David H. Aaron on Old Testament Theology

I haven’t had much time to post recently as a result of my thesis and some other complications, but I recently ran across a paragraph I thought was worth sharing. It comes from David H. Aaron, Biblical Ambiguities: Metaphor, Semantics, and Divine Imagery. In going over some methodological considerations, Aaron addresses the question of Old Testament theology:

I find very little theology—in the formal sense of this word—in Hebrew Bible. Such a claim requires explanation. Theologies are first and foremost language games, in the same sense that philosophies are language games. This is how Wittgenstein approached it. He recognized that philosophies set up meanings for words in manners that are not natural to ordinary language usages. “Asked whether philosophers have hitherto spoken nonsense, you could reply: no, they have only failed to notice that they are using a word in quite different senses.” The Tanakh, with few exceptions, is fundamentally devoid of such “different senses,” and hence we can assert that there is no theology that is biblical. Put differently, there are only biblical theologies when a religious community or scholar insists upon their fabrication. Of course, the Bible is replete with beliefs and ideologies about God, politics, social order, ritual, etc., but these beliefs and ideologies are not conveyed in language games. The lack of systematic theology in Tanakh—in this sense of a language game—has been recognized by most, but this has not stopped scholars from imposing constructed theologies upon Tanakh. Scholarly attempts to describe such a theology are essentially irrelevant to the furtherance of our understanding of Israelite ideas. Ideologically speaking, it makes little sense to speak of a theology of the canon; and the canon’s redactors were much more focused on the political expediencies of their documents than on God-related ideology.

I’ve long contended that Biblical Theology attempts to impose a univocal framework on the biblical text without first bothering to consider whether or not it’s merited. I don’t think it is. Such an approach levels the diachronic and synchronic disparities in the text to about the time of the corpus’ completion in the Greco-Roman period, effectively eradicating any meaning found in the text before then and elevating the authority of editing and redacting over that of composition. It also imposes modern theological lenses on it in such a way that interpreting the text becomes an exercise in creative exegesis.


6 responses to “David H. Aaron on Old Testament Theology

  • Gerald Smith

    I’m currently reading an older book on my Kindle, entitled “Jewish Theology” by Kohler and Kaufmann. In it, they discuss how the rabbinic traditions and changes that have occurred in interpretation of scripture since the days of Ezra have improved the religion. For example, while they admit that early prophets and Israel believed in an anthropomorphic God, the use of Aristotelian philosophy and reason by Maimonides and other scholars has allowed religion to be improved by logic. And because of this tradition of philosophy, revelation is no longer needed, as mankind has essentially found the better way of understanding scripture, by supplementing it with reason.

    This is how tradition in many Christian churches has also arisen, either modifying scriptural interpretation or even supplanting it with creeds and a systematized theology.

    Interestingly, the LDS church has little, if any, real systematic theology. Revelation trumps logic and philosophy.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      That sounds like an interesting book, Gerald. I get frustrated with Kaufmann, though. Perhaps I’ll have time to look at it over the summer.

  • Blake

    I agree with you entirely that there is no “theology” of the OT. There is no unifying exegesis nor is there an attempt at consistent ideas or even an attempt at rational exploration of revelation. However, I believe that rational exploration of revelation is useful — but let’s be clear that the revelation itself is not a result of reasoning to a conclusion as theology would suggest.

  • rameumptom

    I also agree with Blake. I think a major reason why there is no unifying theology or systematic theology, is because of the Documentary Hypothesis. Given we have stories written by various persons or groups, each having their own political and religious viewpoints and goals, means we are not going to find a unifying theme from all of them. We can also add the fact that Babylonian, Egyptian and Jerusalem Jews all had different views, and Ezra’s attempt to unite all these voices, creates more of a mishmash than anything else.

    That said, we can seek to understand the various views and beliefs of the OT writers, even while realizing that there isn’t just one all encompassing theme.

  • humbahaha

    I agree that imposing a “theology” upon the diverse range of documents that make up the Hebrew Bible can be used to beat texts into submission, as it were. Such approaches can take us away from a better understanding of the underlying texts. On the other hand, an broader appreciation of historical sweep, the “micro theologies” of juxtaposed books, and the centrality of the exilic experience can shed light on texts that have been treated in isolation. A prime example would be an understanding of the story of Genesis 3 as a parable or archetype of exile.

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