H. Hagelia, Three Old Testament Theologies for Today: Helge S. Kvanvig, Walter Brueggemann and Erhard Gerstenberger

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Hagelia, Hallvard, Three Old Testament Theologies for Today: Helge S. Kvanvig, Walter Brueggemann and Erhard Gerstenberger (HBM, 44; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2012). Pp. xvi + 205. Hardcover. US$80.00. ISBN 978-1-907534-02-7.

Professor Hagelia teaches at Norway's Ansgar College and Seminary and brings a strong publishing record to this current project in Old Testament theology. Having already made his mark with linguistic and historical studies, most notably on the Tel Dan inscription, Hagelia is poised to explore theological approaches to the Hebrew Scriptures with a balanced methodology and hermeneutical sensitivity. Indeed, one of the most important contributions of this volume to the study of the Hebrew Scriptures is its focus on the hermeneutical question of the modern-postmodern impasse in biblical studies. The volume's five chapters, made accessible by a very detailed table of contents, study three works of Old Testament theology by authors who represent distinct concerns, methods, and global contexts: Helge Kvanvig, Walter Brueggemann, and Erhard Gerstenberger. A short introductory chapter, “What is Old Testament Theology?” aptly draws readers into the complex history and issues of Old Testament theology with admirable restraint, not attempting to rehearse the entire discipline. Chapters two through four treat each theologian on his own terms before exploring scholarly responses and offering Hagelia's own assessment. The conclusion poses questions and ventures preliminary answers about directions for the discipline in light of these theologians' contributions.

This type of book poses an interesting challenge for a reviewer because a major portion of Hagelia's study is itself a review of three works of biblical theology; but in this case, the book's genre does not discount its usefulness or significance. Hagelia brings two scholars with whom readers of this journal are well acquainted (Brueggemann and Gerstenberger) into conversation with the Scandinavian scholar Kvanvig, whose Theology has not been translated from Norwegian. That being said, it is not necessary to outline the approach and content of each of the three Theologies beyond a brief overview of Kvanvig's work.

Hagelia accurately and succinctly introduces readers to the theological magnum opus of each of these scholars. Avoiding the temptation to provide a full history of modern biblical theology, he turns instead to the way in which these books present the discipline. Along with a more traditional summary of these authors' content, Hagelia identifies several key issues that clarify their negotiation of modern-postmodern points of tension. For example, he discusses Brueggemann's emphasis on rhetoric, supersessionism, and theological polyvalence and highlights Gerstenberger's use of socio-historical methods and the question of whether theology should be a history of Israel's religion. Each of the three central chapters also reviews the most important critical responses to these theologians, followed by a brief summary of Hagelia's own evaluation, especially with respect to the interaction between these three theological approaches and postmodernism.

Kvanvig's theology deserves some comment because its approach to Old Testament theology diverges from more traditional approaches, be they historical, canonical, or thematic. Kvanvig's title, Historical Bible and Biblical History: Old Testament Theology as History and Story (Hagelia's translation, p. 16), points to his thesis that biblical theology must reckon with the narrative form of the Bible in light of linguistic research, and that this recognition is not a mere prolegomena to the theological task but lies at its heart. In three major sections, Kvanvig considers biblical theology in light of “Patterns of Understanding,” “Ways of Reading,” and “Text Patterns.” Part 1 discusses the main tensions that have faced biblical theology from its beginning as a discipline: first, modernism's impasse between pre-critical and critical understandings of the Bible's historical value; and second, postmodernism's impasse between structuralist and deconstructive approaches to the Bible and its interpretation. In general, Kvanvig tends to seek a middle way, granting the value of modern historical methods while also seeing the value in postmodernism's critique of historical positivism. Part 2 develops Kvanvig's development of modern biblical theology in conversation with several key figures from the twentieth century (e.g., Von Rad, Zimmerli, Childs). Focusing on the narrative form of the Old Testament's depiction of history and the literary hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur, Kvanvig argues that reading produces meaning through both fiction narrative and historical narrative. Part 3 presents Kvanvig's application of the above historical and literary insights to poetic and narrative text patterns, to instances of mimesis, and to mythic language.

Hagelia's assessment of Kvanvig's book is mostly positive. He appreciates the author's serious engagement with both modern and postmodern methods, but he also questions whether the result is a true Old Testament theology; it is rather “more of an introduction to Old Testament hermeneutics” (p. 68). While regarding the book as “a scholarly and pedagogical masterpiece,” he nevertheless would have preferred for Kvanvig to include a discussion of some of the issues and themes traditionally associated with Old Testament theology (pp. 69–70).

In contrast to his treatment of Kvanvig, Hagelia goes into less detail describing the contents of Brueggemann's Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (1997) and Gerstenberger's Theologies of the Old Testament (2002). For example, Hagelia's treatment of Brueggemann devotes twice as much space when dealing with the various responses to Brueggemann's theology as he does when exploring the content of this work. Hagelia affirms the pedagogical role of the trial metaphor that anchors the book, but questions whether “it forms a grid on the presentation that easily restricts it in a reductionist way” (p. 133). Regarding Gerstenberger's work, Hagelia regards his socio-historical method as valid, but of limited use when applied to biblical theology. In keeping with other scholarly assessments of Gerstenberger's study, Hagelia considers it to be a work that pertains more to the history of religion than to biblical theology as such.

I find Hagelia's treatment to be fair and judicious. His own study aptly, cautiously, and helpfully suggests how the biblical-theological conversation may continue. Some readers may question why he chose to review these three Theologies, but Hagelia is correct that there would be similar limitations with any other constellation of three contemporary voices. Kvanvig, Brueggemann, and Gerstenberger clearly and cogently present different perspectives for students to consider. For those whose focus is biblical theology, Hagelia's book is a fine addition to the vast corpus of secondary literature. It introduces the field of Old Testament theology through sustained, in-depth analysis of three significant works.

James K. Mead, Northwestern College (Iowa)