Review: The Problem of the Old Testament

The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic & Theological Approaches, Duane A. Garrett. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of how and whether Christians ought read the Old Testament, contending that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament and that its material still has authority and edifying value for the Christian.

We Christians have a problem with the Old Testament. We struggle to define what it is. We find it hard to read. And we struggle to reconcile it with the New Testament. How do we understand “Messianic prophecy”? How do we understand the Law in relation to Christ? What is the relationship between Israel and the church? In this work, Duane A. Garrett attempts to chart a way through this thicket of problems, proposing that the Old Testament remains authoritative for the church and edifying for the believer.

Garrett begins by surveying how the post-apostolic Fathers approached this question. While much remained unresolved, they identified the Old Testament as canonical, identified a core of texts that were fulfilled in Christ while seeing some passages as allegories of Christ, saw it as a source of moral instruction and a theological authority in their polemic efforts. He then explores two hermeneutical approaches that began early and have had continued influence at various points in church history: the allegorical approach of Alexandria and the literal approach of Antioch. The allegorical approach was uncontrolled; the literal could be argued to say nothing beyond the immediate context of the text (e.g Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled in Isaiah’s own day and that is it).

He then turns to the schematic approaches used to connect the two testaments. He considers Covenant Theology, noting the difficulty of finding the language of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in scripture. In opposition is Dispensationalism, often problematic as historic events unravel prophetic schema and because it excludes large parts of the Old Testament from the effective canon, even while it remains in the formal canon. He follows this discussion with one of conceptual solutions considering the meaning of the canon, the meaning and focus of biblical theology, and models for organizing Old Testament theology. He concludes that no single approach is adequate and believes only a hybrid model is sufficient.

The third part of the book is Garrett’s articulation of his own approach. He contends for an approach that is neither supercessionist nor dispensationalist with regard to Israel, rooted in the promise to Abraham that includes the blessing of the nations through Israel fulfilled in Christ for Israel but also including the Gentiles. He also considers the Old Testament under the two headings of Election Literature and Wisdom Literature. He focuses the remainder of this volume to Election Literature (alluding to future volumes where I assume he will discuss Wisdom Literature).

He starts with the successive covenants of the Old Testament and the developing understanding of how Israel is chosen to bring blessing and redemption to the world, chosen in Abraham, given the pedagogue of the Sinai covenant to teach, and the Davidic Covenant of an everlasting future Davidic king. These all point to a fulfillment beyond the Old Testament horizon, found in the New Covenant in Christ. Garrett turns to the Law and traditional understandings, particularly of the divisions of civil, ceremonial, and moral law–a division made nowhere in the Law itself. Garrett sees the law as part of a covenant document at the same time demonstrating a need for a new covenant, fully realized in Christ. It is both an ideal of righteousness and basis of judgement. Finally, for the believer, the law is a teacher that in Christ leads those who meditate upon it into the righteousness which is theirs in Christ.

Garrett discusses narrative, and particularly allusive patterns in narrative, where later material alludes to earlier material. He notes that we ought read such material backward, to prior texts and not forward to future ones. Finally, Garrett discusses prophecy, looking at Hosea and Joel as case studies. Considering Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called my son.”) Garrett argues that Hosea is using representative recapitulation and that while this is not a prediction of Jesus time in Egypt, Matthew uses the same method of representative recapitulation in his account of Jesus. Hosea doesn’t predict Jesus, but Jesus fulfills Hosea, or is the culmination of this allusive material. Garrett, in an appendix, applies a similar approach to Isaiah 7:14.

I think many of us have reached similar conclusions, if we are dissatisfied with the traditional schema. What Garrett does is help us think more deliberately about the “problem” of reading the Old Testament, the different kinds of material we find there, and how we read the narrative arc where so much allusive material occurs. He brings discipline to intuition as well as an approach that avoids supercessionism or artificial constructions not grounded in scripture. Most of all, he grounds a vision of the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ in a way faithful to good interpretive practice rather than forced or undisciplined approaches. I look forward to seeing how Garrett continues to develop this approach.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: The Problem of the Old Testament

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2021 | Bob on Books

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