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Walter Brueggemann in the Context of Old Testament Theology
Walter Brueggemann wrote Theology of the Old Testament (TOT) at a time when OT studies seemed “stalled in an impasse,” declares Childs.1 Brueggemann himself describes the discipline as being in a “competitive, conflictual situation” and concludes rhetorically, “there seems to be no way out.”2 But what kind of an impasse was the discipline in? In what ways did Brueggemann attempt to move things forward, and how successful was he? This paper is divided into three parts. To begin with, I will trace the history of Old Testament studies, highlighting the key problems encountered. This will provide a context for understanding Brueggemann’s work. I will then summarise the methodological approach Brueggemann takes in TOT, focusing on the ways it attempts to resolve existing issues. Finally, I will evaluate Brueggemann’s level of success in relation to these issues, pointing both to his major contributions and to problems I believe remain unsolved from his work. The beginning of Old Testament studies is commonly dated to 1787, the year Professor Johann Philipp Gabler delivered an inaugural address distinguishing the roles of dogmatic and biblical theology. 3 The former was to be concerned with normative statements: what is to be believed in today’s context. The latter was given a descriptive role: that of delineating the theological structures expressed in the biblical material. Gabler believed that dogmatic theology would need to be practiced anew in every age and culture, whereas biblical theology was theoretically a finite task. Once scholars had agreed on how best to present the historic biblical understanding of God, Gabler said, the job would be done. Dogmatic theologians could then use the resource of biblical theology as a foundation for their own continued work. Over the next hundred years the real difficulty of doing biblical theology this way became apparent. The Judeo-Christian religion could be seen to have undergone many changes throughout the Biblical period, most clearly between the Old and New Testaments but also within each Testament. Consequently, OT scholars began to do their work from within a
B. S. Childs, “Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament : Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy,” Scottish Journal of Theology 53, no. 2 (2000): 228. 2 Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 63. 3 Ben C Ollenburger, The Flowering of Old Testament Theology: A Reader in Twentieth-Century Old Testament Theology, 1930-1990 (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1991), 113–150.
Gotthold Lessing famously talked of the “‘ugly ditch’ that separates the historical from the theological. For example.”4 It was hard in this environment to find continuity in the OT. Proverbs. Eichrodt rapidly came under criticism from many sides. They also drew on extrabiblical resources – archaeology. the goal is to get behind Biblical texts to the historical events and authors which produced them. an agreed set of principles and goals for the study of Biblical texts. Foremost among these was Gerhard von Rad. In this way the discipline of OT studies came to be governed by the historical-critical method.g. His concern was not 4 5 TOT. Israel’s election. showing how the religion of Israel progressed throughout the period of the Old Testament. he insisted on hearing Israel’s own account of Israel’s history from the OT without being distracted by alternative historical-critical evidence. whose own approach had two distinguishing features.. Ibid. 2 . in the 1930s Walter Eichrodt set a milestone by presenting covenant as the central idea by which everything in the OT could be understood. However. Ecclesiastes) is not much concerned with covenant. 27–31. the Wisdom Literature (Job. the sole purpose of biblical study is to understand and describe the Bible in its original historical setting. In other words. God’s lordship). Thus Eichrodt re-introduced a normative quality to the OT material: something that didn’t change even though its understanding and expression may have changed. Under the governance of this method. and to determine the relation of Biblical accounts to ‘objective’ history. God’s covenant relationship with Israel was a continuous theme which brought the diverse statements of the OT together. According to this method. 35. First. scholars tended to be suspicious of normative ‘theological’ proposals drawn from the text because they seemed insensitive to the changing beliefs of Israel in her historical milieu. and other ancient Near Eastern texts – to help elucidate biblical material in its original context. People found OT texts and themes which did not fit his schema.Barnabas Aspray historical framework. Their approach became increasingly what is called ‘history-of-religions’ in which the OT was nothing more than one source among other sources for the task of reconstructing Israel’s religious development.5 For Eichrodt. God’s holiness. Other scholars wrote works positing alternative theological ‘centres’ (e. or to tie its many texts and themes together into a coherent statement. but some people questioned the validity of imposing any abstract theological centre on a text which is essentially historical in nature.
Meadowcroft describes a “lull” in OT theology “in the sense of 6 7 Ibid. Thus the concept of ‘salvation-history’ emerged. First.. This enabled von Rad to circumvent the strictures of the historical-critical method without directly opposing it. the movement was accused of ambiguity in its use of the word ‘history’. 31–38.6 Von Rad’s work was echoed by a flurry of scholarly activity in North America known as the ‘biblical theology movement.” The notion of salvation-history was not so much a bridge from history into normativity as it was a conflation of the two resting on questionable assumptions – a theological interpretation of observable historical events. With von Rad.8 Nothing really arose to take the place of the biblical theology movement. 42–49. presenting God’s saving actions through Israel’s history in their particularity. was accused of being itself a ‘centre’ which left out important material. each one specific to the historical moment.. while claiming to avoid abstractions or theological ‘centres’. The primary distinctive was Israel’s linear rather than circular notion of history. 3 . Rather than draw out normative statements from the OT. each supported by some and criticised by others. Ibid.’ chiefly concerned with the features of Israel’s worldview which distinguished it from surrounding ANE religions. The Wisdom literature was once again marginalised. Second. he saw it as a continuous narrative in which God’s saving activity was displayed. Israel’s theology of creation was also notably absent from this concept.Barnabas Aspray ‘what happened’ but ‘what Israel believed happened’.. centred around two principle difficulties. failing to distinguish between “history investigated by historical criticism” and “history proclaimed by the OT. In the wake of its demise. and the sense of narrative progression it engendered. the biblical theology movement presented the OT as an account of “God’s mighty acts in history. 8 Ibid. 34–42. the concept of God’s action in history. Second. OT scholarship fragmented into a variety of methodological approaches. falling outside the realm of ‘God’s saving acts’ in Israel’s history. not having much of a ‘historical’ aspect (any more than a ‘covenantal’ aspect).”7 A barrage of objections soon arose to meet this movement. he resisted any schematisation or abstraction of OT content.
but does so within the limits set by the canon. One contemporary solution. Brueggemann and Goldingay Considered. how to move from a descriptive historical account to normative theological content? Third. any theological proposal from the OT invariably encounters texts which either question the proposal’s centrality or undermine it altogether. Conventionally the OT had been linked with the New Testament and Christian tradition without consideration of other ‘reading communities’ like Judaism. championed by Brevard Childs. thus legitimating strictly Christian interpretation of the OT and NT in which both are assumed to contain the same theology. Childs insists that the collection of OT texts into a single canon enables their interpretation into a coherent theological framework. how to arbitrate between methodologies in a discipline no longer governed by a common approach? These problems are all interrelated. and doubts emerged about the assumptions lying behind its ‘assured results’. OT theology was left with the five following problems. yet refusing to submit entirely to historical-critical assumptions.Barnabas Aspray an attempt at a comprehensive statement. such as how to relate Christian scholarship to Jewish OT studies. T. “Method and Old Testament Theology : Barr. Additional problems were identified. how to relate OT scholarship to Jewish interpretations on the one hand. which allows flexibility for new readings of the text.”9 There was also a growing unease with the historicalcritical method. underneath any conclusions lies a methodology. how to organise the OT’s subject matter coherently without neglecting significant elements? Fourth. This raised the question of how the OT relates to the NT and whether it is imposing external categories to assume a priori that their theologies are the same.” Tyndale Bulletin 57. Childs sees Jews and Christians as reading different documents. no. Even without historical criticism’s leaning towards descriptiveness and resistance to normativity. 9 4 . This problem is only exacerbated by adding the NT into the mix. and the NT and church tradition on the other? Fifth. and underneath any methodology lie a number of presuppositions not shared by everyone concerned. Meadowcroft. But most importantly. interprets the OT through the lens of canon. 1 (2006): 37. demonstrating the validity of the concept of canon by historical-critical methods. First. how to relate the Bible to the historical-critical method? Second.
”13 It is therefore the court’s duty to hear the testimony as a claim to reality. If the court believes the witness. For this reason.” In a trial.. considering it “massively reductionist. Deeply suspicious of the Enlightenment’s ontological claims. We are not asking ‘What happened?’ but ‘What is said?’”14 The Enlightenment-based concern with ontology is sidelined in favour of a testimony-based epistemology. 710. 14 Ibid. however. the court must make a judgement based on testimonies concerning reality.. a plurality of scholarly approaches and a plurality of voices in the text. 118. 5 . The parallel he draws between the conflict in the academic community and the conflict in the text provides Brueggemann with a unique answer to the question of whether the OT has a ‘centre’. while historicalcritical reconstructions. 92. What this means practically is that the OT is seen as one witness. This model resonates strongly with both his central themes and his epistemological basis..12 Brueggemann’s alternative solution is one he believes emerges from the Old Testament itself. in order to hear the OT testimony clearly. in the denial of any centre. 121. We can come to an understanding of Brueggemann’s solution by examining his organisational structure: the “testimony-dispute-advocacy” of a lawcourt trial.e.Barnabas Aspray Brueggemann. archaeological evidence and extrabiblical ANE texts are seen as other 10 11 TOT. and subjecting it to “interpretive categories that come from elsewhere.” 10 Brueggemann insists that the text is too “polyphonic”11 to be forced into “hegemonic interpretations” such as Childs’.” flattening the “playfulness and ambiguity” inherent in the text. rejects the canonical approach. 12 Ibid. the state of OT theology now mirrors the nature of the text it studies: many voices existing in tension. Brueggemann sees testimony as its own “mode of knowledge.. Brueggemann “bracket[s] out all questions of historicity. “the testimony is turned into reality. For him. He finds his central OT concept in the dissonant and multi-voiced nature of the text – i. Ibid. 13 Ibid. each contributing something valuable to the debate. 732.
. 119–120. Finally. his response to Childs’ review acknowledges that “my own debts to him are very great (and I think quite evident in my work). “To wish for a more settled interpretive process is to wish for something that is not available in the Old Testament.. it provides space for the multiplicity of voices within the text. male. Second Isaiah). it also provides space for the plurality of witnesses within the OT itself. the lawcourt model reflects the plurality of OT methodologies currently in the field.g. 16 Ibid. 64. 19 Although he does not credit Childs in TOT. Third. and no amount of historical criticism or canonical interpretation can make it so. but only relativises them against competing claims. Second. 718).15 The lawcourt metaphor not only enables Brueggemann to treat the OT separately from historical-critical concerns. He wishes to give a hearing to all readings. Part I. 15 6 . 18 Ibid. black.”18 He also incorporates insights from canonical criticism. Fourth. the variety of readings simply reflects the nature of the text. Brueggemann is concerned to hear the Old Testament’s own account of itself before bringing other witnesses to the stand. “I regard testimony not simply as a happy or clever convenience for my exposition.. ‘Israel’s Core Testimony’ is juxtaposed with Part II. he believes This does not invalidate historical-critical claims.” (Ibid. His intent is to “take the text seriously as testimony and to let it have its say alongside other testimonies. 72.19 However. “Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament. both ‘centrist’ (white.”16 The structure of his work reflects this disputational nature. it provides space for the multiplicity of voices within OT studies.”20 To summarise. In his view. Brueggemann is resistant to methodologies which claim dominance and deny the validity of alternatives. limiting his subject matter to the canonical text. Brueggemann uses this metaphor because he finds it explicitly in the OT (e. 708.”17 Finally. “Israel’s best utterances are shot through with disputes that must always be reconsidered.” 234). including the testimony of Enlightenment rationality. it allows him to focus on the OT as one witness without settling questions of historicity. He values historical criticism. establishment) and ‘marginated’ (liberationist. admitting that “everything we are now able to do is dependent on that era of study.Barnabas Aspray witnesses. but as an appropriate way to replicate the practice of ancient Israel. the lawcourt metaphor first reflects Brueggemann’s epistemology about how reality can be known. TOT. ‘Israel’s Countertestimony’ in which the former’s absolute claims are challenged.. feminist). 20 Brueggemann. 17 Ibid.” (Childs. he ultimately resists both of these as too hegemonic and reductionistic.
delivers.. history) ‘behind’ the text. The pluralist approach is thus “congruent with the reality of pluralism (a) in the text. promises. he claims that “the shape of reality finally depends on the power of speech. These verbs lead Israel to generalise about the character of their Subject. shepherd.. but to engage the OT requires being “resistant to making a claim on the text that is narrowly Christian. 71. 26 Ibid. faithfulness. xvii. For Brueggemann. and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text.”22 Brueggemann’s testimony-based epistemology coheres with his hermeneutic of rhetorical criticism. Brueggemann begins by identifying verbs with God as subject. and nowhere else and in no other way” (italics original). and (c) in interpretive communities. “The primal subject of an Old Testament theology is of course God.. (b) in the methods of interpretation... In contrast with the ‘essentialist’ epistemologies of the church (which he links with canonical criticism) and of historical criticism. “The God of Old Testament theology . 64. Ibid. 7 .”26 Part I expounds Israel’s positive testimony about Yahweh. artist. 66. compassion. Hence Yahweh is a God of justice. highlighting the importance of Yahweh’s decisive action. which try to find things (God. and healer.. father. mother. 24 Ibid. Brueggemann begins the main section of his work by succinctly stating his focus.”21 This pluralism also opens the door to Jewish readings. judge.”24 To believe the testimony of the text is to enter a world in which that testimony becomes reality. 25 Ibid. a king. “primary attention must be given to the rhetoric and the rhetorical character of faith in the Old Testament. 23 Ibid.Barnabas Aspray that it reflects the nature of the text itself. Yahweh creates.. and leads. with. 108. lives in. The OT’s very plurality makes Christian interpretation one of many possible ones. and shalom. righteousness.25 We now turn to a brief summary of the content of TOT. commands. 117. which he believes to be also consistent with the OT’s nature.”23 Therefore. a shared reading community of Jews and Christians can enrich both sides’ understanding. warrior.. In these metaphors a tension 21 22 Ibid. Demonstrating von Rad’s influence.
“It is my judgment that this tension between the two belongs to the very character and substance of Old Testament faith. Ibid. Focussing on the ‘rhetoric’ of the text 27 28 Ibid.29 The conclusion of parts I and II foregrounds the tension between Israel’s testimony and countertestimony. however. prophet. letting it “open the way for further exposition. and to the problem of whether the OT has a centre. highlighting ongoing concerns that should be taken into account. the nations. 303. and creation. are the witnesses to “Yahweh’s failure to adhere to covenant” either by silence/neglect in the midst of need. certain texts dispute Yahweh as unreliable and ambiguous. 373. not directly to Yahweh.” the ways Yahweh was mediated to Israel: torah. Most problematic. king..” examines texts that dispute these positive claims. 313. 30 Ibid. it is clear that his strategy has allowed him to bring diverse perspectives to the table.”28 Part II. “Israel’s Countertestimony. is elegant and fitting to the circumstances. only a set of contradictory theological assertions.” exposits the material in the OT which pertains.. cult. Every scholar’s work must be judged within its historical setting. 8 . “Israel’s Unsolicited Testimony. but to Yahweh-in-relation to various partners: Israel.”30 Together. and sage. But if one takes into account the fractured nature of OT scholarship. It would be easy to critique Brueggemann for being so pluralistic that he ends up offering nothing concrete. His solution to the descriptive-normative problem.Barnabas Aspray emerges between “Yahweh’s self-regard and Yahweh’s regard for Israel”27 which Brueggemann insists should not be readily resolved. or by disproportionate punishment for disobedience. Here he focuses on what Israel has to say about Yahweh through the pluralistic lens of multiple conflicting witnesses. texts such as the wisdom literature describe a God hidden from visible intervention. 29 Ibid. parts I and II can be seen as the centrepiece of Brueggemann’s work. Against Yahweh’s faithfulness. human individuals. Part III. Contrasted with Yahweh’s decisive action.. presenting their insights without attempting to adjudicate between them. Part V concludes with a discussion of the future of OT theology. a tension that precludes and resists resolution. 400. Part IV examines “Israel’s Embodied Testimony.. Indeed my initial reaction to the work was that it is so openended that it does not constitute an OT theology at all.
Instead of consolidating these statements into a coherent theology. See the index of names. 3 (Jl 2001): 236. 1999). I only have a problem with Brueggemann’s “dissonance” as a centre when he locates it “in the very character of Yahweh. however.”34 James Barr goes further: “history altogether is very largely ignored. feminist scholars (e. 715. 32 He avoids gender-specific pronouns for God.Barnabas Aspray makes every OT utterance about Yahweh normative. Ibid. and many others. Thus Brueggemann’s work intentionally reflects the way he sees the OT itself: both are more suggestive than conclusive. One difficulty was raised by a female reviewer: although Brueggemann expounds feminine metaphors for God. “Walter Brueggemann and James Barr: Old Testament theology and inclusivity. 545. He uses the work of Jewish scholars (especially Levenson).g. Childs notes that part I “tends to lose the dynamics of Israel’s narrative. 33 Alice Ogden Bellis. but Ibid. the historical situation. Brueggemann does the very thing he believes the text does: he holds them together in tension. However. “Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament. TOT continually dialogues with diverse communities of OT scholarship. 34 Childs.” Religious Studies Review 27.” 229. The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. be due to a broader problem with the work: a more general lack of attention to stories. conforming to the reality of lived experience. This oversight could. the discovery of which has been a hallmark of much recent Old Testament scholarship.. consistently using the name ‘Yahweh’ where a pronoun would have sufficed.. in which light the countertestimonies only point to a consistency beyond the reach of our understanding – and Yahweh’s incomprehensibility is surely also a concept deeply embedded in the text. 35 James Barr..”31 I do not think this does justice to the overwhelming affirmation in the text of Yahweh’s consistency. but the plurality of utterances in the text leads to a plurality of ‘dissonant’ normative statements. Brueggemann’s inclusivity is nonetheless admirable.”33 having no references to Ruth and only one to Esther. 32 31 9 . no. 771–777. in most cases. he “overlooks women’s stories..”35 Brueggemann does in fact endorse narrative criticism. Trible). inviting the reader to enter into the disputation. The passages quoted are strung out without any indication of the time from which they came or.
a section on Israel’s story may have done much to restore the balance of material. 4 (1998): 721. 66. Surely the first stage. But then what can a Christian reading achieve?”38 Brueggemann rejects the common “two-stage” method of first reading the OT “on its own terms” and afterward in light of the NT.. At the risk of requiring TOT to be even longer.” Theological Studies 59. 39 TOT. or directly point to Jesus or to the New Testament. 550. I think. he insists on hearing the voice of the OT in its own right and not through a NT lens. texts and methods into a powerful articulation of Israel’s testimony. Sklba also observes that “apocalyptic seems to receive a briefer consideration than expected. 37 36 10 . every section points to ways the NT takes up OT themes. Dispute. which I consider self-evident. Brueggemann has not. 731. still abides by the same principles he himself uses for TOT? Thus although it is helpful to see some pointers to the NT throughout his work. But although his pluralism allows him to engage seriously with Jewish readings. because the OT “does not obviously. Brueggemann has done a magisterial job of drawing together the many threads. honestly done. entirely solved the problem of OT-NT relations. Concept.”39 It is not clear why this invalidates the two-stage model. a more powerful tracing of NT themes back through the OT. would have been much more valuable. “Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony. he often takes it so far as to relativise the claims of the NT itself. Extensive use is made of biblical poetry in the Psalms and Prophets throughout TOT.Barnabas Aspray his use of it to “focus first on verbal sentences”36 only captures part of the richness found in narrative. 38 Barr. As Barr notes. Advocacy. classed as one of the countertestimonies to Yahweh’s hiddenness and as one of the “embodied witnesses” which mediate Yahweh’s TOT. cleanly. Second. The wisdom literature also fits without strain. but narrative texts are much less frequently discussed. First. and in this way he continually dialogues with the NT.”37 These deficiencies are probably due to Brueggemann’s emphasis on rhetorical criticism. “Brueggemann’s emphasis is on the ‘openness’ of the Old Testament message. problems. He has seamlessly incorporated the previously neglected creation theme as one of Yahweh’s partners in part III. Overall.. so that a Christian reading should not ‘pre-empt or foreclose’ [it] . demonstrating the coherence of biblical theology. whose natural habitat is poetic proclamation more than narrative. Richard Sklba. no. Two things he does well.
40 He has not been shy in bringing the text into dialogue with contemporary politics. He has been consistent in his use of historical criticism.Barnabas Aspray presence. although his discussions may rapidly become dated and provoke opposition. 11 . 40 Ibid. ecclesiology and culture. he has used it as an organising principle for his work and thereby joined together the many insights from all the fragmented corners of the discipline. he has moved OT scholarship in a fruitful direction.. rather than combating the pluralistic context. incorporating research that elucidates the meaning of the text without becoming distracted by its alternative testimony. In sum. 333–358. 680–694. it is refreshing to find helpful links made between OT themes and current concerns in a way that makes the text come alive. We wait with anticipation to see how future scholars will build on this significant foundation. In so doing.
The Flowering of Old Testament Theology: A Reader in Twentieth-Century Old Testament Theology. no. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony. 1997. The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective. T. Dispute. Ollenburger. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. no. Advocacy. James. Walter. 1930-1990. S.” Scottish Journal of Theology 53. Sklba. 1 (2006): 35–56. “Method and Old Testament Theology : Barr. Dispute. Meadowcroft. Bellis. Ind: Eisenbrauns. no.” Religious Studies Review 27. Dispute. B.” Theological Studies 59. Richard. Brueggemann. 12 . Childs. 2 (2000): 228–233. “Walter Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament : Testimony. Winona Lake. Alice Ogden. Advocacy.Barnabas Aspray Bibliography Barr. Ben C. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. Advocacy.” Tyndale Bulletin 57. Brueggemann and Goldingay Considered. “Walter Brueggemann and James Barr: Old Testament theology and inclusivity. 1991. “Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony. 3 (Jl 2001): 233–238. 1999. no. 4 (1998): 720–722.
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