Thoughts on Walter Bruggemann’s ‘Theology of the Old Testament’

I started reading Bruggemann’s massive ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, and finally made it through the first 2 sections, which form a ‘lay of the land’ of Old Testament theology and scholarship. As a work of scholarship in its own right, it’s brilliant – well-researched, heavily footnoted, calm, carefully reasoned – in other words, a great academic book. I do, however, have a few cautious and open criticisms/questions, regarding the viewpoint and methodology Bruggemann holds to. I’ll confine my comments here to a few specific instances so as not to be distracted by meta-questions of history, postmodernism and literary theory.

The discussion of the inadequate-ness of thin, positivst/pseudo-objective historical methods is very good – there is a good amount of time spent dismantling the ‘assured results of higher criticism’, and establishing the fact that presupposition-less exegesis/history is impossible.

I do, however detect a certain inconsistency with Bruggemann’s insistence that we should not import claims and categories foreign to the text to help us understand text or the ‘behind the text.’ He resists, for examples, what he terms ‘essentialism’, which seems to be the idea that there is a kind of ‘essence’ behind the text or to the ideas which the texts talk about (in this case, God). He also argues against ontologies foreign to the Hebrew way of thinking – ‘Greek’ ontologies, as he terms them, that focus on abstract concepts of ‘being’ which are incompatible with Jewish modes of thought and discourse (as an aside, I don’t find the dichotomy between Greek/Hebrew thinking terribly helpful, and think that on closer examination, such an objection loses a lot of force).

‘A student of Old Testament theology must be alert to the problem of conventional thinking about ontology, thinking that is essentially alien to the Old Testament testimony.’ (p 118)

The inconsistency arises when Bruggemann seeks to impose modern categories of literary thinking onto Scripture – ranging from conceptions of drama and narrative to Bakhtin-esque ‘many voices’ theory. For example:

‘…the characters, the plot and the subplots must be recognizable in order to sustain the plot. This means that the characters must have consistency and constancy. It also requires however, that the characters must change, grow, or develop, in order that successive scenes are not simply a reiteration of the first scene.’ (p. 69)

For someone so opposed to importing foreign categories onto Scripture, Bruggemann seems to foist very modern categories of drama and narrative onto the text – categories that draw from an understanding of drama that is more at home with the modern novel than with ancient narrative. Such an imposition, while seeking to do justice to the dynamic, rhetorical, dramatic and ambiguous aspects of the text, seems to be rather inconsistent in light of Bruggemann’s opposition to imposing metaphysical and theological categories onto the text to help us understand it.

Bruggemann also places a fair amount of weight on the ‘polyphonic’ character of Scripture – that is, the many voices within the text:

‘The Bible insists upon a common narrative, but one which includes a diversity of voices; many stories comprise the story. God’s story is both single and several. It also insists upon a narrative which at times is disjointed and the connectedness of which is perceived only by way of struggle. The Bible is no easy read.’ (Mark Coleridge, ‘Life in the Crypt or Why Bother with Biblical Studies’, quoted in ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, p. 89)

It is fairly obvious that the story of Scripture is made up of many smaller stories – any story is. However, the claims of disjointed-ness aren’t quite so clear cut – the Biblical text shows a remarkable unity (in spite of, or perhaps despite the ‘many voices’) in its narrative. That a narrative is composed of smaller stories is hardly grounds for disconnected-ness – if that were the case, no narrative could be said to have any unity (this is leaving aside the support that the extrabiblical and extratextual evidence offers to the idea of a unified narrative of Scripture. Perhaps a little more attention to facts and less attention to poorly-defined existentialist literary theory would serve a bit better here).

As I said, these are more open questions and criticisms rather than decisive refutations. Bruggemann’s insistence on the reality of the dynamics of the Old Testament text, as opposed to a more static positivistic conception is one with which I very much agree – simply click on the ‘philosophy of language’ category/tag to the right to see that my own ideas aren’t too terribly far from Bruggemann’s. At any rate, ‘Theology of the Old Testament’ is an outstanding book so far, and I very much look forward to being continually challenged by Bruggemann.

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6 comments on “Thoughts on Walter Bruggemann’s ‘Theology of the Old Testament’

  1. Rod says:

    Good intro. I own it, have used some of it as part of a broader exegetical enquiry, but never had an opportunity to read through it yet. Am keen though.

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  2. Kevin Davis says:

    Thanks for this. I read B’s Introduction to the OT last year and was not impressed by his grasp of hermeneutics. Many of his particular interpretations are fantastic, so at the material level of exegesis he is often excellent. But at the epistemological or form level, he has much to be desired. I was astonished at how he would simultaneously invoke pomo criticisms of modernism (rationalism, historicism) and then use these exact modernist categories to dismiss wide swaths of the text’s historicity! He does this throughout the book, often invoking the “consensus” of contemporary scholarship (conquest of the Levant, reigns of David and Solomon, and so on). The only “realist” correspondence that remains is the situation of post-exilic prophets. Everything prior is completely unknown. And then, as you note, he will use pomo categories as if they are completely derived from exegesis and nothing to do with his own situation as a late 20th century pomo exegete! So, he freely and obviously uses the modernist and postmodernist categories he likes, while simultaneously situating himself above and beyond them! Really astonishing, yet he is such a gifted interpreter on many particular passages.

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    • whitefrozen says:

      You’re right that at the material level he excels – I got about 20 or 30 pages into his actual work (not the methodological overture) and I’m really impressed. I very much agree with the public/liturgical/worship framework for interpreting the OT as well as using aspects of philosophy of language (speech-acts) to understand aspects of the OT utterances. Exegetically, I’m really enjoying it.

      You’re also right, however, about, his lacking on the more formal level. That I’m not impressed with at all. His position is better argued and a bit more rationally presented than most – but he just seems to be inconsistent in his invocation and resistance of various categories.I think he should stop trying to be a philosopher (even though he has a decent enough grasp of some of the philosophical aspects of his methods) and focus on the exegesis. Actually, now that I think of it, a lot of his work resembles Wolterstorffs ‘Divine Discourse’. His invocation of Barth in the first section of the book is also ironic, given that Barth would probably attack quite savagely a lot of Bruggemanns position.

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  3. If you have time, I would love to see your take on his rejection of Greek ontology more fully fleshed out. Why does he find it dichotomous to Hebrew thought.

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    • whitefrozen says:

      The main reason, as I read it, that he finds the two dictotomous, is that he sees ‘conventional thinking about ontology’ as concerned with things that Hebrew thought isn’t concerned with. WB sees Hebrew thought as concerned not with the ‘essence’ or ‘nature’ or ‘being of God’ as an abstract category through which they understand God but with His acts in the world and in their story. I’ll quote a few relevant sections:

      ‘I do not deny that those who speak about Yahweh in the Old Testament had made some judgement about the reality and existence of Yahweh. But the ontology of Yahweh that is available on the basis of Israel’s testimony in the Old Testament is *after* the testimony, based on finding the testimony credible and persuasive. After the testimony, the Old Testament provides a rich statement on ontology.’

      ‘Old Testament thought does not align itself with the categories of either patristic thought or that of Heidegger. What it has in common, and the point on which I insist, is that one must not foreclose Israel’s witness to Yahweh by already settled categories of being. Jewish ways of speaking (and thinking) are simply not easily commensurate with standard Western notions of being…’ (p. 118)

      As Kevin noted in a comment above, on a material level, much of this is correct. Etienne Gilson notes that:

      ‘While the Greek philosophers were wondering what place to assign to their gods in a philosophically intelligible world, the Jews had already found the God who was to provide philosophy with an answer to its own question. Not a God imagined by poets or discovered by any thinker as an ultimate answer to his metaphysical problems, but one who had revealed Himself to the Jews, told them His name, and explained to them His nature, in so far at least as His nature can be understood by men.’ (God and Philosophy’, p. 38)

      The problem is that WB seems to go from that to rejecting any continuity between Hebrew religious thought and the more metaphysical thought of the patristics. Again, I don’t find such bifurcations helpful, especially when on close examination they appear to lose a lot of force – for example, reading Gregory of Nyssa’s (or it might be Nazanien, I can never get those two straight) ‘Life of Moses’, one gets the feeling that Gregory was himself a Hebrew.

      Part of the issue is seeing the use of ‘greek’ categories as simple imposition of foreign ideas onto the text of Scripture – when in reality, the patristics were attempting to articulate some fairly dynamic and subtle ideas having to do with (say) the relation of the Father to the Son to the Holy Spirit in continuity both with the text and in the experience of the life of the Church (keep in mind that a lot of their work was done to combat various heresies, as well). Reading the actual work of the patristics, it’s far from the case that they were simply foisting those damn greek categories onto Scripture (not to say that things like the Chalcedon statement can’t be criticized).

      I suspect that my answer opens more questions than it answers :p

      As a postscript, I’m not very impressed by the invocation of Bahktin’s literary theory. I’ve seen very few invocations of him, actually, that are convincing in a rigorous way.

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