Book Review: Derek Tidball, The Voices of the New Testament

Tidball, Derek. The Voices of the New Testament: Invitation to a Biblical Roundtable. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 279 pgs., Pb.; $24.00 Link to IVP

In the late 1970s Steve Allen hosted an educational program on PBS called Meeting of the Minds. Actors portrayed various historical figures to discuss history and philosophy, often representing opposing views on various issues. Derek Tidball’s The Voices of the New Testament is something like that television show. He uses the metaphor of a roundtable discussion between representatives of various streams of early Christianity in order to sketch out the basics of New Testament theology.

The Voices of the New TestamentIn the introduction to the book Tidball surveys several recent approaches to New Testament Theology. I. H. Marshall (New Testament Theology, 2004) uses an authorial approach, tracing the theology of individual writers, while James Dunn (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 1977) traces the development of several streams of Jewish Christianity. Donald Guthrie (New Testament Theology, 1981) and Thomas Schreiner (New Testament Theology, 2008) use a more thematic. None of these approaches are necessarily fatally flawed, although one may more appealing than the others to particular readers.

These approaches reflect the historic divide between systematic theology and biblical theology. Biblical theology tends to focus on an individual writer (Paul or John) or a particular theme within a writer (a biblical theology of poverty in Luke-Acts, Paul’s view of the future). Systematic theology tends to look at the whole canon in order to develop an outline of what the entire canon teaches. The classic systematic theology uses several loci of theology (Christology, Anthropology), creating a clear outline of what Christian Theology looks like. To a certain extent, systematic stands on the foundation of biblical theology, which in turn is based on exegesis of the text.

In this book, Tidball attempts to blend these approaches in a creative way by allowing all the voices in the New Testament to speak on several important topics. This sounds like a thematic approach (there are chapters on Jesus, sin, atonement, eschatology), but by creating a conversation between ten different New Testament writers, Tidball attempts to create mini-biblical theologies to discuss these systematic theology categories.

What is unique here (aside from the style of the dialogue) is Tidball’s selection of ten voices from the New Testament. Glancing at the index of a typical New Testament theology (or systematic theology for that matter) usually shows New Testament theology’s preference for Paul, and then a preference for the book of Romans. This is fair, since Paul says a great deal about theology and Romans is the closest thing we have to a systematic Pauline theology. It is difficult to discuss justification by faith without focusing on Romans and Galatians.

Rather than placing Paul at the head of a table occasionally letting others have a word, Tidball invites Luke, James, John, Jude, Mark, Matthew, Peter, the Hebraist, and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke together), To be fair, Paul still gets the biggest say in the conversation, but there are several examples where Tidball begins a discussion with John (on who Jesus is) or Mark (the definition of the Gospel). In the section on adoption as a metaphor for salvation, Tidball begins with John, supplemented by Peter then Paul. Rarely will a systematic theology spend time tracing Mark’s theology, and almost never will Jude be mentioned. In fact, Jude rarely speaks in this book, but it is a very short letter.

In addition to the voices from the New Testament, Tidball includes a chair to guide the conversation and ask the questions as well as an observer. The observer comments appear in grey blocks and offer some exegetical comment or background information to illuminate the discussion.

The book is intended to be an introduction and is designed for easy reading for the layperson who wants an overview of New Testament theology. Given the metaphor of a roundtable discussion, Tidball achieves his goal of describing the common elements of the theology of the New Testament. I have two constructive criticism of the book. First, by using the roundtable metaphor, Tidball has flattened the development of New Testament theology. For example, beginning the discussion of adoption with John obscures the fact Paul used adoption as a way of describing salvation first. Given the traditional authorship and date of John’s Gospel it is plausible to argue John’s views were a development (or reaction to) Paul’s.

This leads to a second criticism. Although Paul and John are given the most text in the book, all of the voices are unified. I anticipated James’ objections to Paul’s teaching on Justification by Faith, but that section only includes Paul’s voice (p. 139-41). Tidball is emphasizing the unity of the theology of the New Testament, but I would have liked to hear James strenuously object to Paul’s teaching of “faith not works.” He does get to this eventually (eight lines, 187-8), plus a page from the observer explaining that there is no need to drive a wedge between Paul and James. Although I do not want to go back to Bauer, I think there was more diversity among the ten voices than Tidball allows.

Conclusion. Despite these minor criticisms, Tiball has written an entertaining introduction to New Testament theology, both biblical and systematic. This book would be an excellent basis for a small group Bible study

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.