Review: Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach


Robin Routledge. Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.   Casebound. $25.60.  Pp 384. ISBN 978-0-8308-2896-8.


Robin Routledge is currently senior lecturer in OT at Mattersey Hall in England.  He also teaches at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague and the Continental Theological Seminary in Brussels.  This is his first book.


Routledge seeks to make the enormous task of Old Testament Theology accessible to both pastors and beginning students.  He offers, as the title suggests, a thematic organization that attempts to communicate the central, operative issues and themes in Old Testament theology in a concise, readable format.  Methodologically, Routledge employs a canonical approach in the hopes of illuminating the connection between the Old and New Testaments.  He cautions, however, against bracketing out aspects of history and the historical-critical method.  Both are necessary elements for Old Testament theology.

In the opening chapter, “Approaches to Old Testament Theology,” Routledge offers a thorough overview of the task and history of scholarship on Old Testament theology.  He begins by noting that the Old Testament comprises a significant part of the Christian Scriptures, which then leads to his helpful discussion over terminology: Old Testament or Hebrew Bible?  The former is a Christian designation, while the latter denotes the continued vitality of Judaism and shows an appreciation for the Jewish roots of Christianity.  Routledge argues compellingly that already in the OT one can discern more than an Israel-centered emphasis in both judgment on wayward and sinful nations and salvation and blessing on those nations who respond in faith and obedience to YHWH.  The OT thus contributes much to the understanding of God’s relationship with the entire world.

Routledge next asks how Christians are to appropriate the OT–a text that at bottom narrates ancient Israel’s history and religion–for their own faith.  The answer he sees in Luke 24:27, where Jesus explains on the road to Emmaus how all Scripture relates to him.  The task is thus recognizing the Christological elements of the OT yet still maintaining the unique, ‘original’ contextual meaning of these ancient stories.  This, for Routledge, is among the primary difficulties for OT theology.

To conclude this first chapter, Routledge provides an extensive survey of the history of scholarship on OT theology.  He begins with the connection between biblical and dogmatic theology in the Middle Ages.  It was Gabler’s seminal lectures at Altdorff that inaugurated the need to separate the two from one another, which resulted in the birth of OT theology as its own distinct discipline.  Next, Eichrodt and von Rad’s respective Theologies are discussed as responses to a history of religions approach to theology.  Routledge gives both a brief summary of their views and closes with some critiques, most of which are well-known to those who have read Eichrodt and von Rad (i.e., too much unity in Eichrodt with covenant as the center for OT theology, and too much diversity with von Rad’s history of traditions approach and emphasis on theologies and their development in the OT).  The Biblical Theology Movement is treated next.  Routledge notes the diversity of the title “Biblical Theology,” but also points to several shared aspects: 1) make the Bible’s theological content relevant for contemporary life; 2) history is the medium of divine revelation; 3) biblical texts must be interpreted on their own terms, without any outside, secondary methods being imposed upon them; 4) a unity between the OT and NT.  This movement was short-lived, and Brevard Childs’ Biblical Theology in Crisis (1970) is taken by some, says Routledge, as an “obituary.”  Childs points out several difficulties: 1) no consensus existed about how to view history; 2) no consensus existed about the nature of the relationship between the OT and NT.  A new way forward was needed.  Biblical theology continues, however, only in a different manner.  Routledge lists names such as Preuss, Rendtorff, House, and Waltke as those whose Theologies may properly be called biblical theology.  And to close out the chapter, Routledge mentions several more recent contributions to OT theology: Gerstenberger’s social-scientific analysis, House’s “canonical synthesis,” and Sailhamer’s (modified) canonical approach.  Routledge also treats narrative appraisals such as John Goldingay’s Israel’s Gospel and Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative.  Brueggemann’s postmodern OT theology is also treated, emphasizing rhetoric, testimony, and diversity in OT theology.  As the discipline has moved towards these more ‘ahistorical’ readings, some scholars–among them John Collins–has cuationed against divorcing history from the task of OT theology.  As a result of both contemporary methods and the importance of the OT as documents of Israel’s history and faith, Routledge proposes a canonical/historical method as the most fruitful for OT theology, one that emphasizes the canonical literature as revelation while also granting meaning and import to the world behind the text.  Routledge’s express task in this volume, he says, is the synthetic task of biblical theology, which seeks to explain the relevance and authority of the OT for the life of the church.

Chapter Two, “God and the ‘Gods’,” begins with the importance of a name as both a marker of identity and character within the aNE.  Cursory treatments of the names “Elohim,” “El,” and “YHWH” are given.  The meaning of the divine name YHWH speaks not only to continuity between the God of the ancestors and the God of the Israelites in Egypt but also to YHWH’s openness, accessibility, and vulnerability in relation to the people he has chosen.  He next discusses God, and the many names used of God, in the patriarchal narratives.  What is important here is the insistence in the narrative on one God in contrast to the ancestors of Abraham and the Canaanites.  God often identifies himself as “the God of your father . . . . ” (for example, Gen 28:13), evincing continuity.  In fact, the God of the patriarchs is differentiated from Canaanite gods–despite the common “El” epithet–because the God of the patriarchs was tethered to a particular family, not to a particular locale as in Canaanite religion.  Such continuity is also evident in the narratorial use of YHWH in the patriarchal narratives, well prior to the revelation of the divine name to Moses in Exod 3 and 6.  In this vein, Routledge discusses the advent of monotheism.  He sees the patriarchs as monolatrous but not monotheists.  Monotheism itself arises with Moses (with Vriezen) but is not expressed until later in Israel’s history. 

The next section of this chapter treats the “nature of God.”  God is described as personal, spiritual, holy, righteous, loving and faithful, yet also at times wrathful.  He next turns to discussing God’s spirit (ruah) as the activity of God, powerful and mysterious, imparter of life, enabling prophecy, associated with skill and ability, and empowering for leadership.  The chapter closes out with an analysis of other supernatural beings in the OT: demons, angels, sons of God and the divine council, and satan.  These sections are replete with citations of the relevant OT texts and a brief foray into the development of these beings in the intertestamental literature.

Chapter 3, “God and Creation,” begins by looking at creation accounts from elsewhere in the ANE.  The Enuma Elish and Atrahasis Epic receive special mention, as does the impact of mythological imagery on the OT.  The Chaoskampf theme figures prominently here, and serves as a fine example of how history informs Routledge’s theological model.  Returning to a more canonical/narrative approach, Routledge limns the various characteristics of God that emerge from the creation accounts: transcendence and immanence, creation through speech; he also discusses themes from the creation accounts: creation and chaos and creation and redemption.  In this vein, that humanity is created “in the image of God” means: 1) humans share spiritual characteristics with God; 2) are created for relationship with God; 3) are given authority to rule on God’s behalf; 4) are created to bring about God’s glory.  Humanity is created for relationship, both with one another and with the environment.  These relationships are intimately tethered to the divine command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17).  By choosing to disobey, humanity has opted against relationship with God.  The result is sin.  He goes on to discuss the nature of temptation, divine judgment, guilt, and punishment.  The Primeval history depicts an avalanche of sin, yet–with von Rad and Clines (though he does not cite them)–Routledge sees the promise to Abraham in Gen 12 as an expression of grace.

Chapter 4, “God and His People (I): Election and Covenant” traces out the idea of covenant in the OT, noting the oft-cited parallel to Hittite suzerainty treaties.  Covenants occur in many forms in the OT: between husband and wife, between God and humanity (Noah), between God and a particular people (Abraham, evidenced by the centrality of circumcision as a covenantal marker).  Contra Eichrodt–though rightly in my view–Routledge sees the Sinai covenant in continuity with the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17:6 cf. Exod 6:7).  This chapter closes with sections on election and the law.

In Chapter 5, “God and His People (2): Worship and Sacrifice,” Routledge looks at the various places of worship (patriarchal altars, the tabernacle, and the Jerusalem Temple), as well as those who presided over the worship, priests and Levites.  Their roles are then discussed, among them providing instruction, performing sacrifice, maintaining the purity of the sanctuary, and singing and dancing.  The various religious festivals in ancient Israel (Passover, Weeks, Atonement, Tabernacles), the various types of sacrifice, and other elements of worship (prayer, music, and singing) round out the chapter.

Chapter 6, “God and His People (3): Receiving Instruction” deals with prophecy (from, as might be expected, a synthesis of historical and theological insights) and wisdom (in Israel, in the aNE, in the OT).  Concerning the latter specifically Routledge argues against the grain that wisdo literature in the OT is indeed theological because it resides in and comes from God, and only those knowing God can understand it rightly.  He concludes the chapter with a section on ‘Tensions in Wisdom Literature,’ looking at Job and Ecclesiastes.  I very much appreciated this part; it demonstrated a responsibility in tackling the complex issues and (a la Brueggemann) tensions that pervade the OT.

Briefly, moving onward, chapter 7, “God and His People (4): Kingship in Israel” juxtaposes divine and human kingship in Israel.  Chapter 8, “God and His People (5): Ethics and Ethical Questions” deals with how one is to live properly both within the immediate covenantal community as well as in relation to God and land.  Ethics is pervasive in the OT, as Routledge discusses it under the rubrics of prophecy, wisdom, narrative, and law.  A very fine group of subheadings under the main heading “Questioning God’s Activity” closes the chapter.  Here Routledge contends that the OT’s depiction of God as responsible for evil speaks not to the divine character but to God’s total sovereignty.  Routledge also argues, contra Brueggemann, that God is truly affected deeply and intimately by creation, and this may result in tension or suffering for God (a la Fretheim), but it is “not . . . . because of any contradiction or inconsistency within God’s interior life” (254).  I tend to think of this question as a bit of a both/and.  I also think Routledge is misreading Brueggemann a bit here.  Chapter 9, “God and the Future” looks at divine judgment amidst hope, evident in both the Deuteronomistic History and the prophets.  Language of the ‘remnant’ and ‘new covenant’ drive this imagery home.  Eschatology in the OT, the messiah (Routledge points out, correctly, there is a “lack of direct references to the Messiah in the OT and [a] lack of consensus about which texts are messianic” [282]), various messianic titles–the branch, the servant, the Son of Man–and OT apocalyptic round out the chapter.  Chapter 10, “God and the Nations,” notes the presence of a tension in the OT, between God’s chastisement and punishment of foreign nations for their treatment of Israel, and God’s ultimate concern for all of creation.  Routledge sees ‘mission’ in relation to God’s universal covenant and as the “narrative substructure of the Old Testament” (325).  I don’t know that ‘mission’ is the best diction to employ here . . . . especially as the final section in the book! . . . . but I do agree with the overall argument that (some of) the nations, despite their grave offenses, are at least included in the divine purpose and have a role in the universal task of this particular people Israel.

Routledge’s Theology does a fine job of introducing the main issues and elements in most OT theology.  I get the feeling at points he was a bit more historically-minded than he described in the introduction, in the vein of Eichrodt and other early theologies, and the ‘canonical’ aspect of his study, while important, at times became fodder for a listing of relevant texts on a topic.  This is no doubt helpful, especially for an introductory volume as this is; nonetheless, Routledge has sought to create a synergy between two approaches to OT theology–historical and literary–and he is more successful in some places than others (mostly the narrative portions he treats; law becomes much more tricky to discuss in this manner, I think).

Three primary contributions emerge from Routledge’s volume.  First, the footnotes are incredibly well done, and do a very fine job of pointing the reader to a wealth of further bibliography on any given topic.  No page in this work is without a solid ‘introductory bibliography’ scattered amongst the footnotes.  Second, Routledge is in conversation with other scholars throughout the work.  This not only testifies to the fact that he has done his exegetical homework but also situates his approach (a thematic one, very similar to Eichrodt; and I wonder, given the various chapter titles above [God and _____] if he may be a covenantal theologian in the end.  So was Eichrodt.  And so am I, only in a much different way than both) in the wider stream of OT theology.  And third, and perhaps most importantly, Routledge offers a contemporary voice on OT theology that has reflected thoughtfully on the vast history of a discipline.  His introductory chapter including the history of research is quite good, trumped only by Brueggemann’s over 100-page survey of the topic in his 1997 volume.  But Routledge is able to engage a variety of approaches, voices, figures, and arguments within OT theology, and for that–and for his synthetic method–his theology is a welcome contribution to the field.  Pastors and students wishing to gain a greater glimpse into the field of OT theology should no doubt find Routledge a helpful place to begin.


9 thoughts on “Review: Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach

  1. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    John, as always, your review is informative as well as insightful. Two sets questions though:

    1) What do you mean by your comment that “Routledge argues compellingly that already in the OT one can discern more than an Israel-centered emphasis” (emphasis on the word “compelling”)? Are you now convinced that it is better to treat the TaNaK as the OT instead of the HB? (I think I know the answer to this question, but I just want to double check.)

    2) Regardless of your answer to these questions, how do you think Routledge would differentiate a “thematic OT theology” from a “thematic HB theology”? Are they synonymous? Inextricably related? Or do the terms mandate two entirely distinct interpretative tasks? (In short, I’m curious as to a) how colored the Christian lenses are through which Routledge reads, and b) whether his theology is merely driven by the perspective of his intended audience [i.e., Christian pastors and students of the “OT”].)

  2. John Anderson says:


    Some responses to your questions:

    1) The statement does not belie any change in my view. I have always recognized that the task is an Old Testament theology (see Jon Levenson’s piece entitled something like “Why Jews Aren’t Interested in OT Theology”) and as such is a confessional . . . . Christian . . . . enterprise. That said, I do not think OT theology needs to Christianize the OT. This you know. What I meant by the line you cite is something I have long thought–and something I think is indeed a large part of early Christian development, as I argue in my Matthew paper that will hopefully be published–that being that Jewish particularity lies in Jewish universalism. Again, Jon Levenson is seminal here. (You can replace “Jewish” with “Israel”). This universality, as I argue even in my work on the divine trickster, sees the ancestral promise and YHWH’s ultimate purposes, manifest in the people Israel, as intimately concerned with all of creation . . . . so much as that creation does not impede or act to the detriment of Israel.

    2) The distinction between an OT and HB theology obviously would lie, given Routledge’s canonical approach, in the different canonical ordering of the books. In fact, he notes this point briefly, arguing (correctly!) that the different orderings result in a different set of expectations for the reader. So as an OT theology, the expectation ‘naturally’ leads into a messianic expectation whereas the HB, ending with 2 Chr, results in an expectation in regards to the Temple and the Davidic monarchy. Routledge’s method is intentionally Christian–as is any OT theology by its very name. But, in line with scholars such as Brueggemann, I don’t think that means a simplistic “Christianizing” of the OT. I am not saying Routledge does this, but it is clear to me that his theology is written for the audience I describe.

    Hope this is helpful!

  3. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    It is helpful, John. As I’m sure you know, however, I am not as optimistic about the simplicity of Routledge’s distinction (and yours?) between OT and HB theology. The ordering of the TaNaK versus the OT is, of course, an obvious outcome of differing priorities. I would contend, however, that it is unwise to grant controlling influence of the HB’s theology to the last book of the Kethubim, for it is not only unclear whether ancient readers ever read these collections linearly, but also it is in all likelyhood rather improbable. What’s more, the Kethubim’s authorative status never attained to that of the Torah or Nevi’im. Moreover, I’m not yet convinced that the Septuagint’s ordering of these books allows us to conclude that the early Christianity’s ordering had anything to do with the creation of a messianic expectation. Rather, it appears that for the early Christians these books were latent with the messianic, regardless of their ordering.

    Maybe we can talk about this topic the next time we get together? 🙂

  4. John Anderson says:


    You sound like Dr. Nogalski! Not that that is a bad thing, but I suspect there is a bit of a misunderstanding (or stacking up of assumptions) regarding what I am saying.

    I do not believe the expectations I outline above are formed solely by the absolute ‘controlling influence’ of the final books of each respective canon. As a good reader of Childs, and a good steward of canonical criticism (although, as I have said, I have begun to take on many of the same misgivings about the method as you), the entire canonical shape needs to be taken into account. But, within that overall shape, one cannot undermine the importance of beginnings and endings. The same is true with Wilson’s work on the Psalter, and also McCann now.

    You actually hit the nail precisely on the head in saying it is “unclear whether ancient readers ever read these collections linearly . . . . “. Indeed! I’m glad you can recognize the obvious (and massive!!! jk) limitations of the historical-critical method. Ok, I admit, that was unfair. But still, in essence, true. Such a question is not on the table for Routledge, nor is it for me, nor is it for Brueggemann or, I believe, Goldingay. You are looking at it from an historical perspective. We (Routledge, Brueggemann, myself) are not, largely. The concern is to deal, as you’ve heard me say often, with the text we have, and its import. Despite the plausibility of any attempt to reconstruct a textual tradition or its transmission history, the indisputable fact remains that at some point this text that we possess became the authoritative, canonized form (of course, this is still a complex issue, as Tov rightly points out, but it is still the base text we have and all work from). The canonical shape of the text reveals quite patently that at some point these texts were indeed read linearly. The question of when is not important to Routledge. It is an interesting question to me, but not a make or break for any theology…

    Also, to clarify. I do think you are right to say for early Christians (whenever you would date such a group . . . . Jewish Christians? or when the movement had become largely gentile, and/or divorced from Judaism?) the OT was latent with the messianic. True. But it also seems to me that there has clearly been reshaping so that the OT segues smoothly into the messianic reality of Jesus in the NT. I do think the ordering is highly intentional and hardly haphazard.

    Lastly, and briefly, on the point of HB vs OT theology, it is interesting that, as I pointed out, there is very little HB theology being done. The SBL group is called “Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures,” but this does not mean they are doing HB theology. Heck, I’m probably not even doing HB theology. I wonder at what point one truly is. If you are doing theology as a Jew only? Or is it only if you are reading a particular canonical ordering of the texts? That is an interesting question, indeed. When Amy Jill-Levine–who is Jewish– was at Baylor, I used “Hebrew Bible” (as I often do), and she corrected me and said “no, it’s Old Testament.” She listed off a variety of reasons, one being that I need to be honest about what specific ordering and grouping of texts I am reading. Her assumption was I am reading in Hebrew but as though the materials were ordered as they are in my NRSV. This is not the case. And I would quibble with her on that point. But again, since I tend not to concern myself with canonical exegesis, the issue really isn’t a very potent one for me. Maybe when I move to study other things it would factor in. But, mein Freund, Genesis is the first book however you slice it. And I am not trying to do a canonical reading of Genesis. Methodologically–and this you know–I seek to combine literary readings a la Alter, Sternberg, etc. with theological readings of the OT as best I can. I’m fine with the text I have. And I still wonder at HB theology. It just doesn’t seem to be on the docket for many, if any.

  5. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    Hey, anytime you want to say I sound like “James D. Nogalski” is fine by me, John. Besides, what do you expect from me, after having worked under him for two years and proofed so much of his forth-coming work?

    Still, I feel I should clarify the logic of my above statements: while there is strong evidence for the deliberate shaping within these collections, I don’t see much evidence for anything innovative within the Christian ordering of the OT. They merely chose to follow the HB’s ordering of the prophets and B12 (instead of the LXX) to group Chronicles with the historical books (like the LXX). The consequence of this assessment is two-fold: first, it doesn’t appear that the order of the OT at the macro-canonical level was fashioned by Christians as a bridge to the NT; second, to necessitate the construction of a “thematic OT theology” at a macro-canonical level via this rationale is unappealing to me. No offense, John, but for my historical ears, it sounds overly synchronic and even a bit post-structural in its presuppositions.

    Now this is not to say that such theologies are not meaningful for their communal context; quite the contrary. Instead, I would suggest that such readings recognize the inescapable role their own history plays in this process. This interpretative paradigm, much like the halcyon days of the HCM, is a product of the epistemological assumptions of our own day. (In the end, the process is ALWAYS historical in nature. 🙂 ) Moreover, it should also be acknowledged that such readings by no means hold exclusive authority. Other Christian communities, Jewish peoples, and even Muslims could and have the right to construct theologies on the OT ordering, if they are so inclined to do so. Similarly, it must not be denied that Christians could create a theological reading based on the order of the HB. The list could go on and on . . . even so far as to permit the theological constructions of historically oriented biblical scholars! 🙂

    On a side note, I do think you are correct in your assessment on the construction of HB theology: there’s just not much of it going on at the moment. Hopefully, as the trend toward appreciating the Septuagint continues, we’ll start to see both HB theologies and LXX theologies as complements to the OT theologies. Only then, I suspect, will scholars and the faithful alike be able to appreciate fully the centuries of OT theological endeavors.

  6. John Anderson says:


    Briefly, because I’ve forgotten if we’re debating with one another or with Routledge! Either way, good spirited discussion, as we always have. Thank you.

    First, I have never said the Christian ordering of the OT is “innovative.” I am only saying it is purposeful. To be sure, there is much maintaining of traditional orderings (the first Christians were Jews, you know!). At the same time . . . . they were messianic Jews, and thus read the Jewish Scriptures differently. That is obvious. All I am saying is that the Christian ordering of the OT is a) secondary to the Tanak ordering; b) intentional and thus; c) meaningful. Of course, there are more differences between the Christian and Jewish canonical ‘groupings’ than you list also!! (see Daniel, for instance).

    Second, I may be willing to accept that the Christian ordering of the OT was not fashioned to create a bridge to the NT, as though that was already set in stone (which we know from canon lists, the NT canon was in a state of development up until the fourth century with Athanasius’ letter . . . . but even during the Reformation the canon was under attack—you’ll have to know all this stuff for prelims, btw!), but rather provided–ready? you’re gonna love this–a view of history . . . . heilsgeschichte in fact . . . . that makes sense of their shared experiences with and as Israel, as well as their new experiences and understandings of Jesus. See Jon Levenson’s work on this. It is quite good.

    Third, I may quibble a bit with the notion that a thematic OT is synchronic. In a way, yes, if you take synchronic to mean reading the final form of the text. But Routledge is NOT synchronic in the sense that his theology gleans theology from the order of the texts, as does von Rad. Routledge is very much like Eichrodt in his topical treatment. Personally, I am much more inclined to a von Rad type approach. Topical OT theologies, while I understand the organizational ease and sense it makes, tend to be problematic in that they are in a way subjective and often end up leaving much out. Additionally, I am relatively convinced by von Rad that Israel’s traditions and thus its theology developed over time. I just disagree on how he goes about doing it, and the arguments he makes (i.e., from the kleine Credo to the historical recital of the OT narrative . . . . this view holds little sway now; it is far more compelling to me that the small creeds (Deut 26; Josh 24) are later distillations of a much larger narrative. All that to say, however, that it seems, like you, I am not a huge fan of purely topical/thematic OT theologies that do not take the issue of the entire canon into account.

    I hope all is well!

  7. John Anderson says:


    Nothing like a substantive reply! Roy is a colleague of mine at Baylor. Of course, he’s a bit misguided with that historical-critical methodology he follows (ha!), but his comments are always thoughtful and worthy of detailed engagement.

    What are your thoughts on these matters, Michael?

    And, as to your comment directly, I may post something up related to this in the next day or so.

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