Making Sense of the Old Testament: Three Crucial Questions

By Tremper Longman III
Grand Rapids : Baker (1998). 154 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Grisanti
12.2 (Fall 2001) : 266-268

Tremper Longman III, professor of Old Testament at Westmont College and author of a number of literary works, wrote this volume as part of the Three Crucial Question series (at least twelve volumes are envisioned). The books in this series seek to address a specific topic relevant to the Christian faith in understandable language. As an OT professor, Longman admits that the OT is both difficult to appreciate and understand because of numerous differences in time and culture. In the present volume Longman argues that the only way one can fully understand the NT is to comprehend and appreciate the OT.

Longman poses and answers three key questions (which serve as the titles of the book’s three chapters): What are the keys to understanding the OT?, Is the God of the OT also the God of the NT?, and How is the Christian to apply the OT to life? The volume concludes with a brief Scripture and subject index.

After surveying some attractions and obstacles to OT study, Longman delineates nine interpretive principles: discover the author’s intended meaning, read Scripture in its context, identify the genre of the book and passage, consider the historical and cultural background of the Bible, consider the grammar and structure within the passage, interpret experience in the light of Scripture (not Scripture in the light of experience), always seek the full counsel of Scripture, discover how the Scripture passage presents Jesus Christ, and be open-minded and tolerant of other interpretations. Space limitations permit only a few comments on this overview. As part of Longman’s helpful treatment of the issue of authorial intention, he wrestles with the challenge of interpreting the ancient Scriptures in light of one’s present situation (30). He suggests that an American and Latin American student of the Word might come to different interpretations because of their unique set of circumstances. Longman proposes that these two interpretations might not only be contradictory, but that both might be correct. I do not disagree if he means that both may have correctly understood an aspect of the right interpretation of a given passage and misunderstood other aspects of a passage. However, if Longman means that two contradictory interpretations are compatible or that both could be right, I disagree. That seems to border on a reader-response approach to Scripture that suggests that meaning and not just application can be determined by the setting of the reader. Secondly, in his explanation of the necessity to consider the genre of a passage, Longman correctly observes that “much mischief can go on under the rubric of genre” (43). That observation does not dismiss the benefit or importance of considering genre issues, but does provide a necessary caution when giving attention to the genre question.

In the second chapter Longman seeks to respond to the false stereotyping of God in the OT (as arbitrary and angry) and God in the NT (as loving and kind) as presentations that are contradictory. He directs the reader’s attention to four themes that give coherence to the OT’s and NT ’s presentation of God: Yahweh as the central theme throughout the Bible, the metaphor of covenant king, the metaphor of the Divine Warrior, and the metaphor of Immanuel (God’s presence with His people). Longman’s Reformed perspective is especially apparent in his explanation of the second and fourth themes. First, he contends that all the OT covenants reach consummation in Christ, who rules over a heavenly kingdom rather than an earthly one in the Millennium. Whether or not any OT covenants find fulfillment in the NT age, this interpretation spiritualizes or makes figurative the various statements in the OT that depict Christ ruling over the earth in the distant future. Secondly, in his attempt to trace the manifestations of God’s presence throughout the Bible (e.g., in Eden, through altars, the Tabernacle, and the Temple), Longman posits that Christ is the new temple of God. There will be no earthly Temple rebuilt during the Millennium. In commenting on John 4:23-24 (where Jesus exhorts his followers to worship His Father in sp irit and in truth), Longman concludes that Jesus’ comments imply that the Temple is no longer needed. According to Longman, each of the Gospel writers understood Jesus to put Himself in place of the Temple. Once again, although Christ does make some association between Himself and the Temple, He never presents Himself as the final replacement for the Temple.

In answering the question, How is the Christian to apply the OT to life?, Longman addresses the specific issue of the Law and the Christian and then the more general issue of applying OT truth in a broad sense. In the first part of his discussion (103-23), he presents theonomy and dispensationalism as the two extremes or poles of opinion as relates to the question of whether or not a Christian must live under the Mosaic Law. After giving a brief overview of theonomic beliefs and giving a more brief mention of the historically recent appearance of dispensationalism, he dismisses both alternatives (he never interacts with any dispensational beliefs).

Longman contends that the commands of the Moral Law are still operative for the Christian (110). Although no one has been or can be saved by the law (or by obedience to it), Longman suggests that the Law’s role in the life of the Christian is the same as it was for the Israelites. The Law represents “our gracious God’s guideline for living that pleases him and is good for us” (118). In addition to the continuing binding nature of the Ten Commandments, the case laws do illustrate ethical principles that are relevant today (although they are not directly applicable to the contemporary Christian).

In his broader treatment of the OT (123-36), Longman surveys the key sections (history, poetry, wisdom, and prophecy) exhorts the present believer to read the OT carefully and apply it to his life.

There is no easy or brief answer to the “Law and the Christian” issue. Several passages in both testaments demand attention in order to deal with the question. However, the NT’s presentation of Christ as the fulfillment of the Law suggests that the Law is no longer operational as a binding standard for the NT Christian.

Longman’s volume is a helpful one. He wrestles with some very important questions as it relates to appreciating and understanding the OT, a much-neglected topic. He provides some helpful guidelines for interpreting the OT, sheds light on key points of thematic coherence between the Old and New Testaments, and addresses the sticky issue of the Law and the Christian. Although Longman’s work has value, his Reformed perspective comes through at a number of junctures (as one should expect). Consequently, one needs to read this volume carefully, but not skeptically.