An Old Testament Theology

Bruce K. Waltke Zondervan, Grand Rapids October 11, 2007
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Having taught Old Testament theology to many hundreds of students over many years, Waltke has crowned a glorious career in biblical scholarship by issuing this synthesis of his creative theological thought. He arranges his approach around three major parts: Introduction, Primary History, and Other Writings. The second two parts together consist of some twenty-nine “gifts” God gave to Israel as the content of Old Testament theology.

A book’s preface is ordinarily not substantial but in this case Waltke presents a number of matters that deserve attention. He first modestly explains the title (“An” not “The” theology) and then asserts that his approach is exegetical, canonical, and thematic. The objective of his work is (a) to know God personally, (b) to understand the nature of God’s revelation, (c) to know self, (d) to understand the Old Testament, (e) to understand the New Testament, and (f) to contribute to spiritual formation. Turning to his Introduction proper (chap. 2), in a section titled “ ‘Christian’ Attitudes toward the Bible,” Waltke observes that (a) liberal theologians stand above the Bible; (b) neoorthodoxy stands before the Bible; (c) traditionists place traditions and confessions alongside the Bible; (d) fundamentalists stand on the Bible; and (e) evangelicals (with whom he identifies) stand under the Bible.

Chapters 3 and 4 of the Introduction address hermeneutics and narrative theology respectively. As for the latter, Waltke argues that by “story” is meant history, not fiction. Even if mythic elements appear in biblical texts, they do so as illustrative stories, the reality of which is stoutly opposed by the biblical authors themselves. He also insists on authors, not redactors, as the composers of the biblical texts. As for the center of biblical theology, Waltke defines it as “Israel’s supreme God, whose attributes hold in tension his holiness and mercy, glorifies himself by establishing his universal rule over his volitional creatures on earth through Jesus Christ and his covenant people” (p. 144).

Part two of the theology embraces Genesis through Ezra-Nehemiah under the rubric “gift.” The first is the gift of the cosmos. Here Waltke reveals the first of many concessions to critical scholarship, concessions that are unnecessary in some cases and theologically damaging in others. He proposes that Moses originated the Creation narrative as a response to Egyptian paganism but that the account was then refined (read redacted) in the exilic period to accommodate Babylonian creation myths. He appears to ignore the fact that Babylonian (and before that Sumerian) creation myths existed long before the time of Moses and would have been well known to the patriarchs in pre-Mosaic times. He insists that a proper exegesis of Genesis 1 demands a literal six-day creation week (p. 184), but a few pages later he says he is a theistic evolutionist (p. 202). The two positions are obviously at odds, a fact that receives no attention or offer of reasonable reconciliation.

The second gift is Adam, that is, humankind, created as a representative authority under the Lord’s sovereignty (based on Gen. 1:26–28). The bride is the third gift, she being in subordination to the male in the economy of God. The fourth gift, the garden, entails humanity on probation and the Fall. Waltke says the Noahic Covenant is conditional before the Flood and unconditional afterward. This leads to a discussion of covenants in general. In Waltke’s view all the covenants are covenants of grace except the one with Adam, which (in line with Reformed theology) is a covenant of works.

The Abrahamic Covenant (the fifth gift) leads to a discussion of Israel and the church, the distinction between which is treated here with some ambivalence (pp. 331–32). As the work progresses, Waltke comes more and more to the supercessionist view that Israel disappears from the eschatological radar to be replaced wholly by the church (pp. 404, 438, 578, 584, 586). Ironically the next gift to Israel (gift six) is its election as a covenant people that God the warrior (the next gift) delivered from Egyptian bondage so it could become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Yahweh (denominated as I AM throughout in Waltke’s idiosyncratic manner) Himself is the next gift (number eight), elaborated especially in Deuteronomy. Then follow the land, the gift of warlords (the judges), Samuel the prophet, and the Davidic Covenant. He notes with regard to the latter that the narrative reveals “the decisive moment in salvation history when I AM establishes the house of David forever over God’s kingdom” (p. 654), adding, “in spite of David’s gross sin and its contribution to his psychological decline, I AM’s unconditional covenant with David stands” (p. 654, italics added). This seems to flatly contradict Waltke’s previous assertions about a strict demarcation between a literal Israel and the church.

Kingship is the next gift in line. Here Waltke traces the theological significance of kingship in the Old Testament, correctly originating it in the Creation mandate to have dominion over all things (Gen. 1:26–28). It culminates in David and his dynastic succession including Jesus Christ. The books of 1 and 2 Kings focus on the “gift of God’s history-shaping Word.” Here (and elsewhere in the historical books) little attention is given to tracing theological themes, a manifest weakness in Waltke’s approach. The discussion consists primarily of a too-brief survey of the history alone. Chronicles and Esther receive a scant seventeen pages of treatment and Ezra-Nehemiah only thirty-one.

Part three of the work (“Other Writings”) discusses all the prophets, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature in a mere 174 pages, a remarkable imbalance given Waltke’s justly earned reputation as an authority in that part of the canon, particularly in the Psalms and wisdom literature. Disappointingly, he places “Second Isaiah” among the exilic prophets and holds to a postexilic “Third Isaiah,” providing no rationale or justification for doing so. The Psalms are described as the gifts of “hymns and the Messiah.” Beginning with David (thus overlooking Gen. 49:10 and 1 Sam. 2:10), Waltke traces the doctrine of the Messiah throughout the Old Testament and on into second-temple Judaism and the New Testament. The gift of wisdom at the end of his presentation allows Waltke to conclude on a strong and positive note. His attention to form critical issues as well as theological content is remarkable in its clarity and applicability.

The value of what the author has done as a whole is unquestioned, but a few comments seem necessary as caveats. First, the diachronic method employed, while laudable in principle, is only as good as the presuppositions relative to authorship and dating allow. Waltke’s concessions to multiple redactions of Isaiah and Zechariah, to a postexilic Creation narrative, and to a late, post-Mosaic Deuteronomy in final form (to name only a few examples) shape the theology based on them in a manner contrary to a theology of pre-Enlightenment criticism. That is, one’s bibliology will determine the outcome of one’s theology. Second, the lopsided treatment of Torah to the relative neglect of the (canonical) Prophets and Writings results in a skewed understanding of the theological relevance of these later collections. Third, the notion of “gifts” as theological content tends to hide any core or central theological motifs. The theology thus tends to be a theological commentary on topics of the canon rather than a synthetic, comprehensive, and integrated presentation of what the Old Testament is all about at its heart.

—Eugene H. Merrill

January 1, 2009
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2009 vol. 166 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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