Book Write-Up: The Problem of the Old Testament, by Duane A. Garrett

Duane A. Garrett. The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic and Theological Approaches. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Duane A. Garrett is professor of Old Testament interpretation and biblical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Garrett observes that the Old Testament poses a problem for Christians. Garrett describes the problem with three propositions: the Old Testament is hard to define, to read, and to reconcile with the New.

Isaiah 7:14 plays a key role in this book. Matthew 1:23 applies the text to the virgin birth of Jesus, but, within its immediate context, the passage appears to relate to Isaiah’s own time. Was Matthew misinterpreting the verse? A similar problem occurs with Hosea 11:1: Matthew 2:15 relates it to Jesus coming out of Egypt when he was a child, when the passage obviously speaks about Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

Garrett addresses other problems as well. What are Christians to do with Old Testament laws? Which ones should they obey, and which are they under no obligation to obey? Since the Old Testament was for Jews, how exactly does it pertain to Gentiles? Garrett also discusses the scholarly attempts, many of them unsatisfying, to seek some common religious or theological theme that pervades the books of the Old Testament. Things are not that neat, as Garrett observes.

Garrett dismantles attempts by Christians, ancient and modern, to resolve these issues. Alexandrian allegorism, Antiochian literalism, sensus plenior, dispensationalism, covenant theology, reader response, Sailhamer, canonical criticism—-none of them receives Garrett’s mercy! Garrett proceeds, with some trepidation, to offer his own model. He admits that not everyone will find his model satisfactory, and he acknowledges in a few places that this book may need a few sequels.

What are some of Garrett’s solutions? Let’s start with the Old Testament law. Garrett finds wanting the Reformed distinction among moral, ceremonial, and civil laws, with the moral laws alone being obligatory for Christians. The New Testament knows nothing of such distinctions, Garrett argues, and the Old Testament itself does not divide them up neatly. Garrett also struggles, somewhat, with the question of who is under the Old Testament law: Paul seems to think only Israel was, yet his model of salvation appears to presume that everyone is subject to the law’s authority and condemnation. Rather than distinguishing among the laws, Garrett proposes identifying different functions of the law.

Another point that Garrett makes is that the Old Testament leaves some threads unresolved, whereas the New Testament resolves them. God promises Abram that all nations shall be blessed through Abram’s seed (Genesis 12:3; 22:18), but the Old Testament fails to specify how. The New does so by identifying the seed as Christ, who brings spiritual blessing to the Gentiles.

According to Garrett, the Old Testament law lacks provision for divine forgiveness. The sin and guilt offerings relate to ceremonial impurity and to unintentional transgressions, not intentional ones. God could still show mercy in the Old Testament, but that was unrelated to the law. Ultimately, forgiveness of sins comes through Christ.

Analogy and recapitulation are prominent in Garrett’s attempt to explain the New Testament’s usage of Old Testament passages. When I Peter 2:10 relates Hosea 1:10 to Gentile Christians, the author of I Peter is not suggesting that Hosea had the Gentile Christians in mind. Rather, I Peter 2:10 is drawing an analogy: just as God made the paganistic, immoral Israelites his people, so God did for the paganistic, immoral Gentiles who became believers.

Regarding recapitulation, Garrett contends that Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew recapitulates Old Testament Israel. Like Israel, Jesus in Matthew comes out of Egypt, is tempted in the wilderness, and enters the Jordan. Matthew’s application of Hosea 11:1 to Jesus fits this. What is more, Hosea himself vacillates between the people and the king of Israel, so Matthew continues that trajectory.

In discussing Joel, Garrett maintains that the “day of the LORD” in Joel can have multiple applications. It relates to Joel’s time, as the term “day of the LORD” throughout the Old Testament prophets pertains to a number of historical manifestations of God’s judgment, yet it also has eschatological significance. The notion that history can repeat itself occurs in the prophets, as they apply events of Israel’s history to new situations.

Another problem Garrett addresses is how Christians should interpret Old Testament eschatological expectations of Israel’s exaltation and paradise. His conclusion is that the Old Testament prophets portray “the new earth using terms an ancient Israelite could identify with, giving a vivid but not a literal portrayal of a real future” (page 165).

Garrett also identifies allusions within the Old Testament, as well as allusions that the New Testament makes to the Old. Within the Old Testament, Jacob’s headstone recurs, as does the Sinai theophany. Garrett’s point here may be that the Old Testament is not a collection of disconnected writings but presents a larger and coherent narrative. Regarding the New Testament, Garrett argues that the transfiguration, and Peter’s proposal to build booths, relates to Jonah’s dwelling in a booth as he awaited God’s judgment on Nineveh.

This book certainly is informative, especially as Garrett surveys the historic Christian attempts to argue that Isaiah 7:14 was actually a prophecy about Jesus, even in its original context. Garrett’s exegetical moves are also interesting, as when he distinguishes the worm that shall not die in Isaiah 66:24 from Jesus’s teaching on hell.

Garrett’s treatment of the law is helpful, as it addresses questions that I and other Christians and scholars (especially of the New Perspective) have: how can Paul treat the Torah as the opposite of grace and forgiveness, when the Torah itself has pathways to divine forgiveness? And what did Jesus bring that was not already present in the Torah? Garrett’s answer, as noted above, is that the Torah lacks pathways to divine forgiveness. There may be something to that, but I have some nagging reservations. Garrett says that the sacrifices only forgave unintentional sins, not intentional ones, whereas Jesus brings forgiveness for intentional ones. The Epistle to the Hebrews, however, seems to draw an analogy between Jesus and the sin offering and to assert that Jesus died for unintentional sins, whereas the ultimate intentional sin (leaving the faith) receives no forgiveness.

On some occasions, I thought that Garrett, with all his knowledge, should know better. He says that Mesopotamian courts may have used the Code of Hammurabi, when it has been argued that there is no indication in their records that they did so.

Whether or not one finds Garrett’s solutions to be satisfying, they are a serious attempt to grapple with the problem of the Old Testament. Garrett is honest about what he finds unconvincing in other approaches. He wrestles with problems, even if some of his solutions fail to resolve all of their loose ends. And he attempts to support his positions with the biblical text.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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