Walter C. Kaiser Jr., distinguished professor of Old Testament and president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is an excellent scholar and leader in evangelicalism. Before coming to Gordon-Conwell he served at TEDS and as president of ETS, which alone vounch for a positive repuation. There he wrote one of his most significant publications, Toward an Old Testament Theology, which I read this week while off from school. Although some may consider his work passé (it was published in 1978), Kaiser is still masterful in presenting the canonical shape of the Hebrew Bible, exhibiting keen insight and exegetical skill throughout the book. The division of the book is threefold, and I want to make a few observations for the interested reader, all of which occur in the first section of the book.
I – Definition and Method (the best section of the book)
II – Materials for an Old Testament Theology (walks through each section of the Hebrew ordering of the Bible and explains the theology)
III – The Connection with New Testament Theology (a helpful transition into the Christian era)
An initial observation deals with the nature of the Bible. Kaiser makes clear that, at the time of his writing, biblical theology had failed to restate and reapply the authority of the Bible (as was the case with Gerhard von Rad and Walter Eichrodt). It is therefore his intention to do so. The OT is not a set of detached periods with little or no unity, says Kaiser. Rather, the OT is God’s inspired and infallible Word, as it claims to be, and should be treated as such:
The nature of the theology of the OT…is not merely a theology which is in conformity with the whole Bible, but it is that theology described and contained in the Bible and consciously joined from era to era as the whole previously antecedent context becomes the base for the theology which followed in each era (9).
The most useful way to confirm this authority lies in an inductive reading. In contrast to the method used by systematic theology called the Analogy/Rule of Faith, Kaiser utilizes what he calls the Analogy of Antecedent Scripture to approach his task. In his own words,
While the Analogy or Rule of Faith is deductive and collects all materials regardless of its relative dating, the Analogy of [Antecedent] Scripture is inductive and collects only those antecedent contexts which were in the Scripture writer’s mind as he wrote this new passage as indicated by the same terminology, formulas, or events to which this context adds another in the series (19).
For Kaiser, the text begs to be understood and set in a context of events and meanings. To that end, the exegete must depend on the theology of the periods preceding his given canonical text. Otherwise, he will be using new material in the NT or subsequent OT passages in trying to grasp the meaning of a given text. Kaiser asserts that this would be “an outright rebellion against the author and his claim to have received divine authority for for what he reports and says” (19). On the other hand, by employing the Analogy of Antecedent Scripture the exegete will come to understand the theological core of the canon, which is absolutely crucial to Kaiser’s method. In my own research, albeit limited, I’ve found this method to be very helpful and true to the original intent of the author.
The second (and most important) observation is in Kaiser’s identification of a canonical theological center in the OT. He sees the problem many face as twofold: 1) Does a key exists for an orderly and progressive arrangement of the subjects, themes, and teachings of the OT?, and 2) were the writers of the canon aware of such a theme (20)? Many attempts have been made to answer these questions but Kaiser finds them unsatisfactory and ambiguous. Therefore, he sets out to do so from the text itself and without the critical presuppositions others have brought to the table. Simply stated, God’s unifying plan is bound up in the terms “promise” and “blessing,” for “the divine promise pointed to a seed, a race, a family, a man, a land, and a blessing of universal proportions – all guaranteed, according to Genesis 17, as being everlasting and eternal. In that purpose resides the single plan of God” (see Gen. 3:15; 9:25-27; 12:1-3 as the key OT passages on the promise). The promise is textually confirmed in the vocabulary of the canonical books themselves, as well as certain epitomizing formulae which summarize the central action of God in a succinct phrase or two. Kaiser calls this the tripartite formula of promise – “I will be your God; you shall be My people, and I will dwell in the midst of you.” This formula is repeated in part or in full in Genesis 17:7-8; 28:21; Exodus 6:7; 29:45-46; Leviticus 11:45; 22:33; 25:38; 26:12, 44, 45; Numbers 15:41; Deuteronomy 4:20; 29:12-13; et. al. Later it appeared in Jeremiah 7:23; 11:4; 24:7; 30:22; 31:1, 33; 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 14:11; 36:28; 37:27; Zechariah 8:8; 13:9; and in the NT in 2 Corinthians 6:16 and Revelation 21:3-7 (33-34). Therefore, according to Kaiser the promise is the theological center of the OT. It is indeginous to the text itself, united and supported in all parts of the canon.
This answers the first question, but what about the second? Were the biblical writers aware and actively working according to this promise? Without going into too much detail, the organic unity of the text is rooted in history through the work of the authors. Thus, history is the unifying principle. This is clear in that the entire focus of the OT lies in the content and recipients of God’s covenants. God has promised in the biblical authors that he would freely do or be something for all men as he did in the past. His “oaths,” “pledges,” “declarations,” and the like all attest to his promissary “word” that he has acted in the past, is acting in the present, and will act in the future.
At this point I’ve mentioned only positive details about Kaiser’s work, the reason being that I didn’t find too much to be critical about. I will mention, however, that Kaiser fails give attention to the literary structure of certain key passages, which, as I’ve learned from Drs. Gentry and Garrett, aid immensely in interpretation (passages like Gen. 1-2; Exod. 15; poetic forumlae in the Proverbs; resumptive technique in Isaiah; the chiastic structure of Zephaniah, etc.). Kaiser also limits his treatment of the Psalms to a few pages, breezing over key ideas and themes so clearly present. Yet Kaiser generally comes to the same interpretation nonetheless. It is understood from the beginning that Kaiser does not intend to write a biblical theology in toto, such as in the works of Brevard Childs, Gerhard von Rad and Bruce Waltke (much later, of course). Instead, he has given us a concise theology, much like Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty. As an aside, it would insteresting to compare Kaiser’s work with Dempster, but that study will have to wait, and this blog is already long enough! At this point I would probably recommend Dempster over Kaiser, but mainly because Dempster draws upon Kaiser’s previous (antecedent!) work, and is more up to date.
In the end, while reading Kaiser I was constantly reminded of the truthfulness of God’s Word in the OT, indeed the whole Bible, and the confidence Christians can have in handling it rightly. If we only had preachers to lead them in this task! I highly recommend this book for pastor’s, scholar’s and seminarians, but not necessarily for lay people. The language is often technical (but readable) and a knowledge of biblical Hebrew is a must.