Review: Israel’s Gospel by John Goldingay

John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Gospel, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic), 940 pages.
I would like to thank IVP for providing me a review copy.
Amazon | IVP

[As with all posts, the views expressed below are entirely my own. See here for an appreciative review of Goldingay from a fellow contributor.]

Goldingay OT TheologyIsrael’s Gospel is volume one of John Goldingay’s three-volume OT Theology set. With each book running close to 1,000 pages, this is a mammoth set from a well-respected scholar of the OT. While Goldingay is not an evangelical (he eschews inerrancy, and, while accepting the “inspiration and authority” of Scripture, claims that they are “not very biblical” concepts; 859–60),[1] he is a self-professed Christian, who expressly set out to write and Old Testament theology (though he prefers the term “First Testament”) as opposed to a Hebrew Bible theology. I have used and benefited from some of Goldingay’s works before, so I was excited to begin this important contribution to the field of OT theology.

Overview

This first volume is essentially a theology of the story of the OT from “in the beginning” to the return from exile (with an additional chapter on Jesus), focusing on the narrative passages. Volumes two and three deal with the non-narrative material. Thus, this book has the feel of a passage by passage theological commentary (cf. Dumbrell’s The Faith of Israel).

He includes an introduction (ch. 1) and a postscript discussing method and the relation between history and theology. Chapters 2 through 11 comprise the body, in which Goldingay expounds the theology of the history of the OT. His chapter titles all start: “God [verb].” He summarizes the story of the OT by stringing his chapter titles together, adding Israel’s actions to fill it out:

God began.
Humanity turned its back on God’s instructions, and God started over.
God promised, and a family grew.
Israel cried out, and God delivered.
God sealed, and Israel imperiled.
God gave, and Israel took.
Israel equivocated, and God accommodated.
Israel turned away, and God wrestled.
God preserved, and Israel turned back. (36)

Although Goldingay’s focus is on the story, he often discusses non-narrative texts that bear on the topic at hand. For instance, when discussing the creation story, he reflects on creation theology in the rest of the OT, especially Proverbs 8, Psalms, and Isaiah. Consequently, the book can have a meandering and contemplative feel to it (hence the length!). Goldingay describes it as a “theological midrash” (28).

He writes that it is a “work of theology, written by a Christian who wants to heed the whole of Scripture.” Yet, he does not want to look at it “through Christian lenses or even New Testament lenses” (20). Goldingay is to be commended for setting out to write explicitly as a Christian. Everything we do ought to be in submission to Lord Jesus, including our scholarship and writing. However, it was unclear to me what Goldingay meant by this, especially in light of his insistence that he wants to write an OT theology without Christian or NT lenses. He regularly notes that he stands under the authority of the Old Testament, seeking to subject his thinking to it to be challenged and changed by it (e.g., 19), which is perhaps what he means, but then it becomes unclear how this is a distinctively Christian approach, since faithful Jews could say the same thing. Certainly, Goldingay seeks to promote worship in the true God, by expounding his wonders in the text—a God who is revealed eminently in Jesus. However, a fully Christian approach to the OT recognizes that Jesus is not just the end or telos of the OT, but the beginning as well—“In the beginning was the word”—and that the NT is equally authoritative, not just after we have interpreted the OT but as we interpret the OT.

John GoldingayGoldingay desires to give the OT its proper place in Christian theology. He rejects all forms of supersessionism, disparagingly referring to the NT as “footnotes to the Old Testament,” which cannot give rise to its own theology (24). I can’t help but smile at this, but it also reflects fundamental problems with his theology and method. For instance, he isolates the OT from the New, such that the New has no relevance for our understanding of the Old.[2] Concerning 1 Tim 2:12–14, which makes a point based on Adam being created first, he writes that “we need not assume that [1 Tim 2:12–14’s] use of the text [i.e., Genesis 2], need, should or can determine the meaning of the First Testament text” (109, n. 110);[3] and concerning Psalm 8, he writes that “the New Testament’s reuse of it … is irrelevant to the psalm’s own meaning…” (112). While the NT use of the OT is diverse, and we ought to be careful how we interpret what the NT says concerning the meaning of the OT, to dismiss the NT as “irrelevant” is not tenable for one who wants to write as a Christian (cf. Kline, Images of the Spirit, for one who writes as a Christian OT scholar, integrating the NT into his exposition of the OT).

Goldingay is obviously conversant with the most current academic research, though his conversation partners are almost exclusively critical and secular scholars. Few and scanty are his interactions with conservative evangelical scholars. This is a major disappointment, especially from a self-professed Christian. Although Goldingay is not evangelical, it seems strange that he isn’t aware of, or overlooks, substantial evangelical contributions.

Goldingay notes that he assumes a readership that has studied the OT such that they will understand “the reasons for assuming that Moses did not write the Pentateuch or that several prophets contributed to the book called Isaiah” (13). Thus, he simultaneously indicates that his book is targeted to an audience with some formal post-college education, and that he accepts with little modification many of the critical conclusions regarding the authorship and composition of the Bible.

Response

This book was a disappointment. I was expecting to disagree with a lot in the book, but I was also expecting to profit from the book. I’m sure I did profit from my reading of it, but I cannot say that the effort was rewarded with an equal return. I rather felt like I was getting thorns and thistles instead of fruit. He seemed entirely unconcerned overturning millennia of Christian consensuses (see for example his rejection of the concept of the “fall” in Genesis 3; pp. 144–48), but rarely disagrees with the secular and critical consensus interpretation of the text.

He seems to accept a form of process theology, and consequently his view of God is not consistent with classical Christian theism. For him God is bound by time. He contrasts “eternal” and “everlasting” suggesting that “The Bible… implies that it is better to be everlasting than to be eternal. …the First Testament suggests that God is not atemporal or outside time, though God is omnitemporal and not limited to particular times.” Goldingay struggles (and fails) to make clear exactly what it means for God to be “omnitemporal” and to be “in time,” while not limited to time. Also, he sets up a straw man when he argues that the statement from Psalm 90:1, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God,” does not “offer a contextless theological formulation.” (63–64)

Nor is God omniscient (e.g., 137). Here he says that “God’s not knowing everything is thus another aspect of the gospel.” Later concerning Abel he writes that “Yhwh does not know exactly what has happened to Abel, but has heard the cry of Abel’s blood and has worked out approximately what must have taken place” (152). A God who can hear blood cry from the ground but has to “work out approximately” what happened, is a strange God indeed! Surely, it is better to see YHWH’s questioning of Cain, not as an indication of his lack of knowledge, but of his desire for Cain to confess and repent.

He also claims that God can change his mind, arguing that “it is hard to explain away them all—e.g., as concessions to the way things look to us.” He then proceeds to explain away all the places that where the OT denies that God changes his mind (which he admits exist), with the claim that “it is asserting that God is not fickle. God does not arbitrarily say one thing today and another tomorrow. On the other hand, God’s word is not like the law of the Medes and Persians, which is unchangeable even when stupid” (98). Yes, God’s word is not like that of the Medes and Persians, not because it is changeable but because it is never “stupid.” Granted, this is probably thoughtless hyperbole on Goldingay’s part, but the hyperbole is necessary to obscure the real theological problem with Goldingay’s statement. Once we acknowledge that God’s word is never stupid, we must ask why it would need to change.

Finally, God is not in control. He describes God as an “executive” or “CEO” who delegates his authority and doesn’t “micro-manage,” but rather adapts to the decisions, good or bad, of his underlings (e.g., 647). He seems to characterize God’s approach as “hands off, and let’s see what happens.” While God does certainly delegate (Genesis 1:26–31), Goldingay’s presentation seems decidedly one-sided. Surely, the OT is more complex and requires more careful thought and reflection that the process theology that Goldingay seems to embrace.

Goldingay wants to avoid flattening the OT, or blunting its edge. He wants us to feel its challenges most fully, including and especially those places in which it challenges us as Westerners. Thus, his rejection of classical Christian views of God is probably not problematic to him. We can certainly commend him for avoiding the temptation to tame the OT. However, he seems to equate an avoidance of flattening the OT with a bizarrely literalistic hermeneutic. This is especially apparent in his discussion of Abel cited above. More accurately, though, he seems to employ a literalist hermeneutic when it suits his form of process theology, but not when it would contradict it (see the discussion of whether God’ changes his mind above, in which he gives preference to the texts in which God changes his mind and explains away the texts that deny God changes his mind).

At times Goldingay walks to the edge of the heterodox (or heretical) abyss and backs away only after staring deeply. For instance, in discussing how to account for evil in the world, he notes that there are three classical ways of doing so: the first “can locate evil within the godhead, and occasionally the First Testament hints at this…” He immediately qualifies: “…or at least at the awareness that God’s acts look inexplicable” (75). The Psalms, Prophets, and Wisdom literature are full of examples in which God’s acts look inexplicable. However, I wonder where exactly Goldingay thinks the OT “hints at evil in the godhead,” since he provides no citation to go with this disturbing comment.

Israel's GospelMuch of his discussion of method, history, and theology is a strange conglomeration of old liberal modernist ideas that separate history and theology, and more traditionally conservative views that argue that history and historicity are important for theology. He tries to critique both liberals and conservatives, but the end result is a mixture of oil and water, not a compound of H2 and O. He is sensitive enough to the serious problems with the liberal enterprise, but is unwilling to embrace the evangelical solution. Consequently, his discussion of method and history is muddled and fails to solve any problems at all. Instead, he seems contradictory. He wants the text to be authoritative, and he recognizes that there must usually be a historical “core,” but he is unwilling to give up on liberal and critical theories (despite a willingness to take serious swipes at them). For instance, he writes that “the First Testament talks about history because the events that happened matter. There are at least three senses in which this might be so. First the narratives can be the embodiment of convictions that may stand independently of the historicity of the events they relate [i.e., as with Ruth and Jonah, which presumably aren’t historical. Emphasis mine.]” (868). It is entirely unclear how this first statement is a “sense” in which “events that happened matter.” In fact, it seems as though he is saying the exact opposite here—it doesn’t matter whether they happened. We might ask, “Did the events recorded in Ruth and Jonah really happen?” If the answer is “no” or “I don’t know” then we must either say that whether the events happened doesn’t matter, or we must say that the books of Ruth and Jonah don’t matter, in which case it is hard to see how they could be authoritative.

In discussing whether the narratives are historically accurate in their details, Goldingay appeals to the dreadfully wearisome claim that ancient historians did history differently than modern historians (862–63). This is of course true, but the question is not whether they went about their craft differently, but whether that difference includes writing factually wrong narratives (for instance, he claims that the Jericho narrative must be a fabrication because Jericho was not occupied at the time of the settlement). However, as Kenneth Kitchen has noted the ancients generally did not make up history, but rather theologized it, which is the difference between modern and ancient historians (see my review of Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the OT).

Conclusion

I wish I could say that such interpretive and theological missteps as I have discussed above were the exception. Unfortunately, they proved to be the rule. This first volume is full of substantial theological error. It is an important volume for academic scholars of the OT to be aware of, but I cannot recommend it for any but those who feel the need to keep abreast of academic trends in the field of OT theology.

Goldingay does have helpful insights into the text, and he is theologically sensitive. His desire to be transformed by the text is commendable, and his piety is evident on almost every page. However, there is little in this volume that cannot be gotten from other, more orthodox sources (e.g.. Dumbrell, Williamson, Dempster, Alexander, Kline, Beale, etc.).

This was a book that I was eager to read, and this is a review that I was not eager to write. I had hoped for much more from Goldingay, whose other works, despite disagreements, I have profited from. I wanted to write a positive review, but it would not have been honest for me to do so. I cannot recommend this book.


1. Some might consider him a “British evangelical.”

2. He explicitly denies this in theory (21), but in practice, he dismisses the NT statements concerning the meaning of the OT.

3. This comment arises out of his discussion of the alleged egalitarianism of the pre-lapsarian world and the alleged patriarchy established in the curses of Genesis 3.

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About Peter Green

I am a doctoral student at Wheaton College. My dissertation is on vineyard imagery in the Old Testament, particularly as it is used to convey the theme of Creation to New Creation. My interests are (in no particular order): biblical ethics, epistemology, apologetics, sacramentology, science and faith, biblical theology, OT theology, biblical political philosophy, and intertextuality. I consider myself to be in the historic Reformed tradition, and attend a PCA church. I graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary--the PCA's denominational seminary--and hope work for Reformed University Fellowship, which is the PCA's campus ministry, following my PhD studies.
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One Response to Review: Israel’s Gospel by John Goldingay

  1. Kevin Davis says:

    Very good. It is sad to say, this is the first review that I’ve read where the theological problems in Goldingay are forthrightly expressed. And, it is important to add, these are theological problems not just for evangelicals or Calvinists but for all orthodox Christians — East and West, Catholic and Protestant. Unfortunately, this confident disregard for dogmatic categories and systematics is endemic within biblical studies, even ostensibly evangelical, which only furthers the gulf between the two fields of biblical and systematic theology. I would be more appreciative if Goldingay would actually demonstrate — in clear, rigorous analysis — the foundational motivations for how his hermeneutic comports with his doctrine of God (the divine perfections), but this is never done. Instead, we are left with ambiguity over the veracity of the text and a slipshod array of divine attributes. In the end, the God projected in the “First Covenant” is an imaginative reconstruction of Israel’s “history” by later scribes. God, thereby, collapses into the subjective motivations of whichever scribal party.

    Fuller Seminary is a good school on the whole, with some strong faculty members, but it is disappointing that Goldingay is propagating a seriously deficient bifurcation of the testaments and an irresponsible reckoning with the binding authority of Jesus Christ for all of Scripture.

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