On the Task of Old Testament Theology: (a)historical?

In re-reading through Walter Brueggemann’s magisterial Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, I must admit I am quite taken still by his theology of rhetoric.  Brueggemann writes:

I shall insist, as consistently as I can, tha the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way.  This rhetorical enterprise operates with ontological assumptions, but these assumptions are open to dispute and revision in the ongoing rhetorical enterprise of Israel.” (66)

For Brueggemann, and for myself, the locus of ancient Israel’s theological reflection and meaning lies solely in the text, more particularly, how the text narrates what it does about God.  What is said is far more important for Brueggemann than attempting to reconstruct either what happened or how the text came to be.  On the so-called historical task of OT theology, Brueggemann says:

“Note well that in focusing ons peech, we tend to bracket out all querstions of historicity.  We are not asking: ‘what happened?’ but ‘What is said?’ To inquire into the historicity of the text is a legitimate enterprise, but it does not, I suggest, belong to the work of Old Testament theology.  In like manner, we bracket out all questions of ontology, which ask about the ‘really real.’ It may well be, in the end, that there is no historicity to Israel’s faith claim, but that is not a position taken here.  And it may well be that there is no ‘being’ behind Israel’s faith assertion, but that is not a claim made here.  We have, however, few tools for recovering ‘what happened’ and even fewer for recovering ‘what is,’ and therefore those issues must be held in abeyance, pending the credibility and persuasiveness of Israel’s testimony, on which everything depends” (118).

What do you make of Brueggemann’s insistence on rhetoric as the means of approaching Old Testament theology?  What of his ahistorical approach?  As you may suspect, I am quite on board.  But for a variety of reasons.

The task of OT theology has long been seen as an historical one.  Eichrodt’s seminal two volume theology stressed a “double aspect”: 1) investigate and analyze a given text agains the backdrop of ancient Near Eastern religion; 2) trace out how this text has been fulfilled in Jesus and the NT [a terribly reductionist and triumphalist reading the way Eichrodt presents it].  Similarly, von Rad’s two volumes–from which I still learn very much–see OT theology through the lens of tradition history.  For von Rad, the task of the OT theologian is to trace the development of these traditions, thus emphasizing the diversity of the task.  Erhard Gerstenberger’s more recent Theologies of the Old Testament seems to carry this strand forward, arguing (correctly) that there are multiple theologies in the OT (although he and I would disagree on what these multiple theologies are).  Gerstenberger, though, is also purely historical, discussing the theology of various institutions within ancient Israel.  And there are countless others who have seen the task of OT theology as an utterly historical one.  In fact, reading some of these early OT theologies is quite similar to reading early introductions on the OT for me.  Both were largely doing excavative work and writing history, with theology peppered in.

More recently (1985 to be exact, some 12 years prior to Brueggemann’s volume), Brevard Childs sought a paradigm shift.  In his Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, he argues (correctly) that OT theology has long been too taken with matters of history.  One must ask precisely what the task itself is, writes Childs.  Is the task to do OT theology, a history of traditions/religion, or some mutation of both?

I don’t believe OT theology should be utterly ahistorical.  But I also don’t think Brueggemann is wholly ahistorical (as Norman Gottwald points out in his essay in God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, of which see my review HERE).  But Brueggemann is not historical in the way Eichrodt or von Rad were historical.  Brueggemann is concerned with what ancient Israel says, regardless of any concerns for the authenticity of the utterance or its development into that utterance.  I remain quite agnostic about the historical critical method of reading.  And thus, I think Brueggemann’s discussion outlined above presents a refreshing way forward for how one does OT theology.  One is not writing a history.  One is writing a theology, from ancient Israel’s perspective, about her views on God.  That, I would argue, is the task of OT theology.  It is literally a “word about God.”  And only as such can it be called OT theology proper.

And you?  What do you think of Brueggemann’s method?  How do you see the task of OT theology?


11 thoughts on “On the Task of Old Testament Theology: (a)historical?

  1. Jill says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for your post. Does Brueggemann distinguishing between anient Israel and biblical Israel? Also, how does his approach decide what ancient text is being read as Scripture and used to construct a theology without attention to history or at least text criticism?

  2. John Anderson says:


    Thanks, as always, for your good questions. Near as I recall Brueggemann does not concern himself to draw any distinction as does Philip Davies with regards to the identity/ies of Israel. I use ‘ancient Israel’ in my discussion above throughout simply because it is a convention I employ personally to distinguish between ancient Israel and the modern state of Israel. Brueggemann’s view of “Israel” as one who speaks about God. He seems disinterested in the categories you suggest. The concern is more on what is said . . . it was said for a reason, and deemed authoritative for a reason. Thus, it is worthy of focus. I agree.

    On your second point, his first footnote discusses the difference between using “Old Testament” and “Hebrew Bible.” That is tangentially related. He is reading the OT as a Christian. I would argue his basic premise is to assume the MT, which is what the majority of OT scholarship is going to do. I don’t recall off hand if Brueggemann anywhere treats text-critical issues, but if he does they are by no means prevalent, perhaps relegated to footnotes.

    His emphasis is on rhetoric as testimony. It is truly a postmodern approach to OT theology. It seems early twentieth century theologies have so conditioned us to view the task as a purely historical one (with little success?), and Brueggemann here paves a new, fruitful way forward. Perhaps this sentence will help:

    “I suggest that the largest rubric under which we can consider Israel’s speech about God is that of testimony. Appeal to testimony as a mode of knowledge, and inevitably as a mode of certainty that is accepted as revelatory, requires a wholesale break with all positivistic epistemology in the ancient world or in the contemporary world. . . . Nevertheless, testimony as a metaphor for Israel’s utterance about [YHWH] is deeply situated in the text itself. . . . I regard testimony not simply as a happy or clever convenience for my exposition, but as an appropriate way to replicate the practice of ancient Israel” (119-120).

    The emphasis is on what Israel says, not what others may construct Israel as maybe having said.

    I hope that is helpful.

  3. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    John, you said you remain “quite agnostic about the historical critical method” (HCM). Does this mean you’ve updated your perspective of the HCM? I’m particularly interested in this agnosticism, since in the defenses of your papers that I’ve witnessed you’ve appeared to be quite adament that the HCM has no place in your methodology. If I’m reading your comments correctly, I’d almost say that you’ve demonstrated a slight level of epistemoloical concession toward the HCM. 🙂

    BTW, you know I’m just messing with you, right?

  4. John Anderson says:

    Yes, I know you’re messing with me, but I still think your question elicits a response.

    There has been no change in my perspective. Methodologically, the HCM is still outside the bounds of what I am interested in doing, and what I think can be done successfully. Perhaps I should have said I am ‘agnostic’ about the results of the HCM. I am, however, agnostic about some implementations of the method itself. Some do indeed do it with responsibility and reserve. It is an important component of biblical studies. Just not for me. But I suspect you already knew that.

    I’m curious how you would respond to my question in this post. Since you’ve read these very same volumes (save for Eichrodt), how would you respond to Brueggemann’s way of doing OT theology? How would you construct an OT theology (a possible prelim question!).

  5. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    I always knew, John, that you’d “out” me someday. Still, I never guess it would be as public as the worldwide web! 🙂

    As I suspect you already know, I am way more inclined toward a historical approach than Childs and certainly more inclined than Brueggemann.

    The first place to begin with is the question: “So what is history’s relationship to theology?” First, this question assumes that there IS a relationship between between history and theology — one that, if epistemologically sound, is critical for the interpretative task of both the scholar and the theologian. On this datum, I think most scholars would agree to some extent. In the end, I find it more important to recognize that there is a relationship between history and theology, than to actually define what that relationship is or how it works. Yet this still does not answer your question, does it.

    The key for developing an honest HC OT theology, I think, to set parameters within the HCM that allow for diversity. For example, I have long held that the assumption that history unfolds according to modern day logic is fallacious. Granted while many episodes in history demonstrate cause-effect qualities that modern minds may find reasonable, it is unreasonable to assume that modern sensibilities and logic are panhistorical qualities. If such a statement is accurate, then the paradigms of both Eichrodt and von Rad are seriously called into question. OT theology cannot be directed by a predetermined end-point (e.g., Eichrodt), nor can it be constructed in a linearly progressive way (e.g., von Rad). On the other hand, one cannot rule in the opposite direction: that history cannot be reversed engineered from a particular historical moment, nor that it cannot in fact demonstrate a logical progression. In short, there are times when history does, indeed, demonstrate the qualities that legitimate the paradigms of Eichrodt and von Rad . . . even if not their conclusions.

    Now for Childs and Brueggemann. Childs, while no doubt a gifted scholar of his time, is of little concern to me; I simply cannot abide the naivete of his canonical approach. In the end, I find it more effective for explaining the theological assertions of the Legends of the Jews than it is those repositories we have in Hebrew bible. Brueggemann, on the other hand, is a horse of a different color. I fully agree that rhetoric is intrinsic for the delivery and interpretation of any particular OT theology, and I truly appreciate the magisterial way he employs his courtroom metaphor. Still, I find his proclivity toward ahistoricalism to be unsatisfactory. As Nogalski clearly pointed out in the Seminar on Latter Prophets, just because historical aspects are difficult to negotiate, doesn’t mean one should ignore them and their implications for biblical interpretation. I would contend that the same sentiment is true for the theological task.

    So let us get down to brass tacks: I contend that the task of OT theology is to explore, and try to understand within the ANE and ancient Israelites historical contexts, the varied (and at times contradictory) theological statements made by ancient Israel/Judah regarding their perspectives about their god, Ha-shem. (Out of respect for you and your blog, I have elected not to write out the Tetragrammaton.) In order to do this, one must approach the historical task with great humility, recognizing that these texts were (are) sacred to ancient Israel/Judah (and to the three major monotheistic faiths of today). This fact, notwithstand, does not necessitate the modern logic that that sacred texts were preserved without alteration; in fact, the writings within the Hebrew bible appear to have been reinterpreted and modified again and again because of the sense that they are sacred. (Granted, around the 1st centuries [BCE and CE] this paradigm obvious changed, but it did so primarily because there were just two major Judaisms which survived 70 CE — Rabbinic Judaism and pre-Nicean Christianity. If the Judaisms of the day had survived in the fullness of its multiplicity, who knows what the Hebrew bible would look like today.) Consequently, there are “multiple theologies” within the OT, and we should NOT approach the OT with the ambition to systematize it, even from the standpoint of Brueggemann’s rhetoric. In short, the portrait of the God of the Hebrew bible is not a six-faced rubix cube, which (if we keep twisting it) can be solved into six different colors of the same God. Indeed, it appears that the situation within the Hebrew bible is substantially more difficult.

    Now, how do I perceive myself going about the theological task? At this point, I must confess to a level of inadequacy. I’m still in the formative stage regarding my theological appraoch, and I can only hope that as I study the Hebrew bible (especially its redaction history and its tradition history) and the findings of site based archaeology that I will in the future be better able to answer this question. As of right now, however, I am fully prepared to assert a minimalist perspective regarding my historical foundations and a willness to proceed with the task within the bounds of possibility, or at best probability.

    Hope you can make heads or tales of that, John. 🙂 And, since you’ve indicated this to be a possible prelim question, I’ll go ahead and beat you to the punch: it’s a good thing I have a full year to prepare for comps! 🙂

  6. John Anderson says:

    A very fine response, Roy. Lots of big words to try to confuse me!

    I couldn’t help but thinking how very much you sound like von Rad to me in your second to last paragraph. Perhaps, upon re-reading his volume, you would agree (save obviously for your misgivings about his view of history). But von Rad was quite intentional in emphasizing the diversity and reactualization (for you, reinterpretation) of the biblical text in each successive generation. That is, at least in large part, what I hear you describing.

    Remember, though, Brueggemann is not entirely ahistorical. He just uses history in a different way. Personally, I am more inclined to use history along the lines of deClaisse-Walford or Gerald Wilson in relation to their reading of the underlying metanarrative of the Psalter, or Chris Heard or Mark Brett on Genesis. Such a method–situating a given text in a historical situation/setting and making sense of it in that setting–the social/sociological use of history, perhaps, I am on board with, and will attempt to do, briefly, in my dissertation.

    I must admit that your feelings on Childs have slowly become my own. I hold a deep appreciation for his work and the paradigm shift he brought about in biblical studies. I struggle, though, with the canonical method as he employed it the more I see it in practice. This became patently clear to me when I read his treatment of the ancestral narratives from a canonical perspective.

    I must run . . . . I’m already late. I hope others will engage your comments as well.

  7. John Anderson says:


    I assume you are referencing his The Concept of Biblical Theology, in which he traces out the development and subject matter of biblical theology, the major players, and ultimately raises the question of whether biblical theology is possible. Of course, this carries forward several of his conclusions from some of his earlier writings.

    The biblical theology movement as epitomized in Wright, Bright, and Albright I do believe is worthy of criticism. They were far too optimistic about what one could know empirically about the world of ancient Israel, especially through the quite complicated lenses of archaeology and the historica-critical method. You know my view on the historical-critical method. Therefore, I do think Barr is correct to call into question the easy assumptions that belie a biblical theology.

    On the matter of whether one should speak of a biblical theology or not, I suppose one could say there is biblical theology in that the Bible contains theology. But let’s not simplify matters. No doubt Eichrodt and von Rad, and those after them, practiced biblical theology. I suppose, ultimately, this ends up raising the larger question of how one defines biblical theology. If it entails reading the Hebrew Bible as a Christian, or through the lens of Christianity and/or the NT, does that constitute a biblical theology? It’s a muddy question, and I don’t have an easy answer. I do find von Rad’s notion that the two Testaments are tethered together by a shared salvation history to have much to commend it . . . . I believe Jon Levenson has carried this thread forward in a way. But I don’t have a nice, tidy answer. As for me, I am more interested in an OT theology first–on its own–and then see whether and how one may be able to speak of a biblical theology. Only in this way is the OT honored as a collection of texts inandof themselves.

  8. Richard says:

    Yep, that’s the book. Overall I think I would share your sentiments. I found J. Ratzinger’s comments quite helpful when I first started thinking on these issues:

    a. There is an Old Testament theology of the Old Testament, which the historian ascertains within the Old Testament and which has of course already developed a number of overlapping layers even there, in which old texts are reread and reinterpreted in the light of new events. The phenomenon of texts growing and developing in new situations, of revelation developing through a new interpretation of the old, quite substantially shapes the inner structure of the Old Testament itself.

    b. There is a New Testament theology of the Old Testament, which does not coincide with the Old Testament’s own inner theology of the Old Testament, though it is certainly linked to it in the unity of the analogia fidei. We could perhaps on this basis even say in a new way what the analogia fidei between the testaments means. As we said, the New Testament theology of the Old Testament is not in fact identical with the Old Testament’s own inner theology of the Old Testament, as it can be historically discerned; rather, it is a new interpretation, in the light of the Christ-event, which is not produced by mere historical reflection on the Old Testament alone. By effecting such a change in interpretation, it is not however doing anything completely foreign to the nature of the Old Testament, approaching it only from the outside; rather, it is continuing the inner structure of the Old Testament, which itself lives and grows through such reinterpretations.

    It’s found in his God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office.

  9. Aaron Rathburn says:

    I think that this depends on what the final authority for the theologian is.

    Should the basis of our theology (and final authority) be the text of scripture? In which case Brueggemann is right on. Or rather, is it the historical referent that is the basis of our faith?

    This gets especially interesting with regard to Jesus. Is the godman the foundation of the faith, or the text that shows him to us?

    Jesus is recorded to have said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me,” (Jn 5).

    Of course, I think an “Old Testament Theology” should be exactly as Brueggemann proposes, a theology of the “old testament,” which is a text. However, I think any “Christian Theology that draws on the Old Testament” should look both at text and historical referent.

  10. John Anderson says:


    Thanks for your comment!

    I agree there is a certain subjectiveness to the entire enterprise; what are one’s methodological presuppositions. You know well by now that while I have a deep appreciation for and interest in such questions, but they are outside the bounds of my own contributions to scholarship, at least at this stage in my career. I just think it is quite difficult to get to any clear, agreed upon notion of what would constitute the historical referent for this faith. Evidence of this is the wide variety of OT theologies that are ultimately histories. I tend to agree with Childs on the matter, namely that a) such historical reconstructions lie outside the bounds of Israel’s faith . . . . they are just that, reconstructions, and it is for this reason that Brueggemann emphasizes Israel’s rhetoric; b) the canonical Scriptures preserve much of ancient Israel’s earlier historical reflection and development.

    I wholly understand and accept OT theology as an inherently Christian enterprise by name. What I struggle with still, however, is whether it is possible to have an OT theology that is not triumphalist/supersessionist. This is still an issue for me. For an example of a blatantly supersessionist OT theology, see Eichrodt’s seminal two volumes from the 1930s.

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