For anyone who considers themself to be a Christian, they have most likely encountered a verse, a passage, a story, or even a book of the Bible that has had them scratching their head, wondering whether or not it’s true or just how they should be interpreting it. For centuries, people have come to these passages from a variety of different viewpoints.
How do we approach the Bible? What do we do with the sections that seem fairly controversial to us? What happens when parts of it seem to be out of date or irrelevant? What happens when the dominant culture pulls away from what had become the societal norms conveyed in the pages of Scripture?
With his latest book, “Confronting Old Testament Controversies – Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History, and Violence,” Tremper Longman addresses some of the questions most frequently asked about the Bible and all that is found within its pages.
To start, Longman states in his introduction that, “this book is written for the church and not the broader culture.” This is a helpful statement knowing that he would be writing with a very different approach had his book been targeted at those who did not necessarily subscribe to the Bible’s teachings.
Longman tells his readers what he will be addressing within the book. Creation and evolution. Historicity. Divine Violence. Sexuality.
Longman spends some necessary time addressing the notion of inerrancy. He writes of interpretation and intended meaning of authors. Basically, he gives a high level overview of hermeneutics. He does a good job of giving this overview as he also addresses context and seeing Scripture through the eyes of those for whom it was originally intended.
God speaks, Longman writes, through nature and through the Bible. While those things are inerrant, our interpretations of both of those may not always be true.
From here, Longman goes on to dig into Genesis. He addresses various teachings that have occurred over the years on the first chapters of the Bible. How should we be interpreting it based upon other writings similar in style to it? Is there figurative language used that is trying to be read more literally than it was intended?
As he lays this all out, Longman writes that Genesis 1 is not giving the reader, “a blow-by-blow account of how God created everything but is using the standard workweek…as a literary device…” He reminds the reader that genre triggers reading strategy. So, we are in error to be reading poetry or analogy as history.
He compares the creation account found in the Bible to other creation accounts found in the ancient near East. He concludes the section saying that there is no reason, in his scholarly opinion, to think that what is found in the pages of Genesis gives a factual report of the specific process of creation. Considering evolution or other secondary causes, Longman suggests, does not undermine God’s role as the divine Creator. He goes on to address the fall of humanity, Adam and Eve, and other ramifications that his interpretation may reveal.
After creation and evolution, Longman addresses the historicity of various sections of the Bible. Did they really happen? If they didn’t happen, does that undermine the validity of Scripture? What do we do when Scripture makes reference to these elsewhere or when Jesus himself makes reference to them?
In this section, Longman, who considers himself a part of the evangelical camp, is critical of evangelicals saying that, “evangelicals have a tendency to treat the Bible as if it were all one genre.” While he addresses a story like Job and says that it did not actually happen historically, he also addresses the exodus and says that the historicity of that story is crucial to establishing a track record for the God of Israel.
Longman gets fairly technical, addressing some of the historic finds that have brought into question the validity and historicity of the Bible. His bottom line is that not all of the sections of the Bible need to be interpreted as having literally and historically taken place in order for the message that is conveyed to be true and important.
He then moves to the section on divine violence. As he enters into this section, he gives his reader the bottom line thesis saying that both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible give a consistent, coherent, and unified picture of God. He addresses the concern that many have had in trying to reconcile the wrath of God shown in the Old Testament with the love of God identified within the New Testament.
He does a good job of conveying his viewpoint as well as contrary viewpoints. He gives reasons for his difference and supports his argument. As he speaks of death, pain, suffering, and violence, Longman reminds his reader that death and suffering were not the purpose or goal of Jesus’ mission but instead that his mission was accomplished through death and suffering.
While there are certainly uncomfortable sections and events in the pages of the Bible which describe the wrath and violence of God, Longman says that we need to interpret God based on his revelation of himself in those pages rather than trying to soften the sections that make us uncomfortable or with which we disagree.
The final section of Longman’s book may very well be the most anticipated and controversial. It seems that the traditional Christian stance on sexuality has become outdated and flies in sharp contrast and opposition to where culture and society are today.
Longman addresses the controversy and argument that many have made regarding the publicness of sex. He writes, “Sex and marriage are public, social acts, not private acts, even if the sexual acts are done behind closed doors.” He also addresses gender and sexuality dysfunction, saying that everyone is sexually dysfunctional at some level.
While Longman addresses the standard laws that have been used in the argument against homosexuality, he also brings focus back to creation and speaks of God’s original intent for things. He reminds them that creation, as we are experiencing it, is not as God originally intended it to be. Therefore, we need to be cautious about not considering that as we look at everything.
He addresses the standard argument of the three types of laws found within the Old Testament: ceremonial, moral, and civil laws. He makes his case that ceremonial and even some civil laws may have been fulfilled but that there is no indication in the Bible that the moral laws that were originally given to the people of God were ever made null and void anywhere in Scripture.
He hits on arguments and questions that have been made by some who support an affirming lifestyle. He writes, “Our problem is that we, as modern Westerners, believe that love should allow us all as individuals to find our own personal happiness in the here and now. But personal happiness is not the greatest good in the Bible.” Ultimately, Longman lands on the traditional side of this argument.
Longman addresses each of these topics in its own chapter, making the chapters fairly long. Each chapter has discussion questions for use by the reader to spend time mulling over these various sections. Some sections get a little heady and he may lose some of his readers in these technical sections. Of course, I could imagine him simply suggesting that readers skip to the sections of which they are most interested.
I was so curious coming to this book as to where he would stand on these four important topics. As I read through the first section on creation and evolution, I was somewhat surprised at where he came down with his conclusion. Then, after reading the first three sections of the book, I was rather surprised to come to Longman’s section on sexuality and read his stance. I had expected, based on what I had encountered in those first three sections, that Longman would be vying for a non-traditional approach towards sexuality and marriage.
Longman treated these topics with academic care, as would be suggested by someone of his educational and professional background. While there were times when he seemed to be belabor the point (in my opinion), I think he did a sufficient job of covering his bases, laying out arguments for and against his case, and clearly giving his final analysis on these topics.
Readers may not hang on for all the depth that Longman gives them in this book. While he comes from the academic world and, at times, he dives fully into that in his writing and explanations, he does a good job not getting too overly academic and is still understandable by the average person.
Longman did not seem to have treated all four of these topics consistently. While there were some sections where he would bring in viewpoints of others, he did not always do that. While I would not say that this impacted his treatment of any of these topics, it would have been nice to have been given some names and viewpoints together rather than going through the bibliography and looking up books and authors individually.
“Confronting Old Testament Controversies” is worth the read. While it may not be for everyone, those who do read through it from front to back, regardless of whether they agree or not, should find themselves walking away having learned something along the way.
(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)