17 Old Testament Theology and the Canon1

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17 Old Testament Theology and the Canon1

My title is somewhat tautologous; by definition, the Old Testament is a canon, so Old Testament theology is bound to be canon-related. Yet the way we speak about Old Testament theology and about the canon indicates that actually the interrelationship of Old Testament theology and the canon can be quite complex.

We owe to Brevard Childs an emphasis on the juxtaposition of the two expressions2 though I find helpful Paul House’s definition of “canonical” in terms of “analysis that is God-centered, intertextually oriented, authority-conscious, historically sensitive and devoted to the pursuit of the wholeness of the Old Testament message.”3 And I find helpful William Abraham’s emphasis that in origin “canon” designates Scripture not as a rule or a criterion for truth but as a means of grace, something designed “to bring people to salvation, to make people holy, to make proficient disciples of Jesus Christ, and the like” (cf. 2 Tim 3:16).4 He notes that feminist theology has actually and surprisingly turned the canon back into “a means of healing and transformation” rather than a criterion,5 though it has also rejected it as a criterion or norm. As canon, Scripture is a norm, but it is first a resource.6 It is formative as well as normative (Moshe Halbertal).7 Benjamin D. Sommer, indeed, comments that in Judaism the Scriptures – and even the Mishnah and Gemaras – are formative rather than normative; it is subsequent tradition that is directly normative for behavior.8

I have six comments to make on the interrelationship of Old Testament theology and the canon.

1. Old Testament Theology Considers the Insight that Emerges from the Form of the Old Testament Canon

Old Testament theology takes account of the form of the canon. There are at least three senses in which it might do so. One of Childs’s theses is that the individual books of the Old Testament have been “shaped to function as canon.”9 His examples vary in forcefulness. Perhaps paradoxically, they are particularly illuminating in connection with the poetic books, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. But whether or not the books are so shaped, Childs is surely right that we should do Old Testament theology on the basis of the books’ canonical form rather than on the basis of historical and redaction-critical hypotheses about their origins, such as the tradition that Genesis was written by Moses or the hypothesis that it was written by a committee in the Second Temple period. If we “seek to give theological autonomy to a reconstructed Yahwist source” we disregard the work of the people who made it part of the Torah and accepted it in this form as Scripture.10 Admittedly, there are historical and redaction-critical hypotheses for which the canonical text gives us significant evidence, such as the link between the book called Isaiah and both the period of Isaiah ben Amoz and that of Cyrus the Persian (Isa 1:1; 45:1). I thus find it strange that Childs argues that reference to the exilic context of Isaiah 40 – 55 has been almost entirely removed from these chapters.11 It is appropriate to take into account the information the text does give us in doing Old Testament theology.

It can also be enlightening to consider the theological implications of the ordering of the books in the canon. Both Jack Miles and Stephen Dempster, for instance, look at the Hebrew-Aramaic canon as if it is a narrative.12 Yet this is a construct they bring to the text. While the Scriptures are dominated and framed by narrative, they are not actually a narrative. Both authors thus have to do considerable linking of dots, and come to monumentally different conclusions regarding the dynamics of the alleged narrative: Miles sees it as relating God’s gradual withdrawal, Dempster as a story that moves from Adam to David and a coming Davidic king. Less inference is involved in Marvin A Sweeney’s account of the canon as implying “the initiation of Jewish life based on the Torah, its disruption in the period of the monarchy and the Babylonian exile, and its restoration in the aftermath of the exile,”13 or in Hans Walter Wolff’s non-narrative view of the Greek canon as moving from past to present to future.14 Or one might see this threefold canon as suggesting the definition of the community’s nature in story and command, then in the discernment of the sure ordering of created reality, then in the irruption of something new in uncredentialed channels. In developing this formulation, Walter Brueggemann interestingly observes that conservative persons will be inclined to focus on the Torah, radicals on the Prophets, and people such as humanistic psychologists on the Writings.15 At Fuller Theological Seminary, the MDiv requires a course in the Torah (students may study both Prophets and Writings, but must do only one), while courses in the School of Psychology require a course in the Writings (students may study both Torah and Prophets but are not required to do so).

Brueggemann applies his formulation to the Hebrew-Aramaic canon, but I think it fits the Greek canon better. In principle, I do not think we have to choose between the Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek ordering of the books;16 while the former was adopted by the synagogue and the latter by the church, both may be of Jewish origin. We do have to choose between the Hebrew-Aramaic list of books and the Greek one, and I choose the Hebrew-Aramaic one, though I do not think it makes a whole lot of difference except – as someone has observed – for increasing the amount of the Old Testament that the church ignores.)

More important than the shaping of individual books or their order is the rhetorical form of the canon. It is indeed dominated by narrative, in which Israel tells its story, twice, in large-scale versions that dominate the first half of the Greek Bible and that bookend and frame the Hebrew-Aramaic Bible. Yet narrative is not all. It incorporates and is accompanied by substantial speech of address, in which God or God’s representatives address Israel; here narrative statements have a place but do not dominate. The canon also incorporates and is complemented by speech in which human beings address Yahweh in praise, protest, and penitence. Claus Westermann sees the Hebrew-Aramaic canon as following the sequence narrative-address-response, while Rolf Rendtorff comments that “In the first part of the canon God acts, in the second God speaks, and in the third part of the canon people speak to God and of God”.17 But this rather oversimplifies the Writings. One might indeed argue that the Hebrew-Aramaic Bible comprises a stepped structure, narrative-address-prayer-address-narrative.

The canon’s being dominated by narrative signifies for Old Testament theology that Israel’s faith is a gospel, a story declaring good news about what God has done.18 It is not fundamentally a series of present-tense statements such as “God is love” nor a series of imperatives such as “love your neighbor” but a series of past-tense statements such as “God so loved the world that he gave….” Old Testament theology is thus first an explication of the acts of God. In fact, the much-derided biblical theology movement was not so wrong. In fact, I wonder if the biblical theology movement is due for reevaluation. By some quasi-Hegelian logic it is customary for fashions in theology to be despised in their aftermath, then to undergo rehabilitation (it happened to Barth). The biblical theology movement had its weaknesses and its blind spots but it had its insights and strengths.

These narratives are not just one collection of liberating stories and traditions, parallel to other such collections from other cultures. They tell us the good news about what God did for Israel in setting about to bless the world. Their narrative form is intrinsic to their theological statement. If their gospel is true, it cannot be expressed in the form of traditional systematic theology.

The dominance of narrative in the Old Testament canon also makes it possible to discuss complex theological questions that are not open to being “solved” in the form of the discursive, analytical statement that came to dominate theology. Narrative makes it possible to discuss the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freewill (in Exod 5 – 14) or the nature of the presence of God or the way God deals with the sin of the people of God (in Exod 32 – 34) or the relationship between fulfillment and non-fulfillment and between obedience and disobedience on the part of the people of God (in Joshua) or the relationship between divine politics and human politics (in 2 Kings).

So it is theologically significant that narrative opens the Old Testament and dominates it. But it is also theologically significant that these narratives both incorporate substantial instruction in non-narrative form (in the Torah) and are accompanied by further substantial non-narrative instruction (in the Prophets).19 Narrative is not everything. Indeed, there is a dialectical conversation between narrative and instruction. In the Torah, the conversation is symbolized by the enfolding of instruction into the narrative; in the Prophets, it is symbolized by their reference back to the narrative events. The First Testament toggles narrative and precept.20

So the narrative pauses to make theological statements about who God is, such as the outline Old Testament systematic theology in Exodus 34:6-7 where Yahweh offers a self-description in terms of character traits. This non-narrative description of Yahweh implicitly constitutes a theological reflection on the narrative that precedes, though in itself it constitutes a statement of who Yahweh simply is. Likewise Leviticus 19:18 requires that Israelites love their neighbors, especially the ones who have wronged them. The immediate basis for this is the fact that “I am Yahweh,” that people are to revere Yahweh, that they are to observe Yahweh’s laws, and in the slightly wider context that “you are to be holy because I, Yahweh your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2). In a much looser sense, such teaching also links with the narrative, but it stands as a statement of who Yahweh is and what people are supposed to do that is independent of such contexts. The teaching in the Prophets and Wisdom Books then majors on such statements. The canonical form of the Old Testament thus does point theology towards accompanying narrative statements such as “God so loved the world…” with statements such as “God is love” and statements such as “you are to love people who wrong you.”

Then as well as narrative and teaching, the Old Testament incorporates substantial material in which people speak to God in praise, protest, and penitence. Again this material links closely with narrative and instruction, which often include praise, protest, and penitence; indeed one might see the narratives as a whole as praise, prayer or protest.21 Conversely, psalms and other prayers often take narrative form, while the Psalter is formally constructed as a book of instruction. But these psalms and prayers show that narrative and instruction are properly turned into explicit praise, prayer, and penitence; theology and ethics become doxology. And they show teaching on praise, prayer, and penitence taking the form of instances of praise, prayer, and penitence.

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