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January 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 1 · pp. 32–35 

Book Review

God's Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology

Elmer A. Martens. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981. 271 pages.

Reviewed by Marlin E. Thomas

There are many ways to approach biblical studies. Among others one may approach the Bible historically, systematically, theologically, topically, or exegetically. Each approach has its own validity and usefulness. A biblical theology has the stated purpose of systematizing the themes about God which are presented in the Bible, so that they may become relevant to the issues of life as they are perceived by any given generation. In God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology, Elmer Martens has chosen the synthetic approach by which to bring together the major themes about God’s self-disclosure to man as revealed in the Old Testament. He has done so under the four headings of salvation, community, knowledge of God, and land, which he believes are focused by the pivotal text of Exodus 5:22-6:13. Written in language suitable for the classroom, yet easily understood by the busy pastor at work in his study, this book promises to make a significant contribution to the evangelical understanding of the Old Testament. Martens both affirms his evangelical colleagues and prods them forward in their investigative studies, offering as he goes numerous excellent sermon starters for pastors desirous of serious preaching from the first testament.

More to the point for Mennonite Brethren, it may be said that with publication of this work a new beginning in biblical studies has been signaled. For a church with a history of only a little more than a century, which has devoted most of its efforts to date to an understanding of how to express its common life and mission by the teachings of the New Testament, this must be viewed as a most significant step. Martens has done credit to his heritage by developing his thought in such a way so as to show that the Old Testament may be seen as the proper foundation upon which Jesus built his church. As such, it merits serious attention even by a church which has pledged itself to live by the standard laid down in the New Testament. In addition, this book will add positively to the sparse literature on Old Testament themes produced by the wider world of Mennonite scholarship.

As already noted, Martens attempts rather courageously, and to a creditable degree of success, to focus the multifarious and widely-divergent themes of the OT around the concept of “God’s Design.” In so doing it appears that the author has found a more satisfactory rubric than some other recently proposed single issue themes, such as covenant, {33} election, promise, or even Yahweh.

Those who are primarily concerned with the practical issues of daily living will be pleased with the way in which the author seeks a core for the OT which “supplies the fibre for the Christian faith.” The author believes that “unless the message of the Old Testament is clearly articulated, its relevance to the New Testament and to Christians today will remain fuzzy” (p. 12). This conviction is followed through by constantly relating the discussion to such contemporary issues as social justice, discipleship and obedience, and legalism.

By dividing the scope of OT theological thought into three eras (pre-monarchic, monarchic, and post-monarchic) the author makes his work both more comprehensible and more manageable for the student and the pastor. While it is difficult thus to trace the nuanced development of various themes, it is certainly much easier to clearly understand the overarching message of the texts.

Articulate, incisive explications of truth are to be found frequently. Martens offers an excellent discussion on sin and sacrifice, the significance of land, the concept of prophecy, the use of value of wisdom literature, and an alternative interpretation of Daniel. A valuable short course on apocalyptic is included. Also of great value, the final chapter (ch. 15) eloquently shows how the NT flows out of the Old. Focusing on Matthew and Romans, two NT books which bear the heavy imprint of ancient OT influence, the author finds the Christian fulfillment of all four components of the “Design” in both. In Matthew it is linked to the Kingdom of God, and in Romans the centrality of the righteousness (right deeds) of God, and the community of God (now composed both of Jews and Gentiles) become central. Although a little stretching is necessary to make the fourfold design fit well in every era discussed, the author acknowledges the difficulty and generally does not push his correlations farther than they ought to be pushed.

Aside from its brevity, no serious difficulties plague the book, although the score of errata found by this reviewer proved to be a distraction and could have been avoided. The footnoting was found to be well done and quite helpful, as were also the tables, indices and bibliography, although the latter is not comprehensive of the field. The author has interacted courageously, albeit cautiously, with modern critical scholarship, preserving many of its benefits while avoiding its excesses. He does not shy away, for example, from the vexing problem of the composition of Isaiah or the authorship of apocalyptic, yet allows every word of scripture to speak in its rightful place as the Word of God. Also to be found is an excellent blend of the M.B. emphasis on relational discipleship and modern evangelical piety. In his final chapter on covenant (ch. 12) he suggests a discontinuity in the covenants of the OT at which some will want to take a second look. {34}

Professor Martens is to be commended for this work which deserves widespread circulation, especially among students and fellow workers of the Mennonite Brethren Church.

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