Book Review – New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity (Frank Matera)

Frank J. Matera. New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 520 pp. $55.00.

matera-nttFrank Matera is a prolific Roman Catholic New Testament scholar who had published books on NT ethics and Christology prior to this New Testament theology (hereafter “NTT”). He conceives of NTT as a specifically theological task and feels that history of Christian religion should be a separate discipline. Matera further contends that for those who see the NT as inspired Scripture, the presupposed internal coherence should be seen in how we carry out the task of NTT – that is, NTT should display the unity of the writings while doing justice to the diversity. This is a primary aim of Matera’s NTT, as made plain by the book’s subtitle and throughout the introduction. His method of achieving this aim is by taking into account the implied narrative of Scripture.

Matera’s NTT takes an author-by-author approach, with the book broken into the three great voices (Synoptic tradition, Pauline tradition, Johannine tradition) plus “other voices.” He sees the distinctive starting points of the three great traditions as the key to their diverse theologies – the Synoptics in Jesus’s proclamation of the Kingdom of God, the Pauline in the gospel of what God has accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the Johannine in the incarnation. He puts the Acts of the Apostles in the Synoptic tradition and presents the books in the order of Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts in order to show the development in the Synoptic Gospels as well as “how Luke envisions the transition from the preaching of Jesus about the kingdom of God to the proclamation of the early church about its risen Lord” (1).

For the Pauline tradition, Matera deals with all 13 letters together; although he believes some to be deuteropauline, he sees the canonical letters as together forming a Pauline tradition that originated with the Apostle Paul. Because Matera’s goal is not to construct a historical account of Paul’s theology but to construct a theology of the canonical Pauline corpus, methodologically he doesn’t need to distinguish between the undisputed and disputed Paulines. However, I think bringing up the authorship issue but not saying more about it will incite questions from both the conservative and critical. Matera organizes the Pauline tradition into five groups, each with its own focus: (1) the Thessalonian correspondence in light of its election theology; (2) the Corinthian correspondence in light of its theology of the cross and the resurrection of the dead; (3) Galatians and Romans in light of their theology of justification by faith apart from during the works of the Mosaic law; (4) Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians in light of the imprisoned apostle’s theology; and (5) the Pastoral Epistles in light of the theology of handing on the Pauline Tradition to a new generation” (102-103).

Matera excludes Revelation from the Johannine tradition because of its differing starting point – God’s victory in the slaughtered lamb. I think that even on the basis of starting point Revelation could be placed with the Johannine Gospel and Epistles, and that separating it needs more justification. For example, I think you could make a case for the starting point of Revelation also being the incarnation – in Revelation Jesus is the lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world (Rev 13:8). What Matera notes as the distinct starting point of Revelation as God’s victory in the slaughtered lamb could be tweaked – God’s victory in the incarnate lamb who was slain.Nevertheless, Matera notes that the Gospel and Epistles of John share the common starting point of incarnation, as well as themes such as faith, love, light, and life. He also mentions diffs within this tradition such as genre, theological implications of the incarnation (revelation of Son from the Father in Gospel, communion of believers with God and each other in letters).

The “other voices” are Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation. Matera expounds upon the rich Christology of Jesus as high priest in the order of Melchizedek in Hebrews, the counterbalance to Paul provided by the General Epistles, and the Christology of Jesus as the lamb who was slain and will be victorious in Revelation. These “other voices” share several theological motifs: “(1) the need for conduct that coheres with the gospel, (2) the assurance that there will be a final judgment at which the wicked will be punished and the just rewarded, (3) a conviction that suffering and affliction are part of the Christian life in the time before God’s final victory, (4) warnings that false teachers will appear in the last days, and (5) exhortations for the faithful to persevere and maintain the apostolic teaching they have received” (334).

In the introduction Matera notes that the unity of the NT, while touched upon here and there throughout the book, will be explicitly presented in the conclusion. The conclusion first summarizes the implied narrative mentioned in the introduction:

The unity of New Testament theology is grounded in the implied master story to which these writings witness. This story can be summarized in this way: Humanity finds itself in a predicament of its own making from which it cannot extricate itself. This predicament, which is experienced as a profound alienation from God, is the result of humanity’s rebellion against God. It affects Jew and Gentile alike. Because humanity cannot reconcile itself to God or free itself from this predicament, God has graciously sent his own Son into the world to redeem the world. Those who believe and accept this gracious offer of salvation, Jew and Gentile alike, are incorporated into a community of believers that God has redeemed and sanctified through Christ. Redeemed and sanctified, this new community lives by the power of God’s Spirit as it waits for the consummation of all things. Although this consummation is expressed in different ways (the parousia, the general resurrection of the dead, the final judgment), the New Testament writings agree that God will be victorious and Christ will be the agent of God’s victory (427-428).

Then the New Testament witness to this narrative is summarized under the headings 1) humanity in need of salvation; 2) the bringer of salvation; 3) the community of the sanctified; 4) the moral life of the sanctified; and 5) the hope of the sanctified. These are basically what we traditionally call anthropology, Christology, ecclesiology, ethics, and eschatology.

The conclusion was a bit of a letdown for me. From the introduction I was expecting it to be a synthesis, but it was instead mainly summarizing author-by-author under the aforementioned headings; I did not perceive a satisfactory synthesis of the unity of the NT and NTT. The body of the book also felt most of the time like an NT introduction, with a lot of summarization. However, Matera’s NTT is a good book by a great scholar. It’s provides a solid theological overview to the New Testament that intellectually-minded Christians would benefit greatly from as a robust introduction to the New Testament. It would be a great book in NT intro/theology courses in Bible college courses and perhaps lower-level seminary courses. In preparing to teach/preach through a book of the New Testament, reading the pertinent section from Matera’s NTT would be fruitful. That being said though, it’s not a particularly exciting book, especially if you’ve read other NTTs that pursue a specifically theological task and aim to do justice to the unity of the NT (e.g. Thielman, and especially Marshall). However, for those who have not read an NTT of that type, Matera’s is an excellent representative/choice.

Thanks to Westminster John Knox for the review copy!

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  1. Book Review – New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity (Frank Matera) — | Talmidimblogging

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