Old Testament Theology

By Paul R. House
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1998). 655 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
10.2 (Fall 1999) : 304-306

The discipline of OT theology has experienced something of a renaissance in recent years, particularly among evangelical authors. After depending on Geerhardus Vos’ magisterial Biblical Theology (1948) and J. Barton Payne’s Theology of the Older Testament (1962) for over a generation, several evangelical professors have published excellent works in this field. Walter Kaiser’s Toward an Old Testament Theology (1978), William Dyrness’ Themes in Old Testament Theology (1977), Elmer Marten’s God’s Design (1981), Zuck’s, Merrill’s, and Bock’s A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (1991), and John Sailhamer’s methodological Introduction to Old Testament Theology (1995) are examples of excellent contributions in the last twenty years.

Paul House, formerly of Taylor University and now at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has made a major contribution to the discipline that is still searching for that elusive “center.” While thoroughly familiar with those who have gone before him, evangelical and otherwise, House offers some fresh ideas and suggestions for “doing” O T theology.

In his opening chapter, he surveys the history of the study of OT theology. He outlines its development under four rubrics: (1) Beginnings: From Gabler to Wellhausen: 1787-1878; (2) The Dominance of Historicism: 1878-1920; (3) The Reemergence of Old Testament Theology: 1920-1960; and (4) The Growth of Diversity: 1960-1993. Since it took several years for his manuscript to be published, House adds an Appendix: “Old Testament Theology since 1993” (548- 59), in which he tries to bring this chapter “up-to-date.” Previous works such as Old Testament Theology: Its Heritage and Development by Hayes and Prassner (1985) and the fourth edition of Gerhard Hasel’s Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (1991) have covered this historical ground well.

One major criticism in this section is House’s failure to acknowledge the contribution of the already mentioned classic, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments by Geerhardus Vos (1948). He does include Vos in his extensive bibliography (615-35), yet earlier he only acknowledges him obliquely in one footnote (175).

Both the search for a “center” of OT theology and the methodology one employs appear to be the big issues in this discipline. House, like many recent writers, does not attempt to solve the question of a “center” or organizing principle for viewing divine revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Kaiser’s “promise”). He does, however, espouse and apply the “Canonical Approach” as his working methodology. In this regard, he acknowledges the seminal methodological contribution of Brevard Childs, especially his Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (1986) and Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (1992).

In his appendix House also acknowledges Sailhamer’s methodological work as “the first evangelical proposal for utilizing a canonical approach to Old Testament Theology” (551). He also wishes that Sailhamer’s work had appeared earlier. If so, it “would have helped sharpen and shape my own methodology more than any other” (551).

House’s own methodology, therefore, “adopts a canonical approach to Old Testament Theology” (56). By “canonical” he means that his “analysis is God-centered, intertextually oriented, authority-conscious, historically sensitive, and devoted to the pursuit of the wholeness of the Old Testament message” (57). He explicates further these five principles (56-57), and believes that his methodology, although not flawless, is valid on historical, canonical, and literary grounds.

How then does House go about “doing” his OT Theology? He proceeds in the next twenty-four chapters to explain how God revealed Himself in the successive canonical books, following the order of the Hebrew canon. He handles each book individually with Kings, the “Twelve,” Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles taken together (as they are in the Hebrew canon). For each book, he assigns a title that begins with “The God who. . . .” For example, the theology of Genesis is about “The God Who Creates.” Isaiah is about “The God Who Saves.” Esther is about “The God W ho Protects the Exiles.”

Each chapter then further expounds that main theme by other relative clauses about God that basically outline the book’s theological context. For example, the Book of Judges is “The God Who Disciplines and Delivers.” The subsections of that chapter concern: (1) The God Who Tests Israel’s Faithfulness (1:1–3:6); (2) The God Who Responds (3:7–16:31); and (3) The God Who Releases Israel (17–21). Consonant with his own “canonical” concerns, House also inserts at appropriate places a “Canonical Synthesis” in which he deals with a theological problem in the book as it relates to previous revelation in the canon, as w ell as its future connection with the NT. See, for example, “Deborah and Prophecy” (221) and “The Cost of Sexual Depravity” (275).

The author evidently believes that the underlying theme (or center) of OT revelation is “The God W ho Speaks and Acts.” As a matter of fact, that could probably be used as a subtitle for the book. Against those who have suggested that “God” is the center of OT theology, the criticism has been that such a “center” is simply too general and too broad to encompass the whole of OT revelation. House’s formulation, however, makes a good case for it, by tracing it so effectively in a canonical context.

This well-written and creative treatment should receive serious consideration for use in OT theology courses. It could be employed also as a meaty theological survey of the OT for seminary students or perhaps for “honors” college students. Pastors can also find immense help from House if they are working through an OT book with their congregations and classes. House has not written the last word on this subject, but who has? Those who want to understand better the messages and the message of these thirty-nine ancient but ever relevant books should give his work careful consideration.