Brueggemann’s Missing Encounter with Evangelical Theology Brueggeman’s is intimately attuned to his primary audiences which are the pastors and educated laity of the mainline Protestant denominations and the theological institutes and scholars that give them their predominant shape. His primary reference points are the various theologies that underlie postliberal and liberal scholarship with seldom substantive reference (other than his far from passing commentary on the biblical theologian Brevard Childs) to centrist and conservative theologians by name and substance of their arguments. Thus, one will find no reference to Bloesch and Fackre, Brueggemann’s theological counterparts in the UCC, or to the more conservative theologians and biblical scholars at Gordon Cornwall such as David Wells, Richard Lints, and Walter Kaiser. References to other evangelical scholars such as Mark Noll, Os Guiness, and the historian George Marsden, who also grapple in a subtle manner with the relationship between faith and culture in the contemporary setting, are noticeably lacking from Brueggemann’s work. The point here is not that Brueggemann or anyone else can be all inclusive in reach; nonetheless, there is, to use the term of religious educator Maria Harris, a “null curriculum” within his discourse tending toward caricature of what he depicts as the excessive emphasis on certainty within the household of traditional evangelical theology and practice.
I do not argue that Brueggemann is off base in his depiction of at least some versions of popular evangelicalism. I do maintain that he does not grapple in his core publications with the most cogent contemporary evangelical minds whose work does take on many of the issues he raises often with different implications and emphases than the ones he draws. A more traditional evangelical scholarship also gives much credence to the importance Brueggemann places on imagination, although only when tied more unequivocally to core biblical truth claims of God’s ontological reality, which he does not deny, but brackets for the sake of his homiletic purposes. As put by Carson, the emphasis Bruggemann places on his imaginative construal of biblical narratives “would be helpful” if “they were always tied to the same worldview and were always judged by some other standard than the imagination itself.” For Carson that standard is nothing other than the foundational truth claim of the ontological reality of God as revealed both in the narratives and the many propositional claims pervasive throughout Scripture.
Carson, perhaps too easily links Brueggemann’s interpretation to “a kind of theologically flavored liberationism” in which a type of radical politics has, at the least, a powerful tendency to subsume or even usurp the theological. Childs argues similarly in his assessment that Brueggemann’s dialectical correlation between Scripture and the given cultural moment diminishes the authority of the text in placing primary validity on consciousness stimulated by the imagination. The result, he fears, despite Brueggemann’s “striving to be a confessing theologian of the Christian church,” is that of being classified “as a most eloquent defender of the Enlightenment, which his proposal respecting the biblical canon actually represents.”
The point here is not so much the perspicacity of Carson’s and Child’s critique, as it is reflective of a common evangelical concern on the need to push Brueggemann toward a more deliberate grappling with ontology without diminishing the dynamics of his dialectical methodology. Closely related is the effort to press Brueggemann on the grounding point of his ultimate commitments on whether it matters whether one places one’s ultimate (as opposed to only) authority on Scripture, ecclesial and theological tradition, or the cultural setting. There is no question that Brueggemamnn is an unequivocal lover of Scripture, which he takes with utter seriousness. He works through biblical texts with great exegetical and expositional discernment in their capacity to break through postmodern imagination, but not in any totalistic or foundational manner which results in any permanent-like victory for the claims of faith over the world. Brueggemann’s postmodern concern is that such foundational questions no longer hold central stage as reflected in their more modernist sensibilities, as evident, for example in Fackre’s poignant theological acuity or Bloesch’s orthodox comprehensiveness.
Rather, what is significant with Brueggemann is the potency of the homiletic moment in the experience of God’s revelation in the midst of many pervasive construals to the contrary which have major sway in the lives of the laity and ministers of the mainline church. Thus, for Brueggemann the dialectical challenge is to find and expound upon the authentic Word of God in the immediacy of its revelation in the critical space of our times between, as he puts it, “tyrannical orthodoxy and absolute morality on the one hand, and therapeutic indulgence and satiation on the other;” the narcissistic culture as depicted most programmatically by Lasch. On this latter homiletic point, Carson and Childs are more empathetic, even as they remain troubled by what they take as Brueggemann’s biases toward theological liberalism. Still, they find much to value in his work even as they press him toward a more canonical interpretation of Scripture in their definition of what this means.
Brueggemann is far from neglectful in pointing toward canonical tendencies in the biblical text that remains open to diverse construals which include, but moves beyond the various orthodoxies of a great deal of traditional Protestant interpretation. As he puts it, “[c]anonical interpretation never gives an absolute grid for interpretation.” What we have “is only timeless literature and timeful readings.” Canonical faithfulness does not reside within the text. Rather, it is texts and interpretations “together [that] comprise canonical interpretation.” Given the spontaneity, multi-voiced, and dialectical dimension of the God who is revealed in and through the biblical Word in the midst of the dynamic of historical change, canon construal emerges “as a conversation” (italics in original) in the rough and tumble between conflicting metannaratives.
A major strength of Brueggemann’s hermeneutic is that it speaks against any too easy formulations that tend to freeze faith into categorical frameworks which in the final analysis are human constructs. At the same time, the issue of ultimate centers of value—authority, to put it in the strongest of terms— is unavoidable. This includes postmodern reading in the effort to deconstruct various human pretensions that establish gods out of our own illusions even as it is God who ultimately disposes as Brueggemann acknowledges.
When pressed very hard, Brueggemann also places ultimate loyalty on “the foundation of apostolic faith to which we all give attestation.” This is a crucial admission that is sometimes overlooked in critical evangelical assessments that too easily miss what he is getting at in his emphasis on imaginative interpretation. Still, even in the acknowledgement of “unity in all things essential,” Brueggemann cuts along some very different lines than those of Childs, Carson, Wells, Packer, and Bloesch, and Fackre. Such differences are particularly evident on the role of the Grand Narrative in contemporary theological discourse and the related topic of the ontology of God which he defers in response to what he perceives as the more pressing challenges facing of our kairotic moment.
For Brueggemann, our time is “a time of scattering.” In this marginalized place where mainline Protestantism finds itself today, “such comprehensive models” of theology as proclaimed in traditional evangelical and Reformed circles “are not likely to emerge quickly” or at all. Operating from a Christology that in many respects is from below while acknowledging the historical legacy and the apostolic proclamation of a high Christology, Brueggemann emphasizes the importance of serious theological conversation partners mutually working out their salvation in fear and trembling “without exposition that includes and accounts for everything.” Thus, without rejecting the ultimate significance of a grand design as indicative of a more traditional canonical biblical theology, its deferral may be essential “given our cultural moment of scattering and our intellectual moment of hermeneutical self-knowledge.”