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The Book That Breathes New Life The Book That Breathes New Life
Scriptural Authority and Biblical Theology

Walter Brueggemann
ISBN 9780800636678 (0800636678)
Augsburg Fortress, 2005
£19.95

Category: Biblical Studies
Subcategory: Old Testament

That I ordered this book unseen, solely on the basis of the author and the title should give some indication as to how important I thought it'd be. That when it arrived I discovered I'd already read at least half of its chapters as essays and articles in other books and journals means I'll be more careful next time — especially as some publishers aren't always particularly up front in their promotional literature regarding the content of forthcoming volumes. And then I also discovered that only three of the thirteen chapters address the topic of scriptural authority mentioned in the title (that was the hook for me, I have to say), and that the others really focus on Old Testament theology, not a full, two-testament 'biblical theology', also teasingly hanging there in the title. I think there's great scope for a good book which reflects on scriptural authority from a biblical theological perspective. Unfortunately, this is not it.

Okay, whinge over. A few moment's reflection reminded me that not everyone works down the corridor from a top-class theological library which subscribes to that must-have quarterly, Zeitschrift für alttestamentliche Wissensschaft, from whence just one of the essays here has its origin. In that sense, the book is very useful in gathering together portions of Brueggemann's ongoing work which might otherwise remain inaccessible to many. (I actually think this would be a positive selling-point for publishers, if they were prepared to announce it.)

The three chapters in the first part are addressed to the topic of 'biblical authority', although most of the discussion turns to the crucial related issue of biblical interpretation. The little direct discussion of authority suggests that Brueggemann joins with those who see the Bible as a 'timeless classic', and with those who understand that the authorising power of the Bible needs to be embodied in the praxis of communities. Stimulating and suggestive though the chapters are, those who are looking for engaged discussion with traditional aspects of the doctrine of Scripture will be disappointed. Equally, his treatment will appeal to others for precisely the reason that it doesn't get bogged down in endless debates about how many inerrant angels can dance on the head of an infallible pin.

Much more satisfying, in my opinion, are the chapters on Old Testament theology more generally (in Part 2), and those where Brueggemann engages with some of his detractors (in Part 3). Any who make their through these essays carefully will come away with a good working knowledge of Brueggemann's own concerns, and of other contributions to Old Testament theology in the last fifty years or so (Gerhard von Rad and Brevard Childs probably receive most attention, in addition to other usual suspects: Barr, Eichrodt, Gottwald, Levenson). The inevitable repetition here and there will be helpful for those, like me, who need to be told something several times over before it goes in.

A number of motifs recur throughout the volume: the way historical, cultural, and political context inevitably affects academics and their work, for good and ill; how scholarly interest in historical issues related to the Old Testament has given way to a plurality of concerns related to theology, rhetoric, ideology, gender, and social location; the need for Christians to take account of Jewish perspectives on interpretation and theology. Many of these seeds are planted in the illuminating preface by Brueggemann, and the essays document his continued and stimulating work on the areas and more besides. I always try to read Brueggemann carefully and critically (I don't think he'd want it any other way), and always profit as a result of doing so.

Antony Billington, September 2005

Antony Billington teaches Hermeneutics (that's Biblical Interpretation to you & me) at London School of Theology. He's heavily into film and contemporary culture and spends most of his wages in the LST Bookshop (enter at your own risk).

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