The Center of Old Testament Theology

*Note: The following is a series of excerpts from a paper Travis wrote recently for a doctoral seminar entitled “A Theological Center in the Old Testament: Major Options and Objections.”

Arguing for a clear distinction between biblical and dogmatic theologies, Johann Gabler’s 1787 faculty address at the University of Altdorf has been marked by scholars as a watershed event.[1] Although there is certainly overlap between the two endeavors, they have each blossomed into their own fields. Biblical theology has been further divided into two main camps; some study the theology of the Old Testament, others the theology of the New (and still others study the theology of the canon as a whole).[2] Within the field of Old Testament studies, Old Testament theology has become a topic of much discussion and importance.[3]

When it comes to developing a theology of the Old Testament, one of the main questions (if not the main question) surrounds the issue of methodology. In short, how does one condense all of the Old Testament’s material into a clear, concise, and presentable theology?[4] Gerhard Hasel’s survey of at least ten different methods that have been employed displays the lack of cohesive thought regarding the matter.[5] Despite this variation in methodology, one major distinction that Hasel brings to the forefront is whether or not an Old Testament theology is developed around a center (German mitte)—a unifying theme or concept. Some Old Testament scholars, such as Eichrodt and W. Kaiser, Jr., have formed entire theologies around what they believe to be a single, unifying center. Others, such as von Rad and Hasel himself, clearly object to the identification of a center. C.H. Bullock writes, “[S]ince Walther Eichrodt introduced covenant as the theological center of the OT, the question of center has been a standard issue in the theological studies of the OT. And, indeed, it is of great importance because how one answers this question will affect both method and structure of OT theology.”[6]

________________________________________________________________________________

Before publishing his original Old Testament theology in 1933 (Theologie des Alten Testaments), Eichrodt wrote an article entitled “Does Old Testament Theology Still Have Independent Significance within Old Testament Scholarship?”[1] The answer he offers is yes, but only if a new methodology is developed, one that moves away from history and dogmatics. Regarding the historical approach, he warns, “[I]f one wants to penetrate to [the] center of the Old Testament, rather than to remain on the periphery, then an approach wholly different from the historical is said to be in order…”[2] According to Ollenberger, Eichrodt followed this “programmatic essay” when writing his Theology of the Old Testament.[3]

His opening chapter is entitled “Old Testament Theology: The Problem and the Method.”[4] Here he states his objection to the dogmatic God-Man-Salvation (or Theology-Anthropology-Soteriology) approach to Old Testament theology, pointing out that these are outside categories imposed on the Old Testament rather than laws “of its own nature.”[5] When this happens, “all that results is a grave danger of intruding alien ideas and of barring the way to understanding.”[6] Eichrodt’s corrective to this is to proceed “along the lines of the OT’s own dialectic,” which for him is very clear:

This speaks of a revelation of the God of the People, who in his rule proves himself to be also the God of the World and the God of the Individual. We are therefore presented with three principal categories, within which to study the special nature of the Israelite faith in God: God and the People, God and the World and God and Man.[7]

These three principal categories became the three parts of his theology.[8] In the first volume, the use of covenant as a unifying center is evident, even with a brief scan of the table of contents. His major sections are entitled: (1) The Covenant Relationship; (2) The Covenant Statutes; (3) The Name of the Covenant God; (4) The Nature of the Covenant God; (5) The Instruments of the Covenant; (6) Covenant-Breaking and Judgment; and (7) Fulfilling the Covenant: The Consummation of God’s Dominion.

Eichrodt describes and defends his use of covenant as the center of his theology in the preface to the fifth revised edition of the work. He writes, “[I]n the face of all objections, the ‘covenant’ has been retained as the central concept, by which to illuminate the structural unity and the unchanging basic tendency of the message of the OT. For it is in this concept that Israel’s fundamental conviction of its special relationship with God is concentrated.”[9] The use of the covenant concept involves much more than a simple study of the occurrences of the term tyrb; it was through the covenant concept—whether explicit or implicit—that Israel was to base its existence and purpose. “The word ‘covenant,’ therefore, is so to speak a convenient symbol for an assurance much wider in scope and controlling the formation of the national faith at its deepest level, without which Israel would not be Israel.”[10]

For some reason, this covenant theme does not continue in his second and third volumes; in fact, the word “covenant” does not appear in any more chapter titles. Hayes and Prussner note this inconsistency, suggesting that Eichrodt experienced trouble in accomplishing his intention. “In the first volume the concept of covenant served him quite admirably as the integrating or centralizing factor par excellence to which every other idea could be related…In the other volumes, however, he not only did not use that idea as a co-ordinating factor but also did not make use of any integrating idea whatever, so that his outline at this point actually comes close to a stringing together of short essays.”[11] Eichrodt appears to have answered this critique before his theology was ever published. In the preface to the first edition of his theology, he admitted that his methodology would be a departation “from the usual procedure,” but he felt this was necessary.[12] He explains that he proceeded with the “conviction that it is better at least to hazard an attempt to master a problem which has become too insistent to ignore—and thereby, perhaps, to provide a stimulus for better solutions—than to leave the whole matter undisturbed.”[13] Even if he himself did not fully succeed in this endeavor, he would open the doors for others to follow in his footsteps. Nearly thirty years later, in the preface to his fifth revised edition, he believed this goal had been achieved, noting that since the publication of the first edition the theological study of the Old Testament had “won back its rightful place in academic studies in a field where the religio-historical approach for a long time held wellnigh undisputed sway.”[14] Whatever one might say about Eichrodt’s approach, his lasting impact on the field of Old Testament theology speaks for itself.

[1] Originally published as “Hat die Alttestamentliche Theologie noch selbstandige Bedeutung innerhalb der Alttestamentlichen Wissenschaft?” in Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 47 (1929): 83-91.

            [2] Walther Eichrodt, “Does Old Testament Theology Still Have Independent Significance within Old Testament Scholarship?” Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future, Sources for Biblical and Theological Study vol. 1, ed. Ben C. Ollenburger, (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004): 22.

[3] Ben C. Ollenburger, ed., Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future, Sources for Biblical and Theological Study vol. 1, (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004), 34.

[4] Eichrodt, TOT, 25.

[5] Ibid., 32-33.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hayes and Prussner, Old Testament Theology, 181.

            [9] Eichrodt, TOT, 13.

[10] Ibid., 14.

            [11] Hayes and Prussner, Old Testament Theology, 183.

[12] Eichrodt, TOT, 11.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 13.

            [1] Gabler stated, “There is truly a biblical theology, of historical origin, conveying what the holy writers felt about divine matters; on the other hand there is a dogmatic theology of didactic origin, teaching what each theologian philosophises [sic] rationally about divine things, according to the measure of his ability or of the times, age, place, sect, school, and other similar factors.” Johann P. Gabler, “An Oration on the Proper Distinction Between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each,” Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future, Sources for Biblical and Theological Study vol. 1, ed. Ben C. Ollenburger, (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2004): 501.

[2] Hasel gives G.L. Bauer the credit for separating biblical theology into Old and New Testament theology. In 1796 Bauer was the first to publish an Old Testament theology. Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, 4th ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 17. Bellinger suggests that “it was not really until early in the twentieth century that the discipline came to full flower.” William H. Bellinger, “A Shape for Old Testament Theology: A Lost Cause?” Perspectives in Religious Studies 37 (2007): 288.

[3] Many nuanced definitions have been suggested for what  “Old Testament Theology” is. Bullock defines it in terms of its purpose: “OTT seeks to explicate the meaning of the OT in terms of God, Israel, and the world.” C.H. Bullock, “Old Testament Theology,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001): 865. Goldingay posits that its function is to aid in the hermeneutical task of understanding God’s message to our situation. Negatively, “it protects us from mistaken interpretation;” positively, it provides “the context for the contemporary interpretation of scripture.” John Goldingay, “The Study of Old Testament Theology: Its Aims and Purpose,” Tyndale Bulletin 26 (1975): 46-48.

            [4] Of course some would object, claiming that developing a theology or even theologies of the Old Testament is not a legitimate endeavor. Nevertheless, for the sake of this paper it will be assumed that it is possible to develop a theology of the Old Testament.

[5] Hasel, Old Testament Theology, 39-114. Hasel’s classification of methodologies includes categories such as the dogmatic-didactic method, the genetic-progressive method, the cross-section method, the topical (or topical-thematic) method, the diachronic method, the “formation-of-tradition” method, the thematic-dialectic method, and his own method, which he calls a multiplex canonical approach to Old Testament theology.

[6] Bullock, “Old Testament Theology:” 862 (italics original). Bullock continues this thought be mentioning Otto Kaiser, who held that it may not be possible to write an Old Testament theology without determining a center. In context, Kaiser states specifically that a synchronic approach to Old Testament theology “would require that there be a ‘middle’ or a central topic and a material principle of the whole.” Otto Kaiser, “The Law as Center of the Hebrew Bible,” “Shar‘arei Talmon:” Studies in Bible, Qumran, and the Ancient Near East Presented to Shemaryahu Talmon, eds. Michael Fishbane and Emmanuel Tov, (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1992): 93.

3 Replies to “The Center of Old Testament Theology”

  1. I just sense this is all unnecessary, and bordering on philosophizing theology, which is only good for feeding a need of over- intellectualizing God’s Word, which is truly a vain deceit to feed man’s pride.
    Let us just keep to the simplicity of the Gospel as presented in the Old Testament and the New in revealing Christ our Lord.
    “Knowledge puffeth up”……. does it truly edify one another in growing into Christ’s likeness?

    1Co_13:2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

    Col_2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

  2. It seems to me that COVENANT, God’s unbidden promises to those who believe in Him and his Son, can serve as a center for both Old and New Testament theologies thus being a valid center for both.

    1. That is very possible. It is clearly a theme that is carried over from the Old Testament to the New. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. has proposed that the theme of “promise” is one that spans both testaments and can be seen as the center of the entire Bible.

Leave a Reply