A More Nuanced Form of Canonical Interpretation? Gary A. Anderson’s “Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament”

Reading the Old Testament with contextual sensitivity and theological depth can be difficult. It’s all too easy for people to assume they already know what the text is saying or to treat the Old Testament as a mere backdrop for the New Testament. University of Notre Dame professor Gary A. Anderson is well aware of these dangers, but he doesn’t let them dissuade him from reading the Old Testament with doctrinal reflection in mind.

On the first page of Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, he reveals the admittedly ambitious aim of the book: to demonstrate that “theological doctrines need not be a hindrance to exegesis but, when properly deployed, play a key role in uncovering a text’s meaning” (p.xi). In the world of biblical studies, this can be seen as a pretty provocative claim. Some scholars worry this type of approach inevitably overlooks the continued place of these scriptures in the Jewish canon and leads to the error of triumphalistic supersessionism. Anderson himself acknowledges the importance of these concerns, and he reassures readers that his Old Testament studies “take the Jewish character and integrity of the text with utmost seriousness” (p.xii).

Reading the Old Testament Theologically

The book’s chapters are organized into four main sections, with each chapter taking up some aspect of a classical Christian doctrine and looking to see how it can illuminate (and in turn be illuminated by) the writings of the Old Testament. The chapters as a whole demonstrate what Anderson thinks it looks like to successfully delve into the relationship between the Old Testament and Christian doctrine without distorting or stifling the distinctive witness of the biblical text.

Anderson’s discussion of Joseph as the beloved son in Genesis 37-50, which forms part of a larger chapter looking at the topic of election in relation to the patriarchal narratives of Genesis, gives a good example of the type of engagement with the text that Anderson favors. It’s in Joseph’s story, he notes, “that we find the theme of election and its high cost set in most brilliant relief” (p.84). Joseph may be portrayed as the elect, beloved son of his father, but rather than this favored status resulting in an easy life, it actually leads him into deep suffering. After being left for dead by his brothers and experiencing a number of dramatic events in Egypt, Joseph eventually finds himself in charge of food distribution during a time of famine, which leads to the dramatic climax of the story when he meets his brothers again. What does it mean when the beloved son, who was thought to have died, turns out to actually be alive?

The brothers had every reason to be afraid when they found out that Joseph was alive. Anderson writes, “As the psalms of lament attest, Joseph would have good grounds to seek vengeance against those who have treated him so unjustly” (p.87). It’s the fear and concern of the brothers that leads Anderson to shift his gaze to the Gospel passion narratives. After all, “the disciples of Jesus also abandoned their Lord at the hour he needed them most,” so they too had reason to wonder whether their reunion with the risen Jesus would be a moment of mercy or anger (pp. 88-89).

In the Genesis narrative, Joseph overlooks the sins of his brothers and offers them mercy along with the provisions they needed. It is this dimension of the story that Anderson highlights when he reads the Gospel accounts with Joseph in mind: “this is the key to the passion: like the brothers of Joseph, we reject the Elect One of Israel, but the Elect One does not reject us” (p.90). So, does Anderson reduce the meaning of Joseph’s story in Genesis by finding a layer of christological meaning in it? That is something that readers will have to decide.

From my perspective, though, I see Anderson giving a close reading of the Joseph story in Genesis and then listening for echoes and allusions to it in the post-resurrection Easter accounts. He pays attention to how the character of Joseph, the beloved and betrayed son, can shape the way Christians think about Jesus, the beloved and betrayed Son of God. At the very least, this reading illustrates how Christians can listen for christological patterns in the Old Testament without turning a deaf ear to what these texts would have meant to their first audiences.

Some of these studies are, of course, more successful than others. Anderson’s essay on the doctrine of impassibility in light of Moses and Jonah, for example, seemed more strained. The book ends with a final section looking at a few more distinctly Catholic subjects like the relationship between faith and works and the controversial doctrine of purgatory. Most Protestant readers will likely remain unconvinced by at least some of his conclusions in these chapters, but I still think it’s valuable for Protestants like myself, who don’t frequently encounter Catholic biblical scholars, to see a fine mind working with the text from the standpoint of that part of the Christian faith.

Anderson and Old Testament Studies

Anderson’s essays in Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament should be seen as part of a larger, ongoing discussion in Old Testament studies about how to best go about reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. The contrasting approaches of Walter Brueggemann and Brevard Childs, two deeply influential figures on the academic landscape, are especially helpful for putting Anderson’s book in context. Childs was instrumental in altering the trajectory of Old Testament theology in a more energetic and unabashedly theological direction at a time when, as Walter Brueggemann himself declares, the field had “more or less fizzled out and lost its vitality” (Brueggemann, 2005, p.175). Childs’s approach has come to be called “canonical interpretation,” and near the heart of his work is the presuppositon that both the Old and New Testaments are discrete (and mutually interpretive) witnesses to Jesus Christ. Gary Anderson can comfortably be seen as a part of this canonical stream of Old Testament scholarship. At one point, he even goes so far as to call Brevard Childs “one of the strongest influences in my own work” (p.xv).

According to Anderson, canonical interpretation has three main dimensions. First, it involves looking at the textual history of each biblical book, paying attention to how these developments contributed to the “final shape” of each member of the Christian canon. I think Anderson highlights this dimension because he is pushing back against critics of canonical interpretation who suggest that it puts an overly-narrow focus on the final form of texts. The second aspect looks beyond the limits of a single Old Testament book and explores how the books of the Old Testament should be read in light of one another. And finally, the third dimension centers on addressing the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, asking how to read the Old in light of the New, and vice versa (p.xv).

Broadly speaking, Brueggemann thinks Childs’s reading tends to diminish and flatten the richly varied voice of the Old Testament scriptures, preventing Childs from doing full justice to the “playful, elusive texture of the text” (2005, p.125). He also suggests that the canonical approach doesn’t place enough weight on the perspectives of Jewish scholars, which keeps the deep tradition of Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Bible from being adequately included in the conversation (Brueggemann, 1997, pp.107-112). For Brueggemann, the Old Testament has a deeply dialogic/dialectical quality. This explains some of his reservations about the canonical approach:

While Childs acknowledges diversity in the witnesses, he insists that the text is stable, that it has a persistent, clear meaning… When one arrives at the stability of the text as quickly as does Childs, much of the power, energy, and, I dare say, truth of the text is lost in a kind of reductionism. (2005, p.169)

This debate over the merits of canonical interpretation stays for the most part under the surface in Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, but I think it nevertheless leaves a noticeable mark on Anderson’s efforts. In the book, I think it’s fair to say that Anderson exhibits what may be described as a nuanced form of canonical interpretation that tries to take into account the criticisms of scholars like Brueggemann. Anderson is sensitive to the structural and rhetorical particularities of the text. His detailed readings give plenty of attention to exegetical concerns like syntax and literary structure, and at numerous points, he includes the voices of Jewish interpreters, implicitly countering another criticism of canonical interpretation. Anderson suggests that much can be learned from “attending to what the Jewish tradition has seen in the biblical text through the lens of rabbinic tradition,” and he leans on the works of Hebrew Bible scholars like Edward Greenstein and Jon Levenson (p.209). All of these above-mentioned features are especially interesting to me given that Brueggemann’s name doesn’t even appear in the “author index” included near the back of the book.

Conclusion

Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament is a collection of thoughtful studies from a theologian who is clearly well-versed in both Jewish and Christian scholarship. While his manner of looking at the Old Testament in relation to doctrine surely won’t satisfy all readers, it does make it more difficult for proponents of canonical interpretation to be written off as inattentive and careless readers of the text. While in many ways I resonate deeply with Brueggemann’s concerns, it’s worth mentioning that he warns against exaggerating the differences between himself and Childs, noting that they both are grapplig with the “endlessly tricky relation between ‘The Great Tradition’ and the ‘little texts'” (2005, p.178). Childs’s ear is most sensitive to the claims of the former, while Brueggemann is a champion of the latter. Clearly, both are important parts of the biblical text, and it may be that holding these two commitments in dialectical tension is itself an important interpretive habit. In the end, Anderson’s rather ambitious work gives fresh energy to those who want to attend closely to the frequently ambiguous, multivocal nature of Scripture without stepping away from the rich history of Christian interpretation that stretches back through the centuries to Nicaea and beyond.

Other Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. The Book That Breathes New Life: Scriptural Authority and Biblical Theology. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005.

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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