Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Chan, Michael J. and Brent A. Strawn (eds.),What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim (Siphrut, 14; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2015). Pp. xviii + 414 Hardcover. US$59.50. ISBN 978-1-57506-343-0.

This collection of thirty previously published essays organized by a former student (Chan) and “a long-time admirer of Fretheim's work” (Strawn) provides the first compendium of Fretheim's work spanning his entire career. The editors describe the goal of such a project as “to present in curated form a selection of writings that highlight Fretheim's most significant and enduring insights” (p. xi). The operative focus resides on Fretheim's contributions to the field of Old Testament theology, specifically—as suggested by the title—the question of “what kind of God” one encounters in the biblical text. Those familiar with Fretheim's work know well that this God is relational, self-limiting, and deeply affected by creation.

Organizationally, the book is divided into seven parts each focusing on a specific segment of the Old Testament canon (“God and the Pentateuch,” for example) or thematic emphases in Fretheim's theology (for instance, “God and Wrath” and “God and the Church's Book”). The collection does contain overlap at various points, sometimes significant, but there is little harm in engaging Fretheim's insightful and thought-provoking assessment of God in a variety of contexts. Overall, the volume holds together well and maintains a strong coherence, allowing it to function well as a resource for scholars engaging Fretheim's work on a particular theme; students, given many of the essays are highly accessible; or those in the church who are up to the task of challenging themselves or their congregations to rethink how we imagine God in relationship to the world.

Part 1, “On Fretheim,” contains two essays: one by the editors introducing Fretheim's theology and God, and the other by Fretheim himself. The first of these unpacks the core tenets of Fretheim's scholarship and traces the development in his thought one will encounter in this collection. God is relational; God “touches the world and is touched by the world. God bestows and receives, teaches and learns, hopes and regrets, moves and is moved” (p. 3, emphasis original). That Fretheim's God “freely” opts for such engagement with the world distinguishes Fretheim from process theology. God's power is limited not because God is limited but because God has chosen to share power with creation. As such, Fretheim's view offers “a strong critique of classical theism, which typically emphasizes divine atemporality, immutability, omniscience, omnipotence, and the like” (p. 6). The editors also introduce the centrality of creation for Fretheim, noting how it informs his theodicy (or lack thereof), which is grounded in a relationship of integrity with the world that means “human suffering may occur in God's world because of the way in which God has created the world” (p. 16).

In “Fretheim on Fretheim: Some Personal Reflections on a Biblical-Theological Journey,” Fretheim offers a brief biography of what led to his distinctly Fretheimian view, concluding that “we have not fully plumbed the depths of Scripture regarding the revelation it provides.…This means that we have not yet arrived; much theological work is yet to be done, and theological insights are yet to be gained” (p. 21).

Due to the breadth and depth of this collection, I cannot hope to do justice to every essay. My intention is to provide a small sampling in the hope of encouraging interest in and continued dialogue with Fretheim's work.

Part 2, “God and the World,” sets the stage for much of what will follow by orienting the reader to the basics of the interrelated God/world relationship. In “Divine Dependence upon the Human: An Old Testament Perspective,” Fretheim notes how an awareness of theology (“what kind of God?”) informs questions of anthropology (“what kind of human?”). God has created humans who help God, play a role in judgment and salvation, and contribute to a shaping of the future. Fretheim explores these themes in conversation with Gen 1–2 as well as Kings. In “The Repentance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament God-Talk,” Fretheim investigates divine repentance as a controlling metaphor, noting the tension in the canon between a God who is said to repent and not repent. Fretheim makes the compelling claim that “it is essential to speak of both immutability and mutability as essential divine attributes, each in its own sphere” (p. 52). This tension arises as a result of the way in which God has chosen to interact with the world in a relationship of integrity; as such, “the OT is not at all embarrassed about saying that God is open to change” (p. 57). “The God Who Acts: An Old Testament Perspective” contends that while God is present and active in the world, “divine action in both word and deed is resistible and hence may not always be successful. God acts directly through various means, both human and nonhuman, so that not only is the world dependent upon God, but God has also chosen to be dependent on the world” (p. 68). The last essay in part 2, “Some Reflections on Brueggemann's God,” Fretheim expresses concern that covenant and contractual obligations occupy too central a place in Brueggemann's theology. This quid pro quo neglects the question of God's will, an understated point in Brueggemann's theology according to Fretheim, as well as the freedom and relationality of God's working in the world.

Part 3 looks at the theme of “God and Suffering.” In “What Kind of God?,” Fretheim notes a serious lack in appreciating metaphor as a way to understand God, resulting in the tendency to separate Old and New Testament conceptions of God. There exists a challenge in navigating these metaphors, lest one take them too seriously or not seriously enough. In “To Say Something—About God, Evil, and Suffering,” Fretheim contends that suffering exists because of the way in which God created the world “with risks and challenges wherein suffering is part of life apart from sin, but also…wherein sin is possible and can intensify that suffering experience and bring still further suffering in its train” (p. 103). Essays on divine sovereignty and suffering in the Exodus narrative and “evil” after 9/11 as a result of human freedom round out this section.

The essays in Part 4, “God and Wrath,” argue that “divine violence seems always to be related to human sin” (p. 134), violence is never an end itself but a part of God's larger salvific purposes, and that the opening chapters of Genesis present God as self-imposing limits on the exercise of violence. The essays in Part 5, “God and the Pentateuch,” look at preaching Gen 1–2, humanity as co-creator in Gen 1–2, the vulnerability and divine commitment to children (with special attention to Ishmael and Isaac), an ecological view of the plague narratives, “redemption and law in Leviticus,” and “a dynamic understanding of law in Deuteronomy.” Part 6, “God and the Prophets,” tackles the questions of divine foreknowledge and constancy, the conservative social justice agenda of the prophets, and divine character and Jeremiah's vocation. Two fascinating essays on “The Exaggerated God of Jonah” and “Jonah and Theodicy” conclude this section, arguing respectively that “the purposeful and multiple exaggerations of God's power and freedom . . . constitute a foil over against which God's character can be more clearly discerned” as one who is “not such a manipulative, all-controlling deity” as the prophet thinks, and that God's radical forgiveness of Nineveh at the close of the book is a just response.

The final section of the book is Part 7, “God and the Church's Book.” In “The Old Testament in Christian Proclamation” Fretheim grapples with the neglect the Old Testament often receives in Christianity, maintaining it “constitutes both a pre-Christian Word of God, and by virtue of the new totality, a Christian word” (p. 345) to which congregations should be exposed more. In “Christology and the Old Testament,” Fretheim makes the point that “God did not suffer for the first time in the Christ event; even more, God did not suffer for the sins of the world for the first time on the cross” (p. 361). In “The Authority of the Bible and Churchly Debates Regarding Sexuality” Fretheim offers a primer on hermeneutics, suggesting that a greater attention to the nature of readers and the biblical material in dialogue with one another is more important than debates about the authority of the Bible. Concluding this collection is “What Biblical Scholars Wish Pastors Would Start or Stop Doing about Ethical Issues in the Old Testament,” in which Fretheim advances six “wishes,” all of which are on topics covered in this collection of essays, such as the nexus of creation and ancient Israel's law, a relational presentation of God in the Old Testament, and the conservative stance of ancient Israel's prophets. In an interesting rhetorical move, just as the title of the book is a question, the collection as a whole concludes with a question of contemporary ethical relevance that needs to be heard: “Can we capture these key biblical concerns [that the prophets take sides on justice issues without apology] for the disadvantaged with a proper rhetorical energy?” (p. 391).

This collection offers a veritable treasure trove of theological acumen and novel though compelling readings of familiar texts. Fretheim's overall understanding of God as one who is relational, (self-)limiting, vulnerable, dynamic, suffering, and as a result far more complicated than traditional dogmatic theology will allow is persuasive. Readers certainly cannot fault Fretheim for failing to show his work as his arguments are always carefully grounded in a close reading of the biblical text. I am most appreciative of the way in which Fretheim frames the question of the relationship between the two Testaments—a challenge to many—as one in which the Old Testament portrait of God is not in dissonance with the New Testament's portrait of Jesus but rather anticipates it by imaging God as one who has already suffered numerous times for the sake of the created order.

With this appreciation in mind, and in the spirit of Fretheim's own words that “much theological work is yet to be done,” I raise three points for further dialogue. First, I am convinced that the Bible presents God at various points as limited, yet I am not persuaded that in every case this necessitates a self-limitation. Given the diversity of the biblical material, is it possible to speak of a God who is both self-limiting on some occasions and limited on others? Second, unpacking the relationship between what Fretheim elsewhere identifies as the textual God and the actual God continues to present challenges. How are readers to adjudicate the reliability and similarity, for instance, of the various metaphors for God? And, is it possible that the Bible can get God wrong? Or, to ask the question another way, is Fretheim's answer to “what kind of God” a descriptive theology or an ontological claim about who God really is? Third, I struggle with Fretheim's theodicy, namely his assertions that divine violence or wrath is never an end itself, that God uses violence against violence “to prevent an even greater evil” (p. 184), and that divine violence functions as a part of God's salvific purposes. Do these points temper divine instances of violence or make them more palatable? Is it not problematic and perhaps somewhat ironic that a divine commitment to the world renders God culpable and inactive in the face of gross evil? What are we to make of texts such as the decimation of the Canaanites in Joshua, where divine violence has few if any redeeming qualities and serves the salvific purpose of Israel alone at the expense of others in creation? While I resonate with Fretheim's overall conception of God, I find his approach to the problem of evil and God's relationship to it wanting.

These questions notwithstanding, the editors deserve a great deal of thanks for compiling this snapshot of Fretheim's theology, and Fretheim deserves our thanks for continuing to help us see Israel's God and familiar texts with new eyes. This volume deserves a wide readership; scholars, students, pastors, and congregations will be all the richer for it.

John E. Anderson, Presentation College