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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