An Old Testament Theology

August 30, 2012 — 3 Comments


Earlier this week, we took a peek at Frank Thielman’s Theology of the New Testament. The companion volume also published by Zondervan is Bruce Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology: A Canonical and Thematic Approach. Much like my experience in seminary with NT Theologies, my reading of an OT Theology did not happen. My class choices rather than the program itself are to blame, but it is true that at Dallas there is perhaps more of an emphasis on getting really good at inspecting the trees and leaving forestry until after you graduate. So for instance, I read both Moo/Carson’s NT Introduction and Dillard/Longman’s OT Introduction as part of core classes, but I didn’t take any class that required reading an OT or NT Theology.

Thankfully, I’ve got time and good reason to do it now, so I’m progressively testing the waters. I actually was interested in Waltke’s book before Thielman’s and requested the latter because it would compliment the former. Waltke was kind of a legend at Dallas and was up until very recently teaching here in Orlando at RTS (which I will soon live within walking distance of). As a starting point in reading an OT Theology, he seemed like the perfect guide.


In offering theological reflections on the Old Testament, Waltke does not disappoint. He begins with an extended preface explaining first the book’s title and then offering his 6 objectives in writing:

  • To know God personally
  • To understand the nature of God’s revelation
  • To know self
  • To understand the Old Testament
  • To understand the New Testament
  • To contribute to spiritual formation

His primary audience in mind is students and pastors, but he also wants to be accessible to “the educated parishioner” (19). From I can tell, I think he does a great job tailoring the material to that audience since he achieves a book that can seamlessly move between academic discourse and devotional insights.

Some of the heavier lifting takes place in the introductory chapters that compose Part One of the book. Waltke first discusses the basis of Old Testament theology (chapter 1) before explaining what he sees as the task of Old Testament theology (chapter 2). There are then 3 chapters on method in biblical theology (what Waltke sees himself doing): hermeneutical issues (chapter 3), the relationship to narrative theology (chapter 4), and a more detailed look at poetics and intertextuality (chapter 5). Finally, Waltke offers a brief overview of his Old Testament theology working out from what he sees as the Bible’s center (chapter 6). That center for Waltke is this: “Israel’s sublime God, whose attributes hold in tension his holiness and mercy, glorifies himself by establishing his universal rule over his volitional creatures on earth through Jesus Christ and his covenant people” (144).

To develop this theme, Waltke begins working through The Primary History of the Old Testament in Part Two of the book. Waltke treats Genesis-Kings (minus Ruth) and Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah as this primary history. Rather than a pure book by book survey, Waltke instead thematically orders the material in terms of “gifts” related to God’s irrupting kingdom on earth. Each chapter highlights a different gift in the unfolding expansion of God’s kingdom. Because of that, the first 6 chapters of Part Two actually stay within the book of Genesis before the remaining chapters settle into a roughly one gift per book ratio.

Part Three of the book then turns to the prophetic literature (including Daniel) as well as hymnic literature (Psalms) and finishes up with the wisdom literature (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes). He deals with Ruth in its own chapter (called The Gift of Love), groups Esther with Ezra-Nehemiah, and puts Lamentations with the chapter on the gift of the land in the Old Testament. The odd man out in this arrangement of the material is the Song of Solomon, which Waltke tells readers back in chapter 6 is “the most difficult book to accommodate into this thesis” (163). This is unfortunate, but because of that Waltke spends time explaining why for a couple of pages, so at least the book is covered and not completely ignored.


From what I can tell, that is perhaps the only glaring weakness in Waltke’s treatment of Old Testament theology. Perhaps it would have been better had he tried to incorporate it more fully into his overall thematic center or revise the center to better account for all the material. At least he did not try to force fit Song of Solomon into the theme, which is a criticism made of Jim Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment when it comes to this and other wisdom literature (see the review in JETS if you can). In the end, I think this just shows the problem of working with a “center.” Invariably, it will account for most of the material, but there are also miscellaneous pieces that don’t seem to fit. The more specific you make the theme, the more spare pieces you have. The more general you make the theme to accommodate the pieces, the more useless it is in explaining how everything ties together. In the end, having only a single piece leftover isn’t that bad, and maybe if Waltke had rethought his chapter on Ruth (since it is “the gift of love” after all), Song of Solomon would have fit comfortably there.

Though not necessarily a weakness, it is worth noting that the section on prophetic literature is less than 50 pages of the book. Waltke is focusing his thematic efforts primarily on the historical narrative of the Old Testament, and for good reason since it forms the backbone of the story of redemption. An upside of that is that his theology is tied strongly to the story of the Old Testament. A downside is that the prophets, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature receive disproportional attention to the space they occupy in the Old Testament canon. However, since they are a kind of commentary on the primary history themselves, it makes sense that Waltke would focus his interpretive efforts in the same place the prophets, Psalmists, and wisdom writers did and draw many similar conclusions. Because of that, by the time Waltke gets to the section of the book where he treats these other writings, he has already interacted with them elsewhere (as you can tell by looking at the Scripture citations in the index). So in other words, the Interaction with the prophetic and wisdom literature are scattered throughout the book rather than focused into their specific chapters.


All that being said, this is still an excellent treatment of Old Testament theology both in terms of style and substance. As I mentioned earlier, Waltke moves rather easily from interacting with obscure journal articles and doctoral dissertations to devotional insights and short pithy remarks (“tweetables” if you will). I really liked his thematic use of “Gifts” and will probably put it to use in my own Old Testament class in the coming weeks and months. Waltke is a scholar par execellence and publishing this book late in his academic career like he has means that it has the insights that come with decades of close biblical study. Though I don’t have much to compare it to yet, I would say Waltke’s book is an excellent starting point for someone wanting to read an Old Testament theology, or just take their study of the Old Testament deeper. There is a reason this book won the Christian Book of the Year back when it was first published, and if you’re serious about understanding the theological themes of the Old Testament, it belongs on your bookshelf!

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

3 responses to An Old Testament Theology

  1. Hey Nate, have you read Paul House’s OT Theology? If so, how would you compare the two? I’m trying to decide which one to tackle first.

  2. What’s your take on Kaiser (promise plan) compared to Waltke’s in how handle the theology of the older testament?

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