THEOLOGIES IN THE OLD TESTAMENTWritten by Ehrard S. Gerstenberger Reviewed By Philip Jenson
The plural of the title is significant. The unity of the OT (and the Bible) has been under attack for a long time, but, generally, this has resulted in books about the religion(s) of Ancient Israel. Those who write theologies have tended to assume the unity of the Bible, even if they have abandoned the idea of a unifying centre. Books on religion tend to be descriptive and aim for objectivity and (at least in theory) an equal weighting of the different religions of the area; theologies imply a desire to engage with the living God and provide some guidance for contemporary faith and practice. In this book Gerstenberger highlights the radical diversity of beliefs witnessed in the OT, but at the same time he wishes to address contemporary issues in a lively and relevant way. Teaching in Brazil for many years has alerted him to the ideological power of the Bible and the impossibility of neutrality. He wants to listen to others as well as to inform, and even gives his email for comment by interested readers. But has he succeeded in his task?
Gerstenberger tackles the challenge in a simple and powerful way; the key methodological approach is sociology, and it is abundantly evident that the OT emphasises the primary importance of people-in-community, above all worked out through a retelling of the story of the people of God. He attempts to analyse the different ideas about god according to five different social contexts that have shaped the perception of the character of god. Weighty chapters explore the ‘Deity in the circle of family and clan’ (near, faithful, merciful, loving), ‘Deities of the Village Community’ (giver of fertility, protection, law), ‘God and Goddess in the Tribal Alliance’ (warrior), ‘Kingdom theologies in Israel’ (God of king and nation), ‘The faith community of ‘Israel’ after the deportations’ (the only god, universal, creator).
Although I think this approach holds great promise, the result left me profoundly dissatisfied. First, Gerstenberger attempts to explore the differences historically rather than canonically. Compared to some he is surprisingly conservative, but he has to spend a great deal of time defending or expounding his particular view of the dating and setting of texts. The theologies he identifies are dependent upon accepting certain widely disputed views, and to various degrees they are uncertain. This is not how traditional theology has been carried out.
Second, there is very little sense of the unity of the Bible, although at various points Gerstenberger seeks to explore continuity through changing settings. He freely writes of contradictions between various texts and their views of god. The diversity of the theologies is such that he can speak of changes in god in the strongest terms. It is also perhaps significant that he feels free to write of ‘the deity’, and I think it would have been more honest to refer to ‘god’ rather than ‘God’, which has traditionally implied a reference to the one God. Gerstenberger is strongly critical of claims to theological exclusiveness, and one result of the diversity is that the possibility of such claims is denied through the relativising of any particular formulation.
The third and most significant issue is that of the authority of the Bible, and whether in any way it represents a revelation of the true and living God. By the end of the book it has become very clear that Gerstenberger regards the Bible as an assortment of limited or erroneous human perceptions. He feels free to criticise this or that aspect of the Bible from his own contemporary understanding of the way things are and should be. The usual politically correct positions are wielded as sticks to beat various biblical texts. What particularly saddened me is that this was done very superficially, with little engagement with the complex canonical and cultural context of these texts. Further, there is little recognition of the way in which insights from biblical texts might challenge the culture of today, as can happen when the most difficult texts are read with attentiveness and imagination. There is almost no engagement with more conservative or canonical scholars who attempt this. The final pages of the lecture printed as an Appendix (‘God in Our Time’) show that on any reckoning the god of Gerstenberger is no longer the God of the Bible.
Despite the valuable insights and observations along the way, I therefore judge this book to be fatally flawed. Yet it is worth reading to see the direction in which some forms of modern biblical interpretation are heading. Indeed it has sparked off a great deal of discussion because of the clarity with which it raises major issues of method and attitude. For those who disagree with the author, there remains much to be done in relating positively the social dimension of the Bible to an orthodox ecclesiology and theology.
Trinity College, Bristol