Modern Introductions to the New Testament for the most part confine themselves to providing introductions to the separate books, their authorship, contents, and problems, with discussions of text and canon, and of the inspiration and value of the New Testament as a whole. While this method of treatment has considerable advantages, it has, especially for the uninstructed reader, the disadvantage of introducing him to the detailed study of the New Testament without focusing his attention on the religious problems involved.
The importance of the application of modern methods of criticism to the New Testament for the ordinary Christian man and woman lies in their influence upon our attitude to some of the cardinal tenets of our religion. Once we have lost our unquestioning belief in the truth and authority of every word in the New Testament — and few persons can study the results of the last century’s work upon the New Testament and retain such a belief — both those doctrines which divide the Christian Churches and those which they share in common have to be justified again in the light of our new attitude to those documents which support them. To take one example out of many, the different doctrines of Baptism and Confirmation held in different Churches were worked out and established largely on the basis of a true and authoritative New Testament; to-day many New Testament scholars would hesitate to accept any of the three commands in the gospels to baptise (Mt. 28:I9, Mk. 16:16, Jn. 3:5) as having been spoken by Jesus, and their interpretations of the baptismal references in Acts would be influenced by the degree of historical accuracy which they were willing to ascribe to the author of Acts. This is not to say, of course, that any large number of competent critics would deny the dominical institution of Baptism, but only that the establishment of such doctrines must rest upon a revised treatment of the New Testament evidence.
It is here that the ordinary Christian reader has both great difficulties to face and a great reward to win. The difficulties arise from the lack of certainty inherent in historical criticism: historical judgements are seldom unanimous, and must often be qualified; where the evidence is scanty and confused, as is often the case in the New Testament, the historian can attain to no more than a disputed probability. The ordinary reader can expect help and guidance for drawing his own conclusions, but not the help and guidance of infallible authority. On the other hand he can hope, by studying the results and probabilities that have been achieved, to gain for himself a truer knowledge of how Christianity came into the world, and a truer understanding of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In the pages that follow an attempt is made to introduce the reader to the relevance of the separate books of the New Testament, in the light of their authorship, circumstances of composition, and teaching, to some of the great religious issues of the New Testament. Four of these issues have been selected as having each of them a particular — though not exclusive — connection with one of the four types of book to be found in the New Testament, the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the Revelation of John, and as providing a framework for the discussion of the problems connected with them.
The first of these issues, and to most Christians by far the most important, is that of the historical value of the Gospels. If they are not free from error and inconsistency, do they still enable us to form a generally reliable and trustworthy picture of Jesus’ life and teaching on earth ?
The second issue is primarily, but not exclusively, concerned with the historical value and the interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles. How far can we reconstruct the earliest history of the Christian Church, and trace developments in its order, worship, etc.?
The questions that arise about the authorship and teaching of the Epistles are clearly of importance for this second issue, as the Gospels and the speeches in Acts are for the third, which is concerned with the value of the Epistles for reconstructing what the Apostles preached about the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and what they taught about the Christian life.
The fourth issue concerns the place of apocalyptic expectation in the New Testament. While it is treated here in connection with the value of the Revelation of John, the discussion inevitably involves both the message of the Apostolic Church and that of Jesus himself, and the ultimate problem is the place of such expectation in the message of Jesus.
Each of these questions is discussed in the pages that follow. No more is claimed for these discussions than that they suggest one out of many possible Christian solutions to the problems. Their purpose is to concentrate the attention of the reader on the religious implications of modern New Testament criticism and to encourage him to follow up the evidence for himself with the more intensive study of the text and the important books and commentaries to which it is the function of an Introducion to lead him.
BOOKS FOR READING
The first essential for the serious study of the New Testament, if the student cannot read Greek, is a good modern translation. The Revised Version, with marginal references and with alternative readings at the foot of the page, has the advantage of being a good translation of a Greek text which has more claim to represent the original wording than that followed by the Authorised Version. Much can be learnt, however, about the meaning of difflcult passages, especially in the epistles, by comparing this translation with some of the more recent ones, such as Moffatt or, perhaps the best translation of all, the new American Revised Standard Version (cf. chapt.3). Of the Commentaries that cover the whole Bible in one volume the three best are the Abingdon Commentary (Abingdon Press, New York), Peake’s Commentary (Jack) and A New Commentary, edited by Gore, Goudge, and Guillaume (S.P.C.K.). The New Testament section of this last is sold separately. These standard works provide introductions and commentaries to each book, a series of general articles on Biblical history and religion, and useful bibliographies for further reading. Up to date bibliographies are contained in two book-lists published jointly by the Lutterworth Press, S.C.M. and S.P.C.K., A Popular Bibliography of the Christian Faith, and, for more advanced works, A General Bibliography of Christian ffeology, History, and Apologetic.
Of modern Introductions to the New Testament those of K. and S. Lake (Christophers) and of Sir E. C. Hoskyns and N. Davey, The Riddle of the New Testament (Faber), may be mentioned, and for advanced study those of A. H. McNeile (Oxford) and J. Moffatt (Clark).