Reviews of ‘The God of the Living’–Richard Hays

By kind permission of Carey Newman, the director of Baylor U. Press, I am reprinting the responses at the SBL session to Feldmeir and Spieckermann’s ‘The God of the Living’ in the next four posts. I will then return to my detailed analysis of the book. First up to bat is Richard Hays.

Critical Response to Feldmeier and Spieckermann, God of the Living Richard B. Hays
SBL Meeting, San Francisco, 20 November 2011

In 1975 the eminent NT scholar Nils Dahl, who taught for many years at Yale, wrote a brief but incisive essay entitled “The Neglected Factor in NT Theology.” That neglected factor, Dahl suggested, was God. Dahl’s point was that the NT everywhere presupposes a doctrine of God–a doctrine that is part of the NT’s Jewish legacy–but very rarely focuses on God as a subject for explicit debate or exposition. And so scholarship has not thematized the doctrine of God as an important topic.

Now Reinhard Feldmeier and Hermann Spieckermann have reminded us all that the Bible is about God. After the publication of this learned and wide-ranging book, no one could any longer complain that the doctrine of God is a neglected factor.

I will organize my response under three headings. (1) Some observations about the hermeneutical program set forth in the book. (2) Some questions about the structure of the work, along with a few observations about the way in which the project is substantively executed. (3) A short summary of the book’s results: its “take-home” message about God.

I. The Hermeneutical Program of God of the Living
A. The aim of the project. F and S set themselves the task of “characterizing the content of biblical theology in the form of a doctrine of God” (1). I think it is important to note, however, that the English subtitle of the book (“A Biblical Theology”) suggests a more comprehensive scope than is signaled in the original German subtitle: Eine Einführung in die biblische Gotteslehre. Literally:“An introduction to the biblical doctrine of God.” That is a more precisely delimited description of the book’s actual program and contents–while still marking out an enormously ambitious project. On the first page of the book, the authors characterize this doctrine of God as an Eigenschaftslehre–a “doctrine of character” that interprets “God’s saving activity as an expression of his nature.” This is significant, I think, for understanding the aim of the authors. They seek to discern within the biblical texts a collection of witnesses that point to the actual nature or character of God.

B. Methodological prolegeomena and presuppositions. F and S set forth their approach with commendable methodological clarity. I want to draw attention to five aspects of their approach.

1. F and S resolutely insist that the object of their investigation is the Christian Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments together. The attempt to engage the Christian canon in this comprehensive synthetic way is rare in late modernity. Brevard Childs is the one scholar who has most notably attempted it within English-speaking scholarship. But F and S have chosen to approach the task as a collaborative effort, requiring the specialized but complementary expertise of an OT scholar and NT scholar working together. Their reason for this is simple: “Any form of hermeneutical ‘soloing’ is overestimation of one’s own abilities” (11). But their collaboration does not simply acknowledge the necessary limitations of individual scholarship; instead, the collaboration creates a “dialogical hermeneutic” in which the perspectives of the two authors mirror the dialogical perspectives of the Christian two-testament canon. This, it seems to me, is itself an important methodological model that deserves to be emulated.

2. F and S indicate their intention to resist the dichotomy between historical interpretation and systematic theological interpretation. They want to show that “scholarship in the history of literature and religion” is necessary for understanding the biblical teaching. And indeed their full and complex discussions of various topics generally seek to locate the biblical texts in their ancient historical context.

Nonetheless, I would propose, it is theology that really defines the telos of this scholarly project. The aim of the project is to understand the “theo- logic” of the Christian Bible. Historical inquiry serves “the objective of appropriately understanding the knowledge about God in the Christian Bible in its final forms and tracing the internal logic of the understanding of God attained there” (12).

3. F and S insist that God’s knowledge of us, and God’s saving action, precede any knowledge we might have of God. Their point is stated forcefully in a pithy maxim: “the doctrine of God is foremost instruction by God himself, and only then, instruction about God….” (2). That instruction is “mediated by biblical witnesses and teachers of theology standing in their tradition,” but it is nonetheless fundamentally God’s self-revelation that we encounter through the texts.

4. Nonetheless, there is some unclarity about the way in which F and S propose to gain access to that revelation through experience and doctrine. On the one hand, they can write of “the experience of God and the doctrine of God that results from it…” (2, emphasis mine). On the other hand, just a few pages later, they can argue emphatically that it is inappropriate to think that “knowledge of God would be possible only as an entity derived from human experience and self-understanding” (8)–presumably a shot across the bow at Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and their theological heirs. For this reason, they insist that “theology has primacy over anthropology,” and reject the view that “theology is solely the function of an anthropology dedicated to the interpretation of religious experience” (8-9). To that I would say, amen!

But why then in other places do they speak of the doctrine of God as something that results from the experience of God? Is this a case where we are hearing the voices of the two different authors engaged in a dialogical hermeneutic? (I.e., should we seek a source-critical solution to this tension?!) Or would the authors seek to resolve this apparent contradiction synthetically by positing a distinction between the epistemological order of initial cognition and the logical hierarchy of truths within a doctrinal system?

5. Regardless of the answer to that question, it is abundantly clear that F and S regard biblical theology fundamentally as testimony. “Those who have recognized God because God has recognized them want to transmit knowledge of God reliably.” Consequently, they write, “A biblical doctrine of God makes the God of the Christian Bible its theme with the objective not just of presenting biblical concepts of God in a plausible arrangement, but of facilitating knowledge of God in the sense of a fides quaerens intellectum….” And the knowledge gained in this way is “an understanding of God that presses for transmission, that is based on the experience of God, and that seeks to lead to the experience of God” (2-3). Or, a few pages later, we find this claim: the doctrine of God seeks to “communicate knowledge of God with its objective being the insight that human beings can appreciate their lives only when they recognize God as the source and savior of their lives and acknowledge God as Lord of their lives” (7). Thus, true knowledge of God is necessarily self-involving knowledge that leads to confession, worship, and discipleship. And the proper task of skillful interpretation is to make that kind of knowledge accessible: it is the task of academic exegesis, F and S, declare, with an allusion to the Emmaus Road story, “to transform disappointed into burning hearts,” for ultimately “as the Bible understands it, the burning heart is also the understanding heart” (11).

II. Structure and Execution of the Work
A. Before all else, it must be said that the book offers an impressive collection of richly- textured close readings of biblical texts. These readings are frequently illuminating and theologically productive, in ways not always seen in work in our field. No short review can do justice to the insightful complexity of these close readings. So at this point, I offer only an exhortation to others to work through the book for themselves and to absorb the learning and wisdom embodied in it.

B. Having said that, I find myself somewhat puzzled about the overall logic of the structure of the book’s argument.
1. The meaning of the two-part structure. It is clear enough that the work falls into two major parts: “Foundation” and “Development.” I assume that these designations refer to the foundational elements of God’s character, as distinguished from the ways in which that character is displayed or manifested in the individual biblical writings. Or, alternatively, is the “Development” section meant to discuss the ways in which the foundational revelation of God’s character is ramified through reflection on particular theological loci, such as “suffering and lament” or “commandment and prayer”?

I don’t think it would be accurate to say that the two sections are meant to distinguish God’s being from God’s action, because I think our authors would subscribe to Karl Barth’s dictum that God is the one whose being is in his act. And most certainly, the book should not be understood to suggest some sort of scheme of progressive revelation or evolutionary development, in which the OT provides certain foundations of the doctrine of God that are later supplanted by the superior knowledge offered in the NT. The book’s governing hermeneutical hypothesis is that the OT no less than the NT bears witness to the selfsame truth about the one God who is the Lord of life.

2. Selection and ordering of topics. Additionally, I find myself unclear about the rationale for the selection and order of the topics discussed within these two major sections of the book, especially in the “Development” section (topics such as “Justice and Justification,” Transience and Death,” or “Covenant and Promise”). Certainly the ordering is not an attempt to trace a process of historical development or a Traditionsgeschichte. But neither does the order seem to be determined by any traditional credal structure, by any conventional ordering of systematic theological loci, or by the sequence of the biblical narratives themselves. The order seems to be loosely intuitive, as though the chapters in the second section of the book were self- contained essays on various topics in biblical theology that are of concern to the authors. While we should be grateful for the great quantity of edifying material set forth here, someone might wonder why these themes for discussion are chosen in preference (say) to Election, Christology, or even Resurrection (more on this below). It’s a rich smorgasbord of exegetical and theological reflection, but it’s not clear to me why exactly these topics are chosen and why they are discussed in exactly this order.

C. Execution of the Program
The execution of the exegetical and theological discussion in the various subsections of the book seems somewhat uneven.
1. In some of the subsections, we find an interesting survey of the Gotteslehre in various biblical writings without any clear sense that the survey is presenting an argument or leading to any particular conclusion. I felt this problem, for instance, in the chapter on “Salvation and Judgment.” In this chapter, F and S discuss the various views of judgment in the individual writings, and finally say, “Obviously, the NT does not contain a unified concept of judgment” (490). If there is a unifying thesis here, it is found in their observation that “human beings are responsible before a God who wants to be worshiped in such a way that the neighbors– especially the needy and insignificant–are loved at the same time” (490). But this thesis seems to fall short of accounting for the diverse depictions of God’s judgment that have been surveyed in the foregoing pages. And the chapter ends rather abruptly, without any attempt to reflect more broadly about what the survey of divergent judgment texts might disclose about the book’s theme–the character of God.

2. On the other hand, some subsections seem to focus more clearly on the question of God’s character and lead to a more unified synthetic judgment about the coherence of the canonical witness. For a nice example, see the chapter on “The One as the Unifier,” which concludes that “the uniqueness of God in the NT consists in unifying his community of believers” and that the confession of the one God therefore requires the community to be united in love (124). This example helpfully illustrates the authors’ contention that true knowledge of God is self-involving, while also exemplifying their consistent emphasis on the nexus between the doctrine of God and ethics.

3. Another example of a subsection that drives towards coherence is the chapter on “Transience and Death.” After a survey of diverse biblical texts on these topics, F and S offer the following conclusion, which helpfully illustrates not only the book’s working method but also one of its central findings: “All the differences notwithstanding,…the NT documents mentioned not only share the negative assessment of death, but also, as its positive obverse, … the corresponding understanding of God. . . . The living God now becomes, once and for all, the God who makes alive or the God of the living….” (402). This is a convincing synthetic judgment about the biblical depiction of God.

4. I would, however, like to register some hesitation about the book’s treatment of the title κυριος. F and S contend that there is a “radical break” in the NT’s appropriation of this term: “Kyrios no longer refers in the first instance to God, but to Jesus Christ” (41). They conclude that this is because God has “transferred” the title to Jesus–though in other formulations, they say that it is “Christianity” that transferred the title (49). This is a complicated matter, but there are several problems here. First of all, as F and S’s own discussion shows, the God of Israel, the God of the OT, continues to be called kyrios in the NT. Therefore, to say that the title has been “transferred” does not adequately account for the evidence of the texts. Second, the whole discussion in this chapter (“The Name and the Names”) underplays the radical way in which the NT authors represent Jesus not just as an instrument of God’s revelation, but as the embodiment of Israel’s God. For example, the chapter concludes on this note: “The ‘new’ name of God makes it clear that the NT can no longer speak of God’s being as God without reference to the Son. Rather, God is God only as the Father of his Son and of his children adopted through ‘the spirit of his Son’” (49-50). But something crucial is missing here: for the NT and the Christian tradition built upon it, the Son is no less God than is the Father. Therefore, I would add also the complementary claim that God is God only as the Son of the Father who is one with the Father.

Not included in F and S’s bibliography is Kavin Rowe’s important monograph on the narrative use of kyrios in the Gospel of Luke to create what Rowe calls an “Verbindungsidentität” of God with Jesus. Consideration of the results of that study might lead F and S to reformulate some of their language about this admittedly tricky topic.

5. Even in the midst of this complicated treatment of divine unity, however, we see that F and S consistently maintain their epistemological commitment to the necessity of engagement and confession as integral to true knowledge of God. They write: “…the fact that Christ is the Kyrios, and, thus, God is the Father, is not a theological truth that one can simply repeat but an event whose truth only they can attest who, themselves, have been grasped by God’s spirit and thus incorporated into this event” (45).

III. Results and findings.
At the end of the day, through a body of close readings that are both careful and passionate, F and S arrive at findings that are simple and compelling. I would highlight three key emphases that arise out of the whole discussion and feature prominently in the book’s Conclusion.

1. God is the God of the living, a God who gives life, and even gives life to the dead. Therefore resurrection is at the heart of the book’s message, even though it is not thematized in any of the chapter headings. It is no accident that the title “God of the living” is found preeminently in Jesus’ controversy discourse with the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection. Jesus’ refutation of their objection climaxes in “the only, almost axiomatic ‘definition’ of God found on his lips in the Gospels”: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (520, Mark 12:27).

2. Because God’s character is fundamentally to give life, God is God only in relationship to humanity and the created world. In other words, God is essentially relational. Relationality is integral to God’s character.

3. It follows from this that we too are created for relationality, and that we find our true end only in relationship–perhaps even participation in–the divine life and character. This would suggest that the doctrines of sanctification, ethics, and eschatology are all corollaries of the doctrine of God as the giver of life.

This is a deeply hopeful, celebratory work. F and S describe Jesus’ rebuttal to the Sadducees in terms that might apply equally well as a description of their own book: “Just as the current experience of God opens the testimony of Scripture, so the testimony of Scripture interprets the present, makes it transparent with regard to the God active in it, and open to it a perspective of hope” (523-24). It seems to me that is exactly what F and S have sought to do in and through their scholarly work: to open the testimony of Scripture and make it transparent to God. May their faithful labors encourage much more work of the same kind in our field.

In Feldmeir’s response to Hays at the SBL session, he stressed that the detailed table of contents in the German edition makes clear the logic of the ordering of topics in the Development section. The basic order is two-fold— God’s Care for the World, and God’s Promise to the World. There was also a stress on seeing Jesus not merely as God’s instrument but as God’s counterpart. Feldmeier admits they struggled with the idea of God’s wrath, but points out that there is asymmetry of terms. God is said to be Love, but he is never called Wrath as a naming device. God though he judges is not described by phrases like a God of wrath or a God who is anger or wrath.

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