On No Going behind the Witnesses – Again

Slaveophone has made numerous comments on a few of my posts (here, here, and here). I do not have the time, energy, or the desire to respond to every issue he has raised, much less to get into an ongoing discussion. Their was a time in my life where I ruthlessly responded to every statement made to or about me. I have since learned that the balance of the universe does not hang on me responding to everything that is said on the internet.  Read Slaveophone’s comments and judge them for yourselves; he has a few insightful thoughts.

That having been said, I do not want to ignore his comments. I would like to provide some clarification which may or may not alleviate some of his concerns, particularly as they pertain to the pursuit of the reality “behind” the text and Brueggemann’s methodology/exhortation to avoid this pursuit. To do this, I want to enlist the aid of Peter Enns and Jon Levenson. I will start with Enns, referencing once again from his book Incarnation and Inspiration: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament.

Despite appearances, what I am addressing here is not immediately relevant to that [Open Theism] debate. I am not interested in asking whether God can or cannot change his mind as some abstract discussion. The issue I am addressing is how the Old Testament describes God. To ask in abstract what God can or cannot do is interesting–sort of like “Can God make a rock so big that even he can’t lift it?”–but beyond the scope of this book and maybe even beyond the scope of the Bible. It is not the God behind the scenes that I want to look at, but the God of the scenes, the God of the Bible, how he is portrayed there.  (106)

When Enns chooses to look at the God of the scenes rather than the God behind the scenes, he is choosing to focus on the way in which God is portrayed in the particular passages of the Old Testament. For Enns, it is “not immediately relevant” to pursue a discussion about this God “in abstract.” How would we go about confidently asserting anything about the God of the text if the discussion were to occur outside of the text? Enns then goes on to subtly suggest that for such discussions, the Bible is possibly irrelevant; they are “maybe even beyond the scope of the Bible.” I think I see where he is going with this, and (at least for now) I agree with him. If there is a reality behind the text that does not conform to the text, then the text is not there for us to arrive at that reality, it has a different purpose.

This is where I appeal to Jon Levenson in his stimulating book Sinai & Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible.

The distinction between apodictic and casuistic law is an important insight into literary form, one that bears upon the origin and the function of the laws of ancient Israel. It is a major achievement of form-critical method which Alt utilized with such brilliance. It tells us much about the history and setting of the material that it analyzes. But I submit that it does not have theological significance. It has not been sufficiently noticed that all law-codes in the Torah were ascribed to the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. That is to say, all law in Israel, whether casuistic or apodictic in form, has been embedded within the context of covenant. In so doing, the tradition has endowed laws with the status of covenant stipulations, whether the individual ordinances show a formal connection to stipulations or not. Thus, the artless meshing of apodictic and casuistic norms throughout the Pentateuch, a process which Alt’s method seeks to reverse, is a theologically important fact which his form criticism must not be allowed to obscure. In the canonical scripture, Moses mediates both types of law as if they are one. He writes down the Book of the Covenant (24:4), just as he writes down the apodictic norms through which YHWH “made a covenant with you and with all Israel” (34:27). Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, therefore, although not literally true, does serve to convey a theological truth. Biblical critics have allowed their well-founded disbelief in the literal assertion of post-biblical tradition to blind them to the religious significance of the Mosaic attribution of the law. (49-50)

Levenson is not naive or ignorant about what stands behind the Pentateuchial texts. He knows of a reality that exists behind the texts that does not conform to what the texts themselves record. (Of course, we are speaking here of 21st century Western standards of conformity.) Levenson, however, chooses not to choose between the witness of the text and the reality behind the text. In spite of the fact that “Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch . . . [is] not literally true,” it “does serve to convey a theological truth (something which he goes on to discuss in the text but is not quoted above). What I see Levenson doing here with Moses and the Law, I believe Enns and Brueggemann are attempting to do with God. As Enns says, “I feel bound to talk about God in the way(s) the Bible does, even if I am not comfortable with it” (106). Perhaps it is uncomfortable to speak of Moses delivering the Law from Mount Sinai when we “know” that Moses did no such thing. Even if he didn’t, Scripture speaks of him as having done so, and there is theological significance to this attribution.

With Levenson’s example of Moses, it is much easier to get “behind” the text because the issue is more accessible. The Pentateuch can be subjected to historical and literary criticism that can shed light on what “really happened.” But as Levenson observes, this does not have theological significance. And insofar as our subject is Old Testament theology, we are bound to what the text is actually saying, not what we can intuitively uncover behind the text. With God, I don’t think that one can get behind the text nearly as easily as can be done with the ancient history of Israel. There are disciplines like philosophy that attempt to do so, but I am not convinced that philosophy has much of a place in Old Testament theology. Although Nicholas Wolterstorff takes a “no going behind the witnesses” approach in the book God & Time: Four Views edited by Gregory Ganssle which I might blog about in the near future. He will let biblical theology affect his philosophy! But then, he regards the Bible as divine revelation.

And this is where going behind the witnesses in regard to God is problematic. If Scripture is divine revelation, why go behind what is revealed? On the assumption that Scripture intends to (and to some degree of success does) reveal God, we need to pursue not merely what is being revealed, but how it is being revealed. Perhaps the “what” is different than the “how;” that does not change the fact that the “how” exists and that the “what” has chosen to reveal himself by/in/through the “how.”

I have just a few more loosely connected comments. Old Testament theology (or biblical theology for that matter) is not the only discipline in biblical studies. There is a long and enduring debate about what the nature of the discipline is. I am by no means claiming to have the only or even most accepted view on this matter. I recognize that it is in discussion of which I am one small voice. Some good resources for getting involved in the discussion would be Leo Purdue’s Reconstructing OT Theology: After the Collapse of History in the Overtures to Biblical Theology series. Ben Ollenburger also has an excellent volume, Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future in the Sources for Biblical and Theological Study series.

Just as “What is Old Testament theology?” is a big question, so also is “How does one go about doing Old Testament theology?” Brueggeman, in advocating a “no going behind the witnesses” approach, is not advocating that this is how Scripture tells us to do theology. James Barr writes:

What if the theological structure ought to be and must be one brought from without and inserted into the material? What if the ideal of a theological structure derived purely from within the material is a will-of-the-wisp, perhaps a fundamentally biblicistic dream that the Bible will supply, generate and control its own theology? After all, it has been a common judgment of Old Testament scholars who stand outside Old Testament theology that any theology it ‘finds’ has in fact been read into the text or imposed upon it. What if this is the truth, and if so, would it not be better to accept that the theology is a scheme, a model, applied to the text, rather than one derived from it by some explicit authority? (40)

Would Brueggemann take issue with Barr here? I don’t know, but I suspect not. Brueggemann is advocating for a model which he believes will help us access the theology of the Old Testament. Even a model which discourages going behind the witnesses does not have to be embedded within the witnesses to be valid or even normative. I think for people like Enns, Levenson, and Brueggemann, what is really shaping their approach to the text is the theological nature of the discipline and their commitment to their respective texts of Scripture. If I want to understand the theology of the Old Testament/Jewish Bible, I am not going to ignore what these theological texts are saying.

Are there any other opinions out there?


Barr, James. The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

Enns, Peter. Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Levenson, Jon. Sinai & Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible. New York: HarperOne, 1985.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s