Theology of the Old Testament

Theology of the Old Testament

OT theology (see “The Bible and Theology,” pp. 82ff.) is an important part of understanding the OT, and in some form has always been studied and practiced in the church and the academy. However, not until the eighteenth century did the discipline of biblical theology became a separate concern of study apart from systematic theology or dogmatic theology.

Biblical theology examines and presents the origin and development of the OT writings in order to give an adequate presentation of the teachings and beliefs contained in the sacred documents. Biblical theology is differentiated from dogmatic theology in methodology, content, and purpose. Approaches to OT theology vary. Some try to describe the theology solely on the basis of the sacred documents, a descriptive approach, while others try to establish the message of the text as a normative guide for the Christian church today, a prescriptive approach. Conservative Wesleyan Arminians have subscribed largely to the second approach.

Whatever approach is used, interpreters should describe as well as possible what their methodologies and presuppositions are for carrying out their work. Then careful textual, linguistic, literary, historical, semantic, and philosophical exegesis must establish the basic foundational themes and aspects of any OT theology. Currently, a multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach is being developed. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, poetics, and linguistics, in addition to various new perspectives, such as feminist, Third World (liberation) viewpoints are offering helpful insights to mine the riches of these ancient revelational documents. The unity of the OT writings, their literary genre and character, the more important theological themes that run through large sections of the materials, poetics, and literary criticism are employed to help correct the atomistic approaches and results obtained in the first half of the twentieth century. Paul D. Hanson observes,

The rich diversity of traditions found in the Old Testament does not yield a chaotic theological picture, but one which is both dynamic and unified. The reason is that this approach goes beyond analysis of individual periods or traditions to grasp the overall development of biblical theology, by paying attention to all levels of tradition and all periods. The unifying factor is the divine-human relationship, which is traced throughout the span of biblical history, guided by the belief that God is true to God's purpose for creation and humanity and that a trustworthy human witness to that purpose is found in the confessions of God's people that arose over the centuries (HBD, 1062; cf. Goldingay, Theological Diversity, 181-99).

Soulen (Handbook, 32) observes that biblical theology was marked by the following concerns, which apply to OT biblical theology:

(1) An opposition to the influence of philosophy and philosophical theology

(2) An opposition to the presumed tendency of dogmatic theology

(3) An emphasis upon Hebrew thought in contradistinction to Greek thought

(4) An emphasis upon the unity of the Bible

(5) An approach to biblical language which concentrated on word studies

(6) An emphasis upon the distinctiveness of the Bible vis a vis its environment

(7) An emphasis on divine revelation in history

(8) The interrelationship of biblical study and theological concern

Scholars have tried to locate the “centers” or “themes” of the OT that are vital for the production of an OT theology. Many centers have been proffered during the past two hundred years (Hasel, Basic Issues, 1981). In the twentieth century, the most comprehensive unifying synchronic approach using a center was Walter Eichrodt's attempt to establish the covenant as the central focus of OT theology. His herculean effort was seminal, but was also highly critiqued. G. von Rad took a different diachronic approach and centered upon the multiplicity of themes and the development of these themes within the OT itself, refusing to assert a “center” of the OT. Recently, the central themes or guiding principles of an OT theology have been argued as “creation” and “redemption” (salvation theology) (cf. Goldingay, Theological Diversity, 167-239). Other central themes of OT theology have been suggested: the people of God, community, the kingdom of God, Yahweh as Lord, the holiness of God, Deuteronomy, God, etc.

Ironically, as a result of all this, a great appreciation has arisen for the diversity of OT theology without, however, giving up the attempt to find a unifying concept(s). It seems that a major component of an OT theology will be God's formation, preservation, and redemption of “his own unique people” (Ex 19:5-6), among whom he dwells (Ex 25:8), making them distinct because of his presence (Ex 33:15). Various covenants must be taken into account in God's formation of his people and his enthronement among them: Noahic, Abrahamic, Sinaic, Davidic, Palestinian, and Jeremiah's New Covenant. All of this eventually works out, according to a diverse but ultimately unifying process, to the realization of the kingdom of God (Bright, Kingdom).