The Elder Testament

Canon, Theology, Trinity

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Christopher R. Seitz
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     2018.
     310 pages.
     $39.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481308281.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The work of Christopher Seitz occupies an unusual position in the field of biblical studies. Firmly entrenched in a confessional or theological approach to the work of biblical interpretation, Seitz nevertheless rejects a neat division between theological or canonical interpretation and critical exegesis. Self-consciously building on the legacy of Brevard Childs, The Elder Testament: Canon, Theology, Trinity might be taken as a kind of manifesto that attempts to identify the major elements of a Christian project of interpretation of the Old Testament as both a critical and a theological enterprise, respecting the potential of historical-critical exegesis, but ultimately concerned with the theological witness of the Old Testament canon. Or, in Seitz’s somewhat denser prose: “I have . . . thought of this present project as a commentary on critical method with an appeal to taking seriously the ontology of the Old Testament—its unique presentation of monotheism—as this opens onto theological formulation” (4).

The book unfolds in three parts. The four chapters of part 1 are meant as an orientation to Seitz’s project, beginning with a discussion of the titular phrase “Elder Testament.” The phrase is meant not to replace “Old Testament” as a valid appellation of this collection of writings, but rather to contextualize it for Christian readers: the Old Testament is not the outdated or obsolete testament, or even the previous testament, but the venerable, time-tested, elder testament. Seitz then briefly adumbrates canonical interpretation and theological interpretation. The canonical approach does not simply attend to the setting of boundaries, but carries with it a particular content, perhaps we could say a (divine) theological intentionality. While the development of this canonical “achievement” can be observed, it is the disclosure of God, not human shaping, that is truly determinative of the canon. And so, canonical interpretation is already theologically invested.

In the chapter on theological interpretation, Seitz continues this perspective by suggesting the res (subject matter) of the (Elder) Scriptures to be “the divine life as such” (37). A literal sense reading of this corpus will be directed toward the divine life through its canonical disclosure, the “mature and aged product of the final form,” not simply an historical analysis of the elements of the writings, which attends rather to “the barley, yeast, water, and peat of the original, prior to distillation” (36). (The hero of the chapter is, unsurprisingly, Brevard Childs and the canonical approach, but the highlight might very well be the scotch analogy.) Proper theological interpretation, in other words, is interpretation that attends to the disclosure of the canon.

Seitz rounds out part 1 with an intriguing discussion about the implied readers of the Old Testament, and what it means to approach the Old Testament as Christians. Can Christians read this book? “We can,” says Seitz, “but we do so, consistent with the book’s own parameters, conscious of our place outside the privileged speech and life of God with his people, as the Old Testament describes this, as central to what it is as a book” (56, italics original). There is a great deal of interest in this chapter for those who are concerned that a canonical approach might necessarily entail a strong sort of supersessionism.

Part 2 engages the canonical shape of the Elder Testament vis-à-vis major critical perspectives and models of the literary history of the books. Chapter 5 critiques a mode of interpretation that tends to reduce the writings of the Old Testament to a narrative frame—either a narrative that awaits its climax and denouement in the New Testament or one that rearranges elements diachronically to fit into a “historical” frame. Such narrative frames, Seitz suggests, end up rivaling the canonical achievement. Rather than viewing gaps in the texts as evidence of disruption or collation, as seams to be explained via fresh narration, Seitz takes them to be part of the character and fabric of the biblical writings. The next two chapters take on the classic documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch and its principle observation regarding the two names of God (YHWH/Elohim) most prominent in the Pentateuch. While acknowledging the possibility of multiple sources, that’s not where the theological disclosure occurs. Rather, in Seitz’s canonical approach theological disclosure of the divine life is found precisely in the alternation of the two names.

The next four chapters discuss the shaping and sequencing of the canon. Particularly refreshing is Seitz’s observation that there is variety in the conception of the sequence and ordering of the canon in both Jewish and Christian tradition; there is no single, authoritative shape of the canon, though the Hebrew canonical shaping (Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings) “deserves a particular kind of respect” (124). Seitz then goes on to discuss each of these elements of the canon. The chapter on the Writings makes some very intriguing observations indeed, not least that the Writings “serve the purpose of establishing the centrality of the core canon of the Law and the Prophets” (174).  

Part 3 comprises a sampling of theological, canonical readings of (mostly) Old Testament texts, with chapters on Proverbs 8:22–31 (a major site of contestation during the Christological debates), Ecclesiastes, Hebrews, and theophany texts of the Old Testament. The chapter on Ecclesiastes is especially illustrative of Seitz’s model of interpretation, demonstrating how reading Ecclesiastes as part of a “wisdom” corpus invites a view of the book as cynical and despairing, the final deconstruction of the conventional wisdom found in Proverbs, following the intermediary book of Job. Instead, Seitz argues well that Ecclesiastes ought to be read rather in the context of Genesis 1–11, as part of its function of establishing the centrality of the core canon.

It is not altogether clear what sort of book Seitz has written. He has not quite achieved the sort of commentary on critical method he was aiming for, though like a commentary the book does not offer a linear argument. The cumulative effect of the chapters of the book certainly immerses the reader in a particular model of a canonical approach to biblical interpretation, but it is occasionally rambling and the language can be dense or elliptical. It reads like a brilliant first full draft of a thesis in search of an argument, or a collection of occasional pieces fitted together to produce a conversation around common themes. At the same time, there are many hints and insights in this book biblical scholars and theologians will want to consider. Throughout the book Seitz is in conversation as much with precritical interpreters (e.g., Irenaeus) as with the major figures of modern Old Testament/Hebrew Bible scholarship, and for the interested and patient reader, he lays the groundwork for a fresh Christian theological approach to the Elder Scriptures.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew R. Guffey is visiting instructor in New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Date of Review: 
October 20, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher R. Seitz is senior research professor of biblical interpretation at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto.

Keywords: 

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