Review of Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring Application by Roy E. Gane

October 4, 2019

Gane, Roy E. Old Testament Law for Christians: Original Context and Enduring ApplicationGrand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017, 464 pp, $35.00, paperback.


Second Timothy 3:15–17 stands as a pillar text of biblical inspiration. Bible school students embrace it, pastors proclaim it, faithful Christians memorize it and recite it from a young age. Yet for all the attention this text receives, too many neglect one of its central claims: “all Scripture is . . . profitable.” The dearth of sermons, bible studies, devotional writings, and blog posts expounding the “profit” of Leviticus for Christians today suffices for evidence. Roy Gane, professor of Hebrew Bible and ANE languages at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, comments on the current situation, “A rich source of wisdom regarding values is contained in OT laws. However, Christians have generally neglected these laws, to our loss, because we have not regarded them as relevant to our lives” (p. xiii). So, in order to help Christians profit from “all Scripture,” Gane presents this guide to appropriating Old Testament law in every age of God’s people. While Gane surveys numerous approaches to applying God’s law as God’s new covenant people, he advocates for an approach he calls “progressive training in moral wisdom” (p. 198). Pulling from his extensive work to understand and apply difficult law passages (e.g., see his commentary on Leviticus and Numbers in the NIVAC series), he aims to see the riches of “all Scripture” benefit God’s church today.

Gane presents his case for a progressive moral wisdom approach (PMW) to God’s law in four parts: (1) an introduction to OT law [54 pp.], (2) an introduction to legal literature [72 pp.], (3) various Christian approaches to application [98 pp.], and (4) application issues and difficult texts [171 pp.]. In his introduction to OT law, Gane addresses the relevance of law for Christians in the words of Jesus and Paul, the nature of “law” in the Bible and how it was used in its original context, and the four-fold purpose of law: theological, covenantal, sapiential, and missional. He offers the preliminary definition, that “OT law is normative, exemplary, covenantal divine instruction” (p. 19). This divine instruction reveals the nature of the deity (i.e., theological purpose). This covenantal instruction “contributes to [the] preservation of an ongoing divine-human relationship that provides important benefits for God’s people” (i.e., covenantal purpose; p. 47). This exemplary instruction draws both neighbor and nations toward the deity (i.e., missional purpose). This normative instruction orders and addresses the most significant issues of living in a fallen world (i.e., sapiential purpose). Such normative, exemplary, covenantal divine instruction occurs in limited clusters but influences the entirety of the Old Testament.

While the influence of legal materials may be felt throughout the OT, not all legal passages bear equal weight. Gane introduces his survey of application approaches by laying out the hierarchical groundwork inherent in OT law passages. Just as Jesus recognized, “love is the paramount value and virtue” (p. 148). Thus, a general command like the Shema, “Love YHWH your God with all your heart, soul, and strength” (Deut 6:5), defines whole categories of legal material. Similarly, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18) defines another broad category of laws. Gane presents the classic illustration of this from the Ten Commandments (p. 151), but also goes on to present various sub-categories between the crowning virtue of “love” and individual commands throughout the OT. This lays the groundwork for his “indirect application” of OT law passages by Christians today (p. 142).

In preparation to explore the progressive moral wisdom approach to applying OT law, Gane surveys other options from Christian history. He begins by discussing radical continuity (theonomy), moves on to radical discontinuity (practical impossibility, dispensationalism, Lutheran theology), and concludes with various medial approaches advocating some form of continuity and discontinuity (Reformed theology, principlizing, paradigmatic, redemptive-movement). Gane’s medial approach (PMW) places an emphasis on personal transformation in the process of intellectual application of specific laws. He writes, “the pupose of OT law only reaches fulfillment when decisions are lived out by a whole person, who consequently grows in moral character” (p. 201). The final 200 pages of the books detail the general process for employing a PMW approach and then demonstrate what it looks like on specific passages.

Gane’s progressive moral wisdom approach to reading OT law offers Christians a lot of opportunities to make all Scripture profitable today. PMW resembles the paradigmatic and principlizing approaches in a number of ways; yet it maintains a focus on the transformation of the individual through the process of applying God’s law to life. This dimension of PMW provides much needed perspective to a debate overwhelmed by nuts-and-bolts proposals. Nevertheless, PMW has its own nuts-and-bolts process: (1) analyze the law by itself, (2) analyze the law within the system of OT laws and the context of ancient life, (3) analyze the law within the process of redemption, (4) relate findings regarding the function of the law to modern life (pp. 202–203). Taken by itself, this process resembles the paradigmatic process of Christopher Wright (pp. 185–186) and the principlizing process of Peter Vogt (Interpreting the Pentateuch: An Exegetical Handbook [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009], pp. 136–146). Gane himself seems to indicate this (p. 201) but emphasizes that PMW aims not just at applying laws but at moral transformation.

The most difficult stage of Gane’s PMW process is stage four: relating findings regarding the function of the law to modern life. One question he introduces raises significant tension—“Does biblical development of the value exemplified by the law show a trajectory that moves beyond the law itself to a higher moral level that should be applied in the modern life situation?” (p. 203). This question arises specifically from Gane’s assessment of William J. Webb’s redemptive-movement model (p. 195). Gane is careful to critique the most troublesome aspects of Webb’s model (pp. 187–195), but his inclusion of Webb’s positive contributions here creates more problems than it solves (p. 213). Webb’s project aims to promote a male-female egalitarian hermeneutic based on the egalitarian trajectory in scripture with regard to slavery. Gane cites Galatians 3:28, “There is neither . . . slave nor free, . . . for you are all one in Christ,” which Webb also cites with regard an egalitarian position on gender roles. An extended footnote at this point would have assisted readers in differentiating Gane’s approach from that of Webb. Unfortunately, Gane simply uses this dimension of Webb to illustrate the concept of redemptive trajectory and leaves the reader to wonder how this relates to the issue of gender roles. Gane’s overall approach does not depends on Webb, so this appears to be an unnecessary inclusion of theological baggage that complicates his presentation of PMW. Gane would have been better served by simply presenting his own exegesis and redemptive-historical approach at this point (cf. Thomas Schreiner, “William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: A Review Article,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 6.1 [Spring 2002]: 46–64).

Despite this complicating factor, Gane’s work offers much needed guidance in our current cultural context. Now, more than ever, Christians need to engage with the difficult passages of Scripture in order to respond aptly to a hyper-skeptical culture. This constitutes the greatest asset of this book—extended examples of applying the PMW approach to reading legal passages. Often these examples cannot treat the issue in full, though for more extended treatments, readers may also consult Gane’s commentaries. Some issues seem to receive an imbalanced amount of attention (e.g., Sabbath, 7.5 pp.) compared to other issues in the same chapter (e.g., the first three commandments, 6 pp.). Other issues call into question modern Christian approaches to the law without offering a clear standard of application today (e.g., forbidden meat, pp. 352–358). Nevertheless, these discussions raise difficult, oft-neglected issues and attempt to walk Christians through the PMW approach to applying them so as to grow in wisdom.

Gane proves an able guide to applying difficult OT law passages through his progressive moral wisdom approach. While a reader may disagree with some of his interpretive conclusions, this books provides a wealth of wisdom for profiting from all Scripture (2 Tim 3:16). I would recommend this book for serious students of God’s word who seek to understand the relevance of God’s law for Christians today and aim to grow in the process. This will not be the only book needed to navigate such a difficult subject, but it provides a helpful orientation and process along with numerous case studies to work through. Most importantly, Gane serves the church today by exposing the exegetical issues that too many believers remain ill-equipped to address.


Marcus A. Leman

Dallas International University


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