A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By David Luy
Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament by Gary Anderson presents a fascinating collection of essays exploring the relationship between biblical exegesis and Christian doctrine. Gary A. Anderson (PhD, Harvard University) is Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. In the introductory chapter, Anderson articulates the overarching premise of the book, namely “that theological doctrines need not be a hindrance to exegesis but, when properly deployed, play a key role in uncovering a text’s meaning” (xi). Anderson’s contention is not simply that the Old Testament makes a contribution to the formation of Christian doctrines in the long run. He also wants to insist that Christian doctrines can provide a retrospective hermeneutical key into the meaning of Old Testament texts. Anderson admits that this is a “rather audacious claim,” and so it is. The canonical and theological approach to exegesis he practices throughout the book grates against the methodological constraints with which many contemporary biblical scholars operate. And yet, Anderson’s distinctive proposal does not come at the expense of historical-critical rigor. An exegete by training, he wields the critical methodologies of modern biblical interpretation with an obvious dexterity and skill. For Anderson, the relation between doctrinal theology and critical exegesis is not zero sum. The one complements the other.
Because Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament is a collection of revised articles and essays—each having been published previously elsewhere—the book does not present a single coherent argument from start to finish. It also does not promote any single methodology for how to engage texts theologically. The cumulative purpose of the book is rather to demonstrate through a diverse set of case studies that Christian doctrine can indeed “illumine” the meaning of Old Testament texts (xi; xiv). The case studies are quite intriguing. For example, Anderson argues in chapter two that the doctrine of divine impassibility helps to make sense of intercessory prayer in the Old Testament. In chapter 4, he leverages the doctrine of original sin to unpack the story of the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai. In chapter 7, he sketches Mariological appropriations of Old Testament temple imagery. Anderson’s approach to these various topics is diverse. In each case, the reader is presented with a sophisticated and creative argument for why the doctrine in question connects in an organic way with the subject matter of each particular text.
Anderson makes a noteworthy contribution in relation to two primary domains. The first pertains to the ongoing conversation concerning the relation between dogmatic theology and modern biblical studies. As we have already noted, Anderson is an exegete by training and guild affiliation. Those trained in modern exegetical methodologies (and who may be generally skeptical about theological interpretation) will find him to be an especially fruitful and provocative conversation partner. He does not speak to biblical studies from the outside, but as an insider. His research agenda is difficult to categorize because it inhabits the liminal space between the modern theological disciplines. Anderson’s proposals are not all equally convincing, but he never achieves his doctrinal readings of biblical texts cheaply (e.g., by performing an end-run around the historical particularities of the text). Time and again, dogmatic theology and sound historical-critical analysis are shown to be mutually-enriching conversation partners. His analysis of texts is also deeply informed by an extensive interaction with the reception history of the Old Testament through the centuries (Jewish and Christian). Many fine monographs on the topic of theological interpretation are already available in print, but Anderson’s text is uniquely positioned to serve as a bridge and mediator between the theological disciplines.
The second domain in which the book makes a noteworthy contribution has to do with the relation between Scripture and specific dogmas of the Roman Catholic church which most Protestants have rejected since the 16th century. In several chapters of the book, Anderson argues that the Old Testament commends or is at least “patient of” doctrinal judgments which the reformers categorically denounced as unbiblical. In chapter 9, for example, Anderson attempts a biblical argument in defense of the controversial concept of a treasury of merit. He points especially to texts in the canon which seem to suggest that the giving of alms repays the debt for one’s sin. “Almsgiving” Anderson insists “funds a treasury in heaven” (169). Anderson is well aware of the objections most Protestants will raise in response to this way of speaking. He insists that the concept of merit (as Scripture deploys it) does not entail “salvation by works” as the reformers feared. The very fact that God has ordained an economy through which human beings may accrue merit by their acts of obedience is itself an expression of God’s grace and generosity, for almsgiving would not merit anything before God unless God had decided in His grace to accept such an action as meritorious in the first place. Moreover, he continues, God rewards human acts of generosity exponentially beyond what the work itself would naturally merit on its own (181-4). Anderson’s account of merit corresponds to a large extent with the views espoused by Thomas Aquinas in his treatise on grace from the Summa Theologiae (cf., Wawrykow 1995). Anderson suggests that the reformers might not have reacted so negatively to the concept of a “treasury of merit” (nor to the sale indulgences, consequently) had they been exposed to this more nuanced and grace-suffused account of merit. For Protestant readers, this is certainly a provocative thesis that warrants careful attention.
One need not agree with all of Anderson’s conclusions in order to benefit from reading his book. For example, the present reviewer is quite sympathetic to Anderson’s general approach to the theological interpretation of Scripture but remains unconvinced when it comes to his exegetical defense of the treasury of merit. Even when one disagrees, Anderson is a wonderful conversation partner. He writes with an irenic style and always offers a creative and sophisticated defense of his views. For those interested in the relationship between exegesis and Christian doctrine, this is an engaging and challenging book worthy of careful reading.
David Luy is Associate Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
Buy the books
Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Exegesis