Saturday, July 28, 2007

An Evaluation of Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.'s 'Promise Theology'

As soon as the topic of Old Testament Theology is raised a number of significant questions loom on the horizon. How do the various OT books relate to one another? Is there absolute inner coherence or utter detachment among them? Do they address similar subjects and themes? Were they written with a shared purpose or goal, or are they ultimately diverse in aim and principle? Is there more unity than diversity or is there more diversity than unity? Can one rightfully speak of an OT theology or should one speak only of OT theologies? These questions and more have been at the forefront of the “golden age” of the Biblical Theology Movement since the early part of the 20th century, particularly in the field of OT studies.

While much of OT scholarship has abandoned the idea and possibility of an OT theology, Dr. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., the Colman M. Mockler distinguished Professor of Old Testament and former President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, in both his lectures on “The Christian and Old Testament Theology”[1] and his book Toward an Old Testament Theology,[2] argues strenuously for an overarching unity and center to the OT under the rubric of “Promise Theology” or “God’s Promise-Plan.”

God’s “promise,” according to Kaiser, is his divine declaration or assurance, “first made to Eve, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and to the whole nation of Israel” that God would be Israel’s God, Israel would be his people, and he would dwell in their midst.[3] This tripartite formula, along with other similar formulae, stresses “the continuity between the past, present, and future. They are part of God’s single ongoing plan.”[4] The concept of an overarching promise-plan of God is the key to or theological center of the OT.


How does Dr. Kaiser arrive at this conclusion? First, he confines his study to the 39 books of the OT. The scope of an OT theology must, he says, limit itself to the canonical books of the OT. To include other texts such as “the Apocrypha, Qumran materials, Nag Hammadi texts, and Rabbinical writings would seriously weaken the stated purpose of discussing the wholeness of biblical theology within a stream of revelation where the writers were consciously contributing under divine command to an existing record of divine revelation.”[5]

Second, he examines the OT canon diachronically. This method “sets forth the theology of the successive time periods and stratifications of Israelite history.”[6] He thus groups the OT writings according to their particular epochs. Third, he adopts an inductive approach to the text of the OT. This way, he argues, one focuses on the priorities of the OT authors themselves instead of imposing on them one’s own priorities by sifting their words through one’s theological or philosophical grid: “Rather than selecting that theological data which strikes our fancy or meets some current need, the text will already have set up priorities and preferences of its own.”[7]

Key Passages of the Promise-Plan

Dr. Kaiser finds that as one proceeds through the OT canon, epoch by epoch, one discovers inductively a “theme, key, or organizing pattern which the successive writers of the OT overtly recognized and consciously supplemented in the progressive unfolding events and interpretation in the OT.”[8] The NT calls this the “promise” (epangelia) – the noun appears 51 times and the verb 11 times. In fact, only 6 books in the NT do not mention the noun at all! It is from the NT that Dr. Kaiser takes the term “promise” to represent that organizing pattern he finds inductively throughout the OT. In his lecture on ‘God’s Central Plan,’ he identifies four peak moments in the promise-plan of God: Genesis 3:15; 12:2-3; 2 Samuel 7; and Jeremiah 31:31-34.

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Genesis 3:15, ESV)

In Genesis 3:15, the pre-patriarchal era, the promise-plan theme begins with God’s “declaration” or “assurance” that enmity will exist between the woman and the serpent, her “offspring” and his offspring. The word “seed” (or offspring) is a collective singular; it could mean one or many. Interestingly, the text says “he” (third-person, singular masculine pronoun) will bruise the serpent’s head, while the serpent will bruise “his” heel – the Septuagint even translates it this way. So “it was plain from the subsequent history of revelation to Shem, Abraham, Jacob, and their descendents that a representative child continued to be both God’s visible guarantee for the present and a pledge for the future. Also, he was representative of the interests and spiritual and material fortunes of the whole lot who were joined to him.[9]

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2-3, ESV)

In Genesis 12:2-3, the patriarchal era, God promises to make Abraham’s name great, to make of him a great nation, and to bless all the families of the earth through him. Although the word “offspring” or “seed” is not mentioned, it is clearly in view (cf. Gen. 17:17-18; 22:17-18). Here the promise-plan remains central; not only does continuity exist with the promise made in Gen. 3:15, but the promise has been expanded upon: “The divine promise pointed to a seed, a race, a family, a man, a land, and a blessing of universal proportions—all guaranteed, according to Genesis 17, as being everlasting and eternal. In that purpose resides the single plan of God.”[10]

Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, 'Thus says the LORD of hosts...I will make for you a great name...I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son...And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.' (2 Samuel 7:8-16, ESV)

In 2 Samuel 7, the Davidic era, God made David a similar promise to that made to Abraham. God promised to make David a “house” or “dynasty.” “This was the new addition to the promise plan: all that had been offered to the patriarchs and Moses was now being offered to David’s dynasty.”[11] God would raise-up his offspring after him and establish an eternal kingdom. David’s offspring would become God’s son and God would become his offspring’s father. “Offspring” here is also a collective singular, meaning a group or individual or both. This had immediate fulfillment in Solomon, but it also looked forward to another Son of David who would rule forever. David’s response to this in verse 19 indicates he understood this divine blessing to benefit “mankind” (ESV). Dr. Kaiser translates this passage as follows: “And this is the Charter for all mankind.”[12] And so God’s ancient promise plan would continue through David.

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34, ESV)

Finally, in Jeremiah 31:31-34, the seventh century B.C., God declares he will make a new covenant with Israel in which he will put his law within his people and write it on their hearts. He will be their God and they will be his people and he would forgive all their sins. There is some discontinuity with the previous promise in that it would not be like the covenant he made to his fathers, yet there is also continuity, in that part of the tripartite formula is repeated. The fault with the ‘old’ covenant was the people, not God. This time God promises that his people will “know” him – a universal knowledge of God. Dr. Kaiser prefers to call this a “renewed” covenant, stressing its continuity with that promise made to Eve, Abraham, and David. That the Gentiles are somehow also in view made be deduced, he argues, from the Gentile connection in the Abrahamic and Davidic promise.[13]


Dr. Kaiser is to be commended for providing the lay and scholarly community with a well argued defense of the unity of the OT, particularly with identifying the central plan of the OT with God’s promise-plan. Unlike many who have written in this field, he is a conservative evangelical who believes the text of Scripture should be given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to its claims. “The text is innocent until proven guilty” he says. This approach is greatly welcomed since much of what the Biblical Theology Movement had produced in the 20th century had been tainted with extreme skepticism.

His analyses on various texts are well argued, such as the ones mentioned above. He certainly showed me connections between epochs and passages I had never previously recognized. His treatment on Genesis 12:2-3 has revolutionized my understanding of Jew-Gentile soteriology. Promise theology does seem to be a major theme in the OT.

There are, however, some weaknesses in his “promise theology” approach. His treatment on the promise and wisdom literature (the Sapiential era) appeared quite stretched. Granted, there are various messianic psalms which clearly evidence God’s promise-plan for Israel and the nations. But while “the fear of the Lord” can be understood as right living under God’s covenant, the big connections that one finds in God’s promise-plan in Genesis 3:15 or 12:3 or 2 Samuel 7, and so forth, are not quite as spelled out.

Also, some other major themes in the OT do not seem to find its way under the “promise-plan,” such as God’s creatorship – Dr. Kaiser does not address this issue at all. Nevertheless, Dr. Kaiser’s “promise theology” is a great unifying theme in the OT. It is not without its limitations, but for the most part it adequately encompasses many of the major themes of the OT.

[1] Dr. Kaiser’s course on ‘The Christian and Old Testament Theology’ – produced by the Institute of Theological StudiesTM 2002 – is composed of twenty-four lectures on various Old Testament topics given at the Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 1988.
[2] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978).
[3] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Christian and OT – Learning Guide (Institute of Theological StudiesTM, 2002), 32.
[4] Kaiser, Old Testament Theology, 34.
[5] Ibid., 15.
[6] Ibid., 9.
[7] Ibid., 11.
[8] Ibid., 32.
[9] Ibid., 37.
[10] Ibid., 39.
[11] Ibid., 151.
[12] Ibid., 155.
[13] Ibid., 235.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the summary.
I have requested his new book on Promise/Plan and am intriqued.
I believe if this (Promise/Plan as central theme)is viewed along with the subjective genitive debate on faith. (Richard B. Hays)Then "the faith" that saves is God's Promise/Plan culminated in Jesus. The just shall live by his faith is man lives in view of the promised plan of God or the faithfulness of God, of Christ. Not human activated "faith in" but God's faithful acts "faith of".