Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy

Up to a certain point, reading one book of the Bible at a time (or, sometimes, one segment of one book of the Bible) is the task at hand.  Certainly I would say, as a Bible-loving sort of dude, that the reading of Jeremiah is always before me.  But there are 39 books in the Old Testament (49 if you’re Catholic), and the long Jewish and Christian traditions of Bible-reading have been fairly insistent that the God who reveals God’s self through the whole array of texts, not through one of them exclusive of the others.

One traditional way to do that work, and the tradition I had inherited in my pre-Brueggemann-revolution days, was the Biblical harmony.  In its own terms (as I understood them), Biblical harmony holds that contradictions in the Bible are only apparent contradictions, that the “problem” of contradiction (a harmonizer would not use the scare quotes) was something resulting from some Bible interpreters’ prior commitments to “catching” the Bible in “errors.”  (I use a lot more scare quotes now that I’ve read Brueggemann.)  To its credit, the harmonizing approach does do what traditionalist theology (and I do consider myself a traditionalist) is meant to do: it takes the Bible that we’ve actually received, and it constructs thoughts beginning with the raw materials there.

The problem, if one is convinced by Brueggemann’s notion of the plurality of the Bible (see BrueggeBlog 3), is that such harmony too often comes at the cost of the rhetorical force of particular passages.  So long as no contradictions appear (they’re always apparent, now that I think about it; the argument is whether they’re truthfully apparent or deceptively apparent), no problem at all.  But if one book’s rhetorical thrust runs directly counter to another, and one wishes not to nullify either, then one proposition cannot, by definition, encompass both.  Thus the project of constructing theology as a hermeneutical task first and foremost (and that does remain one of my own priorities) becomes impossible in a straightforward, syllogistic manner.

Enter dialectic.

Dialectic theology, at least as I attempt to practice it, tries to speak of God in terms of positive revelation AND tensions and contradictions in the text AND the silences between revelatory moments.  In an atemporal system of syllogisms, such is impossible, which is why dialectical theology is always time-ful theology.  In such a practice, any theological assertion that I make always responds to assertions or practices or events that are already there when I show up.  (One can speculate on what the first such assertion was, but since the origins are likely responses to liturgical practice, even that might be a wrongheaded question.)  Thus any given moment of theology, including any fashioning of a systematic theology, is always an antistrophe to a strophe that someone’s already dancing, a counter-assertion waiting for its own counter-assertion in the next generation’s (or the next moment’s) theology.

Taking the competing strains of justice and holiness as sites where these dialogues and disputes play out, Brueggemann insists that the plurality plays out in dialectic precisely because Israel and the Church are communities whose lives unfold in time:

It is clear that hearing the commands of justice and seeing the “face” of Yahweh live in profound tension with each other.  This tension is no doubt deep in Israel, as bespeak the powerful advocacies of the Deuteronomic and Priestly traditions.  One may imagine vigorous debate among the witnesses, of the same kind that characteristically occurs in the ecclesial communities of this text.  It is clear that the two accents of these twin traditions of obligation cannot be harmonized.  Nor finally are we permitted to say that one is more decisive or more ultimate than the other.  It is important that the canonical form of Israel’s unsolicited testimony refuses to choose between the two.  In different contexts and in different circumstances, one or the other of these traditions may become crucial.  It is likely a good rule of thumb, in the ecclesial communities of the text, to attend always to the tradition that is more problematic and demanding.  (429, italics original)

Thus dialectic: the priestly emphasis on the presence of God and the need to maintain that presence is entirely a true call for the people of YHWH, and the call to welcome in those who disrupt that practice of presence, to identify in solidarity with the poor and the unclean, is also entirely true.  Because the community of the faithful does not inhabit all possible moments simultaneously, the Scriptures speak differently depending on the moment, and part of the ongoing dispute over the goods inherent in the being-the-people-of-YHWH is always going to be contingent.  Sometimes the faithful are going to get it wrong, and it’s the duty of the next generation’s historians (and the next moment’s polemical writers) to name the mark-missing, the hamartia, the sin.  But then again, the sin-naming might itself be part of the sinning, and those who expose the unholiness or the injustice of the sin-namers might be our best friends.

Or not.

Thus the risk of dialectics.

The power of this dialectical theory of theology is that it encompasses the moments of system-making and of ad-hoc pastoral theology, the moments of social activism and those of contemplative mysticism, and still allows room for good and for bad judgments on this or that moment to be true.  For my money, that’s ultimately what makes Brueggemann’s way of doing theology more appealing than the positivistic marveling-at-plurality that never takes a stand in the fray (one of the characteristics of G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy that drives me up a wall) or, even worse, hand-picking the bits of Scripture that back one’s already-established political, sectarian, and aesthetic preferences and denying that other emphases and arguments are anything but “peripheral” or “clobber verses” (which is a danger for all of us but gets stronger as one’s loyalties to any given nation, political party, or interpretive “school” get stronger).  The openness is what lends the force: at any given moment, the strand of theological assertion that I had ignored or pushed to the margins might end up being the strand to which YHWH calls now.  

It’s a strange way to do theology, both for those whose theology wants to be “settled,” never departing from the best interpretations of days gone by, and those for whom theology is “progressive,” discarding what is old as outdated, never to return.  But if Brueggemann is right, this dialectical unfolding is not imposed on the Bible by Gadamerians but inherent in the canonized collection that we call Bible.  Strong disagreements persist, not only among interpreters, but between one book and its neighbor, and sometimes even between one part of a book and another.  It’s unsettling, but ultimately, I would argue, it’s good.

2 thoughts on “BrueggeBlog 4: Theological Dialectics”
  1. Nathan,
    These BrueggeBlogs are great. This dialectical theology that you sketch out is inviting. I think we’ve all read some too clever by half systematic theology that tries to harmonize books, verses, etc that simple cannot be harmonized.  I also like that Brueggemann and you say choose, but be aware that your choice may not be God’s choice, and remaining open to the hard choice may be exactly where God is calling you.

  2. michb Thanks for reading!  I would caution, though, that my own approach probably strikes some as “clever.”  Here’s the thing: anyone who turns the page from Genesis 50 to Exodus 1 is doing some sort of theology that goes beyond simple exegesis, so the relevant question is not “Too clever or not too clever” but “Whose cleverness? Which relationship?”

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