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

December 16, 2021

Garrett, Duane A. The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic, and Theological Approaches. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020, pp. 395, $40.00, paperback.

Duane A. Garrett is the John R. Sampey Professor of Old Testament Interpretation and professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has written numerous works on the Old Testament, including a commentary on Hosea and Joel (The New American Commentary), a commentary on Song of Songs and Lamentations (Word Biblical Commentary), and Amos: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text, and A Modern Grammar for Biblical Hebrew.
Garrett makes his premise clear from the moment his book is picked up by a reader. How can modern readers make sense of the challenges, or the “problem,” of the Old Testament? He begins the book by defining the problem, which he does by listing three propositions: the Old Testament is hard to define, hard to read, and hard to reconcile with the New (p. 4). He goes on to demonstrate that the lack of a consistent Old Testament theology or definition of the Old Testament among the early church fathers provides an example of these propositions (p. 45). In part two, Garrett outlines the various hermeneutical, schematic, and conceptual solutions proposed for the development of an Old Testament theology, and he ultimately finds them inadequate. Garrett’s hybrid approach involves multiple methods rather than attempting to use only one solution (p. 158).
Garrett makes use of an Antiochene (that is not allegorical) hermeneutic but supplements it with schematic and conceptual solutions of his own. The following chapters are an application of his solution to the “problem” of the Old Testament within various areas of interpretation, including election and the covenants, law, narrative, and prophecy. He closes the book with a summary of his findings and issues that require further study. He also provides an appendix that serves as a potential preview of a future volume (p. 355).
There are many commendable aspects of this volume. One such aspect is part two of this book, in which Garrett evaluates solutions he has found inadequate to the problem of the Old Testament. Garret clearly and succinctly communicates the arguments of others and fairly represents the scholars he is evaluating. This is prevalent all throughout part two, but particularly in chapter five, in which Garrett describes covenant theology and dispensationalism. Garrett summarizes each system while also mentioning different branches. He balances acknowledging the right level of nuance to each side with acknowledging that his summaries of each side are not exhaustive (pp. 113, 122). Frequently, the author’s attempts at summarizing the viewpoint of another either misrepresent his fellow scholar’s argument or result in an exceedingly long chronicle that ceases to be a summary. Garrett’s writing is a refreshing departure from these tendencies.
Additionally, Garrett’s proposed solution to the problem of the Old Testament is well-argued and theologically grounded. As mentioned above, his solution is a hybrid approach that uses a mixture of hermeneutical, schematic, and conceptual perspectives to solve the problem. Though independently, he finds each one of these perspectives in some way inadequate, when viewed together, he argues a solution can be found. Garrett rightly observes the failure of the Antiochene hermeneutic in the time of the Reformation was an inability to demonstrate the applicability of the Old Testament to the Christian church (pp. 100-101). Yet, he selects this hermeneutic over the Alexandrian hermeneutic because he views its allusion as an unacceptable way to interpret Scripture.
Furthermore, Garrett’s schematic solution is neither covenant theology nor dispensationalism; he does not believe the Christian church is one people of God or that Israel continues to have a unique relationship with God, entirely independent of Gentiles (pp. 163-164). On the contrary, he correctly asserts Israel continues to be at the center of God’s plan of salvation. Yet, Gentiles have now been grafted into Israel and are partakers of the promises of Israel as adopted members of the nation of Israel (p. 172).
Interestingly, Garrett does not believe there is one unifying center to the Old Testament, despite the popularity of the search for such a concept. Many scholars struggle to connect Wisdom Literature to their proposed center. Garrett’s solution is to divide the Old Testament into two parts: Election Literature and Wisdom Literature. In other words, this separates Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs from the remaining books of the Old Testament (p. 171). While at first glance, this seems to be taking the path of least resistance, this distinction allows interpreters to avoid imposing the ideas of a given system on the text and to more honestly interpret the Old Testament (p. 172).
Election Literature is one of the areas Garrett applies these perspectives. Unsurprisingly, Garrett rejects the idea that the covenants are the unifying center of the Old Testament, and he also denies they build off one another. A key point in this argument is his distinction between unilateral (unconditional) and bilateral (conditional) covenants (p. 180). By demonstrating the differences between the types of covenants, he demonstrates each covenant, while related to one another, does not rely on the previous iteration.
Regarding the Law, Garrett argues for four functions of the law (pp. 234-239). Yet, what is more intriguing is his understanding of forgiveness in the Old Testament. He makes a compelling and biblically-based argument that animal sacrifice never was required for the forgiveness of sins. Rather, similar to baptism, animal sacrifices were an outward expression of inward repentance; forgiveness is granted purely on the basis of God’s mercy (p. 241-242).
Garrett achieves his goal of providing a solution to the problem of the Old Testament and demonstrates the viability of his solution. There is seemingly no end to volumes on the theology of the Old Testament, but Garrett’s volume is a helpful addition to this field. His proposals and perspectives differ enough from previous scholarship to be unique, yet they do not come close to departing from orthodoxy. This volume is best-suited for a seminary student, but anyone would benefit from this book. Even if one does not agree with all of Garrett’s conclusions, it will certainly challenge readers to re-evaluate how they read and interpret the Old Testament. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this work was that Garrett did not have the space to address Wisdom Literature or to go more in-depth in his various topics. Yet, throughout the book, he promises future volumes, and hopefully, these volumes will be as great of assets to the field as this volume.

Jordan Troeger
Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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