The Old Testament’s (Post-Critical) God

Reviewed by Brandon M. Thompson

Craig G. Bartholomew’s The Old Testament and God is the first entry in a planned four-volume Old Testament Origins and the Question of God series. This series — inspired by N.T. Wright’s New Testament Origins and the Question of God — is meant to reinvigorate theological study of the Old Testament in a way that retains the significant contributions of historical research.

In this volume, Bartholomew — director of the Kirby Laing Centre for Public Theology in Cambridge, England — articulates how the Old Testament ought to be received, particularly with an openness to the reality of divine action, a concept previously explored in his The God Who Acts in History (Eerdmans, 2020). In Part 1, Bartholomew examines divine action qua communication. Approaching the Old Testament through a “communicative hermeneutic” requires recognizing three dimensions of the text: the historical, the literary, and the theological/kerygmatic. While the historical is at home in modern historical-critical studies and the literary pervades postmodern approaches, for Bartholomew it is a recovery of the kerygmatic dimension that would mark a “paradigm shift in OT studies.”

In Part 2, Bartholomew dialogues with philosophers, literary critics, and biblical scholars to define the place of critical realism within Old Testament studies. Critical realism is an epistemological theory that enables one “to assert the objectivity of the text of the OT while recognizing the effect of different approaches that scholars bring to it” (104). Bartholomew thus appears to advocate a form of principled pluralism: “My plea is for a post-critical option in OT studies alongside other approaches.” After articulating the essence of a critical realist account of knowledge, Bartholomew delves further into the nature of worldview, tradition, narrative, literature, history, and the place of the Old Testament text within theology.

Part 3 takes the form of an Ancient Near Eastern worldview catalogue in which Bartholomew describes all the major cultures of the time. Bartholomew concludes this part of his work with a profound discussion of divine translatability, highlighting the value of the kerygmatic dimension to this topic. Divine translatability concerns the tendency of Ancient Near East cultures to receive and assimilate the deities of other cultures within their own cult.

For Old Testament studies, this discussion centers on the relationship between the Canaanite god ʾĒl (and, to a lesser extent, Baʿal) and yhwh. After analyzing recent studies on the reception of ʾĒl within Old Testament literature (primarily in dialogue with Mark S. Smith), Bartholomew argues for the “Mosaic distinction” through a re-examination of biblical passages that have been used in support of divine translatability. The Mosaic distinction, over against divine translatability, argues that the Old Testament distinguishes clearly between yhwh and other gods, deeming the others as false gods unfit to be worshiped.

Part 4 exposits the character of yhwh in the Old Testament. The first section of this part examines the attributes and characteristics of yhwh as defined by the Old Testament — with a focus on God’s holiness — while the second section re-engages the topic of divine action to conclude the volume. This part serves to more fully explicate the claim that how the reader conceives of yhwh and his role as a divine actor matters.

The Old Testament and God highlights how valuable multidisciplinary approaches are to Old Testament studies. Bartholomew has a firm grasp of the current trends in literary studies and philosophy that provide a rich depth to his undertaking. Despite the breadth and depth Bartholomew shows, some significant stones are left unturned. While Bartholomew casts his approach as theological/kerygmatic, there is a peculiar aversion to the resources of the classical tradition for theological interpretation and philosophy of divine action. Following Colin Gunton, Bartholomew indicts the classical tradition for its dismissal of the Old Testament in its formulating a doctrine of God, a claim at odds with recent work by Craig A. Carter. Dionysius and Aquinas, his two primary targets, are described without reference to their works, often resulting in (especially in Dionysius’s case) a misreading.

For example, Bartholomew critiques the negative theology of Dionysius, the classical tradition’s prizing of the antithesis between spirit and matter over the Creator-creature distinction, and an aversion to anthropomorphic language so that there is no longer a “continuity between God and his creation.” However, these critiques ignore the classical tradition’s refusal to reduce negative language to equivocity, instead seeing negative theology as culminating in hyperphatic language.

Because God is beyond being, his transcendence is so radical as to lead to a profound immanence, and his immanence is understood as a sign of his transcendence, so that even anthropological metaphors for God (e.g., as a “rock”) reveal something of the divine nature (Dionysius, Divine Names, I.6–7, 596A-C). There is, then, a continuity within the classical tradition between God and creation that also maintains their distinction, a continuity preserved by the analogy of being and the divine ideas tradition.

Moreover, it is worth questioning the expected audience of this volume. Part 3 assumes little background in Ancient Near East studies, while Part 2 brings such a wide-ranging force to bear on the question of critical-realist hermeneutics that readers may desire a foundation in theology of culture and philosophical hermeneutics. There is thus an inconsistency of depth throughout the work that makes it difficult to prescribe for a specific audience.

While Bartholomew’s monograph brings helpful attention to the divergent traditions within Old Testament studies, Bartholomew may avert readers from a non-Reformed/Barthian background and those interested in theological ressourcement. Nonetheless, Bartholomew’s appeal for a post-critical (perhaps “chastened modernist”) approach is worth paying attention to and critically discussing, especially as he seeks to retain the advancements of historical-critical engagement with the Old Testament without losing sight of its objective reality as a divinely revealed text with the active and living God at its center.

Brandon M. Thompson is an STM student at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.


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