If it were possible to ask the author of a book on Old Testament theology written during the first half of the twentieth century the question, “What is Old Testament theology?” I suspect the answer would come in the form of a noun. For example, the work of Walther Eichrodt answers this question with the word “covenant” while the work of Gerhard von Rad appeals to the German term heilsgeschichte, or “the history of salvation.” Thus understood, Old Testament theology is a thing—an idea, concept, or motif—something that one can discover in one’s reading the Old Testament.
The ability for the theology of the Old Testament to be discovered results in an either/or battle between proposals like that of Eichrodt and von Rad. It is possible to find the one more persuasive than the other, but it is not possible to conclude that both are “right.” In the final analysis, it is necessary to choose between the candidates.
The second half of the twentieth century marked a period of transition for the discipline of Old Testament theology. For those who belonged to this period, what they were transitioning to—whether they were transitioning to anything—was the prevailing question. It was only near the end of this century when a true alternative to the question “What is Old Testament theology” began to emerge among those who wrote on the subject. A decade into the twenty-first century, I believe it is becoming more apparent that a new age is dawning in the now more complex discipline of Old Testament/Tanak (Jewish)/Hebrew Bible Theology.
The question “What is Old Testament (or Tanak) Theology” receives a new answer in the twenty-first century, one that distinguishes itself from the biblical theology movement of the first half of the twentieth century—Old Testament/Tanak theology is a verb, not a noun. Contrary to the answers that emerge in the history of this discipline, it is not possible to “discover” the theology of the Old Testament/Tanak, as though one stumbles across it in the pages of the text where others before have been negligent or ignorant. Those who have come before have not “failed” in the task, otherwise we would not find their work stimulating nor continue to consult and draw upon it.
Old Testament theology is a kind of activity in which one engages the Old Testament, and this is why books on Old Testament/Tanak theology will continue to be written for the foreseeable future. Moberly captures it best when he says,
There is something intrinsically contextual and provisional about theological use of the biblical text. Theology is not a once-for-all exercise in finding right words and/or deeds, but rather a continuing and ever-repeated attempt to articulate what a faithful understanding and use of the biblical text might look like in the changing circumstances of life (Moberly 2009: 19).
Bibliography of works on Old Testament/Tanak theology that, to varying degrees, captures the spirit of this post:
Brueggemann, W. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997. Barr, J. The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. Moberly, R. W. L. The Theology of the Book of Genesis. Old Testament Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Sommer, B. D. “Dialogical Biblical Theology: A Jewish Approach to Reading Scripture Theologically.” In Biblical Theology: Introducing the Conversation, 1–53. Library of Biblical Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009. Rogerson, J. W. A Theology of the Old Testament: Cultural Memory, Communication, and Being Human. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010. Sweeney, M. A. Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011. Briggs, R. S., and J. N. Lohr, eds. A Theological Introduction to the Pentateuch: Interpreting the Torah as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. Kalimi, I., ed. Jewish Bible Theology: Perspectives and Case Studies. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012.