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Philip Esler: New Testament Theology


Philip F. Esler, New Testament Theology: Communion and Community (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).

The title of Philip Esler’s New Testament Theology is ill-chosen. Although the book provides a good introduction to a number of aspects that qualify the task of writing a New Testament theology, the book itself is not a New Testament theology by any stretch. At most, it is a highly selective prolegomenon to the task of “doing” New Testament theology. That is not to say, however, that the book is not worthwhile to read—it is simply to say that readers will have to look elsewhere if they really want a New Testament theology.

One of the better features of this book is its discussion of the New Testament’s indebtedness to a dualistic anthropology, which is especially welcome in light of the current trend to argue that the New Testament’s anthropology is really fundamentally monistic. Esler exposes the shortcomings of the numerous attempts to sell readers on a monistic anthropology through a highly selective and tendentious reading of certain passages. (In the process, he also shows that Rene Descartes is not the extreme dualist he is often painted to be by today’s Enlightenment-bashers.)

Esler also steers clear of another trendy but misguided conceit when he affirms the intentionalist hermeneutic basic to the New Testament. But his chief argument in support of authorial intention, I think, is an unnecessary complication of what should be a much more straightforward task: he invokes the idea of the “communion of the saints” in order to say that we owe the “saints” enough respect to listen to what they intend (present tense), and not just what their texted artifacts can be made to say on the basis of a strong misreading. This is an intriguing argument, but it is rather circuitous and perhaps even costly in terms of commitments. Why not just say that we should look for what the author intended because the purpose of their writing in the first place was to convey an intention?

Reviewed by John C. Poirier


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Category: In Depth

About the Author: John C. Poirier, Th.M. (Duke Divinity), D.H.L. (Jewish Theological Seminary), is an independent scholar who has published numerous articles on a wide range of topics. He is the author of The Invention of the Inspired Text: Philological Windows on the Theopneustia of Scripture (2021).

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