Cover Image: Old Testament Theology

Old Testament Theology:
Israel's Gospel (vol. 1)

John Goldingay (Paternoster, 2003)

Blurb Review by Dr. Benjamin A. Foreman

Review by Dr. Benjamin A. Foreman

The title "Old Testament Theology" is somewhat enigmatic because defining exactly what is the task of Old Testament theology and how best to go about doing it, is a question which Old Testament scholars have attempted to flesh out since the beginning of the 20th century. Since scholars have differing conceptions of what an Old Testament theology should look like, a variety of approaches are reflected in previous works. John Goldingay has divided his study into three parts: Israel's Gospel, Israel's Faith, and Israel's Life (forthcoming)

Goldingay has published a plethora of articles, monographs, and commentaries on the Old Testament, and thus his two (massive) volumes are backed by more than 30 years of thoughtful contemplation and interaction with the Old Testament. They are a valuable contribution to Old Testament studies.

Volume one focuses on what he calls "Israel's gospel story." His central purpose is to explore what Israel's own history has to teach us about God. Israel's story is about what God has done, and since this is recounted in narrative form, the book follows the lead of the Old Testament and thus "amounts to a theological commentary on the Old Testament story" (p. 13). This is what Goldingay calls the "Old Testament's gospel," by which he means, how things were, or what God and Israel have done. The book reads much like a story where the author is the narrator, and I felt as if I was on a tour of the Old Testament, stopping at various sites (texts) where my tour guide (the author) would interpolate helpful comments at each site explaining what was before my eyes and the significance it had on my journey through the Old Testament.

Goldingay's agenda is to "discuss the Old Testament's own theological content and implications, working with the assumption that the Old Testament is Act I to the New Testament's Act II..." (pp. 25-26). He does not focus on how the Old Testament is a witness to Christ, points to Christ, or the way what is concealed in the Old is revealed in the New, but aspires to take the Old Testament on its own terms and allow it to speak for itself. By giving the Old Testament its own voice, one is forced to set one's own theological preferences aside and therefore avoid the temptation to smooth out passages that don't fit a preconceived theological notion. However, one might rightly challenge the legitimacy of concentrating on the theology of the Old Testament. Should not Christians today, living nearly 2000 years after the Christ-event, be engaged in Biblical Theology rather than strictly Old Testament theology? Goldingay is not unaware of this challenge and thus includes a final chapter which attempts to read the New Testament story forward, rather than backwards (as Christians typically do today). In other words, he endeavors to read the story as it should, starting first with the beginning and then reading sequentially to the end, rather than beginning with the end and then going back to read the beginning. Along the way, however, he does fairly frequently pause to briefly consider how the same theme is played out in the New Testament.

The book is divided into 11 chapters which address large portions of the Old Testament story, beginning with creation and ending with the coming of Jesus. Since it is a theology of the Old Testament, Goldingay rightly organizes the chapters so as to keep the focus on God and on his relationship with mankind. Broad chapter headings which emphasize Yhwh's actions help to structure large sections of the narrative which might otherwise be quite diverse. So for example, chapter 9, which deals with the narrative from Solomon to the exile, is called "God Preserved." These titles assist the reader in seeing where the author is headed, something I found helpful since each chapter is so long (on average about 90 pages each).

The book is very text-centered, focusing on the story itself and does not usually address the complicated issue of the relationship between history and the biblical text. In fact, Goldingay states this from the outset: "So I have generally not based theological inferences on scholarly theories concerning where, how and why biblical documents came into existence" (p. 41). He is aware of the difficulties of such an approach, however, and therefore offers a helpful 25-page postscript entitled "Old Testament Theology and History" wherein he outlines his views on the relationship between history and Old Testament theology.

While volume 1 follows the general story line of Genesis-Kings, none of the texts are examined in isolation. For instance, while Genesis 1-2 is the focus of the discussion in chapter two, a variety of texts that allude to creation are examined (e.g. Job 28; Prov 8; Isa 45; Ps 33) alongside the Genesis account. Concerning the ancient Mesopotamian creation tales, Goldingay notes that whereas these ancient myths depict a chaotic commencement of the world, in Genesis the emphasis is on sovereign authority and order.

Goldingay aspires to allow the text to speak for itself. Israel's history is presented as a narrative and so we should be sensitive to the text's own dynamic. This is the way it was written and was intended to be read, and thus Goldingay argues for the importance of narrative as a way of doing theology. This method can shed light on some of the more obscure passages. So for example, when the mysterious story of Jephthah and his vow is read within the wider framework of the book of Judges, which repeatedly underscores Israel's apostasy, the story is "illustrating the way people were doing what was right in their own eyes. Sacrificing a daughter and being unable to see that one might reconsider a stupid promise illustrates that point more powerfully" (p. 580). Therefore, while the individual story may in and of itself be quite puzzling, the wider narrative (i.e. the flow of the book of Judges) helps to dictate the meaning. An approach which takes the mega-narrative of Israel's history seriously, therefore, can be quite fruitful to the study of Old Testament theology.

I was a bit disappointed that Goldingay did not do more to connect the coming of Jesus with the Old Testament. The final chapter is similar to all the other chapters which deal with the narrative of the Old Testament, and assumes that the coming of Christ is a continuation of the Old Testament story. While I personally share the same conviction, I would have appreciated a discussion on why this is a valid assumption. Is there anything inherent to the Old Testament text which would imply that Jesus' coming was predicted? How exactly does Jesus relate to the Old Testament? Although these sorts of questions are not part of Goldingay's agenda, they are, in my opinion, quite important. At the very least, I would have expected him to address these questions in the chapter where the coming of Jesus is the topic of study. While his discussion of the coming of Jesus does include a few references to the Old Testament, I felt as though these allusions were often made in passing and I think a stronger case for the cohesion between the two testaments could have been developed.

In volume two, Goldingay turns to examine what the Scriptures say about the nature and character of God and Israel, rather than focusing on their history and what they have done. He is careful to make the distinction that while the book concentrates on Israel's faith, it is not concerned with what Israel actually believed, but with what the Old Testament says they should have believed. Thus, the title "Israel's Faith" may be misleading because in practice, Israel often behaved quite contrary to the teaching of her Scriptures. I anticipate that volume three ("Israel's Life") will have much more to say about how Israel actually lived.

In contradistinction to volume one, volume two is arranged topically. Seven main themes are addressed in the book, each of which comprises its own chapter. Chapters 2-3 examine what the Old Testament has to teach us about who God is and who Israel is. The threat of coming disaster is discussed in chapter 4, and the promise of restoration is the topic of chapter 5. In chapter 6 Goldingay explores what the Old Testament has to say about humanity, and then widens the scope of the inquiry by looking at the created world, and then the nations, in the final two chapters. By structuring the book in this way, he avoids the pull to flatten out the text by overly systematizing it and seeks to allow the "categories of thinking be ones that emerge from the First Testament itself" (p. 18). The bulk of the work concentrates on the material found in the Wisdom Books, the Psalms, and the Prophets, since these books make the most explicit statements about God's and Israel's character. This diversity of material, however, made it difficult for me at times to see the connection between the subsections in the chapters. At times I found myself losing the trees through the forest and often had to turn back to the chapter headings in order to regain my bearings. But inevitably, I imagine, such is the case with nearly any book that approaches 900 pages in length.

Once again Goldingay is conscious of the potential remonstrance Christians might have to a book which deals exclusively with the theology of the Old Testament. Why should only the Old Testament be considered if the New Testament carries the story forward? Should not both Testaments be taken into account? Goldingay unequivocally agrees that the New Testament should not be completely left out of the discussion. As such, he attempts to compensate for this by rounding off each chapter with "a reflection of what happens when First Testament faith is set in the context of New Testament faith..." (p. 18). This is what he calls "A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament." I found these closing reflections to be quite constructive since they often addressed the same questions I had which arose from my reading.

But while a few reflections on how Old Testament theology relates to New Testament theology is included in the final pages of each chapter, Goldingay keeps the discussion of New Testament teaching to a minimum. One of his purposes in writing this trilogy is to show how the Old Testament is still relevant for Christians today. He believes they have largely ignored the Old Testament and he repeatedly remarks that they "often treat the New Testament as if it were the Bible" (p. 730). He strongly objects to this and attempts to counter this mistaken notion by taking the Old Testament seriously and by studying it in its own right. Such a minimalist approach to the Old Testament can result in mistaken thinking. For example, since the New Testament has much less to say about the nations than does the Old Testament, Christians could have the tendency to focus on themselves and may not be overly concerned with the nations. Goldingay asserts, however, that "the far more vivid universalism of the First Testament needs close attention," and the dormancy of missionary thinking in older Protestantism may have been the result of a lack of this (p. 832). He makes the same point about the created world. This theme is far less prominent in the Old Testament than in the New Testament, but this is simply because the latter takes the former for granted and "does not need to repeat everything the First Testament says" (p. 730). For this reason, Goldingay devotes nearly 100 pages to explicating what the Old Testament has to say about the nations. Thus, erroneous theology can be curtailed when both the "First Testament" (the term he uses so as to avoid the implication that the Old Testament is old, outdated, and replaced by the New Testament) and the New Testament are given an equal voice. In my opinion, this is perhaps Goldingay's biggest contribution to Biblical Theology. The Old Testament is not superseded by New Testament, and neither should be read at the expense of the other; both have equal canonical status. Additionally, we must not attempt to make Old Testament teaching conform to New Testament thinking. The former is complimentary (and not subsequent!) to the latter. One final example will help to illustrate this. The Old Testament has very little to say about life after death, but according to Goldingay, this need not be too disturbing. He remarks that the Old Testament is less "me-focused" than modernity and states that, "For the individual Israelite, it is God's purpose and then Israel's destiny that matter. One dies, but that does not mean the end of the family to which one belongs, or the community or the people or the purpose of God" (p. 633). There is therefore something valuable for us to learn from this: "Christians' frequent failure to take this life seriously shows God's wisdom in delaying the revealing of the resurrection, and it points to the necessity to keep living by the First Testament's emphasis on this life as well as by the New Testament's evidence for the resurrection" (p. 646)


Goldingay's two volumes are very insightful and at times quite challenging. He is very well read and interacts with a large body of Old Testament scholarship, as well as with a number of systematic theologians such Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Jürgen Moltmann. While he has attempted to keep the focus away from historical matters, these inevitably do play themselves out at times in his interpretations (for example he remarks several times that Gen 1 was produced as a response to the Babylonian exile). He has, however, done a fine job at keeping (as much as possible) these issues in abeyance, and scholars across the spectrum will find enough common ground to benefit from this read. As an author he is very engaging, and even humorous. While he assumes a readership that has already undertaken study of the Old Testament, he is not overly technical, and readers with little or no knowledge of Hebrew or Greek would have no problem understanding the vast majority of the work. These two volumes may be a good resource for intermediate to advanced university or seminary students, although pastors may find some hidden gems in it as well. I look forward to the publication of the third volume.

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