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Issue Date:  May 13, 2005

By Walter Brueggemann
Fortress Press, 228 pages, $35
Keeping an open mind about the Bible

Scholar Walter Brueggemann digs into the text but stays above the fray


Walter Brueggemann is one of the premier Old Testament scholars of our time, but his approach has implications beyond that field. As this collection of essays demonstrates, he finds advantages and limitations in taking any specific approach toward interpreting a text, including his own self-described postmodern perspective. And he also shows how it’s possible to disagree sharply with another scholar while acknowledging the writer’s contributions to the field as a whole and his own work in particular.

Virtually every time he writes about the Bible, Dr. Brueggemann stresses how the uniqueness of scripture and its divine inspiration transcend all categories of interpretation. A typical example is his statement on biblical authority: “Nobody makes the final read; nobody’s read is final or inerrant, precisely because the Key Character in the book who creates, redeems, and consummates is always beyond us in holy hiddenness.”

For this reason, Dr. Brueggemann says, the problem for any church body, including his own United Church of Christ, is how to let all interpretations be taken seriously while submitting them to the judgment of the whole church. Another factor in his approach is that no single text has governing authority because ethical decision-making is always contextual, based on the intellectual, cultural and historical circumstances of the interpreting community.

Dr. Brueggemann’s essay on the loss and recovery of the doctrine of creation as a theme of the Old Testament provides a case study. He shows how the German church struggle against the “blood and soil” ideology of National Socialism in the 1930s influenced Gerhard von Rad’s criticism of Canaanite Baal religion and his consequent marginalizing of the role of creation in the beliefs of ancient Israel. Building on this assertion, American scholar G. Ernest Wright asserted that Israel was little interested in nature in and of itself but only as God used it to reveal himself and to accomplish his purposes.

This model for Old Testament scholarship was normative in the mid-20th century until Claus Westermann, a colleague of Dr. von Rad’s in Heidelberg, wrote an essay that was published in 1971 asserting that creation was an integral aspect of the faith of ancient Israel. Gradually, creation was reintegrated into the work of biblical theology, which Dr. Brueggemann finds a boon in helping scholars to teach the larger community what scripture has to say about the ecological crisis.

In surveying contemporary approaches to Old Testament theology, Dr. Brueggemann examines modernist perspectives (for example, Robert Carroll) that view the text as an oppressive ideology of social control; premodern perspectives (for example, Brevard Childs) that try to conform the text to a rule of faith; and postmodern perspectives (for example, Wesley Kort) that view the text as lacking a single credible coherence because of its “sheer, dread holiness.” There is enough evidence to support the concerns of all three groups, he says, while maintaining that they aren’t mutually exclusive and urging scholars in each camp to listen to the readings of the others.

Defying his critics’ attempts to pin him down to a specific, unchangeable stance, Dr. Brueggemann responds to J. Richard Middleton, “I have neither the interest nor the patience to spend my time defending or promoting a single theme, model or segment of textual material.” And in responding to Dr. Childs’ review of his Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Dr. Brueggemann maintains that “of course” Dr. Childs has distorted his writing and made false assertions about it, even as he pays tribute to his fellow scholar’s “passion, imagination, courage, and great learning” and declares that Dr. Childs “is the teacher of us all.”

This generosity toward scholarly sparring partners reflects Dr. Brueggemann’s core belief that scripture defies all our categories. “It is urgent, even if difficult to remember that it is ‘the word of the Lord’ and not our word,” he says. If the Bible is indeed the book that breathes new life, perhaps Walter Brueggemann is the scholar who breathes new life into its study.

Darrell Turner writes the religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.

Three theological perspectives

In his 1999 essay titled “Contemporary Old Testament Theology: A Contextual Prospectus,” included in The Book That Breathes New Life, Dr. Brueggemann describes three perspectives advanced by scholars in recent decades. The first, which he describes as “minimalist” or modernist, rejects attempts to find a unified theology in the text. This approach maintains that the dominant interpretive tradition is actually an attempt at social control.

The second approach, which Dr. Brueggemann calls “canonical” or premodern, reads the text in light of the church’s normative, orthodox teachings. He says this approach is similar to what the Council of Trent did in insisting that Christian tradition must dictate the meaning of scripture.

Dr. Brueggemann labels the third approach as “postmodern” but cautions that it is the most difficult to characterize. It includes varieties of liberation theology and is based on the presupposition that there is no single legitimate reading but that specific texts yield new disclosures when they address and respond to particular contexts.

Rather than seeing each one as mutually exclusive, Dr. Brueggemann urges their proponents to form a series of “provisional alliances,” because each may have something to teach the others.

-- Darrell Turner

National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005

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