Posted by: Joel | December 1, 2008

The best approach

I have been thinking about the best approach to soaking myself deeper into the Holy Scripture’s Old Testament literature. No matter what, my main task is two-fold: 1) familiarize myself with the literature, and especially the least familiar sections – the prophets and the historical books; 2) seek the face of God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is the ultimate author and actor and goal of the biblical texts. But alongside of this do I focus on: learning Old Testament (biblical) theology? working my way through each individual section and book with helps along the way? getting deeper acquainted with the foundational literary and historical (and theological) issues surrounding the study of Old Testament literature (Biblical hermeneutics)? 

My inclination is to pick the third option for a few reasons: a) If I am to study particular sections and books and passages and themes I will need to be aware and conscious of my assumptions regarding the literary, historical and theological aspects of the God-inspired literature; b) this will (ideally) better equip me to deal with the particulars of Old Testament studies; and c) I have some great literature at my fingertips from trusted authors in this area (Ian Provan, Phil Long, Craig Bartholomew, Al Wolters, Gordon Wenham, Mark Boda, Tremper Longman, Dan Treier, Chris Wright, etc). 

And obviously one option does not exclude the others. Hopefully they will all intersect in beneficial and challenging ways.

Any thoughts?



  1. Joel, to prepare your for a study of the Old Testament, you might reflect further on what distinguishes the Hebrew canon from the other ancient religious and philosophical texts, namely, the idea that God has revealed himself as Creator (and Redeemer). The latter parts of the Book of Isaiah or the Book of Job pick up on this theme. In the non-revelatory religions, the idea that God is Creator, and that there was once a time when the things of this world were not, is absent.

    Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine is a fairly accessible reflection on the meaning of revelation for human life. Other Church Father, e.g. Tertullian, also pick up on this theme.

    You seem to want to differentiate between the theological and the historical issues in the study of the Old Testament. But this may be an oversight. If you regard God as the primary actor in the Hebrew canon, what is clear is that the canon sees God as acting in human history–and doing so uniquely, redemptively, in the history of the people of Israel. If God has done so, the historical aspect would not be other than the theological aspect, but the two would be identical with each other.

  2. Rich,

    I was under the impression that other A.N.E. religious texts were all about their God as the ‘creator god’. Am I mistaken? What about the enuma elish and texts like these. I thought that Scripture used the very term ‘El(ohim)’ to refer to God because this was how the other nations spoke of their ‘creator god’… ?

    I don’t think I want to distinguish between the historical and the theological in the way that you think I do. When I said ‘literary, historical and theological’ I meant that in order to understand a biblical text one needs to understand how it was written (literary), its potency in the language and worldview of its contemporary culture (historical), and its place within the broader story of God’s trinitarian work in the creation-fall-redemption/consummation of the cosmos through Israel/Jesus/Spirit/church (theological).

    I completely affirm, at least in theory – if not always in practice – that Scripture and the salvation HISTORY of which it is a record and tool is not ’embedded with timeless truths’ but rather that truth is revealed and wrapped up in these historical events. So if I understand you correctly you want to guard against a dualistic understanding of truth which strictly separates it from the way in which it is revealed and accomplished. I also want to avoid that.

    That said, it would seem to me to be unnecessary to completely collapsed ‘historical’ and ‘theological’ in my post with regards to exegeting a text.

    After my explanation do you still have a problem with the language I am using?

  3. No real problem. It would seem to me, however, if you asked the question, Who wrote this text? the differences you see between literary, historical, and theological aspects could be understood in terms of an anthropological unity.

    Any text will have an origin in a certain place and time, though older and text is, the more difficult it will be to determine these points exactly. Any text will reflect and respond to the cultural ‘spirit’ of the community in which the author(s) lived at the place and time it was composed. The place and time of the text will also situate it in the larger narrative of human history. How so? Because, like you and I, the author(s) of the text lived in a certain place and time and inherited a tradition of learning.

    It seems to me that the implicit direction the multi-aspectual (literary, historical, and theological) study of the text is to ignore a basic question about how you, the scholar, relate to the author(s) of the text you are studying.

    (I am not trying to be annoying by engaging you in discussions of this sort. It is refreshing to engage with someone who thinks about these matters.)

  4. As far as I know, you are right about the Babylonian Genesis texts. An understanding of God as Creator is also something shared by Zoroastrianism, and there are also, if I recall correctly, ancient Greek and Roman texts that refer to God as being Creator. So I will have to withdraw a few of my earlier comments–they were a little hasty.

    To know God as Creator, however, can be understood in a couple of ways. It could simply mean God is that Being by which every other being exists, or has existence. The notion of a Demiurge is of this sort. The term Demiurge belongs to Plato, I think, but it is applicable to the Babylonian Genesis texts.

    What is unique about the biblical literature is that every other being has a beginning in time while that Being who is God is eternal, and so has no beginning in time. And this in turn will entail a rather unique understanding of the human person, a creature who is also a creator.

  5. Rich,

    By no means do I find your comments annoying. I enjoy the challenge in that it challenges me to think through things before I say them, to think about things I haven’t yet considered, and to interact with different perspectives. I appreciate the discussions so far.

    Sometimes I find that I either don’t understand what you’re trying to get at or I don’t see the relevance of a certain argument that you’re making. Usually after some further interaction it becomes clear. Likely your double M.A. means that you have already worked through a lot of these issues and so are three steps ahead of me, which means that certain assumed connecting points whiz past me. I am trying to keep up and engage.

  6. Yes the implications of a ‘theology of creation’ (or of the Creator) does interest me because of its importance and its fecundity in understanding who God is, who we are, where we are and how the three relate in a creation/fall/redemption schema.

    I affirm 100% that the relationship between the reader of the text and the author of the text is a very important question. It cannot be avoided in any understanding of or attempts at biblical interpretation. But does this mean that we do not affirm any distinctions between literary/ historical/ theological aspects of a text? How does that work practically? What would non-multi-aspectual study of the biblical text look like (especially seeing as, if we affirm a human and divine authorship, this ‘author of the text’ is not only a human situated in time and place but the Holy Spirit of the Creator-Redeemer God)?

  7. The weekend was busy…I am in the process of responding to this question.

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