The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People: Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens

Wilma Ann Bailey

The Conrad Grebel Review 28, no. 2 (Spring 2010)

Jon Isaak, ed. The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People: Essays in Honor of Elmer A. Martens. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009.

This festschrift was written in honor of Elmer A. Martens, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament and President Emeritus of the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. Martens was, and is, a biblical theologian. His interests extend beyond textual study to asking questions about how to formulate a coherent theology that includes both Testaments. This volume focuses on that issue.

After a brief biographical sketch, the book is divided into three parts, each dealing with a major area of Martens’s scholarly interests: 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. Each section starts with an article written by Martens himself, followed by articles by his colleagues, friends, and former students.

In the first section, Martens describes his approach to biblical law (torah) as wholistic and “grounded in Heilsgeschichte” (24), which places him squarely in the biblical theology movement of the mid-20th century. Although he affirms that the law was rightly received as a gift from God by ancient Israel and was meant to serve the purposes of faith, in the end “the law is superseded by God’s latest gift, Jesus, the Christ” (27). Some of the articles that follow Marten’s continue in a similar vein, interpreting the NT witness (though not the church) as either continuing or superseding the OT witness. A couple of essays in this section, such as Marlene Enns’s study of intercultural theological education, though interesting, seem only tangentially related to the general topic of law.

The second section focuses on justice and religious pluralism. Martens’s article defines and describes the concepts of justice/righteousness through use of a wide variety of texts in both Testaments. In his reading of texts that speak about other religions, he concludes there is truth in other religions. The truth in them, however, is determined by “Yahweh’s standard of justice” (136). Some religions are roundly condemned by Scripture – those that are polytheistic. But salvation may very well be possible for others who do not know Christ, and that, he concludes, is “best left to God” (141). This article is followed by a rather eclectic collection related in some way to the general theme of religious pluralism in biblical texts.

In the third section, Martens’s essay examines references to “land” in the NT. He does not find many, so he examines metaphorical language that might be carrying forward the concepts expressed through land theology in the OT. Land, he notices, is a place of economic and political security and a place of rest in the OT. What is the equivalent in the NT? He writes that “land may be a metaphor for salvation” (231). Metaphors related to creation in Romans may be expressing some of the ideas of land in the first part of the Bible, he argues. It is surprising that Martens makes only a brief reference to negative aspects of land, such as the connection between land, conflict, and war, and the way land possession changed the theology of God from one who travels with the whole community of people to one who is connected to one place served by an elite priesthood.

This book as a whole is grounded in a middle-of-the-road conservative evangelical tradition that seeks a unified biblical theology that in some way finds consistencies between the Testaments or sees the NT as a continuation of the OT, though not every essay fits that tradition. Any attempt to do this must deal with the presence of Judaism, a religion that claims the same material, less the NT, as its heritage. Many of the authors affirm the integrity of the Jewish tradition that grows out of what Christians call the Old Testament. But they still hold to a kind of supersessionism, expressed by Martens as “Christ has superseded the law” (26). Evangelical language such as Timothy Geddert’s “Jews who believed” (255) as being the “continuation of Israel” (260) would be interpreted as supersessionism by many.

Because many of the articles summarize the research of other prominent conservative evangelical scholars and an occasional liberal one, readers get a good sense of the thinking of this section of the Christian community on the chosen topics.

Wilma Ann Bailey, Professor of Hebrew and Aramaic Scripture, Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, IN