There are more than a few books out there on how to interpret the Bible. I’ve got several on my shelf, and full disclosure, probably will even buy more in the future (once I’m off book probation of course, or if I earn a gift certificate by you clicking through links).
In looking at Invitation to Biblical Interpretation that Kregel sent my way for review, I immediately asked the question, “Why this book?” In other words, if I’ve already got The Hermeneutical Spiral, God-Centered Biblical Interpretation, Interpreting the New Testament Text, and 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, what does this book really have to offer?
Well, it looks like Andreas Kostenberger and Richard Patterson anticipated this kind of question, so they open their book with a “Personal Note to Teachers, Students, and Readers.” Their purpose in writing is stated right off the bat:
This book is trying to teach a simple method for interpreting the Bible. It involves preparation, interpretation, and application. The method for interpretation is built around the hermeneutical triad, which consists of history, literature, and theology (23).
Though the authors feel the terminology is new and that they are the first to use the term “hermeneutical triad,” they certainly aren’t the first to make extensive use of “triads” in their approach to knowledge. While John Frame didn’t write a book on interpreting the Bible, I kind of get the feeling that if he had, it might have looked something like this. As you might imagine, I have three reasons for this conclusion:
- It makes excellent of use triads to balance the approach to hermeneutics
- It is well written and clearly organized
- It is more or less presuppositional in its approach to Scripture, taking God’s authorship seriously, and assuming from the start that the Bible isn’t like any other book (see 26)
After noting that the triad is in fact the third geometric figure to be used to describe hermeneutics, they explain that taken together, each offers a valid insight (24):
- Circle = understanding each part of Scripture in light of the whole
- Spiral = importance of moving from ancient text to contemporary context and back
- Triad = the inescapable interpretive realities of history, literature, theology
They then explain that their approach in this book moves in the opposite direction of books like The Hermeneutical Spiral. Rather than begin with general hermeneutics (applicable to all books) and then move to special hermeneutics (applicable to the Bible specifically) they reverse the flow. This fits with their assumption that the Bible isn’t like any other book and allows them to establish up front what they believe is the proper framework for interpretation. In doing so, they plan to build on the recent scholarship involving “canon, theology, metanarrative, and Scripture as ‘theo-drama'” (25). The result, they hope, is an approach that is more rigorously grounded in hermeneutical theory, “specifically the importance of canon and genre, and the primacy of special over general considerations in the interpretation of Scripture” (26).
In terms of actually articulating the method, the final result in something of a triad within a triad (I always like an inception-eseque nesting). If you remember from the opening quote, the authors have a three step process, and then have a triad that is used in one of those steps. This yeilds a sevenfold method:
- Literature: Canon
- Literature: Genre
- Literature: Language
- Application and Proclamation
Actually, as you can see, its a triad within a triad within a triad. I didn’t want to be too mind blowing up front, but there you have it.
The opening note then ends with some suggestions for how this book would work as a class textbook. Conveniently, there is even a syllabus shell, chapter quizzes, and PowerPoint slides available both at Kregel Digital Editions and Biblical Foundations (Kostenberger’s site). They note that the chapters themselves are “largely self-contained” and so rearrangement is possible, though they’ve ordered them in a way that seems most “methodologically preferable” (29).
All of this is merely setting the stage for the main text. The opening chapter covers the “Preparation” step in the process and further introduces the hermeneutical triad. They highlight the ethical dimension of interpretation, pointing out that it includes respect for both the human and divine authors of Scripture. Fleshing this out involves highlighting the need for skilled interpreters, the cost for failed interpretation, and the general characteristics of a faithful interpreter of God’s Word. Then, they summarize the reason for the hermeneutical triad:
Since Christianity is a historical religion, and all texts are historically and culturally embedded, it is important that we ground our interpretation of Scripture in a careful study of the relevant historical setting. Since Scripture is a text of literature, the bulk of interpretive work entails coming to grips with the various literary and linguistic aspects of the biblical material. Finally, since Scripture is not merely a work of literature but inspired and authoritative revelation from God, the goal and end of interpretation is theology. Using the hermeneutical triad as a compass will ensure that Bible students stay on track in their interpretive journey (66).
The chapter ends with an extremely brief history of interpretation, noting most importantly than in the modern period, one of these elements of the hermeneutical triad has been emphasized to the exclusion of the others:
- The historical-critical method elevated historical considerations above literary genre or theology
- The literary/postmodern approach can elevate literature above concern for historical rootedness or eventual theological concerns
- The theological interpretation of Scripture can tend to eisegete theology into texts and fail to pay closer attention to historical context and literary genre
This helps my own interpretive journey, and particularly my interest in theological interpretation of Scripture (see my review from last Friday). Theological interpretation when done well, rests on historical investigation and literary sensitivity. When done poorly, it is simply a reaction to historical-critical methods and jumps into the last step of the triad prematurely. More could be said, but that will have to wait for another post.
As for this book, in the end, the authors want to develop readers and interpreters of Scripture to have the following set of “interpretive and communicative competencies”:
- Historical-cultural awareness (chapter 2)
- Canonical consciousness (chapters 3 and 4)
- Sensitivity to genre (chapters 5-11)
- Literary and linguistic competence (chapters 12-14)
- A firm and growing grasp of biblical theology (chapter 15)
- An ability to apply and proclaim passage from every biblical genre to life (chapter 16)
Each of these chapters are structured like this:
- List of chapter objectives
- Chapter outline
- Chapter body
- Guidelines for that particular aspect of preparation/interpretation/application
- A list of key words
- Study questions
- Chapter bibliography
If you can’t tell from that flow, this book is set up as the ideal seminary/upper college level hermeneutics textbook. The chapters themselves aren’t that long, but the information is tightly organized and excellently summarized at the end of each chapter.
As you can see, the bulk of the book focuses on genre, but I think that is the sensitivity that requires more significant development. I would have liked perhaps more historical background and more about biblical theology, as well as perhaps a little more attention to developments like speech-act theory. We were told in our last preaching class at Dallas that biblical theology is what takes the most significant time to develop. Perhaps then it only occupies a chapter because it is something that chiefly develops through practice. In any case, after all that is said and done, there is even included the ever important glossary of terms, and a very helpful appendix on building a theological library, which I will probably expand on in a later post (if you’re keeping score that’s three promised posts).
In the end, I think this is an excellent resource for teachers (like myself) looking to develop a class on hermeneutics or to use as a supplement in an OT or NT survey class. It is also something that an advanced reader could make use of own their own. Outside of an actual school context, I may try to go through this book over the summer with several guys from our city group at church who are interested in learning how to better interpret the Bible. If I do, I’ll be sure and let you know how it goes!
If you’re looking for a very useful resource and manual on biblical interpretation, then I think you really ought to check out Invitation to Biblical Interpretation. They build on the shoulders of giants and are about as comprehensive as space allows. The result is a clear, readable, and informative account of approaching the Bible using the hermeneutical triad as your compass for the journey.
- Author: Andreas Kostenberger & Richard Patterson
- Title: Invitation to Biblical Interpretation
- Publisher: Kregel (December 1, 2011)
- Hardcover: 896pgs
- Reading Level: General Reader/Bible School
- Audience Appeal: Christians interested in a systematic approach to learning to interpret the Bible better
- Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of Kregel)
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