Book Review: Duane A. Garrett. The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic, and Theological Approaches

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.


Duane A. Garrett. The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic, and Theological Approaches, IVP Academic. 2020, 408 pp.

Jesus, Paul, and the apostles were raised on the Old Testament. Thus, there was no “New Testament” during the ministry of Jesus. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3: 16-17, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for  doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the  man of God may be  perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.”  Here “Scripture” (graphē) must refer to the Old Testament written Scripture, for that is what the word graphē refers to in every one of its fifty-one occurrences in the New Testament.  So, for Christians to disregard the Old Testament as “outdated” and “inferior” will lead to unhealthy discipleship. For that matter, many  scholars don’t even use the phrase “Old Testament” anymore. Instead, they say, “Hebrew Bible,” “First Testament” or “Tanakh” (an acronym derived from the names of the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (Instruction, or Law, also called the Pentateuch), Neviʾim (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings).

Anyways, when I got my copy of this book, I had assumed that this was another attempt at the problem of violence in the Old Testament. I was wrong. Instead, Garret says:

“ The problem of the Old Testament is unlike any other. Many Christians say they never worry about eschatology or divine foreknowledge since God can sort out all of that. No one can so blithely dismiss concerns about the Old Testament. It is not, like predestination, an esoteric concept residing in the mind of God. It is a book set right before us. It is Holy Scripture, taking up two thirds of the canon. It instructs us in righteousness, and we are expected to read it daily. But like beautiful but ill-fitting shoes, or like medicine with grim side effects, sometimes the Old Testament doesn’t work well for the Christian. It is someone else’s mail; it is hand-me-down clothes; it just isn’t us (p. 4).”

Garret  describes the problem with three propositions:

The Old Testament is hard to define.

The Old Testament is hard to read.

The Old Testament is hard to reconcile with the New. ( p. 4).

He says, “Reading the Old Testament can be painful. Pastors struggle to get their congregations to persevere in a habit of reading it—even pastors admit that they, too, find the discipline hard to maintain. The genealogies, regulations for sacrifices, and lists of kosher foods have defeated many a Christian’s earnest resolve to read through the whole Bible. Even Proverbs, a book that speaks directly to problems we confront in daily life, seems to have little organization (p. 15).”

Also, as Garret says, “For the average Christian, the most pressing question is whether the New Testament properly handles the Old. Three aspects of this problem go to the heart of the Christian faith. These are

  1. The claim that the Old Testament makes prophecies about Jesus Christ
  2.  The claim that the Law has been made obsolete in Christ
  3. The problem of the relationship between Israel and the church (p. 17).

 Garret spends time discussing how the New Testament authors use prophecy of the Old Testament. He evaluates the issues with Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1. Of course, there have been several proposals on how to deal with this issue. As far as the issues with the Law and it’s relationship to Jesus, Garret is correct in that many Christians assume “the Old Testament is a book of legalism, it is not only inferior but also dangerous, ever luring us to reliance upon our innate virtues rather than upon grace. Such a conclusion has led many Christians to become practical Marcionites (Marcion was a second-century heretic who jettisoned the entire Old Testament). For those who regard the Old Testament as a sub-Christian work, it is effectively non-canonical (p. 29).”

Furthermore, as he says “The law/gospel dichotomy creates a rupture between the two testaments so severe that it forces us to ask whether the Old Testament and the New have anything in common. Some Christians believe that the ancient Israelite was justified by works but that the Christian is justified by grace. If this is true, are we even speaking of the same God? (p. 29).”

When it comes to dealing with the relationship between Israel and the Church, the tension points that arise are the following:

1.What are Gentiles believers supposed to do with Israel’s Scriptures?

2. If the New Covenant belongs to Israel, what claim do Gentiles have upon it?

3. Will God return Israel to its land and exalt it above every nation in a literal, historical sense?

4. Have Gentiles assumed ownership of the promises, so that Israel has been superseded?

5. If the church is the true people of God, and if all the promises are fulfilled in Christ, what do we make of the promises that appear to be given to national Israel? Are they to be discarded as obsolete?- (p. 31).

Garret is also correct to say that how one deals with these issues will impact how one reads the Bible. The good news is Garret tackles the ongoing to attempt to answer these questions by discussing the various hermeneutical solutions on the table. with two schools of thought (i.e., Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism) -see Ch 5.

He rightly shows where they both fall short. After all, the Bible is not a systematic theology. We use these systematic theologies (and defend them) as the correct way to make sense of Scripture. But there are limitations with this approach which is manifested on a regular basis.  Garrett concludes that “Israel is not separate from the church (as in dispensationalism), and it is not superseded by the church (as in covenant theology). Unrepentant Jews can be cut off from Israel, and believing Gentiles can be grafted in. Still, Israel is the locus of the work of God, and “salvation is of the Jews.” Gentiles, when they turn to Israel’s God and Messiah, fulfill promises such as Isaiah 2:1 4. (p. 353).”

Also, “There is no hidden covenant, such as the covenant of grace or covenant of creation, that governs salvation history. Israel’s election, not the covenants, is the foundational idea of the Election Literature. The covenants have separate purposes. They do not all mark separate dispensations, and they do not successively build upon one another (p. 353).”

In Ch 3 and Ch 4, Garret discusses the Alexandrian and Antiochian approaches to interpreting the Old Testament. Throughout history, many Christians have tried to appeal to both of these interpretive methods.  The Antiochian Method focuses on the plain, obvious meaning of the text of Scripture. Its basic focus is understanding the message of the original author.

This led to what is called The Historical, Grammatical method in hermeneutics.   This doesn’t mean the Antiochian Method doesn’t take into account literary genres, apocalyptic imagery, anthropomorphisms, figures of speech, etc. The Antiochian Method rejected the use of allegory whereas the Alexandrian school were more interested in the theological and spiritual meaning of the Old Testament.  Allegorism is so appealing. As Garret says “”Paul said that all things written in the Old Testament were profitable for us (2 Tim 3:16), but many Christians find little profit in reading the Scriptures. Jesus said that the Scripture spoke about him (Jn 5:39), but many can see little of Jesus in the Old Testament. Allegorism solves the problem. With this tool, every Old Testament text represents Jesus. The problem of the Law vanishes. Understanding Torah to be “Jewish” when read according to the flesh but “Christian” when read according to the Spirit seems coherent with Paul’s teaching. And congregations enjoy being dazzled by a good, allegorical exposition (p. 70).”

As Garret rightly points out, Paul’ s use of  allegorizing is seen in Gal 4: 22-26. To assume because Paul is allegorizing in this text means interpreters now have full reign to allegorize the Old testament is beyond problematic. Garret is also correct that many interpreters have gone overboard on typology in that they have taken parts of the Old Testament and tried to force a typological fulfillment in Jesus when there isn’t one.

As far as the relationship between the Law and Christ, Garret concludes that “The Torah is the content of the Sinai Covenant, providing its specific stipulations. It anticipates the New Covenant, and it serves as a concrete manifestation of the ideal of God’s holiness. It is also a teacher of righteousness. Interpreting the teaching of the Law for the church is in principle no different than dealing with a book like 1 Corinthians, which was given to a specific congregation with a specific set of problems, although of course the distance between us and ancient Israel is greater (p.353).”

Garret also notes the Torah makes no division between the ceremonial, civil, and moral law. Thus, for Protestants to try to offer this division as a solution  can create some serious challenges.

As far as the rules for interpreting prophecy, Garret offers a case study of both  Hosea and Joel. He concludes that “Like narrative, a prophetic text can look back to previous events that in some manner are recapitulated or reversed in a later generation. Sometimes the deeds of the one will be repeated in the deeds of the many, or the deeds of the many will be repeated in the deeds of the one. Prophets rarely make single, specific predictions. Instead, they elaborate on a theme or pattern, such as the “Day of YHWH.” The first occurrence or manifestation of a theme may occur in the prophet’s lifetime, but later manifestations occur in the future, culminating in an eschatological fulfillment (p. 354).”

In conclusion, this book covered a lot of ground. There is plenty to take in and I appreciated Garret’s attempt to wrestle with some key issues. When it comes to understanding the Old Testament, interpreters have made plenty of mistakes. Garret is honest about some of these mistakes and he attempts to come up with some proposed solutions. I appreciated this book and look forward to using some of the material in my own classes.

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