What has gone wrong?

By John Hooper

A review of Learning about the Old Testament – A Biblical-Theological Introduction by Allan Harman. The Banner of Truth Trust. Small paperback, 127 pages. £5.50.

Although this book has been available since 2001 from another publisher this new Banner of Truth edition is my first acquaintance with it, and I must say that I was quite excited at the prospect of reading it. A broad overview of the Old Testament from a Biblical-theological perspective appealed to me and a comment on the back cover, noting that the author explains “particularly the importance of covenant in God’s relations with humanity,” aroused my interest further.

However, the book proved to be a disappointment and a concern. The introductory chapter on Approaching the Old Testament includes a section on “Bible translations” with the following advice: “For our own use, we need to pick one of the good newer versions, and make it our Bible for regular reading and study” (page 3). No attempt is made to justify this statement or to explain what constitutes a “good” newer version. Some of us prefer to stay with the old Authorized Version, and we do so because we regard it as not just good but the best. To anyone seeking to learn about the Old Testament we would always say “use the best.” It would seem that the author himself is content with the New International Version.

My next disappointment came in chapter 3, God’s Covenants. Why do modern writers find it necessary to talk up similarities between Old Testament covenants and those of the ancient Hittites (pages 16, 49, 62)? Are we really to believe that in establishing His covenant with His chosen people God used as a template the treaty arrangements of a people whom the children of Israel were to cast out and have nothing to do with (Deuteronomy 7:1)?

But the greatest shock came in the next chapter, The Covenant of Creation, where the author makes the following comment regarding the days of the creation week, “Nowhere does the Bible fix the length of these days, and in Genesis 1 and 2 the word “day” is used in at least five different senses” (page 22). Presumably this is to prepare us for what is to come three pages later, where we find this concerning the Fall:

The effect of sin was not to introduce a new principle (death), but to alter the existing relationships so that life became burdensome. No indication is given in the biblical text that animals, for example, were created immortal, while the instruction to Adam not to eat of the tree of life lest he die presupposes that he knew what death was (Genesis 2:17). The poetic description in Psalm 104 speaks of the animals dying and returning to the dust (Psalm 104:29). Sin brought a radical change. Death, instead of working for man’s good, was now to apply to man himself (Romans 5:12) (page 25).

Clearly this book comes with a not-so hidden agenda of old-earth creationism or theistic evolution. According to Harman, death did not enter creation as God’s punishment for sin, for already its sight and stench was polluting the face of the earth. It was only the death of man that came then. I’m afraid the change as Prof. Harman perceives it is hardly worthy of the term “radical” when compared with the reality. And of course the doubt cast as to the length of the creation days only serves this scenario. But do I really need to remind Prof. Harman that when God saw everything He had made He declared it all to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31)? Are we to believe that included death?

Quite how relevant Psalm 104:29 is to the argument I fail to see. The Psalmist is writing of what he sees in the creation around him, a creation that is filled with the manifold works of God but one that is clearly post-Fall (verses 21,35) and post-flood (verse 6,7). As for Romans 5:12, it completely contradicts what Harman is claiming: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin …” I’m afraid Prof. Harman’s theology here is woefully out of kilter with Scripture. Sin must precede death – not only the death of man but death as a principle involving the whole of creation. If sin and death are disconnected in the old creation then the glorious new creation of new heavens and a new earth become disconnected from the work of Christ, and that cannot be so (Romans 8:19-23).

When Harman considers the covenant with Noah in chapter 5 of his book it will perhaps come as no surprise to learn that he advocates a local flood. Applying geology to the Bible rather than the Bible to geology he tells us that geological investigation supports “massive local floods but not a universal one” (page 29). And as for the rainbow, it “was probably already in existence, but it was given a new meaning” (page 31).

As much as it would be helpful to have a brief overview of the Old Testament, I cannot recommend this one. It is mixed with error and that at the most critical point – the beginning. What is particularly dismaying and alarming about this book is the source from which it comes. Prof. Allan Harman is highly respected and over many years has taught in conservative Presbyterian theological colleges in Scotland, Australia and elsewhere around the world. Are the views expressed in his book typical of the teaching now given in what would otherwise be thought of as conservative Presbyterian seminaries and conservative Presbyterian pulpits? Furthermore, what does it tell us of the publisher? The Banner of Truth Trust is renowned for its conservative, Reformed output, especially of Puritan writings, but the content of this book hardly fits well with a reputation for faithfulness. It fills one with sadness. What has gone wrong?

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