old testament theology 90The First Testament is good news that has not been heard

Old Testament Theology, Volume One: Israel’s Gospel
Author: John Goldingay
Publisher: IVP Academic (www.ivpress.com)
Pages: 940

This is the first (originally published 2003) of three volumes on the Old Testament. The “first volume amounts to a theological commentary on the Old Testament story” (Preface). It does not focus on the contents of the “law,” the Prophets and the poetic books.

The author confines his study to the books of the Old Testament. He makes occasional references to other Jewish writings but does not treat them as a source for stating Old Testament theology.

“Old Testament theology attempts not merely to describe the faith implied by the Old Testament but to reflect on it analytically, critically and constructively” (17). Goldingay defines the task as seeing “what greater whole can encompass the diversity within the Old Testament” (17).

I appreciate the author’s point of view that it’s “wise to keep closer to the Old Testament’s own categories of thought in order to give it more opportunity to speak its own insights rather than assimilating it to Christian categories” (18). In other words, he avoids reading Christian meanings into the text. It thus provides an opportunity to know what a text might have meant to the original author and recipients. New Testament writers may make a different application, but that doesn’t mean it did not have an important meaning in its original context. Where the two testaments differ, Goldingay sees it as an opportunity for Christians to learn something.

Further on, along the same line of thought, Goldingay writes, “Only when people have learned to take the Old Testament really seriously can they be entrusted with the story of Jesus, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer more or less argued” (21). The author’s perspective is that the Old Testament is good news that has not been heard. Goldingay’s aim in this volume “is to discuss the Old Testament’s own theological content and implications, working with the assumption that the Old Testament is Act I to the New Testament’s Act II (or Acts I-IX to the New Testament’s Act X!)” (26). Therefore, he prefers to call it the First Testament.

This first volume treats “the Old Testament as the story of God’s relationship with the world and Israel” (28). Goldingay’s telling of it is masterful. It’s a little like reading it for the first time. His scholarly exegesis continually surprises and even puzzles.

An example of the latter is the idea of God gaining knowledge through the process of discovery. “Stories about Babel and about Abraham (Gen 11; 18; 22) will concretely show God taking steps to come to know things. They will again show that God has extraordinary knowledge, but will incorporate no declaration that Yhwh is omniscient, and preclude that by the way they portray God acting so as to discover things: ‘I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether in accordance with the cry that came to me. If not, I will know’ (Gen 18:21) … Talk of God acting to find something out is anthropomorphism, but like talk of God having a change of mind or loving or speaking, such anthropomorphisms presumably tell us something true about God’s relationship with the world” (137). Further, he adds, “In dialogue with Greek thinking, Christian tradition let God’s possession of supernatural knowledge turn into God’s possession of all knowledge” (137). Give him credit for being faithful to what the Scriptures seem to say, but what are the implications. Is God, therefore, not all-knowing? Would other scholars support this interpretation?

Right or wrong, when Goldingay is provocative it can lead to closer examination. What does the text actually say?  Christian tradition can read potentially suspect meanings into a passage. What is commonly called the “Fall” is one example. “In Christian tradition the ‘sin’ of Adam and Eve thus brings about the ‘Fall’ of the human race” (144). The author sees the story as “more about loss than one about a fall: about loss of innocence, loss of relationship, loss of possibilities, loss of life” (144).

He continues this elaborate discussion by discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the term. Though it might seem just a matter of word usage, it shows the author’s commitment to being precise and accurate. Although sometimes the attempt to differentiate may leave a reader slightly confused about what the author means. The book doesn’t provide the luxury of clarifying questions as in a classroom setting.

Overall, I find his discussion praiseworthy like when he reviews the union of divine beings and humans in Genesis 6. He carefully avoids the kind of wild speculation that sells popular books. He is not interested in going beyond what is clearly stated in Scripture.

For me the Creation part of the story was interesting but not as compelling as it is for the stories that follow. This is not a commentary, but because of its comprehensiveness and the extensive Scripture index in the back, it can serve as one. It’s a first-class textbook and excellent companion for making sense of the Old Testament on its own terms. 

Michael Dalton