Review: Brueggemann on an unsettling God

A review of Walter Brueggemann, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible, Fortress, 2009.

Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk and direct from the distributors Alban Books.

This book is drawn from Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament (available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. An Unsettling God seems to be Part III of Theology of the Old Testament with few changes except for a different introduction.

Brueggemann highlights the relational nature of God. God enters into dialogue in which he shapes and is shaped. Brueggemann describes how this works in relation to four dialogue partners: Israel, humanity, the nations and creation. So far so good. But Brueggemann privileges the mutuality of the dialogue. The result is in effect the god of open theism. Though Brueggemann does not use this label, he disavows the God of classical theism. The result is not so much the unsettling God of the title as an unsettled god! Brueggemann assumes a relational God and an immutable God are incompatible. But the grace of God allows us to affirm that God chooses freely in his grace to be influenced by the prayers and actions of people.

Brueggemann presents a catalogue – almost an inventory – of Israelite faith. As a result there is much of value and much to learn from this book. It reflects the work of a man who has spent many hours deep in the text. When Brueggemann is engaging with the text of the Old Testament he is always worth reading. His commentaries are always worth consulting.

But when Brueggemann moves to implications his theological presuppositions become problematic. In An Unsettling God he rejects synthesis, believing this would impose a system on the text. Instead he highlights its multivocal nature. A variety of voices are heard in the text whose differing perspectives ‘cannot be harmonized’ (34). The result is a thoroughly postmodern approach to the Old Testament (though modernity is assumed with Brueggemann cutting up the text and reordering the chronology with all the assurance of someone who was there).

Perhaps the most striking feature of the book is an absence. For all Brueggemann’s emphasis on the many voices of the Old Testament, one is silenced – the voice of atonement through sacrifice. There are no references in the Bible index to Leviticus 1-10, nor to Leviticus 16. This is an account of what the subtitle calls the ‘heart of the Hebrew Bible’ that excludes the Day of Atonement! As a result Israelite faith is reduced to ethics with some scope for failure. In Brueggemann’s hands this looks remarkably like the ethics of Enlightenment liberalism. His marshalling  of what he calls the ‘data’ of Old Testament faith promises much, but in the end reveals more about Brueggemann than about God.

This fatal omission of atonement through sacrifice is due no doubt to the modern distaste for God’s wrath and atonement through blood. But it also results from another common problem in modern theology, one that is less often remarked upon, but no less fatal, namely the tendency to disconnect sin and death in the way that Genesis 3 and Romans 5 connects them. Brueggemann says, for example, ‘the dependence [of humanity upon God’s life-giving breathe] raises the acute problematic of mortality, which is not in itself related to sin.’ (60). ‘The power of the Nihil is not to be reduced to or explained by human sin and guilt.’ (146) Brueggemann speaks of Yahweh being in conflict with the ‘power of the Nihil’ in what he calls (with at least more honesty than most) ‘dualism’ (143). Brueggemann cites passages that speak of God’s primordial defeat of Leviathan and the dragon, but without explanation interprets them as implying on-going conflict. When the Bible does speak of the chaos of Genesis 1 returning it is not the result of God’s weakness, but his judgment against sin. So Jeremiah 4:23, for example, speaks of the earth again being formless and empty. But this is because God himself as acted (Jeremiah 4:28) in judgment against the sin of his people (Jeremiah 4:14). The God who created in grace can uncreate in judgment.

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One thought on “Review: Brueggemann on an unsettling God

  1. Thanks Tim for the review, very helpful and insight.

    When I did a review of Greg Boyd’s book “God of the Possible” which is his defense of Open Theism the main commendation came from Bruggemann.

    I am with you. I find I disagree with lots of Bruggemann’s underlying theology but I absolutely love his Old Testament Overview which is the first place I go when preparing a sermon on any Old Testament book (well second….I go to Carson and Moo’s Overview first…hehe!!). And I have used many of his insights/ideas regarding the text in sermons.

    STEVE

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