Yarbrough, Robert Wayne. The Salvation Historical Fallacy? Reassessing the History of New Testament Theology. Edited by Robert Morgan. History of Biblical Interpretation Series 2. Leiden: Deo, 2004. xiv + 402 pp.
Yarbrough is a NT professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he serves as chair of the NT department. The Salvation Historical Fallacy? (henceforth SHF) builds on Yarbrough’s “The heilsgeschichtliche Perspective in Modern New Testament Theology” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 1985; xiii + 520 pp.), incorporating two additional decades of research (cf. many of the articles in Yarbrough’s Curriculum Vitae).
SHF fills a gap in NT studies by highlighting (1) “underrated” NT theologians and (2) the “overlooked” hermeneutical and historiographical perspectives of salvation history or Heilsgeschichte, as opposed to focusing primarily on its “theological construct” as did the Biblical Theology Movement after World War II (pp. 4–5). SHF is ideal supplemental reading for upper-level seminary courses on NT theology, the history of interpretation, or contemporary theology.
SHF is a diachronic study from the early 1800s to the late 1900s (p. xiii) that contrasts two major approaches to NT theology: traditional critical approaches (F. C. Baur, William Wrede, and Rudolf Bultmann) versus a better alternative, namely, Heilsgeschichte (J. C. K. von Hofmann, Adolf Schlatter, Martin Albertz, Leonhard Goppelt, and Oscar Cullmann), a term that Hofmann “apparently coined” (pp. 2–3). Yarbrough convincingly argues his thesis: contrary to Baur, Wrede, and Bultmann, the salvation history approach to NT theology is not necessarily a fallacy.
“Whereas Baur-Wrede-Bultmann saw a largely negative relation, so that a “historical” synthesis of New Testament convictions must be fatal to classic Christian belief, these scholars lodge a fascinating minority report. In ways that set them apart from many of their peers, they saw Christian salvation and the world’s historical processes as positively related” (p. 3).
“New Testament theology in the Baur-Wrede-Bultmann heritage has overreached in its often swashbuckling conviction that a salvation historical approach must necessarily constitute a fallacy. We will show that the “critical orthodox” hegemony has been more dependent on philosophical, theological, and historiographical convictions intrinsic to the changing times than has been good for either scholarship or religion. At the same time there has been since Hofmann a consistent, if today little remarked, response to Baur-Wrede-Bultmann that appears worthy of a second look. This view has assumed various characteristic forms; it is also fraught with its own philosophical, theological, and historiographical liabilities” (p. 7).
4. Chapter Summaries: Tracing the Argument
Chapters 1, 2, and 6 “frame the investigation by setting forth distinctives of the [Heilsgeschichte] outlook in contrast to what we term ‘critical orthodoxy’” (p. 5). The representatives of the two views are diverse and not necessarily part of a uniform school of thought. Chapters 3–4 summarize the state of NT and OT theology between the world wars and after World War II, and chapter 5 discusses Cullmann to set the stage for the contrasts with Bultmann in chapter 6.
- “Tübingen Versus Erlangen: F. C. Baur and J. C. K. von Hofmann on New Testament Theology” (pp. 8–59): “For Baur a [non-Hegelian (cf. p. 27)] salvation historical approach was fallacious because of the nature of the New Testament sources and the largely philosophical certainties that inform ‘critical’ methods used to analyze them. For Hofmann, those same sources remained unintelligible apart from the material influence of a transcendent God who involved himself in the historical process in much the same way that biblical writers claim” (p. 9). Baur’s “interpretive grid” is “historicistic” (p. 27). Using a rationalist epistemology similar to Descartes and Kant, Baur rejects the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, dates for the Gospels earlier than the second century, the NT’s theologically harmonious unity, Jesus’ divinity, and Jesus’ supernatural works (pp. 11, 18–20, 23–25). Baur seems to have elevated “his particular modern outlook to the status of judge of the New Testament” (p. 20; cf. 24). Hofmann, who has been “inadequately assessed” (p. 28) and whose “views are profoundly rooted in the covenant theology of Cocceius” (p. 33), contrasts with Baur by seeking “to understand the New Testament texts in their stated context” (p. 41). Hofmann was a modified critic, not a biblical inerrantist, so his non-Cartesian epistemology was not due to inerrancy (pp. 42–45).
- “Religion Versus Theology: William Wrede and Adolf Schlatter on New Testament Theology” (pp. 60–117): Like Baur, Wrede thought “that a salvation historical approach to New Testament theology is fallacious judged by the conventions of modern thought” (p. 61), and he claimed “methodological exclusivity” for his NT theology approach (pp. 67–68), which absolutized the modern viewpoint (pp. 74–78). Yarbrough, who is an expert on Schlatter, presents what he calls “the new perspective on Schlatter” since NT scholarship has unfairly marginalized him (pp. 81–83). Schlatter was a NT scholar unusually proficient in philosophy, first century Judaism, rabbinic studies, and linguistics, especially Hebrew and Greek (pp. 83–88). Although “neither a Cartesian in the sense of absolutizing a modern view, nor purely non-Cartesian in the negative sense of jettisoning modernity for the sake of allegiance to a cherished view of the past,” Schlatter is “not simply a mediating theologian, shrewdly seeking a golden mean by which to reconcile opposing factions” (p. 113). As part of “the salvation historical outlook,” he “regards the New testament writings as evincing substantial theological unity and historical veracity and as enjoying temporal proximity to the events or words they relate” (p. 115). His epistemology merges “openness to the transcendent and careful observation of the phenomenal” (p. 115).
- “The Debate Continues: Religion Versus Theology Between the World Wars” (pp. 118–65): Non-salvation historical approaches, primarily Religionsgeschichte, dominated OT theology prior to 1918 (pp. 123–24) as well as between the world wars (pp. 128–46), but salvation history received “renewed attention” (p. 145). Salvation history’s “re-entry” in NT theology preceded Cullmann’s Christ and Time with G. Schrenk, C. Weth, O. Piper, C. H. Dodd, H. D. Wendland, E. Stauffer, L. Goppelt, and A. M. Hunter (pp. 152–63).
- “Slouching Toward Crisis: Salvation History in the Biblical Theology Movement” (pp. 166–212): After World War II, debate about Heilsgeschichte “intensified,” producing “some clarity and progress” but ending in a “meltdown” (p. 167). According to Childs, the “Biblical Theology Movement” led by W. Eichrodt, G. von Rad, and E. Jacob lasted only until the early 1960s (pp. 168–69). Salvation history’s prominent role during this period “breaks decisively with a Hofmann-Schlatter model” (p. 193), and Childs “rightly diagnoses its fallacy: it stressed the theological important fact of God’s act in history but typically declined to affirm their concrete historical reality” (p. 210). Schlatter-like salvation history approaches to NT theology rebounded, however, with scholars such as A. Wilder, B. Reicke, L. Goppelt, G. Ladd, and H. Ridderbos (pp. 200–210).
- “Prophet Without Honor: Cullmann’s Unseasonable Salvation Historical Synthesis” (pp. 213–60): Cullmann has unnecessarily received a bad rap from NT scholarship (cf. pp. 259–60). Although he did not consciously see himself in the same salvation historical stream as Hofmann and Schlatter, he likewise was a biblical non-inerrantist, insisted “that the starting point for the meaning of the New Testament texts is what the texts themselves say,” positively related revelation and history, and criticized biblical criticism (pp. 250–59).
- “The Perfect Storm: Final Assault on Salvation History and Counterinsurgency” (pp. 261–338): Bultmann coincided with conditions that were unusually conducive for marginalizing Heilsgeschichte. Although Albertz and Goppelt differ drastically from Bultmann, they are not uniform themselves. Goppelt differs from Hofmann, Schlatter, and Albertz both epistemologically and materially (cf. pp. 328, 334), and his work “may be regarded as a Trojan horse in the salvation historical camp” (p. 335; cf. 338). There is “a striking lack of collaboration, or even mutual awareness” between Albertz and Goppelt—and Cullmann to a lesser degree (p. 337).
- “Epilogue: The Salvation History Fallacy?” (pp. 339–46): This study of salvation history is “a rediscovery of significant labor unjustly forgotten” (p. 339), and “salvation historical alternatives to ‘critical orthodoxy’ will continue to find supporters” for “a discipline that appears both fraught with difficulties and ripe for resurgence” (pp. 340–46).
- Its Scripture index lists only sixteen biblical references, which is not surprising since SHF focuses on history, but readers would no doubt appreciate more examples from Scripture.
- The combination of relatively dry content with a formal, academic writing style results in a challenging read that requires exceptional concentration.
- It includes over a dozen minor typos.
- Its quality is superb. Yarbrough has a scholarly command of the vast field of biblical theology from Gabler in the late 1700s to the present, and SHF demonstrates this by penetratingly interacting with hundreds of primary and secondary sources—many of which are German and thus inaccessible to most English speakers. The impressive bibliography is forty-four pages.
- Its outline is clear, the diachronic progression logical, and frequent “summary” sections valuable.
- As best I can discern, its main arguments are sound. SHF is a book that NT scholars will ignore at their peril.
6. Selected Bibliography
This annotated selection of four reviews reflects a spectrum of perspectives.
- Guthrie, George. Review of Robert W. Yarbrough, The Salvation Historical Fallacy? BIBLICA 87:3 (2006): 442–46. “To seek to reassess the development of an entire sub-discipline of New Testament Studies might seem staggeringly ambitious in a guild currently given both to fragmentation and specialization. Yet, this is what Robert Yarbrough does in” SHF (p. 442). “Robert Yarbrough’s monograph has a number of strengths. First, both the hegemony and commitments of the dominant current in New Testament theology, exemplified in the works of Baur, Wrede, and Bultmann, stand out clearly in dialogue with scholars from a salvation historical perspective. In the presentation of this dialogue’s history, Yarbrough has helped not only to clarify the primary differences between the two orientations but also to clarify both the connections and differences between those in each trajectory. For example, while Baur, Wrede, and Bultmann share certain negative responses to the concept of revelation in history, Yarbrough is keen to point out the very different philosophical orientations of these scholars. Bultmann departed significantly from both Baur and Wrede, for example, but his posture towards the possibility of revelation in history caused him to stand with them over against the salvation historical approach” (444). “Second, Yarbrough has shown that the highest commitments of the Baur-Wrede-Bultmann trajectory were to dominant philosophical systems of their times, whether Cartesian, Hegelian, Kantian, or Neo-kantian. These philosophical orientations, moreover, are shown to have predetermined the outcome of their New Testament theological research” (pp. 444–45). “Third, in accordance with the dictum that history is written by the victors, Yarbrough demonstrates that significant and prolific voices in the history of New Testament theology have been all but lost to current consideration by most in current New Testament studies. Yarbrough’s wide reading and grasp of his sources, most of which are in German, have resulted in him bringing sometimes obscure works to light and highlighting not-so-obscure but often neglected works. At numerous points, he also draws connections in method or conclusions between works, connections that are not overt in the works themselves. . . . Moreover, Yarbrough has demonstrated that key scholars of the salvation history perspective, such as Hofmann, Schlatter, and Cullmann, rather than offering simplistic, biblicist, or uncritical perspectives, were responsible for extensive, well-researched, and nuanced discussions on the nature and work of New Testament theology. While aware of their own presuppositions, they nonetheless were more open than Baur, Wrede, and Bultmann to allowing the events and data of the New Testament era to ‘speak’ over against the philosophical systems of their day” (p. 445). “In spite of these strengths, the book is not without its weaknesses. The presentation leaves the impression that another round or two of editing was needed before this volume’s release” (p. 445). Its organization is “less than optional” and “somewhat erratic in its development” (p. 445). “These concerns aside, this monograph offers important food for thought concerning the state of and future directions for the practice of New Testament theology. . . . At the end of the day, Yarbrough has demonstrated that the dialogue between the dominant voices in New Testament theology and the alternate voices of the salvation historical perspective does not constitute a dialogue between a critical and an uncritical approach to New Testament study, but rather a clash of worldviews” (pp. 445–46).
- Johnson, David. Review of Robert W. Yarbrough, The Salvation Historical Fallacy? Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49 (2006): 183–85. “The agenda for this volume is clear before one opens the book, since the title is crossed out on the cover. The purpose is to show that there is no salvation-historical fallacy. Yarbrough asserts that standard accounts of NT studies in the last half of the twentieth century focused on Rudolf Bultmann, his precursors and legacy. Therefore they have neglected or invalidated the work of those who follow a salvation-historical approach. . . . The book does not attempt to prove a genetic relationship between any of the scholars, although such relationships probably exist. This gives the study a more historically objective appearance” (p. 183). “Whereas Räisänen thinks the Baur-Wrede-Bultmann approach is the best example and model for the discipline, Yarbrough thinks the so-called salvation-historical model of Hofmann-Schlatter-Cullmann is best, or at least a viable alternative (agreeing in some measure with Peter Balla)” (p. 184). “Yarbrough’s conclusion is that faith and history must go together in the construction of NT theology because the Christian faith (as well as Israel’s faith) is founded on historical events. Critical orthodoxy cannot grasp the meaning of the NT. A few scholars have been tempted to follow a strictly literary approach to the meaning of the NT. This book should call them back to a historical mooring. . . . [W]ithout a historical base to NT study one cannot identify with the NT authors and thus cannot truly understand the theology of the NT” (p. 185).
- Räisänen, Heikki. Review of Robert W. Yarbrough, The Salvation Historical Fallacy? Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (2006): 160–61. Yarbrough’s “comparison of the similarities between” Wrede and Bultmann “is superficial” (p. 160). “‘Salvation history’ is used loosely with reference to scholars who largely rely on the biblical texts as historical (though not infallible) sources and accept their traditional Christian interpretation. As a result, Gerhard von Rad, usually closely associated with salvation history, is located close to the opposite camp, and Goppelt gets an ambiguous evaluation, ranging from an ally to a Trojan horse” (p. 160). “Yarbrough claims that he ‘seeks to tell a story more than render a verdict’ (p. xiv), yet the book leaves a different impression. Page after page, the trio Baur-Wrede-Bultmann and their like emerge as hardened positivists, unable to do justice to the NT simply because of their a priori commitment to a modern worldview” (p. 161). “As the work moves mostly on a theoretical level, it leaves the impression that one’s historical conclusions vis-à-vis the Bible depend simply on whether or not one accepts the possibility of miracle or of divine intervention. Y. shows no sensitivity to the significant for biblical scholarship of accumulated commonsense observations on the texts themselves. The book paints an overall picture of its subject that is in many ways informative, and it makes use of a vast amount of secondary literature. Unfortunately, a check on the author’s use of Wrede revealed serious flaws. Page after page, sentences are detached from their context, misinterpreted, and arbitrarily woven to make a new patchwork” (p. 161). Yarbrough’s “first three allegations” against Wrede “miss the target. As for the fourth, Wrede does hold that contemporary Judaism makes a more direct interpretive context for the interpretation of the NT than does the OT—but then, what is wrong with such a view?” (p. 161).
- Thielman, Frank. “Setting the Record Straight: The Significance of Robert W. Yarbrough’s Reassessment of New Testament Theology.” Review of Robert W. Yarbrough, The Salvation Historical Fallacy? Bulletin for Biblical Research (forthcoming). (The following summary is based on the draft that Thielman submitted to BBR for publication. Thanks to Dr. Thielman for kindly sharing an advance copy with me.) Wayne Meeks’s 2004 presidential address to the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas posed the question, “Why Study the New Testament?”, and his answer is a foil to Yarbrough’s SHF. Yarbrough demonstrates that (1) the salvation history approach is diverse and not quickly dismissed and (2) NT scholars who use a salvation history approach have been marginalized because of their epistemology does not follow Descartes and Kant.
Andrew David Naselli
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
September 10, 2007