DOI:10.5508/jhs.2006.v6.r37

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006) - Review

Walter Brueggemann, The Book that Breathes New Life: Scriptural Authority and Biblical Theology (ed. Patrick D. Miller; Fortress Press 2004). Pp. xx + 228. Cloth, US$35.00. ISBN 0-8006-3667-8.

This book is a collection of previously published essays, all but one written between 1992 and 2002. It is organized in three parts. Part I contains three essays on Biblical Authority; Brueggemann dedicates one essay to a personal reflection on Biblical authority. Part II—the bulk of the book—has six essays on Biblical Theology in which Brueggemann explores the panorama of Biblical Theology focusing primarily on its rebirth in the middle of the twentieth century through the works of Walter Eichrodt, and Gerhard von Rad. In Part III Brueggemann dialogues with other scholars, particularly with Brevard Childs, whom he considers the most important figure in the recovery and redefinition of Old Testament Theology (OTT) in the 1990s.

Its title well reflects the contents and Brueggemann's proposal for constructing a Biblical Theology in the postmodern context. The hermeneutics in this context is dialogical: texts allow for “ever-new disclosures when they must meet, address, and respond to evocative and particular contexts” (p. 125). More specifically, Brueggemann defends a reading from the context of the communities of faith (both Jewish and Christian) in which theological claims are normative. He is concerned with the “generative power of the texts for the community of faith”; the texts attest to a God who makes all things new. The word “normative”—applied to the text and to theological claims—is a key word throughout the essays.

Brueggemann engages critically and provocatively with leading scholars who significantly contributed to and helped shape the discipline of OTT in the USA, such as Bernhard Anderson, James Barr, and Brevard Childs. Anderson sees his enterprise as a Christian undertaking. He is sensitive to the problematic of history, the faith reflected in the text, pastoral issues, and contemporaneity—elements which are important in Brueggemann's own construal. Barr resists any claim that the Bible offers normative or authoritative teaching; otherwise he would cease to be a historian and become a dogmatic theologian. Childs stands apart from Barr because he accepts the church as the matrix for interpretation and takes the text as normative for the doing of theology. Brueggemann sees Childs' appeal to the great claims of the Reformation and the Patristic claims of the Rule of Faith as keys to interpretation as limiting; the text becomes a servant and echo of “the normative, canonical, orthodox teaching of the church” as in the premodern period. Childs' program does not see any gain in the modern period.

The state of the discipline is discussed against the background of the modern period, when Old Testament scholarship was particularly dominated by the history of religions approach, and of the ground-breaking work of Walter Eichrodt and Gerhard von Rad. The work of Karl Barth provided the impetus for these fresh attempts at theological interpretation. Brueggemann explores a polarity between the Enlightenment agenda of Historical Criticism with its emphasis on the historical aspects of Biblical interpretation and the theological needs of the church. In his evaluation, the most urgent question in the discipline goes back to Gabler's program—whether interpretation is an historical objective enterprise pursued by the academy or an ecclesial matter tailored for the needs of the church. He speaks of the tyranny of the church (referring mostly to the premodern period) and the tyranny of the academia (referring to the Historical Critical method) whose practice undermines the historical reliability of the text and, consequently, its theological claims. He attempts to solve this tension with his appeal to the categories of ‘recital,’ ‘narrative,’ and ‘testimony.’ He reiterates his proposal which appeared in his book, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress, 1997) that OTT “is essentially a rhetorical analysis of the actual, concrete utterance of the text to see what Israel says about YHWH and how it is said, that is, it is a study of Israel's testimony to the reality and character of God” (pp. 112-113). According to Brueggemann, this requires forgoing questions of historicity and at the same time bracketing out dogmatic claims. He also argues for a difference between “testimony” and “happening.” His category ‘testimony’ (which comes from von Rad via Barth) implies a differentiated view of history.

The work of von Rad is rather significant in Brueggemann's own construal for he sees von Rad's theology as the testimony of a confessor. Von Rad stakes everything on the “originary quality of the narrative testimony in the text” (p. 68) yet he still values some of the results of historical criticism. Brueggemann's proposal is sensitive to the idiosyncrasies that have maintained a distancing between the academia and the communities of faith and calls for balanced scholarship. He is committed to critical scholarship but is at the same sensitive to his own ecclesial commitment. He is very sensitive to the historical, social, political, and religious context in which one theologizes. Von Rad's work in particular is evaluated against the rise of National Socialism in Germany and the problem of supersessionism.

Among the weaknesses of the book is an apparent lack of continuity between the parts given the the fact that it is a collection of essays; one will come across points being restated more than once and it lacks a proper conclusion. Yet one finds newer insights all along and at the end one has a clear idea of Bruggemann's program for Biblical Theology. There remains the tension of incorporating a postmodern pluralistic reading of the OT and doing Biblical theology from the perspective of a confessing Christian community of faith, for whom the Old and the New Testaments, together, have normative theological claims.

Carluci dos Santos, Wycliffe College