Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions About Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence, Tremper Longman III. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.
Summary: With a commitment both to the authority of the Bible, and pastoral concern for readers, the author addresses controversial questions about origins, historicity, violence, and sexuality.
This work took a certain amount of courage to write. I suspect there will be a number who read it who applaud what the author says in some places and vehemently disagree elsewhere. Throughout, the author seeks to offer a reading of scripture, particularly the Old Testament that engages the text as a whole and seeks to listen to its overarching message, that engages scholarship, including scholars, some friends, with whom the author disagrees, and seeks to exercise pastoral care, even for readers who may disagree.
The four issues the author addresses are the controversy of how we read the creation accounts of scripture in light of evolution; whether we can trust that the exodus and Canaanite conquest are historical events, despite claims that they did not happen; how we should think about the claims of divine violence in scripture; and what the Bible teaches about same-sex relations and the pastoral implications of this teaching. My brief summaries of the author’s responses to these controversy should not substitute for a careful reading of his responses, especially if one thinks one differs with the author.
- On evolution, he both argues against “wooden reading that would lead us to think that it was the intention of the biblical author to provide us with a straightforward description of the how of creation” and equally against those who would deny “a historic fall and concept of original sin.” He contends that the Bible is interested in the who and why of creation while science addresses the how.
- On history, he affirms the historical reality as well as the theological import of the exodus and conquest narratives.
- On violence, he believes that attempts to claim God didn’t hurt anyone or that seek to minimize the harm, do not do justice to the biblical text, which, consistent with the New Testament portrays a God who fights against, and finally defeats evil. He actually suggests that the violence of the Old Testament, first against the nations, and later against Israel herself, stand as forewarnings of God’s final judgment.
- On sexuality, he affirms the historic view of the church affirming sexual intimacy within the boundaries of a marriage between a man and a woman. He thoughtfully deals with key texts and alternative readings. While he holds to what is now called a “traditional” view, he contends he speaks only to the church here and that there are implications of the Bible’s teaching about sexuality that challenge every believer. He opposes crusades against same-sex marriage or the withholding of business services to LGBT persons offered to others.
What I most admired are the gracious ways in which Longman engages and charitably differs with scholars, including one who was a former student, and another who is a close friend. I affirm the ways he shows pastoral concern without compromising theological integrity, modeling a belief that love and truth, story and principle need not be at odds. Finally, I appreciate the thoughtful, nuanced yet concise, responses to four controversies, each of which have been the subjects of multiple complete books. What each have in common are that they represent shifts from historic understanding, arising both from scholarship and other cultural forces. Longman offers a thoughtful restatement of the biblical teaching that weighs the counter arguments and finds them inadequate to justify abandoning historic understandings shared by most of the church through most of its history.
The work serves as a good starting place for someone who wants to read a well-stated “conservative” view (although some conservatives and some evolutionists alike would be unhappy with Longman on evolution) on the four controversies addressed by this book. The documentation points people to the full range of scholarship on each of the questions. The discussion questions at the end of each chapter may help both with personal reflection and group discussion. Most of all, the work models a spirit in desperate need of recovery, that can both speak unequivocally about one’s convictions yet shows charities toward one’s opponents.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
2 thoughts on “Review: Confronting Old Testament Controversies”
Bob, thanks for this review. I just bought the book, and while I haven’t even opened it yet, I’ve read two previous books by TL III and found them to be super helpful. Thank you also for using the words “traditional” and “conservative” in the way you did. I think of traditional as holding to a tradition of scholarship and discussion that stretches back to the Apostles. And “conservative” as conserving or preserving the same. All this to be distinguished from “traditionalism” which repeats something unreflectively for fear of change, and “conservative” used strictly in a political sense.
I find that on the college campuses where I work, it’s useful to stand in a tradition and to conserve (preserve) the authority of the past — the authority of the Apostles, that is. (I have blogged about that here: http://rickmattsonoutreach.com/bible-interpretation-part-4-the-justice-objection-2/ ) This is what the early church tried to do in its teaching, which was summarized in the creeds. Not that it was a neat and clean process — it certainly wasn’t. But in the end I am left with a choice to stand with the likes of TL III and his appeal (whether implied or explicit) to Apostolic authority, or cast out on my own and see how I fare. That’s an easy choice for me.
And in the spirit of TL III, I’d like to be a person who disagrees respectfully with my conversation partners/opponents who are Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, or theologically more progressive.
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