Walter Brueggemann Defends His Method for OT Theology

In 1998 a volume was written with a veritable who’s who of Hebrew Bible studies taking part, all to honor Walter Brueggemann.  This volume, God in the Fray (Fortress Press, read my review HERE), concludes with a brief essay by Brueggemann himself as he reflects upon what he has tried to do in his OT theology.  I found this part particularly interesting:

“I have increasingly found thematic approaches to biblical theology wanting, not only because they are inescapably reductionist, but because they are characteristically boring and fail to communicate the open-ended vitality of the text.  It is for that reason that I decided, early on, to focus not on substantive themes but on verbal processes that allow for dynamism, contradiction, tension, ambiguity, and incongruity–all those habits that belong peculiarly to interactionism.  What I hope I have offered is an interactionist model of theological e xposition congruent with this believing community that is endlessly engaged with God, a God who is available for the extremities of praise and complaint, which are Israel’s characteristic modes of speech in this conflictual engagement.  The importance of this move from theme(s) to processes cannot be overstated for me, because the interactive process seems crucial both to the Subject of Old Testament theology and to the pluralistic, deprivileged context of our own work” (310).


“The gains that I suggest are commensurate with what will surely emerge as points of contention and continued dispute. I do not imagine that I have been able to see things convincingly through to the end.  So I am glad to acknowledge at least four points where the argument is vulnerable, though other such points will surface in our discussion.  I regard these as vulnerable points because they propose fresh perspectives for which we lack adequate categories.  I incline to think that the vulnerability is only because things are not carried thorugh, not because they are wrongheaded.  It remains to be seen, of course, whether that judgment turns out to be acceptable to my colleagues” (313-314).

AND LASTLY, (almost as though he were anticipating Waltke) . . .

“There is now an important insistence . . . that Old Testament theology must be deeply and exclusively linked to the New Testament because, in Childs’s terms, the two testaments are ‘two witnesses to Jesus Christ.’ . . . A student of the Old Testament, however, cannot help but notice the disjucntion and disconnection from one testament to the other, so that the theological claims of the Old Testament do not obviously or readily or smoothly or without problem move to the New Testament.  Indeed, if we are to claim some kind of continuity–as any Christian reading surely must–it is a continuity that is deeply hidden and endlessly problematic.  For that reason, and given the intensely and consistently iconoclastic propensity of the Old Testament text, it may be suggested that the Old Testament stands as a critical principle over against any easy claims of New Testament faith, so that the God of Israel is not easily reduced to or encompassed by Christian claims.  After all of the adjustments from the faith of Israel to the faith of the church there is yet a deep ‘otherwise,’ which is uncontained and undomesticated, that must be acknolwedged” (317-318).


3 thoughts on “Walter Brueggemann Defends His Method for OT Theology

  1. Joseph Kelly says:

    While I think there are serious reasons to pursue Brueggemann’s approach to OTT, I think the thematic approach is still viable when done right. Waltke’s “Gift” approach is no better than a systematic theological text book on the Old Testament. Foreign categories, foreign concerns. Terence Fretheim, however, does a good job adopting a theme and developing the theology of that theme throughout the Old Testament. He produced *a* theology of the Old Testament, not *the* theology. I know of no other format that Fretheim could have used to produce the same results. In my mind, his book justifies the type of approach he took.

    Of course, it isn’t as though Brueggemann is saying that what Fretheim did should not be done at all, he has grave reservations however. It is interesting that Brueggemann did not seem to have those reservations when reviewing Fretheim’s book.

  2. Marvin Lance Wiser says:

    Thanks for sharing this John. I particularly enjoyed Brueggemann’s touching of the OT in relationship to (continuity with) the NT:

    “[…]it may be suggested that the Old Testament stands as a critical principle over against any easy claims of New Testament faith, so that the God of Israel is not easily reduced to or encompassed by Christian claims.”

    I particularly like his focus on processes, especially specific to language and social constructionism. It’s interesting to me how he incorporates the likes of Weber, Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida “subversively” into his doing theology. It does much to enrich the overall field.

    I look forward to reading your subsequent posts, and catching up on those that I’ve missed.

  3. slaveofone says:

    I agree that any thematic OT theology is necessarily reductionist and I would add question-begging, since it assumes that the texts are supposed to be used in that way when there is nothing in the texts that tells us they should be used that way.

    But the real issue for me is the concept of “OT” theology. It’s in almost every case a completely arbitrary selection of texts–almost always the Protestant texts, text versions, and text order. But at least WB applies a known Jewish reality of textual dialog and juxtaposition to the texts in question–one which can be seen clearly in the Mishnah, Talmud, et al.

    We should really move beyond the tired modern associations of biblical scroll matter with books. Once we’ve re-situated the structure in which we operate from the modern to the ancient world where these texts came from, then we can deal with them properly and abandon silly notions like a Deuteronomistic History, an Old Testament, the Bible, etc, and from that point, redefine what “theology” is according to that ancient framework…even if it looks nothing like “theology” in the modern sense.

    Either that or be honest and say our theology of Hebraic texts is a discipline that has nothing do with those Hebraic texts, but is something done entirely for our sake and by our definitions and purposes in order to recreate the texts in our image.

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