Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Word Becoming Flesh

The Word Becoming Flesh
by Horace D. Hummel
Recommended Ages: 16+ (some prior study may be indicated)

This 1979 "introduction to the origin, purpose, and meaning of the Old Testament" is part of a set of seminary or pre-seminary instruction titles that Concordia Publishing House, the publishing organ of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, put out in the wake of a traumatic controversy now remembered under the catchword "Seminex" (Seminary in Exile). Its "New Testament isagogics" companion was The Word of the Lord Grows by the late Martin H. Franzmann. I think it's important to sum up this history up-front, to make the position clear. Seminex was a dramatic 1974 walk-out by some of the faculty at Concordia Seminary (LCMS) in St. Louis, Mo., eventually merging with the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and leading to the formation of a dissident church body called the American Evangelical Lutheran Church, which in turn joined two other Lutheran groups to form what is now the U.S.'s largest and most liberal Lutheran body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There is anecdotal evidence the AELC component of the merger was the seed of ELCA's sharply leftward development since then.

Meanwhile, the Seminex debacle left political and theological ripples in the LCMS that have not quite settled to this day. It arose from questions about the study of Scripture - specifically, to what extent the seminary of a church body that subscribed to the "inerrancy of Scripture" (A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod, 1932) should be allowed to espouse the Bible-scholarship methods of destructive historical criticism. Then-LCMS President J.A.O. Preus threw the power of his office behind teaching the Bible as inspired Scripture; the Seminex faculty publicized the view that the only responsible scholarship was up-to-date with current critical theories. Hummel's book doesn't go into these politics, but the influence of Seminex issues is evident in the amount of space he devotes to critiquing the critics.

Hummel introduces the books of the Old Testament in terms that will be most helpful to ministers and theological students preparing to teach laypeople about them. In general terms, he discusses where, when, by whom, and in what circumstances they are believed to have been written, the condition of the Hebrew text as it comes down to us, and sometimes important variants in Greek, Latin, or other languages. He then moves on to an overview of their form, structure, style, and theological content. But at each step of this general outline, the view at eye level is mainly of the myriad ways critical scholars have cast doubt on the traditional understanding of the biblical message, along with any possible ways the faithful may refute these quibbles. He notes the extent to which skeptical scholarship has actually contributed positive insights for the faithful Bible interpreter, as well as advances in linguistics and archaeology that have effectively mooted critical theories long bandied about. He also frequently remarks on the shortcomings in many conservative Christians' approach to Old Testament texts, highlighting themes a Lutheran preacher or teacher should be keen to stress - as well as too-easy exegetical pitfalls that must be avoided.

Writing without footnotes (though under protest, to judge by his preface), Hummel states his case in an elegant style of prose that presupposes a reader of advanced literacy and some previous, at least entry-level theological study. But his argument is always eloquent, cogent, and balanced. Reading it, I picked up stuff I intend to use in my own study of Old Testament texts, if not in future teaching and preaching to others - from an outline of the Book of Leviticus that I instantly wanted to try out as a way to make that book's structure and message clear, to his hint that Leviticus and Chronicles are "absolutely indispensable collateral reading with the Psalms." I tried out a couple of Hummel's points about Esther this morning in a chat with my pastor, who was considering using that book in an upcoming program of some kind, and he seemed as surprised as I was at the intelligence of the sounds coming out of my mouth. I am also attracted by the fact that, although he isn't a slave to the priority of the Masoretic Text (which may not at all points really be "the original Hebrew"), he arranged his introduction to the books of the Old Testament in the MT order, with Torah (the five books of Moses) followed in order by the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), the Latter Prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and "the Twelve," i.e. Hosea through Malachi), and finally the "Hagiographa," or "Writings" (everything else, beginning with Psalms, ending with Chronicles; with Ezra-Nehemiah in one heap; and with the five Megilloth, books customarily associated with the chief Hebrew festivals, right in the center).

Hummel writes in a manner to lead the reader to appreciate not only the Holy Spirit's intended message through each book, but also their merits as literature. He writes to make you eager to read them again, to meditate on them in depth, and to reconsider things you may have hastily passed over in previous read-throughs. To be sure, at times he writes in a linguistic register that seems a sovereign cure for insomnia - and then again, he writes at such length that holding the book sometimes gave me hand cramps. But that length is divided into manageable chunks by the structure of the material, and the difficulty of plowing through it is at least partly a function of the complexity of the subject. Nevertheless, what Hummel manages to poke through the mental fog of your under-prepared and easily-distracted mind, if you can focus on it, is very persuasive.

Horace Hummel (unlike, alas, Franzmann) is still living, I believe. I met him once or twice at a church we both occasionally visited in southern California. I never had much chance, until I read this book, to sit at his feet and take in what he had to teach, but I can now say from experience that he is a treasure to the Lutheran faithful. But from our brief contact I carried away the impression of a still sharp and very faithful Lutheran mind. CPH has also published his two-volume commentary on Ezekiel, which is both way more recent than this book, and way out of my price range. This book, on the other hand, remains in print (though it wasn't required reading during my theological studies), and it's also available in digital form.

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