Introductory hermeneutics books are a dime a dozen. Do we really need another? I will let that question hang for now, but I will say this: Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson have given us a fresh and helpful look at the subject in their recent title, For the Love of God’s Word: An Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. This book is an abridgment of the authors’ earlier work, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, also published by Kregel Academic to great acclaim. As for the differences between this and the unabridged Invitation book, Nathaniel Claiborne writes:
In terms of differences between the two volumes, the main thing missing is more advanced discussions wrestling with history of interpretation, discourse analysis, original language business and all that jazz…Additionally, the sample exegesis sections from the larger book, as well as sections on preaching got the axe. Bibliographies were likewise trimmed because as you might know, high schoolers are typically not looking for more non-fiction books to spend their time reading (maybe it’s just the ones I know and used to be myself).
It sounds like this book is targeted more for a high-school or college-age audience, though it would undoubtedly benefit anyone who wants a more distilled version of the authors’ ideas.
Here’s the authors’ information, lifted verbatim from amazon.com:
Andreas J. Köstenberger is founder of Biblical Foundations and senior research professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is a leading evangelical scholar, a prolific author, and editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Richard D. Patterson (PhD, University of California, Los Angeles) is distinguished professor ermeritus at Liberty University. He has written well over 100 articles for major publishers and periodicals, including commentaries on Nahum, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah (Moody) and Joel and Kings (with Hermann Austel) for the second edition of the Expositor’s Bible Commentary Series.
I love the introduction because the authors set the stage skillfully, capturing the need for sound hermeneutics in a memorable way. The following quote is illustrative:
The “golden rule” of 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 (Matt. 7:12). p. 18
In other words, texts are not just free-floating utterances that are up for grabs. They have authors (or speakers), who in turn had intentions when they wrote communicated the words, and it is our “ethical” responsibility to read the Bible on its own terms. This is the goal of hermeneutics–we the readers must read the text in order to recover the author’s intention. While this may sound obvious, contemporary practice demonstrates it to be anything but. While we are adamantly opposed to being misunderstood or having our words twisted out of context, we somehow feel free to do this very thing with the Word of God. “Reader response” hermeneutics is practiced by most, whether consciously or not, and it is into this context that Köstenberger and Patterson offer a better way.
To lead us out of misreading Scripture, the authors have given us something fresh in their “hermeneutical triad”, i.e. the threefold grid through which to organize our study of the Scriptures. They describe it well:
Foundational to the plan of this book is the conviction that those who want to succeed in the task of biblical interpretation need to proceed within a proper interpretive framework, that is, the hermeneutical triad, which consists of three elements interpreters must address in studying any given biblical passage: a book’s historical setting, its literary dimension, and its theological message. p. 23
It is because our faith is historical, and because “texts are historically and culturally embedded”, that we must understand the historical dimension if we hope to understand the meaning. It is because Scripture is primarily literature that we must spend the bulk of our time understanding the text as a literary/linguistic entity. And its because we believe Scripture to be inspired and authoritative that we must not end there, but go on to understand what it teaches the church about God (the theological message).
I love the authors’ summary description of the task of interpretation:
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. This will place a given passage in its proper salvation-historical context. Next, he will consider the literary genre of a passage. He should imagine the different genres found in Scripture as topographical features such as valleys, mountain ranges, or plains, each of which exhibit characteristic features and call for appropriate navigational strategies. The historical and literary investigation will be followed by theological study. Finally, the interpreter will take a close look at the specific linguistic features of the text–the literary context and word meanings. p. 23
This triad of history, literature, and theology informs the outline of the remainder of the book. Chapter 2 is devoted to historical-cultural backgrounds, and chapter 13 to theology (with chapter 14 as a sort of conclusion). Thus the bulk of the book is in the 10-chapter midsection devoted to the literary dimension of Scripture. In this section, the authors deftly tackle another triad (a triad within a triad I suppose): the topics of OT and NT canon, seven biblical genres, and two chapters on discourse and language in biblical interpretation. I cannot personally envision a more effective approach. The beloved classic How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart, for instance, only really covers genre when it comes down to it. Other books are perhaps strong in one of these areas, but not all of them. And yet others are so detailed in these areas as to obscure the forest in in favor of the trees. I think Köstenberger and Patterson skillfully help the reader learn to look at the trees while not forgetting the forest.
Running a text through the “hermeneutical triad”, the authors suggest, is a means to an end. It is to be followed by the application of the text in the interpreter’s life. As the interpreter grows in his practice, he will develop what the authors refer to as “interpretive virtues or competencies”, which is a helpful way to look at the process as a lifelong, developmental enterprise in the life of the Christian. Here is their list from p. 25:
- historical-cultural awareness;
- canonical consciousness;
- sensitivity to genre;
- literary and linguistic competence;
- a firm and growing grasp of biblical theology;
- an ability to apply and proclaim passages from every biblical genre to life; and
- wisdom for continuing the interpretive task.
I love this outlook because I think it provides a counterpoint to the all-too-common view out there that “if I just get a few tools in my tool belt, I’m competent to ‘rightly handle the word of truth’.” The authors take more of an “apprenticeship” view on biblical interpretation, and this involves evolution and development throughout a lifetime. I haven’t seen this before in other hermeneutics books, perhaps because most authors tend to treat it as a “given”. But I think it is anything but a “given” in the church or the academy today, and so Köstenberger and Patterson provide a welcomed, fresh perspective.
As far as general pedagogical value, each chapter is well-organized, beginning with a page describing the chapter’s objectives, an outline, and ending with a helpful distillation / summary and an assignment. This would be an easy book to use in a classroom setting.
Before concluding, let me bring it back around to their introduction. Uniquely, the authors offer a list of “characteristics required of the biblical interpreter” (p. 21ff). The first item on the list is humility. Wow, and amen…what a wonderful reminder that, at the end of the day, we as interpreters do not stand over the text but rather under it.
Methods for better understanding the Bible are just as important now as ever. Sound hermeneutics is under assault in our individualistic, “you read it your way and I’ll read it mine” world. I asked in the introduction, “Do we really need another introductory volume on hermeneutics?” Need is a strong word. But I would say that such volumes continue to serve a good purpose, as long as they present sound interpretive methodology in a fresh, engaging way that can reach more and more people. The Bible is where we find the truest, infallible revelation of God…and of ourselves. And if we don’t know how to read it, then we lose a lot (to put it mildly). So any book that could help another generation read the Bible in a sound, ethical, responsible way is a welcome contribution as far as I am concerned. For the Love of God’s Word fits that description.