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Walking in the Ways of the Lord: The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament.

At first sight, a book on Old Testament ethics published by Inter-Varsity Press which includes discussions of J. N. Darby's dispensationalism as well as modern. `Theonomism' does not appear to be a profitable source of insight. However, this collection of previously published articles and booklets contains much thoughtful work, and among its many virtues is its sensitivity to the history of the use of the Old Testament in ethics as well as the theological agendas that have driven and continue to drive such use. Conservative evangelicals in particular will profit considerably from careful study of it; but it also deserves to reach a wider audience.

Dr Wright is unapologetic about the authority of the Bible, including the Old Testament, for ethical matters today, arguing that such use of the Bible needs to be set within a theological framework of creation, fall and redemption. In working this out, however, he seeks to bridge the gap between individual and social ethics, and he is fully aware of the problems of relating texts from ancient Israel to the totally different world of today. At the heart of his approach is the belief that Israel was chosen to be God's paradigm of what a people ought to be, and that the social and moral shape that Israel took, or was meant to take, reveals God's moral consistency. Today's world is challenged to work out the implications of this -- a by no means simple task. Among the issues discussed in the light of this approach are the theology and ethics of the land, the jubilee, the people of God and the state, and human rights.

If I have a criticism it is that Dr Wright seems to have shifted the locus for using the Old Testament in ethics away from the text to reconstructions of ancient Israel's history and social situation. This also entails a high view of the historical reliability of the text, something that not all experts will share. Faith and criticism come into conflict here. From a critical perspective this leaves Dr Wright hostage to the shifting sands of historical reconstruction and raises questions about the adequacy of the social theory upon which social reconstructions of ancient Israel are based. Thus, Dr Wright uses Gottwald's views (by no means uncritically) to support his belief that Canaanites would have been struck by the very considerable social differences between them and Israelites, with the latter displaying forms of social relations which destroyed class privileges (P. I78). The difficulty here is that Gottwald's historical reconstruction of Israelite society in the pre-monarchic period is very much at odds with current reservations about what, if anything, can be known about such early periods. Further, it has to be asked who the Canaanites and Israelites were who would have observed these alleged differences. If the view is taken that `societies' consist of sub-groups that integrate and interact in many ways, it is possible that `Canaanite' and `Israelite' sub-groups interacted in more than one way. This is not to say that Dr Wright's approach is not viable; it is to say that, like all reconstruction, it is liable to revision and needs the most sophisticated tools, especially of social analysis. What remains is the biblical text, and although the reading of it is by no means straightforward, as some of Dr Wright's examples from history and contemporary writers show, a safer approach might be to see the text as containing ideals which, if they were ever put into practice, would probably have depended upon whatever coercive or legislative authority may have existed in ancient Israel at particular times, even if some of these coercive agencies fell short of the modern ideal of a `society' free from oppression.
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Author:Rogerson, J.W.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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