A Thought-Provoking Quotation on the Bible and Theology

Most of you know of my interest in OT theology.  I have recently been reading through the volume Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation and in the first essay Ben Sommer, in describing the agenda for a (Jewish) Dialogical Biblical theology, writes the following:

“The Bible does not present a doctrine so much as it endorses an agenda.  Postbiiblical literature does not find a harmonizing spot on the continuum between polarities that affects a compromise but insists on maintaining the polarity itself” (50).

I can resonate with these words quite strongly; whenever someone says to me “but the Bible says” my usual, initial response is “where?”  The point is, the Bible contains a plurality of voices, sometimes in tension.  Those familiar with my work know I don’t regard this as a bad thing at all; in fact, I take it as a vital component of the beauty, power, and resilience of the text.  But I think Sommer’s quotation does a nice job of summing up my basic sentiments: the biblical texts invites readers to a conversation, the multiplicity of voices and viewpoints of which is matched by the polyvalence and tension of the biblical text itself.  Post-biblical work (such as apostolic fathers, the Mishnah or Midrashic exegesis) do not settle on doctrinal, orthodox tenets but rather continue the conversation, wrestling with the same questions and tensions we wrestle with today.

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7 thoughts on “A Thought-Provoking Quotation on the Bible and Theology

  1. Jason says:

    I’m interested in your thoughts on this book as I am reading it also. It’s been in progress for a while, but I plan to finish it next month.

    BTW–I can’t believe you changed the theme!

  2. John Anderson says:

    Jason:

    I have only recently finished Sommer’s essay, and am now in the midst of Perdue’s. Those are likely the two essays I will read from the volume now. But I will say that Sommer’s proposal for a dialogical biblical theology is an interesting way of bridging the ‘gap’ imposed by Gabler in 1787. Personally, I am more amenable to the idea within a Jewish faith context than I am a Christian one–I am still working out why that is–but I also am a bit pessimistic that the postbiblical evidence will always line up as nicely as it does for the examples he offers in the chapter, especially his example dealing with the Psalms as a Hasidic/Mitnagdic text. But I do agree with him entirely that theology (not just Jewish biblical theology either) should not be totalizing and must maintain and wrestle with the tension preserved in the biblical text and wrestled with postbiblical materials.

  3. mike says:

    good post, good discussion topic. the more i’m involved in biblical studies, though, the less i feel “tension” in the HB. i’m sort of moving out of the brueggemann paradigm, where voices are “competing” and certain books and figures are at odds. there are different voices and perspectives, sure, but as one friend put it, it’s a symphony. the different sounds and instruments are all playing at once and building something grandiose together. that’s different than, say, seeing the HB as a collection of jazz improv artists all doing their own thing (i’ve been a part of one those!). i suppose it’s just a matter of perspective: either, say, Job and proverbs are dukin’ it out and in competition, OR they each contribute something unique to the wider revelation of who God is and what God would have humankind do, i.e. they are different sounds in the symphony, contributing to the same masterpiece and not simply competing.

  4. John Anderson says:

    Mike:

    Thanks for the reply. I don’t know that I buy into the distinction you are drawing, nor do I necessarily think it is representative of what Brueggemann is doing. To say there aren’t tensions in the text is a failure to read the text closely. But at the same time, I agree (and think Brueggemann would as well) that these disparate and distinct voices attest to a complex portrait of God. I agree entirely that the voices “build something grandiose together,” but at the same time the different ‘riffs’ in the text produce something that is not entirely homogeneous. Diversity and unity working in tandem to portray who God is: a God who is unsettling and in tension. I simply don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

  5. mike says:

    john,

    you wrote, “these disparate and distinct voices attest to a complex portrait of God.” i wholeheartedly agree, and that’s where i was trying to arrive. and don’t get me wrong about brueggemann – his writings have literally changed my life, no exaggeration. but i have to smile at his whole, “this isn’t your grandmother’s approach to theology” sort of presentation. but i love him nonetheless.

    • John Anderson says:

      Fair enough, Mike. My point is simply that there are clearly tensions in the text, but these attest to a full, complex, sometimes SCHIZOPHRENIC (!!!) portrayal of God. But that is the beauty of the text for me. Holding these voices together.

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