Word without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness

By Polk, Timothy | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Word without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness


Polk, Timothy, Anglican Theological Review


Word Without End: The Old Testament as Abiding Theological Witness. By Christopher Seitz. Grand Rapids, ML Eerdmans, 1998. 355 pp. $28.00 (paper).

A Barthian insistence on scripture's authority, particularly the Old Testament's, breathes through each of the twenty-two chapters of this powerful book by Christopher Seitz. Far too subtle (and self-consciously Episcopalian) for flat-footed fundamentalism, the argument is aimed at the Christian educators of mainstream divinity schools and seminaries where a diminished reader competence, the fallout of what Hans Frei called the "eclipse of biblical narrative," mirrors the biblical illiteracy in the pews. For those who have lost the distinction between, say, inclusivism and syncretism, who are disinclined to see how an emphasis on God's grace entails privileging the particularistic concepts of election and adoption over the modernist (autonomous self's) "hermeneutics of suspicion/assent," who regularly collapse theological categories into social-scientific ones, and who remain naively historicistic-- evolutionary in the way they read scripture, the book would provide a necessary corrective. But it may be too subtle for them, too-and stinging. The fact that Seitz comes to politically unfriendly conclusions on several of our hottest issues will likely sting many readers into full rejection of his method. This would be a sad loss. While the argument is scarcely definitive at every point, its brilliance at many begs to be heard. In any case, the book is as compelling an implementation of the canonical criticism of Seitz's teacher, Brevard Childs, as exists.

The subtlety is in how Seitz goes about the "first task" of Christian biblical theology, namely, that of relating Old Testament to New and vice versa. Biblically viewed, we Gentiles have access to the scriptures of God's elect people, Israel, only via adoption through the Christ event witnessed to in the New Testament. That is, we come to the first testament through the second, and reading the OT Christologically (which still permits enormous diversity) is a Christian prerequisite. But reciprocally, understanding the Christ event requires hearing what Seitz calls the per se testimony of Israel's scriptures. The delicacy of the dialectic is best illustrated in chapter 5, "In Accordance with the Scriptures,'" a phrase that calls for hearing the OT in its own terms. (Seitz makes the same point elsewhere by demonstrating how the NT will not just frequently refer to the OT but sometimes, particularly in apocalyptic matters, actually defer to it.) But the phrase wants also to ensure that we construe "in its own terms" as referring to the literature's canonical shape, rather than to a speculatively reconstructed developmental model of the material's composition. What "canonical shape" means, in turn, is explicitly illustrated in the series of chapters on Isaiah that constitute the "exegetical" section of the book.

In fact, it is a second subtlety of Seitz's book that its whole organization mimes the canon. Like the Bible, what for the most part were originally discrete, occasional pieces have been brought together into a new totality, the new context inviting intertextual reading among the parts and hence generating new meaning. A first section, "Biblical Theology," contains nine essays on programmatic concerns, beginning, logically enough, with the author's purpose and intended audience; next foregrounding, in good Barthian fashion, the holiness and sovereignty of God as the material alpha and omega of biblical theology; then in chapters 3-9 visiting a series of theological loci that effectively chart the movement in the discipline from the giant of the first half of the twentieth century, Gerhard von Bad, to Seitz's candidate as the giant of the second half, Childs. Part two, the section on "Biblical Exegesis," picks up on the preceding cadence by showing how Childs's canonical approach signals a "new paradigm" for studying the Book of Isaiah (chap.

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