Cover Image: Theology of the Old Testament

Theology of the Old Testament:
Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy

Walter Brueggemann (Fortress, 1997)

Blurb Review by Peter Enns

Review by Peter Enns

The following represents a combined review of P. House's "Old Testament Theology" and W. Brueggemann's "Theology of the Old Testament."

What exactly is the Old Testament anyway, and what are we supposed to do with it?

Every Christian who reads the Old Testament does so with a basic understanding, either implicit or explicit, of how these two questions should be answered. Truth be told, although these are actually very basic questions, they are too rarely articulated. It is not enough to affirm simply that the Old Testament is Scripture. What must also be articulated is in what way the Old Testament is Scripture for the church. How does it fit into the grand story that does not end with Malachi, but with an empty tomb and Christ's expectant return?

These "big picture" questions move us beyond a question of what this or that Old Testament verse means. It is even more than a matter of what whole books of the Old Testament mean. Rather, they involve us in a subtle theological and hermeneutical conversation that asks, "Given that we are Christians, what do we do with this major section of our canon?"

Addressing these questions is at least one task of an Old Testament Theology. Two relatively recent contributions to the ongoing theological dialogue are by Paul House, a well respected evangelical Old Testament scholar, and Walter Brueggemann, who is perhaps best known for his efforts in bringing postmodern questions to bear on Old Testament theology. These two works handle the OT very differently. Taken together, they offer differing perspectives on the question of the church and the OT. And, although neither will have the final word (they do not profess to do so), both can be read with profit as they contribute to the ongoing discussion of the relation between the church and its Bible.

House's audience is primarily college and seminary students, and House rightly argues that it can no longer be assumed that they have a basic repertoire of biblical and theological knowledge. He also wishes to contribute to "an informed and valid biblical theology" (p. 57), by which he means the ongoing discussion between the Old and New Testaments.

Towards these ends, he begins with an introduction of the history of Old Testament Theology and how his own methodology fits in the spectrum of approaches. He chooses as a (not the) center of the Old Testament "the Old Testament's insistence on the existence and worship of one God" (p. 56). Such a center functions for students as a useful pedagogical tool for holding together the diverse theological content of the Old Testament.

He treats the books in their Jewish canonical order, outlining the theological content of each book. The title of each chapter is a succinct summary of House's impression of its theological content, e.g., "The One God Who Is Holy" (Leviticus), "The God Who Protects, Blesses & Assesses" (1 and 2 Samuel).

He concludes by summarizing his conclusions ("The God of the Old Testament"). His central point is that Christian theology must take seriously the theological content of the Old Testament, allowing neither New Testament nor systematic concerns to override the canonical data. The appendix treats developments in Old Testament theology since 1993, including a brief interaction-both appreciative and critical-with Brueggemann's work under discussion here (pp. 555-57).

Brueggemann, on the other hand, sets out the theological content of the Old Testament very differently. Like House, he sets his own work in the context of both previous Old Testament Theologies (pp. 1-60), but spends a great deal of time discussing the contemporary postmodern situation (pp. 61-114). He argues convincingly that any attempt to express the theological content of the Old Testament is directed by "the questions, methods, and possibilities... [of] the socio-intellectual climate in which the work must be done" (p. 11). In other words, Old Testament theology is not a neutral discipline as was thought during the modern (i.e., Enlightenment) era, but is shaped by the perspectives and presuppositions of the culture in which the theology is being done. Hence, in the present postmodern context, a postmodern Old Testament Theology is both inevitable and necessary.

Championing postmodern Old Testament interpretation is a theme familiar to those who read Brueggemann. What is novel here is his method for organizing the Old Testament data. The quest for organizing the diverse theological data of the Old Testament is always a troublesome one, and, as is well known, the history of the discipline is largely a series of disagreements as to how it should be done. Brueggemann adds to this ongoing academic conversation by employing a courtroom metaphor: testimony-dispute-advocacy.

For Brueggemann, to read the Old Testament is to read Israel's "testimony" of who God is and what he has done, which he treats for nearly 200 pages. In a court of law, testimony does not go unchallenged, however. Israel also offers "counter-testimony" about God, i.e., Israel's "cross-examination" of its previous testimony. This cross-examination is found in texts that accent the hiddenness, ambiguity, and negativity of God, e.g., psalms of lament and Job. Such counter-testimony serves not to "defeat the testimony," but "will cause the testimony to be uttered in a sobered, trembling voice" (p. 332). In other words, the messiness of life brings one to struggle with the pronouncements of Scripture, and Scripture itself supplies ample evidence that Israel itself engaged in this struggle. This testimony-counter-testimony scheme is very helpful in allowing the theological diversity of the Old Testament to speak.

Third we have "Israel's Unsolicited Testimony." As with any trial, the witness sometimes mentions things beyond that which is solicited in testimony and counter-testimony. Brueggemann organizes this unsolicited testimony under four headings, which he refers to as Yahweh's "partners," those with whom he is in relation: Israel, individual human persons, the nations, and creation. In my view, the trial metaphor begins to breakdown somewhat here, but there is still some benefit to seeing it carried through in this way.

Next Brueggemann turns to "Israel's Embodied Testimony," that testimony in which God is mediated concretely to Israel. In this section, Brueggemann has consciously left the trial metaphor (see p. 567). Here, in categories familiar to those in the discipline, he treats the ways in which God is mediated to Israel: Torah, king, prophet, priest, sage.

Brueggemann concludes with prospects for theological interpretation in a pluralistic context. He also treats here four recurring issues in Old Testament theology: its relation to historical criticism, the New Testament and the church, Judaism, the problem of justice.

What is perhaps most valuable in House's work is his ability to crystallize the basic theological content of each Old Testament book without leaving the reader feeling that the book should be treated in isolation. Scattered throughout are overtures toward helping the reader understand the theological content of the book as themes that are developed elsewhere in the Old Testament and, where relevant, in the New Testament. What a biblically illiterate church needs is not another book on Bible facts, but a book that struggles with the theological content of the books themselves. It is not enough to make sure students have memorized, say, the list of Judahite kings. It is equally important-perhaps more important-that they understand the theology of kingship. The Old Testament was not written to provide us with bits of trivia. It was intended-and this has always been part of the Christian confession-to tell a story, and that story is theological.

Also, House insists throughout that the reader struggle with the Old Testament data at a primary and intimate level as much as possible, rather than using it to support a preconceived theological system. Scripture should be the basis out of which theology flows, not a grab bag of prooftexts for justifying rigidly held views.

The strength of Brueggemann's work is likewise found in his efforts to encourage readers to take seriously the diverse theological content of the Old Testament. Brueggemann is a seasoned theologian and his work is a sincere, thoughtful, and engaging attempt to write an Old Testament Theology that moves beyond the impasse of modern, Enlightenment questions that have dominated the discipline-particularly for the mainline churches, Brueggemann's primary audience-since the post-Reformation period. Although not all of his points are equally convincing, the questions he raises, particularly with respect to postmodernism, are firmly before us and cannot be ignored. As such, this volume is an important contribution to the ongoing theological discussion.

Moreover, Brueggemann's trial metaphor is fresh and engaging. House's book-by-book organization, although justifiable on pedagogical grounds, is mundane compared to Brueggemann's creative handling of the Old Testament material. I certainly found myself looking at familiar passages in new ways.

Along with these positive aspects of both works, there are also some questions to be raised and shortcomings to be noted.

First, House's intended audience of "college and seminary students," although common targets in theological literature, is in fact two very different audiences. The Christian academic market is so small that one cannot chide the publishers for this move. Nevertheless, college and seminary students are for the most part in very different stages in their intellectual lives. I cannot see this volume being used with equal profit by both. It is a bit long for college students, but seems more geared toward this audience in terms of its design. Beginning seminary students will benefit, but would quickly need to move to works that provide a more intentional synthesis of the Old Testament as a whole. Brueggemann's work, for example, could perform such a role.

Also, House should be more explicit about how following the Jewish canonical order could contribute to Christian theology. It certainly can, and this would have been a wonderful opportunity for House to make some very broad observations about the overall trajectory of the Old Testament, e.g., how does Chronicles function theologically as last in the Jewish canon? Instead, his choice to follow the Jewish canonical order is defended merely on the basis of its "clarity and ancient roots" (p. 12). The Christian order, however, is clearer to Christians and also has ancient roots (derived from the Septuagint).

With respect to Brueggemann, at least two aspects of his synthesis are problematic.

First, although at times Brueggemann nuances his point, this work continues from previous works his essentially uncritical embrace of various forms of Liberation Theology. This is not to say that Liberation Theology is not an extremely valuable player in the broad spectrum of theological discourse. Moreover, it is true that the western world-I will add, the conservative Christian world-needs to be reminded that it has too long given its own culturally embedded theological formulations the central role. Nevertheless, Liberation Theology is as much a cultural phenomenon as any other. Brueggemann seems to impose this cultural phenomenon upon the text as an implicit organizing principle for doing postmodern theology. But, along with both the modernism and fundamentalism that Brueggemann rightly critiques, he must also be critical of his own cultural moment.

Second, and more importantly, Brueggemann's handling of the age-old problem of the Christian Bible is theologically and hermeneutically insufficient. He does well to remind Christians of the history of Jewish interpretation. There is much that the church can learn from Jewish hermeneutics, not the least of which is the manner in which the apostolic authors (largely Jewish) themselves handled the Old Testament. But Brueggemann seems to call for more than simply appreciation. He argues, both implicitly and explicitly, that to read the Old Testament as a Christian-or better, as Christians have traditionally done, as a story that comes to a climax in the death and resurrection of Christ-is simply "supersessionism," a recurring word in this volume.

The label "supersessionism" is far too visceral and imbalanced a term to be of much use. Although Christianity is born out of Second Temple Judaism, it is still a different religion, and one that claims in its own canon to, well, "supersede" Judaism.

In my view, Brueggemann's handling of this central theological issue is so seriously flawed that ample space should have been allowed for providing a detailed theological argument of how he views the Christian Bible. Instead, apart from a few passing comments (e.g., p. 449), the reader must wait for an all-too-brief discussion near the end (pp. 729-33). Once there, it becomes clear that Brueggemann really does not think much of the notion that, in the church, both "Jew and Greek" have their national and historical (and I might add racial and socioeconomic) attributes subsumed under the all-surpassing attribute of being united with Christ, in whose death and resurrection-as the church has always proclaimed-Israel itself finds its true purpose.

It is certainly true, as Brueggemann reminds us, that the Old Testament "does not obviously, cleanly, or directly point to Jesus or to the New Testament" (p. 731), but this fact is beside the point. The New Testament itself evidences the tremendous amount of theological and hermeneutical energy expended to understand the Old in light of the New (and I might add that a tremendous amount of scholarly energy has been spent trying to understand this hermeneutical adventure). The church likewise must continue expending such energy if it is to continue the Christian theological journey. In the end, the person and work of Christ seem to play a meager role in Brueggemann's theology of the Old Testament.

It should go without saying that this is not to question Brueggemann's own Christian commitment, only the manner in which he envisions the church's theological task. Moreover, I should also point out that he is likely reacting against strands in both conservative and historical-critical Old Testament interpretation that have marginalized the "polyphonic and elusive" (p. 731) nature of the Old Testament witness, a criticism with which I am in agreement. Still, the question remains: Does Brueggemann's approach to the task of Old Testament Theology allow him to echo the Gospel-claim that it is only in Christ that the religion of Israel finds its final purpose? If so, this should be made much clearer. If not, Brueggemann must explain what, if anything, makes his Theology of the Old Testament of value to the church, whose ultimate identity is in the one in whom the Old Testament story reaches its climax and completion.

Perhaps what the church needs is not really a "theology of the Old Testament" at all. What it may need is a grand theology, a unified field theory of sorts, that teaches very clearly and persuasively how the Old Testament is to be understood by the church, the post-resurrection people of God. The church, in other words, must answer-or better, continue trying to answer-the questions: what is the Old Testament and what do we do with it? Perhaps what is needed in Christian theological circles is a theology of the Old Testament that explicitly takes as its starting point what Christians have always confessed and what the New Testament writers were at great pains to demonstrate, that the coming of Christ is not only the completion of Israel's journey, but is also the lens through which the Old Testament story itself should be read.

This is not a call to "flatten out the text," a sometimes deserving charge made against those who want to "see Jesus in every Old Testament verse." Rather, it is like reading a mystery novel: knowing how the story's end affects how you then go back and read it through from the beginning. Christians are privileged to be living at the end of the story. Should we write Old Testament theologies as if that were not the case? We must continually balance the way in which the Old Testament story was given, in all its "polyphonic and elusive" glory, with the Christian confession that the Old Testament story finds its final and ultimate purpose in God's revelation in Christ. An Old Testament theology that tries to engage these issues will, in my opinion, prove to be great value to the contemporary Christian world.

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