What is the Best Way to do Old Testament Theology? A Survey of Four Perspectives

(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?

Reflection
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?

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32 thoughts on “What is the Best Way to do Old Testament Theology? A Survey of Four Perspectives

  1. Richard says:

    John, I’d be interest to hear your thoughts on moving from the Academy into the Church. How does your work in the Old Testament inform the Church’s mission in the world (cf. Dei Verbum)?

  2. Jason says:

    I am not versed in OT theology as you gentlemen may be, so to initiate myself a year or two ago, I purchased OT theologies by House and Rendtorff. Have you read either of them, and if so, what did you think?

  3. John Anderson says:

    Jason: I have not read either; this may seem a bit unfair, but to me the “big contenders” in the field are those I mention: Eichrodt, von Rad, Childs, and Brueggemann. John Goldingay’s three volumes published by IVP may be added to that list, though I have yet to read those all either.

    The little I know of Rendtorff’s (I am assuming you purchased his Canon and Theology, 1993) is that it is obviously a canonical approach, albeit on different from Childs. Rendtorff is also quite a bit more interested in matters of Jewish/Christian relations in this volume, for which I am appreciative.

    Have you read them? If so, offer up your synopses. I am curious.

  4. Jason says:

    John: I have not read them all the way through, and it’s been a little while since I cracked them open. House essentially follows a canonical approach (presumably similar to Childs and Rendtorff) and is geared toward the collegian/seminarian. I have enjoyed what I have read. Rendtorff does take a canonical approach, though the title I bought was The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament, published in 2006 by Deo Publishing. I’ve not made it as far as with House’s volume; Rendtorff is a little more technical.
    While I’m thinking about it, would you mind recommending a helpful volume or two dealing with methodologies employed in constructing an OT theology (or NT)? These two authors describe their approaches, but I would like a more nuts-and-bolts treatment, book length if possible. Thanks for your comments and I look forward to your response.

  5. John Anderson says:

    Hmmm, I’d have to think about this a bit.

    Off the top of my head, I would obviously recommend the opening chapter of Childs’ Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, as well as the opening 200 or so pages of Brueggemann’s massive OT theology from 1997 (it offers a thorough history of research on the topic, as well as a good elucidation of his method). There is also a nice, short volume by D.G. Spriggs entitled Two Old Testament Theologies: A Comparative Evaluation of the Contributions of Eichrodt and von Rad to our Understanding of the Nature of OT Theology.

    If others come to mind I will let you know, but these are some very good places to start.

  6. Jason says:

    John: Alrighty then! Seriously, I will look into it. I am anxious to read (for review) Brueggemann’s An Unsettling God–the title just sounds good!

  7. Phil Sumpter says:

    Thanks for this John. I’ve invested a lot of time into trying to understand Childs (it’s 50% of my doctorate!) and a fair bit to his relation to Brueggemann. In my opinion, there are two articles which are simply must reads in this area:

    1) Jon Levinson “Is Brueggemann Really a Pluralist?”, Harvard Theological Review 93/3 (2000), pp. 265-294. He actually compares Brueggemann to Childs, and I have to say I was fully on board with everything he had to say (Levinson is also Jewish, as you will know, which will interest you).

    2) An extensive article by Chris Seitz both outlining Childs’ approach and clarifying misunderstandings (of which there are far too many): “The Canonical Approach and Theological Interpretation,” in Canon and Biblical Interpretation, pp. 58-110.

    There was also an interesting exchange between Brueggemann and Childs, in which Childs critiques Brueggemann’s OT Theology and Brueggemann responds. You can find it in the Scottish Journal of Theology, I believe. I wrestled with this exchange in a post a while back called Ecclesial context: Childs vs Brueggemann.

    For another great review of Brueggemann’s OT theology by Ellen Davis, go here.

    Some short thoughts on your post:

    Childs distances himself from midrashic exegesis. See his helpful “Critique of recent canonical intertextual interpretation”. Childs is not purely interetextual. Contra Brueggemann’s representation of Childs, tradion-history is very important. I feel that you have not cited Childs’ most important work: his Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, which is really under-read by his critics (including Barr).

    As for inconsistency in his use of the term “canon,” I disagree. I would say profundity, but as with all things profound, it’s not easy to summarize in a single sentence and is often misunderstood. It has something to do with a dialoectic between authoritative tradition and a living God (=Sache), in which the tradition was shaped in a critical, theological process (=Sachkritik) within the context of a broader progressive revelation, with the goal of revealing the nature of the one textual referent (God, the Sache) in all its profundity. This revelation takes place within the context of an actual worshipping community, guided by the spirit. Something like that.

    I don’t consider Brueggemann truly post-modern. In response to problem 2), I think the issue with his courtroom scene is that he introduces a false dialectic into the text.

    But enough for now, I need to get back to figuring out Ps 24!

    Keep up the great posting. I need to carve out more time to follow your posts better!

  8. Phil Sumpter says:

    I should add that one of my favourite quotes comes from the opening chapter of Childs Theology of the Old Testament:

    “I do not come to a hitherto unknown subject, but to the God whom we already know. I stand in a community of faith which confesses to know God, or rather to be known by God. We live our lives in the midst of confessing, celebrating and hoping. Thus I cannot act as if I were living at the beginning of Israel’s history, but as one who already knows the story, and who has entered into the middle of an activity of faith long in progress” (pp. 28-29).

    In my opinion, too many OT theologies don’t fully wrestle with the implications of this.

  9. John Anderson says:

    Hey Phil, good to see you checking in again! And thanks for this. I trust we will continue to disagree on these matters.

    A few brief thoughts before I run to the office:
    1) I am aware of the Levenson piece, and of Levenson himself. His work is top-notch, no doubt. Brueggemann, of course, has words for Levenson in his OT theology!

    2) My understanding of how Seitz does canon criticism (though it is minimal; I am far more ‘in the know’ on his work dealing with Isaiah) is different than how Childs does it. Truth be told, after a while I think it all gets a bit hairy. It is fascinating that we live in a time of such methodological awareness–for which I am thankful, because it at least provides a metric for which our readers can hold us accountable–but it also leads to rampant debates that often preclude even getting to the text. Fascinating indeed! But as a student of Childs (Seitz was, yes?), he at least offers an authoritative voice here.

    3) Brueggemann seems to have drawn many people’s ire with his OT theology. Even just this past year at SBL in Boston he was a member of a panel responding to Bruce Waltke’s new OT theology, which I have not read. Apparently, though, Waltke takes Brueggemann to task on a great many things, namely that his theology is not in service to the church. I’m not convinced that HAS TO BE a prerequisite for anyone’s scholarship (though see my post a few slots below on the main page for my thoughts on this), but it was an interesting and fascinating exchange nonetheless.

    4) I know Childs himself is not seeing himself in line with Midrashic exegesis, but in his OT Theology in a Canonical Context the parallel is there. I have said elsewhere that the ‘meat’ of this volume is the opening 20 pages where he lays out his method, with which I am on board. However, when he puts it into practice throughout the volume, I am underwhelmed. That said, though, in his other volumes (Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture for example), I think his work is very fine.

    5) I’m still going to disagree with you on the matter of Childs’ inconsistency about what he means by canon in each volume. Brueggemann lays this out well, I think. But I had noticed it myself even prior to reading Brueggemann. Profundity, maybe, but it surely is confusing. And, it has provided a great amount of fodder for debate. So, there must be something anomalous the inconsistent there. And you lost me in the rest of that paragraph; I don’t quite grasp the relation between it and the opening topic sentence. It also doesn’t sound much like Childs to me.

    6) That’s fine if you don’t consider Brueggemann postmodern. I ultimately think these titles are truly unhelpful. In some ways I am quite postmodern. In others, I am not. For instance, methodologically I am postmodern (by some rubrics), and I am fine with recognizing diverse and multifarious possible interpretations; I do not, however, think all interpretations are created equally.

    On the topic of a false dialectic in Brueggemann, I have often wondered this too. These metaphors (not just his) often tend to overpower the text, and become a grid to which the text must conform and not the other way around. Not always, but often. But at bottom, the resultant organization of his theology because of this metaphor ends up being ‘topical,’ just as was Eichrodt and many others since.

    Thanks for your kind words. I do hope you will be able to carve out such time.

  10. Jill says:

    I believe that Rolf Jacobson made the point in a review of Brueggemann’s OTT that the courtroom would be truer to (most of) the text if it were God who put us on trial rather than claims about God being on trial.
    Phil, have you read Dennis Olson’s article in Biblical Interpretation about Childs/Brueggemann (I think c. 1999)? Like Steiz and Davis, he was Childs student as well (although , playfully John, being a student of someone doesn’t make you an authoritative interpreter of them).
    Has Cook ever posted on your blog about this issue? I think he may be the only blogger to have actually studied with Childs. He

    Jill

  11. Rob Kashow says:

    Thanks for this summary of these four important pieces of literature, John.

    On a side note, Seitz’s method is almost identical with Childs… respectfully I think you may be misunderstanding what he’s doing to say this. Granted, with any method, it will slightly evolve through time—and since Childs had 40 years to explore the method this has happend, but minimally. With Seitz not only studying under Childs, but working under Childs and remaining a close friend of Childs for many years, when he clarifies Childs’ method for his readers he is indeed using the same method, but clarifying a method that is often misunderstood (to be sure, part of this is that Childs writes like a German is a difficult read.).

  12. Phil Sumpter says:

    Jill,

    that Jacobsen quote is great.

    I don’t think I’ve read Olson’s article. I’m actually focussing on exegesis now, rather than methodology, so I’m having to cut back on such reading 😦

    Cook studied with Childs? Lucky man. No, he hasn’t commented on my blog, unfortunately.

    Rob,

    I agree that Seitz is extremely close to Childs, which, in my opinion, is no small feat. I compared the two recently and found Seitz saying pretty much what Childs says, but far more eloquently (as I said in an interview, Seitz is like Childs, only funkier). I do think, however, that although they both share the same broad vision, Childs has gone further than Seitz (so far) in exploring each corner of his vision (Childs dabbled in everything, from exegesis to patristics and dogmatics).

    I also totally agree that knowing the German mentality really helps understand Childs! Interpreting Childs without some grasp of the concept of Sache is an impossibility.

  13. Jill says:

    I think Robert Wilson was Cook’s disseration advisor, but Childs was involved as well. What reminded me of Olson was that you and him both had essays on Childs in a Princeton publication.

  14. Jill says:

    Phil,

    I have to disagree, the word “funky” in no way describes Seitz. Tod Linafelt or Timothy Beal (both Brueggemann M.Div. students) are “funky.” No student who ever studied under Childs is funky! 🙂

    Jill

    PS. I truely wish more biblical scholars could be discribed as “funky.” Maybe John can list his top 5 “funkiest” biblical scholars 🙂

  15. Phil Sumpter says:

    Jill,

    ah yes, I thought I’d seen the name! Yes, I have read him. I liked his article (I liked all of them, especially Daniel Driver’s).

    I’ve not read Linafelt or Beal. Perhaps if I did they would reconfigure my funk radar. For now, Seitz really gets me grooving.

  16. John Anderson says:

    Jill: Depending on what the definition of “funky” is, I may be interested in compiling such a list!

    Rob: I’m all about a method “evolving” over time, but I still am a bit agnostic that that is what Childs is doing in each volume. I could be wrong, but this inconsistency has troubled more than just me.

    • Rob Kashow says:

      just for clarity, i think Childs’ method only ‘slightly’ evolved. Throughout I think the canonical approach generally stays in tact. The canonical approach lays the framework for interpretation, but this doesn’t mean other disciplines can’t be used. Childs demonstrates this by making good use of the literary, the intertextuality, even the historical. It’s a place where all disciples can find a voice. I think this is greatly misunderstood.

      • John Anderson says:

        Rob: This clarification you offer problematizes things all the more for me. I still disagree, and I stand in line with the elucidation of the various definitions of ‘canon’ evident in Childs’ work I describe above.

      • Rob Kashow says:

        I highly recommend Seitz’s new title that is just out: Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets, The: The Achievement of Association in Canon Formation. It deals with this problem.

  17. Jason says:

    Rob: I saw that title just today and thought it might be a good read. Though I am not versed in this conversation (OT theology, that is), I may look into this volume.

  18. Jill says:

    Olson’s article comes close to Rob was saying in terms of Childs trying to clear the ground for theological interpretation. Steiz also speaks of Childs “setting parameters” for interpretation. John, that may help explain why you find his methodological discussions more compelling than his actual exegesis. Childs himself comments on changes in his thinking on canon in Biblical Interpretation of the OT and NT.

    More importantly, “funk” is a quality that you know when you see. Basically, if their scholarship was a rap album it might be “3 feet high and raising” or “Blowout Comb.” My list might include (in no order):

    Timothy Beal (if he still identifies as a Bible Scholar)
    Randal C. Bailey
    Roland Boer
    Yvonne Sherwood
    A K M Adam

  19. Jill says:

    Sorry, I guess the reference was a liitle obscure. They are rap albums from the early 90s by de la sol and diggable planets respectively. Maybe a better criteris would be if their exegesis became a screenplay, Quentin Tarantino would direct it.

    I’m sure you are plenty funky, John, its just that I’m not very funny 🙂 It just cracked me up when Phil used funky and Chris Seitz in the same sentence.

  20. Susan says:

    Hi John. I am a new student of OT Theology. I am writing a OT Theology on the Revelation of the Holy Spirit in the books of Kings. I am a bit confused by all the different methods. I found direct and indirect revelations of the Holy Spirit. The indirect revelations can be backed up by other scriptures in the OT and the NT. Can you direct me into which method will be best for me.

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