Reviewed by Ty Kieser
Crossway’s Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised employs an analogy: “The Bible is like a large picture puzzle. Each individual book is a piece with its own unique shape, yet when we bring all the pieces (books) together into one picture (the biblical canon) we see how each piece functions in the whole and how the whole picture informs each piece. Therefore, it is when we consider the whole testimony of God in Scripture we see the beauty and function of each individual book (24).” Published alongside its New Testament counterpart, this introduction provides its reader with the redemptive-historical backdrop, literary structure, and canonical significance of each book.
The editor, Miles Van Pelt – co-author of Zondervan’s Basics of Biblical Hebrew, Alan Belcher Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages, and Academic Dean Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Jackson – is joined by 12 Old Testament colleagues with past or present service at RTS (see Van Pelt’s video promotion of the book below). Each author comes to the text with a high view of Scripture and a historically Reformed view of the shape of the biblical story (i.e. covenantal unity). As such, the Westminster Confession of Faith, Calvin, Vos, and Kline make frequent appearances alongside contemporary commentators and biblical scholars – primarily engaging with other Evangelical sources, but there is an awareness of broader conversations so that readers beyond the Reformed tradition will likely find this book amiable as well.
Intentionally aimed at pastors, teachers, and students of the bible (13), this text is clearly written at a readable level. The book attempts to communicate to this audience by engaging with the final form of the biblical text and leaves many technical discussions on higher-criticism and text-criticism aside. While overly technical interactions are helpfully absent, relevant critical concepts are introduced and often elaborated on in footnotes (i.e., JEDP theory). The volume provides a helpful introduction not only to each biblical book, but also presents historical, theological, and literary questions of those books clearly and fairly. Therefore, in many ways, it may serve as a gateway into more technical commentaries. Additionally, numerous contested interpretations within evangelicalism (i.e. the authorship questions, the organizational structure of Song of Songs, etc.) are presented evenhandedly. And, while a position is usually taken, the reader is presented with evidence for each position so that she is capable of making an informed decision on her own.
Structure and Contents
As an introduction, the structure of the book is fairly predictable: a chapter dedicated to each biblical book (or set of books – i.e. 1 & 2 Samuel). Each chapter is arranged with the following section structure: Introduction, Background Issues, Structure and Outline, Message and Theology, Approaching the New Testament, and Select Bibliography.
Taking the chapter on 1-2 Samuel as an example, we can see some of the contours of the volume and specifics of the structure of each chapter. The author of this chapter, Michael G. McKelvey, introduces the book as a narrative which is not merely a historical account, but a “theologically driven … unfolding of redemptive history” (203). In “Background Issues” McKelvey makes the reader aware of various views of authorship and dating, even proposing the reasonableness of an early date, but ultimately, he concedes to the anonymity of the book and difficulty of dating. He helpfully lays out history of redemption that leads up to this point (focusing on Joshua and Judges) and gives a brief history of the Philistines (the primary enemy of the Israelites in the book). His “Structure and Outline” section contains a detailed outline with 3 main sections and 31 subsections, accompanied by verse demarcations. “The Message and Theology” of the book narrates the history of the book through its key figures (i.e. Samuel, Saul, and David) and elaborates on specific key themes in the book (i.e. kingship, the Davidic covenant, and the heart). He brings in the canonical significance and background of these themes as well. Noting, for example, the overlap of the Davidic covenant with the Abrahamic in Genesis 17:6-8; 15-16 and the restatements of the Davidic covenant in the Psalms, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. The chapter ends with the “Approaching the New Testament” section where the NT theme of the Kingdom of God is drawn out and the fulfillment of Christ as the promised king in the Davidic line. He concludes, “The message of the book is primarily that God is King… [and it] points everyone to Christ the King” (221). To summarize, I think the specifics of this chapter evidence many of the contours of the introduction as a whole with its emphasis on the historical and canonical locatedness of the book and the OT’s ultimate fulfillment in the work of God in Christ.
The unique contributions of this introduction as a whole are its (1) theological position, (2) method of interpretation, and (3) canonical order. (1) Coming from Reformed Theological Seminary and the Reformed Tradition, the contributors draw on the “covenantal structure,” “kingdom of God” as a “thematic framework,” and Christ as the “sum and substance” of the biblical message. (2) As emphasized by the title, this book interprets Scripture through a “biblical-theological” method. For these authors, this means allowing intra-canonical connections (i.e. Genesis 1 and Exodus 1) and inter-canonical connections (i.e. wisdom in Proverbs and 1 Corinthians 1:30) to inform the meaning of the book. They also place a high value on literary analysis – dealing with the structure, wordplay, images, syntax, and tone in the final form of the text – which allows the reader to understand the historical backdrop and significance while not departing from the text of Holy Scripture. (3) Less prominent, yet still influential, is the ordering of the whole book according to the Hebrew Bible order rather than the English Biblical order. For example, the book of Ruth (which follows Judges in the English Bible order), follows Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible order and is the first of the five “Megilloth” (five scrolls) which were read liturgically at Jewish festivals. While not mentioned in some chapters, others use this ordering to draw out the significance of the book for the Hebrew people and consequently, for the church.
This book provides a helpful introduction to each individual book and to the OT as a whole, and also to a way of reading Scripture. The book doesn’t put the entire puzzle together for the reader, but it does provide the reader with a helpful framework for understanding the biblical canon and each book’s place in that canon. While many introductions simply survey each piece of the puzzle individually, we might say that this book “puts the edge pieces together” so that the pastor or student is capable of diving into Holy Scripture and encountering the beautiful unity of God’s Word.
Each author implemented this hermeneutical method to a different degree, in different ways, and with different levels of success (i.e. some seemed to relegate the “Biblical-Theological” interpretation to a final brief paragraph at the end of the chapter). While “Biblical-Theological” may be a hard term to define, I think this volume displays an admirable type of Biblical Theology that appreciates the historical background while focusing on the literary and canonical shape of the text (See Klink and Lockett’s volume for a spectrum of definitions and examples of “Biblical Theology,” many of which are not represented in this volume).
However, I found the decision to limit all minor prophets to just 19 total pages to be disappointing. While its emphasis on the unity of the Book of the Twelve was helpful, for a book that intends to invigorate the passion of pastors and students of Scripture to read and teach the Old Testament theologically, it seems that more thorough coverage of the minor prophets (which are often among the most neglected and misunderstood books, in my experience) would have been a helpful contribution to their vision for this book.
Overall, the book will be a significant contribution to the life and health of the church. For pastors who are beginning a sermon series, students beginning exegetical papers, small group leaders starting the study of a biblical book, or a Christian interested in doing research for their devotional biblical reading, this book enables Christians of various levels of education to understand the nature of the Old Testament canon and how each book functions as a piece in the beautiful puzzle of Holy Scripture. My recommendation: Read this book, and then read the Old Testament like this book.
Ty Kieser is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Wheaton College Graduate School.
Note: See the editor’s video here:
Editor’s Note: See our interview with Miles Van Pelt here.
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A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised