God and the gods: The theological fruitfulness of a history-of-religions approach - A guest post by Collin Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Cornell writes the always interesting blog Kaleidobible, as well as semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]

Theological scholars have texts to which they return time and again; passages and pages that bear the telltale thumb-smudging of high traffic. What chapters and articles these are depends on our particular disciplines and the problems that each of us find compelling. Theologian friends of mine have chapters from James Cone or Helmut Gollwitzer on speed-dial; for the range of issues I think through, I suspect Pat Miller’s article “God and the Gods: History of Religions as an Approach and Context for Bible and Theology” may come to have such a “(deutero-)canonical status” for me (orig. pub. in Affirmation, 1973; reprint in Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology, Sheffield, 2000). Why?

In short, Miller’s piece makes an apology for the theological fruitfulness of a history-of-religions approach: that is, a study of Israel’s religion that maps its features comprehensively and traces its development over time, especially by drawing on comparative data. These objectives set the history of religions enterprise at cross-purposes with treatments of Israelite religion (such as B. Childs’) that privilege the perspectives of the Bible’s own texts – since these texts focus overwhelmingly on what is distinctive to Israel’s worship and do not give much attention to changes in Israel’s religion or its continuities with neighboring religions. As a matter of fact, the relation of the two (text-centered and comparative approaches) is complicated, as a quote by even such a Childs-sympathizer as J.G. Gordon McConville illustrates:

[W]hen we ask what is meant by ‘God’ in the Old Testament, of course it is true that we know this by reading the Old Testament story…That account, however, is completely entwined with factors that we know by means other than merely reading the Bible. In Genesis and Exodus, El who meets Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is found to be Yahweh, God of Israel. Yahweh is introduced by reference to a deity about whom we have knowledge from history and archaeology. In other parts of the Old Testament, Yahweh is known in relation (now in contradistinction) to Baal (or the baalim), about whom, again, we have substantial extra-biblical knowledge.…The creation narratives are a further example, where the relation of God to the world and humanity is articulated in dialogue with other creation narratives in its religious environment. These examples raise a host of subordinate questions for interpretation (not least why Yahweh could also be called El, but was kept sharply distinct from Baal). But they show at a minimum that the boundaries between the discourses of ‘religion’ and ‘theology’ are exceedingly elusive (“Biblical Theology: Canon and Plain Sense,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 19 (2001), 129-33).

Despite this complex overlap, history of religions has sometimes gotten short shrift, particularly in camps associated with dialectical theology. As readers of this blog may know, this “school” defended the freedom of God and the gratuity of grace by polemicizing against “religion” and “natural theology.” These were human attempts at finding God, and consequently, their piety was the peak of damnable hubris. Even the Bible in the hands of the crisis theologians became but “an empty canal” of revelation, a fallible human collection through which the lightning of revelation had once passed. In fact, “revelation” shrank to become only the most enigmatic point, “as a tangent touches a circle.” The movement of history of religions scholars was often in the opposite direction, hallowing more terrain rather than less: given that the Bible was (in some way) specially revelatory, then the religions to which its contents bore such strong resemblance and genealogical debt must also share it in its revelatory character! An odd quote of Gunkel’s illustrates this: “the theologian will do well to handle even the Marduk myth with piety; one honors his parents not by thinking less of his ancestors.” Or again, elsewhere: “we Christians have no basis for the assumption that everything good and worthwhile could stem only from Israel. . . . The seed of divine revelation has not been strewn only on Jewish soil” (qtd in Miller, 371).

This is also the route that Miller’s article takes, albeit in an updated and subtler form. Miller rehearses the challenges that the history of religions approach faces (e.g., “It is hard enough to relate to Yahweh, but if Yahweh looks a lot like Marduk, that makes it even tougher!” p 377), and the body of his essay presents a clear account of Yahweh’s history, in both its debt to and distinction from other gods. But Miller’s closing theological remarks show his hand, i.e., his view of revelation:

Any systematic theology that seeks to exploit the conceptions, language, and imagery for God in the Old Testament will quickly find itself speaking out of a continuity with the gods of Canaan, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, whether aware of it or not. This should not, however, be surprising or unexpected. The revelation of God is not confined to acts, events, moments, or insights that break into or erupt out of the historical context isolated from and undetermined by that context (393, italics mine).

To make the above idea work theologically, Miller invokes two theolegomena: the christological analogy and an overall theological understanding of history, especially as developed by Gordon Kaufman and Wolfhart Pannenberg, respectively. That is, first Miller exposits Jesus Christ in both his continuity with humankind and also his discontinuity – as a way of picturing Israel’s own double relation to its religious environs (394). Secondly, Miller envisions the totality of history as the locus of God’s self-revelation, such that (quoting Pannenberg) “the alien religions cannot be adequately interpreted as mere fabrications of man’s striving after the true God,” but in some way constitute appearances of God (395).

At very least Miller gives an informed and provocative entree into the problem of God and the gods. What its potential methodological consequences may be (does this mean that I can treat Ugaritic myths somehow emically? what would that even mean?); and whether Miller need appeal to the theological formulations he does to stay true to his historical instincts…these I will be considering in days to come.



Phil Sumpter said…
Childs was fully aware of the subtle relationship between canonical form and history of relgion and he did not separate them absolute. See the section on history in his Biblical theology.
Derrick said…
Very interesting article! That was one aspect of Pannenberg's work (viz his history of religions approach) that I was always surprised more people did not attempt to at least dialogue with, let alone try to integrate into theology. Sometimes I wonder if the relative sparcity of this type of engagement goes hand in hand with the overshadowing of a theology of "divine names" for "divine attributes." It seems a theology of the divine names would precisely as such have to incorporate a more history of religions approach to approach a more robust understanding of how the names operate through their historical interactions. Thanks for the post
Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Collin!

Two things:

(1) What's all the fuss with discontinuity? Is this understood the be a relative discontinuity or an absolute one? That is, are we talking merely about the differences between particular religious constellations, or is this continuity supposed to be unique in its connection with God?

(2) I just don't see why the move to such a Pannenbergian conception where the whole of history is somehow revelatory... Maybe someone can enlighten me. ;-)
crob said…
Travis: very good questions!

As far as the discontinuity goes, I wondered about that also; I think there must be some slippage. Sometimes when Miller has his historian hat on, he's just making observations about unique features of Israelite religion(s). They have them -- just like Mesopotamian religions or religion at Ugarit has features unparalleled elsewere. But sometimes and esp. in his closing theological section, it sounds as if the uniqueness of God needed to find some historical correlate. I am not certain why...As far as christology goes (on which basis Miller makes these remarks about dis/continuity), Jesus' existence was not marked by a unique quality (he had a halo) or a unique message (no one had heard of apocalyptic) or a unique death (Romans made up crucifixion just for him). Perhaps the analogy is then looking for "resurrection" somewhere in Israel's history, some Geschichtliche uniqueness. I don't know, I made that comparison up just now. What do you think?

Also, as far as why the move to Pannenberg(/just an old-school, liberal view of divine immanence), I take it that it's a Christian historian's response to perceived continuities and genealogical indebtedness, i.e., "I believe God is revealed in Jesus, but...oh no, I see that virtually every aspect of the conceptual apparatus that renders him my Lord has grandparents in Canaanite religion (divine personality, mercy, history, cult, etc etc etc). They, too, must then share a little bit in Jesus' own revelatory status!" That's my best guess.

Derrick: good to hear from you. I am intrigued (but also a tad confused) by your contrast of theologies of "divine names" v. "divine attributes." Who belongs to which camp? Is Mettinger a theologian of names? Is Barth a theologian of attributes? How do these categories work?

Phil: true story about Childs! actually, in my original draft of this blog post, I had that section up in the starting paragraph as one of my repeated, go-to chapters. I have puzzled much over it. I think he would say much the same about Miller as he did about his teacher Frank Cross: "Cross establishes a pattern of cultural development from his extra-biblical sources and sees no problem in fitting evidence from the Bible into his larger pattern...Cross consistently disregards any distinction between witness and source, and reads the Old Testament as a form of cultural expression no differently from any Ugaritic text. It is hard to imagine with his approach any room being left for a genuinely theological approach to the Old Testament" (102).
jgjanzen said…
Let me stick my neck out and under the guillotine of this sharp-edged methodological to-and-fro. As a student of Cross and a classmate of Miller, for both of whom I have the profoundest admiration and personal regard, I have to say that I am thankful for their abilities in making methodological distinctions. I am not good at that. I'm afraid my methods resemble those of a pig snuffling for truffles. (I'm serious.) What have I been snuffling for all these decades? God. I don't mean, ideas about God. I mean God. In their own academically disciplined way, so--I believe, and think I know--have Cross and Miller, though Miller in more methodologically and disciplinarily differentiated ways. (I heard Cross say to HDS students in the Intro course that, methodologically, he is a positivist.) So, when it comes to "(Israel's) God and the gods," I make no difference--I am glad to encounter God wherever I think to have snuffled God out--or wherever I find myself snuffled out by the divine snuffler (Paul's "I try to apprehend that for which I have been apprehended . . .") (I'm intrigued by the way Jacob, fleeing Esau's wrath, stops off in Bethel, a religious 'speak-easy' of the time, hoping for connection with whatever deity would turn up to respond to his 'pillow-talk;' and if Yahweh wasn't above showing up in that place to such a snuffler, well . . . .) I used to say to my Intro class, after receiving their book reports on Thorkild Jacobsen's The Treasures of Darkness, that if I were not a Yahwist I would be a worshipper of Marduk and co. I find so many of those texts so very moving. It's just that I do think to "be found out for who I am and am not" more often, more deeply, and more widely, in the biblical texts than anywhere else that, again as I used to say to my Intro students, "If I didn't know better, I'd think the Bible was inspired." But Miller's article on God and the gods went so deep into my thinking the first time I read it that I've never had to return to it--I simply re-programmed the grain of my thinking in a hard-wired way. --jgjanzen
crob said…
Dr Janzen, thanks for commenting. It's not often that a former colleague of an author under discussion stops by to offer his or her thoughts.

I appreciated your remarks on Thorkild Jacobsen's work -- I can see why it appeals to you; his is a VERY sympathetic treatment of Mesopotamian religion, written under the auspices of Rudolph Otto's program. In other words, Jacobsen thought that Mesopotamian religion reflected real contact with "the numinous." But he was then understandably accused of bringing a bit too much of his vital, not-to-say pietistic Lutheranism into his account of Mesopotamian theology and praxis.

I wonder, then, what criteria you would suggest to other "snufflers" seeking to discern God through Israelite (and/or Mesopotamian) texts, besides being moved...what is moving and existentially captivating to one is, frankly, boring to another, as you surely must know from teaching these materials to intro students.

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