Archive for November, 2009

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“First Testament” Theology?

November 17, 2009

Israel’s Gospel is the first of three volumes of John Goldingay’s monumental effort to layout and explain Old Testament theology against the backdrop of modern narrative interpretation. Goldingay begins this work by declaring his own liberation from the traditional restraints of biblical interpretation. (22) It is his intent to examine the Old Testament in light of itself, not in light of the New Testament or subject to “Christian Lenses”. (20) Rather the Old Testament or “First Testament” is the light by which the New (Second) Testament must be examined. The actual theology of the Old Testament is portrayed through the extensive narrative involving Israel, with several interludes of “overt personal reflection”.(29) This narrative is laid out by Goldingay under the following progression: God began with creation; God started over via the flood; God promised a covenant with Abram; God delivered on His promise; God sealed His people; God gave the promised land; God accommodated Israel’s requests; God Wrestled with Israel; God preserved Israel following their dispossession; and finally God sent Jesus. (32) Goldingay methodically goes through each of these stages and treats them with intensive scriptural detail and analysis. These steps are not dispensations, revisions, or differing promises; but rather stages in God’s unfolding plan for “His People” and His creation. Goldingay concludes his 883 page work with an extensive postscript elaborating on his concepts of historicity and how history informs theology but must not control theological interpretation or faith based theology.

Strengths of the Work Goldingay’s effort is quite exhaustive. He literally starts from the beginning and systematically fleshes out each major component of his narrative with numerous scripture references. He reflects on scripture with scripture and uses “inter-textuality” seeking to give weight to his arguments by tying scripture together. The length of his work seems necessary for what he is trying to accomplish, and the luxury of this space in which to work is the detailed treatment of topics which, by their nature, cry out for detailed treatment. Chapters range from 50 to 100 pages for each of the eleven sections, each is meticulously subdivided which aides in reference and in tracking the progression of his argument. Weaknesses Goldingay’s effort is not only exhaustive but could also be termed as exhausting. This work is by no means an objective scholarly work; rather it represents a faulty theology based on countless dogmatic assertions. Goldingay, a “white Oxbridge-educated, middle-aged, Episcopalian priest,” admittedly a Christian, begins by divorcing the Old Testament from the New.(872) In fact he finds it necessary to rename the testaments to created distance, while they are still connected by chronology they should no longer be thought of as Old completed by New but rather as First followed by Second. His use of this terminology is by no means consistent throughout the book, a fact which lends itself to confusion. Goldingay can afford the separation of interpretation because the Old Testament (OT) “never mentions” Christ; ergo he will not focus on how the OT “points to Christ”. (26)

The OT is a central witness to the character of YHWH, and it is this character that Goldingay wishes to explore; and explore it he does. One of the books primary failings is that while he uses numerous scriptures and relates them to one another, Psalms with Genesis, Proverbs with Exodus, for example; often he brings a poetic passage to bear against a narrative. And while a poetic passage can give added meaning to the significance of an historical event, its figurative terminology should not be used to dogmatically interpret the narrative thereby constraining a plain flat reading of the text. Goldingay professes that God can be limited by human action. Indeed, “He limits his knowledge to be able to genuinely listen to us;” He must listen because, “while He could know everything about us… God’s supernatural knowledge… comes about through discovery.”(137) God’s is seen as rather reactionary, it is no surprise to Goldingay that when “things went wrong God had to start over.”(131) This need to start over arises from mans sinful actions and their effect on the His creation; however, Goldingay does not attribute the existence of this sin on anything genetic or biologically inherited from Adam, rather sin is a by-product of sociological and environmental pressures which affect human development.

There are some truths throughout Goldingay’s text, he admits that God created the universe and world, although how this was done is uncertain; God called Israel and created a separate nation, although this is not any kind of election in a theological sense.(214) etc. Goldingay spends 700 some odd pages meticulously going through the Hebrew narrative examining the character of God to arrive at his post-script where he flatly concedes that there is little verifiable historical fact in the aforementioned narrative. The absence of the text’s historicity does not eliminate the moral message contained in the passages, rather the morality remains intact and open for interpretation. According to Goldingay, it matters not who wrote, or contrived, or edited the scriptures, or for what purpose; there are still truths to be revealed about God and His character, a theology to be studied.