In these interviews, Fretheim unpacks quite carefully his understanding of God’s relationality (meaning that God enters into the sort of relationship with the world that gives humans and other creatures significant agency, so that what they do matters and that God is not the only one with power).
Tripp gives a brief introduction to Fretheim in the first three minutes or so.
The first interview (with Chad Crawford) starts at the 3 minute 23 second mark and goes up to about the 50 minute mark. The second interview (by Tripp Fuller) goes from there to the end.
I have found Fretheim’s emphasis on creation is the universal horizon of the Bible to be crucial for how we read the rest of the Bible, including the history of salvation.
Fretheim admits that although the Old Testament certainly focuses on Israel as God’s elect people, through whom blessing will come to the nations, Genesis opens with a universal horizon, addressing not only the creation of humanity and the cosmos, but also the development of human history prior to Israel. The story of Abraham (the ancestor of Israel) doesn’t begin until Genesis 12.
One of Fretheim’s most important statements, which crystallizes the above point, is that the election of Abraham and Israel was an “initially exclusive move” in the service of a “maximally inclusive end”—the redemption of creation. This statement is repeated many times in his book, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (2005), (pages 19, 29, 103 etc.), and I myself have quoted it many times in my writings.
In my tribute post to Fretheim, I mentioned the difference between his approach to the Bible and that of Walter Brueggemann, which I illustrated by reference to their commentaries on Jeremiah.
Interestingly, the second interviewer (Tripp Fuller), who had recently interviewed Brueggemann, asks Fretheim about the difference between their approaches to divine sovereignty. This fascinating discussion can be found around the 1 hour 30 minute mark.
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.
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.
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.
Many Christians have been taught in church that it’s not proper to question God. In some cases, church members are criticized for even questioning their pastor.
But the Psalms have a very different perspective—especially the psalms of lament or complaint, which comprise one-third of the Psalter (about fifty psalms). Over and over, various psalmists honestly bring their concerns to God, often in the form of critical questions.
Of course, we can ask questions in a very pious, subdued, and respectful way. Or, like many of the psalms, we can just throw our questions, audaciously, at God.
The Audacious Questioning of Lament Psalms
Perhaps the most famous is Psalm 22, which opens by asking: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” No niceties, no “Dear God, I come to you in praise and thanksgiving.” Just an outrageous question, which is really an accusation.
Lament psalms are actually a form of prayer we are already familiar with; we usually call this supplication or petition. In such prayers we tell God about the problem that is bothering us (the complaint) and we ask for help (the petition).
But lament psalms push the envelope further.
They are not a polite form of supplication; they can be quite abrasive, even accusing God of being part of the problem. This is the point of the question addressed to God at the start of Psalm 22; and it is typical of lament psalms to voice their complaints in the form of rhetorical questions.
Likewise, the petitions go beyond what we might consider proper. One psalmist asks God to stop abusing him (“Remove your whip from me; / I am worn down by the hostility of your hand”; Psalm 39:10) and even to leave him alone, as if God’s very presence was oppressive (“Look away from me, that I may smile again”; Psalm 39:13).
But one of the most powerful—and daring—prayers of lament in the Bible is found not in the Psalms, but in the book of Jeremiah. Throughout the book, the prophet Jeremiah voices a series of lament prayers to God, culminating in the anguished prayer of chapter 20.
Jeremiah starts his prayer rather impiously by accusing God of deceiving him, and goes on to explain that God did not live up to his promises to support him as a prophet; his point is that despite God’s promises of protection (see Jeremiah 1:8 and 1:19), he has been persecuted for bringing God’s word to the people. At the end, he wishes that he had never been born.
A Contemporary Lament Song
The song “Dear God” is a secular analogue to Jeremiah’s prayer. The entire song is addressed to God (it is in the form of a prayer), and blames God for causing so much suffering in the world—and there’s quite a list of such suffering. The song ends with the singer telling God that he doesn’t believe in him.
My short answer was and is that it is indeed permissible—not just to question God, but to challenge God. Maybe your pastor can’t handle that; but God certainly can.
In fact, the lament psalms and the prayers of Jeremiah teach us that God wants us to bring all the disorientation of our lives to him, to be brutally honest with him in prayer. And that was the focus of my chapel talk.
Ultimately, God took all the pain of the world into himself on the cross, to give us back redemption.
In comparison to that, what’s a little questioning?