Reviews of

What Kind of God?

In Ancient Israel, Brent A. Strawn, Eisenbrauns, HB/OT, Mark Glanville, Michael J. Chan, Terence Fretheim on May 17, 2017 at 8:37 pm

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2017.05.09 | Michael J. Chan and Brent A. Strawn, eds. What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2015). ISBN: 978-1-57506-343-0.

Review by Mark Glanville

Michael J. Chan and Brent A. Strawn have collected thirty essays of Terence E. Fretheim that explore the question, in various ways: what kind of God is presented in the Old Testament?

The volume begins with two introductory essays, one by the editors, the other by Fretheim himself (Part I). Crucial for Fretheim’s reading of the Old Testament is the relationality of God to the both the human world and the non-human world. “For Fretheim, ‘genuine’ relationship is marked by risk, sacrifice, commitment, limitation, change, power-sharing, and the ability of both parties to shape the future, even God’s future” (4). Part II, “God and the World,” is concerned with an understanding of God and of the divine relationship to the world. The opening chapter, “Divine Dependence on the Human: An Old Testament Perspective,” shows how, in Genesis 1-2, humanity was created to share in developing the creation in partnership with God. Fretheim shows that humankind ‘helps God’ in some texts of Old Testament, and how this help plays a very real role in shaping the future. For example, Meroz and its inhabitants are cursed, “because they did not come to the help of the Lord” (Judg 5:23). The second chapter, “The Repentance of God: A Key to Evaluating Old Testament God-Talk,” shows that God’s repentance has been a neglected theme in both systematic theology and also exegesis. Fretheim cites Wolff’s definition of God’s repentance “a change of mind prompted by the emotions, a turning away from an earlier decision on the part of someone deeply moved”1 (44). Fretheim argues that repentance is a ‘controlling metaphor’ for God in the Old Testament. He also offers three categories for considering the centrality and ‘capacity’ of a biblical metaphor, namely a metaphor’s pervasiveness in the text, the variety of traditions within which the metaphor emerges, and the ways in which the metaphor is used in various genres of literature. “The God Who Acts: An Old Testament Perspective” offers a constructive appropriation of the ‘God who acts’ movement, reframing this paradigm in terms of the relationality of God. “Some Reflections on Brueggemann’s God” is an appreciative critical evaluation of some aspects of ‘Brueggemann’s God’. Notable is Fretheim’s response to Brueggemann’s assertion of a ‘common theology’. According to Brueggemann, this theological stream conceives of God-human relationships in contractual (covenantal) terms, a rigid system of acts and consequences that is reflective of ancient Near Eastern understandings of God. Fretheim responds that this ‘system’ is much looser than Brueggemann supposes; it does not function mechanically, even in Deuteronomic theology (75).

Part III, “God and Suffering,” explores the suffering of God. The essay, “What Kind of God,” explores the implications of the church’s giving attention to the question of ‘believing in God’, at the exclusion of re-examining the question, of ‘the kind of God in whom one believes’. The question, ‘what kind of God?’ is explored by considering the nature of metaphors for God. Fretheim argues for the importance of examining each metaphor for God in its specificity. For example, language about God’s eyes and ears, “makes the idea that God receives the world into himself vivid and concrete. God’s experience of the world is not superficial; God takes it in, in as real a way as people do who use their eyes and ears” (95). “To Say Something—About God, Evil, and Suffering” is a pastoral theodicy. This essay opens with a brief description of God’s desire for relationships with all creatures and an assertion of God’s endowment of humanity for effective speech and effective action. At the heart of Fretheim’s analysis is the idea that, “God creates a world with risks and challenges wherein suffering is a part of life apart from sin, but also a world wherein sin is possible and can intensify that suffering experience and bring still further suffering in its train” (103). “Suffering God and Sovereign God in Exodus” explores the relationship between God’s sovereignty and divine suffering in the book of Exodus and particularly in the exodus narrative. Fretheim offers two theological conclusions from Exodus. First, “a theology of creation shapes the book of Exodus in a fundamental way.” Second, “The God of Exodus is both sovereign and suffering” (106). Fretheim demonstrates that divine suffering qualifies divine sovereignty. God’s sovereign work in the world includes the choice to work through vulnerable and imperfect creatures, both inanimate and human. Also, God relates to the world with a relationality that is genuinely effected by the world. Further, divine sovereignty qualifies God’s suffering: “God is not overwhelmed by the experience: indeed, God is energised by it” (117). “’Evil’ after 9/11: A Consequence of Human Freedom,” is a short piece reflecting up on ‘evil’ in the 9/11 event. This piece illustrates Fretheim’s commitment to equip the church to address pressing cultural issues. Appealing to the ever-increasing interrelatedness within western culture and global culture, Fretheim argues that blame cannot simply be laid at the feet of the hijackers, for they themselves were formed within the culture and mores of American life. “Evil has become systemic, build up over time into the infrastructure of life, whether we personalize it or not” (125).

Part IV, “God and Wrath,” investigates the wrath of God and the violence of God in the Old Testament. “God and Violence in the Old Testament,” shows how the violence within the world is not God’s intention for the world, and how God repeatedly takes the side of victims of violence. Significantly, “In order to accomplish God’s work in the world, God may respond in violent ways in and through various agents so that sin and evil do not go unchecked in the life of the world” (139). “Theological Reflections on the Wrath of God in the Old Testament” first explains how God’s anger is either minimised or derided in culture and in much biblical scholarship. The Marcionite impassible God is preferred to an angry God, as the thoroughgoing post-colonial critique of religion’s association with violence has co-joined the violence of God in scripture with the violence perpetrated in Christian history. The remainder of the chapter sets out some contours for an Old Testament theology of the anger of God. Notable is how Fretheim’s awareness of the interrelatedness of all things shapes his understanding of the far-reaching consequences of God’s wrath: “Everyone may be caught up in the experience of wrath, not least because the wrath of God, mediated as it is by non-divine agents such as the Babylonians, does not cut clean” (148). Notable, too, is Fretheim’s dismissal of relating as synonymous God’s wrath and divine judgement, as if judgement is a necessary and immediate result of divine anger. Fretheim argues that there is, in scripture, temporal space for God’s plans to develop, change, be reversed, limited, or even intensified, in relation to divine anger (148-49). “The Self-Limiting God of the Old Testament and Issues of Violence,” probes God’s self-limiting in the face of human sin—self-limiting that both grants life by virtue of divine patience and also implicates God in the atrocities of the human bearers of divine wrath.

Part V, “God and the Pentateuch,” is comprised of 6 essays on Genesis 1-11 and the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. “Preaching Creation: Genesis 1-2,” offers guidance from Genesis 1-2 on preaching about the creation, about humanity, and about the human vocation. Fretheim grounds the requirement for creation-care not primarily in terms of God’s calling upon humanity but in terms of God’s relationship to non-human creatures. “Creator, Creature, and Co-Creation in Genesis 1-2,” probes the function of humankind as co-creators with God. “God’s relationship with the world is such that God from the beginning chooses not to be the only one who has or exercises creative power. . . God is a power-sharing, not a power-hoarding God” (199). This essay also contains a critique of subordination/complementarian readings of gender relations in Genesis 2 (202). The essay, “God Was with the Boy” (Genesis 21:20),” is a jewel that examines children in the book of Genesis. Fretheim observes the very positive view of children in this book as bearers of the divine blessing. The story of Ishmael displays God’s attentive care even to children who are outside of the chosen line. Fretheim offers a reading of the near-sacrifice of Isaac that is sensitive especially to the experience of the child. While assessing favourably the interpretations of Jon Levenson and Walter Moberly that the text is metaphorical, “a paradigm of life with God,” in Moberly’s words, Fretheim leaves open the possibly that this event was indeed a case of child abuse that the text itself may view negatively. A famous article, “The Plagues as Ecological Signs of Historical Disaster,” argues that the plagues in the book of Exodus are a creational response to Pharaoh’s disruption of the moral fabric of the cosmos, an expression of the interrelatedness of all creatures and all behaviour. This is a response of hyper-creation, so to speak, a ‘natural’ response to Pharoah’s anti-creational behaviours. God’s purpose for Israel is to remove the people from the waters of chaos and “to enable them to walk on the “dry ground” of creation” (235). “The Reclamation of Creation: Redemption and Law in Exodus,” unfolds how in calling Israel and in giving Israel her vocation God is busy restoring the divine purposes for the whole creation. The law given at Sinai does not entail the invention of God’s law, for God’s law has been etched in the fabric of creation. This creational law is present in the biblical narrative before Sinai (e.g. Gen 1:26-28; 2:14-16; cf. 9:1-6; 18:19, 25; and 26:5). The Torah is a “fuller particularization of how the community can take on its God-given creational responsibilities in view of new times and new places” (245). “Law in the Service of Life: A Dynamic Understanding of Law in Deuteronomy,” is a sensitive treatment of the historical dynamic of legal revision within the Pentateuch. Fretheim argues that Deuteronomy’s law is a re-appropriation of the law of the book of Exodus in order to address new circumstances. This dynamic is testimony to God’s ongoing interest and presence in societies, across time. Such ongoing legal development, that is always connected with the ‘laws’ that are etched on the surface of the creation itself, opens an epistemological pathway for ongoing legal development beyond the biblical period.

Part VI, “God and the Prophets,” continues to explore the question, “what kind of God?,” now in the prophetic literature. “The Exaggerated God of Jonah” is a provocative essay arguing that the book contains multiple exaggerations of God’s power and freedom that operate as a foil within the context of the whole book and also within the wider canon. Fretheim notes that scholarship commonly observes exaggerated narrative elements in Jonah, in the non-human sphere. He then asks: may some aspects of God’s character also be exaggerated, aspects such as the appearance of limitless power and irresistible force? Fretheim asks: “Might the book of Jonah be saying in and through these exaggerations that, in spite of what readers may think (or hope for!), their God is not such a manipulative, all-controlling deity?” (326) “The Prophets and Social Justice: A Conservative Agenda,” argues that the prophetic call for social-justice has its roots in “long-standing communal commitments” (275). The prophets were not “free-floating radicals” (274), rather, they were “deeply indebted to their ethical and theological past.” “The concern for matters of social justice is deeply rooted in the biblical tradition (over six hundred texts could be cited). Anyone who is committed to that tradition will be truly concerned about social justice and, in every age, will seek to address these issues anew with communities of faith in very public ways” (276). Other essays in this section are “Divine Foreknowledge, Divine Constancy, and the Rejection of Saul’s Kingship,” “Is Anything Too Hard for God? (Jeremiah 32:27),” “Caught in the Middle: Jeremiah’s Vocational Crisis,” “The Character of God in Jeremiah,” and “Jonah and Theodicy.”

Finally, Part VII, “God and the Church’s Book,” includes essays that relate Fretheim’s theology, ethic, and hermeneutic to issues that are pertinent for the church. “The Authority of the Bible and Churchly Debates Regarding Sexuality” includes some discussion of the challenges in asserting biblical authority in post-modern contexts. Fretheim affirms the authority of scripture and explores ways in which biblical authority may be articulated within post-modern western culture. Fretheim suggests: “Should we not then just proceed to preach and teach from biblical text and let whatever esteem the Bible may have grow out of that encounter? This is a “theology of the cross” approach to the Bible; that is, the Bible exemplifies its power in and through weakness” (381). The final essay in the book is, “What Biblical Scholars Wish Pastors Would Start or Stop Doing About Ethical Issues in the Old Testament.” At the heart of the essay, viewed through various hermeneutical lenses, is Fretheim’s burden that pastors would seize hold of the ethical trajectory of the Old Testament that is for the most vulnerable people in our communities, heeding the “rhetorical urgency and resolve that permeates” this trajectory in both the law and the prophets (391).

In conclusion, the goal of Fretheim’s scholarship, to display the love and commitment of God-in-relationship, has been clearly displayed in this book. To be sure, as this is a lengthy compilation of essays (391 pages of text) by one author on the topic God in the Old Testament, there is much repetition, and the reader revisits key themes repeatedly, from different angles. Nonetheless, these themes, that have been described above, are rarely analysed with such insight and with such a commitment to trace a theology that is genuinely intrinsic to the Old Testament itself. It is my hope that this book spurs others to pursue the theological task through close and generative engagement with Old Testament.

Mark Glanville
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
markrglanville [at] gmail.com

1 Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 298.
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