Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Richard D. Patterson. For the Love of God’s Word: An Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2015. Hard cover, 444 pages. ISBN 978-0-8254-4336-7.
Late in For Love of God’s Word (hereafter, FLGW), a condensed and revised version of their Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, Köstenberger and Patterson (hereafter, K&P) state the following about the book’s purpose: “In essence, this entire book is designed to set forth a responsible hermeneutical method that will enable the interpreter to derive the Bible’s own theology through patient, repeated study” (362). Since all Bible-believing Christians are duty-bound to be responsible interpreters of the words God inspired and has preserved for their instruction, guidance in responsible hermeneutics is something every Bible believer should value. K&P’s understanding of what sort of interpretation qualifies as “responsible” seems correct, on balance, and the interpretative method they propose seems, in general, sound, so Bible believers should find FLGW a worthwhile purchase and edifying reading. Summary lists of guidelines at the end of each chapter, some helpful tables of data (summarizing biblical chronology, for instance), a glossary, a Scripture index, and a brief subject index add to the book’s value.
Before surveying some of the book’s content to show why I felt I had to use hedge words like “on balance” and “in general” in the preceding paragraph, I note a concern raised by a statement late in the text. There seems to be a disconnect between Kregel Academic’s approach to marketing FLGW, which includes providing free copies of the book to persons who maintain Web sites that include book reviews, what publishers typically call “having a blog tour.” It seems an odd strategy, and this is the disconnect, to have a blog tour for a book that advises readers to “First, avoid blogs,” even if the book grants that one may reference a blog if it is maintained by “a recognized scholar” or by “a person whose materials have been proven valuable over time” (379). (Scholars “recognized” by whom and on what basis? “Proven valuable” to whom and according to what criteria? K&P do not say.) Since a person whose materials are not initially considered is never going to have them “proven valuable over time,” the advise is basically to only read blogs maintained by professional academics. The idea that the research, reflection, and arguments of persons outside the scholarly establishment should simply be ignored may be dominant among professional academics, but you’ll find the attitude very rare among, and typically viewed with hostility by, persons who maintain independent Web sites, whether they call those sites blogs or not. One may well lament the credulity with which some approach online repositories of opinion and reflection, whether those repositories are labeled blogs, forums, wikis, or something else, but a simple-minded “avoid blogs” directive does nothing to train anyone to assess research and arguments in terms of content. Even if one endorses the “avoid blogs” elitism, one must still wonder why Kregel’s marketing department thought it wise to include a book endorsing such elitism in its “free books for bloggers” program. Though there is much that I like about this book, my unwillingness to reward dumb marketing and elitism limits how positive a rating I can assign FLGW.
In the Preface (9-11), K&P identify FLGW’s broad intended audience (“high school, home school, and college students and anyone who is interested in a solid course of instruction on studying and applying God’s Word”), note that in the FLGW abridgment they “have retained all the essential core knowledge from” the unabridged text, and describe some of their formative influences (such as the teaching and guidance of Grant Osborne and D.A. Carson). In “A Personal Note to Teachers, Students, and Readers” (13), K&P briefly introduce the “hermeneutical triad” that underpins and guides their entire approach to Scripture’s interpretation. In this brief introduction, one encounters the first suggestion of a prioritizing of one point of the triad over others. Though the triangular graphic repeated in the following chapters might suggest that “history” and “literature” are equally fundamental, the bottom corners of a triad for which “theology” is the apex, discussion here and throughout the text indicates that K&P in fact see “history” as most fundamental: “The first element of the hermeneutical triad is history. Studying the historical setting provides a proper grounding….[since] the genres and language in which God chose to reveal himself reflect the historical context.” Once this grounding is provided, “Second comes literature. Studying the literary context is the focus of Bible study….we locate a passage’s place in the canon, determine its genre, and interpret it in keeping with its genre characteristics, doing justice to the language used.” After this, and building upon this, comes theology: determining the theology of the passage and formulating broader theological conclusions with reference to other passages.
Chapter 1, “Introducing the Hermeneutical Triad: History, Literature, and Theology” (14-27), not only does what the chapter title describes, but also emphasizes the necessity, the ethical imperative, to interpret Scripture properly, and notes some of the dangers that attend improper interpretation. (Kregel has opted to exclude the chapter objectives, chapter outline, and “you are here” hermeneutical triad graphic from the pagination of each chapter shown in the book’s Contents, identifying each chapter’s initial page as the first page of prose following these. My identification of chapter page ranges, in contrast, includes these chapter-opening materials.) Contrary to what one might hear in literature courses at the state university, the proper interpretation of any work of literature, in fact of any document, requires that one recover the meaning intended by the work’s author: “The rules of proper communication demand” that one focus upon “authorial intention,” that one seek “to understand the meaning [the author] intended to convey” (17). In ethical terms, proper “interpretation requires that we extend the same courtesy to any text or author that we would want others to extend to our statements and writings,” meaning, in the case of Scripture, that we must honor, not only “the intentions of the human authors of Scripture,” but also those of “God who chose to reveal himself through the Bible by his Holy Spirit.” One thing required by this, K&P note, is that one must “give careful consideration to the theology of the Bible itself and…interpret the parts in light of the canonical whole” (18).
Proper interpretation, K&P emphasize, can be likened to skilled craftsmanship: “No sloppy or shoddy work will do. Everything must be done in proper sequence, appropriate proportion, and with the purpose of producing an end product that pleases the one who commissioned the work. Background information [which can be put to “improper use” (20)], word meanings, the context of a given passage, and many other factors must be judiciously assessed if a valid interpretation is to be attained” (19). Believers’ attitude as they pursue this work should be one of humble submission: “Rather than adopting a critical stance toward Scripture, we should…submit to it as our final authority in all areas of life” (21).
While the references to interpreting “the parts in light of the canonical whole” and to the need to submit to Scripture “as our final authority in all areas of life” might lead one to expect K&P to suggest some way to let self-interpreting Scripture underpin and guide our understanding of extrascriptural historical material (data and the hypothetical reconstructions based upon data), the Preface’s treatment of history as foundational to, rather than founded upon, Scripture’s interpretation continues here: “As an interpreter sets out to explore a particular biblical text, he will first research its historical setting. After grounding his study in the real-life historical and cultural context of the biblical world, he will orient himself to the canonical landscape….[that is, the] proper salvation-historical context”; only after this does the interpreter examine “the literary context and word meanings” of the passage. Key terms here include “first,” “After,” and “only after.” At this point, a believer in Scripture Alone, the classical Protestant doctrine of the Reformation (normally expressed in obfuscatory Latin), must wonder: Do K&P hold that some historical and cultural background information essential to the correct understanding of God’s inspired words is not included in, either explicitly stated by or necessarily inferred from, those words of Scripture? As well: Do K&P maintain that background information not included in Scripture, information only obtainable through the empirical work and interpretive theorizing of fallen and finite human beings (archaeologists, historians, etc.), is essential to correct understanding of the inspired text, even necessarily precedes the first efforts to unpack that text’s meaning?
K&P do point out that “Only the interpreter who depends on the Holy Spirit in his interpretive quest will likely be successful in discerning God’ special, Spirit-appraised revelation” (22). (They also recognize the indispensability of the Holy Spirit to enable successful and obedient application of Scripture’s teachings to the interpreter’s life [Ibid.]) It does not appear, however, that they believe the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit, joined to such background information as is included within Scripture itself, is sufficient to permit correct interpretation. K&P seem consistently to hold that at least some extrascriptural background information (humans’ uninspired and necessarily probabilistic interpretation of empirical data) is a prerequisite to correct interpretation. Perhaps they would point, as I’ve seen others do, to the need for translation across languages, and to the historically uncertain meaning of some rare and ancient terms used in Scripture, as indisputable proof that such is indeed the case. (In fact, they do just this in the next chapter .) How this all fits with the Scripture Alone doctrine (which, as professing Evangelicals, K&P presumably embrace) is not clear; perhaps some discussion of the matter would have strengthened FLGW.
The remainder of FLGW is divided into three parts, one for each point of the triad. Part one, “History,” includes only Chapter 2, “Setting the Stage: Historical-Cultural Background” (30-54). Since K&P see historical and cultural background as the essential first step, the most fundamental step, of Bible interpretation, they naturally cover this point of the triad first. They do make an effort to nuance their view so as to avoid too strong an emphasis on background information: “Certainly,” they state, “background information should never override what is stated explicitly in the text. Conversely, understanding the background of a given passage is often vital for proper interpretation and application” (34). Does this “background of a given passage” that is “vital” include only the information provided by the inspired text itself (which, as it happens, is the sort of background most focused upon in the chapter), or does it include extrabiblical historical and cultural background information, the uninspired deliverances of human empirical efforts? K&P seem to believe the latter: “It is commonly acknowledged,” they write, “that it is vital to study Scripture in its proper context, and that context, in turn, properly conceived, consists of both historical and literary facets; so there is no need to justify the necessity of responsible historical research as part of the interpretive process.” Further, belief in “The necessity of historical research also underlies major reference works such as study Bibles…commentaries” and the like (34). Whether common acknowledgement (great prevalence) of a belief, and availability of reference works motivated by the same belief, really makes justification of the belief unnecessary seems questionable. Interestingly, K&P themselves indicate that believers err if they honor “modern or postmodern presuppositions” at the expense of humble submission to Scripture (21). Is not much of the “historical research” they counsel drawing upon informed by modern empiricist assumptions about the nature of human knowledge and how it must be obtained and justified?
The extent to which K&P think the extrabiblical background is essential might be open to question. The first directive in their summary “Guidelines for Interpreting Historical-Cultural Background” is “Determine the scope of the historical account. Look for links with other scriptural passages, especially those relating to the same event(s).” Extrabiblical data only enters in directive two: “Compare the biblical record with external data for additional information and illumination” (53). I might prefer to see the second directive read something like “Compare the biblical record with alleged external data and, where that data comports with what Scripture clearly reveals, seek additional information and illumination from that data,” but I’m pleased to see the Bible given priority. I’m also pleased that K&P emphasize that the primeval history of Genesis 1-11 is true history: “If these are not historical realities, then the Christian faith is merely one among many mythological understandings of the world” (35). I also appreciate their nuanced wording concerning the focus of Genesis 1-2: “The purpose is to demonstrate to Israel that their covenant God…is also the Creator of the entire universe. In this context, locating the creation of the world at an exact point of time in the past is secondary….” The welcome nuance here is that K&P identify creation chronology as of “secondary” importance, not as “unimportant,” which is what advocates of the Central Meaning (or Central Purpose) Fallacy would have done. (This fallacy, which seems obvious but which I’m not sure anyone else has yet identified in print, suggests that meanings and implications of a scriptural passage may be disregarded if they are not central or primary. I’ve previously called it the Main Concern Fally.)
In their conclusion to the chapter, K&P quote approvingly a statement by Grant Osborne concerning “the interpreter’s task in assessing the ancient historical-cultural background” of a passage. That statement concludes as follows: “The cultural aspects presupposed in the passage help interpreters get behind the words to the underlying message, understood by the original readers but hidden to the modern reader” (52). The way this is worded, it appears that Osborne believes that Scripture as inspired lacks information essential to (not just enriching) its understanding; after all, if the “cultural aspects presupposed” in a passage were evident from Scripture itself, it would be incorrect to say the message is “hidden to the modern reader.” Even the reader with an accurately translated Bible, or the reader with accurate knowledge of the Bible’s original languages, it seems, is unable to fully and accurately understand God’s inspired words based solely on the information the full collection of those words, the Bible, provides. No doubt this is happy news for the publishers of study aids for rich Westerners, but it might trouble Westerners of very limited means and non-Westerners barely able to acquire a decent Bible translation. It might also trouble believers in Scripture Alone who take time to reflect on the full implications of making extrabiblical material essential to biblical understanding.
Part 2, “Literature,” comprises Chapters 3-13. dividing them into three units: Unit 1, “Canon” (Chapters 3, 4); Unit 2, “Genre” (Chapters 5-11); and Unit 3, “Language” (Chapters 12, 13). Though Scripture’s interpretation must be “properly grounded…in an investigation of its historical setting,” these facets of Scripture’s “literary dimension” constitute “the major focus” of FLGW (61). These chapters look at Scripture starting with its larger and more general, and ending with its smallest and most specific, features, “In keeping with the bedrock hermeneutical principle of interpreting the parts in light of the whole” (Ibid.). The overall treatment is sound and helpful and should prove useful to Bible-believing readers. Rather than bog the review down with a lot of summary, I will simply point out some noteworthy items.
In the first “Canon” chapter, Chapter 3, “The Old Testament Canon: Law, Prophets, and Writings” (58-81), K&P state the following: “it may be safely said that careful historical inquiry and research have demonstrated that at each step of its formation the Old Testament accurately represents the area and era with which it is concerned. Its truthfulness in the case of data that can be verified further suggests that where it claims to be the word of the Lord, the Old Testament can be trusted” (62). The possibility I suggested earlier, that K&P hold to certain modern empiricist assumptions about the nature of human knowledge and how it must be obtained and justified, seems supported by this statement. Note the order of authority, what justifies what, in the statement: knowledge acquired by human empirical investigation, “careful historical inquiry,” verifies the truthfulness of those statements of Scripture open to verification and thereby, the implication seems to be, justifies our believing in the truth of those statements; this, in turn, “suggests” that we are also justified believing in the truth of those statements of Scripture that cannot be verified. The assumption seems to be that if a document can be shown trustworthy in verifiable “earthly things,” then one is justified believing whatever unverifiable assertions the document makes about “heavenly things,” to borrow the wording of John 3:12, a verse that seems to carry the contrary implication that believing testimony about “heavenly things” in fact requires greater faith than believing testimony about earthly things. If one can’t believe verifiable testimony about earthly things, John 3:12 seems to imply, one certainly won’t be able to believe unverifiable testimony about heavenly things; but, the verse also seems to imply, just because one can justifiably believe verifiable testimony about earthly things doesn’t mean one should also believe unverifiable testimony about heavenly things. The latter requires more faith than the former. The verifiable may comport with and so confirm or encourage unverifiable faith, but it cannot justify it. Evidence-based “faith,” as opposed to faith-based trust in and interpretation of evidence, always seems to run into this problem: the base (“careful historical inquiry”) is too small for what one needs it to support (faith that trusts unverifiable statements in Scripture, such as those identifying it as God’s own words). K&P’s apologetically-motived promotion of an empiricist theory of knowledge does nothing to detract from the usefulness of their guidance for interpreting Scripture (once one has accepted that it is indeed God’s Word), of course, but it does suggest understanding Scripture’s authority, and Bible-believing trust in that authority, in a way that may work against the never-doubting, no-compromise faithfulness that humble submission to Scripture’s authority requires and that K&P seem elsewhere to encourage.
This chapter also includes discussion of traditional efforts to partition the Mosaic legislation in various ways. Concerning this, K&P write: “The difficulty of assigning individual laws to specific categories has made scholars consider an alternative approach. Increasingly, they are beginning to view Old Testament laws in relation to the narrative context in which they are found” (63-4). K&P then add this: “Therefore…the careful interpreter should see [the laws of Moses] as part of the broad narrative in which they are found” (64). The chain of inference here is noteworthy: scholars today increasingly do A; therefore, careful interpreters should do A. However useful the categories traditionally used for the Mosaic legislation might have been for organizing our thinking about and discussion of God’s laws, the partitioning, because imposed upon Scripture rather than drawn from it or necessarily implied by it, has always struck some Bible believers as unsatisfactory. The current scholarly trend away from such partitioning may, thus, be very laudable and worthy of imitation. It is not laudable or worthy of imitation because it happens to be what scholars are doing, however, no matter what K&P suggest. An assumption disturbingly prevalent among Christian scholars and apologists, an assumption that is either lazy or elitist, is that statements about what “scholars” or “experts” currently believe or do can legitimately stand in place of arguments. Trends in opinion or practice within one or another scholarly or expert subculture do not automatically merit imitation or acceptance; until sound arguments in support of them are adduced, such trends carry no special authority. They merit a hearing that merely popular trends may not, certainly, but that is all. All cultures, including ones organized around scholarly pursuits or subject-matter expertise, are at constant risk of misguided group trends, often the result of some unsound presupposition no one has yet thought to question and which, typically, the nature of the culture involved makes it unlikely that anyone within the culture ever will question.
The second “Canon” chapter, Chapter 4, “The New Testament Canon: Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypse” (82-98), continues the prior chapter’s discussion of the broad sweep of Scripture as a whole (salvation history with its various covenants, progressive revelation, and so on). As was true of the prior chapter, and as will be true of succeeding chapters, Bible believers will find little to object to in K&P’s interpretive guidelines. The end-of-chapter summation of these guidelines includes the following: “Note not only the historical progression of New Testament teaching but also the topical interconnection between passages on similar or related topics, in keeping with the Reformation principle that Scripture is its own interpreter” (97). Though we’ve already seen that, in K&P’s understanding, Scripture itself is certainly not Scripture’s only interpreter (extrabiblical historical and cultural data, independently interpreted by humans, is also an interpreter of Scripture), a hermeneutical approach that emphasizes this Reformation principle cannot go far wrong.
The chapter also, as one would expect from its title, discusses believers’ reception of the New Testament canon. Discussions of how believers came historically to recognize and receive the New Testament canon often tell one a good deal about authors’ understanding of how the faithful do or should arrive at and justify their beliefs. Certain questions invariably occur to me when I review such discussions. Do correct Christian beliefs, such as foundational recognition of God’s words as God’s words, come into being as the conclusion of chains of inference from evidence and arguments, or is the self-attesting character and Spirit’s witness to God’s own truth more fundamental? Are correct Christian beliefs grounded upon, or merely confirmed by, evidence and arguments? K&P relate how “focus on the apostles as Jesus’s appointed representatives proved decisive in the church’s recognition of the New Testament canon. Matthew and John,” they add, “were accepted on account of their apostolic authorship, Mark and Luke-Acts on account of the authors’ connections to leading apostles (Peter and Paul).” As well, “Paul’s letters were accepted on the basis of his apostolic office (as well as Hebrews). The Petrine and Johannine epistles, too, were recognized as apostolic, and the letters of James and Jude were penned by Jesus’s half-brothers. Apostolicity, and, by extension ‘the rule of faith’ (i.e. the apostles’ teaching), was the primary criterion by which the church recognized the divine inspiration and authority of the books that came to make up the New Testament” (87). Though K&P do not make explicit why James and Jude’s being Jesus’s blood relatives was taken to ensure the apostolic status of their writings, presumably the thinking is that this close association with the Lord was seen as just as good as appointment to the apostolic office or close connection to the Apostles. Since history, particularly ancient history, typically tells us most about the thinking of the writing elite and comparatively little (if anything) about the thinking of the seldom-writing common people, the persons who set forth these criteria in support of accepting certain books (which, perhaps, had already been accepted for some time by common believers) were the writing elite. Had the common people received the various New Testament books as God’s own words on the basis of these criteria offered by the writing elite, reasoning from the books’ apparent authorship to their divine inspiration and authority? Or had they found the words of the books to carry in them, as God himself spoke through them, a self-attesting character that the faithful among them, to whom the Holy Spirit also witnessed confirming the words’ divine origin and authority, could not help but recognize? Was their recognition of what words were from God based upon, or did it only find welcome confirmation from, the arguments of the writing elite?
These queries may seem hopelessly speculative, since the reality is that all we can know about the thought processes of past Christians is what we have found recorded for us in documents from their time, and non-writers, by definition, leave no written documents. Even the common person who can write (relatively rare in history) seldom leaves many documents for posterity; after all, who is motivated to save what prior common people wrote? If writing elites chose to argue for New Testament books’ canonical status on the basis of apostolic authorship (authorship associated with the Lord or the Apostles), whether they themselves or the common believers of their day (and preceding them) actually came personally to accept the books (and all the words in them) on some other and more fundamental basis (self-attesting authority and Spirit confirmation) seems a question closed to historical inquiry. Still, perhaps some edification might be gained by reflecting upon the possibilities.
The “Genre” unit comprises the following chapters: Chapter 5, “Enjoying a Good Story: Old Testament Historical Narrative” (100-119); Chapter 6, “A Word from the Wise: Poetry and Wisdom” (120-59); Chapter 7, “Back to the Future: Prophecy” (160-87); Chapter 8, “Hearing the Good News: New Testament Historical Narrative (Gospels and Acts)” (188-211); Chapter 9, “Calling for Discernment: Parables” (212-35); Chapter 10, “Going by the Letter: Epistles” (236-67); Chapter 11, “Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Literature (Revelation)” (268-300). These chapters helpfully describe the various genres (types) of literature in Scripture and how properly to interpret them. Bible believers serious about both the Scripture Alone doctrine and “the Reformation principle that Scripture is its own interpreter” (97) would, no doubt, like to see K&P show how the rules for properly interpreting Scripture’s various literary genres can be derived from Scripture itself. Such is not an aspect of K&P’s discussion, however. These chapters lay out the various genres, describe their features, and provide sound guidance for interpreting them; the chapters do not suggest scriptural justifications for the interpretive guidelines themselves.
Though the interpretive guidelines seem sound and the information interesting, there are places in these chapters where the interpretive relevance of information provided is unclear. “What difference does this information make to my understanding of the text?” I found myself asking more than once. In a discussion of the poetic structure of John 1:1-5, for instance, K&P write: “What is the impact of such imagery as life, light, and darkness? How does an appreciation of terseness and concreteness help you understand [?] and feel more deeply the theological concepts that John is communicating? We suggest that in asking yourself questions such as these you will gain a new perspective and appreciation of the poetic skill with which John opened his Gospel” (135). And this improves my understanding of what John is teaching in his Gospel…how? Understanding, unlike feeling and appreciation, is intellectual and verbal. While the reading experience might change as a result of focusing on John’s poetic styling, while the passage might then prove more easy to remember, how intellectual, verbal understanding of all that John in asserting, of what some would call the “propositional content” of the passage, would be affected by my poetic appreciation is not made clear. It is not clear to me why a book on biblical interpretation should include guidance on biblical appreciation. Perhaps K&P could offer persuasive arguments in favor of such inclusion, but they do not.
“Most commonly,” K&P state somewhat later, “Hebrew rhyming is a matter of repeated similar endings. Thus in Isaiah 33:22, the fourfold repetition of…[a certain] suffix…forms a clear rhyming pattern, which is missed in translation” (142). Fascinating. And awareness of this rhyming scheme should affect my interpretation of the passage in what way, precisely? K&P do not say. Nor do they explain the interpretive significance of Paul’s use of rhyming, alliteration, and other techniques in his epistles (144). One can’t help but get the impression at times that K&P are noting interesting curiosities that will never affect one’s interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps FLGW should have been abridged a bit more than it was.
In addition to outlining sound interpretive principles and noting various curiosities of unclear interpretive relevance, these chapters also include further attestation to K&P’s empiricist leanings. One example is the following: “Although some have questioned the authenticity of the parables of Jesus in the Gospels, there is ample reason for confidence in the parables’ ability to provide some of the most authentic and reliable teaching from Jesus. One of the proofs of this authenticity is the closeness in language and content to other attested sayings of Jesus” (224-5). This late in the text, when we are well into discussion of self-authenticating (Spirit-authenticated) Scripture’s meaning (as that meaning finds expression through various genres requiring different interpretive approaches), this retreat to neutral-sounding, empirically driven apologetics seems out of place. Critical challenges to the parables’ authenticity seems irrelevant to what the parables mean, so there seems no good reason to include this discussion here.
As well, these chapters include a statement on Paul’s use of the Old Testament that seems to call for additional discussion that is lacking. “Paul’s use and interpretation of the Old Testament may at times be difficult to understand in light of our modern rules for determining meaning,” K&P write. “But what seems to us a strange interpretation may have represented conventional hermeneutical procedure to Paul’s contemporaries….Paul, like his contemporaries, sought to bring an Old Testament passage or prediction into a new historical and theological context, which involved some shift in meaning while remaining faithful to the message in its original context” (249). Now, in the conservative theological circles I frequent, the strangeness of some of Paul’s “interpretation[s]” is typically explained by identifying them as applications rather than interpretations. In such circles, these “difficult to understand” statements by Paul are seen as hermeneutically permissible, not because they accord with the “conventional hermeneutical procedure” of “Paul’s contemporaries,” but because they are not interpretations, but are creative applications of passages for which Paul may not state the interpretation. The way K&P choose to state things suggests that it might be permissible to modify one’s approach to interpreting Scripture based upon whatever happens to be the conventional procedure obtaining in one’s time and culture. Another implication of identifying Paul’s applications as “interpretations” would seem to be to endorse the hermeneutical procedure yielding them as still valid, since that procedure has been endorsed by the example of the inspired text itself.
The “Language” unit includes Chapter 12, “Context is King: Discerning Discourse Structure” (302-25), and Chapter 13, “A Matter of Semantics: Discerning Word Meanings” (326-53). Chapter 12 is one of the most interesting, and one of the most useful, in the text. It concerns the various ways for discerning the boundaries within scriptural discourse so as the better grasp Scripture’s meaning. (The significance of structural features in some genres, unexplained earlier and so of unclear interpretive relevance when discussed, may become apparent here, as one reflects on how these structural features may signal changes from one topic or subtopic to another.) The fundamental insight behind the chapter is this: “The proper textual unit at which meaning is to be discerned is not the individual word, the phrase, or even the sentence, but the larger discourse, that is, the paragraph level and ultimately the entire document of which a given word, phrase, or sentence is a part” (305). Chapter 13, which deals with discerning the meaning of individual words, something the prior chapter would suggest should rely much more on the specific discourse context than on what original-language references reveal is the range of possible meanings for a word in a range of contexts. An important aspect of the chapter is discussion of twelve common fallacies attending so-called “word studies.” One such fallacy, actually a class of fallacies, involves the context-ignoring restriction or expansion of a word’s semantic field (range of possible meanings). In a variation of semantic field expansion called “illegitimate totality transfer….a word’s entire semantic range is improperly considered to be part of the term’s meaning in a specific context when…only one of several possible meanings obtain in that particular instance [fit the context]” (347). To use an example other than those adduced by K&P, consider how some handle the Genesis creation account’s word for “day” (yom).
Part 3, “Theology,” comprises two chapters: Chapter 14, “Making the Connection: Getting Our Theology from the Bible” (356-71); and Chapter 15, “Getting Down to Earth: Using the Tools, Applying the Word” (372-91). The purpose of all the interpretation K&P have been instructing readers how to do is, of course, to arrive at a progressively more complete understanding of all that Scripture teaches and to apply its teachings more and more to one’s thought and conduct. In addition to discussion of biblical theology, as contrasted to systematic theology and application, this chapter includes discussion of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. One useful observation, noteworthy given unsatisfactory earlier discussion of Paul’s “hermeneutical procedure” (above, 249), concerns “whether or not we should expect to be able to duplicate the use of the Old Testament by the New Testament writers….On the one hand,” K&P write, “we would expect the New Testament use of the Old to conform to historical-grammatical principles of exegesis that are reproducible by contemporary interpreters. At the same time, the New Testament writers operated under divine inspiration….[This] provides the New Testament interpretations…with a type of authority that cannot legitimately be claimed by anyone today. For this reason, we will do well to exercise caution and to claim authority only for interpretations of the Old Testament that are made explicit in the New Testament” (368).
Additionally, the book’s closing chapter advises students of Scripture to “be prepared to swim against the stream of tradition” while at the same time to “Be humble” and to “Take on a submissive stance toward Scripture” (389, 388). I see a disconnect here, though a less obvious one than the “dumb marketing” disconnect noted at the beginning of this review. A while back, one prominent individual left Evangelicalism in favor of Roman Catholicism, citing as part of his reason exasperation with the need in Evangelicalism to “reinvent the wheel” in every generation. I share some of this gentleman’s exasperation. It is not clear to me how one can label “humble” an attitude that sets up one’s own judgment, or the judgment of some favored group of contemporary scholars (such as “recognized” scholars professing Evangelical commitment), as more deserving of respect than the God-guided thinking and reflection of Holy-Spirit-indwelt believers in all walks of life over long periods (“tradition”). “Humble” submission to contemporary scholars, which most often (I suspect) means not-so-humble selection of contemporary scholars who happen to draw the conclusions one finds most personally appealing, doesn’t strike me as quite the same thing as humble submission to God’s own words in God-preserved Scripture as God-indwelt true believers have, as a group tending toward certain convictions (a “common faith”) over time under God’s guidance, traditionally understood it. (I borrow this usage of the phrase “common faith” from the late Edward F. Hills, who employed it in his defense of the received or traditional text types of the Old and New Testaments, and whose books, I recently discovered, are still available from their original publisher: The Christian Research Press, Ltd., P.O. Box 13023, Des Moines, IA 50310-0023.) The radical spirit that would reject all that God has guided the faithful to believe and do over the long years since establishing his Church, the spirit that would try to rework everything from first-century scratch, has never struck me as either humble or wise. In practical terms, it seems, more often than not, that Roman Catholics hold to the priesthood of priests, Evangelicals to the priesthood of scholars, and no one at all to the official Protestant and Evangelical doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
In saying this, I don’t mean to be anti-intellect or anti-intellectual (anti-scholar). Firm Bible believers have often been accused of being so, occasionally, perhaps, with justification. It should be emphasized, therefore, that when scholars (such as K&P) provide information and insights consonant with Scripture’s plain meanings and with the Spirit-guided judgment of God’s people over long periods, believers would be foolish not to draw upon such scholars’ work. One should also keep in mind, however, that academia is by nature elitist (to be a professional academic is to be among the elite in some field) and that elitism naturally works against consistent and serious application of the doctrine that all true believers are priests with the potential both for God-guided true understanding of Scripture and for sinfulness-inspired errors and simple mistakes. Humble respect for the God-guided thinking and reflection of Holy-Spirit-indwelt believers in all walks of life over long periods, for “tradition,” is one way to mitigate the individual-specific influences of human sinfulness and imperfection.
(Of course, what passes for “tradition” in some circles is just a set of opinions advocated by elites of the past, whether those elites have been priestly, scholarly-intellectual, or both. Discernment of the “common faith” of past generations is not always easy. Exploration of this issue, however, is beyond the scope of this review.)
For the Love of God’s Word, then, provides much sound and useful guidance on how to interpret Scripture responsibly and, with persistence, rightly. Certain empiricist leanings evident in the text, and the authors’ failure to harmonize their belief that uninspired material from outside Scripture is required in order to correctly understand Scripture (that such material is not merely a welcome supplement to one’s understanding but is essential to it) with their beliefs that the doctrine of Scripture Alone is true (which one assumes they believe given that they are Evangelicals) and that Scripture is its own interpreter (which they state that they believe), do detract from the book, but not in a way that lessens the value of most of its hermeneutical guidelines. Therefore, I judge the book worthy of at least a mildly positive rating.