Review: Stuhlmacher’s “How To Do Biblical Theology”

Stuhlmacher, Peter. How To Do Biblical Theology. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1995. xli + 95pp. $15.00.

How To Do Biblical Theology consists of a lengthy introduction by Scott Hafemann followed by five chapters by Peter Stuhlmacher of Tübingen.[1] These five chapters are the English version of a series of lectures that he delivered at Asbury Theological Seminary in 1993 and at Yale Divinity School in 1994 (ix). When this monograph was published, Stuhlmacher had already published the first volume of a two-volume set on New Testament Theology. This smaller book spells out the methodological foundation of his larger work.[2] In the first chapter, Stuhlmacher argues for a canonical approach to biblical theology. Chapter two contends that the preaching of Jesus (found in the four gospels!) should be the starting point for New Testament Christology. In the third chapter, he explains how the testimony of Paul and the Johannine school fit into New Testament theology. The fourth chapter describes the formation of the Christian canon, its center, and its interpretation. And chapter five concludes with a summary and overview of his methodology.

Hafemann’s introduction is a description of “Stuhlmacher’s understanding of the classic Lutheran theme of the righteousness of God, seen both in relation to current German academic discussion and in the context of his New Testament theology as a whole.”[3] This lengthy essay serves as a primer to Stuhlmacher’s view of the theme that he considers the central, unifying concept of biblical theology: the righteousness of God. Hafemann notes that, “Any evaluation of Stuhlmacher’s program for doing biblical theology must therefore come to grips with this foundation [Stuhlmacher’s view of the righteousness of God], as well as with the subsequent historical and theological judgments which are built upon it” (xxxvi). Hafemann summarizes Stuhlmacher’s view as follow: “the righteousness of God is the demonstration and display of the power of God as the creative, forensic, and salvific work of God on behalf of his creation in the midst of history” (xxxv).

Chapter one commences with Stuhlmacher’s contention that in the planning and realization of biblical theology one must regard the Old and New Testaments as a unity. According to Stuhlmacher, the necessary “division of labor” (1) that characterizes the study of Old and New Testaments has resulted in an erosion in the belief in the “unity of the two testaments” (2). Stuhlmacher observes that this specialization of the disciplines has resulted in a hermeneutic that rarely, if ever, contemplates the theological congruity of the entire bible. Thus he argues for a methodology that takes into account the witness of both testaments—a canonical approach to biblical theology.

In the second chapter, Stuhlmacher assumes the task that Jeremias never completed: taking the preaching and message of Jesus as the starting point for New Testament theology.[4] He makes the controversial proposition that the “Gospels must be the basis for any description” of Jesus’ preaching (17). In this respect, Stuhlmacher jettisons the approach that New Testament scholars have utilized since the time of F. C. Baur—that is, taking Paul and his letters as the starting-point of critical inquiry into the New Testament.[5] “Jesus is only understood correctly when he is understood on the basis of his divine mission, his passion, an his resurrection,” and these events are to be found in the Gospels.

In chapter three, Stulmacher describes how the Pauline and Johanine testimony fit into biblical theology. Paul formulated his gospel as the message of salvation concerning the righteousness of God in Christ (33). This message did not develop gradually as some suggest, but “the crucial content of the apostle’s gospel of Jesus Christ and the justification of sinners through faith in this Christ was alone the result of the revelation at Damascus” (33). The main contribution of John to biblical theology is the formulation of the “Logos-Christology” (44). “Christ who overcomes the enemies of God at the end of time, is the personification of the word of God” (45). For Stuhlmacher, even though Paul and John use different language, they share a common confession: “God reveals himself in the world only through his only Son, who is the Christ; only through his sacrifice and resurrection from the dead is salvation in the last days made available” (48).

In Chapter four, Stulmacher discusses the formation of the Christian canon, the theological center of the canon, and the correct method for interpreting the canon. Among other things, Stuhlmacher contends that scripture must be understood as it wants to be understood (64). Chapter five closes with a summary and overview of Stuhlmacher’s methodology.

Critical Evaluation

With respect to the twentieth century debate over the nature of New Testament theology, Stuhlmacher clearly belongs in the tradition of Adolf Schlatter.[6] For Stuhlmacher, New Testament theology “cannot read these [canonical] texts only from a critical distance as historical sources but must, at the same time, take them seriously as testimonies of faith . . .Accordingly, when drawing up a Biblical Theology . . .historical and dogmatic aspects will overlap” (1). Stuhlmacher’s perspective on this point is a helpful one, for it promotes a hermeneutic that suits the intention of the biblical texts themselves. As Stuhlmacher is fond of saying, this hermeneutic interprets the Bible “as it wants to be interpreted” (1). Stuhlmacher’s arguments to support this point are based on the self-claims of the canonical texts which assume a normative status for their interpretation of Jesus’ life and message. New Testament theology, “must go beyond the dimension of historical statements and become a witness to the truth itself” (67). Stuhlmacher avoids the landmine that dooms many New Testament theologies at the outset: the false disjunction between history and dogmatics.

Another valuable aspect of Stulmacher’s methodology is that he commends a proper deference to the Christian canon as the primary source for biblical theology. Modern critical methods of Biblical interpretation leave much to be desired in that they frequently posit a fundamental disunity between the Old and New Testaments. The point of view promotes the idea that if the Old Testament has a theological center, it is certainly not in line with the New Testament. To read the Old Testament Christologically would be to impose one’s dogmatic presuppositions onto the biblical text and to suppress its historical meaning. Stuhlmacher shows that “to formulate one center for the Old Testament and another for the New . . .overlooks the fact that the Old and New Testaments stem from one complex canonical process” (62). The canonical process (which includes the formation of the LXX) indicates that all the biblical writings testify to God’s one act of salvation through his Son in behalf of all people (62).

Stuhlmacher does leave one with questions concerning the status of the LXX as a canonical document (61). Does Stuhlmacher really hold the LXX to be a canonical text? If so (as he acknowledges [61]), this begs the question of the place of the Apocryphal books in the formation of biblical theology. If the formation of the LXX is really an integral feature of the canonical process, then it stands to reason that the whole LXX should be included as source material for biblical theology. Perhaps Stuhlmacher would claim for the LXX what he claims for the canonical books, “the biblical books divide themselves into central and secondary writings with respect to this center” (63). Whatever the case, because his methodology depends upon the recognition of a complex canonical process, he needs elucidate the place of the LXX in this process and the status that it now has alongside the canonical books.

Overall, Stuhlmacher’s How To Do Biblical Theology is a welcome corrective to the popular tendency to introduce false disjunctions into the practice of biblical theology. Critical scholars of the Bible would be aided by adopting his procedure of using the Christian canon as the starting point of biblical theology. Likewise, his argument for the fundamental unity between the testaments is equally helpful. Whether or not one agrees with his description of the content of biblical theology, one would do well to imitate his method of doing biblical theology.
[1]James Leslie Houlden, review of How To Do Biblical Theology, by Peter Stuhlmacher, Expository Times 107 (1996): 151 passim.
[2]Scot McKnight, review of How To Do Biblical Theology, by Peter Stuhlmacher, Ex Auditu 11 (1995): 161.
[3]Houlden, 151.
[4]McKnight, 162.
[5]“Baur saw, and here his intuition was perfectly correct, that the starting-point of all critical study of the New Testament must be the Epistles of St. Paul. These are the earliest Christian documents which we possess; here we come directly into contact with the life of the earliest Christian communities, and it is only through them and their faith that we can penetrate into the mysterious world of Jesus Christ, and of those events which lie at the origins of Christian faith” (Stephen Neill and Tom Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986, 2nd ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988], 24).
[6]With respect to the twentieth century debate as to whether or not New Testament theology is a purely historical inquiry or also includes dogmatic considerations, Schlatter states, “to make New Testament theology independent of dogmatics is an illusory fiction” (Adolf Schlatter, “The Theology of the New Testament and Dogmatics,” in The Nature of New Testament Theology, ed. Robert Morgan [Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson Inc., 1973], 117).