Review: Enjoying the Bible

Enjoying the Bible, Matthew Mullins. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021.

Summary: Explores how learning to read literature helps us love the Bible rather than just reading it as a divine instruction manual.

Sometimes, people come to the Bible, say a passage in the Psalms, and come away baffled. Shouldn’t we be able to just read it and get the message? Yet this is not always our experience. We walk away saying, “I don’t get it.” Or we treat the Bible as a divine instruction manual, looking for the answer to particular challenges in our lives. Or perhaps, from our Bible quiz days, if we did such a thing, we treat the Bible as an information source. But Matthew Mullins wonders whether such ways of engaging the Bible help us love the scriptures, and in turn the Triune God to whom they point.

Mullins teaches English, and he finds that for many of the same reasons, people hate poetry. They read it and don’t get it, the message isn’t straightforward. He contends that our difficulty is reading with Cartesian eyes, looking for information: who is the author and what is the author trying to say? When was it written? What is the main idea? He encourages instead, a hermeneutic of love, where we enter deeply into the passage, allowing it “to captivate, entice, comfort, shock, and even sicken” to allow ourselves to experience the emotional weight of the passage, not just the information within.

He contends that the Bible is literature and to be read literarily, recognizing the various forms that make up scripture. He contends that the literary parts of scripture, like the Psalms don’t just tell us something but invite us to inhabit a world. Psalm 23, for example, not unlike Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” elicits emotions, feelings, the sense of a world. The Psalm invites us to see what a relationship with God is like, in both times of peace and danger.

He invites us to read with our guts rather than “studying.” He encourages us to slow down, even, in the words of Alan Jacobs, to read at whim. Using poetry alongside scripture, he takes us through a number of exercises that allow us to enter into the world of the text–standing in front of it and looking, asking questions based on what we see. Three chapter follow on how we read, looking for the general sense, the central emotion, and the formal means (that is, the forms, like metaphor, used to convey meaning). He uses Paul Laurence Dunbar’s powerfully evocative “We Wear the Mask” alongside Psalm 119. He follows the chapter on the formal means with an explanation of some of the forms we encounter in scripture.

In concluding, he discusses “negative capability,” our ability to wrestle with and rest in uncertainty. Entering the world of a biblical text takes time and if we are uncomfortable with lots of questions and uncertainty, we will never get to the other side of its complexity, of encountering and loving God in the text. He invites us into habituation, taking regular time to sit with texts of scripture. Then, in the afterword, he invites us into one further practice–reading aloud. Reading aloud slows us down and helps us hear the rhythm of the language. It enables us to listen to the sound and sense of the text. Done communally we hear and speak the word of God with each other, and love the One who speaks.

I found much to commend and a few sticking points. The biggest sticking point was that I felt he created a straw man of Cartesian reading. Perhaps this is a reality in his own circles, but much more common in my experience is the lost art of reading observantly, contemplatively and literarily. Many have spoken of how the internet has “broken” our brains when it comes to attending to more complex forms of writing, whether poetry or the Bible. The other issue is the focus on poetry. There is a lot of poetry in scripture to be sure, but also a lot else, with relatively less guidance for how to read these genres or forms other than to be aware of them.

Having noted these criticisms, I found much of value in his approaches to paying attention to the general sense, central emotion, and formal means of the text. I loved setting poetry alongside scripture to show similar reading strategies with each. I appreciated his encouragements that we become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, similar to what his students (and perhaps all of us) have felt before a poem like The Wasteland. I’ve often asked graduate students why they are comfortable spending months or years studying a challenging text, trying to accurately render a historical event, understand a physical phenomena, or solve a math problem but are uncomfortable that they still have questions after studying a Bible passage for 45 minutes.

Many people don’t love scripture. They think they should but often walk away frustrated. This work can help, particularly if read slowly, working through the exercises the author gives the reader. To begin with, he leads us into some familiar texts and helps us love them. He offers strategies for reading that, if they become habits, may help us “in-habit” the text and come to love it as we encounter in it the God who loves us. And, who knows, reading Mullen might whet our appetite to try our hand at other poetry, which would not be a bad thing.

Review: Reading the Bible Around the World

Reading the Bible Around the World, Federico Alfredo Roth, Justin Marc Smith, Kirsten Oh, Alice Yafeh-Deigh, and Kay Higuera Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A globally representative team of authors discuss the diverse social locations of different cultures that shape their reading of scripture, developing the student’s awareness of the importance of context in biblical interpretation.

There was a time (and I was influenced by this tradition) where we learned to study scripture with Euro-American interpretive tools often labelled the historical-critical method. It was an attempt to bring a kind of scientific precision to the study of texts that would lead to “assured” interpretations that were privileged above those of other interpreters because they arose from a supposedly rigorous process. Yet such interpretive work was done by people who often were blind to the way their worldview shaped their conclusions, including such things as a radical skepticism of the miraculous or the spiritual world. It was also blind to ways one’s position as part of a dominant, colonizing culture shaped one’s reading of the social and ethnic dimensions of the text. Most of this was also done by men who brought the prejudices of their gender to how they read passages about women and relations between the sexes.

The introduction of this work discusses the sea change that has occurred in biblical interpretation as scholars from every part of the world have engaged the biblical text, bringing the unique sensitivities of their cultural contexts. Women are joining men. Latino/a, Asian, and African scholars are joining Euro-Americans in studying the biblical text. The growing awareness of social location and how this shapes interpretation has led to rich conversations about the different ways we may read the biblical text, the different nuances or features we notice, and the particular applications we make shaped by our context.

In the following chapters, interpreters from different cultures describe and model what this looks like. Each describes particular interpretive emphases that shape study of the biblical text that arise in their cultural context. Then they demonstrate how this works out in their reading of Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the loving neighbor who happens to be a Samaritan, and their reading of an Old Testament passage of their choice.

Frederico Alfredo Roth discusses Latin American approaches, and the influence of liberationist approaches, a concern for the poor and the migrant, and for praxis have in approaching texts. Alice Yafeh-Deigh discusses colonial and post-colonial influences as well as tribalism and patriarchal concerns in reading texts from an African perspective. Justin Marc Smith discusses classic approaches of Euro-Americans, the anti-supernaturalism underlying many readings, and how the post-modern turn brought awareness of the social location of readers and growing self-awareness to Euro-American interpreters. Kirsten Oh recounts the intersection of orientalist, anglicist, and nativist readings of scripture, as well as the influence of underlying Confucianism and the current post-colonial context. Kay Higuera Smith rounds out the discussion with an exploration of the situation of diasporic peoples, often leading to creolized or hybridized readings.

It was more difficult to compare the different readings of Old Testament passages because each chose unique passages (and one did not include this). The Latin American reading of Deuteronomy 24:17-22 was especially aware of the treatment of the marginalized in this passage. The African reading of Esther emphasized the strategies both women used to subvert patriarchal dominance, an issue also wrestled with by African women. The Euro-American reading of David and Bathsheba looks at this primarily from the perspective of David and David’s sin, not seeing the incident through Bathsheba’s eyes. The Asian reading of Ruth focuses on issues of Ruth as “model minority,” combined with her invisibility at the end of the narrative, while also recognizing her distinctive character of hesed.

What was more interesting to me was the reading of Luke 10:25-37. While there were nuances of difference, particularly in application, I was struck by how similar all the readings were. All were aware of the Jew-Samaritan dynamic and drew on this in the discussion of neighboring. Yet the combined discussion offered a much richer reading of a familiar story. It suggested to me that reading with our global neighbors, when it is focused carefully on the same text leads, not to radically disparate readings, but rather fuller readings exposing aspects of the biblical text we may overlook. For example, the Latin American approach raised the question of why the unsafeness of the Jericho road was tolerated. Isn’t addressing this also a matter of loving neighbor?

The subtitle of this book is “A Student’s Guide to Global Hermeneutics.” I think this text accomplishes that task well. The overview of interpretive distinctions of different cultural contexts combined with examples, as well as reflection questions makes this a helpful text in an academic setting. It is also a helpful introduction, especially for North American Christians, to the growing global conversation about how we read scripture together. The suggestions for further reading allow one to go as far as one wants in that exploration. And what will one find? What is suggested here is a richer, deeper, and perhaps renewed engagement with scripture.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Problem of the Old Testament

The Problem of the Old Testament: Hermeneutical, Schematic & Theological Approaches, Duane A. Garrett. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: An exploration of how and whether Christians ought read the Old Testament, contending that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament and that its material still has authority and edifying value for the Christian.

We Christians have a problem with the Old Testament. We struggle to define what it is. We find it hard to read. And we struggle to reconcile it with the New Testament. How do we understand “Messianic prophecy”? How do we understand the Law in relation to Christ? What is the relationship between Israel and the church? In this work, Duane A. Garrett attempts to chart a way through this thicket of problems, proposing that the Old Testament remains authoritative for the church and edifying for the believer.

Garrett begins by surveying how the post-apostolic Fathers approached this question. While much remained unresolved, they identified the Old Testament as canonical, identified a core of texts that were fulfilled in Christ while seeing some passages as allegories of Christ, saw it as a source of moral instruction and a theological authority in their polemic efforts. He then explores two hermeneutical approaches that began early and have had continued influence at various points in church history: the allegorical approach of Alexandria and the literal approach of Antioch. The allegorical approach was uncontrolled; the literal could be argued to say nothing beyond the immediate context of the text (e.g Isaiah 7:14 was fulfilled in Isaiah’s own day and that is it).

He then turns to the schematic approaches used to connect the two testaments. He considers Covenant Theology, noting the difficulty of finding the language of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in scripture. In opposition is Dispensationalism, often problematic as historic events unravel prophetic schema and because it excludes large parts of the Old Testament from the effective canon, even while it remains in the formal canon. He follows this discussion with one of conceptual solutions considering the meaning of the canon, the meaning and focus of biblical theology, and models for organizing Old Testament theology. He concludes that no single approach is adequate and believes only a hybrid model is sufficient.

The third part of the book is Garrett’s articulation of his own approach. He contends for an approach that is neither supercessionist nor dispensationalist with regard to Israel, rooted in the promise to Abraham that includes the blessing of the nations through Israel fulfilled in Christ for Israel but also including the Gentiles. He also considers the Old Testament under the two headings of Election Literature and Wisdom Literature. He focuses the remainder of this volume to Election Literature (alluding to future volumes where I assume he will discuss Wisdom Literature).

He starts with the successive covenants of the Old Testament and the developing understanding of how Israel is chosen to bring blessing and redemption to the world, chosen in Abraham, given the pedagogue of the Sinai covenant to teach, and the Davidic Covenant of an everlasting future Davidic king. These all point to a fulfillment beyond the Old Testament horizon, found in the New Covenant in Christ. Garrett turns to the Law and traditional understandings, particularly of the divisions of civil, ceremonial, and moral law–a division made nowhere in the Law itself. Garrett sees the law as part of a covenant document at the same time demonstrating a need for a new covenant, fully realized in Christ. It is both an ideal of righteousness and basis of judgement. Finally, for the believer, the law is a teacher that in Christ leads those who meditate upon it into the righteousness which is theirs in Christ.

Garrett discusses narrative, and particularly allusive patterns in narrative, where later material alludes to earlier material. He notes that we ought read such material backward, to prior texts and not forward to future ones. Finally, Garrett discusses prophecy, looking at Hosea and Joel as case studies. Considering Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called my son.”) Garrett argues that Hosea is using representative recapitulation and that while this is not a prediction of Jesus time in Egypt, Matthew uses the same method of representative recapitulation in his account of Jesus. Hosea doesn’t predict Jesus, but Jesus fulfills Hosea, or is the culmination of this allusive material. Garrett, in an appendix, applies a similar approach to Isaiah 7:14.

I think many of us have reached similar conclusions, if we are dissatisfied with the traditional schema. What Garrett does is help us think more deliberately about the “problem” of reading the Old Testament, the different kinds of material we find there, and how we read the narrative arc where so much allusive material occurs. He brings discipline to intuition as well as an approach that avoids supercessionism or artificial constructions not grounded in scripture. Most of all, he grounds a vision of the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ in a way faithful to good interpretive practice rather than forced or undisciplined approaches. I look forward to seeing how Garrett continues to develop this approach.


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.

Reading Scripture as the Church

Reading Scripture as the Church (New Explorations in Theology), Derek W. Taylor. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Brings Dietrich Bonhoeffer into conversation with three theologians concerning how the church reads and interprets scripture.

The printing press, the Reformation, vernacular translations and rising literacy put the Bible into the hands of many more Christians, leading to a rise of personal Bible reading, contributing both to personal devotion, and the rise of idiosyncratic interpretations. The latter makes it ever more apparent that scripture is meant to be read and interpreted as the church, within Christian communities.

Derek W. Taylor explores the contribution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the reading of scripture in community in a conversation with three other theologians: John Webster, Robert Jenson, and Stanley Hauerwas. Bonhoeffer was a leader in the Confessing Church movement that resisted Hitlerian tyranny, and the seminary community at Finkenwalde, a ministry centered around reading scripture within community. The central idea coming through in this volume is that of following this risen Lord who calls his people to follow him in discipleship into his mission in the world. Taylor unpacks this in four parts:

  1. The church as a creation of the word. Here he draws on John Webster’s idea of the church as creatura verbi. What Bonhoeffer brings to this is the idea of the risen Christ without whom the community of the church cannot exist.
  2. The church as an institution. Taylor brings in Robert Jenson who emphasizes the importance of reading within the traditions of the church, allowing how the church has read to influence how we read. To this Bonhoeffer adds the dimension of the living Christ who has been leading this church into all truth throughout history.
  3. Reading as a congregation. Taylor focuses on a leading exponent of ecclesial theology, Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas sees the church’s reading together as enacting the community. Bonhoeffer would counter that the gathered community is the place addressed by the risen Lord, and led by him into discipleship.
  4. The church as missional community. Here, Taylor doesn’t draw upon a particular theologian but notes that Bonhoeffer’s missional theology is inherent in the question “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” that addresses the community in its given context.

The most significant conclusion to this discussion for me is one Taylor makes in his epilogue. He states:

By examining the church in terms of its identity-defining relationships, I have suggested that this hermeneutic is not a method but a posture and that this posture can be most succinctly summarized as the ongoing act of discipleship (p. 258).

For Taylor, scriptural interpretation can never be codified into the fabric of the church nor its history of interpretation. Rather, the risen Lord speaks through scripture leading his people, forming them as disciples and leading them into mission, helping them to be both ever true, and ever new in their life together and work in the world. Taylor brings Bonhoeffer in conversation with three theological interpreters of scripture, and adding his own insights, offers a rich account of how we might read scripture as the church.


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: How to Read Daniel

How to Read Daniel (How to Read series), Tremper Longman III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A helpful introduction to the Old Testament book of Daniel, dealing with its original setting and context, the theme of the book, basic commentary on each story and vision, and contemporary applications.

Most of us who have read the Old Testament book of Daniel the prophet find we can make pretty good sense out of the first six chapters, which are narratives. It is the last six which are more problematic, consisting of visions with all sorts of strange beasts, divine figures coming on the clouds, and future kings.

Tremper Longman III does for Daniel what he has done in other books in his How to Read series. Without getting engaged in highly technical commentary with extensive introduction, he introduces the reader to the original setting of Daniel, and then offers a concise commentary of the book, offering the thoughtful lay reader enough to study Daniel for oneself, or with a group.

He introduces the context of Babylonian oppression of Israel including Daniel and his companions and the structure of the book, noting the chiasm of chapters 2-7, the six stories and four visions of which the book consists, and the shifts between Hebrew and Aramaic in the book. He reviews the story of Israel, exile and the succession from Babylonian to Persian, and eventually Greek empires significant to understanding the book. The author takes a more traditional position of Daniel as a sixth century BCE rather than second century BCE work, and for the real possibility of predictive prophecy.

He then works through the book chapter by chapter. He does alter the order slightly, looking first at stories of court contest in Daniel 1 and 2, and 4 and 5, and then stories of court conflict in Daniel 3 and 6. Then he moves on to the four visions in Daniel 7, 8, 9, and 10-12. Longman sees all this material held together by a primary theme “that in spite of present difficulties, God is in control, and he will have the final victory.” In each section, he shows how the material develops that theme. He also notes a secondary theme, that “God’s people can survive and even thrive in the midst of a toxic culture.” We witness this repeatedly throughout the book as people live faithfully and experience God’s provident care, whether in superior abilities to interpret dreams or deliverance from fiery furnaces and lions’ dens.

He concludes the book with discussion of what it means to live in a toxic culture where we cannot force the government to act like the church, providing a basis for a far more nuanced political theology than we customarily encounter. He also explores what it means to find comfort in God’s ultimate victory that begins with the recognition of the real existence of a battle between good and evil operating behind many of the conflicts we face in the world today. There may be real instances where we need to stand against evil, and this may even cost our lives. Likewise we need to be attentive to the war within, finding courage to stand against both external and internal evils, the systemic and the personal, in view of the victory of God portrayed in the visions.

This is a great resource for an adult ed class studying Daniel, as well as a personal devotional study. Each chapter includes a few reflection questions helping connect specific content to the larger themes of Daniel. Commentary recommendations will help the person know where to look who wants to dig deeper. This is a sound work of introduction and interpretation that I would recommend as a great first book on Daniel.


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

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.