Reflections on “God of the Living: A Biblical Theology”
Source: John Hobbins
Joseph Kelly and Charles Halton are to be thanked for drawing attention to a new volume of biblical theology, Der Gott der Lebendigen: Eine biblische Gotteslehre (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011) by Hermann Spieckermann, a professor of Old Testament at the Georg-August-Universität of Göttingen, and Reinhard Feldmeier, a professor of New Testament in the same location.
Spieckermann, a chief co-editor of an essential reference work in progress, the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception (note to Mike Heiser and friends: would that these volumes were offered through Logos), is eminently qualified to write a biblical theology. This is also true of Feldmeier, though I cannot claim to know that from first-hand knowledge of his scholarship beyond this book (the Jesus Festschrift or NT is of unparalleled importance to me, but is not the focus of my research). It does not surprise me that Der Gott der Lebendigen simultaneously appeared in the excellent translation of Mark Biddle, under the title God of the Living: A Biblical Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011). Spieckermann for one is a careful planner. The volume is available through amazon.de auf Deutsch, and in English through Amazon.
God of the Living is extremely well written (it reads better in German). Its strengths are immense. A first introduction to the creative theological reflection of its authors and, to a lesser extent, of colleagues including Kratz, Köckert, Koch, and Janowski (the list is suggestive, not exhaustive), it is biblical theology in a new key, with careful attention to ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman backgrounds.
Nonetheless, the truly intrepid scholar will not start with this volume. She will begin with the following monographs, available through Eisenbrauns:
Hermann Spieckermann, Heilsgegenwart: Eine Theologie der Psalmen (FRLANT 181/1; Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1989); idem, Gottes Liebe zu Israel: Studien zur Theologie des Alten Testaments (FAT 33; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001); further, a series of volumes edited by Spieckermann and Reinhard Kratz: Götterbilder, Gottesbilder, Weltbilder: Polytheismus und Monotheismus in der Welt der Antike. Band I: Ägypten, Mesopotamien, Kleinasien, Syrien, Palästina (FAT2 17; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006); Götterbilder, Gottesbilder, Weltbilder: Polytheismus und Monotheismus in der Welt der Antike. Band II: Griechenland und Rom, Judentum, Christentum und Islam (FAT2 18; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006); Divine Wrath and Divine Mercy in the World of Antiquity (FAT2 33; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008); Zeit und Ewigkeit als Raum göttlichen Handelns: Religionsgeschichtliche, theologische und philosophische Perspektiven (BZAW 390; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009); One God - One Cult - One Nation: Archaeological and Biblical Perspectives (BZAW 405; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010)
The truly intrepid scholar will read more of Spieckermann and Feldmeier for herself, and (e.g.) Reinhard Kratz, Matthias Köckert, Klaus Koch, and Bernd Janowski. To be sure, most of the pertinent scholarship is in German and is only available, shall we say, at FAT prices. German language scholarship is expensive. At the same time, it is readily available in the best research libraries; otherwise, through interlibrary loan.
God of the Living is not without significant limitations. I point them out without wanting to overlook the fact that this theology is very well-grounded in the disciplines of the study of the Old and New Testaments, its authors incredibly well-read in their fields. Still, the volume interacts very little with Jewish scholarship on the Old and New Testaments with respect to theological questions. The volume would have been stronger were it informed by sustained and explicit engagement with theses and insights of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moshe Greenberg, Bernard Levinson, Jon Levenson (I am also thinking of the volume he co-authored with Kevin Madigan), Michael Fishbane, Benjamin Sommer, Israel Knohl, Jacob Milgrom, and Marc Zvi Brettler (a suggestive, not an exhaustive list).
Nor is Jewish scholarship on the New Testament given adequate attention (for a first orientation, see the volume presented here). The lack of engagement with the scholarship of those who contributed to Christianity in Jewish Terms also represents a missed opportunity. Finally, is it possible to discuss love of God and neighbor without interacting with Meir Soleivichik’s seminal essay, The_Virtue_of_Hate?
It is also frustrating that the work of non-Fachleute is generally overlooked (an exception: Jan Assmann). A biblical theology that takes into consideration the insights of Mary Douglas, Jacques Ellul, Emil Fackenheim, Franz Rosenzweig, and Emmanuel Levinas has yet to be written.
Beyond that, it would have been nice to see a volume of German language biblical theology interact in a sustained fashion with output on the same topic produced in English, by (e.g.) Barr and Moberly; Ellen Davis and Mandolfo; Fretheim, Perdue, Brown, and Brueggemann; Goldingay and Patrick Miller. I also missed interaction with the theses of German language scholars including Ebach and Crüsemann; Lohfink, Zenger and Hossfeld.
To be clear, the above lists reflect the limitations of my reading. Moreover, the proper response to such lists is probably: καὶ σὺ τέκνον? Not that I am interested in taking Caesar out. Nor am I ready to write a biblical theology of my own.
A smidgeon of Sachkritik. So far as I can see, the greatest theological need of the moment is to correct common understandings of "God is Love" in light of passages like Nahum 1, Habakkuk 3, the book of Daniel, Mark 13, and the Apocalypse of John, not the other way around.
It is the imperturbable response of resignation and disinterest vis-à-vis examples of systemic evil in the world today, the helpless approach of the majority of well-fed and well-heeled Jews and Christians to the same, that needs to be distinguished from the stance of God as the Bible speaks of God vis-à-vis examples of systemic evil. In our day regimes like those that grind the populaces of Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and North Korea barely register in the consciousness of the typical citizen. If the witness of scripture is any guide, God's stance toward such regimes, and examples of systemic evil endemic to the generality of modern states, is one of implacable and undisguised contempt.
A specific example: the Occupy Wall Street movement. Whereas I am unconvinced by the rhetoric of this movement, that does not mean I buy the rhetoric of Wall Street. Resources for an alternative to both are found in scripture. That so few utilize them is a judgment on the petit-bourgeois flavor of the generality of academic biblical scholarship. Not on the Bible, one of whose abiding strengths is its failure to legitimize that particular social location.
The above comments push back at reflections found in God of the Living quoted by Joseph Kelly. In major strands of ancient theology, wrath and judgment are understood as the only proper response to egregious realities of various kinds; a nod to this fact is found in a footnote of God of the Living (fn 3 on p 339). What is love after all, if it knows nothing of what Jacques Ellul called “the violence of love” (introduction here)?
God of the Living is a splendid accomplishment. It merits, not slavish agreement, but sustained engagement.
Online Discussion of God of the Living