Currents in Old Testament Theology

Matthew R. Schlimm

How does the OT present God, humanity, and the world? In a nutshell, that question provides the focus of OT theology. For the most part, interpreters have tried to answer this question in one of three ways: (1) by naming a single theme as the OT’s unifying concept, (2) by explaining the problems with answering this question, and (3) by answering this question in a way that treats the diversity of Old Testament materials.

The First Current: Naming a Single Concept

During the middle of the twentieth century, several scholars sought somewhat simple explanations to how the OT speaks about God, humanity, and creation. They attempted to name a singular theme as the rubric that brought all of the OT together into a coherent and organized whole. Walther Eichrodt’s Theology of the Old Testament led the way, arguing that covenant was the central unifying feature of the OT. Originally written in German in the 1930s, it appeared in English in the 1960s (2 vols.; OTL; Westminster, 1961, 1967).

Eichrodt’s work was followed by G.E. Wright’s God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital (SBT 8; Henry Regnery, 1952). Although much shorter than Eichrodt’s work, it provided both the academy and the church with a lens for viewing the OT as a record of ways God had acted powerfully in Israel’s history.

Not long after Wright’s work, G. von Rad published his Old Testament Theology. Although von Rad was reticent to name one aspect of OT theology as central, he did repeatedly emphasize the significance of salvation history for the OT, thus sharing some similarities with Wright’s work. The original German work was published in 1957 and 1960, followed by English translations in the subsequent decade (2 vols.; Harper, 1962, 1965; now available through Westminster John Knox).

The Second Current: Critique and Uncertainty

In the end, however, attempting to fit all of the OT within one rubric proved too difficult a task. Critics observed that although “covenant” is important, many of the OT writings do not deal first and foremost with the specific type of alliance between two parties to which the term “covenant” refers. Similarly, “salvation” and “history” may shed light on much of the OT, but these themes stop short of doing justice to other parts, such as the OT’s wisdom literature.

As interpreters became increasingly aware of diversity among biblical texts, the field of OT theology entered its second phase, one of uncertainty. In 1970, B. Childs declared that biblical theology was in a state of crisis, citing not only its inability to find a central focus, but also (1) its failure to deal with both the divine and human aspects of Scripture, (2) its difficulty in articulating the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, and (3) its inability to provide a foundation for theological education (cf. Biblical Theology in Crisis [Westminster, 1970]). Over the next couple of decades, few works appeared in this field. In 1993, J.J. Collins pronounced the death of the Biblical Theology Movement, claiming it “died of its own contradictions in the late 1960s” (“Historical Criticism and the State of Biblical Theology,” Christian Century 110, no. 22: 743-47).

The Third Current: Recognizing Diversity

Collins, however, would not have the final word. In recent decades, a variety of works have appeared, establishing OT theology as a mainstay of biblical studies. On the whole, these works tend not to emphasize one concept as the singular item that brings all of the OT together. Instead, they are quite aware of the diversity of genres, concepts, and perspectives within the canon.

A key example is W. Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress, 1997). As his subtitle intimates, Brueggemann maintains that at the core of OT faith is testimony to God’s core character, which he describes in terms of covenant solidarity and unlimited sovereignty. However, Brueggemann points out that within the OT itself are materials that dispute elements of that testimony, pointing to a God who is anxiety-provoking and unsettling. On the whole, Brueggemann maintains, the OT advocates for a Yahweh-centered and Yahweh-governed reality, which stands over against other versions of truth and reality.

Another important work aware of the OT’s diversity is E. Gerstenberger’s Theologies in the Old Testament (Fortress, 2000). The plural noun in this title is not accidental. This volume examines the different theologies present among various social institutions in the OT: families, villages, tribes, nations, and exiles.

One of the most recent publications in this field is J.W. Rogerson’s A Theology of the Old Testament: Cultural Memory, Communication, and Being Human (Fortress, 2010). Rather than focusing on a single theme, Rogerson presents a succinct, learned, and insightful account of the OT in relation to history, creation, humanity, society, and communication.

A variety of other works have recently appeared, describing many different theological themes within the OT. These include M.E. Stevens, Theological Themes of the Old Testament: Creation, Covenant, Cultus, and Character (Cascade, 2010); Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (IVP Academic, 2008); Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, eds., Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity (Baker Academic, 2007); and Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Westminster John Knox, 2002).

One of longest works to appear recently is J. Goldingay’s three-volume Old Testament Theology (InterVarsity, 2003/2006/2009). Totaling nearly 3,000 pages, the volumes are subtitled Israel’s Gospel, Israel’s Faith, and Israel’s Life. Although Goldingay suggests that Israel’s story may ultimately be about blessing (2003, p. 471), he does not focus on blessing the way that Eichrodt focused on covenant. Goldingay’s theology covers a wide range of topics, offering a comprehensive look at the OT that connects the biblical text with issues today.

In the last generation, one of the most important conversation partners has been B Childs. He not only characterized the problems of biblical theology in the 1970s, but also provided useful solutions to them in subsequent decades. He emphasized theological analysis of the Old and New Testaments and recognized their significance as the canonical Scriptures of the Christian church (Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible [Fortress, 1992]; on the importance of canon, see also Rolf Rendtorff, Canon and Theology: Overtures to an Old Testament Theology [OBT; Fortress, 1993]). Childs influenced countless people across the globe, and many of his students lead the field today.

James Barr did not always agree with Childs, but he did prod others forward in a variety of ways. Barr’s The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective appeared at the end of the twentieth century, organizing and critiquing previous work on the topic (Fortress, 1999). Similar works on the state of the field include Patrick D. Mead, Biblical Theology: Issues, Methods, and Themes (Westminster John Knox, 2007); Ben Ollenburger, ed., Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future (Eisenbrauns, 2004); Rolf Knierim, The Task of Old Testament Theology: Substance, Method, and Cases (Eerdmans, 1995); and John H. Hayes and Frederick Prussner, Old Testament Theology: Its History and Development (John Knox, 1985).

Amid these more comprehensive works, a number of important studies have appeared that look less at the OT as a whole and more at a particular concept within the canon. Among these studies, there tends to be an awareness that the OT contains a diversity of perspectives on the concept under consideration. For example, J. Crenshaw’s excellent treatment of theodicy in the OT is not concerned with offering one biblical perspective on evil. Instead, it presents a variety of ways that different OT writings treat evil and suffering (Defending God: Biblical Responses to the Problem of Evil [Oxford University Press, 2005]).

Among these more topical works of OT theology, a particularly fruitful area of exploration has been the OT’s perspective on creation and land. Here, one finds significant works by T. Fretheim (God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation [Abingdon, 2005]; Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters [Baker Academic, 2010]); W. Brown’s The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible [Eerdmans, 1999]); E. Davis’ Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible [Cambridge University Press, 2009]); W. Brueggemann’s The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith [OBT; Fortress, 2002]); and N. Habel’s The Land Is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies [OBT; Fortress, 1993]).

Other studies have examined particular aspects of God’s relationship with humanity. As their titles suggest, both J. Kaminsky’s Yet I Loved Jacob: Reclaiming the Biblical Concept of Election (Abingdon, 2007) and J. Lohr’s Chosen and Unchosen: Conceptions of Election in the Pentateuch and Jewish-Christian Interpretation (Siphrut; Eisenbrauns, 2009) provide significant studies of election. The topic of divine foreknowledge has been explored in S. Roy’s How Much Does God Foreknow? A Comprehensive Biblical Study (InterVarsity, 2006). Terence Fretheim, building on earlier work by Abraham Heschel (The Prophets [2 vols.; Harper & Row, 1962]), published an important analysis of The Suffering of God (OBT; Fortress, 1984). Meanwhile, D. Smith-Christopher has a creative and insightful study entitled A Biblical Theology of Exile (OBT; Fortress, 2002).

Katharine Doob Sakenfeld has conducted an important study of what it means to be faithful (Faithfulness in Action: Loyalty in Biblical Perspective [OBT; Fortress, 1985]). In a way somewhat reminiscent of Eichrodt (but aware of recent developments), B. Anderson spends considerable time focusing on the topic of covenant in his Contours of Old Testament Theology (written with the assistance of S. Bishop [Fortress, 1999]).

Several scholars have examined the topics of prayer and worship in the OT, including S. Balentine (Prayer in the Hebrew Bible: The Drama of Divine-Human Dialogue [OBT; Fortress, 1993] and The Torah’s Vision of Worship [OBT; Fortress, 1999]); P. Miller’s They Cried to the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer [Fortress, 1995]); W. Brueggemann’s Worship in Ancient Israel: An Essential Guide [Abingdon, 2005]); and C. Bechtel, ed. Touching the Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship [Eerdmans, 2008]).

Old Testament ethics is an important subfield of OT theology, and it has grown exponentially in recent times. Among the most significant works for the life of the church are the incredibly insightful writings of J. Barton (Ethics and the Old Testament [2nd ed.; SCM, 2002] and Understanding Old Testament Ethics: Approaches and Explorations [Westminster John Knox, 2003]). Other highly useful resources include, from a more conservative perspective, C. Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (InterVarsity, 2004) and, from a more postmodern perspective, D. Pleins’ The Social Visions of the Hebrew Bible: A Theological Introduction (Westminster John Knox, 2001). Also noteworthy are two works on sin: M. Boda’s A Severe Mercy: Sin and Its Remedy in the Old Testament (Siphrut; Eisenbrauns, 2009) and G. Anderson’s Sin: A History (Yale University Press, 2009). Finally, one should note that a variety of scholars interact with different aspects of OT ethics in Character and Scripture: Moral Formation, Community, and Biblical Interpretation (ed. W.P. Brown; Eerdmans, 2002).

Another key area of growth has been theological examinations of gender and sexuality in the OT. Phyllis Trible did much of the pioneering work here (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality [OBT; Fortress, 1978] and Texts of Terror: Literary-feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives [OBT; Fortress, 1984]). She opened the door for many others to examine dimensions of femininity and masculinity within the OT (see P.A. Bird, “Feminist Interpretation and Biblical Theology,” in Engaging the Bible in a Gendered World: An Introduction to Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Honor of Katharine Doob Sakenfeld [ed. L. Day and C. Pressler; Westminster John Knox, 2006] 215-226).

Finally, it is worth noting that significant conversations have taken place between Jews and Christians about the enterprise of OT theology (J. Levenson, “Why Jews Are Not Interested in Biblical Theology,” in The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies [Westminster John Knox, 1993] 33-61; A.O. Bellis and J.S. Kaminsky, Jews, Christians, and the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures [Society of Biblical Literature, 2000]; M. Knowles et al., eds., Contesting Texts: Jews and Christians in Conversation about the Bible [Fortress, 2007]).

Conclusions and Implications

On the whole, then, the type of conversation taking place today is quite different from the one that took place fifty years ago. The concern for zeroing in on one comprehensive theme has been replaced by a recognition of the diversity of OT materials.

This recognition raises important questions for pastors: What do we make of this diversity within the OT? How can our ministry best proceed when it is challenging to make sense of the OT as a whole? How do we teach, preach, and embody the biblical message when that message contains both a complex assortment of concepts and a variety of perspectives on each of these particular concepts?

Obviously, the OT’s diversity may be frustrating for those wanting to compress the OT into clear-cut categories. However, two observations are in order. First, the church has confessed that the Bible speaks the truth about the one living God. If we attempt to understand the Infinite—a God beyond what we can ever imagine—then surely it will take many writers from many centuries and many perspectives to begin to instill within our small minds the awesomeness of who God is.

Indeed, biblical diversity keeps us from the heresy of emphasizing one characteristic of God to the exclusion of others. When we choose to speak about God first and foremost in terms of just one concept—whether that be covenant, salvation, history, or love—we then risk reducing our living God to a static concept. When taken as a whole, the Bible does not offer us sound bites or slogans. Instead, it reflects the complexities of a transcendent God.

Second, the church has professed that God intends the Bible to be holy Scriptures for all the peoples of the earth. We claim, as the old hymn puts it, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations.” Clearly, the OT is central to our story, and obviously, our audience is incredibly diverse. The OT offers a variety of perspectives so that God may speak to all of humanity in all of its differences.

The OT is as diverse as life itself, and there is interpretive, theological, and pastoral wisdom in joining the scholars who have recognized that fact.

Posted Mar 01, 2011