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Fall 2009 · Vol. 38 No. 2 · pp. 151–162 

New Testament Theology in the Tradition of John E. Toews

Jon Isaak

For the thirteen years that he served as Academic Dean at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, John Toews taught New Testament (NT) Theology or Biblical Theology II, as it was called then. In a typical seventy-five-minute lecture, he would carefully set out arguments for, say, the center of Paul’s theology, or the theological vision of John’s Gospel, or one of the theological themes spanning the NT, like ecclesiology or christology.

New Testament theology in the tradition of John Toews is an invitation to come and live in the neighborhood where God’s creative and gracious purpose is being experienced

At the end of the lecture, John would pause and ask if there were follow up questions. A few brave souls would venture a question stemming from some aspect of the lecture and he would patiently clarify the matter. His encyclopedic knowledge of the field of NT studies was remarkable and evident from the way he could quickly rattle off publication details, lines of argument, and characteristics of the various schools of thought on this or that topic.

Although I probably did not fully understand the significance of his approach to NT theology when I was his student in 1993, eventually I came to appreciate the strength of his model which envisions the task of NT theology as historical, thematic, and theological—all at once!

John shaped a generation of leaders—preachers, theologians, and Bible teachers—to think of NT theology as both a descriptive and a constructive enterprise. It is descriptive, in the sense that NT theology attends to the NT writers’ interpretations of their experience with the God of Israel, in light of Easter—an experience that transformed their understanding of Jesus and their reading of Torah. But it is also constructive in the sense that the diverse testimonies of the NT writers form a textured and thick space (i.e., fertile, generative, nutritious) within which contemporary followers of Jesus continue together to resonate with and to be shaped by the ancient yet living Spirit of God.

So, what is the legacy and what are the prospects for NT theology in the tradition of John Toews? In this paper my aim is to do three things. (1) I offer a brief historical review to situate NT theology and biblical theology here at MB Biblical Seminary. How did OT Theology and NT Theology become required of all ministry students at the seminary? (2) I will take one more step back and trace the development of the discipline of NT theology and some of the ways it is typically practiced. (3) I will set out the criteria for doing NT theology in a way that I situate squarely within the vision of John Toews.


When I came to the seminary in the early 1990s, I was deeply impressed by both Elmer Martens and John Toews. Both were intellectual giants and persons whom I valued and tried hard to understand. They were instrumental to my introduction to and eventual embrace of biblical theology. I was fascinated by its potential to explain some of the confusing features of the Bible and its power to draw contemporary faith communities into its story in a transformative way.

It was only much later that I learned how hard-fought the battle for biblical theology was at the seminary. Speaking about the early years, Elmer Martens writes: “In the beginning [i.e., 1955] the curriculum had a theologically dispensational cast. That changed with the coming of J.B. Toews in 1964. He sought a mandate from the U.S. Conference to color the seminary program Anabaptist and hired A.J. Klassen as academic dean to see to the implementation” (2005, 14).

Evidently, one of the key ways to wrestle the curriculum from dispensationalism and fundamentalism was to focus on biblical theology, which insisted instead on using only scriptural categories for theological discussions. Martens continues: “Intent on highlighting biblical theology, President Toews phoned, wrote, and personally visited me, then a doctoral student at Claremont University Graduate School, and eventually persuaded me . . . that it was God’s will that I join the faculty” (2005, 14).

So, in 1967 a two-part Biblical Theology course—one semester of Old Testament (OT) Theology and one of NT Theology—was launched that would eventually become one of the centerpieces of the seminary curriculum, ultimately replacing the series of systematic theology courses as the standard degree requirement (Martens 1975, 35–40). Martens began teaching OT Theology in 1969, continuing to do so until 2004. Now Lynn Jost teaches OT Theology. David Ewert (1975–1981), John Toews (1982–1995), Tim Geddert, and I have taught NT Theology.

For J.B. Toews and A.J. Klassen, in order to move the seminary out from under the grip of dispensationalism and fundamentalism, the key was to invite a new generation of faculty to the seminary, faculty who were more sympathetic to Anabaptism and biblical theology. While Elmer Martens was one of the first such appointments, this same vision guided subsequent administrations to call and appoint faculty sharing similar commitments, faculty like John Toews.

In very simple but incredibly profound terms, and without directly addressing the underlying cultural, religious, and social issues related to Dispensationalism and Fundamentalism, Martens explained the difference between biblical theology and systematic theology in this way: “Quite clearly there are other ways of talking about God, even for the Christian, than in the ways that the Bible talks about [God]. For instance, in systematic theology one speaks of God in philosophical terms and resorts to terms such as being, attribute, and existence. In biblical theology one attempts to discuss God according to the categories such as deliverance, promise, covenant” (1975, 35).

Who could argue with such a passionate plea for reshaping the seminary curriculum so that it was more biblical? And yet, unhooking the seminary “wagon” from systematic theology and hooking it instead to biblical theology was part of a much larger objective: namely, to move the seminary into the evangelical Anabaptist orbit with concern for the reign and mission of God as well as concern for the church’s cultural and social engagement.


Tracing the rise and development of biblical theology through to the kinds of NT theology typically practiced today is a fascinating story. The term, biblical theology, was first used in print in the seventeenth century (Hasel, 17). At this point, scholars did not see themselves as writing biblical theology, as opposed to some other kind of theology; they were simply writing theology. Bible verses were collated and organized to demonstrate the biblical basis for certain points of traditional Christian doctrine.

By the eighteenth century, people like Johann P. Gabler (1753–1826) began to voice criticism of biblical theology’s servitude to doctrinal theology. Gabler claimed that human reason could be used to separate out the universal truths of the Bible from the time-bound particularities of the ancient Near-Eastern culture out of which the Bible emerged. The resultant truth, distilled from the raw material, was then the real biblical theology. His famous 1787 speech argued for a complete separation between biblical theology (that which was descriptive, historical, and scientific) and doctrinal theology (that which was prescriptive, religious, and churchly).

One result of this turn of events was that an “iron curtain” was eventually erected between biblical and doctrinal theology. Increasingly, biblical theology was done independently of the church and almost exclusively on university campuses. By the nineteenth century few biblical theology textbooks on the whole Bible were being written. Instead, given the shift toward history, biblical theology was replaced by the writing of OT and NT theologies. Both of these kinds of books were essentially historical in nature. OT theologies reconstructed the historical development of Israel’s religion with questions like—How did Israel’s concept of God compare to its pagan neighbors? How did Israel’s monotheism come to be? How was Canaan settled? What are the sources behind the OT books that we have today? In this period, for the first time in Christian history, the OT prophets were allowed to speak for themselves, without the NT adding anything to them. With the same independence, NT theologies reconstructed the historical development of early Christianity with questions like—How did Jesus come to understand his mission? When did he come to think of himself as the Messiah? What was the nature of Paul’s struggle with Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism? What was the relationship between the early Jesus movements? How did the formation of the Christian Bible and orthodoxy come about? What are the sources behind the NT books?

While such historical questions are certainly significant, they typically did not lead to much theological discussion. In many cases, the conversation shifted to a discussion of religion as a developing sociological phenomenon. In the academy, this kind of biblical theology came to be known as Religionsgeschichte or the history-of-religions. The “high-point” of this period was reached in the 1950s with the work of Gerhard von Rad in the OT and Rudolf Bultmann in the NT.

Of course, more conservative biblical theologies were produced during this time, but these only seemed to emphasize the growing wedge between biblical and doctrinal theology. Biblical theology, as practiced in the academy, came to be associated with those who thought of it as a descriptive discipline, primarily interested in how humanity developed and articulated its thinking about God. Doctrinal theology, on the other hand, came to be associated with those in churchly institutions who had much less interest in historical questions. For these scholars, theology was a confessional/normative discipline, setting out how God is to be known and worshiped by human beings.

In 1970, Brevard Childs named the wedge between the historical and the theological concerns as the “crisis of biblical theology.” The crisis erupted largely because of the stubborn insistence that a choice must be made: either biblical theology is about what humanity thinks about God or it is about what God thinks about humanity. Either biblical theology is a dispassionate study of the development of the Judeo-Christian tradition as it emerged out of its Mediterranean cradle or it is a study that reads the biblical texts as a witness to what God intends or desires for humanity.

In the decades since Childs’s book named the crisis in biblical theology, two further challenges have made the prospects of doing biblical theology even more daunting. First, in the western world there is a diminishing confidence in objective truth that exists outside human subjectivity; this presents a challenge to the assumptions of biblical theology. Such views play themselves out in a growing mistrust in the historical approach. What can be said with certainty about the ancient world? Whose perspective on past events is going to be named as the “historical” account? There is a growing loss of confidence in the Enlightenment synthesis that claimed there are self-evident truths foundational to our world. In the same way, there is a growing loss of confidence of being able to articulate a meaningful biblical theology. The shift away from the modern synthesis to an increasingly postmodern worldview, presents new challenges for doing biblical theology.

Second, the emergence of a multiplicity of reading strategies also proves to be a challenge to doing biblical theology. Related to postmodernity’s discussion of the nature of truth is the emergence of many different reading approaches to the Bible in the last decades. The Enlightenment gave birth to the grammatical-historical exegetical method. By thoroughly considering the grammatical and historical contexts of a biblical text, interpreters were confident in determining the author’s intentions, which were then assumed to be directly applicable to reading communities regardless of time or location.

Such confidence is no longer shared. During the twentieth century numerous alternative reading strategies emerged—literary, social scientific, rhetorical, structuralist, reader response, to name some. The obvious issue raised is one of adjudicating. Is one method better or more productive? Or perhaps each method is just as legitimate as another, since each person or community is involved in their own meaning-making. Clearly, the shift away from the notion that a text has meaning to a more postmodern appreciation for multiple textual meanings presents new challenges for doing biblical theology.

Already in the 1980s and 1990s John was pointing to these growing challenges, arguing that if biblical theology was to have any currency, it must find a way between the overconfident modern application of method and the despairing exercise of unbounded postmodern interpretation. It must correct modernity’s overconfidence with a greater measure of chastened humility, appreciation for mystery, and openness to change. But then, too, it must correct postmodernity’s despair with a measure of assurance and trust that God exists, that God loves the world, that God’s creation project is still in process, and that God invites all to participate in the completion of the creation enterprise. For John, a biblical theology that is both descriptive and constructive holds the most promise for delivering correctives on both these fronts in the emerging postmodern world.


Still, it is not clear just how a biblical theology that is both descriptive and constructive could proceed. What are the options? There are three models that are current today.

First, there is the thematic model, sometimes called the topical approach to NT theology. A quick survey of the table of contents in the NT theologies written by Alan Richardson, Donald Guthrie, or Thomas Schreiner reveals a model that moves through a list of doctrinal themes. For these scholars, biblical theology serves as a catalogue of biblical texts organized around a systematic formulation of Christian doctrine. In the thematic model, doctrinal affirmations take the lead and the Bible is used to anchor these themes.

While the pragmatic advantages are real for such clear affirmations, several cautions are necessary. (1) There is the problem of confusing categories. Doctrines are human constructions made to represent the character of God, but they should not be confused with God. This model tends to confuse doctrines about God with God. These are two different categories. (2) There is the problem of unchecked self-interest. The criteria for selecting the themes or topics are arbitrarily chosen by the scholar. Plus, the arbitrariness is exacerbated by the imposition of external categories—usually philosophical—onto the NT writings. Such structural impositions run the risk of skewing or muting the NT voices.

A second model is the historical model, sometimes called the history-of-religions or chronological approach to NT theology. These are the scholars mentioned earlier who led the attack on doctrinal theology, beginning with Gabler in the eighteenth century. For these scholars, the aim is to transform NT theology into a study of the history of NT thought. Instead of NT theology (singular), the argument is that there are only NT theologies (plural). Furthermore, the result is not necessarily normative for Christian faith and practice. Questions of belief, confession, and religion are of a different order. Why? Because in this model, theology is primarily a historical discipline. Typically, this approach traces the chronological movement from the Hebrew people’s ancient Near-Eastern world, through Greco-Roman influences, and finally to an early catholic church of the second century—a trajectory that is either viewed as progression or regression, depending on the scholar’s persuasion.

The historical approach to NT theology has two distinct forms, because history is read differently, depending on the philosophical assumptions. Hegelian dialectical philosophy describes one kind of historical approach. Here the key word is development. For scholars like Wilhelm Wrede, Paul is the second founder of Christianity in that he corrupted the attractively simple religion of Jesus, the teacher of true morality, making Christianity into a religion of redemption dominated by the proclamation of the cross and resurrection. Here the development is viewed as regressive. For F. C. Baur and his Tübingen School, the development is less about progression or regression and more about a traceable tendency that can be used to locate each NT writing. Employing the three-step pattern of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, the trajectory of NT writings can be traced. For Baur, the apostolic age was dominated by the opposition between narrow-minded Jewish-Christianity of the original apostles (i.e., Peter) and the law-free, universalistic gospel of Paul. Only in the post-apostolic period did the opposition ease in the synthesis of early catholicism. The contention of Walter Schmithals and Georg Strecker is that theology is best seen within historical developments as people interact and movements evolve over time.

The other form of the historical approach to NT theology follows existentialist philosophy. Here the key word is self-actualization. Sometimes called the kerygmatic approach, this way of doing theology actually shows much disdain for history’s usefulness for faith. According to Bultmann, the only truly valuable theological experiences are those that transcend history, where people self-actualize in spite of their miserable historical situation. What is historical is each person’s responsibility to rise above her or his situation, not whether this or that story really happened as narrated in the NT. Bultmann’s program of demythologization is based on the conviction that modern people need to peel away the ancient mythological layers in which the gospel is wrapped, so that they too can make courageous decisions of faith, just like the first followers of Jesus. By separating out the timeless invitation to decide for faith from those time-conditioned features of the ancient world, the biblical narratives can again be read as examples of hope and courage. This explains why Bultmann has little interest in the historical Jesus or what Jesus thought of himself. If Bultmann did, it would make faith less real, since faith would now be based on some facts of history and not the courage to self-actualize in the face of evidence that is often to the contrary (1951, 26).

While such historical approaches have uncovered vast amounts of background material that shed light on the context of earliest Christianity, several concerns are worth noting. (1) For all the background material that has been found, there is surprisingly little pay-off for establishing the chronology of specific NT writings. NT chronology remains notoriously problematic (e.g., tracking the missionary journeys of Paul or establishing the conceptual background of individual NT writings). (2) It is increasingly clear that the Christian movement is not merely the mathematical product of existing forces (as in the dialectic historical model)—there is an element of novelty that broke into the Mediterranean world with the power to transform Judaism and give it new meaning. (3) The assumption that it is possible to distinguish the timeless themes from the time-conditioned NT material (as in the existentialist historical model) also breaks down; everything in the NT is historically conditioned.

The third model is the Heilsgeschichte or history-of-salvation approach to NT theology. Conservative scholars countered the historical-chronological approach with an overarching single-theme, theological approach. Scholars, like Adolf Schlatter, Oscar Cullmann, Werner G. Kümmel, and George E. Ladd, represent the counter voice to the history-of-religions approach to NT theology, conceiving of God in decidedly interventionist terms. For these scholars, including I. Howard Marshall, Frank Thielman, and Frank J. Matera, the Bible records the acts of God’s saving history that give witness to God’s aim of redeeming humanity—a process begun long ago, but one that remains incomplete until the eschatological consummation at the end of time. Everything in the NT (and the Bible, for that matter) is read through this particular theological grid governed by one theme: namely, salvation history.

While the obvious attraction of the salvation history approach is that it is explicitly theological, it is not without problems. (1) Because the approach claims there is “one thread” that traverses the NT witnesses and holds them together, the model risks imposing a systematic structure on the NT texts—much like the earlier dogmatic approach. This can be especially troubling when OT texts or NT texts, that do not fit the structure, are hindered from speaking or are silenced completely. By forcing texts to line up somewhere in the salvation-history grid, some distortion is introduced. (2) The salvation-history model is often unaware that it tends to ignore the hermeneutical challenge of contemporary significance. Readers are left with only the ancient stories of Paul and others, without offering a NT faith that is a live option for today. For example, Paul’s modified eschatology of “already/not yet” is thoroughly explained in salvation-historical terms, but what that would look like today, 2000 years later, is rarely discussed.

Each of these three models—thematic, historical, and theological—has large benefits and some significant pitfalls, as indicated. And it is precisely here where the genius of the NT theology advocated by John Toews becomes evident. In short, the contribution that John makes is his ability to work at all three agendas at once! His NT theology is thematic, historical, and theological.


John Toews set the stage for assembling a serviceable and responsive NT theology—one that is both descriptive and constructive—by identifying a series of key criteria. What follows are John’s six criteria for doing NT theology, taken from my notes that spring semester in 1993.

First, NT theology must be firmly rooted in the language of the NT writings themselves. This may seem too obvious to mention. But this criterion is necessary to protect against reading the NT through philosophies like Hegelianism, Existentialism, or Dispensationalism. Using the language and the categories of the NT itself, the organizing themes and topics emerge from the biblical text themselves.

Second, NT theology must incorporate in some way all the theologies represented in the NT writings or groups of writings. It begins with a straightforward inquiry to the theological center or vision guiding each NT writing. It is not that the Bible is “raw material” waiting for theology to be “done to it” later. The NT is already a theological construction! NT theology then enables the various themes and concepts to emerge and discusses their relatedness. Similarities and differences are noted, but individual voices are not forced to “sing unison.” Tensions are allowed to remain, so that space, spectrum, and dimension emerge. Thus, NT theology searches for the unified theology underlying the whole (i.e., the theology behind the advice or driving the story), based on the conviction that, while fragmentary and diverse, each writing is a witness to God’s activity.

Third, NT theology must be able to organize and to set out the themes that the NT writers are discussing, so that a coherent and consequential conversation can happen across time and culture. Whether following the canonical order (from Matthew to Revelation) or a chronological order from earliest to latest (1 Thessalonians to 2 Peter), the voices speaking to topics like revelation, God, Jesus, humanity, and so on, can be collated, compared, and contrasted. Both the diversity and the unity ought to be noted and the relationship explored, because this gives texture and depth to the theological construction.

Fourth, NT theology must be both historical and theological, just as the writings are themselves. It will acknowledge the NT writers’ conviction that God is doing something special in these last days and that this somehow connects to the ancient promises and ongoing activity of God. However, it will also recognize the creative pastoral theology in which each writer is engaged, as they embrace the invitation to join God’s mission. Thus, it will reject as false the dichotomy—is NT theology a historical discipline or a theological discipline? It is both. The task of NT theology is to describe the guiding convictions characteristic of each writing and then to construct ways of extending those views for contemporary appropriation. It is both descriptive and constructive.

Fifth, NT theology must be a theology of the whole Christian Bible as well. It must be able to integrate the Hebrew Bible and the early Christian writings. Not in the older sense of reading the OT only for its witness to Jesus. The gains made by the biblical theology movement, which freed the OT to speak for itself, must not be lost. Recognizing that the OT prophets spoke the Word of God to their own generation, a NT theology must be able to overcome the wall between OT and NT. It will not be supersessionist with regard to Israel and the church; but instead it will trace the links that the NT writers themselves sketch between Torah and Jesus. Key to this understanding will be that the realization that the OT sees itself as incomplete. Not in the sense of lacking something, but in the sense of anticipating the day when evil is undone and God’s creation purpose is finally realized. In this way, a NT theology must be able to connect with the OT’s vision for creation.

Sixth, NT theology ought to emerge from and also to shape local ecclesial communities of biblical interpretation. NT theology must be translatable into contemporary forms as it leads to and emerges from theological reflection. However, it is necessarily partial and contingent. It always gets a grade of IP (i.e., “in process”), since it takes place within a particular ecclesial and theological location that is still itself in process. In other words, the best biblical theology emerges from within those communities which are actively engaged in biblical interpretation and theological reflection and appropriation. In these communities there is self-critical engagement of the host culture and its values. Thus, it takes place in the context of the church in mission—the mission of God—continually reaching back (rooted in the biblical witness) and extending forward (powered by the biblical witness) to live the missional imperative. Therefore, NT theology finds ways to re-express the theology of the NT, so as to shape the norms of the contemporary church’s life within the culture it finds itself.

To do NT theology in this way—according to these six criteria—is not about collecting raw material excavated from the goldmine of the Bible, so that it can then be presented to the church for its theological work of constructing doctrines (i.e., the so-called “conservative” option, for lack of a better term). In this view, the Bible is seen as a “deposit” to be mined for the principles that are useful in contemporary settings. Neither is NT theology largely a sociological study of what the “ancients” thought about God (i.e., the so-called “liberal” option). In this view, the Bible is seen as an antiquated museum piece and as something either to be “updated” or “set aside,” so that life can continue in a politically correct manner.

On the contrary, the NT theology that John taught a generation of leaders is better compared to a community “support group” or “recovery group,” where new-comers learn and old-timers review the vision of God’s reconstituted, resistance people. While they live in the shadow of the empire, they refuse its death-dealing ways, choosing to embrace their life-affirming vocation of promoting God’s creation purposes. NT theology in the tradition of John Toews is an invitation to come and live in the neighborhood where God’s creative and gracious purpose is being experienced, as narrated by the NT writers. In other words, the NT is already a theological construction, a theological witness to God’s deliverance, promise, and covenant faithfulness.

In the eight times that I have taught NT Theology, I have tried to build on John Toews’s legacy. I have even kept the same course outline: seven weeks devoted to the theologies of the NT—Paul’s, Mark’s, James’s, and so on—and seven weeks devoted to the contributions that these theologies make to themes like christology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and so on. This is the way that I introduce students to a NT theology that is historically rigorous, theologically grounded in Jesus’ story, and thematically constructive for the church in its ongoing witness to the watching world. And these three emphases are precisely those that I believe are so central to the way that John Toews does NT theology. They help to create that textured and thick space within which contemporary followers of Jesus continue together to resonate with and to be shaped by the ancient yet living Spirit of God.


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Jon Isaak is Associate Professor of New Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. He received his M.A. from MBBS and his Ph.D. in Early Christian History and Literature from McGill University, Montreal.

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