Review of Merrill’s Everlasting Dominion

I posted my congratulations to Eugene Merrill, under whom it was my privilege to study at DTS, when his book Everlasting Dominion: A Theology of the Old Testament appeared. Today I realize that I never posted my full review, so here it is. I reiterate my congratulations to and esteem for Dr. Merrill, and I would add to the review below that I think his book has the best title of any OT Theology – “everlasting dominion” (Dan 7:14) – amen and hallelujah!

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Eugene H. Merrill, Everlasting Dominion: A Theology of the Old Testament. Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2006. xvi + 682 pp. $39.99, Hardcover.

Published in Westminster Theological Journal 69.2 (2007), 411–12.

Asserting in his preface, written on his seventy-first birthday, that “biblical theology is ‘an old man’s game,’” Eugene Merrill gives us the fruit of his life-long study of the Old Testament in Everlasting Dominion: A Theology of the Old Testament. The long-time DTS professor is well known to students for his widely used Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel and for his conservative commentary on Deuteronomy in the NAC series.

Recent books on Old Testament theology have generally been arranged either chronologically—moving through the history reflected in the Old Testament (Goldingay’s vol. 1), or canonically—moving book by book through the Hebrew order of the books (Dempster, Dumbrell, House), or thematically—organizing the material by major themes (Brueggemann, Goldingay’s vol. 2). Merrill’s Old Testament theology combines these three approaches. He proposes “to pay serious attention to” the Hebrew canon “while attempting to adhere to the diachronic movement of the tradition,” structuring his work around (1) God, (2) mankind, and (3) the kingdom (29–31). Organizing a book on Old Testament theology is a challenge. If the treatment does not move clearly from one book of the Old Testament to the next, or if the author does not articulate a thesis at the outset, clearly state how that thesis will be argued, and then relate everything back to that central idea (N. T. Wright is a master of this), a large book quickly begins to feel like an assemblage of loosely related topical studies.

Everlasting Dominion presents twenty chapters in five parts. The introduction sets forth the history of biblical theology, the need for this book, Merrill’s presuppositions, and his method for proceeding. Part One (chs. 2–5) synthesizes God’s character, his revelation, his works, and his purposes. Part Two (chs. 6–9) traces mankind from creation through the fall to redemption and the creation of the nation. Parts Three (chs. 10–14) and Four (chs. 15–17) deal with the Kingdom of God. Part Three focuses mainly on the historical narratives of the OT, and Part Four treats “The Prophets and the Kingdom.” Part Five (chs. 18–19) then discusses the Psalms and the Wisdom Literature, and the final chapter summarizes Merrill’s findings. Parts One and Two are thus thematic, dealing with God and Man, then Parts Three through Five move chronologically through the Old Testament.

Merrill insists on an inductive approach. This is a strength if one is seeking to avoid the charge of dogmatism, and here Merrill succeeds. The inductive approach leads him “to engage the task with blinders on . . . so that the finished product can be judged to be biblical and not dogmatic” (21). This strength, however, has its attendant weaknesses. Chief of these is the assumption that blinders are more useful for seeing what is in the text than the field of vision blocked by the blinders. Everyone comes to the texts with peripheral vision. Better to use peripheral vision to advantage than counteract it with blinders. Blinders seem to have been standard fare for Merrill’s generation, but rising generations of evangelical scholars seem to be unashamedly rejecting them, deciding that the full picture sans blinders allows a clearer view of, among other things, texts in canonical context. There are deep waters here whose depths I have not space to plumb: some evangelical academics seem to have conceded the notion that “doubt is a virtue; credulity a vice” (see Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?, 22–25), and it seems to this reviewer that the eyes work better without such blinders.

Another problem with an overly inductive emphasis is that it appears to have led Merrill to reserve his presentation of what he sees as the center of Old Testament theology until the end of his book. He states that he believes there is a center of Old Testament theology in the introduction (27), hints at it at least once in the body (129), then postpones his exposition of it until the theological exposition that concludes the volume (646–48). But if an idea is truly central, then presenting it throughout would have an organizational force on the material, helping readers understand what the texts say. The Bible’s stories and songs would fit together if they could be seen in relation to what is truly central, seen as they relate to everything else in orbit around the center.

Nothing that has been said should be taken to mean that there are not flashes of insight and forceful statements to be found in this book. For instance, Merrill writes, “The controlling thesis of the present work is that God, who has existed from eternity past, interrupted the endless eons by a mighty work of creation in which he brought about an arena over which he might display his glory and power as the sovereign Lord” (277). Amen! But perhaps this could have been the first sentence of the volume, or could have come somewhere in the first twenty pages. A similarly strong statement concludes Part One by heralding God’s purposes, which are opposed by Satan but accomplished by the messianic scion of David (161–62). But again, this strong sally could have been sent in the opening lines rather than the closing, then fought for throughout the section. Perhaps a desire for a thesis statement at the beginning followed by an argument for that thesis is merely personal preference, but it is what this reviewer prefers.

Merrill is not impressed by recent reassessments of the influence of Genesis 3:15 on the rest of the Old Testament. According to him, there are “no allusions to it in later Old Testament literature” (246). Nor does he seem interested in the connections (pointed out by Wenham, Beale, and others) between Eden, the Tabernacle, and the Temple. And the issue of Typology finds no place in his discussion. Those who think that the Old Testament is thoroughly messianic, that Typology is central to the understanding of its messianism, and that the connections between Eden and the Tabernacle/Temple provide interpretive keys to God’s purpose initiated in the Garden, carried forward through Israel and the new covenant Temple (the church), and consummated in the fulfillment of the Garden/Temple in the new Jerusalem, will probably not be stimulated by Merrill’s discussions. But it could be that this complex of ideas, so appealing to the present reviewer, is the sound and fury of youth, rightly ignored by those whose hoary head is a crown of glory and wisdom (Prov 16:31).

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