A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Paul Lamicela
Duane Garrett, professor of Old Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has an uncompromising passion for clarity in writing (to which all of us who have endured one of his doctoral seminars can attest) and little use for “faddish” scholarship.
The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic, and Theological Approaches is thus a clearly written, insightful prolegomenon (354) to Old Testament theology that is a delight to read. The work is intended to be the first in a multi-volume series. (As “bonus material” at the end of this book, Garrett includes an excerpt from a forthcoming successor volume on pre-exilic prophecy.) Christians believe that the OT is inspired Scripture, yet we have wrestled—often unsuccessfully—with how to appropriate it, relate it to the NT, and find it meaningful. In this book, Garrett first surveys what he considers three “inadequate solutions” to the “problem of the Old Testament” and then lays the groundwork for a new approach. The book concludes by surveying Hosea and Joel as two case studies of his biblical-theological approach.
Three broad types of solutions have been proposed for the problem of the OT, none of which are in themselves fully adequate: hermeneutical, schematic, and conceptual (or theological). Garrett first tackles the hermeneutical proposals: namely, Alexandrian and Antiochene approaches to reading the OT. Garrett surveys the allegorical school of interpretation, from pre-Christian times through early Christian interpretation (especially Origen and Augustine) and the medieval “fourfold sense” to the modern TIS movement. He registers grave concerns about this tradition. “An allegorized text loses all authority” (75). And this approach fails to actually wrestle with the problems of the text; it passes over them instead. The Antiochene approach, while “superior” to the Alexandrian, is also inadequate. Garrett traces this school through the early church to the Reformation and then to modern critical interpretation. Historical-grammatical exegesis cannot solve the problem of the OT; something more is required.
Garrett next surveys “schematic” solutions: the two schemas of dispensational and covenant theology. Both suffer fatal flaws. Covenant theology proposes the existence of hypothetical “covenant of works” and “covenant of grace” which are both extra-biblical and unbiblical (115). It also leads to a supersessionist view of the church’s relationship to Israel (115). Dispensationalism (classic and revised) separated Israel from the church, idolized “literal” interpretation, and misunderstood genre; progressive dispensationalism still holds to the dispensational eschatology. Dispensationalism “jettisons the problem” of the OT by excluding it from our “effective canon” (127).
Finally, Garrett surveys “conceptual solutions.” He considers “three factors”: “the nature of the canon” (Childs and canonical BT), “the meaning and focus of biblical theology,” and “the models for organizing an Old Testament theology” (129). Garrett assesses various organizational approaches to OT theology, like a more traditional loci approach, a single-center or multiple themes approaches, book-by-book approaches, or narrative approaches. In the end, Garrett concludes that a “hybrid model” is necessary; the OT is too complex and varied to be captured by a narrow idea. Even so, a more complex hybrid model could prove “irrelevant if one does not address the main issues of the problem of the Old Testament” (158).
After six chapters of “ground-clearing,” Garrett introduces “a new approach.” Two pillars of his approach are the relationship of Israel and the church, and the distinction between election literature and wisdom literature. On the first issue, Garrett takes a position between covenant theology and dispensationalism. He emphasizes Paul’s olive tree metaphor (Rom 10): Israel is God’s people; unfaithful Jews can be broken off, and believing Gentiles are grafted in. “There is one people of God, and it is Israel. […] We Gentiles are grafted in (Rom 11:17–19). Through this process, the promises, covenants, and knowledge of God are ours, and we rightly embrace the Old Testament as our heritage. We possess these gifts as adopted members of the household of Israel, not as usurpers who ‘supersede’ our hosts [a la covenant theology] and not as a separate family [a la dispensationlism]” (163–4).
On the second issue, Garrett notes that biblical theologies often handle wisdom literature inadequately. Most of biblical literature is “election literature,” whose fundamental idea is that God has chosen Abraham and Israel. Wisdom literature, on the other hand, relates to God as creator and not as covenant partner. These bodies of literature are “complementary” and overlap. But trying to fit wisdom literature into a single Heilsgeschichte mold is a category mistake.
Garrett delves deeper into his “new approach” with chapters on Israel’s covenants and election, and on the Law. Contra covenant theology and its successors, covenants are of secondary importance. Yahweh’s election of and promises to Abraham are primary (181). Significant space is devoted to dismantling a number of misconceptions: of the nature of covenants (mainly unilateral vs. bilateral, and never “implied”), of the meaning of karat berit vs. heqim berit (pushing against a “creation covenant”), and of the relationship between covenants (they do not “organically” build on each other). The uniqueness of Israel’s Torah in its ancient Near Eastern context is twofold: first, it belonged to all the people, not just the king. Second, it concerned not only “human-to-human” interactions but their relationship to Yahweh. Replacing three categories of Law with fourfold functions.
In contrast to the older Protestant “three uses” of the Law (and the oft-misunderstood biblical data leading to the disparagement of the law as bad or works-based), we should think rather of “four functions” of the Law (234–239): 1) “The law is the covenant document.” 2) “The law as a demonstration of the need for the New Covenant.” 3) “The law as an ideal of righteousness and basis of judgment.” 4) “The law as a teacher.” While the first three functions are “in some sense obsolete,” the law as teacher is an “abiding function” (238–239). Garrett stresses that “The whole of the Law has each of these functions. This is not a matter of dividing it up and assigning different functions to different parts of the Law” (234, emphasis original).
The remaining chapters tackle narrative and prophetic literature. In his “Issues in Narrative,” chapter, Garrett registers concern that Christians sometimes ignore the actual narratives of the OT and too quickly jump to the Christian metanarrative. Claims of metanarrative must be demonstrated, not merely asserted. The OT narrative is a story of “sorrow and hope,” a form of “dark” literature filled with evil and suffering, but never fully devoid of hope. Recognizing and tracking “allusive patterns” (instead of “intertextuality” / “inner-biblical exegesis” or “typology”) in narrative is an important key both to understanding the individual narratives and to responsibly putting together the metanarrative. Garrett uses the Elijah / Elisha allusive pattern (in both OT and NT) as an extended example.
Finally, Garrett explores prophetic hermeneutics. Garrett takes Hosea and Joel as case studies. In each case, he gives a detailed general exposition of the book and then draws conclusions concerning the prophets’ hermeneutical approach. “By first determining what thematic ideal the prophet is developing, the interpreter is better able to recognize and distinguish individual fulfillments of that ideal. By seeking out examples of allusion, recapitulation, and representational typology, readers can see how earlier texts are linked to later ones” (351). Garrett believes that “these methods will enable us to find our way through obscure and seemingly out-of-context messianic prophecies” in the NT, whose authors are using the same prophetic hermeneutic (351).
As noted at the beginning of this review, Garrett shines in his commitment to clarity. More scholars would do well to adopt his prioritization of readability over the appearance of erudition. A sentence in his preface is a gem: “Books dealing with hermeneutics and Old Testament theology can be dense and jargon-filled, with the learnedness of the author sometimes in inverse proportion to the clarity of the book (ix).” In fact, the “Summary and Prospect” chapter (352–55) is a list of concise bullet points which give the reader an excellent overview of all the book’s main arguments. The benefit of a book so written is its usefulness for introducing students to a wide range of issues in OT scholarship and hermeneutics, in a way that is easily digestible and not overwhelming. It also avoids the risk (perhaps more common in academia than we like to admit) of students’ becoming unhealthily enamored by “scholars” and “trends” instead of becoming judicious evaluators of arguments.
These twin strengths can be seen in Garrett’s treatments of hermeneutical issues. It is extremely trendy right now to praise “spiritual” / “allegorical” readings of Scripture and to “retrieve” patristic exegesis. While the philosophical and theological rationales given often sound noble, there are glaring problems both in the underpinnings and in the details. The strength of Garrett’s treatment is that he spends time examining the history of allegorical interpretation (in Greek, Jewish, and Christian circles), and works through examples from key patristic exegetes (Clement, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril, and Augustine). Only after this and surveying the “fourfold” hermeneutic of the Middle Ages does he directly engage the “resurgence” of this hermeneutic in the TIS movement.
Garrett is deeply critical of the “Alexandrian” trajectory (rightly, in my view), but his critiques are demonstrated throughout and can be easily followed by even beginning seminary students. He helps students learn how to carefully assess scholarly trends by looking at the primary evidence; he sets an example of not jumping on to bandwagons. On the other hand, Garrett cannot be classed as a “fundamentalist” or an “Enlightenment thinker.” He is also critical of the Antiochene trajectory with its culmination in the historical-critical scholarship of the post-Enlightenment era. What is needed is not simply grammatical-historical exegesis but the OT’s own “prophetic hermeneutic.” Garrett’s conclusions on proper “spiritual reading” on pp. 173–4 and on “prophetic hermeneutics” on p. 349–50 are insightful and practical.
There are a few weaknesses, mostly relating to the scope of the work and to how Garrett situates himself in relation to other perspectives. First, some may complain that the book is a bit sprawling, and thus lacks the ability to address all issues in depth. Garrett swiftly covers a vast swath of highly controversial issues, from the Law to covenants to Israel and the church to hermeneutics—and beyond. Academic readers used to long explanations with extensive footnotes will need to adjust their expectations. There are times when readers will wish for more argumentation and discussion of various assertions. The chapters on Hosea and Joel seem to stray in the opposite direction. A detailed exposition of these books fills page after page, with the reader easily forgetting that this is still a work on the problem of the OT and prolegomena. Garrett successfully draws conclusions on the prophetic method from these books, and this detailed analysis is helpful. However, it is possible that it could have been made more concise for the purposes of this work.
Second, it sometimes seems that Garrett adopts a Garett contra mundum approach. While he expresses appreciation and agreement with various scholars throughout, he calls his resolution to the problem of the OT “a new approach” and seems to set it out against most established positions. In reality, Garrett is rather close to Gentry and Wellum’s progressive covenantalism (Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd ed., Wheaton: Crossway, 2018). He argues at length against their proposal of an Adamic covenant (spending significant time on heqim vs. karat berit), and on their making the covenants more central and “building upon” each other.
However, Garrett’s views on the functions of the Law and on prophetic hermeneutics are largely the same as Gentry and Wellum’s. His view of Israel and the church bears considerable overlap, though there are differences in nuance. (His views on prophetic hermeneutics are also rather similar to e.g. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old, 95–102.) Garrett seems to slightly misunderstand Gentry and Wellum; they do not make the creation covenant a “master covenant” as does covenant theology (182), and they are nearly as critical of hypothetical overarching covenants as is Garrett.
A third and more minor quibble is Garrett’s take on Joseph as a typological figure. He denies that Joseph is a type and pits this view against the careful “allusive patterns” he examines. It is true that types can be proposed in an undisciplined way. But I contend that the literary structure of Genesis is designed to portray Joseph as a culminating figure who begins to fulfill the Abrahamic promises. (See Samuel Emadi’s 2016 dissertation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “Covenant, Typology, and the Story of Joseph: A Literary-Canonical Examination of Genesis 37–50.”) There are careful and haphazard ways of reaching similar conclusions; while Garrett is right to reject the haphazard way, I think the story of Joseph deserves a closer look. There are reasons why Christians saw in his life striking parallels to that of the Messiah.
In conclusion, I highly recommend this book as an engaging, clear introduction to issues in OT theology, hermeneutics, and whole-Bible biblical theology, and I eagerly await Garrett’s next books which will flesh out ideas begun in this prolegomenon.
Paul Lamicela is a PhD candidate in biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and adjunct professor of biblical studies at Sattler College in Boston.
Buy the books
THE PROBLEM OF THE OLD TESTAMENT: HERMENEUTICAL, SCHEMATIC, AND THEOLOGICAL APPROACHES, by Duane A. Garrett