Many bloggers have series that they run each week. This marks my attempt to begin such a series (and to utilize some alliteration!), where each week I will offer a particularly interesting, significant, or thought-provoking comment on the nature of Old Testament theology. This inaugural edition comes from (surprise, surprise) Walter Brueggemann:
“I shall insist, as consistently as I can, that the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way. This rhetorical enterprise operates with ontological assumptions, but these assumptions are open to dispute and revision in the ongoing rhetorical enterprise of Israel” (Theology of the Old Testament, 66)
9 thoughts on “Old Testament Theology Thursday!”
Revision: “I shall insist, with as much rhetorical force as mere insistance can bring to a convincing argument (none), that the ‘God,’ or gods, ‘of Old Testament Theology’ resides in, with, and under the mental construction of individual, or at best small groups of like-minded, Old Testament theologians.”
I think this is what Brueggemann means, though I suspect his rhetoric is deliberately cast as euphemistically as possible. His may be the first attempt at a postmodern theology of the Christian Old Testament, but it is not unabashedly so. I consider his volume a transitional work, situated uncomfortably between 1) an age of obstinately brash moderns still exhaling the death rattle, and 2) the voiceless uncertainty of a nameless epistemology (as postmoderns tend to eschew labels) still struggling to gasp it’s first breath.
How do you really feel, Roy? (wink)
I’d suggest you are projecting your own misgivings about Brueggemann and his approach unfairly and saying that’s what he’s saying. I don’t think it is at all. That may be what you perceive him to be doing, and surely not all will be convinced by what he has done (truth be told, I’m not convinced by him on every matter, as you will see quite clearly in my book when it comes out; I do disagree with him on matters pertaining to interpretation), but knowing him I don’t think he would agree at all with your assessment of what he truly means. Leave such psychologizing alone, my friend!
I do think you’re right about his volume being ‘transitional,’ though I wouldn’t use that same title because I think it is intentionally diminutive. I’d say pivotal, in that it acts like a pivot, but also in teh sense that it contributes a great deal to what and how OT theology is practiced.
Concerning your two poles, I ultimately find such labels (modern, postmodern, etc.) to be ultimately uhelpful, and they very quickly become daggers used to attack another when they could just as well be apt descriptions (liberal and conservative function the same way in the political arena). But whatever those labels mean, I would hardly characterize Brueggemann to be doing what I understand to be traditionally ‘modern’ scholarship (if I can make the unfair equation between modern and historical/critical, which I admit does have its own problems). And I think your second pole is a quite unfair caraicature of what has become and remained a vibrant and worthwhile means of interpreting the text. Yes, some has pushed too far (reader-response, for instance, yet I don’t see Brueggemann doing reader-response).
You know well that I would respond in much the same way to the supposed hegemony and objectivity of historical/critical scholarship. Such, in my view (you know this well, and I am not alone in this stance) would insist that historical/critical scholarship must employ much more rhetorical force and imagination to insist on producing a text we don’t have and will likely never know if we did have in the first place. Such arguments, truly, are only convincing to like-minded, historical/critical scholars!
(N.B. – For those who do not know, Roy is a dear friend; that should help you interpret his rhetoric and my response appropriately!).
Of course, I think I’m being quite fair to Brueggemann . . . else I wouldn’t have written it! All kidding aside, I do have a large amount of respect for him as a scholar. Further, it may be unfair to say “This is what Brueggemann means,” but that’s not what I said. I said “I think this is what Brueggemann means.” It may be inaccurate, only he can tell, but I don’t think he can escape the criticism that his work is conveniently vague in statements like the one you cited.
As for the word “transitional,” no ill-will was intended in the wording, but neither was any praise such as what the word “pivotal” would connote. I was attempting to be neutral; my success, or rather failure, is a matter of perspective. Certainly, Brueggemann’s theology reflects the pivot that epistemology has taken and continues to take, but to deem it “pivotal,” as though it were active in creating this shift among theologians may be implying more than his volume accomplishes.
As for the poles, I completely agree with your assessment: I too find these terms to be remarkably unhelpful. But I also find myself at a loss as to how to communicate these concepts in short-hand without these terms. Call it what you will, but labels are necessary; words are necessary, though they too carry no intrinsic meaning as signifiers. Of courese, the weaponizing of these labels is quite unfortunate, but I think any set of labels would have likely ended up being abused in fray.
Also, and I’m unsure if I understand what you are saying in your reply, but I in no way wish to cast Bruggemann as being at either pole. In fact, quite the opposite. Further, I feel quite comfortable with the caricature I made of the second pole, as I cast about 80% of myself along those lines. True, others would not feel comfortable with my description, but that appears to be indemic to the nature of this phenomenon.
With this in mind, as it applies to my historical-critical inclinations, I optimistically envision the classic methods as having a future — that is, if they are reconditioned by the epistemological honesty that wrought this emerging era in the first place. Exactly what they will look like, I am uncertain, but if the trajectories are any indicator it cannot take the form of any set of absolute rules, progressive prescriptions, or deductive certainties that have most often characterized these approaches. I am as certain as I ever am that the questions that these approaches ask, regardless of how one employs them, remain valid so long as someone is willing to ask them. For myself, and a few other “like-minded” individuals, these questions still resonate, and I would love to be on the forefront of exploring the future of these methodological avenues, much in the same way you yourself have embarked upon the adventure of exploring the avenues that interest you, John.
First, I can’t avoid noting the prevalence in your response of words that one could identify (perhaps on form-critical grounds–wink) as classic Brueggemann words: wrought, in the fray, etc. Couldn’t resist!
Working backwards, I agree entirely with your assessment of historical/critical methods. Never have I said with any seriousness that such methods should be abandoned. I agree with you that what needs to be abandoned is the ‘how’ many have chosen to practice, abuse, and misrepresent these methods and what they can and cannot do. I’m on board with that, entirely. Remember, I’ve got a redactional piece forthcoming with ZAW! And I’m convinced by what I’ve written! But I fully recognize the limits of what I’ve done as well, inherent in the method (and this is not to imply literary/synchronic methods can not be indicted on these same charges in some cases!).
I take the point about any label likely becoming abused “in the fray,” but I’m quite happy–and I trust you would be as well–to recognize and appreciate the methodological plurality (channeling Perdue here, even if he is talking about the collapse of “history”) that typifies our discipline at present. I think Brueggemann is very clear about this in his treatment as well.
I would still caution against implying that Brueggemann is being “vague” in what I’ve cited. This must be put in context (and since I know you don’t carry Brueggemann with you everywhere, as I do, I’m going to assume you didn’t look up the larger context of this passage). Don’t let the seeming ambiguity of what I’ve lifted from a much larger context reign when context would dictate otherwise.
Hope all is well in Texas, and that your syllabus is recuping nicely!
Your final point is well-taken, John. I was basing my interpretation on my remembrance of Brueggemann’s volume, as I don’t have it with me at this time. If memory serves me correctly, though it may not, he is concluding his synopsis of the developments of Old Testament theology over the last century. Still, that may not be enough to affect an informed interpretation of Brueggeman’s statement . . . or conversely, it may be just enough to misinform my interpretation! 🙂
Best wishes to you and your family!
I look forward to following this series John. It will be a window into a (relatively) little explored avenue for me – Old Testament theology!
Has Brueggemann read the appendix?
I disagree with the charge of projecting against R Gart.
@Bob: What appendix? And I am glad for you to object tot he charge of projecting, though I am curious why you are objecting. It would seem odd to do so if you don’t know Roy personally, and well, as I do.
@Roy: Putting the quote in larger context, it comes from the early part of his second chapter on the contemporary situation (though still in the middle of his survey of the discipline). The sentence immediately prior is helpful, and one with which I would agree: “Therefore in doing Old Testament theology we must be careful not to import essentialist claims that are not authorized by this particular and peculiar rhetoric” (66). He goes on to clarify, in a number of subheadings, the nature and type of rhetoric he will investigate. Coming off his very well-done history of the discipline, this is a fitting new word forward (though, as he also admits, a bit of a riff on Eichrodt, who also focused on language quite a bit, though not to the extent of Brueggemann).