Brueggemann and Fretheim on Biblical Polyphony

[Note: Walter Brueggemann and Terence Fretheim are two of the most internationally respected Old Testament scholars of the 20th and early 21st centuries.]

In regard to defining polyphony Mihai Handaric states, “Polyphony refers to the dialogue that is established between several voices in society, which demand to be listened and accepted. … Mihail Bakhtin helps us define the concept of polyphony from the postmodern perspective. He said that the truth needs a lot of voices in order to be articulated. It cannot be kept by only one mind, and cannot be spoken by only one mouth.”[1] However, biblical polyphony is not simply a reference to its multivocality but also is the result of the polysemic and multivalent nature of the biblical texts, qualities that are consistently demonstrated.[2] It is my conviction that the polyphony that is demonstrated in the biblical texts, both individually and collectively, is intentional. Biblical polyphony is completely consistent with the nature of both Jewish Second Temple period literature and later Rabbinic literature. The result of biblical polyphony is an anthology that is intentionally dialogical in character.

         Walter Brueggemann states emphatically and repeatedly in his highly influential Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy that “[a] rendering of the text that is faithful to its polyphonic character is what is now required…” while acknowledging that “[i]t is precisely this quality that makes the writing of an Old Testament theology so problematic but also so urgent.”[3] He thus resists and rejects what he refers to as the tendency of Christian theologians to “totalize” the text through some imposed systematic perspective.[4]

         While Brueggemann is the best known among Christian theologians for his insistence regarding the polyphonic and thus dialogical nature of the Hebrew Bible, others—including Jewish, evangelical and open theologians—also emphasize this reality.[5] In fact, Brueggemann states that he was “helped greatly” by Mark Coleridge who states,

“I mean by this a new discovery of the Bible as polyphony, a new discovery of both its diversity and unity. … Any totalising meta-narrative, any master-narrative which seeks or claims to be univocal, has had its day; and this is true of the Bible insofar as it seeks or claims to be a totalising or univocal master-narrative. But this allows, perhaps demands, the discovery of the Bible as a new kind of meta-narrative—a meta-narrative not univocal but polyphonic in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense, not monologic but dialogic. Scripture may be the word of God, but the biblical God has many voices and they all speak at once; God speaks polyphonically.”[6]

Even Terence Fretheim, who often disagrees with Brueggemann’s theology[7], agrees on the Old Testament’s polyphonic nature when he states, “The texts do not speak with one voice … There is validity to the claim of multiple interpretations of the Bible because the text is not entirely stable; there are gaps, silence, polysemic words and grammatical ambiguities.”[8]  Again, he writes, “Many Old Testament texts in their present form are composite in character … So, the texts themselves do not speak with one voice; they have many layered meanings, and it is usually impossible to sort them out. … The diversity of meanings we may uncover in our contemporary readings may well often correspond to the inner-biblical diversity of meanings.”[9]

[1] Mihai Handaric, “Polyphony in the Biblical Text from a Postmodern Perspective,” Journal of Humanistic and Social Studies, Vol. 10, Issue 2 (2019), 123-124.

[2] Christian Smith notes, “polysemy means ‘multiple meanings’ and multivalence means ‘many appeals or values’”. The Bible Made Impossible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012), 47.

[3] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 88.

[4] See Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 88, 89, 96, etc.

[5] See Brueggemann’s discussion of James Barr’s understanding of the nature of the Old Testament text and theology in Theology of the Old Testament, 96-97.

[6] Mark Coleridge, “Life in the Crypt: Or Why Bother with Biblical Studies?” Biblical Interpretation 2, (July 1994), 147.

[7] For example, see “Some Reflections on Brueggemann’s God” in What Kind of God? Collected Essays of Terence E. Fretheim, Siphrut 14, edited by Michael J. Chan and Brent A. Stawn (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015), 71-83.

[8] Terence Fretheim, “The Bible in a Postmodern Age,” in Rethinking the Bible, edited by Thomas Jay Oord and Richard P. Thompson (Nampa ID: SacraSage Press, 2018), 136.

[9] Terence Fretheim and Karlfried Froehlich, The Bible as The Word of God in a Postmodern Age (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 89.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: