Old Testament Theology: Its History, Method, and Message

By Ralph L. Smith
Nashville : Broadman & Holman (1993). 525 Pages.

Reviewed by
5.2 (Fall 1994) : 234-237

Ralph L. Smith is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His stated purpose is "to provide university and seminary students a textbook that gives a partial report of what others have said and done about Old Testament theology and then suggest ways the theological materials in the Old Testament may be organized, interpreted and appropriated" (15). The author includes in his target audience "pastors and interested lay people" (13).

Any author's viewpoint, background, and preparation colors his presentation of OT theology. Smith describes with great candor his own imprint on the material:

Perhaps the greatest danger is that in picking and choosing themes to include and omit and in systematizing the materials used to discuss each theme, I will put my own "spin" on the organization and interpretation of each subject (16).

The first chapter chronicles the prehistory and advent in the eighteenth century of a discrete discipline called OT theology. To some readers OT Theology's late starting point may seem strange because the OT has been around for several thousand years. The newness is actually in the areas of focus and method of doing theology: prior to a man named Gabler who wrote in the eighteenth century, it does not appear that OT students noticed distinctions "between dogmatic theology and biblical theology or between New Testament theology and Old Testament theology" (21). Part of the reason was that they used a proof-text method of studying the Bible (if they consulted it at all in doing theology). In fact, in the absence of historical and grammatical exegesis the proof-text method, with all of its potential dangers, was the dominant method of Gabler's day. Smith elaborates on its shortcomings:

The proof text method could never produce a true Old Testament theology. Old Testament theology is basically an historical and descriptive discipline. Only after the discovery of the historical-grammatical principles of interpretation could a true Old Testament theology be written (29, emphasis added).

Gabler attributed much of the confusion to the lack of a distinction "between dogmatic theology and the simple historical religion of the Bible" (30). He saw the need to understand the latter before one attempts to construct the former. Only a major shift in the process of doing theology would establish the correct doctrinal methodology. That happened with the arrival of the Age of Reason:

The age of reason discovered the historical-grammatical principle of interpretation of the Scriptures, developed proper skills and tools for research, and freed biblical scholars and theologians from the authority of the church and the state (30).

Smith acknowledges that prior to this time the so-called "school of Antioch" hinted at in the book of Acts practiced a form of the historical-grammatical method. But he believes that its use was for a brief period and not widespread (25).

The Age of Reason provided the conceptual tools for implementing, systematizing, and evaluating the historical-grammatical method, but it did not discover it. The entire notion requires much further investigation before one may speak confidently of a "precritical" method of interpretation.

Prior to the Age of Reason in the middle ages the "schoolmen simply systematized what the church fathers had said, giving little attention to the Scriptures" (25). Gabler believed that the Bible -in contrast to the conflicting, systematized, and time-conditioned teachings of the schoolmen- was authoritative; therefore, he forced the distinction:

Dogmatic theology is didactic and normative in character and teaches what a particular theologian decides about a matter in accordance with his character, time, age, place, sect, or school. Biblical theology is historical and descriptive in character, transmitting what the sacred writers thought about sacred matters (30, emphasis added).

From these assumptions he inferred a method for doing biblical or exegetical theology applicable to both testaments:

The biblical theologian should first study each passage of Scripture separately according to the historical-grammatical principles of interpretation. Second, he should compare the individual passages of Scripture with each other, noting differences and similarities. Third, he should systematize or formulate general ideas without distorting materials or obliterating distinctions (30-31).

The key to his methodological rigor was in his concern not to obliterate or even distort distinctions resident in the passages themselves. It is through observing the diversity that Bible students will find the true unity. This has led to perhaps one of the most fundamental but controversial assumptions of biblical theology`the texts consistently display a common set of themes and theological categories or centers.

Because ethics is the methodological outgrowth of exegetical theology, Smith addresses the issue. Under his discussion of ethics, he follows the trail of John Barton in making a distinction between the ethical practices of ancient Israel and the ethics of the OT: that is the distinction between what Israel did and "what was supposed to be done" (348). In short and perhaps somewhat oversimplified, it is the principle behind the law that provides ethical direction for the faithful today.

Smith's recent publication should serve well as an introduction to OT theology or even as a tool for topical study. The book's generous bibliography and indices (subject, author, Scripture, classical author, early literature, and Hebrew word) facilitate research, and its use of paranotes makes the reading more enjoyable and uninterrupted.