Walter Brueggemann (more Kugel and Criticism)

Walter Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia
He has devoted his life to a passionate exploration of Old Testament theology, with an emphasis on the relation between the Old Testament and the Christian canonical works, and the dynamics of Jewish-Christian interactions. He has published more than 59 books.

Brueggermann criticizes Brevards Childs as being too Christian and not pluralistic enough (Jon Levenson in turn uses the same arguments on Brueggermann). Walter Brueggemann is the standard mainline Protestant approach. He is the Reverend Lovejoy not the Ned Flanders. He is the standard approach now in seminaries that locating meaning in Documentary History is so 19th century skepticism and positivism, on the other hand he rejects fundamentalism or apologetics as anti-intellectual and repressive. Does he have anything to teach about moving beyond the false dichotomy?
He thinks history removes the theological sense of the text. We lose God and Sinai with criticism. We also cannot create an ethical approach with historical criticism. He is also willing to question parts of historical criticism. But on the other hand, he questions the fundamentalist approach as more concerned with external dogma and affirming an external event rather than accepting the revelation of the text.

Passages from: Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1997. (pp.726-29) Old Testament Theology in Relation to Historical Criticism

No doubt Brevard Childs is correct in his contention that the relationship between Old Testament theology and historical criticism is of crucial importance to any advance in Old Testament theology. Thus I take it as a truism that Old Testament theological interpretation must be seriously engaged with criticism, and any serious student of Old Testament theology cannot retreat into a “safe” fideism because he or she fears the results of critical inquiry.

The conclusion to which I am drawn is that the enormous apparatus of high historical criticism that reached its zenith in the nineteenth century and continued its dominance well into the twentieth century is not, in the first instant, of primary relevance to theological exposition at the end of the twentieth century. By such a conclusion, I do not intend any appeal to an anti-intellectual fideism; I appeal rather to criticism that is congruent in the two ways suggested. In drawing this conclusion, I only reflect what in practice has turned out to be the case for a great number of responsible scholars at the present moment, namely, that scholars have moved well beyond the critical categories that have come to represent historical criticism.

In my judgment, historical criticism (by which I shall refer to the entire Enlightenment enterprise that came to be associated with Julius Wellhausen and that now seems to reappear as neo-Wellhausianism) was committed to a Cartesian program that was hostile (in effect if not in intention) to the main theological claims of the text.

Thus what is required in a new, antipositivistic intellectual climate is a criticism that is not thinly positivistic, but that is open to the density of social and rhetorical processes that generate social reality beyond our “realism.”
I suggest that in a new settlement still to be worked out between criticism and interpretation

Serious energy needs to be given to discern what of the older historical criticism is to be retained and how it is to be used. There is much in the history of the literature and perhaps in the history of religion that still needs to be valued, even though almost every old “consensus” opinion is now under heavy assault. The challenge in retaining learning from the older historical criticism is to do so without a hidden commitment to the theological skepticism that seemed endlessly to accompany that criticism, but was not a necessary part of a critical perspective. There may be a place for skepticism, but it should be explicit along with its grounds, and not surreptitiously taken along with critical judgment.

The real issue in the relationship between interpretation and criticism is to be aware that fideism and skepticism are twin temptations, and that criticism is an effort to be thoughtful in a way that does not permit fideism and that does not require skepticism. In much “scientific” study of the Old Testament, it is generally assumed that skepticism is much more intellectually respectable than is fideism. With the demise of positivism, that unstated but widespread assumption might well be reconsidered. Skepticism, often voiced as hostility to theological claim, is in fact not a given element in responsible intellectual inquiry. What passes for uncommitted objectivity in Old Testament study, moreover, is often a thinly veiled personal hostility to religious authority, which is displaced on the interpretive task as though such hostility is an intellectual virtue. No doubt an oppressive fideism and a hostile skepticism endlessly evoke and feed each other. We may now be at a moment when totalizing fideism is exposed as inadequate and when skeptical positivism is seen to be equally inadequate, when a genuinely thoughtful criticism can engage the density and depth of the text, which is available neither to fideism nor to skepticism.

Or a more technical plea to look at the text and not behind the text. The social world of a text does not explain the meaning of a text. For example, the social world of the Talmud does not explain the logic and meaning of the Gemara.

A mere excavating of the social world behind the text, as if the text, itself, did not enter into the social construction of reality and provide an alternative “social” world of negotiation and definition, is a species of positivist reductionism. As Clifford Geertz once argued, this short-circuits the autonomous process of symbolic formulation. Geertz claims that such symbolic reductionism usually stems from theories whose “psychology is too anemic and whose sociology is too muscular” (Geertz 1973: 202). How what is said is crucial to what is said.

The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has recently eloquently argued that rhetorical criticism is an indispensable complement in biblical studies to sociological analysis. Echoing Geertz’s strictures, he deplores forms of historical criticism (of which the sociology of the Bible is a sub-set) which explain away literary cunning such that “what is interesting and dense in the text has been often forfeited” (Brueggeman 1997: 103). As he puts it, historical criticism “runs the risk that the methods and assumptions to which it is committed may miss the primary intentionality of the text” (Brueggemann 1997: 104).

Brueggermann reviewed James Kugel’s 2003 The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible and thought that Kugel agreed with his seeking theological meaning as more important than history. But Kugel’s recent book sings a different song.

On the other hand, Kugel refers to “The Project” by which he seems to mean a theological investigation into the “realness of things” that lies deep beneath the appearances that are so taken for granted among us: “They [the texts] can indeed come back to life, and their world, their way of seeing, can let us in to take the measure of things that are strange” (p. 3). At the end, Kugel concludes: “It is important to glimpse how things once were otherwise; certainly we then may better understand where the present came from. And perhaps also for another reason, somewhat more sublime: to remember that that ‘otherwise’ is, for all that has intervened, not unrelated to what exists in the fullest reality of today” (p. 199).
Thus in the most restrained and almost whimsical way, Kugel’s ultimate concern is not historical but contemporary.

So what can be used from Brueggermann for an Orthodox approach? What cannot be used?
(Since my proportion of hits to the blog compared to click to links is so small, less than 1/100, I left the links out).

2 responses to “Walter Brueggemann (more Kugel and Criticism)

  1. Dr. K. Nicholas Yoda

    As a person caught between many worlds (a PCUSA Minister trained under Walter…an apologist trained under Ravi Zacharias and beyond…an elected member on COTE (do your own research)…), you bring up some interesting thoughts. I love your finally though of Brueggemann and the orthodox approach…I am hopefully having lunch with him soon… I will get back to you. DKNY

  2. Please let me know what Walter says. Ask him if he has had any Jewish interlocutors before?

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