Understanding Old Testament Theology: Mapping the Terrain of Recent Approaches

Written by Brittany Kim and Charlie Trimm Reviewed By Kevin S. Chen

Having known each other since their days as doctoral students at Wheaton College and collaborated on a previous publication, Brittany Kim and Charlie Trimm team up again to produce a concise, valuable guide to Old Testament theology that focuses on surveying, organizing, and selectively analyzing recent works on the subject. As the authors explain (pp. ix, 7–8) and as those familiar with Old Testament theology know, Gerhard Hasel’s standard work, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) is about thirty years old. This means that its survey of literature needs updating, and Kim and Trimm meet this need admirably.

As for the contents of the book, its brief introduction (pp. 1–10) provides a working definition for Old Testament theology, identifies contested issues that have led to a diversity of approaches, gives a brief history of the discipline (with references to more detailed treatments), and explains how Kim and Trimm classify various approaches to Old Testament theology and how each chapter is organized. Focusing on works from the past thirty years (p. 8), approaches to Old Testament theology are classified into three broad categories—those that emphasize history (whether biblical or a historical-critical reconstruction), theme(s), or context (whether canonical, Jewish, or personal/postmodern). Each chapter begins with a definition (i.e., summary description) of a particular subcategory of approaches (e.g., single theme) and a listing of representative works, with the bulk of each chapter explaining common features and points of tension within this subcategory. Each chapter concludes with a test case, which consists of a brief survey of how various scholars in this subcategory treat Exodus.

The major categories of history, theme, and context can be quite broad. The “theme” category is the most homogeneous, with the main variation being whether a scholar emphasizes a single theme or multiple themes. The “history” category, on the other hand, covers salvation-historical approaches, narrative approaches, and approaches based on historical-critical reconstruction. The “context” category likewise spans the literary-social context of canon, the context of Jewish scholarship, and various approaches involving the context of the individual interpreter and the group of people the interpreter represents. As a member of an ethnic minority (in America), I appreciate the special effort that Kim and Trimm make to include less commonly heard voices, whether Jewish, Korean, Chinese, Hispanic, Indian, African, or others. One minor point of correction is that Jackson Wu is not a “Chinese” scholar (p. 132), as the name is a pseudonym, although he has extensive experience and knowledge of Chinese culture.

A more important issue is the major categories themselves and the categorization of various approaches. Kim and Trimm acknowledge that their way of classifying approaches to Old Testament theology is not the only one and that some approaches could be classified under more than one category (p. 10). They cite Walter Kaiser as an example, whose work emphasizes the theme of promise and hence is categorized under theme rather than history, even though his presentation follows historical order (e.g., Walter Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978]). Examples like these could be added, such as Dempster who is classified under theme (p. 73) but who also emphasizes narrative storyline and canon and so could fit under history or context also (Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty: A Biblical Theology of the Hebrew Bible, NSBT 15 [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2003]). Kim and Trimm graciously apologize to authors who feel that they have been miscategorized. At the same time, they believe that something like this is inevitable “no matter how the categories are defined” (p. 10).

The root issue seems to be the eclectic nature of many approaches to Old Testament theology (e.g., historical and thematic, and sometimes also canonical) and the either-or impression given (even if unintended) by classification into one of these three categories. Although an alternative of not classifying approaches at all (or doing so purely chronologically) is probably even worse, the frequently mixed nature of approaches to Old Testament theology still could be made more prominent throughout the book. Another alternative is Sailhamer’s use of feature analysis to classify approaches to Old Testament theology that highlights multiple features of a particular approach at once (John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], 29–35). Granted, there is an inherent tradeoff here between the simplicity of having a small number of categories and the precision of feature analysis. The authors (and perhaps the publisher) may have chosen to prioritize simplicity, but readers should bear in mind the difficulty of classifying such multifaceted approaches in a simple manner.

I believe that this book, especially the updated survey of literature, is helpful to readers and merits consideration by instructors as a required textbook alongside Hasel for courses on Old Testament theology. Hasel (or the like) continues to have value for its more detailed discussion of methodology and the history of the discipline, even as Kim and Trimm’s book meets a real need today.

Kevin S. Chen

Kevin S. Chen
Christian Witness Theological Seminary
San Jose, California, USA

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