The Elder Testament, Book Review

Title: The Elder Testament: Canon, Theology, Trinity
Author: Christopher R. Seitz
Publisher: Baylor University Press, 2018
Price: $39.00 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 304
What does it mean to read the Old Testament as Christian Scripture?

In this volume, Christopher Seitz explores the historical, theological, and hermeneutical issues involved in answering this question. We can see Seitz’s overarching concern by considering his reason for naming this volume The Elder Testament.

The Old Testament is not “old” in the sense that it must be moved beyond, is outmoded, or is a developmental step unambiguously on its way to a subsequent testament that completes it. Rather, the “old” in Old Testament originally conveyed “venerable, original, and time-tested” (15). Drawing on connotations in the French language, Seitz characterizes the Hebrew Scriptures as the Elder Testament. The oldness of the Elder Testament “inheres within its own extended scope” (18). “It took time,” Seitz continues, “to be what it is in distillation and in aging over centuries. It says what it says, and then that finds a new point of reference in God’s disposing through time” (18). Rather than seeking to alter official terminology, Seitz argues for “widening our conceptual lens on what the term ‘old’ likely meant” (14, 279).

Keeping the Old and New Testaments related but rightly ordered is important for maintaining this conceptual lens. As Seitz notes, “The main challenge this book sets for itself is allowing the first witness the scope to do its peculiar and distinctive work in the One God’s economic and ontological life with Israel and the church and all creation” (48). This task involves “not fusing the witnesses, not ranking them, but allowing their distinctive contribution to sound forth to those of us who stand outside the circle of their specially mediated life with God” (48).

Seitz divides the book into three parts. In part one, Seitz provides an orienting discussion on the name and nature of the Elder Testament as an object of study on its own terms (chapter one). He also outlines his approach to canonical interpretation (chapter two), theological interpretation (chapter three), and the disposition and theological requirements of interpreters (chapter four).

In part two, Seitz focuses on the nature of the Old Testament by drawing on, engaging, and critiquing current historical-critical scholarship. This type of analysis provides a “depth dimension” that allows us to see the nature of narrative, the places in the text that require explanation and elaboration, and illuminate the final form. After examining both a critical and canonical approach to the alternation of the divine name (chapters six and seven), Seitz discusses the order, arrangement, and canonical shape of the Law, Prophets, and Writings (chapters 8-11).

Part three consists of theological case studies including the Triune name, the theological meaning of Prov 8:22-31, the relationship between Ecclesiastes and Gen 1-11, the portrayal of Christ’s speech in Hebrews, and the nature of theophanies. These exegetical reflections represent a range of examples of “how the Elder Scripture may be said to pressure forth and open onto a dimension of ontology that finds more explicit articulation in the early church’s confession of One LORD God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (201).

The “exegetical impulses” present in these Old Testament passages “may be said to manifest a sustained interest in ontology” and are what “gave rise to the earliest Trinitarian reflections” (261). Seitz relentlessly contends that “the Elder Testament had and has its own providential role in articulating the doctrine of God toward which Trinitarian confession is calibrated” (264). These theological developments “in their own way contribute to the ontological ambition of the Elder Testament’s literal sense witness” (276).

How do these three sections relate to one another? Each series of chapters blends a concern for canon, theology, and the textual witness to God’s trinitarian nature. Seitz sees these three areas as “interlocking realities” (7). As he explains, the movement of canon to theology to Trinity “is not a strictly sequential track but one ontologically calibrated through time by the One God who is the selfsame subject matter of its two main parts” (9).

This integrated approach can be seen in the question that hangs over every level of discussion in the work: “Can we read this book?” (51-68). For Seitz, the answer to this question is a qualified yes. We have to become a certain type of reader in order to understand the Elder Testament in its final canonical form and the claims about God’s being it makes “in its own idiom” (277).

Accordingly, while recognizing that canon studies typically discuss literary stabilization and questions of historical development, Seitz focuses in this work on the theological and hermeneutical aspect of canon. He seeks “to ground use of the term in the earliest context of its circulation, that is, arising from reflection on how the scriptures’ many-faceted pieces properly fit together, and how the One God of the scriptures’ first witness is the same One Lord God of the church’s confession” (22). 

Hermeneutically, the Elder Testament is “a certain kind of literature that has the right to ask for a readership consistent with itself as literature” (52). Theologically, it is a “privileged lens onto God and a people he has chosen for himself” (52). Given this scenario, Seitz insists, we must be “conscious of our place outside the privileged speech and life of God with his people, as the Old Testament describes this, as central to what it is as a book” (56). The Old Testament “remains powerfully what it is in the form it is reported to us. And God said to Abraham. And God told Moses. The word of the Lord was to Amos” (66). Even as it becomes part of a two-testament witness, the Old Testament “releases its force when we allow the relationship between God and the Israel of God to retain its peculiar immediacy and address” (67). In this recognition, Seitz makes a theological case for reading the Old Testament in its final form.

The complementary move Seitz makes is to affirm that the literal sense of the canonical Old Testament texts make meaningful statements about who God is as Trinity and his relation to his people. In other words, “the ontology of the Old Testament, that is, how the depiction at the center of the Elder Scripture—the divine life of the One Lord God YHWH—opens onto and indeed pressures a specifically Christian reading of the triune God as arising from this first scriptural witness” (35, 183-99). As Seitz contends, “it is the literal sense of the Old Testament that is generating, within its own grammar and syntax, the theological design of ontology” (45). For Seitz, then, “the economic and ontological are mutually reinforcing and impossible to extricate or prioritize” (47).

This volume represents the convergence and synthesis of many of the projects that Seitz has been working on for his entire career. These major areas of the relevance of historical-critical study of the biblical text, the privileged shape of the final form of the canon, and the theological claims made in these texts have appeared in Seitz’s previous work. In this volume, Seitz demonstrates that these three major tributaries flow into a coherent and integrated stream. For Seitz, canon, theology, and Trinity are not simply terms that mark discrete areas of interest but rather are rooted in the same divine and textual reality. Consequently, this work provides a lens through which to interpret Seitz’s corpus of scholarship on the text and canon of the Old Testament.

For those taking a historical-critical approach, Seitz offers a challenge to recognize the logic of the final form’s witness. For evangelicals who reject historical-critical readings, Seitz offers a challenge to consider the way the canon itself maintains and orders unity and diversity within its textual presentation.

Because the burden of Seitz’s book relates to issues of method and hermeneutical foundations, the work will perhaps be less accessible to a casual reader. However, this very feature also makes this contribution a substantive and re-orienting achievement for serious students and scholars of the Old Testament.

Also in JETS, forthcoming
Book Review
August 1, 2019
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