Home > Blogs, Fisks, Theology > Walter Brueggemann and the “New Biblical Criticism” by Rolin Bruno

Walter Brueggemann and the “New Biblical Criticism” by Rolin Bruno

14 November 2009

[Elder’s Note:  Rolin Bruno (the Northern Light that was pointed out earlier this week) has graciously volunteered to write well, as many articles as he wants to here, regarding Walter Brueggemann.  Brueggeman has given a series of lectures at one of our parishes here in DSO, and I was at a loss for a long time to find someone knowledgeable about Rhetorical Criticism who would talk about WB.  Thank you, Rolin, for shedding light on this.]

Have you ever encountered a book and perhaps sampled it, and thought, “I’d really like to read this one soon as I have the time,” but then the “time” never seems to arrive?  Such a book was recommended to me by a man I admired very much, William Dogterom, who besides being a wonderful family man held down two full time jobs: college professor (at night) and senior pastor (by day) for a vibrant, growing church.

As an undergraduate, he was my professor for biblical theology, among other classes. In reference to the Old Testament, he recommended the magnum opus of an author who he found “wonderful,” with asterisks and exclamations. The book was Theology of the Old Testament by Walter Brueggemann, published 1997. I bought the book, and actually used it as reference for some of my post-graduate work, but seven years later, it still sat on my shelf mostly unread.

Not any more. A recent web log comment with a sidewise challenge to Brueggemann as a suspicious theologian brought it back to mind. I took the book down from the shelf, dusted it off, and now I’m attempting to digest it, hopefully from front cover to back cover.

A strange thing happened when I started reading Brueggemann’s book from the beginning: I had the odd feeling that I was reading the output of a being who was actually conscious. That is, the author seemed to be aware of his surroundings at the end of the 20th century, and rather than recasting all the events and people around him according to some personal schema, seemed to understand the various viewpoints and the landscape about him. (Nothing, for instance, that you will ever hear from a radio talk show host, who is resolutely dedicated to his own schema.)

Brueggemann also seemed at least partially self-aware, that is, aware of his own limitations and propensity to reframe input into his own terms. In one footnote I found this: “It will be evident in much of what follows that Second Isaiah occupies a privileged place in my interpretation…“, hence earning him a privileged place among theologians, at least as defined by the Briar Patch Dictionary. (I’ll have more to say about the Briar Patch Dictionary in my next installment, along with how this author rates a privileged mention and a formal induction into one of its entries.)

Okay, here begins a short rabbit trail into Isaiah:

The whole concept of “Second Isaiah” needs some explanation, and no, you won’t find it in the table of contents of your Bible. There are variously one, two, or three parts to the Book of Isaiah, depending on which Bible scholar you consult. First Isaiah, sometimes called “Isaiah of Jerusalem,” is thought to consist of Isaiah’s chapters 1-23, 28-33, and 36-39, allegedly written from Jerusalem before the exile. Second Isaiah is chapters 34-35 and 40-55, allegedly written from exile in Babylonia. Third Isaiah (when separated out from Second Isaiah) is chapters 24-27 and 56-66, allegedly written from Jerusalem some 50 years later, after the return from exile.

These views arise in part because many scholars believe that the Book of Isaiah was begun around 742 BC and not completed until sometime after 537 BC, rather a long span of life (205+ years) for a single prophet. They get to this point as they use “historical criticism” to attempt to align the words of the book with historical events in the life of the people of Israel.  While this is not necessarily heretical thought or an attack on the authorship of the Bible, a backdrop to this type of criticism is often the doubt that a prophet in one century can predict and write in detail about events in a subsequent century.

My own view is that the Book of Isaiah—the first of the “writing prophets” —might well be the product of the “prophetic school” of Isaiah. There is plenty of evidence in the Bible for the existence of these schools, typically founded by a charismatic prophet and continued through the work of his disciples. The most notable and successful of this passing of the baton would be the example of Elijah, passing the leadership of his “school” to Elisha, before the time of the writing prophets. In other words, I believe that there was a real person, Isaiah, who began this written work, who may have passed it down to other inspired prophets who began as his disciples.

All right, end of rabbit trail, back to Brueggemann:

Walter Brueggemann is thoroughly Protestant in his outlook, from what I have found in his introductory material, and holds a high view of Scripture:

The Bible is to be understood “as Scripture” in the community that gathers in response to the claim that here God is decisively disclosed. Thus the Bible is a revelation, and Scripture study is an attempt to receive, understand, and explicate this revelation—hopefully to receive, understand, and explicate this revelation in all its oddity, without reductionism, domestication, or encumbrance. [Page 3]

Brueggemann opens his magnum opus with the Reformation, citing Martin Luther with some favor:

Luther was first of all a biblical interpreter. His great and revolutionary insight, though in service of and informed by his personal and theological struggle, arose in his attentive and scholarly study of Scripture. Luther asserted that the “evangelical substance” of biblical faith is not and cannot be contained in the habituated, accustomed, and reductionist reading of church theology that made God simply an integral part of a church-administered system of salvation. [Page 3, emphasis Brueggemann’s]

To put it another way, Brueggemann cites Luther in support of his opinion that anyone who investigates Scripture while holding the presuppositions of Church Doctrine will never find anything but Church Doctrine contained there. Especially with the Old Testament, it is too easy for Christians to assign meanings to the OT in Christian categories that did not exist at the time of the writings.

Brueggemann offers the same opinion about those who approach scriptures with the presuppositions of historical criticism. That is, historical criticism is, in a way, its own religion, beginning with the scandalous proposal that Scripture can be viewed as having the purpose of telling history, and including the Positivist-Enlightenment view that everything that needs to be known is indeed knowable, if only enough research is done.

In fact, he cites with favor other writers who have declared “The Collapse of History”, meaning that the usefulness of historical criticism has run its course and come to an end. (This would cause quite a bit of dismay to those who affirm the current “assured results” of “moderate biblical criticism.”) Theologians, especially biblical theologians, have been floundering around in the methodologies of the “new criticism” of the latter 20th Century to find a way forward.

He makes a very thorough review of previous theologians, including the failed Wellhausen theory. Although Eichrodt and von Rad made great advances, in the end they reduced Scripture to their own terms by imposing upon it categories and modes of thinking that come from outside, i.e. historical criticism. He finds Brevard Childs’ “canonical criticism” to also be reductionist, especially in forcing Christian categories onto the OT. Actually, I find Childs to be quite valuable, but Brueggemann has a valid point about OT interpretation. The OT needs to stand on its own, first, before placing it under the Christian grid.

Brueggemann also holds a window open to other views, or in other words, he consults bible scholars outside the realm of mainstream academic scholars. At the top of the list, he finds it important to consult Jewish theologians and Tanakh scholars, who are likely to see things in the text that a Christian might completely miss. He also consults feminist, liberationist, and black scholars for their findings.

Although Brueggemann is Christian and Protestant, he is also postclassical and postmodern, and tries to be postliberal and ‘nonfoundational’, whatever that means. In other words, Brueggemann is attempting to start with a clean slate, without preconceptions that would distort the meaning of the text.

Which is, of course, impossible.

I have finished the introduction and have started into the meat of the book, where he reveals what his actual methods are in practice. Of all the ‘new criticism’ methods available, Brueggemann practices primarily Rhetorical Criticism, in which he mostly ignores the “real history” so important to others and zeroes in on what the language and rhetoric actually is attempting to say. It is tough, slogging work, with whole chapters devoted to relatively modest gains. One by one, he establishes from the rhetoric, “the text says this.” I hope that somewhere, before he gets to the back of the book, he will attempt to put some of the this” together to come to some sort of useful conclusions.

Here are two brief quotes from his summary of chapter three, where he starts to dig into his subject:

It is Yahweh and only Yahweh who provides the peculiar norms by which “godness” is now understood in Israel. It is clear to Israel, moreover, that beyond Yahweh, there are no serious candidates for the role of God. … It is important to accent that something like “God’s preferential option for the poor” is deeply rooted in Israel’s testimony, so deeply rooted as to be characteristic and definitional for Israel’s speech about God. [Page 144]

If this is the most that can be extracted, it is somewhat discouraging. But there is indeed more. Next time, I’ll show how Brueggemann runs off the track he so carefully lays down for himself, and finds himself among those scholars classed as “theologians” by the Briar Patch Dictionary.

From the Briar Patch,

Br_er Rabbit

(Rolin) http://www.staidanlindisfarne.org/MinistryNews.dsp

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