Gerhard von Rad
November 18, 2015
“Gerhard von Rad was a theologian who was entirely consumed by his subject matter. If one allowed him to lead the thought process, he was able to impart to his readers and listeners that he was in pursuit of something mysterious and wonderful. In an unobtrusive way, his speaking and writing contained elements of the prophetic voice, almost like a medium able to transfer insights from another world to modern individuals. God as the mystery of the written Word: this was his central concern. In his exegesis of OT texts, he intentionally and successfully pointed to and illuminated the importance of the God of the Bible.”
— Manfred Oeming, University of Heidelberg, Professor of Old Testament Theology
(“Gerhard von Rad as a Theologian of the Church,” Interpretation 62:3 [July 2008], 235)
From 1934 to 1945, Gerhard von Rad was a professor at the University of Jena, where the rector was Dr. Karl Astel. Who was Astel? He was a medical specialist in eugenics and a high ranking officer in Hitler’s SS. This was von Rad’s boss, to some extent. How does a young scholar of the Old Testament, like von Rad, establish himself in such a setting? He could follow the trends and demands of the time — relegate the OT to a primitive era with an antiquated conception of God, unsophisticated, legalistic, and mercifully surpassed by the Christian (i.e., Pauline-German-Protestant) dispensation of Jesus Christ and his Church.
Von Rad refused to do so. Instead, he used his remarkable acumen to subvert the given scholarly paradigm. Far from being an embarrassment to the Church, the Hebrew Bible gave testimony to the Father of Jesus Christ. In particular, von Rad looked at the book of Deuteronomy as especially significant for the Israelite conception of Yahweh, their gracious Sovereign. As Bernard Levinson writes:
As is well known, von Rad argues that Deuteronomy is not law but rather a series of sermons by traveling Levites preaching a renewed message of redemption. He maintained that Deuteronomy’s law code is not a dead text but live instruction, not demands for obedience to incomprehensible requirements, but spiritual exhortations to remember God’s grace.
[“Reading the Bible in Nazi Germany,” Interpretation 62:3, 240]
Von Rad accepts the critical consensus, originating with his Jena predecessor, Wilhelm M. L. de Wette, that Deuteronomy is the reformist legislation discovered by King Josiah in the 7th century BC. As such, it is a recasting of the law of Moses and is given the narrative setting of Moses on the plains of Moad, instructing Israel in anticipation of receiving the promised land of Canaan. Needless to say, von Rad believes the historicity of the text to belong to Israel as such, in both its past and contemporaneous appropriation, precluding our ability to excavate the former from the latter.
Some scholars have criticized von Rad for making the credo of Israel into a proto-Christian credo, as if the latter were the sole validation for the former. In a sense, that is true. As a Christian, I would say that this is unavoidable, given the hermeneutical method of both Jesus and his apostles. But there is a good and a bad way to go about doing this, and it impresses me that von Rad has discerned the good way. Von Rad is unabashedly committed to the Christian belief that Israel’s faith is substantively the faith of Christ and his followers, but he is also thoroughly committed to the exegesis of Israel’s faith proper, without willy-nilly incorporating explicit Christian categories into the text. This would not wholly satisfy a Jewish exegete, nor should it — but it is at the very least a path of integrity for the Christian and one that necessarily disavows any Antisemitism.
In the introductory chapter to his commentary on Genesis, von Rad closes with one of his most pronounced statements on his Christian belief in the Old Testament:
We receive the Old Testament from the hands of Jesus Christ, and therefore all exegesis of the Old Testament depends on whom one thinks Jesus Christ to be. If one sees in him the bringer of a new religion, then one will consistently examine the chief figures of the patriarchal narrative for their inward religious disposition and by, say drawing religious “pictures from life” will bring into the foreground what comes close to Christianity or even corresponds with it. But this “pious” view is unsatisfactory because the principal subject of the account in the Genesis stories is not the religious characteristics of the patriarchs at all. Any mention of them is almost an aside. Often the details have to be drawn from the reader’s imagination. The real subject of the account is everywhere a quite definite act of Yahweh, into which the patriarchs are drawn, often with quite perplexing results. So the first interest of the reader must be in what circumstances and in what way Yahweh’s guidance is given, and what consequences result from it. …The patriarchal narratives include experiences which Israel had of a God who revealed himself and at the same time on occasions hid himself more deeply. In this very respect we can see a continuity between the Old Testament and the New. In the patriarchal narratives, which know so well how God can conceal himself, we see a revelation of God which precedes his manifestation in Jesus Christ. What we are told here of the trials of a God who hides himself and whose promise is delayed, and yet of his comfort and support, can readily be read into God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ.
[Genesis: A Commentary, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 43]
You can scarcely find a finer statement than that. I am aware that many evangelicals will be put-off by von Rad’s historical-criticism, even though he is rather moderate by today’s standards — even comfortable to locate the Jawhist core in the Monarchy. He is well-worth your time. While he is not for the beginner, he is excellent for the intermediate-to-advanced student.
Image: Gerhard von Rad (source)