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Comparing New Testament theology approaches by Morris with that by Guthrie and defending what I believe to be the best way to approach the subject in the light of my own theological perspective.

Theology is the study of God or the discourse about God. It comes from the words “Theos” meaning God, and “Logos” meaning discourse or speech related to the divine.

New Testament theology is theology derived from the NT texts that are part of the Canon. Both Guthrie and Morris in their work on New Testament Theology agree on a addressing theology from a faith perspective which immediately constrains their understanding and structuring of the biblical text largely within a harmonizing principle of unity. Theology is considered by both authors as absolutely being provided by one God and scribed by man under the direction of Holy Spirit. As a result both authors search for unifying concepts rather than accepting a diverging substance to arguments. All should lead man to God or they will have been misunderstood.


I agree with this, but I do understand this is a pivotal point, flavored more by experiences of God than the choice of using the direct textual evidence provided in the Canon. Non-Christian analysis would not take this perspective and can in-fact not allow for it, since this experiential dimension is lacking. This said, the body of information provides sufficient detail to understand what such a faith perspective should be, even for the non-believer.


The issue at stake is that tower of Babel instigated differences that emerge whenever man communicates. The exposition of the New Testament is not exempt. Guthrie, more than Morris, takes the time to delineate various time-based interpretations of thought development related to theology. Both Guthrie and Morris de-emphasis historical approaches in the understanding of theology, but establish the necessity for contextual support from history, with the provision that it is sub-ordinate to the theological purpose of the writing. This is again a point of dispute.


The historical approach performed the task of disconnects the rigid dogmatic approach from mainstream Christianity allowing a reformed thinking that allows the individual faith in Christ to become paramount. Rightfully so, but to focus only on history is pointed out by the authors as to base ones arguments on a moving baseline with gaps. History has gaps and is incapable of representing the early Christian environmental conditions psychologically. Theology is not limited by historical facts but it is constrained to operate within the truth of them as perceived provided this truth is not counter to the normative perspective of the theological truth determined from the Canon as a whole. The early evangelical based faiths in Jesus by the New Testament authors are explained by Guthrie to not diminish the usefulness of their observations of historical events and conditions but to cause selection of a faith based perspective.


Together in facing the perceived enemy, both attack Wrede’s presumptions of the New Testament addressing religion rather than theology, and both defend the Canon as the only reasonable approach to the acceptance of texts. I agree as a later time frame of textual groupings are likely to have less alliance with the original apostles and less ability to infer originality and truth than earlier texts. The longer the time between events being reported and the evaluating of their truth, the more difficult it is to establish the accuracy.


Guthrie makes a point of addressing the shared faith and knowledge that unites the church (dogmatics) with theology pointing out that unless the evolving dogma is checked against the New Testament texts, it can get away from truth and so it is necessary to have good understanding of theology to harness it effectively. I agree and suggest perhaps more periodic focus on this would cause re-evaluation of existing western cultural church based approaches.


The authors also differ considerably regarding how they structure their literature. Morris criticizes Guthrie’s thematic approach on the grounds that the selection of themes is unlimited. Guthrie acknowledges this is the most difficult part of the approach but claims it is necessary and avoids the canonical approach due to controversy of exact timing and authorships.


There are many aspects that both need to balance to develop a communication on theology.  The continuum's of experience and need of the individuals in the audience are in my view what determines the adequacies of such structures. God has no need for a structure in his provision to man and it is man’s finite consumption of the truths in the text that dictate the need for structured approaches. Determining superiority in my perspective is moot sinceany individual performing judgment on superiority of one structure over another is prone to failure as they cannot have God’s perspective.


In setting out his work, Morris uses a mixture of chronology and grouping according to literary forms. He rejects a formal chronological approach on the grounds that certainty in the time line of text creation is not possible. He addresses as different components:

-                      the Pauline writings,

-                      the synoptic gospels and acts,

-                      the Johannine writings and

-                      the general Epistles.

He chooses to start with Pauline because it was first chronologically and follows it with the Synoptics as these were written afterwards. The Johannine gospel and letters are dealt with next as they were written later. This order is relatively arbitrary, not exact, and not consistent with his argument against a chronological approach.  He does not indicate a preference for a starting point and suggests his approach is arbitrary. This is partially true, but his choices indicate a time basis. He is however also clear that he wants to be sure to not leave out areas addressed in the New Testament canon since discarding anything is a risk. His structure is chosen to ensure relative completeness.


Whether it achieves the objective is dubious as Morris interestingly starts with source groupings but then addresses themes within these groupings. He does not address these consistently, making it difficult to compare information across the groupings. In general he focuses on God, then Jesus, then salvation, and then Holy Spirit. There are other themes he selects within certain source groups, but does not do so consistently across all of them.


Morris also indicates a need to address in his structure a comparison between beliefs of the Christian community and other associated communities. Guthrie details this more clearly by describing various background studies in relation to the New Testament texts with their value propositions. The Jewish Palestinian literature such as the apocalyptic writings, apocrypha, rabbinical studies are shown to have background support but not priority over New Testament texts. Philo has limited value and gnosis needed combating as John’s gospel shows, but the Hellenistic writings he feels have little impact on our understanding of theology.


Morris is systematic in covering the New Testament in a descriptive way, but Guthrie is more thorough in evaluating approaches specifying two approaches are possible,

a)      division into literary groups and

b)      divisions into major themes.

Morris’ approach would be an example of the former and Guthrie’s of the latter. The argument of Guthrie against a) is that it would produce a splintered theology and is more descriptive in nature. The thematic option b) he believes is more supportive of addressing inquiries.


This may be so, but b) depends on the correct choice of themes, and since there is no absolute set that can be agreed upon, this cannot be considered superior. These are also not the only options as addressing the books one at a time is an alternative and there are probably others. Guthrie then divides the b) option above into two sections,

            b1)       Themes with historical contexts added to proof texts, and

            b2)       Themes where the teaching on each theme addresses the various sources.

He rejects b1) indicating this would not provide clarity and chooses b2) for his structuring of his work.

Guthrie’s approach is the opposite of Morris’ but while he claims to not group according to sources, many of his themes are then sub-categorized according to sources. There is not way out of the dilemma, sources and themes must be addressed and the choice of how is a matter of taste and audience preferences.


Guthrie chooses a number of themes: God, Man his world, Christology, The mission of Christ, The Holy Spirit, The Christian life, The church and an eschatological theme, the future. These are addressed in alternative ways within Morris. Guthrie however also adds two other discussions, one on a New Testament approach to ethics and another on Scripture itself which are additional to Morris’s treatment of the subject.


Guthrie is more expansive in his treatment of the subject and perhaps more systematic in his breakdown of the material to enable focused delving into specific truths without focus on the whole. This allows the reader to rely on Guthrie’s considerable understanding of the overall subject while focusing on specifics. Morris would not want this approach as the understanding of the whole is more important than focus on the constituent parts from his perspective.


Guthrie tries to illuminate the academic arguments related to subjects discussed whereas Morris takes the approach of focusing on the content and less on the academic arguments accepting perhaps that the knowledge of the content will allow each individual to reach their own conclusions to academic arguments. Morris allows the reader to form a stronger understanding of the theology of each author of his selected source group, and is less focused on academic disagreements.


Personally I find Guthrie easier to follow but that is largely due to my need to understand different perspectives on Christian truths before prayerfully seeking a harmony of these truths on a specific theme. I don’t find I want to understand a specific authors theology other than as a stepping stone to discovering Gods unifying plan. The thematic structure allows for a more immediate delving into material, but I find I agree with Morris when I attempt to find a theme that is not resident in Guthrie’s book. When this occurs, it is simpler to revert to Morris’ treatment of theology to narrow my search for the relevant information than to plow through Guthrie’s rather lengthy treatise scavenging the relevant facts before reviewing them in the biblical texts.


Both authors clearly address the important aspects, the concept of God, his creation, that he loves mankind and is intimately involved with Man. That we are sinful and Jesus was not sinful. They agree that Jesus’ death is the crux of Christianity, that his burial and rising enables believers in Jesus to turn God’s wrath from their sin. This is fundamental and crucial. Both authors establish without doubt that Holy Spirit indwells believers and this the changes the believers approach to life enabling them to live differently than before their acceptance of Christ. They both describe in detail the love of God and the responsibility of the believer to love all people the way Christ loved. They both address the fact that Jesus left this Earth physically and is planned to return at a future date, and that we are currently in the “last days”. All men will face Judgment with eternal consequences and our role is to hold to Jesus teachings, which are elaborated in the theology they bring into focus for the reader.


Guthrie steps forward past Morris in his addressing of New Testament ethics, as it is critical that knowledge is transferred into how we should behave today as a result of the truths gained.  This is evident in many of the New Testament writings where doctrine and ethics co-mingle in such a way as to almost make them impossible to separate. In others, the distinction is clearer, but ethics are clearly present. This aspect of Guthrie’s treatment provides for me a superior additive component over Morris’ treatment of theology.


It is obvious that either Guthrie’s or Morris’ approaches are adequate, and both will meet different needs depending on the requirement of the reader. Both propound that striving for an absolute understanding of God is core, even if they derive this from the same texts in different ways. My personal preference is for Guthrie’s approach. My own choice would be a thematic treatment with each book of the canon dealt with individually, before a closing section to each theme where the overall theology is exposed, summarized and defended.


However, it is clear that the slicing and dicing of information by means of structure is of lesser importance than the unity of its content, it’s assimilation, and application in our lives today. Providing a correct understanding of God, Jesus Christ and the work of Holy Spirit is gained, the tools used are arbitrary.


Bloemenstein John, New Testament Theology, Audio 1, Trinity College of the Bible and Theological seminary, 2005 
Morris, Leon, New Testament Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1st Edition, 1990. 
Guthrie Donald, New Testament Theology, Illinois, USA, Inter-Varsity Press, 1990. 
Theisssen, Henry Clarence, Lectures in Systematic theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Williams B Eerdmans publishing company, revised ed. April 1987.