One of my favorite Old Testament scholars, Terence Fretheim, died yesterday (November 16, 2020).
Terry was both a wonderful person and a brilliant biblical scholar. He excelled both in detailed exegesis of the Old Testament and in his reflections on the theological and ethical meaning of of this ancient text.
The first book of his that I read was The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (1984), which was a short but profound study of how God is affected by us. Although the book focuses on the Old Testament, it helpfully lays the foundation for understanding the coherence of both Testaments, since the same God who allowed himself to be affected by humanity at the flood (God’s heart was grieved by human evil) and by Israel’s unfaithfulness (see the prophet Jeremiah), ultimately became incarnate and went to the cross for our sake.
I found some similarity between Fretheim’s interest in reading the Old testament theologically and the work of Walter Brueggemann. In Nijay Gupta’s recent interview with me, I cited Brueggemann as the first Old Testament scholar whose work deeply impacted me, especially on the relevance of the Old Testament for its claims on our lives today.
I read Terry Fretheim a bit later and he impacted me in a similar way. But what was distinctive about Fretheim was that he grounded his understanding of the Old Testament in a creation theology, a topic I was coming to see as crucial.
After The Suffering of God, I read numerous journal articles by Fretheim, many of which were spin-offs from his wonderful commentary on Exodus (1991) and were incorporated into his magnum opus, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (2005).
The latter book is so good that I view it as one of the best works of biblical theology I have ever read. On almost every page, as Fretheim works through Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, and the wisdom literature, there are reams of exegetical insights that could serve as a sourcebook for years of sermons on the Old Testament. And it is all exegetically rigorous and theologically thoughtful.
Fretheim was a Lutheran and the Lutheran tradition has been notoriously weak historically on the doctrine of creation (with a few exceptions, like Gustav Wingren). So I have often thought that Fretheim was addressing this lack in his own tradition by mining the Scriptures for their teaching about creation and the God-creation relationship.
An example of the difference between Brueggemann and Fretheim can be seen in their respective commentaries on Jeremiah. Brueggemann’s Jeremiah commentary (which is immensely helpful) focuses on the radical (almost Barthian-like) challenge the prophet brought to Israel back then and that he brings to us today. Fretheim’s commentary, however, focuses on God’s complex relationship to Israel and to the created order, showing much more of divine compassion in the midst of judgment. Indeed, Fretheim often takes Brueggemann to task (gently) in the commentary about his glossing over aspects of the text.
My own early interaction with Brueggemann took the form of a critique of his creation theology, first given at the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in 1992 and then published a couple of years later as “Is Creation Theology Inherently Conservative? A Dialogue with Walter Brueggemann.”
Brueggemann graciously accepted my critique, both in his unplanned response to my paper (the person presenting after me was absent and the chair asked him if he had anything to say), then, after I published the paper, in a more formal print response.
Interestingly, although my first interaction with Fretheim was at the SBL (in 1995), it wasn’t a critique, but rather encouragement. I had just given a paper on a rhetorical reading Genesis 1, in a session on the ethical reading of Scripture, which was followed by a respondent who was somewhat negative towards my paper.
Just as the floor was opened for questions, Fretheim came up to me, introduced himself, and told me he had to leave for an appointment. But he wanted me to know that I was onto something important in my reading of the text and that I should not be fazed by the response I got. He handed me his business card and told me to be in touch.
So, when I published the paper in 2000, called “Creation Founded in Love,” I sent him a copy. I received a wonderful Christmas card from him, dated December 15, 2000, with this encouragement:
“Thanks for the offprint of your article—an important piece of work! Thanks, too, for your kind reference to my own work. We can hope with some confidence, I believe, that a more open understanding of creation, and the God of creation, will become more prominent in both church and academy.”
For his astute biblical scholarship and for his winsome personality, I will miss Terry Fretheim.
RIP until the resurrection!