Review: Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach


Robin Routledge. Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.   Casebound. $25.60.  Pp 384. ISBN 978-0-8308-2896-8.


Robin Routledge is currently senior lecturer in OT at Mattersey Hall in England.  He also teaches at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague and the Continental Theological Seminary in Brussels.  This is his first book.


Routledge seeks to make the enormous task of Old Testament Theology accessible to both pastors and beginning students.  He offers, as the title suggests, a thematic organization that attempts to communicate the central, operative issues and themes in Old Testament theology in a concise, readable format.  Methodologically, Routledge employs a canonical approach in the hopes of illuminating the connection between the Old and New Testaments.  He cautions, however, against bracketing out aspects of history and the historical-critical method.  Both are necessary elements for Old Testament theology.

In the opening chapter, “Approaches to Old Testament Theology,” Routledge offers a thorough overview of the task and history of scholarship on Old Testament theology.  He begins by noting that the Old Testament comprises a significant part of the Christian Scriptures, which then leads to his helpful discussion over terminology: Old Testament or Hebrew Bible?  The former is a Christian designation, while the latter denotes the continued vitality of Judaism and shows an appreciation for the Jewish roots of Christianity.  Routledge argues compellingly that already in the OT one can discern more than an Israel-centered emphasis in both judgment on wayward and sinful nations and salvation and blessing on those nations who respond in faith and obedience to YHWH.  The OT thus contributes much to the understanding of God’s relationship with the entire world.

Routledge next asks how Christians are to appropriate the OT–a text that at bottom narrates ancient Israel’s history and religion–for their own faith.  The answer he sees in Luke 24:27, where Jesus explains on the road to Emmaus how all Scripture relates to him.  The task is thus recognizing the Christological elements of the OT yet still maintaining the unique, ‘original’ contextual meaning of these ancient stories.  This, for Routledge, is among the primary difficulties for OT theology.

To conclude this first chapter, Routledge provides an extensive survey of the history of scholarship on OT theology.  He begins with the connection between biblical and dogmatic theology in the Middle Ages.  It was Gabler’s seminal lectures at Altdorff that inaugurated the need to separate the two from one another, which resulted in the birth of OT theology as its own distinct discipline.  Next, Eichrodt and von Rad’s respective Theologies are discussed as responses to a history of religions approach to theology.  Routledge gives both a brief summary of their views and closes with some critiques, most of which are well-known to those who have read Eichrodt and von Rad (i.e., too much unity in Eichrodt with covenant as the center for OT theology, and too much diversity with von Rad’s history of traditions approach and emphasis on theologies and their development in the OT).  The Biblical Theology Movement is treated next.  Routledge notes the diversity of the title “Biblical Theology,” but also points to several shared aspects: 1) make the Bible’s theological content relevant for contemporary life; 2) history is the medium of divine revelation; 3) biblical texts must be interpreted on their own terms, without any outside, secondary methods being imposed upon them; 4) a unity between the OT and NT.  This movement was short-lived, and Brevard Childs’ Biblical Theology in Crisis (1970) is taken by some, says Routledge, as an “obituary.”  Childs points out several difficulties: 1) no consensus existed about how to view history; 2) no consensus existed about the nature of the relationship between the OT and NT.  A new way forward was needed.  Biblical theology continues, however, only in a different manner.  Routledge lists names such as Preuss, Rendtorff, House, and Waltke as those whose Theologies may properly be called biblical theology.  And to close out the chapter, Routledge mentions several more recent contributions to OT theology: Gerstenberger’s social-scientific analysis, House’s “canonical synthesis,” and Sailhamer’s (modified) canonical approach.  Routledge also treats narrative appraisals such as John Goldingay’s Israel’s Gospel and Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative.  Brueggemann’s postmodern OT theology is also treated, emphasizing rhetoric, testimony, and diversity in OT theology.  As the discipline has moved towards these more ‘ahistorical’ readings, some scholars–among them John Collins–has cuationed against divorcing history from the task of OT theology.  As a result of both contemporary methods and the importance of the OT as documents of Israel’s history and faith, Routledge proposes a canonical/historical method as the most fruitful for OT theology, one that emphasizes the canonical literature as revelation while also granting meaning and import to the world behind the text.  Routledge’s express task in this volume, he says, is the synthetic task of biblical theology, which seeks to explain the relevance and authority of the OT for the life of the church.

Chapter Two, “God and the ‘Gods’,” begins with the importance of a name as both a marker of identity and character within the aNE.  Cursory treatments of the names “Elohim,” “El,” and “YHWH” are given.  The meaning of the divine name YHWH speaks not only to continuity between the God of the ancestors and the God of the Israelites in Egypt but also to YHWH’s openness, accessibility, and vulnerability in relation to the people he has chosen.  He next discusses God, and the many names used of God, in the patriarchal narratives.  What is important here is the insistence in the narrative on one God in contrast to the ancestors of Abraham and the Canaanites.  God often identifies himself as “the God of your father . . . . ” (for example, Gen 28:13), evincing continuity.  In fact, the God of the patriarchs is differentiated from Canaanite gods–despite the common “El” epithet–because the God of the patriarchs was tethered to a particular family, not to a particular locale as in Canaanite religion.  Such continuity is also evident in the narratorial use of YHWH in the patriarchal narratives, well prior to the revelation of the divine name to Moses in Exod 3 and 6.  In this vein, Routledge discusses the advent of monotheism.  He sees the patriarchs as monolatrous but not monotheists.  Monotheism itself arises with Moses (with Vriezen) but is not expressed until later in Israel’s history. 

The next section of this chapter treats the “nature of God.”  God is described as personal, spiritual, holy, righteous, loving and faithful, yet also at times wrathful.  He next turns to discussing God’s spirit (ruah) as the activity of God, powerful and mysterious, imparter of life, enabling prophecy, associated with skill and ability, and empowering for leadership.  The chapter closes out with an analysis of other supernatural beings in the OT: demons, angels, sons of God and the divine council, and satan.  These sections are replete with citations of the relevant OT texts and a brief foray into the development of these beings in the intertestamental literature.

Chapter 3, “God and Creation,” begins by looking at creation accounts from elsewhere in the ANE.  The Enuma Elish and Atrahasis Epic receive special mention, as does the impact of mythological imagery on the OT.  The Chaoskampf theme figures prominently here, and serves as a fine example of how history informs Routledge’s theological model.  Returning to a more canonical/narrative approach, Routledge limns the various characteristics of God that emerge from the creation accounts: transcendence and immanence, creation through speech; he also discusses themes from the creation accounts: creation and chaos and creation and redemption.  In this vein, that humanity is created “in the image of God” means: 1) humans share spiritual characteristics with God; 2) are created for relationship with God; 3) are given authority to rule on God’s behalf; 4) are created to bring about God’s glory.  Humanity is created for relationship, both with one another and with the environment.  These relationships are intimately tethered to the divine command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16-17).  By choosing to disobey, humanity has opted against relationship with God.  The result is sin.  He goes on to discuss the nature of temptation, divine judgment, guilt, and punishment.  The Primeval history depicts an avalanche of sin, yet–with von Rad and Clines (though he does not cite them)–Routledge sees the promise to Abraham in Gen 12 as an expression of grace.

Chapter 4, “God and His People (I): Election and Covenant” traces out the idea of covenant in the OT, noting the oft-cited parallel to Hittite suzerainty treaties.  Covenants occur in many forms in the OT: between husband and wife, between God and humanity (Noah), between God and a particular people (Abraham, evidenced by the centrality of circumcision as a covenantal marker).  Contra Eichrodt–though rightly in my view–Routledge sees the Sinai covenant in continuity with the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 17:6 cf. Exod 6:7).  This chapter closes with sections on election and the law.

In Chapter 5, “God and His People (2): Worship and Sacrifice,” Routledge looks at the various places of worship (patriarchal altars, the tabernacle, and the Jerusalem Temple), as well as those who presided over the worship, priests and Levites.  Their roles are then discussed, among them providing instruction, performing sacrifice, maintaining the purity of the sanctuary, and singing and dancing.  The various religious festivals in ancient Israel (Passover, Weeks, Atonement, Tabernacles), the various types of sacrifice, and other elements of worship (prayer, music, and singing) round out the chapter.

Chapter 6, “God and His People (3): Receiving Instruction” deals with prophecy (from, as might be expected, a synthesis of historical and theological insights) and wisdom (in Israel, in the aNE, in the OT).  Concerning the latter specifically Routledge argues against the grain that wisdo literature in the OT is indeed theological because it resides in and comes from God, and only those knowing God can understand it rightly.  He concludes the chapter with a section on ‘Tensions in Wisdom Literature,’ looking at Job and Ecclesiastes.  I very much appreciated this part; it demonstrated a responsibility in tackling the complex issues and (a la Brueggemann) tensions that pervade the OT.

Briefly, moving onward, chapter 7, “God and His People (4): Kingship in Israel” juxtaposes divine and human kingship in Israel.  Chapter 8, “God and His People (5): Ethics and Ethical Questions” deals with how one is to live properly both within the immediate covenantal community as well as in relation to God and land.  Ethics is pervasive in the OT, as Routledge discusses it under the rubrics of prophecy, wisdom, narrative, and law.  A very fine group of subheadings under the main heading “Questioning God’s Activity” closes the chapter.  Here Routledge contends that the OT’s depiction of God as responsible for evil speaks not to the divine character but to God’s total sovereignty.  Routledge also argues, contra Brueggemann, that God is truly affected deeply and intimately by creation, and this may result in tension or suffering for God (a la Fretheim), but it is “not . . . . because of any contradiction or inconsistency within God’s interior life” (254).  I tend to think of this question as a bit of a both/and.  I also think Routledge is misreading Brueggemann a bit here.  Chapter 9, “God and the Future” looks at divine judgment amidst hope, evident in both the Deuteronomistic History and the prophets.  Language of the ‘remnant’ and ‘new covenant’ drive this imagery home.  Eschatology in the OT, the messiah (Routledge points out, correctly, there is a “lack of direct references to the Messiah in the OT and [a] lack of consensus about which texts are messianic” [282]), various messianic titles–the branch, the servant, the Son of Man–and OT apocalyptic round out the chapter.  Chapter 10, “God and the Nations,” notes the presence of a tension in the OT, between God’s chastisement and punishment of foreign nations for their treatment of Israel, and God’s ultimate concern for all of creation.  Routledge sees ‘mission’ in relation to God’s universal covenant and as the “narrative substructure of the Old Testament” (325).  I don’t know that ‘mission’ is the best diction to employ here . . . . especially as the final section in the book! . . . . but I do agree with the overall argument that (some of) the nations, despite their grave offenses, are at least included in the divine purpose and have a role in the universal task of this particular people Israel.

Routledge’s Theology does a fine job of introducing the main issues and elements in most OT theology.  I get the feeling at points he was a bit more historically-minded than he described in the introduction, in the vein of Eichrodt and other early theologies, and the ‘canonical’ aspect of his study, while important, at times became fodder for a listing of relevant texts on a topic.  This is no doubt helpful, especially for an introductory volume as this is; nonetheless, Routledge has sought to create a synergy between two approaches to OT theology–historical and literary–and he is more successful in some places than others (mostly the narrative portions he treats; law becomes much more tricky to discuss in this manner, I think).

Three primary contributions emerge from Routledge’s volume.  First, the footnotes are incredibly well done, and do a very fine job of pointing the reader to a wealth of further bibliography on any given topic.  No page in this work is without a solid ‘introductory bibliography’ scattered amongst the footnotes.  Second, Routledge is in conversation with other scholars throughout the work.  This not only testifies to the fact that he has done his exegetical homework but also situates his approach (a thematic one, very similar to Eichrodt; and I wonder, given the various chapter titles above [God and _____] if he may be a covenantal theologian in the end.  So was Eichrodt.  And so am I, only in a much different way than both) in the wider stream of OT theology.  And third, and perhaps most importantly, Routledge offers a contemporary voice on OT theology that has reflected thoughtfully on the vast history of a discipline.  His introductory chapter including the history of research is quite good, trumped only by Brueggemann’s over 100-page survey of the topic in his 1997 volume.  But Routledge is able to engage a variety of approaches, voices, figures, and arguments within OT theology, and for that–and for his synthetic method–his theology is a welcome contribution to the field.  Pastors and students wishing to gain a greater glimpse into the field of OT theology should no doubt find Routledge a helpful place to begin.


On the Task of Old Testament Theology: (a)historical?

In re-reading through Walter Brueggemann’s magisterial Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, I must admit I am quite taken still by his theology of rhetoric.  Brueggemann writes:

I shall insist, as consistently as I can, tha 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.” (66)

For Brueggemann, and for myself, the locus of ancient Israel’s theological reflection and meaning lies solely in the text, more particularly, how the text narrates what it does about God.  What is said is far more important for Brueggemann than attempting to reconstruct either what happened or how the text came to be.  On the so-called historical task of OT theology, Brueggemann says:

“Note well that in focusing ons peech, we tend to bracket out all querstions of historicity.  We are not asking: ‘what happened?’ but ‘What is said?’ To inquire into the historicity of the text is a legitimate enterprise, but it does not, I suggest, belong to the work of Old Testament theology.  In like manner, we bracket out all questions of ontology, which ask about the ‘really real.’ It may well be, in the end, that there is no historicity to Israel’s faith claim, but that is not a position taken here.  And it may well be that there is no ‘being’ behind Israel’s faith assertion, but that is not a claim made here.  We have, however, few tools for recovering ‘what happened’ and even fewer for recovering ‘what is,’ and therefore those issues must be held in abeyance, pending the credibility and persuasiveness of Israel’s testimony, on which everything depends” (118).

What do you make of Brueggemann’s insistence on rhetoric as the means of approaching Old Testament theology?  What of his ahistorical approach?  As you may suspect, I am quite on board.  But for a variety of reasons.

The task of OT theology has long been seen as an historical one.  Eichrodt’s seminal two volume theology stressed a “double aspect”: 1) investigate and analyze a given text agains the backdrop of ancient Near Eastern religion; 2) trace out how this text has been fulfilled in Jesus and the NT [a terribly reductionist and triumphalist reading the way Eichrodt presents it].  Similarly, von Rad’s two volumes–from which I still learn very much–see OT theology through the lens of tradition history.  For von Rad, the task of the OT theologian is to trace the development of these traditions, thus emphasizing the diversity of the task.  Erhard Gerstenberger’s more recent Theologies of the Old Testament seems to carry this strand forward, arguing (correctly) that there are multiple theologies in the OT (although he and I would disagree on what these multiple theologies are).  Gerstenberger, though, is also purely historical, discussing the theology of various institutions within ancient Israel.  And there are countless others who have seen the task of OT theology as an utterly historical one.  In fact, reading some of these early OT theologies is quite similar to reading early introductions on the OT for me.  Both were largely doing excavative work and writing history, with theology peppered in.

More recently (1985 to be exact, some 12 years prior to Brueggemann’s volume), Brevard Childs sought a paradigm shift.  In his Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, he argues (correctly) that OT theology has long been too taken with matters of history.  One must ask precisely what the task itself is, writes Childs.  Is the task to do OT theology, a history of traditions/religion, or some mutation of both?

I don’t believe OT theology should be utterly ahistorical.  But I also don’t think Brueggemann is wholly ahistorical (as Norman Gottwald points out in his essay in God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, of which see my review HERE).  But Brueggemann is not historical in the way Eichrodt or von Rad were historical.  Brueggemann is concerned with what ancient Israel says, regardless of any concerns for the authenticity of the utterance or its development into that utterance.  I remain quite agnostic about the historical critical method of reading.  And thus, I think Brueggemann’s discussion outlined above presents a refreshing way forward for how one does OT theology.  One is not writing a history.  One is writing a theology, from ancient Israel’s perspective, about her views on God.  That, I would argue, is the task of OT theology.  It is literally a “word about God.”  And only as such can it be called OT theology proper.

And you?  What do you think of Brueggemann’s method?  How do you see the task of OT theology?