God With Us: A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament

Written by Chirstoph Barth, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley Reviewed By Blaine Charette

In a book of moderate length, considering the subject matter, Christoph Barth (and one must also credit the book’s editor, Geoffrey Bromiley, who reduced the much longer original typescript) has produced a masterful overview of the ‘main topics’ of OT faith. His approach to the task of OT theology is reliable, inasmuch as he permits Scripture itself to determine which themes are primary, and his presentation of these themes is frequently fresh and stimulating.

Barth stands squarely in that tradition of OT research, defined by the writings of G. Ernest Wright and Gerhard von Rad, which relates the essential message of the OT to the mighty acts of God in history. In his view, ‘God’s dynamic initiative, not timeless religious truth, is the main theme of biblical testimony’. By noting those divine acts which resonate through the narratives, hymns and confessional statements of the OT, Barth is able to isolate the nine principal components of Israel’s faith (creation, the election of the patriarchs, the exodus, the wilderness wandering, the Sinai revelation, the gift of land, kingship in Israel, the election of Jerusalem, and the sending of the prophets). Each of the nine chapters of the book discusses one of these pivotal divine acts.

In terms of pedagogy, the book is well organized and the layout of the chapters makes for clear and easy study. Each chapter opens with an introductory section entitled ‘The Witness of Scripture’, in which the relevant biblical texts dealing with the subject are briefly reviewed. The subsequent sections build upon this summary of the data by treating the many ancillary topics related to the main subject. Of particular usefulness for study and review are the abstracts which appear at the beginning of each section. A very adequate subject index also facilitates the study of the individual themes under discussion. One uncommon feature of the book is that it contains no footnotes. Supplementary material and digressions are placed within the text but in a smaller point size.

In the course of Barth’s discussion there are very few references to the secondary literature. This is probably due to his conviction, stated in the introduction, that ‘so far as’ possible OT theology must let scripture speak for itself. On the whole, this decision not to allow the voice of scholarly opinion to intrude upon and possibly obscure the voice of Scripture is justified. It is certainly evident that the author is no dilettante; virtually every page testifies to his wide reading and scholarly expertise. There are, however, some places where documentation and reference to other studies would have been helpful (e.g. the discussion of ‘the image of God’, pp. 27–28). Nevertheless, the adopted approach, by placing the reader’s focus firmly on the witness of Scripture, provides a refreshing change from the kind of academic study which is preoccupied with the state of scholarly debate.

A distinctive feature of Barth’s approach is the analysis of the vocabulary relative to the various subjects he discusses. His word studies are frequently models in clarity and perception and often they succeed in advancing the discussion to new levels of understanding. For example, Barth’s discussion of the biblical terms used to describe Israel’s possession of Canaan (pp. 174–176) emphasizes the need for caution lest one misinterpret the original biblical meaning of the terms. His own brief analysis of the terms (wherein he argues that the crucial terms ‘do not carry the legal sense of a lasting private property right’) is pertinent to the ongoing contemporary debate among evangelical Christians as to what support, if any, should be shown to the modern state of Israel on the matter of land claims. One might also note Barth’s discussion of the vocabulary of worship, particularly of the many verbs of action and posture which appear in worship contexts, which gives rise to the striking observation that ‘going, coming, entering, and drawing near were not just steps preceding worship. By leaving their own ephemeral dwellings and entering into the presence of God the people passed from their own world to God’s world’ (p. 268).

One of the most satisfying aspects of the book concerns the discovery of what is truly central to OT theology. The careful treatment accorded to certain topics which one would not ordinarily expect an introductory volume on OT theology to address serves as a reminder that far too often one brings to Scripture a prepared agenda rather than allowing Scripture itself to formulate the agenda. The necessity of the very thorough discussions about kingship in Israel and God’s choice of Jerusalem becomes apparent only when one begins to see these issues against the larger backdrop of Israel’s developing faith. It is because Barth is sensitive to this larger picture, presented in the final form of the OT, that he is able to make the occasional penetrating observation concerning the specific features of Israel’s experience.

Barth informs the reader that his original intention was to conclude the book with a chapter that would ‘unfold the fulfilment according to the NT. He abandoned this undertaking as impracticable. It is unfortunate, however, given his conviction about the unity of the testaments, that he did not take the opportunity to interject, now and then in his discussion, the kind of observation that would contribute to the realization of his original notion. To list some examples: when addressing the topic of creation, he could have expanded the discussion to include some mention of the NT witness to the new creative work of God; the section on the election of and promise to the fathers might have made reference to the teaching of John the Baptist, Jesus and Paul on the subject; the treatment of the subject of land possession would certainly have been enhanced by reference to the entrance and inheritance language of the NT. Even though Barth is writing an OT theology, his purpose would have been better served if such NT emphases had been integrated into his discussion.

In spite of these criticisms, one can heartily recommend the book as a valuable contribution to OT studies. It would serve well as an introductory textbook in survey course on the OT, especially if used alongside one of the standard OT surveys or OT introductions.

Blaine Charette

Emmanuel College, Franklin Springs, GA