| | | |

Book Notes: Theology of the Old Testament (Brueggemann)

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-8006-3087-4.

As is usual, note that I’m calling this book notes, and to some extent a response, rather than a review. That is more necessary in this case than most because the book is not aimed at a popular audience, and I am not a theologian, much less a specialist in Old Testament theology, and thus not qualified to write a formal review. I’d also be rather late, given publication in 1997!

That’s one of the key things that struck me while reading this book–the rather substantial difference between Biblical exegesis and even hermeneutics used in its broadest sense and theology. To many, the term “theology” simply refers to any kind of religious studies, but as a technical term it is much more specific than that.

For example, I can study Isaiah or Ezekiel, look at their historical situation, inquire as to the meaning of particular texts and passages, view them sociologically as a phenomenon of their time(s), and yet not get down to their theology, what they said or tried to say about God. In fact, it’s not even quite that simple, in that one can dispute whether theology is primarily a study about God, or more a study of what certain people said about God.

In the case of Old Testament theology the question gets thornier, as one asks whether one is studying about God, what individual authors had to say about God, or an overall Old Testament view of God. To divide this further, is one studying the “Old Testament”, which has a name indicating its an element of Christian scripture, or is one studying the Hebrew Bible, in which case one’s study lenses might be quite different. One can even differentiate, I think, between studying the Hebrew Bible as Israelite theology as opposed to Jewish theology, modern Rabbinic Judaism being different from Israelite religion.

Several elements of my immediate past reading came into play as I read this volume. First, through an accident of how interlibrary loan books arrive, I read Brueggemann’s work shortly after that of Bruce Waltke. It is nearly impossible to compare the two books, though I will try. First, Waltke writes at a more basic level. Neither work is popular, but Waltke’s would more suitably address beginning students in theology than would Brueggemann.

Waltke is more conservative and traditional. In fact, despite his conservative credentials, Waltke gives more credit to historical-critical methologies than does Brueggemann, though it would be hard to nail that down. Both give some credit to the methodologies, and both criticize them. Despite statements regarding such methodologies, however, I think Brueggemann was more dependent on the results. The division of Isaiah into at least First (1-35[36-39]) and Second (40-55 or 40-66) Isaiah, and possibly Third Isaiah (56-66) is a critical element of Brueggemann’s theology, which he places at the time of the exile. Situating those texts elsewhere, for example in the traditional dating, would make a hash of his theological plan which assumes formation of the canon around the experience of the exile. That is, of course, one of the more obvious results of critical scholarship, but I think it demonstrates that no matter how much we may want to escape the historical questions, it is impossible to do so. More minor examples abound throughout the book.

In addition, Waltke’s form, which includes individual theologies of the various books, as well as basic introductory material, would work well for a textbook for those without a strong background in Old Testament. Brueggemann, on the other hand, would not be suitable for students who had not worked through a good Old Testament introduction first.

There was only one negative for me about this book, so I’m going to mention it first. A great deal of the post-modern vocabulary simply gets on my nerves. This may be a personal problem, as I was generally agreeing with the major points made, but I found the vocabulary a bit heavy in comparison to the freight it was carrying. Frequently, I would find that a passage that was quite convoluted in form, and mega-multi-syllabic in vocabulary, produced a fairly straightforward point. (Note to self: Do I do this unto others???) This included the double metaphor of testimony and grammar around which the book is woven. On the other hand, while many of the points were simple and straightforward, they were simultaneously quite profound.

The organizing metaphor of the book is stated in the subtitle: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Brueggemann reads the Old Testament as Israel’s testimony regarding Yahweh. That oversimplifies it a bit, so let me expand. He sees Israel testifying in various voices, and he places this specifically as courtroom testimony. (Please leave all atonement theories out of this; the purpose is different!) In a courtroom an attorney weaves a case out of the testimony of many people, no one of which knows the whole case, but each of which has some piece to add. They may not all meet smoothly at the edges, but the attorney making the case pulls them together.

Well, not so much with the pulling it together part. Though he uses the metaphor, Brueggemann does not pretend to pull Old Testament theology into a coherent whole in the sense of making a unified case about God. Thus he avoids my usual criticism of Biblical theology, which is to say that the more systematic the theology, the less Biblical. The Bible is simply not systematic in its theology. He uses the term “thematization” as opposed to “systematization” in what may be one of the most profound suggestions of the book.

He does this by first looking at Israel’s core testimony. I would note again, in passing, that in locating Israel’s core testimony, Brueggemann is most dependent on historical criticism. He then responds with Israel’s countertestimony. This is a very helpful approach, because there is a tension in scripture between the testimony of who God is and how God is experienced. We talk about loving heavenly parent, and at the same time experience the times of God’s silence and even abandonment.

Israel’s experience in the exile testifies against their core testimony that God is eternally faithful and will not abandon them. It’s profoundly important in understanding Israelite theology, I think, to recognize that many of the strongest proclamations of the faithfulness of Yahweh to Israel were made in the face of actual experience. Some of the strongest statements come from Second Isaiah, for example, and are made from exile in Babylon. This countertestimony is discussed in the second section, from page 317-403.

Part III discusses Israel’s unsolicited testimony, following the same courtroom metaphor, in which a witness adds things that he things are important, but which were not requested in order to make the original case. The key theme here is partnership, along with the suggestion that Israel comes to demand of God the faithfulness reflected in the core testimony. Brueggeman sees Israel in exile essentially waking God up to his obligations.

I think this latter point, which is intricately woven into the book through the testimony metaphor, is quite important. Theologians, especially of the more systematic type, often subjugate the actual statements in the text to the demands of the theological system. For example, God can’t possibly change is mind (Genesis 6:6 / repent) or forget something and then remember it (Genesis 8:1). People can’t really be righteous, as was Job. So we try to make the text mean something else. Brueggemann let’s it say what it says, even in some cases where that grates.

In a final section, Brueggemann discusses how the testimony is embodied, looking at worship, the canon, kings, priests, and so forth. This is probably the most straightforward section of the book, but is a necessary effort to tie things together.

One point Brueggemann attempts to avoid is reading the Old Testament through supercessionist eyes. He does not see Christianity as a necessary result of Israelite religion as would Eichrodt, for example. He also resists the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament that is espoused by Brevard Childs, with his canonical approach. I would have to say, however, that Childs does have a very strong point to make, in that if one’s canon includes the New Testament, there is no way to conduct canonical criticism without seeing Old Testament passages as part of that canon.

My own solution here is to use two terms. I use “Hebrew Bible” when looking at it as a document of the historical Israelite religion, and “Old Testament” only when reading it as an element of Christian canon. I believe one’s reading in those two cases is sufficiently different that one must practically regard the source as two different books. Though they contain the same words, those words take on a sufficiently different meaning that dangerous confusion results from pretending they are the same.

I still regard both uses as legitimate, however, because I see canon as a product of community, rather than the reverse. Each book had its own place in history, but when they are made into a canon, they change roles. This applies even to smaller sections. Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah, read as part of the canon, make very different points from what they would read as individual texts from their own historical time.

In general, I found this book useful, but it also made me quite glad that I specialize more in exegesis than in theology. At the same time it reminds me of how much my role as a popularizer forces me to do theology on a daily basis no matter how I feel.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.