Old Testament History Versus Scholarly History

The rise of historical criticism, and especially the era initiated by the work of de Wette, raised a fundamental question for the theological use of the Old Testament. If scholars were correct in arguing that the picture of the history of Old Testament religion present in the Old Testament itself differed radically from what had actually happened, how could the Old Testament be used theologically? If all that Moses had instituted at the beginning of Israel's history (according to the Old Testament) was in fact a product of the latest stage of Israel's religion, after the exile, where did this leave readers?

De Wette had worked ahistorically; that is, he had regarded the Old Testament as essentially the literature of a people wrestling with ultimate questions about meaning and purpose. The value of the Old Testament lay in its literary-aesthetic grappling with these questions. Vatke had seen in Israel's history, as reconstructed by critical scholarship, the outworking of a dialectic of education between the divine and the human. For Robertson Smith also, the critically reconstructed history of Israel could be used positively, as a history of grace. Hofmann, Delitzsch, Arnold and Maurice, on the other hand, accepted Old Testament history at its face value, Hofmann particularly so, because he believed that it was the history of God's involvement in human affairs.

In the twentieth century, all creative theological use of the Old Testament had to accept the new 'ugly ditch' that de Wette had discovered, between the actual (scholarly critical) and the recorded (Old Testament) history of Israel's religion. Responses were as follows.

In his Theology of the Old Testament published in the 1930s, Walther Eichrodt (1890-1978) proceeded ahistorically by seeing the covenant between God and Israel as that which determined everything (Eichrodt 1933-9). The covenant resulted from God's irruption into human history, and it was an anticipation of the kingdom of God. It shaped the whole of Israel's life and institutions which were considered by Eichrodt in great detail. The value of the Old Testament was therefore its indication of how the divine—human relationship had affected the life and institutions of an ancient people. For contemporary believers in Israel's God as further revealed in the New Testament, this was of considerable interest.

If Eichrodt worked ahistorically, G.von Rad (1901-71) fully accepted the consequences of de Wette's 'ugly ditch' (von Rad 1957-61). Working on the basis of the various histories within the Old Testament as isolated by the scholarship of the 1950s, von Rad described the theology of the Jahwist, the Deuteronomists, the Priestly school and the Prophets in his Old Testament Theology. Yet this was not just description of past beliefs. Von Rad invoked the notion of kerygma (proclamation) in order to characterize what was going on in the various histories within the Old Testament. Thus, the kerygma of the Jahwist was a witness to faith expressed in a historical account of God's workings in Israel. Even if modern scholarship could not always accept the accuracy of the Jahwist's version of what had happened (it was, after all, written at a time when historical research and writing as we know them did not exist), what could not be denied was the Jahwist's faith in what God had done and was doing. This faith had shaped and sustained Israel through many crises, and had had to be recast in the light of these crises. Von Rad thus provided a dynamic picture of a people of faith living out their faith in a real and difficult world, a world where it was possible for modern readers to relate to many problems.

Another view that took history as the main avenue of approach to the Old Testament is to be found in the school of the American W.F.Albright (18911971). Albright and his students, especially G.E.Wright, used archaeology to try to defend the basic historicity of the Old Testament. Their purpose in so doing was to speak of acts of God in history, in which the divine had objectively set something in motion in human affairs, to which the faith of Israel as expressed in the Old Testament was a witness (Rogerson 1988:143-4). Their position differed from that of von Rad in that they regarded events such as the Exodus as mighty acts of God, whereas von Rad held that we could know little of what happened at the Exodus, and that the prime datum was not the event itself but Israel's faith about the event.

Closely bound up with the approach of the Albright school was the biblical theology movement. This assumed that divine action in Israel's history had produced a distinctive Hebrew world-view that not only contrasted with the world-views of Israel's neighbours, but which could be a source of contemporary knowledge about God. According to this approach, the Canaanite worldview was magical, cyclical and mythical, whereas the Hebrew understanding of reality saw the world as the creation of a God who was directing history lineally towards an ultimate goal. The distinctive understanding of God implied in Hebrew language and culture (as opposed particularly to that of the Greeks) was that God was dynamic rather than abstract, was the object of trust rather than assent and whose righteousness was not an attribute but an activity of delivering those in need. Biblical theology was able to produce books on the biblical view of man (sic) or work or on key biblical attributes of God such as his hesed (unfailing love). In its way, biblical theology is reminiscent of Delitzsch's biblical psychology.

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