Metaphysics and the God of Israel: Systematic Theology of the Old and New Testaments. By Neil B. MacDonald


Pp. xx, 248 . Grand Rapids, MI/Milton Keynes , Baker Academic/Paternoster , 2006 , £14.99.

Drawing methodologically on Barth, Brevard Childs, Hans Frei and others, MacDonald produces a systematic theology by drawing out the theological implications of major biblical narratives – few other genres are examined – as read in light of the canonical shaping of the Bible, sweeping from creation through to the resurrection. He begins by setting forth an account of divine action as divine self-determination in order first to explain divine speech in Genesis 1, though the account undergirds his whole theology. MacDonald's concern here is to provide an account that will allow us to do justice to the canonical priority in the formation of the Pentateuch of Israel's attestation of her experience of God's salvation in the Exodus (p. 70). What it means for God to do x, is that God determines himself to be the one who does x– speaks, creates the world, delivers Israel from Egypt. For this act of self-determination is, MacDonald argues, a basic action, one which, on analogy with a basic belief, requires no further grounding, since if God determines himself to be the one who does x, then it follows logically that x happens.

The recurring motif of Old Testament narrative, MacDonald argues, is that God is a judging yet forbearing and desisting God. The Gospel narratives then present an account of how God judges and yet desists from judging us. The ‘directorial eye’ of the evangelists so configures Pilate's sitting in judgment on Christ that we are led to identify this judgement with the very eschatological judgement of God proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth: that judgement falls on Jesus in our place means we have depicted in the narrative a doctrine of substitutionary atonement. According to MacDonald, the resurrection, finally, shows Jesus to be included within YHWH's identity, eternally united in differentiation from the Father, so that God bears his own judgement in the person of his Son.

So adventurous, dense and controversial a treatment is bound to raise objections, like the absence of other biblical genres besides narrative, or of important theological loci like the Church, Scripture, or Eschatology. Sometimes MacDonald presents travesties of classical theologians as foils: representing Aquinas on view creation simply as viewing divine creation as ‘entirely analogous’ with human action and creation sells Thomas very short, for example (p. 45). In other places his use of the Bible seems to claim more than the evidence presented warrants: it seems too much, for example, to claim on purely exegetical grounds and as representing the Priestly Writer's intention, that God's resting and blessing the Seventh Day, in its continuity of the temporal sequence initiated in creation, signifies God's self-insertion into our time and space (pp. 74–5).

Above all, however, the theory of divine action as divine self-determination appears here in too opaque and problematic a form to justify the claim that it offers greater explanatory power than other accounts. Although clearly the statement that God determines himself to be the one who does x entails the claim that x actually occurred, the clarity of the claim that God's self-determination is sufficient as an action to entail that occurrence is not so apparent. For it does not seem unreasonable, nor contrary to untrammelled divine sovereignty, to insist that God's self-determination as the one who does x logically entails his doing x, so that any explanation of divine action must have something more to say about that act. Nevertheless, this book represents something important: the attempt to re-forge the unity of biblical exegesis and critical theological reflection with great originality and verve, and the demonstration of the theological potential of a narrative-canonical approach to that task.