Old Testament Theology in Outline

Written by Walther Zimmerli Reviewed By John Goldingay

It is often noted that Eichrodt’s Theology of the OT and von Rad’s OT Theology mark the peaks and the turning points of the study of OT theology this century. Eichrodt wrote his magnum opus in the context of renewed theological interest in the OT in Germany in the period between the wars. His distinctive aim was to ‘cross-section’ the OT in such a way as to let its own intrinsic theological structure (which he identified as that of the covenant) emerge—rather than letting the shape of OT theology be determined by the categories of dogmatics. Von Rad wrote his two volumes (and then his Wisdom in Israel) after the second war in the conviction that OT theology had still not found its true self—which he identified with a more rigorous commitment to understanding each OT author’s theology in its own right in its place in history. The debate over the relative merits of these two approaches forms the background to the publication of a new spate of OT theologies in the 1970’s of which Zimmerli’s German original edition (1972) was one of the first.

The decade has also seen two OT theologies written in English, by J. L. McKenzie and R. E. Clements, and a programmatic work by B. S. Childs (Biblical Theology in Crisis). All these have sought to break out of the parameters set by Eichrodt and von Rad in Germany. In contrast, Zimmerli works broadly within those parameters. He specifically acknowledges how much of his Outline is ‘the outgrowth of constant dialogue, in both agreement and disagreement, with Gerhard von Rad’s Old Testament Theology’ (p. 11). Thus, in contrast to von Rad, Zimmerli affirms that the task of OT theology is that of ‘presenting I what the Old Testament says about God as a coherent whole’ (p. 12), and Part I of his Outline comprises six chapters on the person of God himself, beginning (in line with themes of earlier essays by him) with the revealing of the name Yahweh. For Zimmerli, ‘the Old Testament, in what it has to say about God, thinks of itself as a book of God’s words addressed to people’ (p. 141): Yahweh declares himself, reveals his will, and men respond in worship and obedience. At the same time, however, he develops his exposition in Part I by tracing how the person of Yahweh was made known to Israel in a succession of events or traditions—in the exodus, in the promise to the patriarchs, in creation, in election, and in the covenant. Von Rad’s influence is apparent both in the approach and in the order here.

Although Zimmerli does not refer to dialogue with Eichrodt, it is striking how much the two writers have in common. Zimmerli, too, is seeking to cross-section the OT, and then within each thematic chapter to trace the changing attitudes to various themes as Israel’s history and literature develop. (Zimmerli of course accepts the mainstream critical framework for this historical and literary study, and some reshaping of his picture will be necessary for anyone who does not.)

Zimmerli has several advantages over Eichrodt (apart from brevity!). One is that he lacks Eichrodt’s negative attitude to cult and law. Further, his overall outline enables him to embrace more aspects of Israel’s faith than Eichrodt does. After the discussion of Yahweh himself in Part I, Part II concerns Yahweh’s gifts: here Zimmerli’s strength is his positive attitude to the concrete realities of Israel’s faith such as victory in war and possession of the land (cp. his The OT and the World)—though ‘charismata of leadership and instruction’ occupy the bulk of Part II. Part III covers Yahweh’s commandment(s), with their theological, religious, and ethical concerns, a subject not easy to distinguish clearly from that of Part IV on ‘life before God’ (obedience, sacrifice, praise and prayer, wise living). Part V analyses ‘crisis and hope’ in Genesis 1–11, the histories, the prophets, and apocalyptic (in line with the treatment in Zimmerli’s Man and his Hope in the OT) and notes the OT’s openness to the future, which the Christian sees the NT as answering to—though Zimmerli himself makes little explicit reference to the relationship of OT theology and the message of the NT.

Like Eichrodt, however, having traced the diverse OT attitudes to various themes, he stops short of a synthesis on what the OT may then be reckoned to imply on a subject such as ‘the gift of God’s presence’ (chapter 9). Despite its Christian and theological concern, German OT theology in the end generally shrinks from the actual theological task of offering normative theological judgements.

Zimmerli’s bibliographies are good, with English translations usually noted, though omissions of those strangely include Zimmerli’s own The OT and the World from the same American publisher as this OT Theology, and also his essays on ‘Promise and fulfilment’ in Essays on OT Interpretation (ed. Westermann) and on ‘The place and limit of the wisdom in the framework of the OT theology’ in SJT 17 (1964). The text usefully follows common German practice of setting more detailed discussions in smaller type, though the Hebrew in the smaller type is wildly inaccurate.

John Goldingay

Fuller Theological Seminary