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?