Ask the average Christian today what hermeneutics is and you might receive more blank stares than informed answers. We wonder how so many Christians come to interesting and sometimes crazy interpretations of Scripture but the answer is staring us in the face. The church has not equipped them to be faithful interpreters.
Needless to say, many pastors wish the members of the congregations would willingly take an introduction to hermeneutics. Unfortunately, most will not. That is why it is so important for the academy and church to produce books on hermeneutics for the layperson – at least those who will read them. I am glad to say that Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology by Andreas Kostenberger and Richard Patterson is one of those books. Though it will most likely be used in colleges and seminaries for intro to hermeneutics classes, there is enough of this book that is accessible to the layperson that everyone should have it.
As the subtitle states, this book explores hermeneutics through the triad of history, literature and theology. The authors defend this three-fold method by stating:
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. (p. 66)
Part One: Historical Context/Setting
Part one deals with the historical context of Scripture in both Old and New Testaments. The authors lay out a brief overview of the chronology of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation The role of archeology is discussed and it is concluded that archeology has done nothing but verify what we have already known from Scripture to be true about persons, places and events in the past. There is a brief overview of the primary and secondary sources for historical-cultural background studies. While the authors highly regard the importance of background information of the historical setting of the text (eg. Ancient Near Eastern Studies), “it should never override what is stated explicitly in the text” (p. 94). In recent decades ANE studies have tended towards letting the comparative results control our understanding of and interpretation of the text to the point where the uniqueness of the text is lost. Kostenberger and Patterson have not fallen into this trap but have retained a balance in their approach to ANE studies as useful for biblical interpretation.
Part Two: Literary Focus
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to interpreting the books of the Bible. There are several different genres and each has its own unique features. Here the authors have divided up this section into several areas.
First, the canon of the Old and New Testament are discussed. For the OT the authors discuss the role, types, application and transmission of Law in the OT. The historical event of the Exodus is discussed. The significance of the covenants is discussed with the definition and explanation of each type in the OT. Further, a number of coordinating themes in the OT are discussed such as the relationship of the Messiah to everything previously discussed. For the NT the issue of getting the gospel from the Gospels is discussed along with the theological contribution of Acts for the NT canon, the placement of the Epistles within the book of Acts and the culmination of Revelation as apocalypse.
Second, the many genres of the Bible are laid out in a thorough and easy to understand way. The section on genre is divided into a discussion of OT narrative, Poetry and Wisdom literature, OT Prophecy, NT Historical Narrative, the Parables, Epistles and Apocalyptic literature. While the literary features of each genre can seem overwhelming at times the authors do a good job of simplifying the features of each while avoiding oversimplification. This section is worth the price of the book alone. The best parts are on the OT & NT Narratives, the Gospels and the Apocalypse (as well as the complimentary section on Interpreting Figurative Language in chap. 14).
Third, the unique features of the languages (Hebrew & Greek) are laid out. Here the many aspects of the grammar, syntax and discourse are discussed. The importance of the grammatical foundations of each language is explained as well as a helpful discussion of discourse analysis with four examples. What is so good about this section of the book is that, unlike any other intro to hermeneutic, it discusses the languages of the Bible in a way that does not require the reader to know Greek or Hebrew in order to glean from it. I have always believed that if a layperson knew their English grammar well they could do grammatical analysis of the text (especially the Epistles as well as the Narrative sections of the OT & NT). While nothing can replace the knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, most people will not learn them but you don’t need to learn to read it (in terms of vocabulary and translation) in order to apply much of this section to reading your English translation of choice. One section that stands out is the twelve fallacies of determining word meaning (p. 631-50). This is something that plagues too much of contemporary exegesis and preaching.
Part Three: Theology
The third part of the hermeneutical triad is how we get our theology from the Bible. Unfortunately, theology for the church has fallen on hard times and the cry of many laypeople, and pastors, is, “Just give me Jesus”, and “rather than viewing theology as nurturing and stabilizing elements in their journey of faith, many today view it as an enemy, or are skeptical at best if not indifferent if not outright antagonistic” (p. 694). This chapter deals specifically with the concept of biblical theology as opposed to systematic or historical theology. A number of issues related to biblical theology are discussed such as the many proposed approaches to the discipline, the use of the OT in the NT and a short history of the discipline.
Application & Proclamation
The final part of the book deals with addressing the way in which the student of Scripture can utilize the tools available to them in applying the hermeneutical triad to their preaching and study. The authors walk the reader through the many interpretational tools available today in both book and electronic format. They explain how the shape, genre and literary features of a given book or text are to shape your sermon and rightly point out that “the task is to discover our outline, not to come up with one” (p. 741). Guidelines for crafting a sermon based on genre are laid out as well as mistakes to avoid.
The appendix has twenty three pages listing the best recommended books to get in terms of general resources (bibliographic aids for building a library), reference works (intros, surveys and background books), biblical languages aids (grammars, textual criticism, lexical and syntactical studies), dictionaries, theologies, hermeneutics and then commentaries for both testaments and each book of the Bible. Reading through the list some readers will feel some books were left out but overall you would be hard pressed to say any of the suggestions should be taken out. The book ends with a glossary of relevant and basic terms every interpreter should be aware of.
For all that this book has I would have liked to see more on the ANE (Ancient Near Eastern) background of the OT and the Greco-Roman background of the NT. Contemporary ANE studies are running crazy today and this is an issues that deserves more attention by conservative scholars. Also, as W. Randolph Tate has laid out in his book Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach, it would have been helpful to include a chapter on the world of the reader.
Laying these caveats aside, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation is a book that I cannot recommend enough. Every pastor should have it on their desk, every seminary and even college student studying for the ministry should have it and I would say that this is one of the standard reference works that every believer should have in their personal library, especially Sunday school, small group or Bible study leaders/teachers. This will probably be the most used text book for intro to hermeneutics classes in college and seminaries in the years to come.
NOTE: This review copy was provided by Kregel for free and I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.