Terence Fretheim: Scholarship That Matters to the Church

Matthew R. Schlimm

The OT is an emotionally charged, theologically rich, and pastorally meaningful collection of sacred writings. Sadly, many biblical scholars do not recognize it as such. With a Stoicism foreign to the Israelite mind, many talk of the OT’s contents with little attention to how it moves readers’ feelings, ignites their passions, and grips their hearts. Frequently, the Hebrew Bible is approached with a narrow focus that bears no immediate connection to the life of the church or to the content of theology. Too often, scholars have examined these writings without addressing the issues that matter most to pastors.

This is not the case with Terence Fretheim. He is a highly skilled exegete, and one who approaches the text with a deep concern for the church. He reveres the Bible as God’s word, and he looks honestly at its contents. His writings are thought-provoking and filled with theological insights. For many scholars and pastors, his work provides a model for interpreting the OT.

Fretheim’s most recent book, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Abingdon, 2005), focuses on how God relates to creation. Fretheim examines the theme of creation throughout the OT canon, with chapters devoted to Genesis, as well as Exodus, law, the prophets, wisdom literature, and the Psalms. He argues that God’s creative activity is a more basic and fundamental concept than covenant or salvation history. In making this claim, Fretheim challenges two of the most important works of OT theology in the twentieth century. His point is not to undermine the importance of covenant as unifying theme (W. Eichrodt) or salvation history as the rubric by which to approach the OT (G. von Rad) per se, but rather to suggest that before one can make sense of God’s covenant with Israel or God’s mighty acts in history, one must first understand how the OT portrays the ongoing interaction between God and creation. In other words, God’s soteriological works (such as redemption and salvation) are elements of God’s more comprehensive creative activity. “Redemption does not do away with the life-giving effects of the Creator but stands in the service of them. The objective of God’s work in redemption is to free people to be what they were created to be, the effect of which is named salvation” (10). Fretheim’s argument that creation is primary to the OT warrants careful attention by all who are interested in understanding the Bible.

Fretheim addresses not only theological claims made by the text, but also many of the questions that churchgoers bring to the Bible: If God is present everywhere, why does the Bible sometimes talk of God’s presence in a particular place (25-26)? How does one sort through the tension between Genesis 1-2 and modern science (27-28, cf. 62)? Do the accounts of creation subordinate women to men (59-60)? What should one make of the parallels between OT accounts of creation and those elsewhere in the ANE (64-67)? What does the Bible say about ecological disasters (e.g., 114, 123)? How can someone in a time of trauma approach God in prayer (246)? What can the Bible tell us about animal rights (283)? Few scholars have the ability to address such urgent questions of the church while simultaneously formulating such an exegetically sound and theologically rich work.

Though Fretheim is part of the Lutheran tradition (an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), many in the Wesleyan tradition will appreciate how he approaches matters in this work. He believes that the Bible portrays the divine will as resistible (22), and he argues against those who believe that God interacts with the world in a deterministic way. God does not micromanage creation (14, 50, 98, 172, 235). God has created a dynamic world in which humans are given the freedom to make genuine and authentic decisions that are not controlled by God. As he puts it, “God does not create with strings attached; God does not keep the creatures on a leash; God lets them be creatures that are genuinely other than God” (62). While Fretheim thus resists divine determinism, he also avoids the other extreme, deism. Repeatedly, he argues against those who image God “as a sovereign and aloof landlord, removed from too close a brush with the world” (14; cf. 39, 98, 165, 202). By challenging both determinism and deism, Fretheim bears many points of continuity with Wesley.

At times, Fretheim also makes comments reminiscent of a Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace. Fretheim never uses that term, but he does talk of God’s work among all peoples of the world. For example, in discussing ANE laws that pre-date Israel’s laws and have similarities with them, Fretheim says, “The sheer existence of such bodies of law testifies to the work of God the Creator in and through such lawgivers, who quite apart from their knowledge of God, mediate the will of God, however dimly perceived, or imperfectly expressed, for their societies” (133). Wesley uses similar language to describe how God’s grace gives all peoples a sense of right and wrong (cf. “On Working out Our Own Salvation,” § III. 4).

While Fretheim’s work on creation represents his most recent scholarship, his older works also merit careful attention. The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Fortress, 1984) was written over twenty years ago, but its contents continue to confront readers with important claims. Fretheim focuses on the emotionally charged content of the OT and its portrayal of God. Drawing on A. Heschel’s The Prophets, he disrupts conventional notions of divine impassibility, destabilizing theological concepts that are more derivative of Plato and Aristotle than Jeremiah and Hosea. Such claims are provocative, and they run against traditional metaphysical understandings of God, claiming that in the OT one finds a God who is deeply affected by creation in a way that entails suffering. Here, Fretheim challenges tradition on biblical grounds, calling the church to evaluate its tradition with the word of God.

Fretheim organizes the numerous OT passages that portray God as suffering into a threefold schema. First, God suffers because people have forsaken God (107-26). “God is revealed not as one who remains coolly unaffected by the rejection of the people, but as one who is deeply wounded by the broken relationship” (123). Second, God suffers with those who suffer (127-37). God does not abandon people who are suffering, even when divine judgment is in play. Fretheim writes, “God immediately turns from the role of judge to that of fellow-sufferer” (136). Third, God suffers for the people (138-48). Fretheim talks of how “God has chosen to bear the people’s sins rather than deal with them on strictly legal terms” and how bearing these sins has entailed weariness and even humiliation on God’s part (148). At each juncture, examples from Scripture abound in Fretheim’s work. He assembles an impressive range of texts to show that the OT God is not confined to a spiritual realm of ideas but rather is deeply enmeshed with creation and emotionally affected by it.

This attention to divine emotion is pastorally meaningful on several levels. First, it is an important corrective to those who want to turn the living God into an abstract concept. “God shares feelings, not just thoughts. The people know not only what God thinks, but what God feels. Thus, a holistic picture of God emerges. God relates at every level with the whole person of each individual” (123). Second, this attention to the suffering of God reminds those in grief that they do not suffer in isolation from God but rather in solidarity with God (cf. N. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son [Eerdmans, 1987]). Those in pain can find comfort from knowing that God does not abandon them in their pain but joins them. Third, recent studies have shown that emotions play a key role in how individuals engage in moral judgment (e.g., M. Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions [Cambridge, 2001]). Fretheim outlines a biblical framework wherein emotion and morality are closely intertwined, allowing the church to reclaim the Bible’s emotionally charged language in its moral reasoning. Fourth, this attention to divine suffering is an important step in making sense of God’s judgment. It matters that God judges not with indifference or detached objectivity, but in anguish beside those who suffer. Fifth, by drawing attention to biblical texts that use human metaphors (anthropomorphisms) to describe God, Fretheim finds important links between the Old and New Testaments. Jesus’ suffering in the NT has clear connections with God’s suffering in the OT (6-7, 166; cf. 106). Here again, Fretheim’s work is not only sound scholarship for the academy, but also a wonderful resource for the church.

Two key points that Fretheim stresses in The Suffering of God and throughout his writings are that (1) most biblical language for God is metaphorical and (2) these metaphors have both a “yes” and a “no.” He affirms that metaphors “used for God really do say something about God; they are not merely illustrative or decorative” (16). He recognizes, however, that “God outdistances all our images; God cannot finally be captured by any of them” (8). So when Fretheim describes metaphors pertaining to divine suffering, he is careful to affirm both ways that God does and does not suffer. He writes, for example, “God’s suffering is not such that he is overwhelmed by the experience; his emotions do not get out of control or lead to incapacitation” (124). Though Fretheim draws attention to divine suffering and affectivity, he maintains that God’s faithfulness and steadfast love are constant and immutable (31, 43, 66, 68, 77, 111, 120, 124, 143).

While God and World in the Old Testament and The Suffering of God are excellent examples of Fretheim’s writing, they by no means exhaust his extensive publications. He has authored over seventy articles and essays. One of the most significant is his entry “God” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000), which serves as a brief summary of his theology. In this essay, Fretheim characterizes claims that the Bible makes about God. Some of these claims fall into more traditional theological categories, like descriptions of God as living, eternal, incomparable, and One who performs mighty acts. Other descriptions are biblically based but less traditional, such as vulnerable and interactive.

In addition to articles and essays, Fretheim has written a survey of the Pentateuch (The Pentateuch [Abingdon, 1996]), A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (with B.C. Birch, W. Brueggemann, and D.L. Petersen [Abingdon, 1999]), and several commentaries covering Genesis (The New Interpreter’s Bible; Abingdon, 1994), Exodus (Interpretation; John Knox, 1991), 1-2 Kings (Westminster John Knox, 1999), Jeremiah (Smyth and Helwys, 2002), and Jonah (Augsburg, 1977). While these are all filled with exegetical and theological insight, the commentary on Jeremiah deserves special attention. It is Fretheim’s most recent commentary and his longest, and is somewhat unique among commentaries. It contains an informed interpretation of the text that draws on the best of scholarship and offers valuable theological insight. It uses a multimedia format that utilizes maps, artwork, photographs, and drawings to engage both the thoughts and emotions of readers. Included in the margins of this commentary are quotations from an array of other authors, ranging from scholarly interpretations to sonnets and poems inspired by the book of Jeremiah and related themes. At the end of each chapter, one finds a “Connections” section that directly relates the text to the world today. Though this commentary is expensive, it is a great resource for scholars and pastors alike.

Fretheim’s publications also include studies aimed for direct use in the local church. His book About the Bible: Short Answers to Big Questions (Augsburg, 1999), for example, could be easily used in an adult forum or small group. It looks at twenty questions people commonly ask about the Bible, including: Why is your Bible different from mine? Who wrote the Bible? Can prayers shape the future? How does the Bible have authority? After each question, Fretheim briefly shares some insights (2-4 pages) and then concludes by posing further questions for the group to discuss. In the local church, one may want also to use Fretheim Explores Genesis (Luther Productions, 2000), a video consisting of nine, thirty-minute sessions.

While those who study Fretheim may not agree with all that he says, they will find themselves engaging with one of the premier exegetes of our time, wrestling with biblical issues that matter to the life of the church, and conversing with a scholar who seeks to exposit the text faithfully and honestly. Indeed, his writings merit careful study by those in the academy and the church alike.

Posted Feb 01, 2006