A Review of Räisänen’s Beyond New Testament Theology

I meant to post this in mid-February.  It took me until March to post again, and only then did I realize that I had not finished this post.  What do you think of Räisänen?


Heikki Räisänen, Beyond New Testament Theology (London: SCM Press, 2000).

In Beyond New Testament Theology, Finnish scholar Heikki Räisänen offers “a story and a programme,”[1] beginning with a history of the discipline of New Testament theology that covers over two hundred years, and following it with his own suggested programme for the discipline.  In review of his work, we will begin with a brief summary of his “story”, before offering a critical analysis of his programme.

In 1787 J.P. Gabler proposed that biblical and dogmatic theology should be separate disciplines.  “Gabler’s address displays a clear realization that the contents of the Bible are not simply identical with the doctrine of the church.” (12)  He sought to separate the timeless, “pure” truths of scripture – which are the stuff of doctrine – and the “true”, time-bound and contextual truths of the New Testament; it is the task of biblical theology to exposit the true, and separate from it the pure, in service of dogmatic theology.  Dogmatic theology – also called “biblical theology” due to its biblical source, with Gabler adding “pure” to its title to distinguish it – is then free to interpret these timeless truths through the framework of philosophies in order to write doctrine.

“William Wrede’s lecture on ‘The Task and Method of So-called New Testament Theology’ in 1897 can be regarded as the declaration of the programme of the history-of-religions school, which was just beginning” (21).  Wrede advocated a strong separation between biblical and dogmatic theology, arguing that the purpose of NT theology is not to serve the church, but “‘like every other real science, New Testament theology has its goal simply in itself’” (21).  Wrede saw the canon as an artificial, dogmatic concept that thus had no place in NT theology; instead he drew from all texts of the period, “everything that belongs together historically” (22).  He departed from the book-by-book approach that was previously common to NT theology, instead recommending “the drawing of tradition-historical lines of development” (23); this related to his goal, which was not to develop doctrine for today but “‘what was believed, thought, taught, hoped, required, and striven for in the earliest period of Christianity’” (23).  He suggested that to treat the material theologically would involve the scholar’s personal beliefs in the study, ruining their objectivity; thus the title New Testament theology is wrong on all counts, as his study includes all writings of the period as the focus of an objective study of religion, rather than theology.  “Wrede, then, was moving toward Gabler’s ‘true New Testament theology’ in a splendid way” (25) by developing the history of thought of the New Testament period.  “In fact his view of the relation of exegesis to dogmatics is rather similar to that of Gabler: dogmatics must build on exegesis, not vice versa; the exegetical work has to be done in a strictly historical way; philosophical (dogmatic) criticism is to be used when the exegetical results are utilized by dogmatics” (26).

Räisänen uses Wrede as a comparison for everything that follows.  He notes that Wrede’s premature death prevented him from fulfilling his programme (26), and searches for a successor among the scholars of the 20th century.  Räisänen reviews these authors’ works and programmes based on their principles and methodology: “Should one write from an insider’s perspective or from that of an outsider?  Should one limit oneself to the canon or should one deal with other writings as well?  Should one do theology or Religionswissenschaft?  Scholars disagree” (147).  Other considerations include the extent to which a scholar attempts to harmonize the New Testament, emphasizing either its unity or its diversity; and the extent to which a scholar attempts to modernize the New Testament message, which in Wrede’s thought is considered tantamount to importing dogmatics into what should be a strictly historical study.  Räisänen uses these points of comparison to construct a spectrum of scholarship, sometimes using terms such as “liberal” and “conservative”; at other times placing scholars in groups or schools, particularly the Bultmannian school of thought; and almost always in a direct comparison to Wrede, using his programme as a standard by which to measure the methodologies and principles of others.

The results of Räisänen’s analysis show that only in the 1990’s have serious inroads on Wrede’s legacy been made, and that, overall, the distance between the historical and theological studies of the New Testament is shrinking as theologians become more prone to acknowledge the diversity of views within the canon (147).

Of particular interest for this reviewer was Bultmann’s desire to distinguish between “what is said” and “what is meant”: “The significance of that message for me must be clarified; one must not remain at a distance from the text as a detached observer” (48).  This brings up the important issues of the impossibility of objectivity and the fact that one cannot take the New Testament seriously on its own terms while attempting to keep a scientific distance from it, as the text itself demands a response of faith.  It also brings up the importance of the question of contextualization, something that Stendahl picked up on with his distinction between “what it meant” and “what it means”, a two-stage process of historical exegesis and present application/theologizing which, while they should be kept separate, are capable of being done by the same person; this model honours Gabler’s original distinction and Wrede’s development of it, and is the model in which this reviewer was first taught to perform biblical theology.  Räisänen notes that, though Stendahl’s programme was published in 1962 and has long been common practice among exegetes, no NT theology or synthesis had utilized it until the 1990’s (90); it was to this lack of carrying-through of programmes like that of Wrede that he wrote the first edition of this book; by the second edition (2000) he was pleased to report several attempts, the best of which was that of Theissen.  We will turn now to Räisänen’s own programme, which has undoubtedly influenced these newer works.

Räisänen begins by suggesting principles for historical interpretation.  He notes that NT theology has always implicitly been written for the Church, and compares that to another type of scholarship limiting itself to a particular nation or political party (153); this comparison misses the nature of the Church, which seeks knowledge of the creator of the universe and interacts with Him on the behalf of the greater society.  In this sense, the Church both is and is for a universal audience.  This false distinction is exacerbated by the next principle, that the goal of exegesis should be information rather than proclamation.  Räisänen asserts that in a post-Christian society, exegesis cannot be used to impose an interpretation of the Bible on society (157) – but what interpretation, other than theological, is appropriate from an overtly theological text?  Even if society no longer accepts Christianity as a normative understanding of the universe, exegesis of the NT for the purpose of historical and cultural study without theological considerations fails to take the text seriously on its own terms.

Räisänen follows Wrede in doing away with canon, which is a theological rather than a historical construct.  “The canon divorces things that have belonged together historically, and it also joins together things that have had no historical connection” (160).  This historical approach raises the question of where one begins and ends with a NT theology: is it possible to do the job without the OT, or the Fathers (179)?  A thorough exegesis of the NT will take into account all relevant materials, particularly those of the first century – but at what point can we separate such materials without being arbitrary, especially if we’ve already defined the separation of the canonical works as arbitrary?  The canonical works should not take pride of place, in spite of their greater historical impact (163).  Räisänen emphasizes the tension and diversity which exists within the canon, and gives equal weight to all texts of the same period, based on the view that a historical exegesis is to paint a picture of ancient thought without evaluating that thought.  Evaluation belongs to dogmatic theology, not exegesis.  Indeed, though the exegete cannot remove herself from her interpretation entirely, exegesis should be an entirely historical task with contextualization coming at a later or separate stage (166).  This separation of exegesis and contextualization allows for a greater influence on the part of many new approaches, including the social-scientific methods which seek to flesh out the society behind the texts (171-76).

The question of which texts to use extends to whether or not to admit reconstructions of early sources of NT works, or to stick to the finished product (181-2).  Räisänen suggests that Church-based theologians should focus on the final texts, which present Jesus as He was remembered, while a proper historical study has great interest in the historical characters and events which must necessarily be reconstructed rather than merely remembered.

For Räisänen, the attitude of the scholar is of high importance: a historical scholar must be able and willing to take the text seriously and even read it empathetically.  But we should not expect a response of faith from the scholar; a personal faith in the material may even handicap the interpreter with bias (177).  While I am in sympathy with his position in this regard, I think he is too quick to dismiss Barth’s notion that we cannot fully understand the text without such an attitude of faith.  If we do not interact with the Holy Spirit in the text, then Räisänen is right; but if God speaks to us through His Word, illuminating the text in a spiritual transaction that includes a response of faith, then we cannot separate faith from understanding.

Räisänen offers some practical principles for ordering and structuring a NT theology: whether to utilize a historical or thematic approach (suggesting thematic); where to start (eschatology); and recent emphases that deserve more attention (apocalyptic, Judaism, and implementation of new approaches), before turning to his model for historical interpretation (189-202).

Räisänen’s model can be described as a “dialectic between tradition, experience, and interpretation” (189), recognizing that we interpret our experience in light of our tradition, and to some extent our traditions are interpreted and reinterpreted in light of our experience.  Applying this understanding to our exegesis helps us to deal with the tensions and diversity of the text, as we can see how the early church went through this dialectic of interpretation.  From a historical perspective, this is helpful to trace the development of early Christian thought; from a theological perspective, this reminds us that scripture was not inspired in a vacuum, and development is not evidence of error.  Räisänen also reminds us of the impact of our symbols on our experience, and how we tend to experience the things that we have symbols to describe (194), a particularly potent insight.  He finishes with a final argument for a two-stage process, with contemporization (i.e. theologizing) only following a thorough and strictly historical exegesis, with the latter informing our theology rather than becoming mixed with it.

Räisänen’s programme is very good, for a historian.  I wholeheartedly agree that there should be a two-stage process, with exegesis and historical work painting as vivid of a picture of the ancient world as possible before theologians analyze the material in light of that picture.  What is confusing is the attempt to do strictly historical work that ignores the New Testament canon, under the rubric of New Testament Theology.  Räisänen attempts to correct the less cautious work of many scholars who have, to some extent, mixed the work of historians and theologians; he merely insists on the work being done as cautiously and objectively as is humanly possible – something all scholars agree with.  The way he has emphasized the historical task over the theological, insisting on neutrality in the interpreter, reveals his own presupposition: how can a Christian historian, much less a theologian, hold God at arm’s length while examining His self-revelation?  This is a flaw in the scholar, more than the programme.

[1] The book’s original subtitle was “A story and a programme.”


4 thoughts on “A Review of Räisänen’s Beyond New Testament Theology

      • Jeff, I’ll probably want to use your review (so long as you have no objections) in class discussion at Sewanee, where I’m taking a course in NT Theology as part of a DMin in preaching program. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and the context in which the review was written? If you want to stay anonymous, you can email me at lisa@lisabhamilton.com. Thanks very much.

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