Announcing the sessions for the Genesis Unit at SBL 2011!

SBL 2011 will see the inaugural sessions for the new program unit on the book of Genesis (for more, see HERE). We will be holding two sessions, and as chair of the unit I am glad to announce them now.

Session One
Theme: Genesis and Theology

Christopher Heard, Pepperdine University, presiding

John Anderson, Augustana College, “The Unsettling God of Genesis: What and Whose Theology?”

Terence Fretheim, Luther Seminary, “Jacob’s Wrestling and Issues of Divine Power (Gen 32:22-32)”

Joel Kaminksy, Smith College, “Genesis 1-11: Reflections on the Theological Dimensions of the Opening of Genesis”

Tammi Schneider, Claremont Graduate University, “Where Do We Go From here: Women in the Book of Genesis”

Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary, Respondent

Session Two
Theme: Wrestling with Gen1: The State of the Question and Avenues Moving Forward

John Anderson, Augustana College, presiding

Christopher Heard, Pepperdine University, “Gen 1: The State of the Question”

William Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary, panelist

Mark Smith, New York University, panelist

John Walton, Wheaton College, panelist

Ellen van Wolde, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, panelist

Discussion (60 mins)

So, how’d we do? The steering committee is tremendously excited about this first year’s sessions (and also for the 2012 sessions, which are set, but I won’t reveal those until that meeting draws closer). And who is planning to attend?! Hope to see you all there!

What’s the most ‘valuable’ book you have on your shelf?

And why? Value may be construed in whatever terms you like (sentimental, monetary, scholarly, etc.).

I would have to declare a three-way tie for me:

1) A personally (and personalized) autographed copy of Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (I have two additional personal and personalized autographed volumes by him as well).

2) A personally (and personalized) autographed copy of E. P. Sanders’ seminal Paul and Palestinian Judaism (I also have autographed copies of his two volumes on the historical Jesus; I had him sign these for me while I was at Duke; he retired my second year there).

3) An autographed copy of the novel The Oath by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. This was a gift from a friend about 10 years ago, though I trust it is authentic.

Hopefully by the end of the year I will have a fourth book to add to this list, when my own, first book, is officially released with Eisenbrauns!

Fortress Press Interviews Walter Brueggemann on his new An Unsettling God

Fortress Press’ new venture, the Fortress Forum, has seemingly christened this new venture by posting an interview with Walter Brueggemann on his new book, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible.  The original interview can be seen HERE, though I have reproduced it in its entirety below.  Do, though, go to the Fortress Forum and leave comments!

Fortress Press: Everyone talks about the death of biblical theology, but in your work, specifically An Unsettling God, how do you make the case for that discipline?

Walter Brueggemann: Obviously, the discipline of biblical theology needs no “case” to be made for it, and certainly not by me. There is deep and wide ferment in the field, indicating that scholars and interpreters across the theological spectrum are ready to be engaged in work that is fresh and suggestive. It is possible that such an interpretive enterprise may be primarily historical, that is, reading old texts to see what they “meant.”

My own interest is much more “confessional,” as I am a church person who reads for the sake of the faith and life of my community. I suppose, without great intentionality, that I read according to Ricoeur’s nice pairing of “suspicion and retrieval.” The “suspicion” is an awareness that every text and every reading, including my own, is laden with ideological interest. This is true of skeptics, minimalists, and fideists of all kinds. The “retrieval” is to see what may be said after one has done rigorous criticism. What one finds, after criticism, is that there is still this character “God,” who continues to haunt and evoke and summon and address. No sort of criticism, so it seems to me, finally disposes of that character. Now it may be that the character is an act of literary imagination; or it may be that the character is indeed an agent who is in, with, and under the text. Either way, one cannot dispose of that character. I find myself moving back and forth between a literary character and an active agent. Either way, that character haunts and causes everything to be redefined.
But being haunted by this character is not just a confessional act for “believers.” I believe the best exposition of this testimony for “non-believers” is by Terry Eagleton in his Terry Lectures at Yale. Eagleton is not a “believer,” but he takes seriously the claims of this text that are more than “literary.” Eagleton shows that the claims are not merely cognitive and so readily dismissed by “silly atheists.” Rather, Eagleton sees that the claims of the tradition are that this holy character is linked to the valuing of “the scum” of the earth. The point is a practical one, not an intellectual one.

Given the current frailty of the capitalist system and the fact that the “big money” continues to grow while ordinary people increasingly become poor and homeless, I suspect that this character, embedded in this tradition, is a wake-up call for contemporary social-political thought. It is not difficult to imagine that dominant ideologies and narrative explanations of reality have reached a dead end. For that reason I judge that it is a worth-while effort, regardless of one’s “faith commitments,” to continue to pay attention to and exposit this character and the tradition that clusters around the character. I understand that to be the work of biblical theology. Such a perspective refuses to be boxed in by the critical categories of Enlightenment rationality, for it is a reach behind that rationality to see about the haunting that cannot be so readily dismissed. I take that to be an important task. And if some judge it not to be important, it is at least interesting.

FP: Your work espouses the implications of biblical theology for social justice. How do Christians formulate that for the public square, or can they?

WB: This is an ongoing and difficult task. I believe that there is no ready and obvious “connect” between the claims of the Bible and matters of the contemporary public square. And we should be suspicious of any who treat those connections as direct and obvious. At best, there is an articulation of broad principles, the kind that Eagleton has so well explicated. But the “connect” requires a leap of imagination in order to see how the ancient imperative in one social context can be credible in a contemporary context that is in every regard quite unlike the old one. There are of course thick mediating traditions of theological and ethical interpretation among the great intellectuals and in the faith traditions of Jews and Christians, so that the imaginative leap is never de novo or in a vacuum. But clearly the biblical tradition, since the exodus and the commands of Sinai, has focused attention on the common good and on the socio-economic policies and practices that work for or against the common good. It takes no great imagination to see that such a claim for the common good is in profound tension with the modern narratives of collectivism or individualism. As Michael Walzer has seen, the Exodus and the consequent covenant at Sinai constitute a revolutionary breakthrough in the history of thought and practice. There is no doubt that biblical interpretation must continue to explore the interface that is crucial for any authentic contemporary reading.

FP: Sometimes it seems that the Bible is used in a simplistic or biblicist way by conservatives to address the public sphere. On the other hand, the historical-critical method seems too arcane to address pressing public conversations (such as gay marriage or abortion or immigration). What’s your approach?

WB: The capacity to find an alternative to biblicism or historical criticism requires skillful hermeneutical moves, whether made intentionally or intuitively. If one begins with the assumption of neighborly covenant—the outcome of Sinai—then neighborliness becomes the test for policy and practice. Such a focus does not resolve all of the complexities of real-life decisions, but it does preclude from consideration some possibilities that are anti-neighborly and anti-covenantal. Such an approach does not just find a specific text, as is so often done, but participates, as we are able, in the “world” that is constructed by the text. It is odd and disappointing that some of the loudest citers of texts love to refer to specific texts but have no interest in or awareness of the broad claims of the text or the way in which the dots are connected to provide an alternative vision of social reality and derivatively, an alternative mandate about social reality. Thus I believe that the clue to fruitful connections is a practice of imagination that is self-aware and well-informed about the complexity of the issues. There is no reason for biblical interpreters to be simplistic or to imagine that easy or ready connections can be made.

FP: How have you changed your attitude toward and approach to the future of the church, especially in its biblical appropriation? Where do your hopes lie?

WB: As I have gotten older and as our social scene has become more dysfunctional, I have become more aware of the ways in which the central claims of the Bible contradict the practices of our culture. This means, in my judgment, that now as never in my lifetime the full and bold articulation of biblical claims is urgent as a serious offer in our pluralistic society. There are no easy accommodations between those claims and the dominant modes of our culture, even though the old model in which I was nurtured—“Christ transforming culture”—mostly imagined an easier connect. My practical hope is not very great. I do think that the younger generation in our society is not so boxed in on the hard questions as are many older people. I think, moreover, that the growing diversity in our society may offer openness for genuinely human options, as I do not think that our diverse and younger population will settle easily for the old answers of the privileged. After all of that, of course, our hope is not a pragmatic one; it is an evangelical one, that God is faithful and that God’s purposes will out. The wonder of the Biblical tradition is that the holy purposes of God cohere readily with the pain of the vulnerable. It is entirely possible that the convergence of holy purpose and vulnerable pain may “change the wind,” as Jim Wallis voices it. Since the old resolutions of our problems are clearly now failed, there may be an openness to initiatives that are more humane. That of course depends on courageous, sustained testimony… and it is a fearful time.

Media Resource: Audio and Video Lectures by Biblical Scholars (from Baylor’s Truett Seminary)

See HERE.  You can hear a whole host of lectures from scholars such as Walter Brueggemann, Ben Witherington, Richard Hays, Dale Allison, John Barclay, Charles Talbert, Eugene Petersen, Bruce Longenecker, NT Wright, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Jurgen Moltmann.  These are a wonderful resource for students and scholars alike.  I am, as you may suspect, listening to my friend Brueggemann at present.

Bruce Waltke on Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament

Today I received two volumes from Zondervan (thanks Andrew Rogers!); one was Bruce Waltke’s 2007 An Old Testament Theology.  I still remember hearing at SBL 2008 in Boston that Waltke really pressed and challenged Brueggemann’s massive Theology of the Old Testament.  And ever since SBL , when I sat in on a panel discussion on Waltke’s volume of which Brueggemann was a respondent (and a hilarious one at that!) I have been quite anxious to see what it is Waltke says about Brueggemann. 

Here are some of the more interesting and thought-provoking quotations from Waltke; I would love for Brueggemann to respond in print:

“The Theology of the Old Testament by Walter Brueggemann has many strengths, not least of which is his magisterial survey of the discipline, demonstrating his profound scholarship.  his style is eloquent with flashes of brilliance, but he hinders his communication by unnecessary abstractions and neologisms.  His theology is salted with insights into the importance of rhetoric and with applications of the biblical faith to current social issues, but he spoils his applications by his flawed epistemology . . . ” (69)


“With regard to epistemology . . . Brueggemann embraces what he calls a ‘post-liberal, non-foundational approach.’  By this he means that he rejects both historical criticism and the orthodox confessions of the church.  He complains that the ‘practical effect of this [historical criticism] enterprise was to relativize the revelatory claims of the text and treat it like any other book.’  By defeault, however, Brueggemann’s own reasoning, unaided by the Spirit, becomes his final frame of reference for knowing.  Without recognizing the work of the Spirit in his epistemology: ‘the authority of the [biblical] witness is grounded in nothing more and nothing less than the willingness of the text community to credit, believe, trust, and take seriously this testimony.’  In other words, he relativizes the authority of Moses and the prophets in the Old Testament and of Jesus Christ and his apostles in the New Testament solely to the reader’s response” (69).


“In addition to shifting the authority of the text away from a Spirit-empowered testimony to the willingness of the community, Brueggemann also shifts it away to the interpreter.  Since there is no interest-free interpretation, whether canonical or critical, he argues, the interpreter must ‘stay engaged in an adjudicating process.’  However, by that deft move he shifts authority away from the text to the interpreter” (70).


“Brueggemann’s conceptualization o fthe biblical theologian’s task is rooted in his conviction that the biblical testimonies about I AM contradict each other. . . . In Brueggemann’s view the task of the theologian is to expose and reflect theologically upon competing claims that God is good and that God is not good.  . . . Brueggemann draws the heretical conclusion from these contradictory witnesses that there is an internal contradiction in God himself.  Is it too harsh to recall that the Serpent also denied that God is good and that Cain could not affirm that God was just?  (71).”


“Brueggemann draws his heretical theology from his flawed exegesis: he bases his understanding of the core testimony on adjectives and verbs, not on the accredited method of determining the meaning of words in their literary and historical contexts.  In his method of interpretation, the reader’s response always trumps the author’s intention.  . . . Brueggemann’s reading does not take account of the a priori rights of the canonical writer and lacks sympathy with I AM’s repugnance of unbelief and sin.  In short, his theology fails because his exegesis is inadequate” (72).

Harsh critique, indeed.  I tend to agree with Brueggemann, still, that God is far more complex and indeed conflicted.  I would say Waltke’s exegesis is inadequate, not Brueggemann’s, in this regard.  Those who have read my work will be well aware of why I think this to be the case.  Yet I also agree strongly with Waltke that biblical scholarship–here, theology–should have some relevance and import for the church (see HERE and HERE).  I disagree with Waltke, however, because I see this as exactly what Brueggemann is doing.  Brueggemann is, rightly, all about pressing communities of faith to wrestle with the complexities of the text, and especially, of God.

So, your thoughts?

The Literarian Creed (or, a creed for literary critics of the Bible)

Ok, it’s really just a creed about me.  Meant in jest.

One of my dear friends and colleagues is of the historical-critical methodological persuasion (don’t judge me by the company I keep!!!  ha!).  We will often razz one another on matters of method.  I basically say his method is inherently circular, deconstructive, overly skeptical, and highly prone to over-interpretation.  He responds that my literary-theological methodology is simply an aversion to questions of how the text came to be.  He’s not entirely wrong on this . . . but I would clarify.  For me, questions of the tradition and redaction history of the biblical text are fascinating indeed; put simply, though, they are not my primary questions.  I can employ these methods with competence and have in some of my earlier work and even a small bit of my more recent work.  But again, they are not questions that define my scholarship.  That is another post for another day.

So yesterday my friend emails me the following, which he titled the Literarian Creed.  To clarify a few points, in the off-chance someone doesn’t get the fact this is a joke:
1) Yes, my methodology is literary, and theological.  I do, however, see a great value in historical-critical methodologies.  I just wish they were handled more responsibly oftentimes (see my criticisms above).
2) Yes, I do very much respect and appreciate Brueggemann’s work.  I find it to be an honest, thoughtful, and serious engagement with the text, and one that does not attempt to smooth over tensions.  Rather, tensions are the locus of meaning.  Let it be said, however, that I do disagree with Brueggemann on several matters.
3) Perhaps most important, the final part of what I am about to quote from my friend seems to imply the Bible is a bit of an afterthought for me.  I think (hope!) he would recognize this is entirely not the case.  In fact, the biblical text–given my methodology–is by necessity front and center.  Truth be told, I also think it should be the basis from which comes one’s faith.

Regular readers of this blog will likely find this quite a bit more humorous than those who may just be beginning to follow me.  Either way, here is a parody, from a colleague of mine, of . . . well, me (and note that I say parody . . . satire . . . ).  Ok, enough preamble . . . here it is:

Literarian Creed (Inspired by the Nicene):
I believe in literary readings,
     the irrelevance of historical-critical methodology for all biblical texts,
          whether in heaven or in earth;

An in Brueggemann its foremost begotten son,
     scholar of scholars, reader of readers,
          retired, but not dead, and icon of predominant American biblical  scholarship;
     In light of whom all biblical texts must be read,
          By scholar and theologian alike;
     And whose tome was written in postmodern spirit,
          suffered neglect, but will rise again for a third unrevised edition,
          and against which all scholarship will one day be judged;

Oh yeah, and in the Bible (which is an important book, too),
     Which proceedeth from someone, somewhere, some time, and somehow, and for some purpose, but none of which I know, nor do I care to try to find out.

My Interview with Dr. Walter Brueggemann

This is my first interview in what I hope will be an official (yet sporadic) series of scholarly interviews.  Dr. Brueggemann was kind enough to devote some of his time and answer some questions.  I hope you will find it to be an enlightening and engaging discussion.  Here we go . . . .

First off, thank you Dr. Brueggemann for agreeing to take part in this interview!  Many of my readers will know how appreciative I am of your work.  What led you to biblical studies, the Hebrew Bible in particular, as your chosen vocation?

“I had two most remarkable Old Testament teachers in seminary, neither of whom published much at all.  Allen Wehrli taught me about imagination in interpretation, and introduced me to the form critical work of Herman Gunkel.  Lionel Whiston introduced me to the work of Gerhard von Rad, work that was only beginning to be translated into English.  I concluded that Old Testament study was where the action is.  That was confirmed for me by my graduate teacher, James Muilenburg.  I still think so.”

You have written prolifically on the Psalms, Jeremiah, Old Testament theology, among countless other topics.  What, if you had to choose, has been your favorite book you have written, and why?

“I fall back al the time on Prophetic Imagination because it provides the basic narrative for all of my interpretive work.  I most enjoyed, with due anguish, Finally Comes the Poet, because it made connections for me with the artistic dimensions of interpretation that are so crucial for faith and life.”

Bridging the gap between the Old Testament and the Church is a vital aspect of your scholarship.  How do you suggest the OT/HB is best employed in Christian worship?  What does it contribute that is missing in many contemporary Christian communities of faith?

“The Old Testament invites the church to a narrative reality that is open, pluralistic, and beyond all codifications.  The God to whom it witnesses continues to break open our best ideologies.  In worship the church needs to hear and think through much, much more text, especially the parts we find implausible and unacceptable.  But that depends upon interpretation that takes seriously the complex refusal of the text to be ‘explained.'”

You have a very particular, though ‘paradoxical’ understanding of God in the Hebrew Bible.  In an interview I once heard you call the God of the OT a “recovering agent of violence.”  And anyone who has read your massive tome, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy will be well aware of your take on the Bible’s conception of God.  Of what contemporary relevance or import is such a ‘problematic’ image?

“This ‘problematic’ presentation of God testifies against all of our ‘cozy’ notions of faith, liturgy, piety, doctrine, and morality.  The Old Testament and its God is to be received only in dispute and contestation.  It constitutes a wake-up call against complacency, easy conclusions, and dumbing down in faith.”

Your Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy is perhaps the first truly postmodern OT theology.  Now over ten years removed from its initial publication, how do you see the field of OT theology as having progressed, both in relationship to your volume and in rleationship to our postmodern context?

“Old Testament theology has become much more pluralistic and diverse.  I believe my book is important in breaking away from the old models of concept and abstract ideas  and themes.  My accent has been on the passionate dynamic of the text itself, and refusal to arrive at abstract closure.  I believe this has been important in opening the way for many ‘postmodern’ efforts that refuse the old synthesis.”

What are some of the best places, in your estimation, to study the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament today?  Why?

“Everyone has about the same list: alongside Baylor that list likely includes Yale, Harvard, Princeton Seminary, Emory, Duke, Vanderbilt, Chicago, Claremont, and Union NY.  These programs have a long tradition of research and offer leading, generative scholars as teachers.”

What one scholar has most influenced your thought, and how?

“Von Rad comes first for me.  But I mention Norman Gottwald who gave shape and authorization to my own impulse to connect the text to social reality.  I have learned so much from Gottwald that I keep reprocessing.  He taught us that the text, like our own interpretations, is embedded in a social system that is laden with ideological freight.”

I know you are currently writing (or have finished writing your part) of the NCBC on the Psalms with my teacher, Bill Bellinger.  What other projects can we expect to be forthcoming from you?

“I have in prospect a collection of sermons and a collection of lectures and essays.  I am working on a manuscript on the prophets and one on the metaphor of “Babylon.”  I do not know if I will finish those, but those are likely the last longer manuscripts I will attempt.”

Thank you, Dr. Brueggemann!

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?

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?

If you could read Scripture through the lens of only ONE scholar . . . .

. . . . who would it be and why?  In other words, what single scholar most captures the essence and meaning of the biblical text; who is asking the right questions, or giving the right answers?  Whose methodological, theological, or historical presuppositions and conclusions do you most share?  Put most simply . . . . for you, who most gets it right?

 My answer?  No surprise: Walter Brueggemann.

Here is a list of why:
* his reading of the difficult and troublesome texts, as well as his view on the characterization of God in the biblical text, are unabashedly honest.

* his desire to maintain tensions within the text rather than to smooth them out is not only postmodern, it is biblical, and again, honest.

* his emphasis on the Jewishness of the text is spot-on; this represents another tension – the ability to hold together the Jewishness of the text with the ‘Christian-ness’ of the text (see his OT theology).

*his attempts to make the Hebrew Bible relevant for contemporary communities of faith is to be applauded; from discussing the ‘scandalous’ character of God to how one may pray the lament psalms, his seeking to bring the Hebrew Bible into the life of Christian faithful is wonderfully motivating and enriching.

How about you?

What Kind of God Do You Believe In? An OT Perspective

A common question I get when some find out I am a religious academic is something along the lines of “do you believe in God?”  (For those who don’t know how I would answer this question . . . . yes, I do believe in God).  But the more important question I try to stress is not do I believe but what kind of God do I believe in?

Some may assume this is a ridiculous question.  God is truth, life, love, not to mention omni-everything.  This may indeed be the case–I don’t claim to know the inner recesses of God’s mind or being!–but biblically it does not seem to be the portrait.  Not all the time, at least.  Take for instance God’s question in Gen 3:9 to the hiding Adam and Eve: “where are you?”  Take the image of God throughout the Primeval History (Gen 1-11), who tries effortlessly to ‘get it right,’ moving from the failure of Adam and Eve to Cain killing Abel, to the righteousness of Noah amid the abominations of his household, to his selection of Abraham, who along with his descendants prove to be an especially rascally bunch.  While some may aver that the emphasis should be placed on humanity’s failings here, one still needs to look at the opposite yet complementary side: what of God in all of this?  If God is omni-everything, then he would have known of the debasement of humanity, foreseen the flood, and likely, in good and compassionate concern for creation, not gone that route.  If God is omni-everything and went that route, God is then no different than traditional ancient Near Eastern conceptions of deities (see the Atrahasis Epic and The Gilgamesh Epic) and is responsible for not only knowing but also fore-ordaining the death of nearly the entirety of creation.  Is that the type of God you believe in?

I first read Terry Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective some seven years ago, and I have described it as ‘exploding my paradigm’ of God.  In a way, much of my subsequent scholarship, writing, and publishing has struggled with this issue. 

God is, to my eye, quite unpredictable.  Walter Brueggemann has argued as such:

In its core testimony, Israel has uttered [YHWH] as a God who is straightforward in dealing with [YHWH’s] partners.  In Israel’s cross-examination, [YHWH] emerges not only hidden as in wisdom theology but also on occasion as devious, ambiguous, irascible, and unstable . . . . These voices of witness, nonetheless, constitute a part of Israel’s countertestimony, and while these texts are commonly disregarded in more formal theology, they are important data for our understanding of who [YHWH] is said by Israel to be (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, 359).

Preconceived notions of God that one brings to a text are ultimately unhelpful if used as a grid within which the text must fit tidily.  It won’t fit.  Indeed, the text should not be expected to conform.  Nor should God.  Fretheim writes:

God’s appearance in human form reveals God’s vulnerability . . . . It suggests an entering into the life of the world that is more vulnerable, where the response can be derision (see Gen 18:12-13) or incredulity (Judg 6:13-17).  It is to put oneself concretely into the hands of the world to do with  as it will.  It is revealing of the ways of God that the word is enfleshed in bodies of weakness within the framework of commonplace, everyday affairs, and not in overwhelming power.  For, even in those instances where the vestments of God’s appearance are threaded with lineaments of power, they clothe a vulnerable form.  There is no such thing for Israel as a nonincarnate God (106).

As I write this, and as I note that I agree very much with Brueggemann and very much with Fretheim, I continue to wonder how these two strands–these two very distinct (and conflicting?) views of God can be held together.  Obviously ancient Israel had little problem doing so.  I also have little problem doing so.  But it is striking to look at how God is “imaged,” as I have heard Fretheim say, in the Hebrew Bible.  I have more to say on this, but that will be another post.

This brings up some related questions:

1) The relationship between the Testaments: I reject the neo-Marcion tendency that seems still to pervade scholarship and the life of faith, drawing a sharp distinction between a wrathful, murderous God of the Hebrew Bible and a kind, loving God in the NT.  Ummmm, crucifixion, anyone?  Let’s not whitewash the crucifixion.  And let’s not whitewash God.  Please.

2) What role does the Hebrew Bible play in one’s faith?  What role should it play?  And should (or does?) the Church employ it properly?

3) Is God’s unpredictability ever tempered by predictability?  Constancy? 

So who is God in the Hebrew Bible?  I would answer as follows . . . .

God is . . . . a trickster, deceptive, cunning, and unpredictable figure.

God is . . . . the one who elects Israel and chooses her for covenant relationship.

God is . . . . steadfast in the covenant with Israel.

God is . . . . intimately and deeply affected by creation to the point that God at points changes His mind, repents, withdraws, mourns, etc. 

God is . . . . one who suffers because of, with, and for creation.

God is . . . . a paradox.  Vulnerable yet powerful.  Tricky yet faithful.  Present yet absent.