Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis by Gary A. Anderson. Baker Academic (April 2017, 220 pp).
The relationship between theology and biblical studies is fraught with misunderstanding. While maybe not always murderous in intent, their relationship often feels like what it must have been like to stand between Cain and Abel—strained and tenuous, at best. There are certainly numerous exceptions, but generally speaking, it often seems that theologians have no personal stake in the claims they are making while biblical scholars are so entrenched in their traditional reading that they miss incorporating fruitful theological insights into their exegesis. So there’s something humbling—perhaps even startling, sadly, because it’s so rare—in a serious theologian rolling up his sleeves and doing meaningful exegetical work informed by theology and the tradition, which so obviously affects not only the scholar’s career, but their personal faith as well. Gary Anderson, professor of Catholic Theology at Notre Dame, is such a scholar and Christian.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Anderson claims on the first page of his newly released book of essays, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament, that he makes the “rather audacious claim” that theological doctrines actually aid the process of biblical exegesis and, when properly used, play a key role in uncovering the meaning of a text. As Robert Louis Wilken blurbs on the back, this claim, and his understanding of the historical-critical method, theology, and the history of biblical interpretation, makes Anderson a “rare creature among biblical scholars.” That sounds like quite the mouthful but, to extend the metaphor, he is a rare bird able to be identified and understood by all those who have the patience and discipline to explore, and not just by fellow expert ornithologists. Anderson writes clearly and intelligibly while also reminding the reader that serious reading of the Bible theologically is a “demanding enterprise” and reminds the nontheological reader of the benefits of “having some theological sophistication.”
In fact, the most startling and welcome aspect of this book for me was how this collection of essays read much more like extended devotionals and meditations than a scholarly précis. Throughout the book I found myself continually rediscovering the Old Testament—particularly through the eyes of the Church Fathers— and wanting to go back to the texts. There are exegetical gems which have the potential to reorient ones reading of Torah, for example: “The construction of the tabernacle is the climax of creation” (64) and “the moment of lighting the sacrificial pyre is the very apogee of the Torah” (ibid).
There are moments that may make the more conservative scholar uncomfortable like Anderson’s contention that “Paul’s turn to the figure of Adam as the prime example of a biblical sinner is not in accord with the basic thrust of the Old Testament itself” (73) and others times when all sides might feel a bit put out like in the third chapter on creation: “Though Gen. 1 does not teach creatio ex nihilo in the way early Christian theologians might have thought of it, it does not rule it out as decisively as many modern readers have assumed” (48). There is also plenty that the Protestant scholar will find exception to such as Anderson’s study of Mariology and his chapter on the biblical warrant for purgatory but he might also make the Catholic theologian uncomfortable with his usage of Barth in places. Above all, I would say that this book brought me further into the heart of God, which for reader, and I would daresay, author alike, there could be no greater hope.
There are three other subthemes at the heart of the essays—apart from the main thesis that doctrine and biblical studies belong together—that Anderson identifies for the reader:
- There is no single method of reading Scripture advocated or that holds sway in the book. This is illustrated in his favorable use of Barth in the proper biblical grounding of original sin (which, provocatively, neither thinker believes is found in Genesis 3, proper) alongside chapters arguing the biblical warrant of Mariology and purgatory.
- The need for biblical scholarship to make a concerted effort to properly understand what theological doctrines actually wish to affirm. One of the biggest hindrances between the exegetical grounding of Christian doctrine, Anderson writes, is the ignorance of biblical scholars actual grasp of theological doctrines.
- The importance of the Old Testament, with particular influence on Jewish interpretation, as a source for Christian doctrine.
Though these themes are on display throughout the essays, it is easy to lose them in the midst of the specific material of the individual chapters. I found myself wanting more internal consistency and coherence among the essays. To that end, Anderson’s book would have been richer if he would have taken the time to write a new section on methodology or discussed in more depth the proper relationship between theology and scriptural exegesis and how they are to inform one another. We see the fruit of Anderson’s methodology but it would have been more satisfying to see behind the ways in which that fruit was picked. Nevertheless, Anderson has given readers a treat in his careful theological exposition of the scriptures.
*Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy.