Review of Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament
Note: From time to time I post (with permission of the editor) important essays and reviews from the Virginia Seminary Journal (click here), which unfortunately is not indexed by ATLA Religion or other major indexes of religious studies and theology.
Ellen F. Davis, “A Response to: Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, by Walter Brueggemann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997) pp. xxi + 777. $48. A review essay published in The Virginia Seminary Journal, July 1999 Issue, pp. 49-54.
It is no exaggeration to say that for many Christians, both clergy and lay, Walter Brueggemann is the scholar who has kept them reading the Old Testament in faith. Now, after a century of historical criticism, one mark of a liberal theological education is to doubt whether Christians may legitimately read “the Hebrew Bible” from a theological perspective. Brueggemann’s work has been for several decades a beacon for those Christians who persist in trying. This book, his most extensive study to date, gives new energy and urgency to the project. He challenges us to read the Bible confessionally, even evangelistically, and above all practically, always searching for guidance to the intransigent problems of faith and living that (should) trouble Christians. Therefore this is a book that should be seriously engaged by all who speak for the Old Testament, as teachers and preachers.
The scope and size of the book make it tempting to view this as Brueggemann’s definitive statement. However, to my reading, it has more the character of a work in progress. This is a large-scale experiment: Brueggemann is testing some new approaches to problems he has worked with before, trying fresh linguistic formulations. There is here much that stands in need of refinement; and, on the basis of his past record, we may expect that Brueggemann himself will participate actively in the rethinking of his own proposals. The present essay is intended as a contribution toward that work of refinement. It should be read as a response to Brueggemann’s book rather than a comprehensive review. I attempt here to highlight the critical theological issues which a careful reading raises in my mind. It will be evident that I frequently and deeply disagree with ways that Brueggemann has formulated some of his proposals here. Nonetheless, I intend my response to underscore the great importance of Brueggemann’s life-project. Brueggemann is seeking to make Old Testament theology a problem---a compelling, life-generating problem---not just for the technician, nor even just for the cleric who has to “do something” with this intrusive text, but for every person of Christian faith. It may be that he has succeeded more than anyone else in this generation in making that problem too interesting to ignore, in showing that the Old Testament is too hope-filled to be left wholly in the hands of specialists.
Brueggemann begins with two lengthy chapters tracing the emergence of historical criticism and then the outlines of “the postmodern interpretative situation,” in which he sets forth the principles that guide his own readings. His survey of modern Old Testament scholarship to the end of the “generative period” dominated by Eichrodt and von Rad, is a tour de force. In sixty pages he sets forth clearly the major lines of thought that have shaped my own late-twentieth-century biblical education and (directly or indirectly) that of most readers of this essay. The survey is appreciative and in no way dismissive of the genuine gains afforded by historical modes of scholarship. However, in the second chapter he presents the case for a style of Old Testament theology that refuses to adopt the “false innocence,” the presumed objectivity, of historical criticism. By contrast, Brueggemann highlights the courage required to do theological interpretation that will “permit texts of partisan power to be at the same time, and without denying their concrete role in power conflicts, statements of meaning that may be received as normative” (52-53). It takes courage because, in Brueggemann’s terms, “normativeness is that on which one will stake one’s life” (53). This statement clearly separates Brueggemann from the dispassionate speculation that characterizes much contemporary scholarship; and, when passions are aroused [in the biblical academy], it is rarely in obedience to the claims and the demands heard in the biblical text.
Brueggemann seeks to establish a style of interpretation that is fideistic and acknowledges the normative status of the biblical text. Such acknowledgment does not mean that the text’s meaning is clear, agreed upon, or even open to definitive agreement among its readers. On the contrary faithful interpretation is a matter of rendering “provisional judgments,” which must be continually submitted to “the larger conflictual conversation” (63). The “great new fact” of the postmodern interpretive situation is that many different interpreters with different presuppositions are at work on the text, and there is no longer any court of appeal beyond the text itself.
Far from being traumatized by this pluralistic interpretive situation, Brueggemann delights in it; because he believes that it is congruent with the nature of the biblical text itself, as Israel’s varied and mutable witness of faith. The primary categories by which Brueggemann understands the Old Testament are testimony and its inevitable consequence, counter testimony. He maintains that pluralistic practices of advocacy, dispute, and compromise themselves constitute Israel’s theological witness. A major goal in Brueggemann’s work is to show that the Old Testament not only tolerates but even encourages multiple “bids for a truth-statement” (64) among its interpreters. Certainly one of the most positive aspects of this argument is his own strong advocacy statement that Jews and Christians should whenever possible make common cause in reading the Bible. He implies, in my judgment correctly, that the modern situation has thrown Jews and Christians together to stand over against the dominant culture, in a sense closer than they have been since the conversion of Constantine: “It appears to me that the waiting of Jews (for Messiah) and the waiting of Christians (for the second coming) is a common waiting that stands against a despairing modernity” (109).
Yet it is in the interest of promoting openness in the interpretive conversation that the most troublesome aspect of Brueggemann’s argument arises. He radicalizes the notion of the Old Testament as witness to the extent of asserting that speech, Israel’s religious rhetoric, is the only determinate reality in the Old Testament. “Speech constitutes reality, and who God turns out to be in Israel depends on the utterance of the Israelites or, derivatively, the utterance of the text” (65). In giving rhetoric primacy, Brueggemann repudiates the “essentialist tradition” of Christian theology. Among contemporary scholars, he identifies Brevard Childs as the major proponent of this position, which takes as its basis the church’s doctrinal inheritance and therefore “imports” theological claims not present in the Old Testament. In response to Childs’ reference to “the reality of God” behind the biblical text, Brueggemann responds, “In terms of Old Testament theology, however, one must ask, What reality? Where behind?” Thus Brueggemann states his own emphatically non-essentialist argument: “I shall insist . . . that the God of Old Testament theology as such lives in, with, and under the rhetorical enterprise of this text, and nowhere else and in no other way” (66). In what follows, I hope to show that the non-essentialist argument as Brueggemann presents it here is deeply flawed in both its genesis and its consequence, and that in both respects it runs counter to the fundamental aims that are evident in the larger body of Brueggemann’s work.
With respect to the genesis of the argument, it seems that Brueggemann has himself committed the error of importing ideological claims not present in the biblical text itself, namely, contemporary philosophy’s valorization of human speech as being itself powerful to create reality. Certainly one can agree with Brueggemann that the actual event to which Israel witnesses “is enormously supple and elusive and admits of many retellings” (120). In the variability and even volatility of its discourse, the Old Testament is probably unparalleled by any other canonical work in all religious literature. But it is a serious misrepresentation to vaunt Israel’s rhetorical boldness and creativity, while failing to observe its foundational insistence that God transcends all human capacity for description: “I will be who I will be” (Exod 3:14; cf. Eccles 5:2). At the extreme, God’s self-revelation silences human testimony and dispute (Job 40:4-5; 42:3). Moreover, Brueggemann overemphasizes the degree to which the biblical witnesses “had other options available” in “the uttering of Yahweh (sic)” (66).[n. 1] Jeremiah and Ezekiel surely did not recognize that they had a choice in whether or how to speak as they did. The prophetic literature consistently represents the element of divine coercion as fundamental to true speaking about God.
Brueggemann ostensibly bases his non-essentialist position on the view that the Old Testament “characteristically” (albeit not consistently) shuns the transcendent (83). It would be more accurate to say that the Bible everywhere holds the transcendent in tension with concrete, historical experience. Psalm 102 is one poetic exploration of the sharp contrast and tension between God’s eternity and human frailty, which both humbles and inspires hope. The same tension is consistently evident in the prophetic oracles and in the accounts of the prophets’ own calls. Far from shunning the transcendent, the biblical writers turn toward the transcendent at the same time that they carefully articulate their historical experience. This dual awareness serves to relativize our own stultifying preoccupation with the immediate, which is itself one form of despair.
One of the most valuable aspects of Brueggemann’s work has long been his assertion of the Old Testament’s “oddness” over against flattening impositions upon the text, whether they be from historical criticism or from doctrine-driven readings within the church. It is therefore disappointing that here he shows too little caution about importing ideologies from another context and imposing them on the biblical text. Perhaps the best evidence that such an importation has occurred is the fact that the language Brueggemann uses to describe Israel’s religious witness simply does not sound like the Bible. A phrase such as “the shaping of Yahweh” (302) is a telling reversal of the unambiguous and repeated Israelite claim: “I, YHWH, make [or “do”] everything!” (Isa 44:24; cf. 45:7). Again, statements that “Yahweh is a concrete practice in the embodied life of Israel” (701) or that God’s “character arises from daily life,” derive not from any witness we might suppose Israel intended to make, but rather from contemporary philosophy’s hostility to transcendence.
Such language points to the unsatisfactory consequence of the extreme non-essentialist position: namely, formulations like these don’t preach. Yet Walter Brueggemann is the Old Testament scholar most widely known today as a preacher and (even more) as one who strengthens the hand of preachers. Thus, the prevalence of unpreachable language in the book is one revealing aspect of the way in which this approach undercuts Brueggemann’s larger project. To put the problem sharply, it seems that Brueggemann has in this book effectively turned away from his primary audience, the church. To the extent that such a choice is deliberate, it is done in the hope of gaining a wider audience—not for himself, but for the Bible. Brueggemann is self-consciously conducting his exposition of the Old Testament “in the presence of two audiences.” The first audience is the community that assents to the claims of the text and finds its identity in the terms the text offers. The second audience is the larger public, which feels no particular obligation to the text and its peculiar representation of reality. Brueggemann is trying to develop a style of interpretation that has a “polyphonic character” that may be heard by this second audience, “which may be drawn to its truthfulness but is fearful of any authoritarian closure or reductionism” (89).
Yet the rhetoric he chooses here sounds like an over-accommodation to the interests of the second audience, at the expense of the first. And as Brueggemann himself would readily admit, if the religious community cannot itself speak the language of its faith fluently, then it can neither maintain its own integrity nor address the larger public in compelling ways. Confronted with a dominant non-Christian culture, a church that lacks a language of its own---and the only language distinctive and common to the church as a whole is scriptural language---can only assimilate to the larger culture. It cannot enter into genuine dialogue. Nor can it present, as Brueggemann hopes, a compelling (albeit fragile) alternative to the prevalent form of modern despair, namely “the embrace of the Nihil” (564).
Strangely, in view of his persistent interest in the way the Bible both reflects and nurtures concrete social practices, it seems that Brueggemann has not envisioned with sufficient concreteness the way in which the second audience may be moved to response by the biblical text. Here he suggests that Israel’s rhetoric may make a direct appeal to the larger public---including even members of the academy!---“that is willing to host many alternative construals of reality” (87). But one must ask, what makes anyone willing to host one particular construal that eliminates so many others, as does the biblical representation of reality? In most cases, is it not precisely some degree of participation in or interaction with the community of believers and worshippers? Rarely are people drawn to the Bible in and of itself. They normally feel “the wonder and mystery of this text” (88) through the embodied agency of someone---a teacher, a preacher, the corporate voice of the liturgy---who accepts its claims and has found some making them compelling for the present audience. Certainly, this may happen in secular settings, as evidenced by the ministry of Martin Luther King. Nonetheless, it is necessary to nurture the first audience and cultivate their fluency in speaking Scripture, if the second audience is ever to have the chance to hear a fresh and powerful articulation of its message.
The most crucial question which this book poses is whether the assertion of particular, essentialist claims of faith does in fact defeat open dialogue with those who do not share those claims. It is on this ground that Brueggemann rejects “doctrine” as a guide to interpretation. Yet the primary way in which doctrine has traditionally functioned in the church is not to foreclose dialogue about interpretive possibilities but rather to offer positive help so we may “see God” with some clarity and grow into love of God. In other words, doctrine serves a pastoral purpose, to shape the lives of Christians and enable us to attain to spiritual maturity.[n. 2] This is congruent with Brueggemann’s own perspective on the work of exegesis. He seeks to demonstrate that close attention to Israel’s testimony ultimately serves the pastoral end of conversion: namely, conversion from the illusion of the self-sufficient human agent to a life lived fully in partnership with YHWH (486).
A healthy doctrinal tradition will, of course, foreclose some interpretive options, just because it emerges from countless careful readings of the biblical text, which is itself not infinitely manipulable. But it is my experience that classics of theological interpretation, those readings which have stood the test of time (e.g., Augustine, the medieval mystics, Luther, Calvin, Donne, and probably Barth), open fruitful and often surprising interpretative options far more frequently than they shut them down. Brueggemann is rightly worried about the domestication of the Bible through context-less, intellectual activity in either the academy or the church. Yet one wonders if he sufficiently acknowledges the ultimate context in which engaged, transformative readings of the Bible occur. That context is the work of the Holy Spirit, hovering not only over the church but also over the world, generating whatever life religious traditions have to them, animating the written word of God so it becomes instinct with new life in “generation to generation of those who seek Him” (cf. Ps 24:6).
Jewish tradition, which Brueggemann upholds as a model of openness and playfulness in interpretation, affords abundant evidence that particular, essentialist claims are in practice fully compatible with multiple interpretive options. It may be that Brueggemann misses this because he overestimates the openness of both the Old Testament and of Jewish tradition. In this overestimation, he seems motivated more by a prior commitment to pluralism than by a plain-sense reading of biblical and post-biblical traditions. For example, thus Brueggemann interprets Israel’s repeated affirmation of the incomparability of its God: “[T]he rhetoric of incomparability places the accent not on the claim that there is no other like Yahweh, but that Yahweh really is as said---in extreme form a God of astonishing power and reassuring solidarity” (143). Yet the contexts in which the claim of incomparability appears are often polemical: e.g., in Exodus 15, after YHWH has drowned Pharaoh in the Red Sea; and frequently in II Isaiah’s derision of false gods. This fact suggests that the claim is more than a statement of “solidarity”; rather, it explicitly aims to discredit other religious options. Similarly dubious is Brueggemann’s pluralistic reading of Jewish tradition with respect to messianic expectation. He asserts that “It is characteristically Jewish not to reduce hope to a single Messiah; . . . there is the potential of many messiahs” (82). But the contrast with Christianity’s exclusive claims for Jesus of Nazareth is less sharp than he would like. It is true that for centuries Jews have been leery of any claims to historical concretization of the Bible’s messianic vision. Nonetheless, Jewish prayer demonstrates that such a unique historical realization remains an article of faith. Observant Jews pray, “May the Messiah [singular!] come!”
Here I have consistently criticized Brueggemann’s argument where I perceive that a post-modernist commitment to pluralism has trumped, not a doctrinally driven reading, but rather a plain-sense understanding of the biblical text that is ultimately more useful to communities of believers. Yet this is not the deepest of Brueggemann’s commitments. Despite his alienation from “classical Christianity” at least in the dominant forms of its contemporary expression within the Western church, it is evident that Brueggemann believes Israel’s testimony. It is because he believes that reality backs up Israel’s claims that he can make an assertion such as this one, stating the fundamental “theological datum” about all human beings: “Everything depends on this relation to the One who is utterly reliable. This utterly reliable One is the primary truth about human personhood” (488).
This statement deserves more prominence than it receives, coming as it does quite late in the book and after (but not within) a lengthy and inconclusive section on the biblical “countertestimony” that implies YHWH’s unreliability. The statement is important because it indicates that Brueggemann, like everyone else who reads the Bible in faith, is guided in his reading by some rules. In other words, he perceives some theological data to be more fundamental than others. Like the biblical writers themselves, Brueggemann is not afraid to examine at length the testimony in many places that God’s behavior is puzzling and contradictory, and that those who are close to God may feel abused (Jeremiah), abandoned (Saul). He rightly criticizes the church for largely ignoring these charges against God, although they are reiterated anew by sufferers in every generation. Yet Brueggemann does not show clearly how he himself moves from facing the countertestimony, which he appears to accept uncritically, to the bold assertion that YHWH is “utterly reliable.”
This disjunction points to a problem in theological method, one which must be addressed if Brueggemann and others are to build upon the positive aspects of his work in this book. The basic unit of text with which he works is the sentence, identified as “the unit of testimony that most reliably is taken as testimony” (123). His “grammar of testimony” begins with the fact that YHWH is regularly represented as the subject of “powerful, transformative verbs” (136): “create,” “deliver,” “command,” “lead.” Correspondingly, the countertestimony to God’s unreliable behavior is also treated in terms of a few individual sentences containing verbs that may be taken as powerfully incriminating: e.g., “O YHWH, you have enticed me, and I was enticed” (Jer 20:7a). Here Brueggemann accepts Jeremiah’s charge at face value and concludes that “Yahweh is on occasion an unprincipled bully,” and that Jeremiah’s call “was a one-way deal” (362). In another instance, he finds a troubling contradiction in the two-fold repetition in the flood story of God’s statement that “the inclination of the human heart is evil.” This appears first as the reason that God determines to blot out humankind with the flood (Gen 6:5), and later as the reason that God forswears wholesale destruction and enters into covenant with Noah (Gen 8:21). Brueggemann concludes that “the tilt toward one [divine] inclination or another may be caused by a minor factor” (363).
In both cases, a very different interpretation is reached by looking at the sentences within their larger narrative context. Jeremiah’s accusation belongs to the last of his five laments about the agony of bearing the divine word. Like the psalms of lament which they resemble, these honest prayers are not final statements on what God is really like. Jeremiah does not end his testimony here but rather moves through lament and accusation and beyond, into his strongest assertions of his authority to speak for God before kings and false prophets, and also into oracles of consolation (Jer 30--31), bespeaking God’s ineradicable commitment to Israel. Similarly, the larger narrative context in Genesis shows that the two statements about the “evil inclination” reflect, not shifting whims, but rather a profound and permanent change in the divine disposition toward humankind. The repetition enables us to see the first covenant for what it really is: namely, the way God enters into realistic relationship with flawed humanity. The covenant with Noah represents God’s serious reckoning with the “evil inclination.” In Genesis we see already what becomes unmistakably clear in the Prophets: by means of covenant, God’s just anger is contained—not dismissed—for the sake of enduring relationship.
Brueggemann’s best work appears when he goes beyond the individual sentence and works with large themes. Probably his most valuable contribution in this book is to demonstrate exegetically how we may move beyond the inadequate dichotomies that have characterized so much Old Testament theology: creation vs. salvation, law vs. grace, conditional vs. unconditional notions of covenant, justice vs. cultic concerns. He impressively demonstrates that it is only through a more comprehensive view that the full pastoral, ethical, and political dimensions of Israel’s testimony become evident. For example, creation faith and prophetic faith, perceived as complementary aspects of covenant religion, together provide a perspective from which to criticize a manipulative view of “life as technique,” and further, to recognize “that the generosity of God will override the scarcity that is the driving ideology of greed, which in turn diminishes creation and makes human life yet more desperate” (164).
His comprehensive approach leads Brueggemann to explore the theological meaning of Israel’s worship, a subject that has received far too little attention in Protestant Christian (i.e., historical critical) scholarship, which is generally contemptuous of cult. Brueggemann’s key insight is that “it is in worship, and not in contextless, cerebral activity, that Israel worked out its peculiar identity and sustained its odd life in the world” (653). He offers this insight as a guide to the contemporary church in the West, which now for the first time in sixteen centuries is widely experiencing its own identity as culturally “odd” and therefore in danger of disappearing. Brueggemann argues compellingly that the essential fact about worship is that, through acts which are both concrete and imaginative, an alternative reality is generated in the face of forces that threaten to domesticate the odd community and ultimately reduce it to despair and chaos.
In this study of Israel’s worship, Brueggemann’s argument moves to its greatest theological depth. He treats the cult as one of several mediators of the divine presence in Israel, the others being Torah, kingship, prophecy, and wisdom. This lengthy treatment demonstrates just how manifold concrete practices of speech and gesture maintain Israel’s peculiar and always precarious identity as the community living in ineluctable relationship with YHWH. The emphasis on daily practice of “disciplines of ready attentiveness” (703) is intended as a wake-up call and a word of hope to the now disestablished church. In our time, by contrast, the media industry has established the nearly exclusive dominance of speech that affirms no power beyond ourselves or the systems in which we are enmeshed. Brueggemann rightly judges that the church can offer no significant challenge, where academic theologians and even preachers are content to speak of everything except what God is doing, except what claims are made for and by God through the Scriptures.
In all his recent works, Brueggemann has consistently issued to the disestablished church a call to be realistic about our situation. He urges us to learn to be a responsible minority. We must learn to speak well for the odd truth which we affirm, a truth to which there are no more than two qualified witnesses, Jews and Christians. It is a call we cannot afford to ignore; nostalgia is not likely to carry the Western church beyond another generation or two. But heeding that call means that ordinary Christians must now practice what ordinary Jews have practiced for nearly two millennia: talking and arguing about our faith, studying seriously, teaching our children just what it means to look at and speak about reality in this odd way. Brueggemann has demonstrated the depth of the challenge in a way that, in my judgment, cannot be denied. It remains to be seen whether we can summon the commitment, the stubborn courage, to answer it.
Ellen F. Davis
1) Brueggemann has followed the scholarly convention of reconstructing the personal name of Israel’s God as “Yahweh.” This convention is problematic on two grounds. First, it clearly separates non-Jews from Jews, who traditionally regard God’s name as too sacred to be pronounced or written out in full. Second, it separates academic theology from the church, for the reconstructed name is not used in either public worship or personal devotion---even by academics!
2) A study that takes this approach is: Ellen T. Charry’s By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).