Every year I try to vary my reading of Christian books so that I don’t get stuck in the rut of only reading a limited number of genres. I fear a very narrow reading habit contributes to much of the shallow theology of evangelicalism. Most people only read stuff that bolsters their own convictions. I don’t want to be a pastor fanboy. So one way I seek to increase my exposure to new ideas is to read broadly. Nearly the last genre on my list is biblical hermeneutics, which is a mix of the philosophy, method, and art of interpreting the Bible. Usually the only hermeneutics reading that a pastor will do is in seminary. And that is too bad because most pastors are probably exposed to only their teacher’s hermeneutic. But it is understandable because reading up on hermeneutics is a lot like eating your Brussel sprouts and doing the annoying doctor-prescribed exercises. It’s good for you, but not always enjoyable. Well, one way to make my Bible vegetables a little more appetizing this time around was to tackle one of those books that compares and contrasts different views on a particular subject. In Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, edited by Stanley Porter and Beth Stovell, five other contributors set forth their view in essay format. Later in the book, the same five authors interact with the views of the others. The format of this kind of “discussion-debate” book makes exploring the topic a little more interesting and a lot more stimulating. There simply is no better way to understand a subject until you’ve heard multiple perspectives. So instead of reading five technical books, the reader gets an intermediate-level technical discussion in one volume.
All five of the contributors are self-described evangelicals. They approach the Bible not from a higher-critical hermeneutic of suspicion, but a position of faith and trust. Still, in comparing each author the reader becomes increasingly aware that their various starting points and foundational beliefs regarding the authority of the Bible are not identical. Their agreement that the Bible is authoritative does not lead to consensus views of inspiration, infallibility, or inerrancy. This necessarily affects their methods and applications of hermeneutics, which is obvious when each contributor put their method in action on the New Testament text of Matthew 2:7-15.
Representing the Historical-Critical/Grammatical view is Craig Blomberg. This view is sometimes called the grammatico-historical method. This method is the majority view in biblical interpretation for both evangelical and secular circles. Scott Spencer employs the Literary/Postmodern view, relying on modern literary analysis and postmodern deconstructionist techniques. The Philosophical/Theological view is propounded by Merold Westphal. His interpretive grid seeks to operate at a higher plane. Thus it is not an interpretive method as such. Hence he does not offer an application of his view to the Matthew text, preferring instead to predict variety, disagreement, and complementarity from the other four contributors. Arguing for the Redemptive-Historical approach is Richard Gaffin, a disciple of the father of the modern biblical theological method Geerhardus Vos. Although sometimes labeled a meta-hermeneutic in the same category as the Philosophical/Theological method, Gaffin demonstrates through his application of redemptive-historical principles of interpretation that his is definitely a hermeneutic that can actually touch the text. Finally, the Canonical view is set forth by Robert Wall.
I found valuable insights in hearing each of the contributors argue his case. Blomberg sought to establish the grammatico-historical method as the necessary foundation for all other methods, which he agreed have something worthwhile to bring to the table. This thesis is grounded on his confidence in discovering true information about the author, date, audience, provenance, and purpose of particular Bible passages. Some of the other contributors expressed reservations at Blomberg’s level of confidence. They have a point. The postmodern critique of modernism’s confidence in progression toward arrival at the Truth is hard hitting–although not quite as devastating as it boasts.
Spencer’s and Gaffin’s methods have the most creative room to breathe. Both methods may be employed to stretch biblical interpretation incredulously, but it appears that in this volume Gaffin didn’t overreach. Spencer did. His deconstruction of the Matthew text leads him to conclude that the magi visiting baby Jesus were more buffoonish than wise, more helper to King Herod than worshiper of King Jesus. When Wall moves from the text itself to the reader’s response to it, he opens the door that readers from other cultural contexts than himself will see things in the Bible that he doesn’t see from his own limited perspective. In fact, they may even see things that contradict other perspectives. For Wall, this is all good. Viva la difference! But from a historical evangelical perspective, shouldn’t contradiction (not complementarity) between various interpretations indicate that at least one interpretation is wrong? This would have to be the case if the Bible is not only a human text but a Holy Spirit-inspired (even expired) message from God. Gaffin’s view of Scripture’s authority gets this right. And so in his response essay he calls out his co-contributors for their deficient doctrine of Scripture’s authority.
The canonical view confused me in terms of its foundational authority. I understand it seeks to not only deal with the final text defined by the historic Church, and not some hypothesized history of source and form, and to respect the canonical order of the Bible’s books, but I don’t see how this helps us to interpret God’s words. Rather, it seems to me that canonical criticism—which seeks to draw interpretive insights from the fact that the Church packaged the Gospel as a four-fold book with Matthew given preeminence over Mark, Luke, and John—is better categorized as ecclesiastical theology. After all, on a Protestant view of the Bible’s origin (holy men spoke from God as the Spirit carried them along; cf. 2 Pet 1:21) the Church does not create Scripture but receives Scripture. Any interpretive conclusions drawn from the canonical arrangement must be secondary and assigned to the church’s addition of meaning, not primary as from God.
Just a few more comments. The book is full of footnotes with bibliographic references and explanatory notes. Some of the footnotes fill up nearly half the page. Don’t let this fool you into thinking this book is written for scholars and therefore not intended for an audience with an undergraduate-level education. This is an introduction to the discussion on biblical hermeneutics that happens to have a lot of footnotes. If they distract you from the flow of the essays, just ignore them until you finish the essay. But don’t skip them entirely. The book does not have a bibliography, so you’ll have to track down more intermediate and advanced sources in the footnotes. I tried to pay careful attention to the works cited. This revealed a short list of books (in no particular order) that promise to be instructive on biblical hermeneutics for the interested reader to pursue.
- Let the Reader Understand
- The Hermeneutical Spiral
- Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics
- Is There a Meaning in This Text?
- Dictionary of Biblical Criticism and Interpretation
- New Horizons in Hermeneutics
- How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
- The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?
- Typos: The Typological Interpretation of the Old Testament in the New
- New Dictionary of Biblical Theology
So if you don’t like eating your vegetables and you need a little doctor-prescribed exercise, consider this book on hermeneutics. You just might be glad you did.
Read a sample of Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views
Sermonaudio series by Richard Gaffin on Hermeneutics and Homiletics from his Redemptive Historical perspective