Hermeneutics continues to be one of the central issues within Christian scholarship. Differing methodological commitments are often seen as influencing or even determining the way in which theologies are extracted from Scripture. Yet with the helpful (and often demonized) epistemological issues raised by postmodernism, questions related to author, text, and reader continue to demand thoughtful reflection and interaction. Thus, the recent publication of Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views (IVP Academic, 2012), edited by Stanley E. Porter and Beth M. Stovell, is a welcome discussion partner for anyone attempting to become familiar with issues related to biblical interpretation.
The immediate strength (and, in my opinion, success) of Biblical Hermeneutics is related to the contributors. Each contributor is a leading advocate for their perspective and is capable of providing both a scholarly proposal as well as interactive responses for opposing positions. Secondly, the format of this book gives readers a better chance at reflecting upon methodology and evaluating the contrasting ideas. This is valuable in that it allows for the gamut of views to be properly represented by able scholars and gives them opportunity to “discuss” the subjects in a way that allows readers to “listen in” to a conversation. The contributors are as follows:
- Craig L. Blomberg writes for the Historical-Critical/Grammatical view
- F. Scott Spencer writes for the Literary/Postmodern view
- Merold Westphal writes for the Philosophical/Theological view
- Richard B. Gaffin Jr. writes for the Redemptive-Historical view
- Robert W. Wall writes for the Canonical view
The editors begin Biblical Hermeneutics with an introduction that traces the development of Scripture interpretation. Using the helpful triad of “behind the text,” “within the text,” and “in front of the text,” the editors helpfully introduce readers to a brief summary of ideas that address how biblical texts came to be a part of the canon of Scripture and how those texts have been understood primarily from the Enlightenment (18th century) until today. The survey also provides a very helpful look at how postmodernism must be considered, even by those who ultimately disagree with it, when we think through hermeneutical issues..The introduction raises several questions that readers (and interpreters!) must consider. For example:
- Where does meaning happen in relation to the biblical author’s intent, the reader’s response, and how the Christian community, both past and present, has interacted with the text?
- How is one to understand the very concept of meaning?
- Are we to understand Scripture only according to its original context or are there ways of reading Scripture that allows for a sensus plenior reading? What about how the NT interprets the Old?
- Who determines the proper reading and interpretation of Scripture and what determines its validity?
How does theology relate to exegesis (and contextualization/application)?
- What influence do historical events play in our reading of Scripture as well as our own personal experiences?
- How do we integrate (assuming we should) other disciplines in our reading of scripture (e.g., science, philosophy, theology, anthropology, etc.)?
All of the authors provide a variety of thoughts related to the subject, and then provide their own perspective’s hermeneutical analysis of Matthew 2:13-15 (except for Westphal, who takes a different route). I’m going to keep my review focused on summarizing each advocates perspective and then conclude with some thoughts on why Porter and Stovell hit the nail on the head with their own conclusion.
The first view covered is the Historical-Critical/Grammatical by Craig L. Blomberg. Blomberg makes a case for readers of Scripture to study it “in its original historical context” while seeking “the meaning its author(s) most likely intended for its original audience(s) or addressees based on the grammar and syntax.” This view, according to Blomberg, is one of analysis. We must analyze the culture in which Scripture was written as well as the traditions that helped shape the writers (e.g., Rabbinical Judaism). Interpreters, according to Blomberg, need to primarily analyze the culture, language, and context of the ancient world in order to properly understand, interpret, and apply Scripture. For Blomberg, and those who take this perspective on biblical interpretation, the primary concern related to analyzing the historic/grammatic is one of priority. The historical and grammatical work of the exegete is the first priority when dealing with interpreting Scripture.
However, it is not the only important way in which to interpret Scripture. This was a point that I greatly appreciated in Blomberg’s essay – he acknowledges that while the historical context must be taken seriously, there are also what some might call limitations. Perhaps many of those limitations are experienced by those of us who are on the front lines of the church, doing pastoral ministry. Blomberg is aware of this and wisely refuses to paint himself into a methodological corner. Thus, Blomberg does not write as one who suggests that all other hermeneutical methods are incorrect; rather, Blomberg argues that people need to get their hermeneutical priorities in the right order. Which method should have the priority in the task of the interpreter? Should the reader jump from text to dogmatics? Or application? In Blomberg’s opinion, all hermeneutics begin with one of analysis – analysis beginning in the ancient world. This is an excellent essay from one of evangelicalisms best NT scholars.
The next essay is by F. Scott Spencer on the Literary/Postmodern view. Before reading this chapter, I was a bit concerned about not having the wherewithal to actually understand the thrust of Spencer’s methodology. Why? Well, Derrida frustrates me, the logical coherence of some of the young post-moderns I talk to is equally frustrating, and I can only talk about the “meta-narrative of the deconstruction of the post-enlightenment period” for so long!. Plain and simple: Spencer’s perspective was one that I thought would be well outside my theological “circle.”
And yet I absolutely loved it.
I often tell people that Post-modernism is a blessing in disguise for the church. I think Spencer makes that apparent throughout his essay, as well as with his responses to the other essayists. While quickly dismissing some of the work of source critics, Spencer states that “literary-centered interpreters have especially lamented the relative neglect of the Gospels as complete and compelling literary works designed to be heard, read, and viewed in one sitting.” His illustration? Art. He writes,
“It is best to appreciate and approach the Gospels as the finely textured works of theological art they are. We must carefully analyze and scrutinize their complex portraits of Jesus from every angle, but now claw through them to find some safe to crack in the wall behind, only to find it full of fool’s gold.”
In my opinion, the “meat and potatoes” of Spencer’s essay is found in his section on the “open text.” For Spencer, there is a part of the “Protestant tradition” that implicitly calls for all readers to engage the biblical data and reflect on its application. In fact, he writes that “nothing is more basic than an open Bible open for everyone’s engagement.” After providing both the historical and sociological reasons as to why this can lead to having a plethora of “voices” in the “polyphonous” (multivoiced) conversation, Spencer tackles the modernist trump card against post-moderns – “hermeneutical anarchy.” Will taking a Literary/Postmodern view really lead to an “anything goes” approach to Scripture? Spencer thinks not. Building upon Kevin Vanhoozer, Spencer acknowledges that “there is such a thing as misinterpretation” because there are limitations and exegetical clues found within the original author’s intention. Thus, Spencer seeks to transition smoothly from the ancient world to the present. Starting from “closely concentrating on the linguistic, stylistic, structural, and thematic elements of the final text,” he wants to navigate toward the contribution that a diverse readership provides, while equally considering the different narratives surrounding the text. I’m inclined to see Spencer’s view as less “post-modern” and more “literary.”
Merold Westphal writes the next essay on the Philosophical/Theological view, beginning with a discussion on what philosophical hermeneutics is not: It’s not just about interpreting the Bible, it’s not restricted to interpreting texts, and it’s not a method or strategy for interpreting. Are you confused as to why a contributor to a book on biblical hermeneutics starts his essay in this manner? So was I.
In actuality, Westphal’s essay is hard to evaluate in comparison with the other essays because, if I understand it correctly, his essay is actually about the relationship between exegesis and hermeneutics. As he eloquently explains (and the other authors demonstrate) much that falls under the banner of “hermeneutics” is really about exegesis. Westphal wants to acknowledge that while those two topics are often integrated under the one, there are distinctions that need to be acknowledged. He helpfully draws out the implications of the “hermeneutical circle,” the authority of the author, objectivity or relativity, biblical interpretation, and “second hermeneutics” (application). In fact, Westphal serves us well in stating that “application” is actually a misleading concept “if we take it to mean the transition from theory to practice.” Instead, Westphal reminds us that “the movement is rather from then to now.” He writes,
“The hermeneutical task in both cases is to hear what God is saying to us now, in different contexts, through what human authors said to their readerships then.”
Westphal is explicitly challenging to those who embrace a modernist epistemology and seeks to ask the right questions about certainty and objectivity, along with an autonomous approach to the Christian faith. Rightly, Westphal states that “it is often the case that biblical reasons for parting company with modernity are as compelling as secular reasons, or more so.”
Having spent a fair amount of time studying, interacting with, and engaging in the Redemptive-Historical view, Richard B. Gaffin Jr. is most certainly one of the best scholars to address this perspective. The Redemptive-Historical view is, quite frankly, theological in nature. Thus, it’s heavy on the theological concept of redemption (which occurs in history) and revelation (which also occurs in history).
Building upon the work of Geerhardus Vos, Gaffin seeks to draw upon the discipline of biblical theology in the hopes of finding what some call a theological center. True to form, Gaffin’s hermeneutical center is obviously the concept of redemption, with the culminating focus being upon Christ. Gaffin offers a number of basic elements for understanding the Redemptive-Historical model, with detail given to the importance of noting that God’s special revelation has both deed revelation and word revelation. This can be understood in the familiar concept of promise and fulfillment. God has spoken, and God has acted – specifically in and through Jesus the Christ. Gaffin explores the theological center of redemption and suggests that it should function as a primary motif in understanding and applying Scripture.
The final essay is by Robert W. Wall and covers the Canonical view. Wall paints a hermeneutical picture that demonstrates that the Bible has important distinguishing elements. Thus, the nature of Scripture leads to a need to interpret Scripture theologically and in the context of community. As Wall writes, the purpose of Scripture is “to form the theological understanding and moral discipline of a holy people.” Wall’s discussion on the nature of Scripture is quite helpful as he distinguishes between the concept of Scripture being a human text, a sacred text, a single text, a shaped text, and the church’s text. The balance in his distinction is fantastic. His proposal seeks to avoid embracing what I refer to as solo scriptura (what Christian Smith seems to call “biblicism”) as well as avoiding a low view of Scripture. Both are detrimental to the church at large, and Wall is concerned with Scripture’s function to be a blessing upon God’s people and serving in the worship of our congregations.
Readers who are frustrated by the individualistic approach to interpreting Scripture that many people embrace will appreciate Wall’s emphasis on community (both present and historic). He writes,
“… the legitimacy of any biblical interpretation as truly Christian is not determined by its practical importance for a single readership but by general agreement with the church’s rule of faith, whose subject matter has been disclosed through the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ; witnessed to by his apostles; and preserved by the Holy Spirit in the canonical heritage of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”
Though this begs the question of what the “rule of faith” is, Wall seems to work towards drawing connection between the modern and the ancient, which is to be commended.
The second half of the book includes each author interacting with the other views. There is healthy pushback in each of the responses, and I appreciated both the clarity in which these responses provided in contrasting each of the views as well as the manner in which the criticisms were delivered. A key issue that recurs throughout, largely due to the selected text to interact over (Matt. 2:13-15), is how the NT interprets the OT. There are differing views and the responses allow these views to be fleshed out further.
And this brings me to Porter and Stovell’s conclusion. In my estimation, their chapter, “Interpreting Together: Synthesizing Five Views of Biblical Hermeneutics,” is excellent. They clearly see both the strengths and the weaknesses found in each of the views and conclude that rather than emphasizing one perspective to the exclusion of others, each view needs the others. In other words, this is not a case of “either/or” but really is a “both/and” if we want to see balance in the church.
In their view, they suggest that there are “three major avenues of understanding” in relation to biblical interpretation. We should,
- Identify the role and context of the author, text, the readers both ancient and modern, and the biblical interpreter;
- Allow for both literary and interpretive integrity and diversity by identifying literary features found in the text with awareness of the meta-narrative while also being aware of the specificity of the biblical cultures (yes, that sounds like a lot of work!); and
- Acknowledge the vital role that faith plays in our biblical interpretation as an influence in the task.
Biblical Interpretation delivers. The essays are all quality, the interaction is all informative, and the subject is extremely important for all followers of Jesus: there is ample information from a variety of traditions and perspectives that will aid for future discussion; there are key insights towards how we can interpret Scripture and connect the ancient world to our post-modern culture; and there is a sense of charity and an emphasis on learning together that is extremely helpful for the Body of Christ.
Reviewed by Luke Geraty
Luke Geraty has been lead pastor of Trinity Christian Fellowship for the past eight years and is a member of the Society of Vineyard Scholars. Interested in missional theology within the rural context and NT studies, Luke loves all things espresso, hockey, hip hop, and fly fishing. He blogs regularly at ThinkTheology.org as well as contributes to Multiply Vineyard.