Review of Grace in the End: A Study in Deuteronomic Theology by J. Gordon McConville

May 30, 2017

Gordon McConville. Grace in the End: A Study in Deuteronomic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993, pp. 176, $18.99, paperback.

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Gordon McConville serves as Professor of Old Testament Theology at the University of Gloucestershire and as external examiner for Queen’s University, Belfast, where he earned his PhD.

In Grace in the End, McConville seeks to “characterize Deuteronomic theology on the basis of secure literary, historical and theological criteria” (p. 11) by closely examining the limitations of recent historical-critical approaches to the message of Deuteronomy and its relationship to the rest of the OT canon, especially the Deuteronomistic History (DtH). He contends, specifically, that these scholars failed to capture the nuance of Deuteronomic thought because they polarized aspects of its message, such as separating law and grace, into “rival views vying to be heard” (p. 123) without accommodating its desire to unite them into its “distinctive concept” (p. 123). This concept becomes, for McConville, the OT’s “true formative influence” (p. 11). because it holds together “a theology of God and Israel on the plan of the nation’s entire history” (p. 123). In this work, McConville provides a thorough testing of his historical-critical predecessors and their various models and conclusions by examining the implications of their historical and literary assumptions on a subject that defies simple descriptions of its setting, origin and theological message. These scholars, in general, have sought to hold together Deuteronomic thought’s “theological elusiveness” (p. 15) by dividing its aspects into competing and conflicting sides that develop diachronically. McConville, however, proposes expressing Deuteronomic theology’s concept in five categories by defining God as King (pp. 124–5), the words of Horeb as present and needed in every generation (pp. 125–8), the real intervention of God into history that commands a choice from men (pp. 128–32), the good election of Israel into the promise despite their sin (pp. 132–4), and the triumph of God’s grace in the end when Israel’s pending failure will become an eventual return to Him (pp. 134–7). While his thesis was ably proven, the brevity of the work left key unanswered questions about his own methodology.

In chapter 1, McConville lays out his problem of how to describe the fullness of Deuteronomic theology, which extends beyond the pages of Deuteronomy itself, as an examination of both its “root and branches together” (p. 10). He sets the initial “lines of the debate” (p. 10) via the paradigms of Wellhausen and Noth, who find a Deuteronomic root that presents a pre-exilic perspective and a branch that reprocesses the same events via the exile. This chapter sets the tone for his other analysis because he cautions that these models might “unduly dominate” (p. 11). Deuteronomy. The conclusions may be more about the models than the actual biblical evidence.

McConville, then, in chapter 2 undertakes a descriptive exploration of the methods employed in Deuteronomic scholarship that exposes the various attempts to hold together Deuteronomy’s ideas through source, literary and transmission-history criticism. His even handed and insightful categorization shows the variety of polarities that different approaches take, such as 1) geographical, dividing northern interests from southern; 2) theological, separating law and gospel and 3) political, distinguishing pro-monarchy parts from anti-institutional pieces. His argument proves effective here because with each scholar’s preferred polarization to explain multiple ideas within the text, McConville offers its weakness that sets the stage for the next approach.

In chapter 3, McConville dismantles the various formal criteria that modern scholarship uses to date Deuteronomy to show that such analysis must be tested and “accompanied by arguments about content” (p. 60). That is, an exilic date and setting need not be the only condition to explain, among other features, the text’s perspective on the land, Israelite brotherhood, opposition to Canaanite worship, and the development of the altar law (pp. 45–55). Multiple moments of Israel’s history can reflect such concerns, and the biblical text itself does not clearly set that timeframe. His argumentation excels because his critiques of dating criteria renders mute critical scholarships conclusions of meaning.

In chapter 4, McConville zeroes in on the Deuteronomic idea in the Deuteronomistic History (DtH). It serves as the workhorse of his analysis because in it he reinforces the weaknesses of polarized approaches across an even larger corpus. Specifically, McConville considers the problems of DtH’s origin and the relationship of its parts to the whole (pp. 66–78) because these two concepts undergird much of the polarized methods. It is hard to overstate the power that this section holds for his argument because he demonstrates that polarized approaches miss the “subtle ironies of the literature” (84). They misread the text’s intuitive features. In so doing, he effectively sets his thesis as a plausible solution to its problem.

In chapter 5, McConville finally provides his own Deuteronomic theology by synthesizing its many ideas into five foundational concepts: God as Israel’s only worthy King, whose relationship with Israel from the words of Horeb to the very end reveals God in all generations, making all of man’s choices before God real and consequential. This surprising election of sinful Israel encompasses not only their pending failure and exile but also the eventual return to Him when God will circumcise their hearts because “the answer to Israel’s infidelity lies in God himself” (p. 137), in the grace that prevails in the end (pp. 134–7). Despite this chapter’s clarity, its brevity leaves the reader with many questions about his method and its implications. While the following chapters provide implications for the NT, McConville does not provide an effective link for his Deuteronomic concept to the texts before Israel’s arrival at Sinai, especially lacking theological reflection on Gen 1–11. His excurses on Holy War (pp. 139–44) and the brief mention of the deliverance out of Egypt (p. 124) prove the closest he comes to these issues. His detailed examination of other scholars’ methods invites a similar examination of his own. This almost anti-climactic shortcoming does not render his thesis as implausible, but it leaves the reader with a desire for more reflection.

In chapter 6, McConville extends the branches of Deuteronomic theology into the New Testament. His approach emphasizes the NT’s common themes and ethical pleas from Deuteronomy.

Finally, in chapter 7, McConville concludes his work by framing its analysis as a response to “a basic question about the development of religious thought in Israel” (p. 158). While this ending underscores the power of his Deuteronomic concept, marking it applicable to all generations and a continuing discussion of God’s relationship to Israel, it also returns to reader to questions over his methodology. Specifically, is his Deuteronomic concept a theology of the text or a theology of Israel’s religion?

Nonetheless, Grace in the End provides a survey of modern scholarship that models charity, critical thinking and insight. He proves his thesis by showing the limitations of other approaches and offers his own solution in an effective manner. In particular, he captures the most significant aspects of Deuteronomy and holds them into a Deuteronomic theology that provides the basis for much of biblical theology. This book serves, therefore, as an effective introduction into modern scholarship on Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History. It is an essential part of any scholar’s attempt to do biblical theology rightly.

Peter Link, Jr.

Charleston Southern University, Charleston SC

 

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