Review of The Heartbeat of Old Testament Theology: Three Creedal Expressions by Mark J. Boda

September 25, 2019

Mark J. Boda. The Heartbeat of Old Testament Theology: Three Creedal Expressions. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. 220 pp. $24, paper.


Mark Boda is professor of Old Testament at McMaster Divinity College. Boda has made many scholarly contributions to the study of the Old Testament. His most recent works include a commentary on the book of Zechariah in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament series and ‘Return to Me’: A Biblical Theology of Repentance in the IVP New Studies in Biblical Theology series. The volume under review is part of the Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology series.

In The Heartbeat of Old Testament Theology Boda sums up the theology of the OT in “three creedal expressions.” These expressions are explained through a metaphor related to the heart. He says, “I invite you to don your theological stethoscope and listen for the heartbeat that represents the very core of the theology of the OT” (pp. 1-2). With stethoscope in hand, then, the reader is invited to listen in to “three basic rhythms that compose the heartbeat of the OT, identified with three basic creeds that can be discerned throughout the OT: narrative, character, and relational creeds” (pp. 7-8). Metaphor aside, Boda’s methodology falls in line with what he calls the “selective intertextual-canonical approach” (p. 7) to OT theology. As we will see, this methodology is a blend of Vod Rad’s diachronic method, Eichrodt’s cross-section method, and the popular canonical method (using Hasel’s categories from Basic Issues).

We are introduced to the first rhythm in chapter two, the narrative rhythm. Here Boda is leaning heavily on the work of Von Rad and his diachronic approach. The narrative rhythm highlights the importance of Israel’s history in the expression of their religion. Three key texts are used to demonstrate this: Deut. 6:21-23, 26:5-9, and Josh. 24:2-13. Boda emphasizes how each of these texts describes the redemptive story of Israel using finite verbs expressing past action. In addition, the exodus (“bringing out”) and conquest (“bringing in”) sum up the core historical actions of Yahweh. Both events being the focus of the three key texts. Boda says, “At the core of Israel’s story of salvation is release from a place of oppression and provision of a place of freedom” (p. 18). This narrative expression therefore teaches that the events of Israel’s salvation history are “fundamental to the theological expression of Israel and the OT” (p. 22). In Boda’s analysis these events become a creed for Israel, which “binds together the historical experience of the present … with the historical experiences of the past” (p. 23).

Boda builds on the work of George Ernest Wright with the second rhythm—the character rhythm. This rhythm is based on Yahweh’s description of Himself in Exodus 34:6-7. The character rhythm is communicated to Israel using participles and nonperfective finite verbs that emphasize the consistent activity of Yahweh and adjectives and nouns that highlight His personal attributes. In this way, the creed “speaks of God as One who does this or that … and by extension as One who possesses these characteristics” (29). The bulk of this chapter contains a very interesting and detailed exegetical study of Exodus 34:6-7.

Chapter four contains the last rhythm—the relational rhythm. Boda draws on the work of the eminent OT scholar Walther Eichrodt and his cross-section approach. However, Boda exchanges Eichrodt’s covenant language with this relational rhythm. In this chapter Boda traces the Abrahamic, Sinaitic, Priestly, Royal and New Covenants. In each he demonstrates a relational reciprocity that involves both parties. Boda argues that each covenant contains these bilateral elements. He says, “While Yahweh is clearly the initiator in the relationship, the people’s response is essential. This relational agreement focuses on a clear declaration of the identity of the two partners in this relationship: God and people” (p. 62).

Having assessed the heartbeat of the OT, chapters 5 and 6 of the book demonstrate how the three rhythms are integrated together in the biblical text (chap. 5) and how these three rhythms contain global implications (chap. 6). In chapter five, Exodus 5:22-6:8 and Nehemiah 9 (a favorite of Von Rad) are used to demonstrate the integration of all three rhythms. Boda claims Exodus 20:2, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” as Israel’s “manifesto” (p. 82). It is in this declaration that the narrative rhythm (“I brought you out of the land”), the character rhythm (“I am Yahweh”), and the relational rhythm (“I am … your God”) are expressed. In chapter six Boda labors to demonstrate how the three rhythms have universal implications. Leading his argument is a thought-provoking explanation of the Noahic covenant, which is addressed in pp. 95-101.

In chapters 7 and 8, Boda takes the OT pulse in the NT and the Christian life respectively. While Boda does not advance his argument for the three rhythms in chapter seven, the discipline of Biblical Theology demands that he move his analysis into the NT. Most readers will appreciate his attempt to prove there is some continuity between the pulse of the OT and the NT. Boda is very pastoral in chapter 8 and aims to consider what impact his biblical theology has on the creation, culture, and the church today (p. 121). Boda exhorts believers to rehearse the mighty acts of God (p. 124), to remember that salvation is defined in communal terms (p. 125), to not lose an appreciation for the “glorious redemption story” (p. 126), and for preachers to be “released from the pressure of relevance to proclaim and celebrate the transforming story of redemption” (p. 126). Boda continues, arguing that the narrative rhythm is foundational for our faith and our faithfulness (p. 127-128). Many will appreciate how Boda ends the chapter with quotes from both John Piper and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones emphasizing the need to make the Triune God first and foremost.

Boda rounds out the book with a Postscript (chap. 9) and an Appendix. The Postscript is a transcript from a sermon the author preached in a chapel service at Acadia Divinity College. The sermon text is Exodus 33:7-11 and it is the author’s attempt to demonstrate how his theology might be explained sermonically. The Appendix contains a revised edition of Boda’s chapter in Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address, ed. Craig Bartholomew and David Beldman, 122-53 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012). Here the reader will discover a more detailed explanation of the hermeneutical principles that guide Boda’s Biblical Theology.

The end matter of the book continues with a detailed bibliography (17 pages), index of modern authors, index of Scripture, and index of subjects. These tools of course help to make this book a more lasting resource. This reviewer noticed one spelling error (Noahic, p. 98) and an inconsistent subtitle (p. 95).

Some of the interpretive challenges that arise throughout the book include Boda’s understanding of the bilateral nature of the covenants. Boda’s relational creed seems to supersede the text in these places. He sees both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenant as bilateral in nature (p. 68). He may even see the Noahic covenant as bilateral (p. 96). Readers may also wonder exactly what Boda believes about the nature of Scripture. While Boda does provide some helpful thoughts on the character of OT revelation in the appendix (pp. 157-164), it is still unclear exactly what Boda believe about the nature of Scripture. Boda explains his view using terms like “communicative,” “incarnational,” “inscripturated,” “authoritative,” “cumulative,” and “progressive.” One might have appreciated the more common language of inspiration, inerrancy, clarity, necessity, and sufficiency. Certainly, this volume practically demonstrates a high-view of Scripture. This reviewer, however, would have appreciated a more detailed explanation of the nature of Scripture itself.

While some readers might chafe at the “creedal language” or tire of Boda selling his heartbeat metaphor, this volume proves to be a succinct and helpful contribution to the popular disciplines of Biblical and OT Theology. The strength of the volume is found in the authors text driven conclusions and cogent understanding of the rich heritage of Biblical and OT Theology. Further, Boda is able to encapsulate this in a mere 150 pages. Therefore, In this reviewer’s opinion, The Heartbeat of Old Testament Theology is a good introduction for anyone seeking to explore where Biblical and OT Theology has been and where it might be headed.

John W. Dube

Arizona Christian University

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