter Berger and connotes personal emo-
tive experience expressed in the language of a religious community. In
this stage, certain religious ^esuppositions are conceded to the scholar
because of what they bring to the text from their faith experience. A1-
though this step allows Hatina to address the vexed problem of canon in
N T theolo^r, it might also concede problematic presuppositions arising
R ogan: Towarda Christian New Testament Theology: 121

from personal faith experience. A group of those ad^essed by the letter

to the Colossians, for example, had what could be described as a raw faith
experience that ?aul judgedto put it moderatelyas problematic (c Col
2:16-23). Bywhat criteria might presuppositions from raw faith e^erience
be conceded or scrutinized? Rather than beginning with the raw faith of an
individual, it might be less problematic for the (Christian) scholar to begin
with certain traditions handed down by the Christian reading community,
namely, the canon and the ecumenical creeds.
In Hatinas second step, the N T is analyzed with the critical apparatus
and epistemological presuppositions of modern religious studies. Hatina
argues that the modern study of religion complements theology because
religious studies aims at a broader understanding of the experience and
function of religion in human existence. He names four characteristics of
religious studies vis--vis theological inquiry. W hereas theology is tradi-
tionally exclusive and parochial, religious studies is inclusive and broad in
scope. Whereas theology is partisan and often patriarchal, religious studies
adopts a nonpartisan approach in comparative religion and is open to genu-
ine diversity among its scholars. Whereas theology is compartmentalized
m d g e ^ ra h y dismissive toward the social sciences, religious studies is mul-
tidimensional and richly cross-disciplinary. Whereas th e o lo ^ makes God
the object of knowledge, religious studies is epi^m ologically ambivalent.
Hatina calls this epistemological orientation ^ n -(^ th eistic; religious and
atheistic c o n v i c t i o n s alike are suspended in order to facilitate scholarship in
comparative religion and to create common ground for pluralistic dialo^e.
By assimilating N T theology into religious studies and calling for the
suspension of religious belief at this stage of inquiry, Hatina lapses into
the very foundationalist approach that he so thoroughly dismantles ear-
lier in his work. Hatinas understanding of dialectic depends on the sharp
dichotomy between history and theology, between fact and meaning. He
conceives of history and fact as essentially meaningless. Thus, at this step
in his dialectic, Hatina follows the path forged by Risnen in Beyond
New Testament Theology, which pushes the foundationalist approach to its
extreme and logical end. The intellectu^ apparatus and epistemological
presuppositions of modern religious studies (temporarily) displace Chris-
tian convictions regarding canon, creed, and ecclesial community. The
historical-critical approach is meticulously applied to the practice of N T
theology, presuming to expose and expel all (ir)religious presuppositions
from its method. The N T becomes a collection of early Christian texts.
God is abandoned as the object of study and is replaced with a phenom-
enological approach to human religious experience. A universal rationality
capable of neutrally assessing data and comparing religion is presumed and
employed. Hatina would resist the charge of foundationalism because this
is only one stage of his dialectic. This stage of inquiry, however, fails to
survive Hatinas own critique of the foundationahst approach.
122 Journal o f Theological Interpretation 9.1 (201$)

The third stage of this proeess is theologieai formulation in light of the

seeond stage of inquiry. This theology aims to be normative and relevant
in the modern pluralistie world. By relevant Hatina appears to mean that
the voiee of N T theology will be heard in the public square about pressing
social and political issues, such as climate change, the war on terror, the
U N declaration on Human Rights, economic ethics and inter-faith living
(p. 7) . The role that this voice plays with regard to these issues is the
advocating of universal human dignity, justice, and peace (p. 215). At this
stage of Hatinas dialectic, modern religious experience dramatically and
unapologetically shapes the meaning of N T theology, so that it can be rele-
vant to such public social matters. Hatina provocatively suggests that this
kind ofN Ttheology fonctions as myth, that is, as a narrative ideolo^f that
ascribes new meaning to the past and egresses the past with new symbols
that legitimate a particular identity. As intriguing as this is, it scarcely re-
sembles anything that has been practiced as N T theology. Moreover, Ha
tina ascribes unwarranted authority to distinctively modern convictions
in creating contemporary meaning, to the extent that the N T is rendered
impotent against every modern ideological consensus.
Hatinas hermeneutic dulls the critical edge that the N T has against
modernity by assimilating N T theology into modern ideology masquerad-
ing as pluralism. Hatina argues that when N T theology is brought outside
the church into the public square Christians must abandon parochial, ex-
clusivist claims to truth, recognizing that truth is equally shared among
global religious traditions. According to Hatina, the Christian presumption
uniquely to possess divine revelation makes dialogue impossible in a plural-
istic context. Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen call this understanding
of pluralism normative directional pluralisman approach to pluralistic
engagement that eventually leads to thoroughgoing moral and religious rel-
ativism.* This pluralism is hegemonic, abolishing true plurality by subject-
ing all difference to monolithic relativism. For this reason, the interpretive
authority Hatina gives to what he understands as the modern pluralistic
context is problematic. To abandon, or even suspend, Christian conviction
for a voice in this public square undermines pluralism with monolithic
relativism. The refosal to abandon Christian conviction does not destroy
public dialogue. On the contrary, Christian conviction undergirds gracious
and civil public engagement and can create dynamic dialogue in the context
of true plurality*

L See the helpful sixfold taxonomy of varieties of pluralism and their relation to Chris-
tianity in Riehard Mouw Sander Griffioen, P 1 luralisms andHorizons: An Essay in Christian
Public Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 1-19.
2. Mouw and Griffioen point to the doctrine of the Trinity, the diversity of Gods ere-
ation, and Christian esehatology as convictions that undergird Christian public engagement
in a pluralistic context (pluralisms andHorizons, 122-29).
R ogan: Towarda Christian New Testament Theology: 12

Hatina seems to overdetermine the role of hermeneutics in his dialec-

tic. In Hatinas program, a robust hermeneutic makes dialectic possible by
bridging the gap between history and theolo^, objective fact and subjective
meaning. A robust hermeneutic makes the N T relevant in a pluralistic con-
text and becomes a bulwark against religiously motivated violence. Rather
than hermeneutics, however, the emphasis on the meaning and social rele-
vanee of N T theology might be better placed on faithful embodiment by
the worshiping community. Because humans are psychosomatic beings,
understanding, meaning, and relevance cannot precede embodiment. This
is why the eminent missiologist Lesslie Newbigin calls the church, a com-
munity shaped by and living out of the gospel, the only hermeneutic of
the gospel.3 The N T becomes meaningfttl through the life of the com-
munity shaped by the NT. This community might become what Jonathan
Sacks calls a creative minority, whose faithful presence on the periphery
of power influences the dominant culture for the common good. 4
In short, Hatinas proposal for N T theology presses dialectic to such
extreme limit that it shatters. In the analysis of the past, Hatina capitu-
lates to the thoroughgoing foundationahst approach ofRisnen, assimi-
lating N T theology into religious studies and calling for the suspension of
religious conviction. In his interpretation for the present, he submits the
N T to a relativistic understanding of pluralism, abolishing the critical edge
with which it engages the public square. Hatinas emphasis on a robust
hermeneutic eclipses, albeit unintentionally, the role of human community
in shaping individuals and societies. Despite these criticisms, Hatinas em-
phasis on the present meaning and public context of N T theology is valu-
able for considering the fhture of the discipline. In the following section,
I will outline an alternative proposal for the practice of N T theology that
takes into account Hatinas critique of the discipline and his emphasis on
meaning and context.

T o w ard a C h r ist ia n N ew T e sta m en t T h eo lo g y

By exposing the untenability of a purely historical-descriptive ap-

proach to the discipline, Hatinas work has opened up new directions for
the fa ture of N T theology. However, rather than a^m ilating N T theology
into religious studies for relevance in a pluralistic context, I suggest that
N T theology should become a mode of inquiry within the rich ttialogue
berreen canon, creed, and ecclesial community for faithful embodiment in

3. L. ^wbigin. The Gospelin a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1989), 228.
4. In public lecture, R^bi Jonathan Sacks speaks to Christians, now on the periphery
of power, about what they can learn from the Jewish experience as a creative minority (On
Creative Minorities: The 2013 Erasmus Eecture, First Things {cited 23 September 2 4. On-
line: http://www.firstthings.c0m/article/2014/01/0ncreativemin0rities). Sacks borrows the
term creative minority from ?ope Benedict XYI.
124 Journal o f Theologicalinterpretation . (2015)

the ecclesial context. In other words, N T theology ought to he located in

a p^ticular reading community, the ecclesial community, which has a par-
ticular rationality guiding its thinking form of life, namely, canon
creed. Hatina Risnen have shown the extent to which N T theology
is practiced from such a reading community, against the theoretical inten-
tions of the discipline and its practitioners. But where Risnen laments
dogmatic intrusions, I rejoice. W hen Hatina e p o ses theoretical inconsis-
tencies, I am glad. The N T time after time subverts our best scholarly ef-
forts to distance ourselves ftom the voice of ^o d . I do not call for a hold
new direction of N T theolo^f as Hatina does. Nor, Idee Risnen, do I cry
out for a renewal o fa lle g ^ c e to our theoretical disciplinary roots. I rather
suggest that the theoretical boundaries of N T theology should be revised
according to its practice, in which historical ^ y s i s , exegesis, theology
are influenced by the interests of the ecclesial reading community. This
theoretical revision, in turn, shapes disciplinary practice by conceiving of
Christian conviction, not as distortion to be avoided, but as the concep-
tual framework that makes possible a theoretically coherent account of
N T theology.
This theoretical revision of the discipline might simply be renamed
Christian N T theology. It continues to be an integrative reading of
the N T that closely attends to the historical literary contexts of the
texts so functions as a distinctive mode of inquiry within the trial-
ogue bettveen 0 creed, ecclesial
community. Thus, a C h r i s t ^
N T theolo^f is written from for the sake of ecclesial context
presupposes a canonical and creedal rationality. From the standpoint of
theory, this is a radical revision of N T theology that utterly subverts the
disciplines historic raison d'tre, because it wholly surrenders the pursuit of
a ^ re ly ltis to ri^ -c riti^ a c c o u m of the th e o lo ^ o fth e N T . Intentionally
employing ecclesially located approach would almost certainly result in
0 0 N T th eo lo ^. However, any foture approach to N T theology
that takes to heart Hatinas critique would be ^ m a lo u s , because he so
incisively subverts the thoroughgoing historical-critical approach that has
dominated the discipline. This raises the question whether N T theology
has a viable disciplinary fa ture at all. Ferhaps it is too early to tell. One
might reasonably assume that the last N T theology has not yet been writ-
ten. W ith this in mind, I will outline the trialogue within which a Christian
N T theology might fonction as a mode of inquiry the theologically
redefined account of history that might undergird such endeavor.
Robert w . Jensons Canon and Creed helpfally elucidates the rich
irreducible relationship between canon, creed, and ecclesial community.
Jenson shows how the regulafidei, a communal linguistic awareness of the
faith delivered to the apostles that later assumed fixed textual forms in
the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed, ^ id e d the early church in locating
R ogan: Towarda Christian New Testament Theology: 125

itself within Israels Seripture in recognizing of the 27 texts of the N T

as canon .5 The regulafidei, however, is insufficient in itself for the faith
of ecclesial community and vitally depends on the two-testament canon
of Scripture. Scripture is the word of God through which God is revealed
to humanity by which God reigns over the church. The creed is the
critical theory through which the ecclesial community reads studies
the canon. Jenson explains, The church cannot simply opt out of moder-
nitys critical pathos; we may not be of the world, but we are in it, and all
in it now are critics. The question has to be Following what critical theory,
and penetrating to whose agenda, should the church read its Scripture?
. . . The community positioned to perceive what a scriptural text is truly
up to is the church, the creed is the set of instructions for discerning
this agenda.^ The creed, then, directs ecclesial inquiry toward the divine
agenda operating in the canon. Canon creed exist in a mutual irre-

ducible relationship within the life of the ecclesial community. A C h r i s t a
N T theology could potentially fonction as a mode of inquity within this
trialogue, one that is distinctive on account of its close attention to the
historical literary
particularities of the N T texts.
A C h r i s t ^ N T theolo^f that continues to attend closely to the his-
torical particularities of the text necessitates a revised u n d e rs ^ d in g of
history. New Testament theology, from its disciplinary origins until now,
has divided theology from history. In his monograph. History and Herme-
neutles, Murray Rae argues that history has been defined for nearly two
centuries as objective account of the causal nexus of historical events
without recourse to the divine. C h r i s t ^ theology is dislodged from the
particularities of history focuses
on universal truths distilled from the
biblical text. The extent to which N T theology accepts this dichotomy
is the extent to which it is incapable of understanding the NT. Murray
Rae contends that the reality of Gods action within history ought to de-
termine how one does history. The fatal flaw of modern historiography.
Rae argues, is its presumption to know what history is apart from revela-
tion. All history-telling is, irreducibly, a hermeneutical activity, depend-
ing on selective, approximate, and provisional judgments made within a
larger conceptual framework. 7 Rae helpfally redefines history within the
theological framework of creation promise, so as to restore history
to undivided state. History is the realm of Gods activity.
Raes theological concept of history is particularly well-suited to rigorous

5. Robert w .Jenson, Canon and Creed (Louisville: Wstminsterjohn Knox, 2010), 15.
6. Jenson, Canon and Creed, 81.
7. Murray Rae, History and Hermeneutics (London: T. & T. Clark, 2003), 95 For a post-
foundationalist philosophieal approaeh to the same kind o f uestion, see Mark Bevir, Why
Historieal Distanee Is Not a Problem, History and Theory 50 (2011): 24-37.
126 Journal o f Theological Interpretation 201) .$)

historical work on the canon of the N T with the aid of the creed and for
the sake of the ecclesial community

C o n c l u s io n

We may be grateftd to Thomas Hatina for New Testament Theology and

Its Quest for Relevance. Its lucid summary and critique of N T theology is
a valuable contribution to the discipline. In my view, Hatina has made a
persuasive a r^ m e n t that a thoroughgoing h io r i^ - c r itic a l approach to
the discipline of N T theology is not viable. I have suggested, however,
that it might be better to diverge from Hatinas work where he proposes
the potential future of N T theology. I find more promise in the work of
Jenson, which elucidates the irreducible relationship between canon and
creed in the ecclesial community, and in the work of Rae, which seeks to
reformulate the relationship between history and theolo^r. A N T theolo^f
constructed with these sensibilitiesa Christian N T theolog/consti-
tutes a viable alternative to the approach critiqued by Hatina. And yet,
appending Christian to N T theology signifies such a radical revision of
the discipline that it may well never be adopted. The filture o fN T theolo^f
remains uncertain.

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