Kim, Brittany, and Charlie Trimm. Understanding Old Testament Theology: Mapping the Terrain of Recent Approaches. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020, 177 pp., $14.99, paperback.
In Understanding Old Testament Theology, Brittany Kim and Charlie Trimm provide an up-to-date survey of approaches to Old Testament theology. Their volume self-consciously flows in a similar vein as Klink and Lockett’s Understanding Biblical Theology, but the latter focuses primarily on New Testament issues and scholars (p. 2). Kim serves as a professor at North Park Theological Seminary and Northeastern Seminary, and Trimm as a professor at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. Both are products of the Ph.D. program at Wheaton College.
After an introduction that includes a brief history of the field (pp. 4-7), Kim and Trimm propose their cartographical metaphor of Old Testament theology as a diverse mountain range. As a mountain range has different peaks, each of which offers a unique vantage point by which someone may view the landscape, so Old Testament theology has different peaks. Among the peaks, some are closer and more alike than others.
Following the mountain range metaphor, the book is divided into three main parts. Part one, History, includes Old Testament theologies grounded in “biblical (hi)story” (p. 13) and historical-critical Old Testament theology. The approach of biblical (hi)story (e.g., Alexander, Goldingay, Gentry and Wellum) sees the Old Testament as a continuous story, generally takes the historicity of the events at face value, and often sees Old Testament theology as prescriptive. Conversely, the historical-critical approach (e.g., von Rad, Barr) often uses scholarly reconstructions to craft a chronology of composition and in some cases could be categorized as the study of the history of Israelite religion rather than any kind of prescriptive theology (pp. 39-44).
Part two, Theme, consists of “multiplex” (p. 55) thematic approaches and central thematic approaches. Practitioners within the multi-plex approach (e.g., Routledge, Walton) highlight numerous themes and do not limit the Old Testament to a central organizing idea. Conversely, interpreters within the central thematic approach (e.g., Dempster, Hamilton, Kaiser, Kaiser Jr., Wright) seek to find a single thematic thread that ties the Old Testament together. Scholars searching for a single theme often come to very different conclusions about what comprises the center of the Old Testament (pp. 78-83).
Part three, Context, is the most varied of the three parts and surveys Old Testament canonical theology, Jewish biblical theology, and postmodern Old Testament theology. Canonical theology (e.g., Childs, House, Sailhamer) focuses on reading the text as Christian scripture, and studies the text in its final form. Jewish biblical theology (e.g., Gesundheit, Goshen-Gottstein) highlights diversity within the Old Testament and examines topics that Jewish writers feel most pertinent (e.g., law and land, pp. 115-19). Finally, the section on postmodern Old Testament theology surveys a wide panoply of interpreters (e.g., Brueggemann, Trible) with a divergence of methods and conclusions. The book ends with a summative chapter that includes a word about the future of Old Testament theology and an invitation for students to climb the mountain, as it were, and continue their studies.
One clear strength of the book is its organization. Each chapter follows a similar format, beginning with a clear definition and summary of the approach in view. Each chapter also includes a bibliographic chart that informs the reader of the works to be examined, as well as an examination of points of tension within each approach. An appendix (pp. 161-62) provides a convenient and comprehensive chart of each approach for quick reference. Readers will welcome and benefit from the clarity of the authors’ presentation.
In addition to the survey of various approaches, the authors examine how each method engages with the book of Exodus, particularly the giving of the Law on Sinai. This practical exercise helps to put meat on the bones, so to speak, of the methodologies, and shows how they differ in interpretive conclusions.
While Kim and Trimm’s categories are sound, some works they examine could easily fit into multiple camps, as the authors recognize (p. 9). For instance, Jackson Wu’s essay “Biblical Theology from a Chinese Perspective: Interpreting Scripture through the Lens of Honor and Shame” is placed within the postmodern Old Testament theology. As Kim and Trimm note, Wu does not deny the importance of authorial intent, the possibility of objective meaning, or biblical authority (pp. 138-39). In that sense, his work does not fit perfectly into the postmodern category. Quibbles about how well works might fight within each category speak to the inherent difficulty in the task of organizing ideas.
Kim and Trimm at times offer incisive but gentle critique. For instance, they shrewdly ask why proponents of canonical Old Testament theology often do not place a greater emphasis on the canonical order of books (p. 103). Kim and Trimm write with the kind of charitable spirit that earns the right to be heard in evaluation. Should Kim and Trimm publish a second edition, readers would benefit from a more direct evaluation of the pros and cons of the various methods, especially in the sections where the authors examine Exodus as a test case.
One observation that could perhaps be seen as a weakness is the lack of discussion on recent advances in narrative/literary criticism in Old Testament studies (e.g., Altar, Sternberg). While narrative criticism may be distinct from Old Testament theology proper, it dovetails with the approaches enough to merit attention. As an example, narrative criticism helps demonstrate the cohesiveness of the biblical narrative in a way that arguably supports the conclusions of the biblical (hi)story camp and adherents to canonical criticism. While it might be difficult to place the contributions of narrative criticism within a single category, the target audience of the book (e.g., students being introduced to Old Testament theology) would benefit from being alerted to the influence of narrative criticism and its importance in modern Old Testament studies.
Overall, Kim and Trimm have provided a valuable resource that is ideal for students first engaging with the field of Old Testament theology. Professors or teachers looking to provide students with a clear, accessible introduction to the field would be hard-pressed to find a better option.
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Heritage Baptist Church, Lebanon, MO