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Book Notes: An Old Testament Theology (Waltke)

Waltke, Bruce K. with Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. ISBN: 0-310-21897-7. 1040 pp (940 excluding front and back matter).

I’m going to complain a bit about this book, so first let me tell you the good things about it. It provides a solid introduction to the scope and theology of the Old Testament from a confessional point of view, starting from Christian orthodoxy. The tendency is the conservative edge of evangelicalism. It is not fundamentalist, and struggles with many issues that one might expect fundamentalists to ignore.

In addition, there are several very strong points about this:

  • Waltke clearly expounds his approach and the understanding of inspiration on which he bases it. He then consistently applies that throughout.
  • The discussion of narrative theology and how one goes from narrative all the way to application. I don’t always agree, but the discussion is enlightening.
  • The chapter on creation has much to commend it, though it features in my complaints as well.
  • Chapter 16, The Gift of Liturgy is again excellent.
  • The overall theme of covenant theology is well-done and will be very helpful along with the discussion of alternatives.

A substantial portion of the book is taken up simply narrating the story of the various Old Testament books and providing an introduction and background. Thus there is less on the theology of a book than there is simply bringing the reader to the point of understanding. This is probably required in an introduction of this sort, though ideally I would hope someone would take an Old Testament introduction before taking Old Testament theology.

The confessional approach is not precisely one that resonates all that well with me in the study of the Hebrew scriptures or the Old Testament. This should not be a complaint because one can hardly criticize a book for being what it sets out to be. One should, however, note that Waltke is quite serious about this and that the confessional approach shows through.

The book is also true to its title as an Old Testament theology, and not a theology of the Hebrew scriptures. In other words, the Old Testament passages are read Christologically, and chapters frequently conclude by discussing how these concepts carry through into the New Testament. Again, this is an approach that is clearly stated in the early stages of the book, and then carried through consistently.

Though I personally would prefer more discussion of the theology in the historical context rather than the context of Christian canon and theology, this is again a stated goal of the book as a whole. You will find the justification for that approach in the preface and the first several chapters.

Now for some complaints:

  • The author affirms Biblical inerrancy. While I do not, that is not the complaint. In his support of inerrancy and the unity he expects as a result, he seems to gloss over differences in theology between various books with very limited explanations. For example, the difference in perspective on marriage outside of Israel between Ruth and Ezra/Nehemiah is not so much as given a routine dismissal.
  • The author is very much opposed to the historical-critical method, but doesn’t really bother to explain very much of it. I would expect that if one dismisses a particular method in an introductory work, one needn’t go into depth on it, but he repeatedly references and disparages the method, almost exclusively by discussing naturalistic presuppositions, yet fails to provide sufficient foundation in my view.
  • The discussion of creation is really quite good, but is marred by a dismissal of “evolutionism” based again on its supposed naturalistic assumptions. In fact, some varieties of theistic evolution would fit quite well with the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis provided.
  • Chapter 9, The Gift of the Bride is dismal throughout, in my view, as Waltke embraces patriarchy with both arms. That is too long of a discussion to go into here. Suffice it to say that I disagree with almost the entire chapter, including the notion that Deborah is the “exception that proves the rule” (p. 245).

I just reviewed DeSilva’s New Testament introduction, which is also from a more conservative perspective than my own, though not as conservative as Waltke’s. Yet DeSilva managed to present a variety of viewpoints while at the same time letting you know where he stood. He provided enough material for the student to evaluate without even going to the references. That is a quality I really appreciate in an introductory work.

I am not a fan of purported neutrality. The author does have a viewpoint, and I think it is better to let the reader know what that is. Yet advocacy can be combined with a broad coverage of alternatives that give the student a good perspective. I know a number of liberal works that write as though all conservative views can be dismissed. For example, one will search in vain for defenses of Mosaic authorship in many critical commentaries on the books of the Pentateuch, even defenses presented for the purpose of refutation. This book appears to be a good example of the reverse.

It’s a bit cheeky of me to review the work of so well-respected a scholar as Waltke, whose Biblical Hebrew Syntax I consult regularly (it’s on my “constantly available” shelf). But while I did find considerable here that was helpful, the items I mentioned detracted substantially from the value of this experience. Were I asked to teach Old Testament theology (much more likely than that I would be asked to teach New Testament intro!–see my comments on DeSilva), this would not be my text.

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  1. Hi Henry,
    I agree that Waltke’s criticism of “evolutionism” & “naturalism” is a pretty broad brush; it is unclear to me if he appreciates the distinction between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. However, I prefer to look at this from a “glass half-full” perspective. Waltke clearly supports theistic evolution (mentioning that Francis Collins’ book has been helpful to him). That someone of Waltke’s stature in the Evangelical theological community (eg. a former president of the ETS) can come out and say this is definite progress. I think we need to be supportive of these encouraging developments.

    1. As I noted, the chapter presents an interpretation consistent with theistic evolution.

      I’m not evangelical myself, so it is not surprising that I found much to disagree with in the book.

  2. I would agree that Deborah is one important “exception that proves the rule.” And I would hope that anyone using this old saying would remember that “proves” here means “tests” not “supports.” In this case, the rule fails the test, and thus is shown to be false.

    1. Julia-Unfortunately, it is clear from the context that this is not the sense in which Waltke used the term. He clearly means that patriarchy is the way to go, as he defines it, but there might be a specific exception for rare circumstances.

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