Theological influence—when it involves two strong, authentic theologians,—always proceeds by a re-envisioning of the prior theologian, an act of creative reorientation that is actually and necessarily a reinterpretation. The history of fruitful theological influence, which is to say the main tradition of Israelite literature since the pre-exilic age, is a history of re-contextualization and reorientation without which modern theology as such could not exist.
This revision of Bloom’s thesis from The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry captures the fundamental portrait of how contemporary scholarship understands the theological dynamics of inner-biblical interpretation and of an approach to Old Testament theology that emphasizes activity (verb) over a particular idea, concept, or motif (noun). There is an organic continuity that exists between the kind of theological activity that takes place within the pages of Scripture and that which takes place among contemporary practitioners of Old Testament theology. Michael Fishbane first hinted at this continuity in his book, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel where he suggests that rabbinical methods of interpretation are an extension of the kind of interpretive activity already taking place within the Hebrew Bible. Despite some legitimate criticisms, the fundamental connection between ancient and contemporary biblical interpretation has taken root and is beginning to blossom in Old Testament theology.
This can be further developed by another quote from Bloom,
Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety. Poets’ misinterpretations or poems are more drastic than critics’ misinterpretations or criticism, but this is only a difference in degree and not at all in kind. There are no interpretations but only misinterpretations, and so all criticism is prose poetry (94-95).
It is illogical for Bloom to categorically dismiss the idea of “interpretation,” to argue that every interpretive activity is unavoidably and necessarily a misinterpretation. However, if we ignore this idiosyncratic and grandiloquent use of terminology, Bloom essentially suggests that every poem is both dependent upon yet different/more than those poems that precede and influence it. Old Testament theology is a variation of the activity of inner-biblical interpretation, just as “all criticism is prose poetry.” The way in which the Chronicler responds to certain concerns unique to their situation is both dependent upon yet different/more than the concerns that occupied those who wrote the books of Kings.
Likewise, when contemporary scholars and laypeople engage in Old Testament theology, we are dependent upon the text, but what we are saying is unavoidably and necessarily a “misinterpretation.” An “interpretation” would prove to be nothing more than a reproduction of the text itself, and we cannot reproduce the text. As John Rogerson observes, “However hard scholars may strive for objectivity, however hard they may try not to read their own interests and assumptions into the way they organize their work, they will not be able to avoid the fact that they are situated in times and circumstances that inescapably affect and shape what they do” (Rogerson, A Theology of the Old Testament, 10).
The anxiety of Old Testament theology is not an Oedipal-like struggle to overcome the influence of the text but rather emerges from a concern that the influence of the text would indeed impose itself on our own times and circumstances. This explains the proliferation of volumes entitled Old Testament Theology—not the need to “discover” the theology of the Old Testament (noun) but the need to engage in the activity of it (verb)! John Goldingay captures this well when he cites Bloom in his Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel:
‘Giving account’ [i.e. evaluating oneself and passing judgment—to oneself, to God, to other people, to future generations] thus presupposes selection and reworking. In this sense, history is an inherently critical enterprise. It involves reflecting critically on traditions and narratives. It is not bound to the content and vision of the traditions and narratives it receives. Indeed, it characteristically involves working at a new vision on the basis of theses and/or justifying the way in which a new vision has emerged. Civilizations change. History presupposes the reality of change and tells its story in such a way as to claim that the new form of the culture is the valid descendant of the old. Strong historians have to rewrite boldly, like strong poets (864).
Strong theologians, likewise, must rewrite boldly.