Monday 8 December 2008

Paul R. House on Old Testament Theology

Paul R. House, Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 1998), 655pp., ISBN 9780830815234.

[The following review was written in November 1999, and was first published on London School of Theology’s website.]

If the publication of a large volume on Old Testament theology is a cause for celebration, then the world of Old Testament scholarship must have had its fair share of partying recently. The last few years alone have seen important works from three major scholars: Walter Brueggemann (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997], James Barr (The Concept of Biblical Theology: An Old Testament Perspective [London: SCM, 1999]), and Bernhard W. Anderson (Contours of Old Testament Theology [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999]), totalling almost 1,900 pages between them!

In amongst them, and with the potential to be missed, is this equally large volume from Paul R. House, who teaches Old Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He adds a further distinctive voice to the task of Old Testament theology today, one worth listening to in the wider debate.

One of the most helpful aspects of the book is the long opening chapter in which he outlines the history of Old Testament theology from 1787 (the date of a lecture given by J.P. Gabler, which many look back to as the beginning of ‘modern’ biblical theology) to 1993. An appendix discusses scholarship from then until the date of publication, making it one of the most up-to-date surveys available at the moment.

Having summarised the history of Old Testament theology, House offers his own working methodology. In line with much recent study, he states that Old Testament theology: (1) ‘must have a historical base’; (2) ‘must explain what the Old Testament itself claims’; (3) ‘must in some way address its relationship to the New Testament’; (4) must join ‘with the New Testament to form biblical theology’, and offer ‘material that systematic theologians can divide into categories and topics for discussion’; and (5) must move ‘beyond description of truth into prescription of action’. Although Old Testament theology is undergirded by historical analysis, its role is not to write a history of Israelite religious beliefs. And although Old Testament theology has a close relationship with the New Testament, the two have ‘discrete witnesses of their own’.

House recognises the difficulty of formulating a theology of the entire Old Testament, and so he follows a suggestion made by the late Gerhard F. Hasel to take the intermediate step of working on individual Old Testament books. This is probably the most distinctive feature of the volume, seen clearly in its chapter headings: House works through the Old Testament not with a topical outline (God, revelation, humanity, sin, etc.), but by examining each book of the canon in an attempt to show its theological contribution to the Old Testament.

So, to take a sampling, we have ‘The God who renews the covenant’ (Deuteronomy), ‘The God who disciplines and delivers’ (Judges), ‘The God who extends mercy to the faithful’ (Ruth)… Sometimes the chapter headings simply describe in a phrase the content of the biblical book (and House risks the criticism that he has written more of an Old Testament ‘overview’ than a ‘theology’ strictly conceived), and can be almost too broad in their scope to be helpful (e.g., ‘The God who saves’, on Isaiah). Other times, the chapter headings cast a clear interpretation on the biblical material (e.g. ‘The God who oversees male-female sexuality’, on Song of Songs). And House punctuates his overview with occasional sections on ‘canonical synthesis’, where he discusses the wider relevance of a particular theological theme.

He does not argue for an exclusive unifying theme, but takes the Old Testament’s ‘insistence on the existence and worship of one God’ as a major theological emphasis, which provides a focus to the text’s many emphases.

House writes clearly and self-consciously as an evangelical scholar, although he is not unaware of contributions from other quarters. The book can be commended as a very useful addition to the other recent volumes, one which treats the canon as authoritative Christian Scripture, and which seeks to work from the texts outwards to the truth of the God we love and serve.

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