A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs, Reviewed

The world of Old Testament interpretation can feel vast and complex, teeming with concepts and terms like “historical-critical,” Sitz im Leben, and documentary hypothesis. Admission into that field of ideas is potentially cost-prohibitive, not to mention time-consuming.

Mark Gignilliat, Associate Professor of Divinity at Beeson, has greatly simplified a student’s entrance into the realm of Old Testament interpretation. His new book, A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs, explores major Old Testament interpreters and themes in the modern period. Gignilliat begins with Spinoza (b. 1632) and concludes with Childs (d. 2007) in his “picture gallery tour of sorts.” Gignilliat writes, “This is a book for students. …The intended audience of this book is anyone who is interested in the Bible, its history of interpretation, and the particular problems and approaches to Old Testament studies in the modern period.”

The “picture gallery tour” surveys OT criticism through the lens of seven major characters: Spinoza, de Wette, Wellhausen, Gunkel, von Rad, Albright, and Childs. The author makes “no comprehensive attempt at expounding the very complex history of Old Testament interpretation,” but he does go beyond even his seven major subjects in detailing the ideas of other important thinkers, too. Gignilliat gives each interpreter his own chapter, which includes a short biography and a survey of ideas and writings. Chapters end with a “For Further Reading” section that the interested reader can pursue.

Gignilliat in his introduction immediately shows himself to be humble, gracious, and warm in tone, which continues throughout the book. He is aware of the limitations of a “brief history” like this (perhaps overly aware), though his concerns are not warranted, since this book accomplishes what it sets out to do.

One thing the author does particularly well is analyzes major interpreters in their life context. Of Spinoza, for example (to whom he traces the beginning of the denial of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch), he writes:

But it is important to understand, even if somewhat minimally, the community values Spinoza was reacting against and the intellectual currents of the day that influenced his thought. Modernity’s most cherished claims–autonomous intellectual pursuits, dismissal of dogmatic tradition, naturalism, and affirmation of the Cartesian “I” (I think therefore I am)–were advanced by Spinoza’s philosophical and hermeneutical outlook.

He notes that Spinoza’s emphasis on rationalism and the knowing self may have been, in part, a reaction to the “religious dogmatism, military might, and political ambition” that “made for a toxic combination throughout the Thirty Years War.”

Gignilliat’s ability to understand thinkers in context helps the reader to better appreciate what led to their contributions. With the above in mind, I could better understand why Spinoza sought to turn “sola scriptura into nuda scriptura, that is, Scripture stripped of any theological or ecclesial context.” (I thought this was a brilliant line.) Gignilliat does not follow Spinoza this far, but he gives a fair shake to the ideas of Spinoza and others throughout the book.

The author treats the documentary hypothesis and its development, beginning with Wellhausen. Though many evangelicals bristle at J, E, D, and P, Gignilliat does a good job showing how Wellhausen and those after him developed the notion that the Pentateuch has a complex redaction history. One key implication of the hypothesis is that someone like von Rad can conclude (in Gignilliat’s words):

The Hexateuchal [Pentateuch+Joshua] traditions do not give us a historical account of Israel that will satisfy modern attempts at history making. What these traditions do give is insight into Israel’s ancient faith and how that faith was continually actualized in Israel’s history of salvation.

Childs is the climax of the book: He is both “confessional and critical.” That is, he integrates historical-critical insights that have preceded him, yet with a confessional understanding of the Bible as Scripture. The canon matters to Childs, and his belief in the Bible as God’s Word–not just an object of historical study–influences his approach.

Gignilliat finally stands with Childs. For Gignilliat, “[A] confession of faith shapes, if not determines, the way we go about reading the Old Testament as Holy Scripture.” Readers who are nervous about some of the tendencies of Old Testament criticism to minimize (or ridicule) this view of the Bible as Scripture can rest assured with Gignilliat as their tour guide. Readers who are nervous about a Zondervan author writing a history of a field that has not exactly been dominated by evangelicals can also be rest assured by Gignilliat’s fair treatment of ideas and interpreters.

One great strength of A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism is Gignilliat’s consistent use of primary source materials. He does what every good philosopher should do: examines thinkers’ own writings, not just others’ writings about their writings. In this way he is able to describe his subjects in their own terms.

As I read I found myself occasionally distracted by what came across as an overly conversational tone. Although this is not present in all parts of the book, some sections overused, I thought, phrases like “all to say,” or, “it will be remembered that,” or, “at the end of the day.” The writing would have been stronger without that kind of verbal filler–and the author certainly had no need of hedging anything he said in such ways, since his brief history is a cogent, readable, and enjoyable one.

An evangelical doing Old Testament criticism may often feel how de Wette did–“lost in the middle” and in “a theological no-man’s land,” as Gignilliat describes it. But evangelicals should also know that Gignilliat is in that same territory, honoring the insights of those who have gone before, yet holding a high view of the Bible as God’s words to humanity, for then and for now. He quotes Herman Bavinck: “[Holy Scripture] was not only ‘God-breathed’ at the time it was written; it is ‘God-breathing.'”

A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism has its Zondervan product page (including sample pdf) here. It’s on Amazon here.

I received a review copy of this book from Zondervan in exchange for an unbiased review.

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