Goldingay Old Testament Theology – Leaving Ambiguities Intact

This is the second part of my personal reflections on Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology (vol. 1) from IVP Academic, after giving some background on the book.  In the last post, I said that I loved that Goldingay doesn’t pull any punches, but rather is willing to make application of Old Testament theology to a modern context.  Another thing that I love about the book is that Goldingay leaves ambiguities in tact.  This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t interact with them, rather he does so in way that appreciates the ambiguity and is willing to accept it.

I’ve shared this before in reviewing another book, but I was once in a religious context where I don’t feel like ambiguity was quite as tolerable, at least for some within the community.  Scripture is clear.  Scripture is.  Thus, many ambiguities had to be explained such that they were not ambiguities at all, lest (gasp) they look like errors.  The theological principle seems sounds – why would God speak unclearly?  If God is truthful and wants us to know the truth, why would there be ambiguities of any kind?

That is all fine and well, but those theological principles simply didn’t work in practice. For me it reached the point of the absurd when so many lessons or sermons could be summarized as “I know this text sounds like it means X, but it couldn’t possibly mean that because this text over here says Y” (NT example – “I know this text in James 2 sounds like it says X, but it couldn’t possibly because this text over here in Paul says Y).  And thus any tension or ambiguity that the listener felt was explained away.  Perhaps that would have been fine if it were just a few cases, but they were manifold.

Rather than falling into this, where Goldingay sees an ambiguity, he points it out, says what he believes it means, and then lets it lie for the reader to wrestle with. The following from the introduction is indicative of the approach that Goldingay takes throughout the book (he is discussing the development and need for Old Testament theology; I’ve added some emphasis at the end):

Yet the way we go about formulating this faith two millenia later is different from anything anyone would have formulated at that point. Our categories and structures of thought are different. We go about analysis, formulation and reflection in different ways. That is one reason why no one wrote and “Old Testament theology” until a century or so ago. Old Testament theology attempts  not merely to describe the faith implied by the Old Testament but to reflect on it analytically, critically and constructively. By theology I mean such an analytic, critical and constructive exercise, a discipline or set of disciplines that developed through the interaction between Middle Eastern and European thought in post-New Testament times, particularly after the Enlightenment. One reason Western thought has felt the need for such a critical and constructive exercise is our awareness that the Old Testament incorporates different, even clashing, theological convictions. Old Testament theology’s task is to see what greater whole can encompass the diversity within the Old Testament.

Here is another line that serves as a good example from Goldingay’s discussion of the golden calf episode (with emphasis added):

The event manifests the recurrent ambiguity about whether worshiping by means of an image counts as worshiping another deity….

Goldingay notes that the Old Testament approach to images does not always seem entirely consistent.  And even in a modern Christian context different communities appear to go different directions on the matter of images.  Perhaps this is not the result of one sides poor exegesis or wickedness, but of a real ambiguity in the Old Testament text.  Another example would be in Goldingay’s treatment of the idea of kingship.

Yet even still, despite leaving ambiguity in tact, Goldingay does seek to find the unity amidst the diversity as was apparent in the earlier quote.  I think this approach is very beneficial for readers in two ways.  First, I think it is true to what the Old Testament is really like instead of trying to hammer authors of a variety of shapes into the square-shaped hole in the box.  Second, I think this gives the reader, subtly at least, a good analogy for how we should interact in our own time.  If the Old Testament authors could have such diverse voices yet all be considered “canonical,” perhaps we in our own time can accept and welcome our own unity amid diversity.

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8 Replies to “Goldingay Old Testament Theology – Leaving Ambiguities Intact”

  1. “If the Old Testament authors could have such diverse voices yet all be considered “canonical,” perhaps we in our own time can accept and welcome our own unity amid diversity.”

    Yes. This. Thank you.

    Preach it!

    1. I think that is a long difficult lesson for many to learn. I have definite, strong beliefs about a whole lot of issues. However, working in a church parish has disavowed me of raising my beliefs about a lot of those issues to a level that they cannot hold. Without a diverse range of people working within the ministries of our parish they would basically shut down.

      1. I work at a church as well, and quickly retired from my self-appointment as Intellectual Hygienist. 😉

        Kidding aside, I find great hope in the fact that people who differ can still form strong and loving communities. In some ways the process reminds me of a favorite quote: “Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.”

  2. Jeremy, at Bible college we are encouraged to form our beliefs. To follow no one except Jesus. You say that you can’t express some of your beliefs – I hope that someday you can.

    1. No, I don’t think I said that at all. What I said is that sometimes matters of belief are ambiguous. I know what I believe but sometimes I understand why someone would believe differently.

      For example, is kingship a good thing in the Old Testament? Well, yes and no. Solomon’s idolatry and injustice do lead to the downfall of the kingdom, but God also makes an everlasting covenant with David. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have firm ideas about the relationship between God and political leaders. It’s just that I can see more than one perspective within the Bible itself. And, therefore, I can get along with a person whose politics are different than mine.

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