Home > Fisks, Theology > Walter Brueggemann and the “New Biblical Criticism” #2, by Rolin Bruno

Walter Brueggemann and the “New Biblical Criticism” #2, by Rolin Bruno

20 November 2009

[Elder’s Note:  Rolin Bruno continues with Part II of his fascinating discussion of Walter Brueggemann.  My profound thanks to him again.]

Review of Theology of the Old Testament, 1997

From the Briar Patch Dictionary:

Theologian (noun): A person who emphasizes certain verses of Scripture, while making excuses for all the other ones.

In order to appreciate what Walter Brueggemann is doing in this book, it will be necessary to briefly explore a few rabbit trails in the underbrush of his approach and his worldview, before tackling the first of five theological proposals he makes in his fourth chapter. I hope that you can bear with me.

In my first installment I noted that Brueggemann has set about his task of extracting theological statements from the Old Testament (OT) by attempting to lay aside any categories forced on the OT from outside the text, notably the strictures of Historical Criticism as practiced by Walther Eichrodt and Gerhard von Rad, and those of Canonical Criticism as practiced by Brevard Childs. A quick word about these two methods is in order here.

Historical Criticism: This method, begun in the mid-17th century, attempts to understand the ancient text in terms of the time and place of its origins, its theoretical “sources,” and the events, dates, persons, places, customs, etc. stated or implied in the text. The focus is on the “world behind the text,” and it attempts to reconstruct the historical situation of the author and recipients and the “true” nature of the events described in the text, or known from historical resources.

An underlying premise is that the Bible can be reviewed and critiqued like any other book. While many users of this method believed they were advancing the Protestant aim to understand the literal meaning of the text, a few had distinctly anti-religious motives. One weakness of the method is the forcing of historically-based motivations on religiously-motivated writers.

Canonical Criticism: Although Brevard Childs disavows the term, he is nonetheless a leading force in this movement that began in the 1970’s, in part as a reaction to historical criticism. It is concerned with the meaning of texts within their canonical contexts, and in their final form rather than in discernment of the “layers” of alleged “sources.” A text is examined first within its particular book and then within the overall context of the Bible as authoritative scripture, i.e., the accepted Canon.

The hazard, of course, is that the text may be evaluated in terms of church doctrine rather than church doctrine in terms of the content of the text. With its highlighting of the users of Scripture, one might say that Canonical Criticism has a focus on the “world in front of the text.”

Once into chapter 3 it becomes evident that Brueggemann’s main tool is rhetorical criticism, which, along with canonical criticism, is not specifically post-modern but nonetheless represents a sharp break with the three centuries of historical criticism and its corollaries.

Rhetorical Criticism: This method began in 1968 with the work of James Muilenburg. The previous tool for examining biblical rhetoric, Form Criticism, had been employed in order to identify commonalities of the different types of literature used in different “life situations,” e.g. a thanksgiving psalm vs. a lament psalm. Rhetorical criticism seeks to focus instead on what is distinctive, unique, and personal within the text, in order to trace the movement of the writer’s thought and purpose.

Rhetorical Criticism, then, is hopefully the “world within the text”—the art of composition and persuasion encompassing the author, the audience, and the response that the text is structured to elicit. Whether it can stand alone as the sole discipline is an open question. Yet, beyond rhetorical criticism, Brueggemann has identified himself as a postmodern interpreter:

Postmodern Biblical Interpretation: This approach is little concerned with the world behind the text, nor even the world within the text, but concentrates on the world in front of the text as perceived by the reader. It refers to a style of thought that is suspicious of modern rationalistic accounts of truth, reason, and objectivity; that distrusts single explanatory frameworks; that sees the world as diverse, dispersed, and indeterminate; and that celebrates an approach to life that is eclectic and pluralistic.

In its most objectionable form for Christians, postmoderns will say, “You have your truth, and I have my truth, and they are both equally valid.” You will be pleased to know that Brueggemann has not drunk this particular flavor of its Kool-Aid. Rather, he views the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, as presenting a variety of “truth claims,” leading the reader to make the final evaluation of what is the better claim to truth.

Of interest to us as Anglicans, Brueggemann is following in the footsteps of another scholar of whom we have heard lately, Dr. Rowan Williams, especially in an article written by Williams in 1991 (see below). Brueggemann’s book was published two years before Williams became Anglicanism’s poster boy for the Peter Principle, so we need to examine who this man was.

Ordained in 1977, Williams nonetheless pursued an academic career through 1992, one year after he became a bishop. Why Brueggemann should have an interest in Williams is a puzzlement, since Williams is primarily a New Testament scholar, with interests in Origen and Arius.  For clues, I foraged through a few pre-1979 article titles by Williams, whose writings on post-modernism are most likely to be what caught Brueggemann’s attention:

1979     Barth on the Triune God

1980     The Via Negativa and the Foundations of Theology: An Introduction to the Thought of V.N. Lossky

1983     Liberation Theology and the Anglican tradition

1987     Postmodern Theology and the Judgment of the World

1990     Hegel and the Gods of Postmodernity

1991     The Literal Sense of Scripture

1993     The Necessary Non-existence of God

1993     Heaven and Hell: A Modern Embarrassment

But enough of the rabbit trails: Let’s take a look at what Brueggemann does in his chapter 4, “Testimony in Verbal Sentences.” For starters, he tackles “Yahweh, the God Who Creates.” He opens by citing the Bible’s “most mature testimony”, Isaiah 42:5-6a:

…who created the heavens and stretched them out,

who spread out the earth and what comes from it,

who gives breath to the people upon it

and spirit to those who walk in it:

I am the Lord….

This, as he forewarned, is from his preferred Scripture passages, “Second Isaiah.” In my last installment I explained the basis for some scholars’ conclusions that there were as many as three authors for the Book of Isaiah. In the case of Brueggemann, he has signed on to the idea that there is more than one author, and that moreover, he can differentiate which chapters were written by which author. After the above, he next notes Isaiah 45:18, which includes:

…who created the heavens (he is God!),

who formed the earth and made it, …

…highlighting the parallelism between ‘created’ and ‘formed’, reflecting the “imagery of a potter working clay, thus working an existing material.” We’re starting to see where he’s going here, as he puts his first arrow into his quiver. He then takes a side trip to another subject, still in 2nd Isaiah, although he does not yet reveal how he plans to use this scripture:

Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,

Who pierced the dragon? (Isaiah 51:9)

…in which he points to some extra-biblical material, reporting that “This text reflects an ancient tradition that God, in the act of creation, engages in combat with the dragon of chaos and defeats the threat of chaos.” This is the second arrow in his quiver, but his target remains hidden.

Now he gets to the heart of his preferential treatment of 2nd Isaiah, saying that “In the Old Testament, creation faith receives its fullest articulation in Isaiah of the exile.” That is, while Israel remains abjectly subjugated to the apparently all-powerful king of Babylon, they yet proclaim that it was their God and not Babylon’s who created the world and is in control of it.

I made the earth,

and created humankind upon it;

It was my hands that stretched out the heavens,

and I commanded all their hosts.

I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness,

and I will make all his paths straight;

He shall build my city

and set my exiles free,

not for price or reward,

says the Lord of hosts. (Isaiah 45:12-13)

Finally, Brueggemann is ready to stake his claim, on page 153:

The preceding lyrical statements [from 2nd Isaiah] are likely prior to Genesis 1:1-2:4a, even though the Genesis text is put first in the Bible and is best known.”

For many of us, this is a phenomenal statement. It clearly shows why he must reject the Canonical approach, which would give priority and preference to the Genesis creation story because of its very position at the front of the Bible. With this third arrow in his quiver, he is ready to reveal his target: the notion of that God can create something out of nothing (ex nihilo).

Although Brueggemann never actually displays Genesis 1:1-2 on the page for his readers to examine, he nonetheless begins to dissect it. Genesis 1:1 uses grammar that is not found anywhere else in Hebrew. In the NLT the traditional translation is used: “In the beginning God created….” But in the margin it notes two alternate translations, including “When God began to create the heavens and the earth…,” which is Brueggemann’s preferred rendering.

This makes Genesis 1:2a the main clause of the opening sentence of the bible, that is, there is a “formless and empty” earth with which God was working. In addition (remembering the second arrow) this is also an allusion to chaos (read: the dragon) which was in existence and over which God must assert control.

Along with his preferential treatment of 2nd Isaiah, in his introduction Brueggemann indicates he has signed onto another theory currently in vogue: That is, the Old Testament as a whole reached its final form around the period of the exile to Babylon, while in the process of extensively re-using older materials. Thus he claims that Old Testament passages need to be read twice, once for what the older material had to say to the people of olden times, and once for what the final editors had to say to the people of the exile and the people of the return from exile.

Now Brueggemann reaches into his quiver for the coup de grace, a fourth arrow which he has not yet fully revealed: He holds that Genesis 1:1-2:4a is an exilic text, that was actually formed after the deportation into Babylon. Thus the Genesis creation story is fully subsumed into the Exile creation story, where God creates by forming materials already at hand. Brueggemann concludes that the Old Testament does not state that God creates anything from nothing.

Since I’m the umpire here (it’s my article), it’s time to cry “Foul!”

Arrow 1: Isaiah uses creation verbs alongside formation verbs which imply a potter’s wheel. Fair enough. But does that mean that God creates and also forms, or that ‘create’ is used as a synonym for ‘form’? Foul. Hebrew poetry does not only use synonymous parallelism, but also includes developmental parallelism, where ‘create’ can lead to ‘form’.

Arrow 2: Isaiah 51:9 is probably a reference to the mythical sea monster Rahab that represents chaos in other ancient literature, therefore Genesis 1:1-2 may also be a reference to chaos. Foul. Rahab is a poetic metaphor for Egypt, the “dragon of the Nile” as the NLT correctly renders it. The verse provides no basis for a parallel to be drawn with creation myth.

Arrow 3: Second Isaiah was written before Genesis and should be given preferential treatment. Foul.  Here Brueggemann departs from all the rules and guidance he has given himself in his introductory material, and adopted a conclusion that comes from… wait for it… not rhetorical criticism… not postmodern criticism… but, yes, Historical Criticism, which he had supposedly set to one side. It is only by using the assumptions of historical criticism that one can compare individual chapters in Isaiah, relate them to the historical situation as known in the Bible and other ancient literature, and assign individual chapters to particular years in the life of Israel.

Arrow 4: “Critical consensus holds that [Genesis 1:1-2:4] is an exilic text.” Foul.  While he never actually promised to start with a clean slate, he did strongly imply that he was going to attempt a fresh look at the evidence of the Old Testament. Instead, he has relied on that old saw, “critical consensus.” Worse yet, he makes it as a bald and non-footnoted statement, so we are left without the tools to check on his allegation.

Now of course, if a writer of such a tome as this were to attempt to fully explain every presupposition that he relies on, he would never finish, and his book is already at 777 pages. But for him to not even provide a footnote, for a premise that he relies on to make a major conclusion, is simply inexcusable. I am left with no way to evaluate this so-called “critical consensus.”

Now to backtrack.

Brueggemann is not engaging in heresy here, claiming that God does not create ex nihilo. He is simply saying that if you wish to assert that premise, you cannot rely on the Old Testament to prove it. He notes that the first unambiguous claim that God creates from nothing occurs in 2 Maccabees, and footnotes Paul’s observation that God creates from nothing at Romans 4:17.

Nevertheless, this writer’s “wonderful” image is a trifle tarnished in my eyes, and he has earned a place among theologians as defined by the Briar Patch Dictionary: he spends an inordinate time on his favorite passages while neglecting others, and makes excuses—four of them, to be exact—for the one verse that is inconvenient to his conclusion.

This essay was tough to put together. I would like to proceed further into Brueggemann’s book, but I will not be able to continue writing at this level of detail, at least on a weekly basis. But I have not given up; look for me later down the line.

And if you have actually had the patience to bear with me clear to this bottom line, Thank you.

Br_er Rabbit.

My resources:

Richard Soulen & Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, 3rd edition

Gordon Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd edition

Categories: Fisks, Theology
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