Adhering to Israel's God

By Perdue, Leo G. | The Christian Century, May 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

Adhering to Israel's God


Perdue, Leo G., The Christian Century


Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.

By Walter Brueggemann. Fortress, 777 pp., $48.00.

Walter Brueggemann's brilliant new book, the culmination of a lifetime of incisive theological work, embodies the transitional moment between one interpretive age and the creative stirrings of a new one. While he does not assume that new methods are always incompatible with those born of the Enlightenment, Brueggemann is certain that the past has to make room for new ways of interpreting scripture. He deftly guides us in new directions even as he continues to learn from earlier Old Testament theologians such as William Foxwell Albright and Gerhard von Rad. In so systematically and imaginatively ushering Old Testament theology into a new interpretive era, Brueggemann deserves to be listed among those few individuals who have decisively shaped this theology in the 20th century.

Brueggemann begins his study with a masterful survey of Old Testament theology's past and present and provides the background necessary for understanding his new insights. He divides the introduction into two parts; in the first he reviews the history of Old Testament theology; in the second he analyzes the contemporary situation.

Over the past two centuries, Old Testament theology has been shaped by two countervailing forces: since the Reformation, the church has been reluctant to free the Bible from its doctrinal interpretations; but since the Enlightenment, the history-of-religions approach that prevails in the academy has refused to be limited by the constraints of faith. Furthermore, most Jewish scholars have not participated in Old Testament theology, choosing instead to live with the tensions of traditions that have shaped different expressions of Judaism.

J. P. Gabler first clearly differentiated historically oriented theological interpretation of the Old Testament from the dogmatic enterprise of church teachings in his famous 1787 inaugural address at the University of Altdorf. The scientific--largely positivistic--methodology of historical criticism remained independent of the church's claims and control, and consequently denied scripture a privileged position of interpretation. The Bible became one more piece of literature. In essence the academy replaced the church's doctrinal claims with the Enlightenment's claims of universal norms of reason. Echoing Hans Frei, a proponent of the narrative approach to the Bible, Brueggemann laments that the method first announced by Gabler ended by explaining away most of Israel's theological story and depriving it of its normative status for the church.

Karl Barth recovered the normative value of the Bible and, like Luther before him, argued that it has its own distinctive voice. Yet the rise of neo-orthodoxy only reasserted the unresolved tension between the assumptions of historical criticism and the neoevangelical affirmations of dogmatic theology. Brueggemann concedes that most Old Testament scholarship has elected not to choose between the two.

Although this tension within the history of Old Testament theology has not been solved, the terms of the debate are now different, Brueggemann claims. History no longer dominates Old Testament theology. Indeed, we have made something of an epistemological break with the past and are moving into uncharted territory where excitement and risk are inseparable. Pluralism is one feature of the contemporary situation. It is a feature of the biblical canon itself, with its diversity of literature and communities. Pluralism also characterizes approaches to the texts, which range from the sociological perspectives of scholars like Norman Gottwald to the rhetorical criticism of Phyllis Trible.

Perhaps most important for Brueggemann is that the Bible's linguistic character has come to the fore. Brueggemann argues that language helps to create reality. The God of the Hebrew Bible is to be found and known primarily not in history, beyond history or in creation but rather in the speech of Israel. …

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