Book reviews — New Testament Foundations for Christian Ethics by Willi Marxsen

Johnson, Luke Timothy

WILLI MARXSEN, New Testament Foundations for Christian Ethics (tr. O. C. Dean, Jr.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993). Pp. xvi+ 319. Paper $17.

Professor Marxsen died in 1993. The German edition of this book, based on lectures delivered in 1984-1985, was published in 1999 The English title leads the reader to expect a systematic inquiry into various “foundations” for Christian ethics, material or formal, suggested by the NT. The German title gives a better sense of direction: “Christliche” und Christliche Ethik im Neuen Testament. The study is actually an exercise in Sachkritik. M. is concerned with distinguishing what is genuinely (or distinctively) Christian within the writings of the NT canon from what is merely or nominally Christian. Only such elements can serve as “foundations” for Christian behavior today. To do this, he must isolate the criterion for what is genuinely Christian, and then evaluate the various NT materials accordingly.

Marxsen declares in his “prolegomena” that since ethics is an aspect of theology, Christian ethics in the true sense must be directly connected to what is distinctively Christian in theology; it will become apparent that this will mean that ethics is an aspect of christology. He then turns to what he clearly considers legitimate and complementary “approaches” to Christian ethics: first, an ethics oriented toward Jesus, and second, the ethics of Paul. On the basis of the criteria discovered by these approaches, M. then evaluates “developments and false developments” in the ethics of various NT compositions. He concludes with very brief “epilegomena” on the problem of founding a Christian ethic on the NT.

The process is not as simple as it may seen, for M. is committed to determining the criteria and carrying out the critique on the basis of the historical-critical method. This requires a considerable amount of dissecting literary compositions into sources and tracing out tradition and redaction. Fully as much energy and space are devoted to the various exegetical exercises required to isolate original materials from developed ones (read: pure materials from corrupted ones) as are given to the interpretation of the sediment thus secured.

The intrinsic limitations of the classic historical-critical method are sharply revealed in projects of this sort. M. insists, for example, that an “ethics oriented toward Jesus” must be based not on the representations of Jesus in the Gospels but on the historical Jesus. For him, this means that already in reports made about Jesus during his ministry there was a christology, and that this christology was passed on in Galilean churches unaffected by the so-called Easter event. It is necessary, then, to find this “Jesus christology” that lies beneath the Gospel accounts. The christology of the various Gospels, in contrast, provides only “Mark’s theology” or “Matthew’s theology.”

Marxsen finds the real thing in Jesus eschatological proclamation of the kingdom of God. Although M. does not provide a great deal of content (“The Christian Christology is that Christology in which eschatological existence is experienced and lived. Christian ethics is the actualization of this risky action,” p. 86, his emphasis), he is careful to distinguish this from the apocalyptic expectation of contemporary Judaism.

But precisely in this distinction we find a disturbing equation that runs through the book. M. works with a historically distorted view of Judaism in the first century. That is not unusual, but he attaches a theological caricature to this historical distortion. After reciting common misconceptions of Judaism (God’s grace must be earned, people were alone with the law because the real, visible coming of God was yet to be), M. declares that “theologically, this meant that the law was the god of the Jews…they directly confronted only the law” (p. 67, emphasis his). In effect, M. suggests that Jesus’ understanding of eschatology meant the proclamation of a God other than the God of Judaism.

That such language is not accidental is shown by its recurrence in M.’s treatment of Paul: “Paul experienced a change of gods … there is an identity between the Pharisee’s God and the Christian’s God, but only in the word”(p. 165, emphasis his).

The distinctiveness of Christian theology and ethics is gained, therefore, by a historical and theological caricature of Judaism.

Marxsen’s analysis of Paul’s ethics otherwise follows Bultmann closely in its emphasis on eschatology and the tension between “the indicative and the imperative.” What turns out to be genuinely Christian is that God has acted in humans, enabling them to act in accord with God’s action. This means that texts in Paul that appear to affirm the validity of “works” cannot possibly do so, and that passages which speak clearly of “imitation” must mean something else. As in Bultmann, the ethic of Paul turns out to be Lutheran soteriology.

On the basis of an eschatological christology, M. evaluates the ethics of other NT writings. They do not fare well. Colossians, i Peter, and Hebrews squeak by, as does the Gospel of John, but 2 Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and James are not really Christian: they either lack “the indicative” of a Pauline christology, or they lack eschatology, which means they fall back into a “Pharisaic ethics” (p. 255). The Johannine school likewise completely distorted the genuine Christianity of the (historically restored) John by institutionalizing it (p. 309). As for Matthew’s Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount, “Matthew’s Gospel emerged, of course, from the Christian tradition, but we cannot call it genuinely Christian; it represents rather a relapse into the Pharisaic ethic . . . the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount is not truly a Christian ethic, either” (p. 246).

Marxsen insists that ethics must be grounded in christology, yet he fails to deliver anything resembling a satisfactory understanding of christology. A historically reconstructed Jesus with an eschatological message and liberal ideas about meals is not really a christology. And it is disconcerting to see an author rhapsodizing about Paul’s understanding of “the risen Lord” when his own “historical analysis” has reduced the resurrection faith to nothing much more than a community’s commitment to live by the same eschatological standard as the historical Jesus himself (see pp. 140-41, 175-80).

This book contains historical inaccuracies and theological confusion. As a way toward the use of the NT in Christian ethics, it is not a hopeful start but a monument to a sad chapter in biblical scholarship that reduced all knowing to historical knowing and thereby forgot altogether how to think theologically.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Apr 1995

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