Review: The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Part 1: Introduction and Background)

With the publication of The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction, Donald HagnerGeorge Eldon Ladd Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Senior Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminaryoffers the church and the academy a first-rate introduction on the theology and background of the New Testament documents. The author of commentaries on Matthew (WBC), Romans (EBC rev.), and Hebrews (NIBC), as well as a number of other works, Hagner has spent many years writing and teaching through the New Testament. This first in a multi-post series on the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction will center on part one of the book—Introductions and Background—which consists of three chapters: Approaching the New Testament as the Church’s Scripture, The Old Testament as Promise and Preparation, and the World of the New Testament.

Approaching the New Testament as the Church’s Scripture

In my previous post I note following opening paragraph:

The Bible is God’s gift to the church. Its contents are acknowledged by the church as uniquely inspired by God and revealed to human authors through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The NT provides the church not only with the founding story of its incarnate Lord and salvation accomplished by him but also with a key provision for its ongoing sustenance and guidance. For the church, therefore, Scripture is unique, holy, and possesses irreplaceable, infallible, canonical authority (3).

What makes this quote standout is its placement at the very beginning of Hagner’s book. It is a rare thing to see such a confession begin a work that is labeled historical. In a time when the tendency is to detach oneself from their theological convictions in such works as these, Hagner nevertheless places his cards on the table for the reader to clearly see. This does not imply that Hagner is not at all concerned with the historical facts contained in the NT, for he clearly sees the necessity for historical investigation.

What follows in chapter one are discussions on the Scriptures as Historical Documents, the rise of Biblical Criticism and the Historical-Critical method of interpreting the NT, and other modern issues regarding how we understand and interpret the NT. In regards to matters of interpretation Hagner reminds us that “[w]e must engage in historical criticism, in the sense of thoughtful interpretation of the Bible, both because of the way in which God has given the Scripture to us and because of its intrinsic nature” (5). Hagner reminds us that because the NT was written by men, at a specific point in history, to a particular people with their own baggage, and in language different from ours, it is imperative that modern readers of the NT understand as much as we can about the background of the NT and its writings in order to get a much more fuller and accurate understanding. For those of us who are graduate students or teach such students, this is nothing new. But the lay reader who picks up Hagner’s book this is a very important lesson to keep in mind as they read through their NT.

The Old Testament as Promise and Preparation

In chapter two, Hagner turns his attention to the OT and its importance for proper understanding of the NT. He emphatically states that “[i]t is virtually impossible to understand the NT without knowledge of the Scriptures of Israel” (13, emphasis Hagner). Hagner rightly notes that the writers of the NT saw Christ as not only fulfillment of the OT promises, but he was also “the hermeneutical key” unlocking the meaning of the OT, and as a result they saw the OT “pointing repeatedly to Christ” (13).

Through the grid of Salvation History/History of Redemption, Hagner surveys the writings of the OT. Beginning in Genesis moving through the writings of the OT, Hagner highlights key aspects of each movement of Salvation History: the Abrahamic Covenant, the Sinaitic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and the Prophets. Along the way, Hanger shows how each of these movements in Salvation History build upon each other, with their ultimate fulfillment coming in the person and work of Christ.

Next, Hagner offers a brief discussion on how the NT authors understood and used the OT in their writings. He is correct to emphasize that theme running throughout the NT is the “fulfillment of the promise of Scripture.” Hagner further believes that the early Christians used a distinctive hermeneutic, what he labels a “christological hermeneutic of fulfillment” which understands Christ as “the hermeneutical key that unlocks Scripture” (21). According to Hagner, the authors of the NT understood that there was a deeper meaning than what was on the surface of the OT, and through the Christ event they were able to get a fuller understanding of the OT and the promises therein. In regards to the NT author’s hermeneutic, Hagner writes:

The majority of OT quotations in the NT involve finding deeper meanings in the texts than the original authors could have realized or intended. We are dealing here not with normal exegesis, but rather with a retrospective reunderstanding of texts that is predominated by the NT authors’ conviction that Christ is the goal of the Scriptures” (22, emphasis mine).

This understanding of how the NT authors used and understood the OT—commonly called the sensus plenior—has been questioned by NT scholars (for a thorough treatment on the topic of intertextuality, see Beale’s The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New). Hagner goes on to note that this understanding of intertextuality has affinities with analogy or typology, which Hagner describes as “divinely intended patterns of correspondence between what God did or said in the past according to the Scriptures and what is true of the history of Jesus Christ” (22). While I tend to disagree with Hagner’s approach, he nevertheless does a good job keeping the hermeneutical ship on course while all the while keeping the emphasis on Christ and the fulfillment of Redemptive History.

The World of the New Testament

In the final chapter of section one, Hagner paints a picture for his readers in which he places the NT within the historical, religious, and cultural setting that both lead up to and follow its publication and circulation throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Starting with the Babylonian Exile in 586 BC, Hagner traces the development of Judaism from its return to the land through the birth of the Church. Topics such as Hellenism, the emergence of the Pharisees and other religious sects within Israel, Roman rule, and other key topics that play a role in the development of the Church are adequately discussed within the limits placed on a project like this. Hagner gives just what is necessary for the reader to be put the socio-historical puzzle together and begin to see the bigger picture.

In closing, Hagner has offered an excellent introduction on the issues of background and interpretation of the NT. Each of the three chapters end with a concise bibliography for the reader to follow-up on if he so desires. I look forward to continue working through what has thus far proven to be a well written and engaging New Testament introduction.

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