Review: Wrede and Schlatter

Morgan, Robert. The Nature of New Testament Theology: The Contribution of William Wrede and Adolf Schlatter. Studies in Biblical Theology, Second Series 25. Naperville, Illinois: Alec R. Allenson Inc., 1973. 196pp. Out of print.

Robert Morgan’s The Nature of New Testament Theology is a helpful introduction to the contemporary debate about what is the essence of the discipline of New Testament theology. The book consists of three essays. The first essay is an introduction by the translator Robert Morgan, and in it he sets the following two essays in the context of the larger academic discussion. The second and third essays represent opposing positions concerning the nature of New Testament theology. On the one hand, William Wrede proposes that New Testament theology is a purely historical pursuit and should be sharply distinguished and separated from the discipline of dogmatics. On the other hand, Adolf Schlatter argues that although the disciplines of history and dogmatics must be distinguished, they must not be separated in the study of New Testament theology. The following review will summarize and critique each essay in turn and conclude with some final remarks.

Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan’s introductory piece attempts to place the essays against their
historical backdrop and to relate them to subsequent studies of the subject.[1] Morgan’s discussion of Bultmann’s practice of New Testament theology shows clearly how Bultmann follows Schlatter’s approach to New Testament theology, even if he does not share the same critical position. “Bultmann. . . has done the most to recover the unity of historical and theological uses of the New Testament” (36). Sachkritik “criticism of what is said by what is meant” (42) is the historical-theological method that Bultmann employs in his New Testament theology. According to Morgan, this method “allows the tradition to remain intact; it ‘gets around’ obstinate pieces of tradition by re-interpretation, instead of removing them” (43).

Critical Evaluation
Unfortunately, the prose in Morgan’s essay makes for very dismal reading; Morgan’s presentation moves slowly and often repetitively.[2] However, his discussion of Bultmann’s method of doing New Testament theology is probably his greatest contribution.[3] Morgan’s essay also hints that he is perhaps more sympathetic with Wrede’s view than with Schlatter’s.[4] In any case, Morgan’s contribution is a helpful introduction to understanding Wrede and Schlatter.

William Wrede

Wrede’s essay urges a renunciation of theology if favor of a thoroughgoing historicism. For Wrede, the task of New Testament theology is the task of doing history. “The first thing which must be required of anyone who wishes to engage scientifically in New Testament theology is, accordingly, that he be capable of interest in historical research” (70). The prevailing procedure in his day was to study the biblical documents in abstraction from their historical contexts in order to collect and systematize doctrine. This approach is completely unacceptable to Wrede because it inevitably casts the interpretation of the text into the mold of the interpreter’s theological presuppositions. When theology is the goal, the “personal theological viewpoint of the scholar” comes in and “obscures things” (70). When the study of the New Testament serves a theological purpose, “Biblical theology will be pressed for an answer to dogmatic questions which the biblical documents do not really give, and will attempt to eliminate results which are troublesome for dogmatics” (69). Therefore, Wrede insists that, “New Testament theology has its goal simply in itself, and is totally indifferent to all dogma and systematic theology” (69).

The second part of Wrede’s essay argues against the “method of doctrinal concepts” which, “sets out to reconstruct as exhaustively as possible the thoughts of every individual writer – i.e. his ‘doctrinal concepts’” (73). Wrede maintains that the doctrinal concepts approach fails to differentiate among the sources and flattens out of the varied terrain of the Bible. He loathes, “the undifferentiated attention to detail which is unable to recognize, as it should, the difference between what is historically important and what is not” (81). He argues that this method “does violence to the document” of the New Testament and “provokes caricature” rather than genuine history (75, 82). To remedy this faulty method, Wrede recommends a new approach which would treat the New Testament documents as sources for, “the historical development of the earliest Christianity which lies behind them” (89). Therefore, “The appropriate name for the subject-matter is: early Christian history of religion, or rather: the history of early Christian religion and theology” (116).

Morgan is correct in saying that it is, “Wrede’s theological presuppositions which are crucial in considering the implications of what he says for the nature of New Testament theology” (9). Wrede is truly a man of his time, thoroughly steeped in the dogmas of enlightenment naturalism and its anti-supernatural presuppositions. For Wrede, reason is the measure of all things. His opening paragraphs smack of an epistemological viewpoint that has since become passev. Truly, Wrede’s critic of the older non-historical approaches to New Testament theology is indeed warranted. However, his conclusion that theology has nothing to do with the academic pursuit of the New Testament is certainly a non sequitur. His anti-supernatural bias motivates his rejection of theology as having any part in the study of the New Testament. Ironically though, he appears to have no knowledge of his own controlling presuppositions. The very thing that he criticizes the theologians for, he is guilty of himself. This hypocrisy undermines his argument that history is unconcerned with theology.

Adolf Schlatter

Adolf Schlatter’s essay is an attempt “to formulate the principles which have directed” his own pursuit of New Testament theology (117). His first aim is to refute the widely held view (Wrede’s view) that New Testament theology should be practiced separately from dogmatics, “to make New Testament theology independent of dogmatics is an illusory fiction” (117). He outright rejects the notion that New Testament theology is only an historical pursuit. For Schlatter, New Testament theology consists of a dialectic between the historical verities of the Bible and the dogmatic results of theology. History and theology are to be practiced in tandem and should never be separated in the study of the New Testament, “there is always bound to be a further task alongside the historical one. That is the dogmatic task” (118). This is not to concede (as Wrede claims) that the objective pursuit of the New Testament is compromised by the intrusive theological presuppositions of the scholar. On the contrary, Schlatter rejects the rationalistic notion that a person can be truly and objective,

“The modern historian, on the other hand, lays the ideas which determine him on one side, saying that they are his own business and not affected by his science. In fact, however, they do inevitably exercise influence, though this is now concealed by the fiction of a merely historical purpose. They are therefore untested and ungrounded, and often enough even the historian himself is unconscious of them. . . It is therefore clear that the historian’s objectivity is self-deception, and that the convictions which influence him have a dominating influence upon his work” (124).

For Schlatter, the key to honest, scientific inquiry is not the “self-annihilation” of one’s beliefs about the subject-matter (125). On the contrary, rather than pretending to be objective, he recommends a profound self-awareness of one’s own relationship to the subject-matter, “we shall in fact only get free of an rise above our presuppositions by paying conscious and rigorous attention to them” (127). Because the study of the New Testament involves the simultaneous task of history and theology, and because its subject-matter is the Christian church’s text, New Testament theology, “strives to achieve the sort of knowledge which gives a positive basis to the faith of the community and the individual” (130). New Testament theology is in the service of the church’s mission.

Critical Evaluation
Adolf Schlatter was a man who was decades ahead of his time. His rejection of enlightened claims to objectivity puts him in the avant-garde of the philosophical rebuttal of modernism. He is able to approach the biblical text with great integrity because he does not pretend to be a disinterested observer, but is honest about his own relation to the subject matter, “So in every piece of work done according to the norms of historical science, the writer and the reader should be aware that a historical sketch can only take shape in the mind of a historian, and that in this process the historian himself, with all his intellectual furniture, is involved” (126). His rejection of naturalism and all its dogmatic methodological presuppositions allows him to argue for a fundamental unity in the Bible. It also allows him to argue for the possibility of the inspiration of the scriptures and for a canon. Therefore, because this document is God-given, Schlatter rightly contends, “Our relationship to the New Testament is one of subordination” (132).Schlatter is able to approach the New Testament in a way that is not antithetical to the documents themselves, “The word with which the New Testament confronts us intends to be believed, and so rules out once and for all any sort of neutral treatment. As soon as the historian sets aside or brackets the question of faith, he is making his concern with the New Testament and his presentation of it into a radical and total polemic against it” (122). All of this makes his argument extremely compelling.

William Wrede’s proposal that New Testament theology should be conceived as a purely historical pursuit and should be sharply distinguished and separated from the discipline of dogmatics should be rejected. However, his insistence that the Bible should not be abstracted from its historical context is helpful. Adolf Schlatter’s argument that the disciplines of history and dogmatics should not be separated is a welcome corrective to historicism run amuck. History and theology ought always be practiced in conjunction with one another.
[1]I. Howard Marshall, review of The Nature of New Testament Theology, by Robert Morgan, Expository Times 84 (1973): 377-78.
[2]James D. G. Dunn, review of The Nature of New Testament Theology, by Robert Morgan, Theology 77 (1974): 653.
[3] Ibid., 653.
[4]Marshall, 378.


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