Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, by Walter Brueggemann. Fortress Press, 1997.
Reviewed by Stephen D. Lowe, Ph.D., Dean, Department of Christian Education, Trinity College & Seminary; firstname.lastname@example.org
Many of us who are fond of the work of Walter Brueggemann have waited a long time for his magnum opus to appear. Well, now it’s here in all of its 700 plus pages of powerful and persuasive writing. Brueggemann sets out a biblical theology of the Old Testament that is comprehensive without being too general and detailed enough to provide solid exegetical support for his Old Testament paradigm of “testimony.”
Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. Previously he served on the faculty at Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri (his home state). Although Brueggemann has eloquently represented the liberal perspective in most of his academic career, he is difficult to label and file. This is not because he doesn’t know his own mind or because he is a theological chamaeleon but because he courageously follows the text and the God it faithfully presents wherever it may lead. For this reason, he can at times castigate his liberal colleagues for their theological and philosophical provincialism, as he does in Retrospect 1 and 2 which opens his book. And at other times he can rail against conservatives who too easily justify their versions of theological truth with dogmatism that is ugly and sub-Christian. This is probably the reason why I like Brueggemann so much: his honesty with himself and the text. He is willing to let the chips fall where they may because he is committed to something higher and more compelling than passing fancies and theological fads.
He continues his courageous pursuit of the truth in this massive volume that explicates his vision of a grounded biblical theology of the Old Testament. He grounds his proposal in the deep soil of solid exegesis and profound exposition of his texts. Unlike many liberal scholars, Brueggemann takes the text seriously without turning it into an idol as some in more conservative circles have done. By taking the text so seriously, he parts company with many on the theological left who prefer a more robust “higher critical” approach to the text. But by following his exegetical nose in this way, he has unearthed a profound and empirically grounded conception of what the Old Testament is all about: testimony, dispute, advocacy.
Brueggemann understands the Old Testament to be about God and Israel’s encounter with him and the subsequent “speech” that provided the basis of Israel’s “core testimony” about this God, what he had said and done for Israel (Part I). The core witness included a host of verbs, adjectives, and nouns to describe in great detail what God had said and done. Israel balanced this visual and verbal disclosure of God with visual and verbal testimony that involved and included a host of strategies, methods, and means, all designed to communicate to two primary audiences who serve as recipients of Israel’s witness. Brueggemann identifies these two audiences when he writes, “The testimony of Israel concerning Yahweh is always of two kinds, one to reorder the internal life (his) of the community in ways faithful to Yahweh, the other to invite the world out beyond this community to reorder its life with reference to Yahweh” (747).
These two kinds of witness have two distinct audiences. The witness to the community is directed to Israel as the people whom God has called. The witness to this community of faith is designed to facilitate deeper and stronger faith in God. The other audience consists of everyone else outside this community of faith who needs to “reorder” themselves in accordance with the knowledge of God provided by Israel’s witness. Brueggemann falls short of calling this “invitation” a call to repentance or conversion but what else can it mean? It certainly cannot be just a call to political correctness for the nations that expects that they will follow Jewish norms of ethics and morality. Now, to be sure, this too must be in place, but the textual evidence warrants a deeper and more profound call being made by Israel to the nations of the world. The “blessing” anticipated in the covenant with Abraham was certainly understood by the Apostle Paul as a proeuanggelian (first gospel) that included faith in God and in the promise he had made by extension to Israel and the world (Galatians 3:8)
In addition to the core testimony, Brueggemann also finds in the Old Testament a “counter testimony” of dispute and advocacy that quarrels with the more settled convictions expressed in the core testimony (Part II). Brueggemann finds this testimony most eloquently set forth in the Wisdom literature and especially the Psalms. Here Brueggemann displays his commitment to a more Jewish reading of the Old Testament. His explanation and interpretation of the disputatious sections of the Hebrew Bible, are congruent with a more Hebraic orientation to the relationship between God and Israel. This tradition appreciates more thoroughly than do Protestant interpreters that the covenantal relationship between God and Israel meant that as partners in the covenant both had an equal right to complain about the other. Protestant interpreters often see the covenant in more one-sided terms with Israel always being on the receiving end of things as one finds in the rib (lawsuit) texts in which Israel is hauled into court by God and confronted with all of her covenantal failures. Sometimes, especially in the Psalms, one finds articulated a different type of speech that is defiant, abrasive, confrontational, and blunt. In many of the Psalms of “disorientation” (see Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms) when Israel is at a loss to understand God’s ways with her, one encounters language that challenges God and boldly asserts covenantal privilege. This mode of speech is different from that encountered in the core testimony sections of the Old Testament in which God acts and Israel is acted upon. Brueggemann writes in this regard that
“The partners in turn break out of the role of object, and, on occasion, become an active subject and agent face-to-face with Yahweh . . . .These relationships evidence a dimension of mutuality that speaks insistently against any notion that Yahweh is transcendent beyond Israel. This quality of relationship (conveniently referred to as “covenant”) is what makes Yahweh a most peculiar God and makes the Old Testament endlessly interesting, generative, and unsettling” (409-410).
The God of this kind of covenant is always seen in the Bible as “Yahweh-in-relation” to Israel, to partners, to nations, to creation and to individual persons.
In Part III, Brueggemann explores Israel’s “unsolicited testimony.” This kind of speech is used to fill in the details of Israel’s witness and is often not part of the staged question and answer of the lawcourt scenes so often depicted in Scripture.
Part IV presents Israel’s “embodied testimony” reflected in the Torah, the king, the prophet, the cult, and the sage. He understands the Torah as a “guard against idolatry,” kingship permits a more public declaration of Torah in a “mode of communal existence” (697), the prophets arise during times when the covenant is in danger of being lost and call Israel back to covenant fidelity, the cult in Israel serves as “a place wherein Israel is assured of Yahweh’s presence” (697), the sage serves “to make available to Israel a sense of . . . coherence” (697). Brueggemann suggests that this mediated witness employed a daring combination of verbal and visual strategies and regularly scheduled meetings and assemblies with elaborate pageantry and exquisite beauty. The tabernacle, the temple, the festivals and all the other convocations were richly embellished with visual stimuli designed to not only make a point but to convey a message. Brueggemann artfully refers to this as a “pedagogy of saturation” (722). This term hearkens back to an earlier work, The Creative Word (Fortress Press, 1982) in which Brueggemann, articulated a biblical theology of Christian education grounded in the Old Testament practice of witness as instruction. Referring to this critical aspect of Israel’s witnessing task, Brueggemann writes, “This work of parental authority, instruction, and nurture, surely to be understood here as a multi-generational matter in an extended family, is not unlike what has in old-fashioned religious terminology been phrased ‘the nurture and admonition of the Lord’ . . . All of these together constitute a way in which the family proceeds with intentionality to keep its life-world intact, functioning, and authoritative into the next generation” (683).
This aspect of Israel’s witnessing task is the most crucial. Because if Israel does not preserve herself from generation to generation, she faces the real possibility of spiritual extinction. She came close to this as indicated in that troubling text from Judges 2:10-12a:
After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt.
The failure here in this text must be put squarely at the feet of the parents of “that whole generation” who lived under the leadership of Joshua. The reason for this is because the responsibility for teaching about “the Lord and what he had done for Israel” or God’s redemptive deeds (sidqoth), is a parental duty incumbent upon each new generation of parents. The Book of Deuteronomy and the Psalms both express this task in numerous texts that do in fact suggest a “pedagogy of saturation.”
The final section of his work (Part V) serves as a dialectic prospect to the opening retrospective and seeks to anticipate what the debates and discussions in biblical theology may be about. He sees a new perspective emerging in biblical scholarship that is more “pluralistic” and less “hegemonic” because with a return to a concern for the message of the texts, as they stand in their canonical tradition, interpreters will see the obvious pluralism imbedded in the textual tradition. Brueggemann insists that we must live with this inherent textual tension and put aside our traditional stances of “Cartesian skeptic” and “Kantian knower” (708). The tension manifests itself in the text as “dispute and accommodation” (710). There is a certain uncertainty that is reflected in the textual witness that wishes to leave open-ended our relationship with God and where it is going. This process invigorates Israel’s relationship with God “whereby Israel always arrives afresh at Yahweh” (712). Therefore, biblical theology “need not and dare not be coercive, because it does not aim at a consensus conclusion. It aims, rather, at an ongoing, contested conversation about the character of Yahweh” (717). As a result of this approach, Old Testament theology must abandon its previous dependence upon a “theological skepticism” that wanted to “date everything in the Old Testament late” or wanted to find the God “who is outside and beyond the text” (721). By contrast, Brueggemann counters “that we must examine . . . how Israel could rely on such a lean resource (the text), but why that utterance now seems to us so untrustworthy and flimsy” (722). While taking issue with previous contributions to the task of Old Testament theology, Brueggemann also resists the conservative tendency to absolutize and coerce interpretation of a text that may be held in higher esteem but may still be in danger of being domesticated by dogma. Brueggemann does not want the text neutered either by postmodern epistemology or fundamentalist dogmatism. For this reason he insists that “absolutist claims for the Christian gospel” are counterproductive and inhibit the stance of openness that one must assume when interpreting the Old Testament text since it does not “mandate . . . a specifically promised future” (112). Of course, Evangelicals are going to take issue with Brueggemann at this point, and rightly so. Although we must be kind, considerate, humble and gracious in our witness, we cannot eliminate the abrasive quality of the Christian gospel. Whether this gospel is proclaimed to Jews, Muslims, White Supremacist or United Methodists (my denomination), it will have a confrontational quality simply because it confronts our sin and autonomy with the claims of God in Christ. It is hard to get away from this in the New Testament text.
Brueggemann’s work is exquisitely written, appropriately nuanced, fortified with ample notes, where warranted, and substantiated with sound exegesis. Although he offers his work as a significant contribution to the existing literature of biblical theology, and as a way to counter some of the less than helpful previous approaches, his volume will certainly be appreciated by Christian educators because of the obvious implications that follow from his explication of the model of testimony (witness). It is a model weighted with educational overtones. The model of witness lends itself to a direct application to education settings in which the verbal mode predominates and the visual accentuates what is being taught. His model suggest the way in which Israel went about the task of religious instruction. By a variety of methods and strategies, all designed for one purpose, Israel witnessed not only to the nations about what the Lord had done for Israel, but also to her own children. When Israel followed this God-ordained formula she experienced God’s blessings. When she wandered from it, as in Judges 2, she paid a heavy price. The strength of Brueggemann’s model is that it begins with the text of Scripture and allows that text to grow its own pattern. So often when Christian educators write these kinds of books, they co-opt the text to make educational points. I don’t think Brueggemann had any intention of writing a biblical theology of Christian education, but in fact he has given us one if we will read it with a discerning eye and a receptive heart.