Diachronic vs. Synchronic Theology Cage Match

images-1So I’m taking Old Testament Theology this semester, and since theology tends to make my head hurt, I wasn’t looking forward to it terribly, but after one class and 60 pages of one of our textbooks, it actually might be a fun class.

What little we’ve gone over has been the mention of the basic debate among those who study the theology presented by the Old Testament: synchronic vs. diachronic. Synchronic theologians find one overarching theme, or “center,” in the Hebrew Bible’s depiction of God and describe that as the text’s theology. Diachronic theologians argue there is no single theology at all, that the various sources of the Old Testament had different views of God, which are reflected in the text.

I tend to support the diachronic position, at least for now. I don’t see how one can look at the wide variety of Old Testament texts and find a single theology (although my professor, having already said he finds a synchronic theology there, I’m sure will do his best to open my eyes). God is presented alternately as distant and almighty, close and personal, unchanging and omniscient, or flexible and given to change his mind.

One of our textbooks for the semester is Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, by Gerhard Hasel (although “current” is somewhat relative, meaning here apparently current to a time when George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Saddam Hussein were the most powerful men in the world, but I digress). And working through the first chapter does not give me much reason to think differently.

Synchronic theologians have gone to much work to find a center – and come to different conclusions about what it is. Some have argued the Hebrew Bible is centered around a covenantal theology, others around a promise-blessing theology, still others a salvation theology, or a creation-based theology, or a worship-based theology.

But I ask: Doesn’t the very fact that theologians cannot agree on what is the theological center of the Old Testament give persuasive evidence that there is no theological center? Pervasive interpretive pluralism, to borrow Christian Smith from another context, seems to be a de facto rebuttal to those who would maintain a theological unity of the Hebrew Bible.

Hasel on the one hand seems to acknowledge this:

Here the issue is not only whether Kaiser, Schmid or someone else is correct as to the basic theme of biblical theology, but the choice of one theme has inevitably led to making other themes marginal (54).

Hasel, however, clearly does not want to join the camp of Gerhard von Rad, the poster child for a diachronic reading of the Old Testament who argued the texts contain multiple theologies. So Hasel goes even broader:

Is unity really found in one center of the OT? Or is the unity of the OT not found in the one God Yahweh whose variegated self-revelation in words and acts, in creation and re-creation, in judgment and salvation cannot be expressed into a single theme or combination of themes? Does not God manifest himself in the variety and richness of all parts of the OT, all of which contribute to a knowledge of divine purpose for Israel, the nations and the universe? (55)

Essentially, Hasel is saying God is the center of Old Testament theology, but that seems to belabor an obvious point, given that “theology” is the study of God. It doesn’t provide an answer but simply repeats the question in statement form. We’re still left asking, “What kind of God is he? How does he relate to his people? Does the Hebrew Bible give any clarity about who God actually is?” These are the questions theologians seek to answer, and to which they have found numerous contradictory answers. Attempting to unify all of those answers with phrases such as “variegated self-revelation” and “variety and richness” merely obscures rather than solving the problem of pervasive interpretive pluralism on this subject.

Which isn’t to say I think we need to jump off the cliff with von Rad. Brevard Child pioneered the concept of canonical criticism and so argues the canon itself is the center on which OT theology should turn. On the one hand, this strikes me as just as unhelpful as Hasel’s effort to make God himself the center. On the other, perhaps that’s closer to correct. Perhaps the authors of the Hebrew Bible brought to their writing many different theologies, all of which are reflected in the texts now preserved. But perhaps God’s inspiration of those authors, editors, redactors and compilers led to a canon that, while not having a single center, does have something of an overarching sweep – perhaps the one found by such scholars as Peter Enns and N.T. Wright, who describe the Old Testament as a portrayal of God’s effort to reconcile himself to his people.

This middle ground between the two Gerhards – Hasel and von Rad – might be worth exploring this semester. Or I could find out in our next class why I’m totally wrong. I guess we’ll see!


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