Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Review: Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters

I had lunch today with two friends, both of whom are involved in apologetics ministries. We discussed the biggest weakness among evangelical apologetics—theology—particularly biblical theology. Apologists are too typically ignorant of the Bible and the theology grounded in it. We can discuss the latest articles in philosophy and science, but become very shaky discussing the Bible. The reasons are many, but this general ignorance compounds when the focus shifts to the Old Testament in particular.

Consider how many apologetic conversations you’ve had recently about the Old Testament. They probably focused on Creation or the conquest narratives in Joshua. Now consider how much of those discussions actually considered the Old Testament passages. If the conversations were like most, then they quickly framed the discussions in terms of science, philosophy and ethics—all fields where modern apologists are more comfortable. Here’s the problem…our apologetics should be be saturated with Scripture, at least in how it frames our discussions.[1] We are not generic theists, but Christians.[2] I believe that a general ignorance of the Bible, and especially the Old Testament only hurts apologists.

Iain Provan, one of evangelicalism’s finest Old Testament scholars, has provided a much needed book—Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters—to quell this problem.[3] He intends to explain accurately the profundity and uniqueness of the Old Testament story, while also showing how it provides a comprehensive perspective to read the New Testament. Provan shows further how this “Old Story” confronts and better explains life than its various competitors.

After an introduction that helps the reader better understand art, history and narrative, Provan uses the first few chapters of Genesis to answer life’s most foundational questions. A few of these questions are, “What is the world?” “Who is God?” “How should we relate to God?” “Why do evil and suffering mark the world?” These are clearly some of the most foundational questions that every human must answer regardless of their worldview. Provan expertly answers these questions from the biblical story, but also exhibits great familiarity with other Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature, philosophy, art and non-Christian religious texts.

If you are ideologically set, then you might not like the book because it will challenge you. Some unfamiliar with the Old Testament texts themselves might be surprised at the openness of certain passages when read in their ancient context. They are not as one-dimensional as you might expect. At the same time, other readers might be surprised at the narrow vision of the earliest chapters of Genesis in allowing only a particular understanding of God, His plan for salvation, sexual ethics, etc.

I personally learned most from chapter 5 on the nature of evil. Provan discusses what Genesis teaches about the origins of suffering and evil. He suggests that certain suffering is intrinsic to creation, while other suffering is extrinsic, arising from evil. The chapter discusses the nature and origin of particular sufferings and what these teach us about the nature and character of God. If this chapter were turned into a booklet, I would regularly pass it out to friends who ask the tough questions about evil and suffering, since it does a much better job than much popular writing on the topic.

Chapters 9 and 10 on the ecological and cultural vision of the Old Testament were also extremely interesting. These chapters will help apologists who often excel in discussing the how of creation, but struggle in sharing the why. Often, non-Christians are just as interested in the world for which we hope as they are in the world for which we can offer an explanation. How many times have non-Christians asked you, “What difference does it make?” Apologists who can only argue what God did without presenting why He did it will be greatly helped by this book.

Who should read this book? I would readily give it to apologists who feel uncomfortable in the Old Testament. This book will help them to understand its message better. It will also provide a framework for their interpretation of passages not discussed, including the New Testament. Furthermore, it will frame their apologetic discussions within a much larger narrative of God’s theological plan and intentions.

I would also recommend this book to atheists. It’s not a short read, but it doesn’t require a Christian background. In many conversations I’ve found that the god whom atheists rail against is merely an idol. Christians should seek to destroy such idols alongside atheists. For the inquisitive atheist, this book should help them to understand better the God of Christianity, whom is found in the pages of the Old Testament, and thus destroy the idols of their imagination.[4]

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer G. Kyle Essary served as a church planter in Asia from 2006-2013, and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies in order to return to Asia and better teach how the Old Testament points to Jesus.

[1] An older, but relevant article on the topic is Michael J. Kruger, “The Sufficiency of Scripture in Apologetics.” Found online here:

[2] I’ve heard Cornelius Van Til quoted as saying that “Generic theists go to hell with atheists.” His point is pertinent. We do not seek to bring people to a generic theism—as Christian apologists, our goal is always that our interlocutors trust in Jesus Christ as Lord.

[3] Ian Provan is currently the Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College, having previously taught at King’s College London, the University of Wales and the University of Edinburgh in Hebrew and Old Testament.

[4] From a more philosophically/theologically inclined atheist, I would also recommend David Bentley Hart’s recent The Experience of God. He successfully sets forth the case for the God of classical theism.


Art Klym said...

It appears the publisher is not intent on putting this book before many readers. The paperback on Amazon is $49.99. The Kindle price is $39.99.

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