Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel
This is the first installment in a projected three-volume Old Testament theology from the pen of Goldingay, the David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. This first volume develops a narrative theology of the Old Testament in a descriptive and inductive manner, following the Old Testament’s canonical order. For Goldingay, Israel’s “gospel” is the good news that God relates to humanity and involved Himself in the unfolding of Israel’s history. To emphasize this, Goldingay chooses organizational rubrics that emphasize the acts of God. The Old Testament narrative, he says, gives an account of how God began (Creation), started over (from Eden to Babel), promised (Israel’s ancestors), delivered (the Exodus), sealed (Sinai), gave (the Land), accommodated (from Joshua to Solomon), wrestled (from Solomon to the Exile), and preserved (the Exile and the Restoration). Fleshing this out to reflect the relational dynamic between God and humanity, Goldingay summarizes the Old Testament’s plot as follows: “God began. Humanity turned its back on God’s instructions, and God started over. God promised, and a family grew. Israel cried out, and God delivered. God sealed, and Israel imperiled. God gave, and Israel took. Israel equivocated, and God accommodated. Israel turned away, and God wrestled. God preserved, and Israel turned back” (p. 36).
With regard to method Goldingay intends “to write on the Old Testament without looking at it through Christian lenses or even New Testament lenses” (p. 20). He adds, “By ‘Old Testament theology’ I mean a statement of what we might believe about God and us if we simply use the Old Testament or if we let it provide the lenses through which we look at Jesus. I am prepared to say that the Old Testament’s insights must be seen in light of those of the New, but only as long as we immediately add that it is just as essential to see the New Testament’s insights in light of those of the Old” (pp. 20–21). Rather than seeing the New Testament as superseding the Old Testament, Goldingay views the testaments as complementary. After listing several differences between them, he states, “My attitude to such differences is in principle to see them not as points where the New Testament surpasses the Old, but as points where Christians are especially likely to have something to learn” (p. 21). Despite his insistence on giving the Old Testament its proper due, in the final analysis Goldingay recognizes that Old Testament theology is “a truncated exercise” that “could hardly stop at the end of the First Testament” (p. 24). For this reason he includes a final chapter entitled “God Sent,” dealing with the incarnation and ministry of Jesus. While concerned to include a Christological dimension in his theology, Goldingay does not focus on messianic prophecy or typology (pp. 26–27).
It is beyond the scope of this review to interact with Goldingay’s work in detail. Suffice it to say that the volume contains a storehouse of valuable theological reflections on the Old Testament and is as much a synthetic commentary as a theology. For example his discussion of the pan-Israelite perspective of the Book of Judges (regarded by many as an artificial and anachronistic viewpoint) displays great literary and theological insight (pp. 530–34). This is just one of many specific examples that could be cited.
Goldingay is first and foremost an exegete-biblical theologian, not a systematician-philosopher. He seems content to derive his theology from what the text says, apart from philosophical reflection or theological harmonization. For example, referring to Genesis 18:20–21; 22:12 and other passages, he argues that these texts “will 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” (p. 137). He concedes that “talk of God acting to find something out is anthropomorphism,” but he quickly adds, “such anthropomorphisms presumably tell us something true about God’s relationship with the world.” He elaborates, “In dialogue with Greek thinking, Christian tradition let God’s possession of supernatural knowledge turn into God’s possession of all knowledge. It thereby let that override the good news of the correlative evidence in Scripture that God does not always know everything and that God finds things out” (pp. 137–38).
One can appreciate Goldingay’s commitment to derive theology from the text, rather than importing it into the text, as well as his insistence that the relational dimension of God’s self-revelation be recognized. However, it is important that the text not be read in isolation from the entirety of Scripture. Furthermore, when attention is given to how metaphor and language operate in the world of the story, one is not compelled to abandon the traditional theological position regarding God’s omniscience. Yahweh accommodates His self-revelation to His primary purpose, which is to emphasize the role of human responsibility in the outworking of His purposes and to invite Abraham (and the implied readers—Abraham’s offspring) to participate in the forging of the future. God masks His omniscience to some degree (though see Gen. 18:13–15), but this is not unique in biblical history, where for the sake of relationship He wrestled with a stubborn deceiver (even allowing the latter to fight Him to a draw; 32:22–32) and ultimately incarnated Himself.