Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Old Testament Theology since Walter C. Kaiser, Jr

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Old Testament Theology since Walter C. Kaiser, Jr

Article excerpt

Colleagues in OT studies have characterized Walter Kaiser's Toward an Old Testament Theology (1978) as "bold," even "pivotal," but also more negatively, as not going anywhere "owing to his one-sided, unhistoric method and framework."1 Some thirty years later, comments like these can be reassessed. This essay seeks not only to evaluate Kaiser's role in the development of this discipline, especially as it pertains to evangelicals, but also to analyze the current mosaic that characterizes the discipline, and further to signal some needed emphases for the future.

Walter Kaiser's "boldness" is evident in that his volume appeared amidst discussion in the 1970s of the crisis of biblical theology.2 After the impetus given to OT theology in the first half of the twentieth century by the European giants Walther Eichrodt and Gerhard von Rad, with subsequent contributions by American notables such as G. E. Wright,3 other scholars, Langdon Gilkey in particular, raised some cautionary flags, one of which was the place given to "history" within an OT theology.4 Kaiser acknowledged Gilkey's article as "deservedly famous,"5 but moved ahead by giving progressive revelation through history a prominent place in his outline. Said one reviewer: "He [Kaiser] boldly indicates that Hummel's verdict 'Biblical Theology is dead' is incorrect and that the opinion of Beker, Childs, Anderson, Krause, namely that we are faced with a crisis, should do no more than lead us to face the challenge of showing that there is really no crisis."6

There was boldness in yet another sense. Kaiser's was an evangelical contribution in a field of study largely dominated by critical scholarship. In a time when historical criticism and the fad of delineating sources were all the rage, Kaiser largely eschewed the battle and returned to the notion that the claims of Scripture had best be honored, and that speculations of all kinds should not encumber a forthright statement about what the OT was saying. Various reviewers, not only evangelicals, noted the entry of Kaiser's evangelical voice into the academic discussion of biblical theology.7

In the three parts of his book Kaiser staked out a methodology, presented the promise-blessing theme as the essential message of the OT, and in conclusion gave brief attention to the connectedness of the OT with the NT. A discussion of the current state of the discipline can conveniently employ those same rubrics.


Peer reviewers praised Kaiser for giving attention to methodology, a section that comprises one-fourth of his work.8 In this section Kaiser itemized four methods. These are: (1) structured type, as in Walther Eichrodt; (2) diachronic type, as in Gerhard von Rad; (3) lexicography type, as in P. F. Ellis;9 and (4) biblical themes, as in John Bright.10 Kaiser himself opted for a diachronic type, explaining, "In our proposed methodology, biblical theology draws its very structure of approach from the historic progression of the text and its theological selection and conclusions from those found in the canonical focus."11 One reviewer commented, "There should be no quibbling with Kaiser on his definition of biblical theology and its corresponding methodology."12

The fact is that there has been quibbling in the extreme, as evidenced in James Barr's substantial post-Kaiser volume.13 As things stand now, a more helpful revisionist way of describing methods would be: diachronic, synchronic (Kaiser's "structured type"), canonical, and "story."14 The diachronic, in Kaiser's definition, pays attention to the text which chronicles the stream of events in the OT. In adopting this method Kaiser followed G. von Rad and was followed by C. Westermann, E. A. Martens, and to an extent by P. D. Hanson.15 Clearly Kaiser, who is aligned with conservative scholarship, did not concur with the critical reconstruction of Israel's history. The larger issue, however, is how "history" as a category should function within an OT theology. …

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