For some people, their initial forays into the Old Testament go something like my first attempt at reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. It was one of the first real works of theology that I ever read, and I began with much enthusiasm. However, due to a combination of inexperience with studying theology and the fact that I was reading a work translated from German, my progress slowed the farther I got into the book. I completed The Cost of Discipleship—a challenging and truly worthwhile read—fully aware of the tenuous nature of my understanding of Bonhoeffer’s words.
I think the Old Testament can sometimes seem similarly foreign and intimidating, and some Christians get discouraged when they immerse themselves in it for the first time. For readers in this situation, a wise guide is helpful. I found John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, the first book in his sprawling three volume series on the Old Testament (which he prefers to call the First Testament), to be a helpful resource for becoming better acquainted with shape and nature of the Old Testament’s story.
The Shape of Goldingay’s Theological Project
Since Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel is the first part of a larger whole, it might be helpful to point out how it relates to the other two volumes in the series. This first volume reflects on the Old Testament’s narrative account of “Israel’s story and of God’s involvement with it” (p.28). In this book, Goldingay traces the story of God’s people from creation all the way through their return from geographic exile, ending with a final chapter looking at the New Testament’s story in light of the Old Testament narrative.
Goldingay explains that in the second volume of the series, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Faith, he focuses on the contemplative writings of the Wisdom literature and the Psalms, looking more explicitly at “the Old Testament’s faith and hope,” and addressing subjects like Israel, God, and the nations (p.28). In the final volume, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, he uses the instructions of the Torah and material from the Psalms to explore the “vision of life” found in the Old Testament, including things like worship, spirituality, and communal ethics (p.28).
Now of course, in a book longer than 800 pages, it’s impossible to bring up all of the interesting themes and features that one might like to discuss. Nevertheless, I do want to look at a few aspects of Goldingay’s work that I found to be noteworthy. He argues that, “The fact that the Old Testament opens with narrative and is dominated by narrative makes narrative form the appropriate starting point for Old Testament theology” (p.32). Broadly speaking, Goldingay avoids extended speculation regarding the sources and traditions that may or may not have made up the “world behind the text,” focusing instead on “the world of the text,” the final canonical form of the Old Testament books, for his theological commentary. He explains:
I have generally not based theological inferences on scholarly theories concerning where, how and why biblical documents came into existence. I try to infer the theological significance of the Old Testament narrative itself, to analyze its discussions of complex theological questionings, and to see what the stories tell us of who God is and who we are. (p.41)
The book as a whole is organized in a theocentric fashion and is structured in a manner that seeks to stick close to the shape of Israel’s story in the Old Testament itself. I appreciate how this can help readers become more familiar with the overarching flow of the Old Testament narrative and avoid getting lost in the weeds of genealogies and other more difficult passages. Goldingay’s prose is for the most part accessible, though the sheer length of this work does mean that some readers may need some extra stamina to successfully reach the end of the book.
Listening to the Old Testament’s Distinctive Voice
In addition to Goldingay’s defense of narrative theology in the Old Testament, I also think it’s worth bringing up the polemical nature of his work. Now by polemical, I’m not talking so much about his treatment of the Old Testament as his conviction regarding the neglect of the Old Testament by the Church (p.23). Rather than listening to the distinctive canonical voice of the Old Testament’s witness regarding faith, he charges that many readers have restricted the Old testament, in practice if not in theory, to providing a backdrop for the writings of the New Testament.
Goldingay is far from alone in making this critique. Joel Green, for example, echoes this concern in Seized by Truth when he notes that “the disestablishment of the place of the Old Testament in the two-testament Christian canon prompts a theological crisis often overlooked” (p.36). Craig Bartholomew similarly asserts that “it is vital that we attend to the discrete witness of each Testament in its own right” in Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics (p.100). Like these other scholars, Goldingay judges that many, if not most, Christians have not truly listened to the distinctive voice of the Old Testament, and this is a pendulum shift that he seeks to correct in this book, which gives his introductory section a distinctively polemical slant.
Because of these concerns, Goldingay tells readers that he won’t be focusing on a number of major interpretative lenses through which many Christians traditionally read the Old Testament. He doesn’t focus on the Old Testament as a “witness to Christ,” or on how “what is concealed in the Old is revealed in the New” (pp.26-27). On this matter, he notes that, “What is concealed from the Old is revealed in the New. What is revealed in the Old is taken for granted in the New” (p.27). Similarly, he avoids spending time on the ways in which events in the Old Testament like the Exodus foreshadow parts of the New Testament. He argues that these events:
[C]ame to be seen as “types” in light of their proving to have that capacity. [However] In the Old Testament events such as the exodus and practices such as sacrifice have significance in themselves, and I want to focus on what we can learn from that. (p.27)
It is natural for Christian readers to shift uncomfortably in reaction to someone resisting Christological readings of the Old Testament, but I think it’s worth reemphasizing that Goldingay is reacting to what he sees as an interpretative overemphasis, not a practice that he wants to rule out completely (at least that’s how I read him). Goldingay’s words here seem to support this:
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. (p.21)
There is a difference between saying “I don’t want to focus on this” and “one should not focus on this.” I may be reading Goldingay too charitably, but my intuition is that he is asserting the first statement, rather than the second one. Goldingay’s passion for revitalizing the role of the Old Testament in the conversations and practices of Christian churches leads readers into a number of interesting hermeneutical questions, but the overall point seems to be that he wants to both introduce people to Old Testament theology and correct what he judges to be the harmful neglect of the Old Testament in the rhythms of most Christian churches. He wants them to grapple with the Old Testament text itself. While there area few parts where I worry that his efforts lead to overcorrections, Goldingay nevertheless raises an important point here that I hope isn’t too easily dismissed by critics.
In the writings of the New Testament, we find passages describing the Old Testament as speaking directly of Christ (for example, John 5:46 and Luke 24:27) as well as other passages affirming the ongoing value and significance of the Old Testament in more general terms (I think especially of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 in this regard). It seems to me that Christian readings of the Old Testament are necessarily retrospective: in the light of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, Christians encounter the Old Testament with fresh eyes, discerning meanings and patterns that are brought out by the illuminating light of the Word made flesh. However, such figural readings shouldn’t entail the annihilation of the Old Testament passage’s reality and significance in its own right, as Richard Hays argues in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (p.14).
For Goldingay, the Old Testament is a forgotten voice that needs, and deserves, to be given more attention. As he puts it, “I want to give the Old Testament its own say in the conviction that it will tell us something that is in the spirit of Christ” (p.24). For the most part Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel accomplishes these goals. Even in the portions that are especially stretching and challenging, wrestling with the text alongside Goldingay makes for a good initiation into the rich world of the Old Testament narrative.
*Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.