Old Testament As Pattern For Education???

Reflection on Walter Brueggemann’s The Creative Word

Walter Brueggemann embarks to prove in his work The Creative Word that education is the seminal vocation we should be engaged in if we want our communities of faith to continue (at all) and to be places where we can be in true communion with our fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. His task is to prove to the reader not only where we should begin the process of learning and inculcating our community with the fiber of our communal energy but also where that process should take us and deliver us in the end.

Brueggemann starts chapter one with the thesis that “Every community that wants to last beyond a single generation must concern itself with education.”[1] He is exactly right in the circumstance that what makes a people truly confessionally bound are its reliance upon a shared history and dialectical make-up. Without the common thread found in communal language how can a community that ostensibly is made up of variations in age and surrounding milieu find a way to continue as a confessional community? This is what truly marks a group of believers to be more than just a collection of individuals but (as Paul specifies in 1st Corinthians) a unified body with many parts. In other words what makes Christian education so important in the context of the unity of the body is not so much the actual facts and information but the shared communal truth that both young and old, ignorant and educated, and laity and clergy impart upon each other when they share the common heritage that links them as one people not individuals with personal motives.

Brueggemann continues this conversation by elaborating on what this communal language should look like. He states that we should focus on the one place where we share along with our ancestors a common tongue and glossary. As was said above Brueggemann believes this is to be found in the books of Holy Scripture.[2] With his professional and academic legacy being in the Old Testament Brueggemann begins in chapter two to lay out exactly what this speech and lexicon should (and in his estimation) does look like.[3] He believes that we should start where Israel began in its educational process, which is with Torah. I agree with Breuggemann’s analysis here. If one is to use Holy Scripture as a basis and example for education one must begin where the Scriptures themselves begin and where they find their authority. For example the First Commandment tells us that we are to have no other gods before God. The effect this has on Brueggemann’s focus on using Torah for the foundation of an education system is to say that before we can teach our congregants anything about God, their faith, and their journey they first must know whom it is they are learning about. It does us no good to present the gospel to them if they do not know/understand why it is the Gospels are necessary in the first place.

Brueggemann states on page 15 in chapter two that he is convinced that the “educational enterprise can never be far from the canonical process”[4]. What Brueggemann implies here is never reasonably clear to me. While he tries to associate the words “canonical” and “binding” as synonymous his definitions for these two words do not quite link at the point in which Brueggemann seems to strive for in his book. For example, by using the quote from Deuteronomy 6:6-7 he plans to show that just as the canon of Torah was yet unformed in the writing of this passage, the object of the process of education (as seen in the process of canon) should also be seen as continually binding. In other words, Brueggemann wishes to show that as the readers of Deuteronomy were called to “…teach [the commands of Torah] diligently to [their] children”[5] so we are to bind our tradition in educating those who come after us in faith by conducting our vocabulary and narrative to them but that process should always be “living” just as the canonical process was for the Israelites[6]. However Brueggemann contradicts this point in chapter 3 when he makes the statement that “The Torah is not debatable.”[7]. How can something be in a living process if it is not debatable? While I agree with this statement on its own merit, that the Torah is not debatable, how can Brueggemann speak of the canonical progression as being a part of the ongoing educational process of the Israelites if the Torah is beyond debating? Brueggemann then goes on to contradict himself even further when just one page later he cites the work down by Walther Zimmerli in his work, “Prophetic Proclamation and Reinterpretation”, which says that the prophets “…use the Torah to argue against the Torah”[8]. How can the Prophets be used educationally to build upon the foundation we have already established with the Torah if the Prophets themselves, according to Zimmerli, seek to argue against the validity of the Torah itself? If the Torah is not debatable, as Brueggemann claims, then how can the Prophets contradict and critique the Torah? It makes very little sense, educationally, to build upon a foundation when the next story you construct upon it you believe will by its own nature deconstruct the binding you have already made. Now it is possible I may be misunderstanding Brueggemann on this point but it seems to me who is responding critically to the lack of authority the author gives to Scripture itself.

Although Brueggemann may not be clear and concise in keeping with his idea of the absolute nature of the Torah he is absolutely correct when he articulates on page 41 that, “A community illiterate of the Torah will not understand the prophet.”[9] Continuing with the critique I began above concerning Brueggemann’s understanding of the Prophets I concur with the author if he wants to use the Prophetic works to build upon the foundation of Torah but why, if this is his motive, use the Prophets to deconstruct the Torah? For example on page 45, Brueggemann uses three examples of what he calls, “…new, liberating truth”. It is as if the author wants to use the Prophetic works not to actually build upon what has come before but to show how the Israelites as they grew in knowledge improved upon what had come before. The author goes on to say, “In prophecy we are dealing with a new truth when the old truth controlled by human power has grown irrelevant and boring.”[10] It is hard to imagine what Brueggemann hopes to convey by wording it like this. I desire not to repeat myself again but it in this case my earlier critique bears repeating. How can one build upon a foundation that with the next step you are hell-bent on taking apart? In other words Brueggemann seems to define the educational system of the Old Testament as: 1) Learning what has come before (Torah), 2) Seeing how new and liberating truth can be found and used to critique what came before (Prophetic works), and 3) Thinking upon how to use that new and liberating truth to progress forward (Wisdom literature).

In closing, Brueggemann is absolutely correct in reasserting the importance of making Holy Scripture the underpinning, especially the law, prophets, and wisdom of the Old Testament, for our educational purposes. While I may not agree with the processes he uses to describe the method of teaching Scripture and especially may call into question how he can call for Scripture to be our foundation without acquiescing to its own individual divine right as the Word of God in its binding nature. I can see Brueggemann’s larger point that a community whose members do not know what it means to be a part of that body, which exists perpetually outside of themselves, will cease to share the identity of the community in which it claims to be a part. For without the Church having its foundation in something outside of itself, something that shares a communal energy and language, wherefore then shall the Church look for its own authority to communicate that tradition to the next generation? If we look to sources outside of our own tradition to educate our society we cannot hope for that community to continue on the path set forward by our ancestors and Scripture itself. However where Brueggemann really goes wrong is in his insistence that through education we can improve upon the substance of what has come before. It is absurd to think that just because we have come after the close of the canon of Scripture that we now know more than the writers of Scripture itself and it is our job as educators to see that what really binds us is not the essence of Torah or Prophets or Wisdom but the terms and shared covenant history of the aforementioned works of the Old Testament which really deliver us as a community of believers. This really comes through in how Brueggemann uses the three distinct parts of Hebrew Scripture to show how the Israelites themselves improved on each individual sections by teaching their generations the technical words of the section that came before.


[1] Breuggemann, Walter “The Creative Word” (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982) pg. 1

[2] Brueggemann, pg. 3

[3] ibid, pg. 14

[4] ibid, pg. 15

[5] Brueggemann, pg. 15

[6] ibid, pg. 15

[7] ibid, pg. 40

[8] ibid, pg. 41

[9] Brueggemann, pg. 41

[10] ibid, pg. 45