Bruce Waltke on Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament

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Today I received two volumes from Zondervan (thanks Andrew Rogers!); one was Bruce Waltke’s 2007 An Old Testament Theology.  I still remember hearing at SBL 2008 in Boston that Waltke really pressed and challenged Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old Testament.  And ever since SBL , when I sat in on a panel discussion on Waltke’s volume of which Brueggemann was a respondent (and a hilarious one at that!) I have been quite anxious to see what it is Waltke says about Brueggemann. 

Here are some of the more interesting and thought-provoking quotations from Waltke; I would love for Brueggemann to respond in print:

“The Theology of the Old Testament by Walter Brueggemann has many strengths, not least of which is his magisterial survey of the discipline, demonstrating his profound scholarship.  his style is eloquent with flashes of brilliance, but he hinders his communication by unnecessary abstractions and neologisms.  His theology is salted with insights into the importance of rhetoric and with applications of the biblical faith to current social issues, but he spoils his applications by his flawed epistemology . . . ” (69)

AND

“With regard to epistemology . . . Brueggemann embraces what he calls a ‘post-liberal, non-foundational approach.’  By this he means that he rejects both historical criticism and the orthodox confessions of the church.  He complains that the ‘practical effect of this [historical criticism] enterprise was to relativize the revelatory claims of the text and treat it like any other book.’  By defeault, however, Brueggemann’s own reasoning, unaided by the Spirit, becomes his final frame of reference for knowing.  Without recognizing the work of the Spirit in his epistemology: ‘the authority of the [biblical] witness is grounded in nothing more and nothing less than the willingness of the text community to credit, believe, trust, and take seriously this testimony.’  In other words, he relativizes the authority of Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament and of Jesus Christ and his apostles in the New Testament solely to the reader’s response” (69).

AND

“In addition to shifting the authority of the text away from a Spirit-empowered testimony to the willingness of the community, Brueggemann also shifts it away to the interpreter.  Since there is no interest-free interpretation, whether canonical or critical, he argues, the interpreter must ‘stay engaged in an adjudicating process.’  However, by that deft move he shifts authority away from the text to the interpreter” (70).

AND

“Brueggemann’s conceptualization o fthe biblical theologian’s task is rooted in his conviction that the biblical testimonies about I AM contradict each other. . . . In Brueggemann’s view the task of the theologian is to expose and reflect theologically upon competing claims that God is good and that God is not good.  . . . Brueggemann draws the heretical conclusion from these contradictory witnesses that there is an internal contradiction in God himself.  Is it too harsh to recall that the Serpent also denied that God is good and that Cain could not affirm that God was just?  (71).”

AND LASTLY . . .

“Brueggemann draws his heretical theology from his flawed exegesis: he bases his understanding of the core testimony on adjectives and verbs, not on the accredited method of determining the meaning of words in their literary and historical contexts.  In his method of interpretation, the reader’s response always trumps the author’s intention.  . . . Brueggemann’s reading does not take account of the a priori rights of the canonical writer and lacks sympathy with I AM’s repugnance of unbelief and sin.  In short, his theology fails because his exegesis is inadequate” (72).

Harsh critique, indeed.  I tend to agree with Brueggemann, still, that God is far more complex and indeed conflicted.  I would say Waltke’s exegesis is inadequate, not Brueggemann’s, in this regard.  Those who have read my work will be well aware of why I think this to be the case.  Yet I also agree strongly with Waltke that biblical scholarship–here, theology–should have some relevance and import for the church (see HERE and HERE).  I disagree with Waltke, however, because I see this as exactly what Brueggemann is doing.  Brueggemann is, rightly, all about pressing communities of faith to wrestle with the complexities of the text, and especially, of God.

So, your thoughts?

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6 thoughts on “Bruce Waltke on Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament

    Claude Mariottini said:
    October 29, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    John,

    I was at the SBL meeting when Brueggemann responded to Waltke’s criticism. One had to have been there to appreciate the way Brueggemann responded to Waltke.

    After reading Waltke’s Old Testament theology, one has to agree with Brueggemann in this debate.

    Claude Mariottini

      John Anderson responded:
      October 30, 2009 at 7:25 am

      Claude:

      Thanks for your note. As I said, I was there too, and indeed it was something one had to see. Brueggemann had just enough humor and just enough edge in his response. I still tell the story to my colleagues. I am intrigued you agree with Brueggemann. And glad (wink). From what I have read of the Waltke volume already, I have several difficulties (not least of which is his insistence on a place for the Spirit); I don’t want to say the Spirit has no place, but I don’t quite know what a Spirit led OT theology looks like, let alone how one would adjudicate its authenticity. I would think such a view would naturally have to lead one to recognize complexity and diverse portrayals of God.

    rmichaelfox@sbcglobal.net said:
    October 30, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    john,

    this is a great post. i’d like to hear your thoughts on why complex or multifaceted = conflicted. although it sounds like waltke goes a bit far (to put it mildly), “conflicted” IS an attention-getting word. i might personally suggest the word “free” instead of “conflicted.” and, does brueggemann read any enduring qualities about God? it seems the bible revs up God’s non-conflictedness (?) as well.

    again, good post

    [...] Waltke on Ideology and Methodology in Biblical Theology (see HERE for my post describing Waltke’s critique of Brueggemann’s [...]

    jason burns said:
    November 10, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    I agree with you John about your thoughts on Brueggermann and Waltke.I dont agree with Brueggermanns theology or his epitomology but he is trieng in his own honest way to see the bible as relavent today.As evangelicals are scholarship is to critical to the point that we do not realy engage with other views.Reformed scholareship is the worst at this.Like i said i dont agree with Brueggermann as im a reformed christian but he says things that rely make you think and that is good.

    jason burns said:
    November 10, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    Also Brueggermann is very christ focused in his work on the old testament as you see in his commentry on jerimiah.He is very practical also.Much of reformed theology for example Berkhofs systamatic theology is dry lacks no practical application and you get this in lots of reformed commentries.We calvinist spend days debating on theology and are Lord spent days amongst the people talking to ,with the people.He lived and wept with the people.It is a crime that we can know all about predestination but spend so little time with odenary folk who do not go to church.Brueggermann has big fualts but so do we.

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