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.