Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future
A review of Ben Ollenburger's, "Old Testament Theology," by Dr. Richard Hess.
Ben C. Ollenburger, Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future. Revised edition, The Flowering of Old Testament Theology: A Reader in Twentieth-Century Old Testament Theology, 1930-1990. Sources for Biblical and Theological Study Volume 1. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2004. xv + 544 pp. Hardback. ISBN 1-5706-096-5.
Fifteen years separate this new edition from the first one, co-edited with Elmer Martens and Gerhard Hasel. The result has necessitated the updating of the introduction along with new articles in two new sections that describe the subject in the intervening period. The essays are grouped into periods and proceed in historical order in five major parts. In parts two, three, and four, there is an introduction by Ollenburger to each part followed by each of the theologians' contributions which themselves each consist of two parts. The first of these is an excerpt, often from an introduction to a book or essay, that describes methodological concerns and presuppositions. The second section for each author includes a specific example of this method in theological analysis of a particular theme or part of Scripture. The first part and also the fifth part retain the introduction but tend to present one or more excerpts from the particular author without the twofold division. The volume concludes with a translation of Johann Gabler's 1787 (actually the 1831 revision is used) essay, often credited with defining biblical theology as a discipline separate from systematic theology. A bibliography and indices round out the volume.
Part One begins with Old Testament theology before 1933. Ollenburger reviews the developments of that period, observing the influences of dogmatic, philosophical, and historical aspects upon writers. The essay by Otto Eissfeldt emphasizes the distinctive natures of theology and history, insisting that they should be separated methodologically. Walther Eichrodt's excerpt likewise asserts that the theological cannot be separated from the historical elements. He argues for an organic connection between the testaments.
Part Two, “Old Testament Theology's Renaissance: Walther Eichrodt through Gerhard von Rad,” includes representatives of the biblical theology movement that emerged after World War Two. Another excerpt from Eichrodt reveals that he regards his method as one to harness the historical in tandem with the systematic. His emphasis on covenant appears here as everywhere in his writing. The focus of his second excerpt in this part concerns the charsimatic endowment of Moses and his influence on future generations. Theodorus C. Vriezen argues that Old Testament theology is kerygmatic and relational in its essence. God's relation of communion with humanity is such that God acts in history and the initiative remains with Him. George E. Wright's approach is characterized by a view that God works in history and that this goes back to an authentic Sinai covenant. A selection of Wright's views on Holy War allows consideration of one of his best known positions. The conquest of Joshua is God's greatest gift to an outcast people. However, it does not justify war. Gerhard von Rad's method creates a disjuncture between the confessions of ancient Israel and the history of Israel as deduced by critical scholarship. The confessional “credos” are applied typologically to each generation. The prophets announce the end of this confessional age. For von Rad, eighth century prophecy was more than recasting earlier events as types of future ones, although it included that. The prophets of this period boldly proclaimed that God was summoning Israel to judgment and was proclaiming condemnation.
In the introduction to Part 3, “Expansion and Variety: Between Gerhard von Rad and Brevard Childs,” Ollenburger describes the decade of the 1970's as one of diversity in which more specialized trajectories were explored in place of an attempt at a comprehensive work. The first excerpt recounts how Walther Zimmerli began with the self-revelation of Yahweh's name as the one who cares for the oppressed and thus delivers Israel. His essay on Life before God moves from belief defined as stewardship of divine gifts to belief as singing God's praises. He adds observations on responding to God's love with love and on the fear of God as piety that brings one under divine protection. John L. McKenzie introduces his theology by arguing that messianism is not a prominent theme in the Old Testament. Rather, he chooses a variety of concepts (cult, nature, the future of Israel, etc.). McKenzie's discussion of cult provides useful observations on the absence of divination and demonology in the Old Testament. However, his observations on the ancient Near Eastern context of the Tabernacle and the Temple need to be reconsidered in light of new evidence, as does the blanket assumption of a post-exilic date for all sacrifices mentioned in the priestly source.
Ronald E. Clements' introduction to his theology emphasizes the importance of the canonical order of the books and of their literary context. He then discusses the diversity of materials that fall under the rubric of Torah or instruction. He considers prophecy as an ongoing reformulation of God's promise to Israel to complete unfinished business. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. maintains that the doctrine of “promise” forms its own self-evident center for Old Testament theology. He traces the promise in both idea and person through Isaiah; from the prophet's own time to the coming of the new heaven and earth. For Samuel L. Terrien the key to the creation of the Scriptures and to the survival of ancient Israel was the presence of God. Using Psalm 51 as an example, Terrien argues that the hiddenness of God becomes a means to access the divine presence, while preserving God's freedom. Claus Westermann introduces verbal expressions to understand how the Old Testament speaks about God. More than others, he considers the relationship with Jesus and the New Testament to be an important matter. At the end of part three, the first excerpt from Elmer A. Martens uses Exodus 5:22-6:8 to outline themes of God's presence, salvation, and covenant. Martens demonstrates how God's gift of the Promised Land carries responsibilities so that Israel might learn that their deity is lord of nature and also of history, indeed of all areas of life in this world.
Part Four, “From Brevard Childs to a New Pluralism,” focuses on some major Old Testament theologians in the 1990's and the remaining years before 2004. Brevard S. Childs embodies both systematic and historical elements in the Scriptural canon. He also affirms that the isolation of sources or stages apart from their context provides an insufficient basis for interpretation of the intended revelation. He emphasizes the theological significance of covenant and of Israel as the people of God. Rolf Knierim returns to Gabler's emphasis on the exegesis and comparison of texts of the Bible to produce a systematic treatment. Looking especially at Genesis 1-11 and Psalm 33, he sees human life and history as based on creation and intimately related to justice and righteousness. Horst Dietrich Preuss evaluates various positions and concludes that God's historic election of Israel and its requirements of obedience are fundamental to the Old Testament. Preuss traces how God's election of Israel occurs first in the exodus, and considers some of the Old Testament texts that make this identification.
Walter Brueggemann finds the key to the Old Testament's discourse about God in the biblical utterance. Here God is the subject, the verbs are often active and causative, and the object is Israel, who is engaged with God in conversation. In other excerpts from his theology, Breuggemann considers how God creates by utterance. He challenges each faith community to hear both the core testimony of God's word to the world and to Israel, and also to take note of the countertestimony that challenges the assumptions. Paul R. House chooses an approach that examines the distinctive theological message of each book of the Old Testament. Using Ruth as an example, House argues that in this book faithful people see how God's mercy is acted out. Bernhard W. Anderson suggests “covenantal patterns of symbolism,” found in Priestly, Mosaic, and Davidic forms, as key to Old Testament theology. Beginning with the Davidic king as the symbol of all who worship God, Anderson goes on to discuss the many psalms that proclaim the kingship and the kingdom of God. Erhard S. Gerstenberger denies a unity or coherence to the canon or teaching of the Old Testament. For him, it is rather a lively dialog partner. He determines that all key theological ideas in the Old Testament derive from the time of the Exile and afterwards. The choice of Yahweh as sole God reflects the interests of the male power elite.
Ollenburger begins Part Five, “Contexts, Perspectives, and Proposals,” by remarking on the diversity of methods. He then excerpts Hartmut Gese who sees the development of traditions as key. Gese suggests oral and cultic origins that are later written and then edited in accord with the tradition that develops into canon. However, the theories presented appear speculative and controversial. Phyllis Trible considers feminist writers and the relevant biblical texts and approaches that are related to theology. In one excerpt Jon D. Levenson attempts to argue that God's monotheism is fragile. In a second piece, he grounds Israel's identity in history and covenant. Israel affirms the covenant by reciting the Shema. John H. Sailhammer considers the structure and especially the close of the canon. There he observes that different endings reflect various emphases on a messianic theme. Gunther H. Wittenberg contrasts the traditional rationalistic approaches to Old Testament theology with the theology of the poor and oppressed, who are closer to the Old Testament God. James Barr regards biblical theology as too large and diverse to be limited to a single volume or method. It is studied with exegetical tools and the use of a historical method. R. W. L. Moberly's study is a masterful defense and exposition of a trinitarian reading of Scripture (and especially Genesis 22) over against a sociopolitical analysis of supposed propaganda underlying the text. On the contrary, Mark G. Brett argues for the need to articulate ideology and modern concerns for justice within the increasingly diverse world of Old Testament theology.
One might quibble about the absence of this or that theologian, or some representative of a particular school, but a fine selection of the major Old Testament theologians and their writings are represented in this volume. It is a valuable contribution for understanding and appreciating from where the subject has come and where some important parts of it are headed.
Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages