Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation by Leo G. Perdue, Robert Morgan, and Benjamin D. Sommer
Published by Abdingdon Press
Many thanks to Lori Patton at Abingdon Press for this review copy!
Like many books that seek to introduce a particular subject or idea, Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation serves as a primer of sorts for anyone interested in biblical theology. However, this book is certainly not only for the novice, but will also be helpful for those seeking to refresh their minds with the major movers and shakers in the world of biblical theology. The authors’ intention is not so much to define biblical theology, though there are brief discussions on that, but to discuss scholars whose contributions to the discipline have been most significant. The subtitle of the book, Introducing the Conversation, indicates as much. This is not a biblical theology nor an attempt to define what the discipline is or is not, but a survey of those who have been and are currently taking part in this conversation and what it is they’ve said, albeit a cursory treatment.
The book is divided into four chapters:
- Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically
- Old Testament Theology Since Barth’s Epistle to the Romans
- New Testament Theology in the Twentieth Century
- Hermeneutics: The Bible and the Quest for Theological Meaning
Chapter one was written by Benjamin Sommer and explores the question “can there be a Jewish biblical theology”? Sommer plainly states that there can be no such an animal, at least not in any technical sense, primarily because Jewish theology is so informed by not only the biblical text, but also by its vast post-biblical tradition. He argues for a “dialogical biblical theology” model, which “would attempt to construct a discussion between biblical texts and a particular postbiblical theological tradition” (p. 21). He goes to discuss some of the theoretical and more concrete examples of both Jewish and Christian scholars who have employed this model. Whether or not one finds his arguments for this particular model convincing will be up to each individual. There are certainly some aspects of this dialogical model that are appealing and may hold promise for those wrestling with the issues inherent in trying to formulate a biblical theology, but I was not wholly convinced. Nevertheless, Sommer certainly deserves an attentive ear concerning the issues he has raised.
Chapter two was written by Leo Perdue and he seeks to survey the vast landscape of Old Testament theologies since the publication of Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. He chooses this as the starting point due to the tremendous influence and impact Barth had on theological studies. According to Perdue, Barth “broke the strong grip of the history of religions approach on biblical studies with the appearance of his commentary” (p. 59). Purdue sets the stage for the post-Barth theologies by offering a brief summary of important scholars who preceded Barth, namely Wellhausen, Gunkel, Eichhorn, Mowinckel, and Gressman, as well as several schools of thought that were prominent, namely the British Myth and Ritual school and the Scandinavian school. Purdue then proceeds in his discussions of the more prominent Old Testament scholars whose works helped shape and mold the future of OT studies–Gerhard von Rad, Claus Westermann, Brevard Childs, and Walter Brueggemann. Purdue devotes a suitable amount of space to each scholar’s methodology and resultant theology, such that the reader comes away with at least a starting point for understanding for the major players in Old Testament studies, particularly as it pertains to theology.
Chapter three was written by Robert Morgan, who like Perdue in the previous chapter, sets out to survey the landscape of New Testament theology. He initially tackles several aspects of the discipline that are crucial for undertaking a theology of the New Testament: its challenges, definitions, and relationship with other areas within the broader field of New Testament studies. Concerning the scholars whom he discusses, Morgan tackles fewer individuals, opting to trace the development of New Testament theology as opposed to those who have worked within the discipline. Morgan spends a fair amount of his time discussing New Testament theology before and after the work of Rudolf Bultmann, particularly the works that came out of Bultmann’s wake. Morgan here provides a helpful synopsis of the mass of theologies that were published post-Bultmann. The chapter concludes with several pages of discussion revolving around major elements of the New Testament, namely Jesus, Paul, the Synoptics, and “other writings” (epistles and the Apocalypse).
Chapter four is tackled by Perdue, in which he sorts through the numerous hermeneutical approaches taken by biblical scholars since the publishing of Barth’s Der Römerbrief. The array of hermeneutical approaches is dizzying, so Perdue is naturally selective in which approaches he tackles. He begins by discussing the hermeneutics of the church, a rather short treatment in which he lets Childs do the talking, so to speak. He then moves on to the synagogue where he summarizes the view of prominent Jewish scholar Jon Levenson, who argues that Jews are not “interested one whit in this enterprise” (p. 217). More substantial are the more narrowed discussions that trace the hermeneutics of various scholars throughout the history of biblical studies. They are classical approaches (Eichrodt, von Rad, Albertz, and Bultmann), literary (which is further divided into varying critical methods, e.g. narrative criticism, metaphorical theology, and imagination), and liberation (feminism, mujerista, postcolonial feminist theology, Latin and African American liberation theologies).
The task of introducing someone to any subject within the academic world is a daunting one at best. Even narrowing the focus to specific subjects doesn’t offer much relief given the usual ocean of information available for the interested student to drown in. With such a task, Perdue, Morgan, and Sommer are to be commended for their work. I admit that my initial impression of the book was not great. I thought it to be quite dry and boring through most of what I had read (a criticism I maintain for certain sections). I now, however, can gladly say that my initial observations have been altered a bit upon a more complete reading and I have a greater appreciation for the contribution this book makes. The authors somehow manage to survey a couple of centuries’ worth of scholarship and offer a through, yet concise synopsis of the somewhat amorphous discipline that is biblical theology. As with any individual who reads a given book, especially one which the authors present and summarize the views of others, there are minor quibbles one will find& throughout. Though I was familiar with many of the scholars discussed in the book, I’ve not read enough of any of their works to say that Perdue and co. were in any way unfair or that they misrepresented those whom they discussed.
I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a snapshot view of the discipline and the scholars who have made great impact upon it.
*One minor complaint on the format: the use of end notes are rarely helpful for me, and so it is with this book. In fact, it was a drag looking up references!