The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant

By Walter Brueggemann
Fortress. 1999. 148 pp. Pb. $18. ISBN 0-8006-3176-5

Reviewed by Paul K. Hooker
Executive Presbyter, St. Augustine Presbytery


Anyone who has read the work of Walter Brueggemann knows that he is a radical, in the true sense of the word. Impatient with worn-out ideologies (either liberal or conservative) that have lost touch with the text, Brueggemann is eager to confront his readers with the transforming power of Scripture.

He can analyze with the skill of the great scholar he is; he can pound the pulpit like the passionate preacher he is; he can sing like the poet whose soul is full of the poetry of faith. He is a bitter opponent of relativism and half-truth, and he will not let his reader “off the hook” with either. In the end, he points his reader to a God who is equally loving and demanding.

Walter Brueggemann is never graceless, but he is always honest.

This collection of nine essays, eight of which were originally published elsewhere, is clustered around the theme of life lived in covenant with Yahweh. Each essay explores some aspect of that covenanted life, tracing both its foundations in the language of the Scripture and its implications for society.

In the opening essay, “Othering with Grace and Courage,” Brueggemann suggests that a mature spirituality is a dialectic between the assertion of self in courageous complaint to God and the abandonment of self in praise to God. The recurring theme in these essays is obedience, but obedience is not merely duty, and not described by creating lists of prescribed or proscribed behavior.

In a comment from the second essay, “The Daily Voice of Faith: The Covenanted Self,” Brueggemann sums up the point: “The real issues of covenanting are not likely to emerge in specific commands, behaviors or policies; the real issues are the imaginative process of protest and praise, which make a person fit for glad obedience” (p. 31).

Some of Brueggemann’s conclusions about the values of the covenanted life are controversial; one would expect nothing less from him. For instance, “fidelity” does not imply “staying married” or “being straight”; it is better defined by participating in life-giving and -receiving relationships characterized by mutuality and regard for neighbor. “Responsible stewardship” of money means much more than tithing; it requires recognizing that “our resources are held in trust in and for our neighbors with whom life is shared” (“Duty as Delight and Desire,” p. 44).

For some, such redefinition of watchword terms in modern ecclesiastical debates are either too permissive or too vague, if not also too discomforting. What Brueggemann is after, however, is not championing one side or another in the debates of the church (although he surely has a side!). Rather he seeks to redefine the meaning of life in covenant with God, and redefining it in terms that reach beyond narrow legalism to evoke new reflections within the church.

There is much in this slender volume for pastor, teacher and thoughtful elder. Taken one at a time, these essays might serve as stimulating points of departure for adult study and discussion. This book belongs on the “must read” shelf in the study of any pastor who believes in the importance of relevant, biblical preaching.

Once again, Walter Brueggemann has done the church a great favor by looking long and fearlessly at the Scriptures, and telling us what he sees. Agree with him or not, we are better for the vision.