Gerhard von Rad knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his youth, and the two attended the university at Tuebingen together for a semester or two. It was the custom in Germany to study at more than one university before settling in on a major professor and dissertation topic. Like Bonhoeffer, von Rad was a hero of the resistance to Nazi ideology and paid a price for it. In particular, he defended the importance of the Old Testament for Christian theology at a time when there was a serious movement in the church of the “German Christians” to eliminate it.
He was not just an academic theologian; he was a popular preacher throughout his academic career. During the Nazi era he critiqued the “Theology of Jereboam,” as a way of exposing the idolatrous themes of Nazi ideology. Near the end of the war, when Germany was desperate form men, in his 40s, he was forced into the army. Like Juergan Moltmann, who was 17 at the time, he was captured (or willingly surrendered) to allied forces and was placed in prison camp. The allied forces followed the Geneva Convention and treated their prisoners with dignity. However, there was a shortage of food during the final year of the war and the post-war years of occupation. Von Rad suffered throughout his life from the effects of malnutrition. On the other hand, some younger prisoners like Moltmann were allowed to begin their theological studies as prisoners of war, with experienced teachers like von Rad as their professors.
After the war he returned to teaching. His lectures and sermons were more popular than before the war, and he spoke to full lecture halls and churches. Along with his regular lectures and seminars on exegesis and Old Testament theology, he conducted a practicum on preaching along with his colleagues in New Testament and Homilectics. He insisted on bridging the gap between historical exegesis and the needs of the churches. His sermon meditations were published by his daughter after his death under the German title Predigt-Meditationen, the title of the English translation being Biblical Interpretations in Preaching. This little volume would give preachers a taste of his way of reading the Old Testament and good advice on preaching from the Old Testament.
Von Rad’s major works are his Theology of the Old Testament in two volumes and his commentaries on Genesis and Deuteronomy, along with many other works. He was a role model as a Christian man, scholar, church leader, preacher, and professor. Rolf Rendtorf, now professor emeritus at Heidelberg, wrote a touching tribute to his teacher and and mentor. He described how he and one other young man arrived by train at Heidelberg to study under the master. Professor Von Rad met the two at the railroad station and took them to his house. He introduced them to his wife, who had dinner prepared, with the words, “Dear, these are the boys the Lord has given me.”
Von Rad was a man of deep and personal faith, but he never rejected the historical-critical method. He built on the approach of Gunkel. In fact, since Gunkel, form criticism has been an essential part of Old Testament study. He went beyond Gunkel in two ways: He was not only interested in the forms and their life-settings. He was interested in how the original units were passed on, transmitted, and transformed, preserved and renewed. Second, he was not just interested in religion as a universal human phenomenon: von Rad was a theologian.
For von Rad, the study of the Old Testament is the study of Israel’s faith, Israel’s journey of faith.
He believed in the reality of Israel’s God, of Israel’s calling by God and continuously renewed encounter with God. The Old Testament is the record of Israel’s attempt to understand her relationship with God, that is her faith. Israel’s faith was dynamic, constantly being renewed and challenged, alternately growing and backsliding.
The story of Israel’s faith was transmitted through the normal human forms of expression that other nations used to expressed their own values and core beliefs: in other words, through sagas, national epics, tales of the ancestors, and through myths and legends as well.
Von Rad believed God speaks to us–to the preacher and to the congregation–through the Old Testament. He would never have said the Old Testament is a direct dictation of the Word of God. The Old Testament is the human witness to Israel’s faith and therefor the human witness to Israel’s God.
Von Rad introduced the concept of multiple layers of tradition. Part of his approach was to peel back the layers (like the layers of an onion) to the earliest layers–not to the original “kernel” or “what really happened,” but to the earliest layers of Israel’s witness to her faith in the God who called her into a relationship with himself. Then one can trace the various layers through history and see how Israel’s faith grew, withdrew, failed, flourished, adapted, and changed. Von Rad’s OT Theology is a historical approach; the subject is Israel’s faith.