John L. McKenzie – Old Testament Theologian

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Old Testament
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Life and Times of John McKenzie

John L. McKenzie (1910-1991) was born and raised inTerre Haute, Indiana.  “[John] received his training in Jesuit schools in Kansas and Ohio and at Weston College,Massachusetts, where he received his doctorate in sacred theology” (Flowering of the Old Testament 170).  Ordained in 1939 as a priest, McKenzie taught at West Baden, Indiana; Loyola University; the University of Chicago; the University of Notre Dame; and DePaul University (Flowering of the Old Testament 170).  Also, McKenzie served as the president of the Catholic Biblical Association and the Society of Biblical Literature (Old Testament Theology 140).

Theologically, Roman Catholic theologians of this time, as in times past, relied heavily on “dogmatic” or “systemic theology” (Flowering of the Old Testament 169).  McKenzie, however, did not follow the traditional approaches to theology.  In fact, being an astute scholar and theologian, McKenzie often challenged “systematic” theologies.  Before McKenzie’s interactions with theology “the nineteenth century saw the rise of the historical and literary criticism which has dominated biblical studies up to the present time” (20).  This paradigm shift influenced how scholars examined the Bible during the Great Wars, particularly World War II, which was one of the most influential of these events that shaped Old Testament theology in the twentieth century.  Reventlow stated:

“…the altered intellectual climate resulted in the revival of a direct interest in the Bible on the part of Christian believers.  This movement, which began shortly before and during the Second World War in Great Britain, combined a concern for a commitment to faith to the Bible on all parts of believers with a marked interest in all its aspects, so that the question of theological significance of the Old Testament and its relationship to the new played a major part in the discussion (1).

This concern shaped much of John McKenzie’s theology in being committed to the “faith of the Bible on all parts” (1).  His work would push this concern throughout his Old Testament theology and shape a new perspective with which to encounter the text.

John McKenzie’s Theological Methodology

            McKenzie wrote, “The task of Old Testament theology may become easier and be more successfully accomplished if we remember that it is precisely the theology of the Old Testament, not the exegesis of the Old Testament, not the history of religion of Israel, not the theology of the entire Bible, which is the object of the study” (Old Testament Theology 141).  In other words, McKenzie desired to view the Old Testament as a theological statement of the community of faith and their “total experience” of Yahweh.  Unlike Roman Catholic theology, which often had “messianic” interpretations of the Old Testament, McKenzie wanted to divorce the Old Testament interpretation from New Testament impositions on that interpretation (Old Testament Theology 142-43).  This has been extremely important in the ensuing studies of Old Testament.  Ollenburger notes the shift, “Several writers later in the century show greater sensitivity to the tie of the Old Testament with Judaism as well as with Christianity” (Flowering of the Old Testament 47).

McKenzie did not believe that Yahweh could be “rationally systematized” but was a Being “consistent as a person” (Flowering of the Old Testament 52).  However, he did believe that the Old Testament could only be studied through thematic study of the material.

On this basis, McKenzie focuses on the cult, revelation through authentic spokespersons of Yahweh, history, nature, wisdom, institutions, and the future of Israel although he thought the last not to be a real topic of Old Testament theology.   For McKenzie, the primary principle for the selection of topics is the amount of coverage they receive in the text  and in the totality of the experience ofIsraelin addition to their ‘profundity’ (Hayes 253).

The focus on the reality of YHWH was and is a foundational key inIsrael’s overall experience with YHWH.  Overall, the experiences which influenced the beliefs of the Israelites were recorded in the Old Testament, which leads one to understand the role of Old Testament theology today to be, in part, to present a synthesis ofIsrael’s experience.  This experience was not a means, for John McKenzie, to compose “a set of ideas for doctrine” (Flowering of the Old Testament 52).

This emphasis of experience gave way to McKenzie’s principle of “cult.”  McKenzie asserted, “The essential nature of cult as the rites by which the believing community recognizes and professes its identity and proclaims what it believes about the deity it worships and the relations between the deity and the worshipers” (Flowering of the Old Testament 187).  For McKenzie, cult was not a “personal religion” of one person but rather the expression and experience of a “group” as a “profession of faith” (McKenzie 33).  In other words, we are studyingIsrael’s experiences which we must separate from our own biases and presuppositions (i.e. New Testament interpretations) in order to understand the explicit and implicit realities of the text.  “In the cult Yahweh is experienced as the God of Israel rather than as the God of the world and mankind” (Flowering of the Old Testament 186).

One of the most central ideas of cult is rooted in the use of sacred space.  This includes, but is not relegated to the: Jerusalem Temple, the Ark of the Covenant, the tent of meeting and other various spaces throughout Israel’s history, including the “high places” (Flowering of Old Testament 182).  “The building of the temple was the climactic act of sovereignty asserted in creation” (Flowering of Old Testament 181).  The sacred spaces of Israelwere a way in which to encounter Yahweh.  According to the Old Testament, “the cult of Yahweh shall be carried on only at the sanctuary which he has chosen” (Flowering of the Old Testament 182).  This sacred space used symbols and “holy objects” to represent the “divine presence”  More than that, “He really dwells ‘in the midst of his people’” (Flowering of Old Testament 178).  There is a delicate balance found in these sacred spaces

Reflection upon McKenzie’s Method and Contribution

John McKenzie’s work sought to view the Old Testament as a work totally separate from the New Testament.  This method recognizes that the Old Testament is a work that can stand alone with its own interpretation apart from the New Testament, especially implicit messianic theology.  The Old Testament, in McKenzie’s opinion, sought to communicate who YHWH was and whatIsraelhad been called to be, namely a “holy priesthood.”  As a result, the Old Testament was not written to explain the New Testament but to documentIsrael’s interaction with YHWH through their entire history to that point.  Hasel argues this point, “the category of operation in McKenzie’s Old Testament theology is ‘the totality of experience’ expressed in the God-talk of the Old Testament.  Since ‘not every biblical experience of YHWH, not every fragment of God-talk, is of equal profundity,’ the object of Old Testament theology is to be governed by the ‘experience of the totality’” (59).  McKenzie believed that all parts of the Old Testament, while varying in depth of insight, must be included in performing the task of theology.

The “cult” is the primary “foundation” of McKenzie’s theology while “Future Israel” retains the lowest position for Old Testament understanding” (Hasel 68).  This underlines the importance of the worshiping community for which these scriptures were written.  The totality of McKenzie’s theology contributes to the ways in which the more liberal fields of theological studies examine the Old Testament text.  For example, McKenzie’s focus on the totality of experience reflects many of the ways that Black theologians view the interactions between their people and YHWH.  Black theology, for example, recognizes every experience is not as profound as the next; however, they recognize that the whole of these experiences shape the way the group defines their relationship to YHWH.

John McKenzie’s approach to Old Testament theology provided a fresh, vibrant perspective.  Rather than simply be confined and restrained by dogmatic or systematic doctrines, McKenzie sought to allow the text to speak of its own accord.  Since the text and its community had a life of its own, it deserved to be treated as such.  McKenzie called the theological community to interpret the text through the lens of the Old Testament community rather than through systematic dogma.  This challenges us to encounter the text as it is rather than impose our own cultural understandings.  It is also a call to experience the text as a whole rather than through singular utterances.  We must deal with the seeming inconsistencies and conflict of utterances so that we may understand scripture holistically.  Lastly, McKenzie urges us to experience YHWH as a community of faith not simply as a personal religion.


Works Cited

Hasel, Gerhard. Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate. 3rd ed.        Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 1972

Hayes, John H., and Frederick Prussner. Old Testament Theology: Its History and             Development.New York:Westminster John Knox P, 1984.

McKenzie, John L. A Theology of the Old Testament.New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Ollenburger, Ben C., Elmer A. Martens, and Gerhard F. Hasel, eds. The Flowering of Old            Testament Theology : A Reader in Twentieth-Century Old Testament Theology,         1930-1990.Danbury: Eisenbrauns, Inc., 1991.

Ollenburger, Ben C. Old Testament Theology : Flowering and Future.Danbury:    Eisenbrauns, Inc., 2004.

Reventlow, Henning Graf. Problems of Biblical Theology in the Twentieth Century.         Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.


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