Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach

Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach

by John H. Sailhamer

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The author's purpose for Introduction to Old Testament Theology is to show how different approaches to the Old Testament can be brought together into a single theology. The author develops his own distinctive approach which he calls canonical theology.See more details below


The author's purpose for Introduction to Old Testament Theology is to show how different approaches to the Old Testament can be brought together into a single theology. The author develops his own distinctive approach which he calls canonical theology.

Editorial Reviews

Steve Schroeder
Sailhamer's introduction is an explicitly conservative evangelical argument for a canonical, text-centered approach to the theology of the Old Testament. It is a particularly useful introduction (even for readers who are not conservative or evangelical) because of the care and evenhandedness with which the author describes alternative strategies of interpretation and makes his own choices explicit. The book becomes a kind of flowchart, mapping Sailhamer's choices--of text over event, canon over criticism, confession over description, and diachronic over synchronic interpretation--but also attending with care to alternatives at each step along the way. One could argue that the choices are not so neatly binary as the flowchart implies, but that would be quibbling. On the whole, this is an excellent introductory text.

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Introduction to Old Testament Theology

A Canonical Approach
By John I. Sailhamer


Copyright © 1995 Zondervan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-310-23202-3

Chapter One



Since not everyone is agreed on what Old Testament theology is or should be, we begin this work with an attempt to clarify for the reader our own understanding of its nature. The purpose of these introductory remarks, then, is to give a preliminary description of the task of OT theology. We do not mean to imply that our description is valid for all, but merely to set forth clearly the approach we will take.

As is clear from the name, OT theology is a certain kind of theology. It is the study of theology that has the Old Testament as its primary subject matter. It would seem that little else need be said since it is common knowledge what the Old Testament is and every reader of the Bible knows what theology is. But there are several questions that arise as soon as we begin to look more closely, even concerning the nature of theology itself.

There is diversity of opinion about how one's understanding of the term theology is affected when it is applied to the Old Testament. Is it correct to say that "Old Testament theology" is merely that branch of theology that has the Old Testament as its subject matter? Does not the label "Old" have some effect on the sense of the term theology? Does not the idea of an Old Testament theology also suggest that there is a distinction between it and a New Testament theology? If so, then the sense of the term theology will not be the same in both cases.

For the sake of clarity in understanding the nature of OT theology, it is important to come to some agreement on the meaning of the term theology. Only then can we speak with confidence about the nature of OT theology. What, then, is theology?

In discussions of OT theology, the term theology has generally been associated with two quite different concepts: divine revelation and religion. In one sense these two concepts, revelation and religion, may seem close in meaning. However, as the words have been used in discussions of OT theology, they have each taken on a particular sense and have grown poles apart in meaning. We will have to examine each of these concepts more closely to see what is meant by each term and how each affects our understanding of the nature of theology.

The word "revelation" is usually taken as a term which describes an act of God. God, we say, has revealed himself in the Bible. On the other hand, "religion" is a term which describes an act of man. The relationship between the two terms can be demonstrated by saying humanity accepts God's revelation and acts in accordance with it and that is called religion. The chart in Figure 1.1 shows how each of these concepts is related to the nature and task of theology.

When our understanding of the nature and purpose of theology is related to either of these two terms, it takes on a particular and distinct meaning. Since this meaning will carry over to our understanding of OT theology, we should look more closely at the two senses of theology which are related to these two terms.

1.1.1. Theology and Revelation

The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, has aptly expressed what the notion of theology means when it is linked to the concept of divine revelation:

Catch only what you've thrown yourself, all is mere skill and little gain; but when you're suddenly the catcher of a ball thrown by an eternal partner ... catching then becomes a power-not yours, a world's.

When one understands theology in relation to the concept of divine revelation, it is the study of what God has revealed about himself or about the world. It is, in Rilke's words, a catching of "a ball thrown by an eternal partner." As such it is a power not one's own, but "a world's." It is in this sense that the task of theology has been classically understood. The late orthodox theologian David Hollaz, for example, defined theology as "God given" (habitus Theosdotos divinitus datus) because for him it was a "revealed theology" (theologia revelata): "With respect to its principle, revealed theology is called a God-given way of thinking (habitus); not as though it is immediately infused into one's mind, but because its fundamental basis (principium) is not human reason but rather divine revelation. Therefore revealed theology is called wisdom coming from on high." Conceived in this way, theology, being to some extent also a science, is an attempt to formulate God's revelation into themes and propositions. It is the scientific explication of revelation. It works on the premise that God has revealed himself in ways that can be observed and restated in more or less precise language. The task of theology in this sense is the restatement of God's self-revelation. To quote Rilke again, it is a "catching [that] then becomes a power."

In connecting theology with revelation, it is important to note that theology, in this sense, is put in a direct relation to a special process that has been initiated by God. God has spoken and acted. God has revealed himself in observable and communicable ways. Theology's task is to pick up the trail and pursue the line of discourse, taking its clues from God's acts and words and translating their meaning to particular audiences and times.

It is easy to see that within such an understanding of the term, theology is given a high place among the sciences. Indeed, for many it is the "queen of the sciences." Theology's standing at one end of a process begun by God gives it not only a special rank, but also a unique authority. Theology can dare attempt to say, "Thus saith the Lord." What other field of study would make such a claim? Theology cannot claim to speak with divine authority nor can it be equated with divine authority, but it can and must claim to speak on behalf of God's revelation and hence expects its word to carry more than its own weight. Insofar as theology can rightly grasp God's revelation and accurately translate it into a particular setting, theology can lay claim to be normative. It can expect to be taken as a standard by which to measure oneself against the Word of God.

When such an understanding of the term theology is given to the phrase Old Testament theology, it raises several questions. How, for example, can an Old Testament theology claim to be normative? Does not the notion of the term Old suggest that the value of this theology has passed and that it has been replaced by the New? Is it not a serious problem to label one Testament "Old" and the other "New" and then to hold them both as normative? How can both continue to be a standard of one's understanding of God? If they are both the standard, in other words, why do we call the one "Old" and the other "New"? The problem we are raising here is not a new one, nor is it insoluble. It is, however, one that lies at the heart of every Christian's attempt to understand OT theology.

An understanding of the term theology that sees its task as the restatement of God's revelation and hence as normative, has far-reaching implications for one's understanding and approach to OT theology. It will influence much of what is proposed for OT theology in this book. Not everyone, however, agrees that this is the nature and purpose of theology. For many today the notion of theology is tied not to the concept of revelation, an act of God, but to religion, a purely human act. We should thus also take a close look at the sense of the term theology when it is linked to the concept of religion.

1.1.2. Theology and Religion

For some, the essence of the biblical faith is religion, not revelation, thus the task of theology is the explication of religious beliefs. The historian Emanuel Hirsch has argued that this view of theology owes its origin and development to the influential eighteenth-century theologian Sigmund Jacob Baumgarten. For Baumgarten revelation was separated from Scripture, and Scripture was turned into a human expression (religio) of divine revelation. As Baumgarten used the term, revelation was the "manifestation of things previously unknown," On the other hand, for Baumgarten, the term inspiration was understood as "the means by which direct revelation was communicated and recorded in books." Thus for Baumgarten, divine revelation was not identified with Scripture, but rather, Scripture was identified as the recording of that which had been communicated directly to the mind of the biblical writers. This is, admittedly, a subtle distinction, but it is one that had far-reaching consequences. Hirsch states that "German Protestant theology reached a decisive stage with Baumgarten. It went from being a faith based on the Bible to being one based on revelation-a revelation for which the Bible was in reality nothing more than a record once given." For Baumgarten and those that followed him the Bible was not divine revelation, but a response to a divine revelation. As such the Bible was a religious artifact,


Excerpted from Introduction to Old Testament Theology by John I. Sailhamer Copyright © 1995 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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