Review: Confronting Old Testament Controversies

controversies

Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions About Evolution, Sexuality, History, and ViolenceTremper 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.

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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.

 

Review: The Lost World of the Flood

The Lost World of the Flood

The Lost World of the FloodTremper Longman III & John H. Walton (with a contribution by Stephen O. Moshier). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: An argument for why Genesis portrays what was a local cataclysmic flood as a global flood, considering both Ancient Near East backgrounds and the theological purpose of the narrative.

John Walton, with co-authors in several instances, has published a series of “Lost World” books in recent years. Previously, I have reviewed The Lost World of Genesis One (here) and The Lost World of Adam and Eve (here). In each of these books Walton uses a combination of careful exegesis and study of Ancient Near East backgrounds to propose readings of the biblical passages to propose a reading faithful to a commitment to the trustworthiness of scripture and yet not in conflict with science. In this work, Walton and Tremper Longman III team up to pursue a similar study of the flood accounts in Genesis 6-9. The challenge in these texts is that they clearly teach a universal flood, a fact that Walton and Longman affirm, at variance with the geological evidence that would accompany such a flood. Other commentators either try to argue that the text actually indicates a local flood or they contend for a “flood geology” which has failed to gain acceptance among geologists. These authors both admit that the text actually affirms a universal flood and yet accept the lack of evidence for such a flood in the geological record and include a contribution from a Christian geologist (Stephen O. Moshier), who affirms the lack of evidence for a global flood. As in other Walton books, the argument is framed around a set of propositions that may be the best way to summarize the book:

Part I: Method: Perspectives on Interpretation
Proposition 1: Genesis Is an Ancient Document
Proposition 2: Genesis 1–11 Makes Claims About Real Events
Proposition 3: Genesis Uses Rhetorical Devices
Proposition 4: The Bible Uses Hyperbole to Describe Historical Events
Proposition 5: Genesis Appropriately Presents a Hyperbolic Account of the Flood
Proposition 6: Genesis Depicts the Flood as a Global Event

Part II: Background: Ancient Near Eastern Texts
Proposition 7: Ancient Mesopotamia Also Has Stories of a Worldwide Flood
Proposition 8: The Biblical Flood Story Shares Similarities and Differences with Ancient Near Eastern Flood Accounts

Part III: Text: Understanding the Biblical Text Literarily and Theologically
Proposition 9: A Local Cataclysmic Flood Is Intentionally Described as a Global Flood for Rhetorical Purposes
Proposition 10: The Flood Account Is Part of a Sequence of Sin and Judgment Serving as Backstory for the Covenant
Proposition 11: The Theological History Is Focused on the Issue of Divine Presence, the Establishment of Order, and How Order Is Undermined
Proposition 12: The “Sons of God” Episode Is Not Only a Prelude to the Flood; It Is the Narrative Sequel to Cain and Abel
Proposition 13: The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) Is an Appropriate Conclusion to the Primeval Narrative

Part IV: The World: Thinking About Evidence for the Flood
Proposition 14: The Flood Story Has a Real Event Behind It
Proposition 15: Geology Does Not Support a Worldwide Flood (Steve Moshier)
Proposition 16: Flood Stories from Around the World Do Not Prove a Worldwide Flood
Proposition 17: “Science Can Purify Our Religion; Religion Can Purify Science from Idolatry and False Absolutes”

Several things are key to their argument here. One is an argument that Genesis 1-11 reflect historical events, and that the flood story is rooted in a real event. Second is that hyperbole in Biblical narrative has a number of precedents. Third and perhaps most significant is that there are a number of hyperbolic elements in Genesis 6-9, from the size of the ark (the dimensions of which do not seem structurally possible with the materials used) to the depths of the waters, and they would argue, the extent of the flood, and that these elements are in the narrative because they serve a theological purpose, namely to show the dis-ordering and re-ordering work of God in judgment, laying the groundwork for God’s covenant with Abraham.

While Walton argues that he is not reconciling the Bible and science, but rather offering a better rendering of what the text actually says in these works, I would like him to address the question of why it takes incongruities between science (or archaeology) and scripture to bring such readings to light. He does this in part by observing the “two books” idea of revelation, and that each speaks to, and purifies, the other. But I wonder if interpreters might have reached the author’s proposal for reading the flood narratives apart from or before the geological evidence. I also find the argument suspect that the writers clearly wrote of a global flood, but engaged in intentional hyperbole in so doing. It would be easier for me to believe they intended a global flood simply because their “world” as they knew it was utterly flooded.

What Walton and Longman show is that their reading fits well within the total context of Genesis 1-11, a crucial point in favor of that reading. They also provide a reading that doesn’t necessitate pitting scripture against science nor coming up with an “alternative science” that comports with scripture. They argue that these accounts are rooted in real, historical events and do not ask us to gloss over portions of the text. While their engagement with geology demonstrates that it is not possible to ignore or dismiss science, and in fact science ought to be listened to as part of God’s “two books,” the real advance comes through trying to understand the Genesis narratives on their own terms, in their cultural and historic context and the theological purpose intended by their writer. This leads to an even more startling possibility: what if, in more carefully listening to both science and scripture on their own terms, we might in the end come to a better harmony between the two?

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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.