Review: The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers

The hermeneutics of the biblical writers

The Hermeneutics of the Biblical WritersAbner Chou. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2018.

Summary: An argument for interpreting the Bible in the way the prophetic and apostolic writers interpreted prior texts, using careful exegesis to understand authorial intent, working intertextually, discerning the theological meaning, and its significance for the current day.

Readers of the Bible encounter a puzzling phenomenon when they observe how the biblical writers use and interpret prior biblical texts. It often seems they do not quote and use scripture in the ways we do. They sometimes conflate two or more passages, and we find ourselves wondering how they could apply a passage in the way they do. It seems to defy grammatico-historical exegesis. Some commentators observe a discontinuity between our own reading and interpretive practice, and those of biblical writers, particular apostolic writers. They cite the influence of midrashic interpretation and pesher exegesis, following first century rabbinic practice.

Abner Chou argues for a continuity of hermeneutic practice extending from the prophets to the apostles that ought in turn shape our own hermeneutic practice. He traces how prophets paid careful attention to the words of prior scripture, the Pentateuch, seeking through careful exegesis to grasp the authorial intent, and moved from this theological meaning under inspiration to draw out the theological significance of this truth for their own readers and those to follow. Chou contends, not that they wrote better than they knew but that they knew better than we credit. In turn, the apostolic writers followed a similar practice, as they reflected on the scriptures, and the work of Christ, and their use of these scriptures represents similar careful exegesis, attention to theological meaning, and drawing out further theological significance. Chou considers each of the New Testament writers in turn. What makes for continuity and agreement among these interpreters in their intertextual work is their common approach to interpreting the biblical text within a redemptive historical perspective.

Chou supports his case by dealing with difficult instances such as the use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 (“Out of Egypt I called my son”). He also traces the use of various words and themes like”seed” through various biblical uses and allusions to show a continuity of interpretation with progressive understanding. The extensive use of this material, though the author apologized for not offering an exhaustive treatment, was a rich study of biblical themes. Like other writers, he argues for “redemptive trajectories” but for him, the trajectory stops at the terminus of the New Testament and further projections, for example, with regard to roles of women in marriage and the church, are not warranted.

While some will object to this, there is much material for fruitful reflection with regard to the unfolding of redemptive history and the continuity between the testaments. His conclusions for our own interpretive and applicative practice offer sound insights in careful exegesis that understands the centrality of Christ. His fourfold framework of application that leads to worship for God’s works, learning of theology, moral responses, and a worldview shaped by redemptive history is a helpful rubric for our uses of scripture in the obedience of faith.

I had two criticisms of this work. One is that the author does not address hermeneutical scholarship that does not agree with his proposal. It would seem in an academic text that this would be a given to establish the superiority of his method. There is no discussion of first century rabbinic practice, only the assumption that the apostolic hermeneutic was the prophetic hermeneutic.

Second, I felt the work was excessively repetitious in trying to drum into the reader his thesis. Some skillful editing would have made this a far more readable text. Also, Chou repeatedly misused the phrase “hone in” for “home in” (cf. this Writer’s Digest article).

I do hope Chou will address these shortcomings in his future scholarly work. Showing how biblical writers read, interpreted, and responded to scripture, and how the many writers under God the Spirit’s inspiration wrote one book with theological continuity is a vital project to answer the skepticism about scripture in many quarters. This will enhance the warm love he evidences for the scriptures in his writing, and I presume, with his students.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible and the Church

Two views

Two Views on Homosexuality, The Bible, and the ChurchPreston Sprinkle (ed.), William Loader, Megan K. DeFranza, Wesley Hill, Stephen R. Holmes (contributors). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.

Summary: Four biblical scholars and theologians, two holding a traditional understanding of human sexuality, and two holding an affirming stance, but all taking the biblical testimony about human sexuality seriously, articulate the basis on which they hold their positions, and respond to the statements of the other three in gracious dialogue.

I don’t think anyone will contradict the assertion that recent discussions around sexuality both within the culture and the church have been fraught with bitter rancor and contention. Denominations have fractured and hurtful attacks have been made on those holding either of the two major stances, traditional and affirming. There are books demeaning those holding one or the other of these views while arguing for their own.

If for no other reason then, this book is a welcome alternative. Four scholars argue for variants of one of the two major stances in a dialogue that is unrestrained in the rigor in which one or the other view is held while speaking respectfully of the contributions of others, even those in disagreement. Furthermore, all four care deeply about the biblical witness on these matters, although they part ways in their interpretation of that witness. Strikingly, three of the four, including one of the affirming scholars would contend that the biblical witness precludes same sex unions but reach differing conclusions on how this might be applied in the contemporary context.

The four scholars then in the dialogue and the basic positions they hold are:

  • William Loader, a scholar who has studied sexuality in ancient Judaism and Christianity holds that the Bible prohibits all forms of same sex relations, but that this must be weighed against findings in biology and other fields related to sexuality and gender not available to the biblical writers, and thus he arrives at a position affirming same sex unions.
  • Megan DeFranza is a theologian whose research on intersex persons (those whose physiology is neither clearly male nor female) challenges the assumption that all people are born exclusively male or female. She notes the recognition of eunuchs in scripture as a biblical example contrary to this traditional assumption. She also argues that the prohibition passages have to do with exploitative forms of sexuality related to slavery, trafficking, and power differences and do not focus on loving, monogamous same sex relationships.
  • Wesley Hill, a celibate gay biblical scholar who shares something of his own narrative, contends that the prohibitive passages preclude any same sex relations and argues that these must be understood in the broader context of the Bible’s affirmations about sexuality, marriage, and procreation. Both he and the next scholar draw on Augustinian theology as the best resource for articulating a biblical synthesis on matters of marriage and sexuality. Hill also eloquently argues for the place of “spiritual friendship”–deeply committed, non-sexual friendships between two same sex persons as well as the full welcome of same sex persons committed to the traditional view within families, sharing his own experience of being invited to be the godfather of a couple’s children and thus drawn into that family.
  • Stephen Holmes is a theologian who argues that the prohibitive passages are actually secondary (though important) to the biblical passages teaching about marriage. He also draws on Augustinian theology, despite its acknowledge defects for its formulation of the three-fold goods of marriage: children, faithfulness (a God-graced experience of learning selflessness), and sacrament (revealing the mystery of Christ’s relation to the church). Holmes, while not advocating same sex unions, explores the possibility of some kind of accommodation for same sex couples who come into the church, along the lines of the church’s accommodation for at least some who divorce and remarry, or those made in mission contexts for polygamous unions.

Each of these scholars sets forth his or her own understanding and their reasons for that understanding–rooted significantly in biblical, cultural, and contemporary research as well as pastoral concerns.

The essays underscore several things:

  1. With some exceptions, the question is less what scripture says than what this is taken to mean for the church and how this is appropriated pastorally.
  2. While the tone of these discussions was irenic, the disturbing reality was the support this gives to the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” scholars like Brad Gregory and Christian Smith level against Protestant Christianity. At the same time, these scholars model a serious effort at engagement that looks for common ground, and perhaps in the future, a reconciliation of their differences.
  3. The essays and responses all model pastoral concern and compassion and respect for the dignity and character of LGBT persons as well as the challenge all in the church are faced with by the scriptures calling for integrity in our sexual lives.
  4. Both Hill and Holmes press a corollary of traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality that is neglected in much Protestant discourse, the good of procreation and children.
  5. Loader and DeFranza do raise an important hermeneutic question of how in other areas (for example, our understanding of the cosmos, a heliocentric solar system, the age of the earth) many in the church have accommodated their understanding of scripture to these findings in science. Is there similar warrant in matters of sexuality? Hill and Holmes would argue that there is no basis for such a warrant concerning homosexuality, and arrive at different hermeneutical outcomes.

Preston Sprinkle, editor of this work makes similar observations and also helpfully frames the discussion at the start, and points toward future work to be done. The need for this is clear. Often, the disputes of the church have taken a century or more to resolve. The discussion of justification, grace, faith, and works is five hundred years and running, with significant recent explorations of common ground between Catholic and Protestant. It occurs to me that a resolution will take further work along the lines of what these scholars done.

I also believe the conversation needs to be expanded to listen to scholars and theologians from non-Western backgrounds. While this discussion included a woman and a self-identified gay person, it was a discussion among four white scholars. One of my own concerns in this discussion is the exclusionary and culturally imperialistic consequences of how the church in the West has often deliberated and acted in these matters and sometimes spoken pejoratively of the views of believers from other parts of the global Christian family. Their voices must also be heard and honored.

Review: The Future of Biblical Interpretation

future of biblical interpretation

The Future of Biblical Interpretation, Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm, eds. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Summary: A festschrift for Anthony Thiselton exploring from different perspectives the tension between plurality of interpretations of the Bible, and responsible hermeneutics.

Plurality of interpretations is perhaps one of the more troubling aspects of Protestant biblical interpretation. Not only does it account for numerous denominational divisions but there is the troubling phenomenon of Christians thinking everyone is his or her own interpreter without controls or answerability to others.

This volume explores the question of how to practice responsible hermeneutics in this context, as well as with a text that we believe both the Word of God and the product of multiple human voices. It is a festschrift to Anthony Thiselton, author, in the 1980s, of the ground-breaking The Two Horizons, where he brings to bear the work of figures like Heidegger, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein in the broader field of hermeneutics to explore one of the basic sources of much interpretive plurality, the unawareness of the historical horizon of the biblical text as well as the contemporary horizon of the interpreter (including traditions of interpretation that might shape the contemporary interpreter).

Perhaps in this case, the best way to give a sense of this book is to provide a table of contents of topics and contributors:

Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm

1. The Future of Biblical Interpretation and Responsible Plurality in Hermeneutics
Anthony C. Thiselton

2. Biblical Hermeneutics and Theological Responsibility
Stanley E. Porter

3. Biblical Hermeneutics and Scriptural Responsibility
Richard S. Briggs

4. Biblical Hermeneutics and Kerygmatic Responsibility
Matthew R. Malcolm

5. Biblical Hermeneutics and Historical Responsibility
James D. G. Dunn

6. Biblical Hermeneutics and Critical Responsibility
Robert C. Morgan

7. Biblical Hermeneutics and Relational Responsibility
Tom Greggs

8. Biblical Hermeneutics and Ecclesial Responsibility
R. Walter L. Moberly

Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm

Thiselton’s opening essay is perhaps one of the most interesting. Drawing on Bakhtin, he argues for the importance in dealing with plurality of being aware of the polyphony of voices in the corpus of scripture. Responsible hermeneutics neither holds these voices in conflict, nor mutes some to privilege others, but seeks the larger perspective to which all of these contribute.

There were several interesting issues raised in individual essays as well as in the conflicting perspectives between some essays. Stanley Porter raises interesting questions about theological interpretation, and particularly the privileging of pre-modern theology in many discussions. Richard Briggs argues that scriptural responsibility in hermeneutics is a fostering of dialogue between different ideas of “scripture as.”  James Dunn argues for the priority of the historical horizon in interpretation, certainly reflected in his New Perspective work on Paul. By contrast, Robert Morgan argues for the role of theological criticism over against the text. The final two chapters explore the relation of biblical interpretation to our relationship to the church authority as well as to its traditions and creeds.

While I do think the interpreters raised different and interesting ideas from their own perspectives (something the editors wrestled with in the end), I found myself troubled in two respects. One was that for a group of people who are concerned with meaning, one found it a challenge to understand what they were arguing at times. This book actually assumes that the reader is highly conversant with the hermeneutic issues being discussed, the relevant philosophers and the particular uses of language in the field.

Related, but more troubling to me is that seems this work reflects an assumption of opaqueness rather than perspicuity of scripture. As I write this I certainly am aware of the fact that not every verse in scripture is utterly clear. But Robert Morgan’s theological criticism in particular seems to affirm there are times where the theologian must go against the clarity of the biblical text. In Moberly’s concluding essay, he begins with a discussion of the Pauline authorship of the pastorals and the unsettling discovery during seminary that biblical criticism calls this into question despite the clear attestations of authorship and relationship. By the end, he acknowledges himself agnostic on the matter and states that “literary theory makes it possible to take the first-person voice of the letters with full imaginative seriousness, and one can unreservedly inhabit the imaginative world of the text in preaching, while leaving open the relation between the literary voice and the historical author” (p. 156).

It seems to me that these writers often accept the hermeneutic of suspicion about these texts. I would contend that the mental gymnastics that differentiates between “imaginary Paul” and Paul, the apostle and martyr is a corrosive one that undercuts the preacher’s ability to speak the word of the Lord to the people of God. I do not see how “imaginary Paul” can speak with authority to the Timothys of this world, for example, about “taking your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), but the apostle who was stoned and beaten many times and who would die for the gospel certainly could and can.

So, while I would wish in no way to detract from Anthony Thiselton’s scholarship, nor from the value of a collection like this for elucidating the current discussions in hermeneutics, I must express serious reservations about the value of this work either for addressing the issue of plurality that is its purported task or for the edifying and equipping of the people of God. I’m not sure this is a future of biblical interpretation I can commend.


Review: Preaching with Accuracy

Preaching with AccuracyPreaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching by Randal E. Pelton. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2014.

Summary: This book contends that to preach with accuracy, one needs to find the big idea in the text, but not only that, to understand that idea in the context of the book, and ultimately all of scripture, which means connecting it to the person and work of Christ.

Randal Pelton thinks that much of “biblical preaching” isn’t biblical enough because preachers have failed to find the big idea in their chosen text. Often, they are preaching something tangential to the big idea. Furthermore, truly biblical preaching sets the textual big idea (texbi is Pelton’s term) within the contextual big idea (conbi) and ultimately within the canonical big idea (canbi) which will center on the person and work of Christ. Hence, Pelton is contending that it is not enough to turn one’s exegesis of a passage into a sermon. Rather one must place the text in its theological context in God’s redemptive story (Pelton assumes the unity of the canon, while recognizing the diverse literature and settings in which the books of scripture were written).

The book begins with an argument for exposition today from 1 Corinthians 14:24-25, arguing that it is the word of God explained plainly that God uses in the hearts not only of his people but even the outsider. He then contends that many preachers fail to preach accurately because they are preaching small ideas in the text rather than its main or big idea. After showing how to appropriately “cut” the text, that is, choose the textual portion on which to preach so that one isn’t only preaching part of the development of an idea, he provides specific help with “do it yourself” examples for identifying the textual idea in various genres. He then gives similar instruction in finding the contextual big idea, noting things like God or Christ as the key actor in narrative, that epistles are arguments and one must identify the thread of argument, and situate the text within this, and so forth.

Finally, he addresses how to find the canonical big idea. This seemed to me to be the vaguest part of the book. Pelton quotes Sinclair Ferguson, who said that there is no “simple formula, an elixir to be sprinkled on our sermons to transform them into the preaching of Christ” (quoted on p. 138 of Pelton). Ultimately, he would argue that Old Testament texts, indeed all texts, should be read in light of the gospel. He contrasts his approach to that of Sidney Greidanus, but I found Greidanus far more specific in how to go about this (in a much longer text) that Pelton. But both ultimately advocate forms of Christ-centered preaching of all biblical texts. This is an alternative to the “book of stories and rules” or “God’s handbook” approach, or approaches that moralize narratives (this is what Nehemiah did and we should too). In his concluding chapter, he describes how one moves from this textual work to the sermon with the encouragement that the work he describes in the book should come early in the week so that it can be fleshed out in a message.

This strikes me as a very helpful book for someone in the early years of preaching, or someone who preaches who has not yet had the benefit of seminary, who is committed to expository preaching. It helps transform sermons from either running commentaries on the Bible, or when one is preaching through a book, preaching disconnected messages that fail to show how the book coheres. More vitally, it shows the pastor how to provide a theological framework in his messages to hang the big ideas of a text onto the framework of the biggest ideas in the Bible of God’s redemptive story that culminates in Christ. And it has the virtue of being concise and practical while pointing those interested to further resources.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Review: Preaching the New Testament

Preaching the NTPreaching the New Testament edited by Ian Paul & David Wenham. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Summary: The contributors to this volume consider how the character of the genres and sub-genres of the New Testament shape how these texts are preached with faithfulness not only to the meaning of the text but also to the type of text they are preaching. Essays include not only discussions of genres but also issues in hermeneutics and homiletics as they bear on the teaching of the New Testament.

Anyone who has attempted to preach from the various New Testament texts quickly realizes that not only do  different principles of interpretation apply to different genres, but how one preaches these texts differs. When preaching a gospel narrative, helping people inhabit the story is crucial. When preaching Romans, understanding the argument Paul is making and how he develops it is important.

A number of books have been written on genre and exegesis. What is different about this book is that it takes the various genres and sub-categories of genres and explores how these might be preached in a manner consistent with their form. There are several essays concerning various types of writing found in the gospels–an overview by D.A. Carson, a treatment of the nativity narratives by R.T. France, which was the last thing he wrote before his death, and chapters on parables, miracles, and the Sermon on the Mount. Successive chapters consider the book of Acts, Paul’s epistles, and the Pastoral epistles, Hebrews, the General Epistles, and Revelation. These are followed by chapters on the use of archaelogy and history in preaching, how one preaches the ethics of the New Testament, the preaching of hope and judgment, two chapters on hermeneutical issues, and a concluding chapter that considers preaching the gospel from the gospels.

I thought in general the essays were of high quality. Carson’s on preaching the gospels, like so much of what he writes was a goldmine bringing together exegetical and homiletic insight. France explores the crucial issue of how one brings fresh life to familiar infancy narratives. I. Howard Marshall helpfully addresses both the horizon of the context of the Pastoral epistles and a number of contemporary issues that the texts address under the categories of Christian belief, Christian character and congregational life and gives us examples of two of his own homiletic outlines. I thought the essay on Hebrews especially helpful in identifying both the challenges of preaching this text and the thread of redemptive history that may be brought forth.

In the portion not devoted to specific genres, Peter Oakes essay on archaeology and history emphasized as the most crucial task helping people understand everyday life in New Testament contexts. Stephen Travis helpfully took on the important issue of preaching hope and judgment. In his discussion of judgment I thought he struck a good balance of what may be clearly affirmed and the places where there are no definitive answers, between the reality of judgment and the truth that this was not God’s intention for human beings.

A common quality of all these essays was the conviction that those who preach do not need to choose between faithfulness to the text of the Bible and preaching that engages contemporary hearers. In fact, they would contend that faithful attention to the genres of New Testament text that allows these genres to shape how one preaches is critical to homiletic relevance and delivers the preacher from falling into patterns of boring sameness. While this is not the sum total of good preaching, which includes the pastor’s engagement personally with the text and speaking in the power of the Spirit, this work contributes to God’s word being heard by God’s people through the human vessel of preaching. I would commend this book to any who are committed to biblical preaching and seek not only to be faithful to the meaning of these texts but also their literary character.