Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Feldmeier, Reinhard and Hermann Spieckermann, God of the Living: A Biblical Theology (translated by Mark E. Biddle; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011). Pp. 612. Hardcover. US $59.95. ISBN 978-1-602-58394-8.

This work, which takes its title from Jesus' characterization of God in Mark 12:27, is an English translation of the authors' German Der lebendige Gott. Eine Einführung in die biblische Gotteslehre (Mohr Siebeck, 2011). The two volumes were published concurrently. As its title indicates, the work overtly labels itself as an enterprise in Christian biblical theology, and entails a rigorous, critical engagement of both testaments belonging to the Christian Bible. Although the reader needs to appreciate the marked confessional character of this book, it distinguishes itself as an exceptional work of biblical scholarship, both in endeavor and in execution. Its general purpose is clearly laid out at the onset, when the authors state that, “This work seeks to present the Christian Bible's understanding of God as a coherent scheme” (Preface). The authors recognize that this can only be done “to the depths permitted by the biblical texts themselves” and requires that the biblical understanding of God be “brought to light in all its complexity and controversy” (p. 3). Arriving at “the most consistent depiction possible of the various aspects of biblical discourse about God” is the “center” of this theological project (p. 9).

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Foundation,” consists of six chapters which address “six foundational aspects” of “God's being,” identifying in both Old and New Testaments corresponding theological visions (p. 12). Due to space constraints, I will outline only the first two chapters which are the most important chapters of the book, excepting the conclusion. Chapter 1, “The Name and the Names,” investigates the names used of God in the Old and New Testaments and concludes that “the God of the Old Testament changed names in the New Testament, as it were” (p. 48), that “the Father God of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament who revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ” (p. 49). From this, chapter 2, “From Lord God to Father God,” develops the thesis that “speaking of God as Father marks a significant difference…between Old Testament and New Testament speech about God” (p. 52). While the name “Father” in the Old Testament was meant “to preserve the sovereignty of YHWH” in the pre-exilic period and “to transform the suffering of God's remoteness into the experience of God's saving presence” in post-exilic Judaism (p. 65), in the New Testament “Father is not one characterization of God among others but the sum of the Christian understanding of God because ‘in Christ’ (2 Cor 5:17) a new relationship to God is open to believers” (p. 69), and “in the Son, God as Father places believers as children in a new relationship with himself” (p. 90). These two chapters in Part 1 provide the backbone of the authors’ foundational characterization of “God's being.” Chapter 2, in particular, is referred to most frequently throughout the course of the book, and figures prominently in the conclusion. Chapters 3–6 continue to build upon the previous chapters, even while developing their own unique theses. Ultimately, Part 1 identifies and aims to substantiate the claim that the only thing essential to “God's being” is God's “desire for relationship with human beings and the world” (p. 12).

In Part 2, “Development,” the discussion transitions from “God's being” to “God's doing” where attention is focused on “the way God's will [for relationship] has been realized according to the biblical witness and how this insight can be heeded” (p. 13). The topics discussed in the 12 chapters include, “Word and Creation,” “Blessing and Praise,” “Justice and Justification,” “Forgiveness and Reconciliation,” “Hiddenness and Wrath,” “Suffering and Lament,” “Transience and Death,” “Eternity and Time,” “Commandment and Prayer,” “Covenant and Promise,” “Salvation and Judgment,” “Hope and Comfort.” Part 3, “Conclusion,” consists of a single chapter that brings together many of the observations from the previous chapters, particularly chapters 1 and 2, while articulating a theology of God that is summed up by Jesus' phrase from Mark 12:27, the “God of the living.” The book contains a bibliography and, due to space considerations, selective Scripture and topical indexes.

There is much about this volume worthy of praise. Three features are particularly significant in my estimation, and they establish this work as a preeminent model for any future projects in biblical theology. First, in an age of ever-narrowing specializations, the idea that a single person could command the expertise necessary to write a biblical theology is rightfully questioned. “Any form of hermeneutical ‘soloing’ is overestimation of one's own abilities” (p. 11). Feldmeier and Spieckermann are noted scholars in their fields, New Testament and Old Testament respectively. The decision to collaborate was an intentional, hermeneutical decision: “The need for this constellation of personnel is grounded in the hermeneutical assumption that the most appropriate account of a theology of the Christian Bible can be best produced by reciprocal exchange and can best take shape in the preparation of a text for which both partners share responsibility.…While both seek to portray ‘their’ testament in its religious, historical, and systematic context, they will simultaneously submit their own views of the ‘other’ testament to criticism and make the potential for insight into the ‘other’ testament dormant in their ‘own’ bear fruit” (p. 11). Anyone who reads this book will wander into foreign territory, and few will fail to find fruit that has previously lain dormant in their own respective “testament” or field of study.

Second, any work purporting to be a “biblical theology” must address the question “What is the Bible?” This is not merely a confessional question, but one of historical and religious significance. The Septuagint, in particular, plays a prominent role in this volume, especially when compared to previous work in this field. It stands as a unique trajectory of tradition that shapes the Hellenistic world and, most importantly, the New Testament writers (pp. 9–10 n. 17). Its language plays a crucial role in shaping the theology of the New Testament, a point that is particularly pertinent in chapters 2 and 5. Moreover, the willingness to recognize and engage both Eastern and Western church traditions of the Christian Canon marks this as an ecumenical work, sensitive to the historical dimensions of the development of the Christian canon (pp. 10–11 n.18). Future projects should likewise endeavor to be self-critical about canon and tradition when undertaking similar research.

A third feature of this volume worthy of praise is its organization and argumentation. The chapters have been carefully considered and arranged; there is a sense of development as one progresses through the book. Due to the book's length, it is unlikely to serve as a textbook in a university or college classroom, yet the authors were careful to develop each chapter as a self-supporting argument. There is a discernible thesis in more or less every chapter of the book, and any chapter would prove a meaningful point of departure for investigating the Christian Bible's portrayal of a particular aspect of “God's being” or “God's doing.” It would be helpful if more biblical theologies were driven by such clearly defined theses.

This is a characteristically German book, both in style and in content. Stylistically speaking, the translator has evidently remained close to the thought and construction of the original German; the result, therefore, is a translation that will prove challenging for some English readers. More pressing to my mind is the content, which is deeply committed to critical reconstructions of religious and composition history. I do not mean by this criticism to suggest that such critical investigations are unwarranted or unhelpful in every case. Rather, I would suggest that the authors allow these issues too frequently to distract from or eclipse the text itself. At times, the reader wonders whether he or she is reading a biblical theology, or a theology rooted in the reconstructed history of the religion of pre-exilic Israel, exilic, post-exilic, Hellenistic, or Second Temple Judaism.

I am not convinced that the authors' frequent appeal to historical constructs of Israelite, Judaic, or early Christian religion or to stages in biblical composition always helps their argument, nor am I convinced that they are integral to it (but sometimes they are, and I recognize this is a difficult balance to strike). For example, in the conclusion to the book the authors write, “At the end of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 30 [i.e., 30:15–16] packages what all of Deuteronomy, perhaps even the whole Pentateuch—which was already substantially complete on the literary level of Deuteronomy 30—has tried to say in the form of an alternative” (p. 541). The authors here attempt to ground the Pentateuchal scope of Deut 30:15–16 in the supposition that its literary production represents one of the final literary stages of Pentateuchal redaction, as though the author of this verse must be expressing their conception of the big picture of the Pentateuch. How can they know this, at least with the degree of certainty necessary to establish such a claim? I find their argument more persuasive in light of a passage like Gen 26:4–5 (cf. other moments in the life of Abram/Abraham: 12:1; 18:19; 22:18), where Abraham is depicted as the kind of individual Moses is encouraging Israel to be. The “ways” in which Abraham walked and in which Israel is commanded to walk result in possession of the land, for Isaac and for Israel, and in both cases this is attributable to the relationship each has with God (this is a key concern of the authors in citing Deut 30:15–16). That Deut 30:15–16 is a summary of much Pentateuchal theology is best argued by demonstration, not by supposition. I suspect the authors recognize this when, while chasing an unnecessary historical critical observation, they admit “yet, this is not our concern here” (p. 431). Examples like this one could be multiplied many times over. Given the already immense size of the book, relegating tangential or otherwise distracting avenues of investigation exclusively to footnotes—or eliminating them altogether—would have reduced its size and improved its readability and argumentation.

In a similar vein, I found synchronic observations about the biblical text lacking. For example, in chapter 11, “Hiddenness and Wrath,” there was nothing mentioned about the general tendency for God to recede further into the background of the Old Testament as one proceeds through the canon. This can be observed in a single text, like the book of Genesis, or across the Old Testament, depending on canonical order. The threefold order of Law, Prophets, and Writings, which left its mark on the New Testament (Luke 24:44), demonstrates this well. Likewise, I found the book's interaction with significant biblical theologians in English scholarship weak. For example, there was no mention in chapter 11 of Samuel Terrien, Samuel Balentine, or Richard Friedman, all of whom have written major works on divine absence or hiddenness in the Old Testament.[1] Joel Burnett, who has written the most recent book on the subject, is cited only once.[2] Additionally, I might add that the absence of any reference anywhere in the book to Terence Fretheim, whose work God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation emphasizes God as relational in a fundamental way, is unfortunate given the concerns of this volume on “God's being” as foundationally relational.[3]

But these criticisms cannot overshadow the significant achievement that Feldmeier and Spieckermann have made in God of the Living. For readers interested in Christian biblical theology, it will serve as a benchmark study for many years to come.

Joseph Ryan Kelly, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

[1] Samuel L. Terrien, The Elusive Presence: Toward a New Biblical Theology (Religious Perspectives, 26; San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978); Samuel E. Balentine, The Hidden God: The Hiding of the Face of God in the Old Testament (Oxford Theological Monographs; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); Richard E. Friedman, The Disappearance of God: A Divine Mystery (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995). reference

[2] Joel S. Burnett, Where Is God?: Divine Absence in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010). reference

[3] Terence E. Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2005). reference