Two years ago, a colleague of mine, a specialist in the Old Testament, sidled over to me at a faculty party and asked, “What are you working on?” I replied eagerly, “Actually, something right up your alley. I’m writing a commentary on Second Samuel.” His face darkened and, leaning in close to me, he whispered, “You have no business writing a commentary on Second Samuel.”
We laughed together, but his comment reflects an attitude fairly common among biblical scholars, namely, that there yawns a great gulf between serious analysis of Scripture and my field of systematic theology. How could someone not well-versed in Hebrew and other ancient Semitic languages and not thoroughly trained in the science of the historical-critical method possibly compose a worthwhile commentary on a major Old Testament text?
My own formation had actually predisposed me to accept the legitimacy of this separation between theology and the Bible. My route of access to things religious was philosophy. When I was a teenager, Thomas Aquinas’s arguments for the existence of God and his rational approach to God had a massive impact on me. During my university and seminary years, I concentrated on philosophy and philosophical theology, and my interest in the Bible remained comparatively minimal. Moreover, the manner in which the Bible was presented to me during the years of my intellectual formation did little to pique my curiosity about the scriptural world.
The 1970s and 1980s represented the high-water mark of historical criticism in the Catholic Church. A major preoccupation of my biblical instructors was to show the inadequacy of a literalistic reading of the sacred texts. However valuable this insight was, the result of the approach was largely negative: “These things didn’t really happen.”
They also placed great stress on discerning the intentionality of the human authors and the specificities of their historical settings, which resulted in a loss of the sense of the integrity of the Bible as a whole. That the Scriptures represented, in some way, the intention of a transcendent author who used both words and events to convey a coherent message was never a serious option. Finally, most of the Bible scholars I read during those years tended to see systematic theology as something of a distorting overlay that had to be stripped away in order to get at what the Scriptures really mean.
What made things worse was that the principal theological authors I read when I was coming of age—Tillich, Rahner, Schleiermacher, Tracy, and their peers—were remarkably unbiblical. One can plow through thousands of pages of much of the systematic theology of the last two centuries and find precious little of the Scriptures.
Thoroughly understandable is N. T. Wright’s dry remark that most of the Christology of the last two hundred years, both Protestant and Catholic, has been Marcionite in form, that is, developed in almost complete abstraction from the Old Testament. Thus it appeared to me that there was indeed a gulf between the Bible and theology, and that I had placed myself squarely on one side of it.
A turning point was a course I taught for the first time in the late nineties, which I called “The Christology of the Poets and Preachers.” In preparation for this class, I read the sermons of many of the greatest dogmaticians whose theological work I knew well: Origen, Augustine, Bernard, Anselm, Aquinas, Newman, and others. What struck me was how profoundly biblical they were.
Whereas my generation had been taught to preach in a very “experiential” way, taking a prompt from the biblical readings but then moving quickly to stories from our own experience, the most significant preachers of the great tradition, I learned, showed extraordinary patience with the complexity of the biblical world. In the manner of Karl Barth, they drew their readers and listeners through the thicket of the Scriptures.
This immersion in the preaching of the great systematicians convinced me that the historical-critical animus against theology was misguided. I saw that authentic doctrine grows organically out of the Bible itself, and nowhere is this clearer than in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who was first a magister sacrae paginae (a master of the holy page) and only secondarily and derivatively a theologian. The irony was thick: While contemporary Scripture specialists, soaked in the historical-critical method, had led me away from the Bible, the systematic theologians of the great tradition had led me back to it.
It was in the wake of this turn that I was asked to write the text that caused my colleague to chuckle, a contribution to the Brazos series of theological commentaries on the books of the Bible. Having insisted on the problems caused by a one-sided and ideological embrace of historical criticism, I hope it isn’t too surprising that in preparation for writing the commentary, I read contemporary historical criticism of Second Samuel with great interest and to great profit.
I pored over every word of P. Kyle McCarter Jr.’s definitive treatment in the Anchor Bible series, benefitting enormously from his exhaustive study of the history, language, and cultural setting of the text. Another key book was Robert Alter’s beautiful translation of and commentary on the Samuel literature. Alter’s grasp of ancient biblical Hebrew, his extraordinarily wise perception of the ways that the text conveys its meaning, and his canny and often funny insights into the psychology of the main characters were an indispensable help.
Walter Brueggemann’s numerous studies sensitized me, in the postmodern manner, to many of the deep ambiguities in First and Second Samuel. But what most struck me, as I entered deeply into the text itself, was precisely the congruity between Second Samuel and the classical theological and doctrinal tradition. Let me demonstrate this by drawing attention to but one theme out of many I could have chosen.
One of the characteristics of the books of Samuel is that God’s activity, though clear and definite, is never in competition with human agency. According to the author of these texts, the God of Israel never “intervenes” or appears as a deus ex machina.
In fact, the entire narrative—from David’s youth, through his adventures with Saul and Jonathan, to his accession to the kingship and his ultimate demise—makes perfect sense when read through psychological or political lenses. It is a coherent human story. But at the same time, the author insists that through all of this very human drama, through these ordinary events and activities, God is working his purposes out.
But such a state of affairs is possible only if God is not one finite cause among many, not one more item in a nexus of conditioned agencies. Only if God is construed as a properly transcendent actor could this sort of arrangement obtain, for otherwise he would be jostling for position on the same playing field with human agents.
And this, of course, is precisely what we find within the biblical context, wherein God is presented, not as an item, however supreme, within the world, but as the creator of the world in its entirety. Second Isaiah signals this truth with particular clarity by highlighting, over and again, the qualitative otherness of the creator God. Yahweh is not only greater than the other gods; he is incomparable to them.
When we turn to the tradition of systematic theology, we find the same truth articulated in more precise philosophical language. Hence the mainstream Catholic metaphysical tradition refers to God not as a being but as Being itself. In Aquinas’s pithy Latin, God is not ens summum (highest being), but rather ipsum esse subsistens (the sheer act of “to be” itself). Moreover, Thomas insists that God is not an individual, nor a member of any genus, even of that most generic of genera, namely, being.
Anselm signals much the same thing when he names God “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” At first blush, this seems a straightforward designation of the highest being, but this cannot be the case, for the highest being, plus every other being, would be greater than the highest being alone, and hence not that than which nothing greater can be conceived.
This qualitative otherness of God is also the ground for the permanently stunning claim at the heart of Christianity that God became a creature, without compromising the creature he became or undermining his own integrity. Such a “becoming” is possible only if predicated upon the logic of God’s qualitative otherness to the world.
Thomas Aquinas spent nine years as a young man in the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, where he was immersed in the world of the Bible, especially the Psalms. It is said that when he was imprisoned for a year by his family, who hoped to dissuade him from his Dominican vocation, he largely memorized the Sacred Scriptures. Thomas wrote massive and detailed commentaries on the prophet Isaiah, the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans, the book of Job, the Gospel of John, and many other biblical texts.
He was undoubtedly shaped by his study of Aristotle, but the God whom Thomas describes owes far more to Isaiah than to Aristotle. His theology was an explication of the structuring logic of the biblical narratives, and this became eminently clear to me as I explored the peculiar manner in which the God of Israel manifested himself in the adventures of Samuel, Hannah, Saul, Jonathan, and David.
Did a systematic theologian have any business writing a commentary on Second Samuel? I suppose my readers have to decide. But in doing so, I was confidently standing with some of the greatest masters in the Christian tradition. And I was consciously bridging a false divide that has, unhappily, been visited upon both the Church and the academy.
Robert Barron is the president of the University of St. Mary of the Lake and Mundelein Seminary.