John Goldingay

IVP Academic Interviews John Goldingay about His Three Volume OT Theology

Posted on

(I have reproduced the following from the current IVP Academic newsletter.  Also, I will be reviewing all three volumes of Goldingay’s OT theology here in the coming months!).

Reid: Well, as you note in your preface, you’ve been saved from the embarrassment of not completing the third volume of your Old testament Theology!  For our readers who are not so familiar with your project, would you explain briefly how this third volume relates to the previous two?

Goldingay: I think we shoudl explain what I thought might embarrass me–I was aware of the warning in James about announcing what you plan to do today and tomorrow when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring!  The subtitle of the third volume is Israel’s Life. So it’s about the life God invited and challenged Israel to live.  The difference from the other volumes is that it focuses more on us, on our response to God.  In light of what God did for us (volume one) and who God is (volume two), it concerns itself with Francis Schaeffer’s question, “How should we then live?”

Reid: Some readers will want to know how you went about your writing of these three volumes.  With a detailed map of where you were headed?  With an array of books spread out around you?  With a goal of so many pages per day?

Goldingay: I originally imagined I would write the kind of theology that has a chapter on God and a chapter on Israel and a chapter on humanity and so on, but I realized that this wouldn’t take seriously the way the Old Testament itself does theology; the New Testament is the same in this respect.  It works by telling Israel’s story.  Indeed, telling Israel’s story is where it starts.  So I decided that the first volume needed to be on the theological implications of that story.  Then there could be a volume on theological topics in that more general sense, and then a third volume on life with God.  So I had no detailed maps, and no array of books really, because I wanted to let the Old Testament itself set the agenda.  So I started reading it!  And set myself to writing seven hundred words a day.  Then when I had done my own reading and thinking and writing, I went to the books.  That’s the way I tell students to write their papers, too.

Reid: What are some notable discoveries you made in the course of writing these volumes?

Goldingay: Last night in class we were looking at the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, and it reminded me fo the way the Old TEstament uses narrative to discuss tricky theological issues such as the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.  We get in a mess when we try to “resolve” that kind of question in conceptual terms, but narrative makes it possible to walk around the question and look at it from various angles without pretending to “solve” it.  That’s in volume one.  In connection with volume two, I kept reflecting on the fact that the Old Testament’s default way of speaking about forgiveness is as God “carrying” our sin. That’s really profound, and it helps us see how God was relating to Israel through the Old Testament story and into the New Testament story, to see what God was doing on the cross, and to see how God keeps relating to us.  In volume three, when I began I was aware of the way our categories such as ethics and worship aren’t biblical ones, and I was pleased with the idea of thinking in terms of life with God, life with one another and life as selves.

Reid: You say, “The Torah . . . . is a vision rather than a law code or even a program for reform.”  In effect, our focus should not be on how Torah’s laws were implemented in Israel but on the “understanding of God, the world, the social order and morality” they embody.  Could you talk a bit about that?

Goldingay: I guess a major thing here is that I got quite angry at the way we assume in our culture–our Christian culture–that we have a proper understanding of marriage, family, work, worship, local community, nation and so on, and that these pre-Christian Israelites were so primitive in their understanding, whereas actually we are in a mess in all these areas and the Old Testament has so much to teach us.

Reid: You draw a striking contrast between the inwardness of Western spirituality and our sense of the self, and the “sense of outwardness, external expression, noise and activity” that characterizes spiritual life in the Old Testament.  Do we need a change of course under the tuteledge of the Old Testament?

Goldingay: I don’t see much basis or support for our “inward” approach in the Old Testament or the New Testament. But both Testaments also indicate that God puts up with us living in a way that reflects our needs, and with us relating to God in the way we need to because of what we are.  But once again, the Scriptures offer us whole new mind-expanding, life-expanding possibilities.

Reid: David Plotz summed up his reading of the Old Testament in Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible. A recent reviewer likened the book “to watching a frat boy try to make spaghetti for the first time without a recipe.” I think many Christians today would resonate with some of Plotz’s unmediated experience.  What kind of recipe does your Old Testament Theology offer these frat boys?

Goldingay: One thing that comes home to me more and more is that we think the Bible’s story is about us.  Actually it’s about God.  Thus when people in the Bible do gross things, remember that this is showing us how God perseveres with us anyway, not offering us examples to avoid–still less examples to follow!  Related to this is the fact I have hinted at, that Christians are inclined to think that we have things basically right and therefore that the Bible is to be expected to confirm what we think, whereas actually, when the Bible says something very different from what we think, that is when life starts getting interesting.

Reid: Some evangelicals have recently been having heated discussions about the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament’s use of the Old Testament.  In that context, do you think a Matthew or Paul knew what you know–or think you know–about the Old Testament’s theology? And does it matter?

Goldingay: I wonder if there are two issues here–one about theology, one about interpretation. Spurgeon said the Bible is like a lion.  So Matthew and Paul are looking at the lion from different angles, and so am I.  We will all describe the lion in different ways.  O course the church has decided that their ways were among the right ones, with Mark, Luke, and so on.  Mine might be different from theirs, as theirs are different from each other’s, though I might still be offering a true angle on the lion.  The interpretation issue is that Matthew and Paul aren’t trying to do exegesis of the Old Testament.  They aren’t trying to understand it in its own right.  They are trying to see what insight it offers on Jesus, on the church and so on.  There is nothing wrong with that.  I am trying to do something different.  I am trying to get at its own agenda so as to let it rework ours.  There is a related issue raised by current discussion of “theological interpretation of Scripture.” For many people this means reading the Scriptures in light of the church’s doctrinal tradition: the creeds and so on. That isn’t necessarily in itself wrong, but it has proved really dangerous because it means subordinating the Scriptures to the church and not taking any notice of the Scriptures’ own agenda.

Reid: Have there been any responses to your first two volumes, that have surprised, challenged, gratified, or even amused you?

Goldingay: I loved Stephen Lennox’s comment that “reading John Goldingay on the Old Testament is like listening to a lover talk about his beloved.” I couldn’t ask for a more wonderful observation.

Reid: But he also says, “Goldingay has precious little good to say about the church.  By my reckoning, most of his comments about it in the second volume are negative.” He thinks this is “understandable, but it is not defensible” (Books & Culture, July/August 2009). How do you respond?

Goldingay: Well, he goes on to explain that the reason it is not defensible is that it doesn’t fit with what the New Testament says about the church theologically.  I of course accept what the New Testament says about the church theologically.  I am reflecting the fact that we as the church don’t live up to what the New Testament says about us.

Reid: You are quoted as being “fanatically and fervently enthusiastic about every aspect of studying the Old Testament and its significance for the church today.” Why do you think so many preachers don’t seem to share that enthusiasm?

Goldingay: It is the effect of biblical criticism and of dispensationalism.

Reid: Well, that’s an equitable distribution of blame! Are you relieved to be done with this project?  Will you miss it?

Goldingay: No.  I don’t think I think in either of those terms.