Saturday 20 December 2008

Tremper Longman III on Making Sense of the Old Testament

Tremper Longman III, Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 154pp.

[The following is a lightly-edited version of a review first written in June 1999 and published on London School of Theology’s website.]

Tremper Longman’s book is a helpful addition to the expanding ‘Three Crucial questions’ series. The questions considered here are: (1) What are the keys to understanding the Old Testament? (2) Is the God of the Old Testament also the God of the New Testament? (3) How is the Christian to apply the Old Testament to life?

His answer to the first question provides a basic overview of principles for interpreting the Bible, such as discovering the author’s intended meaning, reading texts in context, taking genre into consideration, understanding the historical and cultural background, paying attention to grammar and structure of passages, and so on. Although all the points aren’t specific for understanding the Old Testament, they remain important. Sometimes our problem with the Old Testament is our same problem with any other text – we simply don’t read it properly.

When it comes to the second question, Longman argues that the Bible presents a unified picture of God. The picture isn’t static, however, he says, and we need to allow for progress in God’s revelation of himself, and look to Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament themes. He illustrates this with a consideration of the covenant relationship between God and his people, the metaphor of the Lord as a ‘warrior’, and God’s presence with his people. For each of these themes, we can detect a thread of continuity through Scripture as a whole; while there is a ‘newness’ with Christ, the ‘new’ doesn’t involve a complete break with the ‘old’.

The answer to the third question focuses mainly on the various Old Testament genres (history, poetry, wisdom). He devotes special attention to Old Testament law, where he argues that there is both continuity and discontinuity with the New Testament. Our application of law today must take into consideration cultural differences and redemptive-historical differences between ourselves and Israel. The golden principle here is that all of the Old Testament law applies to Christians today, but none of it applies apart from its ‘fulfilment’ in Christ.

All in all, the book is the sort of helpful discussion we have come to expect of Longman. Nothing particularly new is said, but what is here is usefully gathered together, illustrated with specific examples from biblical texts, and aimed at helping the general reader. The challenge remains for Christian believers to do justice to the Old Testament in its own right (with all that that means), and as part of the Christian Scripture (with all that that means). For relatively new Christians (and slightly older Christians who still wrestle with this topic), Longman’s book will provide a helpful orientation.

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