(See my earlier post HERE on the topic of OT theology as [a]historical discipline).
As I am writing my dissertation on an Old Testament theology related topic, and as I prepare to do some TA work Bill Bellinger’s OT theology seminar this Fall, I find myself continually returning to a question on method. The question, for me, is less what is/constitutes OT theology and more how is one to do/construct an OT theology. One can learn very much, I feel, by attending to the history of research on the topic. Reflecting on this question, I will here survey four responses briefly, those of Eichrodt, von Rad, Childs, and Brueggemann.
Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (2 vols.), 1930s
Eichrodt’s theology is systematic in its organization, grouped into three parts: God and world, God and man, God and people. OT theology for him is an historical (though not chronological), and scientific (though not confessional) exercise. He sees the task of OT theology as being “to construct a complete picture of the OT realm of belief” (I, 25). Eichrodt does this by what he calls a “double aspect,” emphasizing 1) comparative material from ancient Near Eastern religions; 2) a forward looking trajectory to the NT and Jesus as fulfillment of OT precursors. Eichrodt takes a cross-section approach, arguing one can ‘cut’ at any given point in Israel’s historical narrative and there discern the unifed structure of OT belief. His approach is thus, in this way, synchronic, and it assumes a basic unified structure to OT thought over time. The conceptual center Eichrodt identifies as the central organizing principle of the OT is the Mosaic covenant, the encounter between YHWH and Israel with formative implications. Other covenants, such as the Abrahamic or Davidic, are merely later retrojections of this primal covenant concept.
Problems with Eichrodt’s View
1) Too much unity. Eichrodt does not take into account adequately the posibility of development over time (as does von Rad, below). By assuming a continuity across the entire history of OT thought, there is no emphasis on the reshaping and reappropriation of, say, Exodus traditions that are now well known in scholarship.
2) Covenant as the center. Related to #1 above, there is simply too much unity. Eichrodt’s covenant is univocal. What about the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Noachide covenants? Is it adequate to call them retrojections? This emphasis on unity has also been challenged by the advent of bi-polar OT theologies or even a great multiplicity of theologies, as Erhard Gerstenberger argues for in his Theologies of the Old Testament.
3) Supersessionism. Writing in Germany in the 1930s, such rhetoric may be understood. But it is still inexcusable. While his NT trajectory may be defensible based upon the simple fact this is an Old Testament theology (though I am still not so forgiving), his rhetoric is not. Not only is his theology full of critiques and jabs at Judaism, which has developed into a degenerate faith, but he also goes so far as to call Judaism a “torso.” I cannot accept this.
Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (2 vols.), 1950-60s
Von Rad rejects Eichrodt’s systematic way of doing OT theology because he believes the OT’s own way of doing theology is non-systematic. He proposes a diachronic model, namely tradition history. He argues that ancient Israel’s faith traditions developed and grew over time. As a result, there is no unifying center to the OT; one can and should rather speak of theologies. The task of the OT theologian is to identify and trace out the various traditions and their development. Israel’s faith, then, is grounded in a theology of history with its starting point being YHWH’s action in history. Toward this end, von Rad begins with what he calls the kleine Credo, tiny statements of faith that narrate the basic picture of OT salvation history. The two kleine Credo he emphasizes are Deut 26:5-10. and Josh 24:2f. These creedal statements narrate the same events: ancestral promise, exodus, land. Sinai is absent in these creeds and thus has a separate development. The importance of doing theology in this way for von Rad is that it honors the order of events as ancient Israel has set them out. Reactualization (or, the making pertinent and continual reshaping and updating of a tradition in each successive generation) is seminal for von Rad.
Problems with von Rad
1) Too much diversity.
2) Heilsgeschichte seems to function as the implicit center for von Rad.
3) Is OT theology the same thing as history of traditions?
4) Wisdom literature does not fit nicely into his theology; it is not about salvation history.
5) The credo theory is little held to anymore today. Rather than being small statements of faith out of which ancient Israel’s historical narratives grew and developed, they can just as well (and are likely better viewed as) later, distillations of an already expansive narrative.
Brevard Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 1985.
Childs’ opening chapter on methodology is worth the price of this volume alone. Literally. In it, Childs notes several problems with prior attempts at OT theology: 1) is one’s task to write an OT theology, a history of Israelite religions, or both?; 2) an overemphasis on variety and growth has led to an inability to see any sort of coherence; 3) OT theology has failed to engage the question of how concrete communities of faith have heard and appropriated these texts; 4) the relation of OT theology to Judaism and the NT remains ill-defined. As a result of these points, he says the field is at a stalemate. As a way forward Childs advances the canonical approach, whose basis is the received traditions of Israel located in the Hebrew Bible, and not the (reconstructured) events or experiences lying behind the text. Childs argues that canonization represents the final step in a process of hermeneutical activity that establishes the scope of what is and is not authoritative literature. The final form of the text, for Childs, still preserves many elements of ancient Israel’s earlier theological thought and its development. It is now given a new interpretive context, though, in its place in the canon. Now, Childs is quite inconsistent across all his volumes over what constitutes canon (see Brueggemann on this). Here, canon seems to mean an exercise in intertextuality (very Midrashic!) in which Scripture interprets Scripture. Therefore, tradition-historical exercises like those of von Rad are absent and inconsequential for Childs; according to him, they are not only reconstructions but also lie outside the bounds of Israel’s faith.
Problems with Childs
1) Which/whose canon? There is no single canon for Christianity; the canon varies by faith community. How is one to adjudicate what canonical shape of the text is or is not authoritative?
2) What is meant by canon? Childs is inconsistent across his works on what he means by canon. In Introduction to the OT as Scripture, it means the literary shape of the book. In OT Theology in a Canonical Context, it means an intertextual exercise. In his earlier Exodus commentary in the OTL series, it is an exercise in reception history.
Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. 1997.
Brueggemann is writing after what Leo Perdue has called The Collapse of History (noting the move away from history for a variety of reasons in OT theology/study in general). Brueggemann’s Theology is itself postmodern, perhaps the first truly postmodern OT theology we have. Methodologically, Brueggemann’s work may be described as a “theology of metaphor” or a “theology of rhetoric” in that he intentionally brackets out discussions of history and focuses upon what the text says and how the text says it. Towards this end, he employs the image of a courtroom to talk about the witness of the OT, focusing upon Israel’s solicited testimony, counter testimony, unsolicited testimony, and lastly, embodied testimony. Given this methodological stance, Brueggemann is very happy–indeed, interested and purposeful in–maintaining the tensions of the text. He notes, in good postmodern fashion, the plurality of interpretive strategies and possibilities that pervade OT study. At bottom, though, Brueggemann seems very much to be a covenant theologian and reads the text through this lens.
Problems with Brueggemann
1) Is OT theology entirely ahistorical? Can it be?
2) Does the image of a courtroom cause an unintended problem by fostering, unintentionally, a sense of ‘legalism’ in the OT?
3) Does a truly postmodern OT theology lead, again, to too much diversity?
I take a little from everyone. Each has difficulties, which I note, but also areas that are to be commended. Here is what I glean:
From Eichrodt . . . . an appreciation of the covenantal concept as central from the OT and Israel’s faith.
From von Rad . . . . an agreement with his focus on reactualization and development of the traditions, as well as emphasizing that one must honor them in the order preserved by ancient Israel.
From Childs . . . . the realization that the final form of the text is the beginning place (the raw material, perhaps) for OT theology, and that the final form preserves therein earlier stages of Israel’s faith development.
From Brueggemann . . . . an appreciation for the emphasis on rhetoric as a place of focus (contra Childs’ wholly intertextual approach in the volume discussed above) and not seeking an easy smoothing out of the tensions in the text but rather allowing them–even those concerning God’s character–to stand and have meaning.
What are your thoughts on Eichrodt? Von Rad? Childs? Brueggemann? What do you take from each? And, most importantly, how do you (or, how should we) do OT theology?