Mini Review: A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

January 20, 2015

Gignilliat-OT-Criticism

Mark Gignilliat is Associate Professor of Divinity (Old Testament) at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. He received his Ph.D. from St. Andrews, Scotland, and is the author of Karl Barth and the Fifth Gospel: Barth’s Theological Exegesis of Isaiah.

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Who knew that a book on OT criticism could be enjoyable?

Mark Gignilliat’s A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism is a superb introduction to modern historical-criticism of the Bible. The format, the style, the scholarship is all excellent. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular figure: Benedict Spinoza, W. M. L. de Wette, Julius Wellhausen, Herman Gunkel, Gerhard von Rad, William F. Albright, and Brevard Childs — a list that he recognizes could be expanded to include other prominent persons (Eichrodt, Noth, Barr, et al.). By choosing to focus on major figures, situating each in his biographical context, there is a liveliness to the book. As Gignilliat writes in the introduction:

People and their ideas are more interesting (at least to me) than abstract discussions of critical theories. For example, I do not have a chapter on form criticism. But I do have a chapter on Hermann Gunkel, with form criticism discussed therein. Also, I find these figures fascinating as people located in the broader cross-stream of ideas, cultural norms, and ecclesiastical battles. [p. 12]

And indeed, the little biographical tidbits enhance the discussion immensely. The audience for this book is fairly broad. Gignilliat has a very engaging style and presupposes little, if any, insider knowledge of the field. And since Gignilliat’s prose is always clear and brisk, many laypersons could find it accessible and enjoyable. For the academic, you will appreciate that Gignilliat is studious and unbiased in his explanations of these diverse figures, though he freely acknowledges his preference for Brevard Childs. The concluding chapter features a who’s who of my favorite theologians: Thomas Torrance, John Webster, Karl Barth, and Herman Bavinck. This is where Gignilliat offers some constructive theological commentary, but the previous chapters on De Wette, Wellhausen, Gunkel, etc., are not distorted in any way by his own commitments. These chapters could have been written by any competent scholar in the field.

To give you one, fairly random, example of Gignilliat’s style, here is part of his discussion of Spinoza’s account of the prophets:

The language of being filled with the Spirit is an internal claim about the prophet’s uniquely cultivated piety and virtue. Revelation in such an account becomes religious self-awareness. Spinoza does claim that within the prophet’s imaginative gifts genuine divine communication can take place. Therefore, Spinoza does not dismiss the veracity of prophetic knowledge. As natural knowledge has its source in the mind, prophetic knowledge has its source in the imagination. But both sorts of knowledge are an act of self-discovery. [p. 30. Referencing Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise, Cambridge 2007, pp. 24-25.]

This is a somewhat technical passage, but in the context it is perfectly clear what Gignilliat is explaining about Spinoza.

The book is 176 pages, plus a name index and subject index. The publisher mercifully chose to use footnotes instead of endnotes! I honestly do not understand why endnotes are still in existence.

2 Responses to “Mini Review: A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

  1. jamesbradfordpate said

    That quote about Spinoza is interesting. I wonder if that would be relevant to the question of how the prophets could have been receiving some communication from the divine, even though their works had a human imprint (i.e., different writing styles among the prophets, predictions that did not come to pass, etc.).

    • Kevin Davis said

      But I am not sure how Spinoza can really speak of a “divine communication.” The prophetic knowledge is “self-discovery,” as it must be, given Spinoza’s monism. But if this is the case, how can we even speak of “divine communication,” even in an analogous sense? For Spinoza, there is no genuine agency for the divine, at least not a personal agency, which is what really matters in both a Jewish and Christian conception of God and prophetic ministry.

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