Book Review: Invitation to Biblical Interpretation

Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson 

Kregel ǀ WTS ǀ CBD

Many thanks to the kind folks at Kregel for this review copy!

My review is one of many that are a part of the blog tour for this book.

Köstenberger and Patterson (hereafter K/P) have written this book “to teach a simple method of interpreting the Bible,” (23) presumably the purpose for anyone who has ever written a hermeneutics text. There is a distinct difference, however, in the approach that K/P have taken. They call it the “hermeneutical triad,” which is comprised of history, literature, and theology (24). These are the components used to construct the grid through which the reader is to read the biblical text. As the authors note, they are not the first to use this grid (they give appropriate nods to Longman, Dillard, Wright, and Vanhoozer), but the first to describe it with a specific name. K/P also claim to take a rather novel approach to the interpretive process, namely moving from specific hermeneutics to general (25). So rather than starting with words (i.e. syntax), they start with canon, particularly looking at the bigger picture of Scripture. They take this approach because of “the common linguistic premise that the discourse context is primary for determining word meaning” (26).

You might already decide the track the authors will take simply by their names and the associations that attend them. They are upfront that they look at scripture as “the inerrant, inspired Word of God” and that this conviction underpins the entirety of their work. While this is repellant to some, it would be unfair to immediately dismiss this work so simply.

K/P begin by offering a bit more detail to their triad. History (=historical context) is critical because all scripture is rooted in real-life history—it wasn’t produced in a vacuum. Second, the bible is literature. K/P state that literature (at least concerning scriptural literature) has three components—canon, genre, and language and these components are the object of their literary analysis (27). The third component is theology. Interpreting the scripture as God’s self-disclosure demands that it be rightly understood if God himself if to be understood rightly. Is this triad effective as a hermeneutical approach? In this review, I hope to answer this quest thoughtfully and humbly.

 Concerning the format, each chapter begins with a list of objectives, a modest outline of the contents, and a visual “road map” of sorts. These are rather common elements in textbooks and will prove to be helpful to some, not as much to others. Each chapter also concludes with a list of guidelines that succinctly reiterate the main points of the chapter, a short glossary of key terms and a list of study questions. These elements can be helpful if one takes opportunity to take advantage of them. There are also helpful appendixes in the back for building a biblical studies library and a glossary, as well as scripture, person, and subject indexes.

 Though I do not plan to summarize each chapter here (there are 16!), I will speak generally of its three-part history-literature-theology division. Chapter 1 sets the stage for the task at hand and introduces the reader to the discipline of interpretation by discussing two different aspects of biblical interpretation, namely what it is and why it should be done properly, and a condensed history of hermeneutical approaches spanning from the Old Testament to modern theories and practices. As stated, this history is quite brief, but helps to understand how various methods have come and gone and how we got to where we are.

Now that introductory matters are introduced, one can feast on the real meat of this book—the hermeneutical method itself. Part one of the book is concerned with the historical-cultural background of the bible and (obviously) begins with the OT. K/P essentially offer a historical synopsis of the major historical events and persons that we might say help define the OT era and set the stage for the arrival of the Christ. K/P also briefly discuss the Second Temple period (or intertestamental period) for its now-recognized importance in better understanding the historical-religious atmosphere of the NT era. The remainder of the chapter is a discussion of primary and secondary sources and their importance for understanding the historical background of the text. One of the helpful features that this book includes (and other hermeneutics texts as well) is a sample of how the features previously discussed figure into the hermeneutical process. Here both OT and NT examples are provided and aptly demonstrate how historical background is helpful and necessary to rightly begin the interpretive process.

 Part two focuses on literature and there is much to feast upon here. This part is comprised of three subsections: canon, genre and language, topics that are continually at the center of study and debate. In their discussion of the OT canon, they introduce readers not only to the concept of canon, but also canonical interpretation. This approach typically evokes one name—Brevard Childs—and they spend a few pages discussing his method and that of Christopher Seitz, whom they credit with forwarding Childs’ work. While their contribution is hardly even a primer on the subject, it is enough to help the hermeneutical novice get a bearing on an important interpreter’s contribution to the field. The discussion of law and covenant are helpful here, particularly in light of more recent research on the various types of covenants in the ANE. While much of what K/P discuss is typical of introductory hermeneutics texts, they distinguish themselves somewhat by tackling matters that aren’t typically included, such as the Exodus and the development of messianism. The Exodus may seem an odd subject to discuss hermeneutically, but K/P clearly believe events such as the Exodus to be actually historical events and thus it is necessary to know its place in the development/evolution of the Israelite people and the scriptures they produce.

 The bulk of part two, as one might expect, is concerned with the myriad features of the various types of literature, e.g. narrative, prophecy, poetry, wisdom, apocalyptic, etc. I was pleased to discover that the canonical book of Revelation is given an entire chapter’s devotion. Few books frustrate and fluster bible readers more than Revelation and it’s not hard to see why. However, both novice and more learned students of the scripture will gain from K and P’s contribution.

 One of the more challenging sections to plow through is poetry. Even in English poetry is difficult to me, partly because of its esoteric vocabulary. Certainly every subject that has been scrutinized by scholars has yielded its own brand of highly specialized terminology, but poetry is one that I’ve had a harder time fully grasping because of this. K/P don’t hold back and offer the reader a number of technical terms in this section, such as aposiopesis, apophthegm, dactylic, anapest, and amphibrach to name a few. While they provide brief definitions (thankfully!), poetry is inherently contrary to most readers’ use of language and these kinds of terms will certainly not help the beginning interpreter.

 Part three of the book, while comparatively short, is perhaps one of the most helpful sections for beginning readers (more learned folk might learn something as well!). Here the authors tackle the issue of language, and no current hermeneutics text would be complete without it. K/P address initially some important aspects of Greek (genitive, the article, word order), yet do not address Hebrew specifically. K/P also introduce the reader to discourse analysis, an area that has received much more attention in recent years and is making its way into more texts such as this one. The twenty pages devoted to exegetical fallacies is also a helpful, especially to those new to the task (but we more experienced interpreters aren’t immune, so this is a good refresher on some basics, though certainly less extensive than Carson’s work). The final chapter of this unit deals with figurative language, an element that continues to befuddle many and spark plenty of debate. K/P do a fine job of acclimating the interpreter to the shallower waters of discerning the meaning behind figurative language, though one will have to look elsewhere for more comprehensive treatment.

 The final unit of the book concerns theology and thus rounds out K and P’s hermeneutical triad. Unfortunately, this section was the least stimulating for me personally. Why? Mostly because it’s quite short in comparison. Naturally I expect a hermeneutics text to be concerned primarily with historical and literary features and issues, but given the attention paid to theology in interpretation in recent years, I really hoped for more here. But that’s not to say this section isn’t good, because it is. I appreciate and resonate with the authors very strongly here because they argue for a theology that is derived from the bible, rather than imposing one’s own viewpoints onto the scripture. Essentially this is known as a biblical theology, to which they give attention in the following pages, specifically the issues, methods, and history of biblical theology. Not surprisingly, K/P discuss the theology of the NT (though briefly) and the use of the NT in the OT, another topic that has received a healthy share of scholarly attention in recent years. This unit on theology is concluded with a seemingly logical end—the dispersion of theology, or a chapter on preaching/teaching the scripture as a result of examining the text through this hermeneutical triad. Because not all interpreters of scripture are necessarily teachers and/or preachers, this final chapter will be of less value to some than others.

 In sum, I am confident to say that Köstenberger and Patterson have produced an immensely helpful volume that will certainly become the standard biblical hermeneutics text for many (if the endorsements are any indication) and a valuable companion resource to many others. While Invitation to Biblical Interpretation treads plenty of very familiar ground, its inclusion of more recent research will set it apart from other similar texts, as will the vastness of the terrain it surveys and samples of the method at work. I can highly recommend this volume to the uninitiated who have only begun the potentially perilous journey of biblical interpretation, as well as to the well-traveled sojourners who have covered many miles in their exploration of the canonical landscape.

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