It is difficult to overstate just how influential Walter Brueggemann and Brevard S. Childs have been on the discipline of Old Testament theology in recent decades, with each publishing their respective magnum opus toward the end of the 20th century. Childs’ Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Fortress Press, 1979) and Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Fortress Press, 1997) are massively influential tomes that each engage the entirety of the Old Testament literature with an eye toward contemporary Christian theology. The breadth and scope of these volumes is unmatched, and the work of Childs and Bruggemann continues to spark new advances and reflections in the study of Old Testament theology. Old Testament Theology: Canon or Testimony brings the work of both scholars together in a single volume.
A slim volume that contrasts Childs’ and Bruggemann’s respective approaches would be a welcome addition to the still-burgeoning body of literature on these two figures and their work. Unfortunately, Old Testament Theology is not quite up to this task. According to the back cover, the book presents the contrasting arguments of Childs and Bruggemann “side-by-side for comparison.” In fact, this volume presents first an excerpt from Childs’ Introduction (chapters 2 and 3), followed by an excerpt from Brueggemann’s Theology (chapters 26–29).
Very little care has been taken to present these excerpts to the reader. There is no editorial preface or introduction—the reader is simply thrown into the middle of the arguments of Childs and Brueggemann. The only editorial orientation to the volume is the brief unattributed paragraph on the back cover, which fails to mention where the excerpts within the book originate. Neither does this short paragraph indicate when the excerpts are from, which, among other issues, makes Childs’ reference to the “recent years” of the 1960s a bit jarring (46).
The text of the excerpts has been carelessly presented in the volume as well. Besides a minor typo not present in the original publication (compare Childs, Introduction, 62 and Old Testament Theology, 21), larger issues persist. Within the excerpts themselves, no attempt has been made to facilitate their placement in the book. In the excerpt from Introduction, the reader is directed to Childs’s full reflection on the relation between the Old Testament and the Christian Bible in “the final chapter,” a selection of text which is not present in the current volume (31). Childs later points the reader to his chapter-concluding bibliographies on the history of Jewish and Christian exegesis, which, again, are not present in the current volume (43). These editorial oversights worsen in the excerpt from Theology. On page 76, Brueggemann’s text instructs the reader to consult his discussion of intertextual perspectives “above” on pages 78–80. On pages 79 and 108, readers are instructed to consult the discussion of “four insistent questions” in Old Testament theology on pages 102–114, which in the original publication comprise the final pages of Brueggemann’s chapter 2, but in the current volume span the end of Brueggemann’s chapter 28 and the beginning of chapter 29. Finally, on page 102 the reader is instructed to consult pages 329–32, a difficult task in a 117-page volume. The careless presentation of these excerpts is all the more unfortunate considering the immense value of the works from which they are taken.
There are a few points of contact between Childs and Brueggemann in the excerpts presented in Old Testament Theology. Childs distinguishes the canonical study of the Old Testament from “the so-called kerygmatic exegesis,” which he associates with the work of Brueggemann, among others (34). This kerygmatic exegesis, popularized by Gerhard von Rad, relied heavily on the form-critical approach in its attempt to read the theology of the Old Testament. In Childs’ assessment, the approach tends to assume the theological truth of a text exists in its original intention within a reconstructed historical context. Such a program tends too far toward subjectivity for Childs. The canonical approach, in contrast, emphasizes the more readily accessible study of the function of the final form of a text within the larger biblical canon.
Brueggemann’s excerpt features more engagement with Childs, which makes sense, given that Brueggemann’s Theology was published nearly two decades after Childs’ Introduction. Brueggemann suggests Childs’ canonical approach exemplifies what he calls “hegemonic interpretation,” as seen in the work of Walter Eichrodt and Gerhard von Rad (from whom Childs made effort to distinguish himself), while Brueggemann himself claims to attempt a reading from a “pluralistic interpretive context” (52). Later, Brueggemann characterizes Childs as an interpreter who “reaches for ‘the Real’” (60) and who attempts to grasp at a God who exists “outside and beyond the text,” while Brueggemann himself is satisfied to rely ultimately on the “utterance-become-text,” rather than history or ontology, as the foundation of theology (71–72). In his emphasis on the multivocality of the Old Testament, Brueggemann accuses Childs’ canonical approach of rendering the Old Testament one-dimensional, its meaning subsumed under the “single, exclusivist” aegis of the “New Testament christological construal” (89, see also 85 footnote 54).
It is debatable whether Childs or Brueggemann fairly characterize each other in these passing mentions, and therein lies the problem. Real engagement between the two occurs only in passing mentions, and even these are a tad one-sided, given the two-decade gap between the excerpts. More substantial engagement between Childs and Brueggemann exists—for example, see Brueggemann’s thorough review of Childs’ program in his “Against the Stream: Brevard Childs’s Biblical Theology,” Theology Today 50 (1993): 279–84, and Childs’ review of Theology of the Old Testament, with Brueggemann’s response, in The Scottish Journal of Theology 53 (2000): 228–38.
One wonders why these more apt engagements between Childs and Brueggemann were not chosen as excerpts for Old Testament Theology. (Perhaps it is because Fortress Press already has the copyright for Childs’ Introduction and Brueggemann’s Theology.) Ultimately, the reader would be better off obtaining full copies of the texts Old Testament Theology excerpts. For the study of biblical theology, the works of Childs and Brueggemann are absolutely essential. The volume under review is not.
Eric D. McDonnell Jr. is a PhD candidate at Emory University.
Eric D. McDonnell
Date Of Review:
January 30, 2024
Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, he is regarded as the premier Old Testament interpreter and biblical theologian. Among his many publications are Prophetic Imagination and Old Testament Theology.
Brevard S. Childs was Sterling Professor of Divinity, Emeritus at Yale Divinity School (New Haven, Connecticut). He was the author of several Fortress Press books: Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (1979), Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (1989), and Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (1993).
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