Review of A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised, edited by Miles V. Van Pelt

April 18, 2017

Van Pelt, Miles V., ed. A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: The Gospel Promised. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016, pp. 601, $50.00, hardback.

vpotA Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament and its New Testament counterpart are projects undertaken by the faculty, both current and past, of Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS). The project was dedicated in honor of the seminary’s fiftieth anniversary. Miles Van Pelt edited the Old Testament volume and wrote both the introduction and the chapter on the Song of Songs.

Whereas most introductions to the Old Testament discuss the historical-critical issues of each book, these issues have only a minor role in A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. Instead, the book offers an introduction to the theological themes contained within each book of the Old Testament. After an initial section discussion on the structure and message of the Old Testament, the book dedicates a chapter to each of the books in the Old Testament as they appear in the Hebrew Bible. Each chapter is divided into sections labeled “Background Issues,” “Structure and Outline,” “Message and Theology,” and “Approaching the New Testament.” The “Message and Theology” sections make up the bulk of each chapter.

The book’s main strength is the greater emphasis placed upon the theological message of each book compared to most other Old Testament introductions. The authors never diminish the importance of the historical-critical issues contained in most introductions, yet A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament contains more extensive discussions of the theological message of each biblical book. The decision to focus on the theological message of each book will provide a helpful framework to guide students and pastors studying any Old Testament book.

In addition to a helpful emphasis on theology, each author brings their own specialties to their contribution. For example, some contributors develop their discussions against the backdrop of other ANE cultures, while others focus upon the literary features of the biblical text. Since this is the case, however, readers will likely find some chapters more helpful than others, depending upon their own preferences.

Although the theological focus of this book will provide readers with a unique volume of Old Testament introduction, some elements of the book hinder it from being as helpful as it could be. First, the books are mainly approached as isolated units rather than as parts of an integrated whole. In the Introduction, Van Pelt attempts to demonstrate how each Old Testament book fits together, but this emphasis is absent in many of the chapters featuring the individual books of the Old Testament. Furthermore, there is no attempt to trace specific themes, such as God’s presence, covenant, or sacrifice as they are developed throughout the Old Testament. Each book is essentially treated in isolation from the other books.

Second, the authors approach their tasks with a variety of methodologies, which are sometimes incompatible. For example, Van Pelt’s introduction highlights the importance of the Hebrew arrangement of the Old Testament canon (p. 25). In this arrangement, the twelve Minor Prophets are typically regarded as a single work called The Book of the Twelve. Yet Timmer, in his chapter on The Twelve, asserts that this approach neglects the individual nature of each book and that the books should be studied separately (p. 326). He discusses theological themes which appear within The Twelve, but he clearly thinks this practice contains several pitfalls and the manner in which he discusses the themes could be used to discuss the connections these books have in common within any biblical book, not just among The Twelve. The Hebrew arrangement also places Ruth after Proverbs, but Yeo’s chapter on Ruth only passingly refers to this arrangement and discredits its helpfulness (p. 404). Yeo is much more concerned with reading Ruth within the context of Judges and 1 Samuel (pp. 401–403), the arrangement found in modern Bibles, than he is the Hebrew arrangement which Van Pelt develops within the introduction.

Third, in addition to methodological variety, each author seems to have a unique conception of their assignment, and they approach their task in a wide variety of ways. Currid, the author of the chapters on Genesis and Exodus, frequently discusses the theology of these books against a historical reconstruction of the beliefs of other ANE cultures. Yet, McKelvey, the author of the Leviticus chapter, makes no use of ANE material and attempts to describe the major theological themes appearing within the text of Leviticus. Glodo, the author of the Numbers chapter, differs from Currid and McKelvey by attempting to give a theological summary of each section of Numbers. Redd, the author of the Deuteronomy chapter, understood the “Approaching the New Testament” section very differently from each of the previous authors. He discusses the importance of Deuteronomy within the Pentateuch, the Former Prophets, the Latter Prophets, and finally the New Testament (pp. 152–157). Thus, even among the four authors who wrote chapters on the Pentateuch, their approaches to biblical theology differ widely, and they understood the goals of each section within their chapters very differently. This wide variety of approaches is typical for the rest of the book and does not allow for a unified product to emerge.

These difficulties perhaps stem from the absence of a definition of “biblical theology” at the outset of the book. Although a definition of biblical theology may seem obvious to some, when examining various works claiming to discuss biblical (or New or Old Testament) theology, it is apparent that biblical theology is understood in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes these differences in how biblical theology is conceived stem from significant hermeneutical differences among authors. At this point, one cannot simply label a work as “biblical theology” and assume that this will mean the same thing to every reader or even to every contributor even if they all have connections to an institution such as RTS. Since this is the case, a book that attempts to outline the theology of each Old Testament book without a definition of biblical theology will suffer from multiple approaches and lack the uniformity a reader may expect when first encountering the book. Perhaps if a definition of biblical theology had been proposed and the authors had attempted to integrate their contributions more, the difficulties noted in this review could have been resolved.

As noted above, these deficiencies limit the usefulness of A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. The book does not provide the reader with an integrated theology of the entire Old Testament but instead a medium-length introduction to the theological contents of each book of the Old Testament. The chapters are more extensive than entries typically found in Bible dictionaries and under the “theology” section of most commentary introductions yet briefer than monographs discussing theological issues of a specific book. This allows the book to fill a gap between these two types of resources, which should be beneficial to many seminary students and pastors. Unfortunately, since there is little to tie the chapters together other than a very general structural outline, it is difficult to recommend this book over other similar works such as Theological Interpretation of the Old Testament edited by Vanhoozer. Only the student’s preference for a particular author will help him or her determine which book to consult.

Casey K. Croy

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY

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