The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People. Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens
ed. Jon Isaak. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009. 349 pages.
This festschrift honoring Elmer Martens, President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, is organized in three parts, corresponding to three areas of interest to Martens: “Christian Use of the Old Testament,” “Aligning God’s People with God’s Call for Justice,” and “Addressing the Issue of Land in the Life of God’s People.” Surprisingly, there is no section on Old Testament theology, a major preoccupation of Martens and the area where he contributed most in his publications. However, since several contributions address biblical theology directly or indirectly, that theme functions as a subtext for much of the book. Each section begins with a contribution by Martens himself; the fifteen other contributions appropriately honor a man who has always given more attention to the “forest than the trees,” to use an image he cherishes. This review focuses on one article from each section, though, as one might expect from the review of a festschrift, these cannot adequately summarize the book.
In an article exploring Christians’ use of the Old Testament, Lynn Jost seeks to allow the Old Testament voices to “continue in conversation with one another into the New Testament.” He attempts to find in Jesus a model to arbitrate multiple voices in the Old Testament. For example, in the discussion on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus draws a “testimony” from creation theology, while the Pharisees oppose to it a “countertestimony” from a Mosaic command. Jesus finally adjudicates between these competing traditions by reframing them theologically. Although Jost does not make explicit exactly how one might go about doing this, the principle is basically sound. The article, along with Gordon Matties’ essay, struggles with the relevance of the Old Testament for Christians and sees in the dialogical nature of the text a promising path for hermeneutics and theology.
John E. Toews’s “Righteousness in Romans: The Political Subtext of Paul’s Letter” shows that his understanding of Romans falls within the “New Perspective,” which attempts seriously to take into account the New Testament’s first-century context (Jewish and/or Greco-Roman). Toews convincingly points out the political and religious context through which much of the vocabulary of Paul and the early church must be understood. Words such as gospel, Son of God, Lord, mercy, faithful, faith, salvation, righteousness, sin, though often understood today strictly in religious terms, were politically loaded in the Roman Empire. This is increasingly recognized in scholarship, and the implications for rereading Paul, especially the Epistle to the Romans, can hardly be overstated.
Toews’s presentation draws more from the Greco-Roman thought-world than the Jewish-Old Testament one. The fact that many of the words which resonate so strongly against a Greco-Roman backdrop can also summon much meaning in the Jewish-Old Testament context does not weaken his argument, but it requires further justification: Should Romans be read mainly within one of these thought-worlds or both? Implicitly, Toews does draw on Old Testament understandings, notably in his description of righteousness not as “legal right-standing” but as a relational concept (with God and within his creation), fitting with the Old Testament’s covenantal framework of the concept.
A highlight of the third section is Tim Geddert’s “God’s Design and the Church,” in which he enters into direct conversation with Martens’ God’s Design. Geddert begins by identifying the two options designated (but not named) by Martens in God’s Design: seeing the church as replacing Israel (supersessionism) or as standing beside Israel as a distinct people of God (dispensationalism). Geddert adopts a third option, situated within the “New Perspective” (see Toews’s article), which consists in seeing the church as covenant Israel. Geddert emphasizes the distinction between covenant Israel (the people of God) and ethnic Israel, the former being a subset of the latter. He considers covenant Israel to be the same people as the church, and insists on the continuity of the one people of God. Though Geddert insists on identifying this view as a third way, we can see the ultimate outcome of his proposal as denying a special divine plan for Israel as an ethnic group, which will be difficult to accept for evangelicals influenced by dispensationalism.
Geddert convincingly demonstrates the new insights brought by a radical rereading of the New Testament through the “New Perspective,” and its contribution to very concrete theological “problems” such as the relation between Jews and Christians, a crucial issue to proponents of the New Perspective. A welcome side effect of Geddert’s view should be a renewed appreciation on the part of the church for the Old Testament, seen truly as the text of “our people.” In fact, Geddert’s view ensures that a proposal such as Martens’ God’s Design remains applicable to the church today.