Contours of Old Testament Theology

  • Bernhard W. Anderson
  • Jun 1, 2001
  • Series: Volume 4 - 2001

Anderson, Bernhard W. Contours of Old Testament Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. ix + 358 pp. $27.00 hc. ISBN 0-8006-3074-2.

The enterprise of writing a theology of the Old Testament demands methodological clarity and a willingness to wrestle with a host of potentially difficult issues as the foundational, preliminary task to presenting the content of one's theological position. In this volume the well-known veteran commentator on the Old Testament, Bernhard Anderson, Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary, meets these challenges head on with his characteristic intelligibility and irenic spirit. His own understanding of the essence of the theology of the Old Testament occupies, of course, the bulk of this work, but it all coheres nicely with his theoretical basis. This comes as no surprise: This book reflects the material of a seminary course taught over several decades (cf. Appendix One) and so enjoys the fruits of years of interaction and reflection. Each chapter is between 10-15 pages long and has a concluding summary. In other words, this is a user-friendly book (Although a more extensive subject index would have increased its usability for the beginning student even more.).

The prolegomena to his theology (entitled "Preliminary Considerations") occupy chapters 1-4. To begin with, Anderson writes his "experimental approach to Old Testament theology" (the title of ch. 4) from an unashamedly Christian perspective. This is clear from the opening sentence in his Preface, where he states: "This book is addressed primarily to the church: the believing and worshipping community" (p. vii). This stance is reinforced and defended in the first chapter ("The Old Testament in the Christian Bible"). This commitment to connecting the Old to the New Testament is also evident in multiple comments interspersed throughout the book (note, e.g., his discussion on resurrection, pp. pp. 316-24), the hymns which he continually uses as illustrations for theological points, and the closing section that makes this link even more explicit ("Conclusion: From the Old Testament to the New"; chapters 35-36). Nevertheless, his Christian commitments do not mean that the Old Testament must be read exclusively in light of the New; on the contrary, Anderson argues vigorously that the Old Testament should be first interpreted in relative independence from the New. On multiple occasions he also appeals to Jewish colleagues and scholars for insights into the text and its message.

Anderson expresses his (critical) appreciation especially for four major theologians of the last century: Eichrodt, von Rad, Brueggemann, and Childs (the last two of which, of course, are still publishing). Each contributes in its own way to his formulation. The goals for his theology are that it: be set within its Ancient Near Eastern setting and demonstrate the centrality of the concept of covenant (Eichrodt), reflect the development of its multiple traditions (von Rad), admit the nature of symbolic language and its implications for theological reflection (Brueggemann), and be based on the received, final form of the canon (Childs).

The theological discussion begins by focusing on Yahweh (Part I, "Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel", chpts. 5-9). For the author, the self-disclosure of and relationship with the personal, holy God of Israel is the basis of the belief system of the Old Testament. This self-revelation and the bond between Yahweh and his people are expressed through several covenants, the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic. Each of these is the topic of a major section of the next part of the volume: Part II, "Yahweh's Covenants with the People" (the Abrahamic, chpts. 10-16; the Mosaic, chpts. 17-22; the Davidic, chpts. 23-26).

According to Anderson, the political disaster, which was set in motion by Josiah's death in 609 B.C. and culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem some twenty years later, exposed the theological limitations of the central premises of the covenantal theology (that God dwelt in the midst of his people and that suffering follows disobedience as the judgment of Yahweh). In the exile, therefore, other theological sources provided different perspectives to the conundrums of the reflections on theodicy. Wisdom literature and apocalypticism offered new resources to deal with the rhythms and mysteries of everyday life and the movement of nations in human history (Part III, "Trials of Faith and Horizons of Hope", chpts 27-34). It is these two traditions from the Old Testament, Anderson argues, that form the best paths into the New Testament: wisdom ideas were communicated through the Septuagint (which included material such as Wisdom of Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon), the "Bible" of the early Christian Church; on the other hand, Jesus is best portrayed as an apocalyptic prophet (chpt. 35). But, the three key covenants also had their impact (chpt. 36), as Jesus is presented as prophet (Abrahamic), priest (Mosaic), and king (Davidic).

There is much to commend in this volume. As was already mentioned, Anderson has given his reader "bite-size chunks" in easy-to-read language. Anderson should also be praised for tackling tough topics of contemporary debate. For instance, he explains his view of the historical value of the Old Testament and the importance of historicity to its theology (pp. 52-54 and Appendix 2; the volume is dedicated to G.E. Wright); he engages at several points with the concerns of feminism and its claims that the text is patriarchal and therefore suspect; he also discusses homosexuality (pp. 126f.), war (pp. 171-80), and the ideology of the text (pp. 197-99). In addition, he brings in at helpful junctures some pertinent background data from the Ancient Near East (e.g., regarding the monarchy and the temple, pp. 195-208).

Nevertheless, there are some items that leave the author open to criticism. First, and most important, one finds his breakdown of the Old Testament material into three almost parallel covenantal streams a bit odd in light of his desire to follow the canonical order. While he does sometimes speak about how the three are interrelated (e.g., pp. 239-42), perhaps his rather neat distinctions with long trajectories throughout the Old Testament material are more imposed than real. Also, the layout of his volume gives the impression that wisdom is late and a response to the crisis of 587, yet the Ancient Near Eastern material should have informed and altered his view. This kind of classification can make a presentation easier to package, but the theological crosscurrents in Israel historically would have been more ancient, multi-layered, and in constant flux.

This reviewer's uneasiness is also canonical and theological. For instance, Abraham, the tabernacle, the Holiness Code, and much of prophecy are placed within the Priestly tradition and developed as a distinct unit, while the Sinai covenant appears later within his discussion of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-2 Kings). In these and other matters Anderson follows much classic critical thinking, but in doing so he modifies how the Old Testament presents itself and its ideas. Here is evident the inherent and unavoidable tension of the critic, who desires to be respectful of both his academic convictions (many of which are now under fire) and the final form of the text.

It is also possible to disagree on details. For instance, he exposits Genesis 15 (p. 99) in his chapter on the Abrahamic covenant, but he calls this a "curious episode" that "defies understanding." While this scene has indeed perplexed scholars, he does not deal with comparative archaeological data that would illuminate its details (cf. R.S. Hess, "The Slaughter of Animals in Genesis 15: Genesis 15:8-21 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context" in R.S. Hess, P.E. Satterthwaite, and G.J. Wenham, eds., He Swore and Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50 [Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1993], pp. 55-65). Anderson also appeals to the suzerainty treaty forms in his treatment of Deuteronomy but does not adequately deal with the scholarly debate on its components and the implications for dating the document (pp. 142f.). Two final examples move more into the area of systematics: Evangelical readers would most likely not be comfortable with his assertions of the extent of the patriarchal nature and other ideological limitations of the Old Testament, nor would they dismiss the notion of propitiation so readily from its theology (pp. 120f., 295f.).

In sum, Anderson has given us a very interesting book full of quality material and balanced discussions. With a few caveats, I would not be averse to recommending this volume to my students.

M. Daniel Carroll R.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary
June 2001