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Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 117–18 

Book Review

Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach

W. Randolph Tate. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991. 226 pages.

Reviewed by Kelvin Dyck

In response to a spate of books which have appeared on topics related to hermeneutics and interpretation, a clear, elementary and reader-friendly text has been written by Professor W. Randolph Tate of Evangel College in Missouri. His book is designed as a textbook for students entering into the maze of what is called biblical hermeneutics.

Tate’s objectives are clearly stated. His work is only to be a limited introduction to the field of biblical interpretation, not a comprehensive one. Moreover, he intends to give a general description of the task of hermeneutics, not a prescription for one. In other words, his book is an attempt “to give audience to [a] range of interpretive voices” (p. xiii) and then to outline the contours of a possible hermeneutic which would incorporate this conversation with the biblical text.

The material is organized under three headings: The World Behind the Text, The World Within the Text, and the World in Front of the Text. “The World behind the Text” is author-centered, describes the thought world and the Sitz im Leben of the text, presents a rationale for historical research, and highlights the need for study of biblical languages. For Tate, grammatical studies “constitute the starting point for dealing with [the hermeneutical] circle” (p. 24).

Tate also asserts the importance of contextualizing the author’s message within an historical and cultural setting. He shows how enigmatic texts have been rendered more transparent in the light of comparative study and historical/cultural research. Tate supplies lists of additional study aids which enhance such research.

The “World within the Text,” i.e., the text as a literary unit, details examples of genre and subgenre within literature generally. Tate then analyzes both the Old and New Testaments in the light of their literary characteristics, enlivening the discussion with frequent examples.

The third section, in the view of this writer, is the most significant. Devoted to elucidating the activity of reading and the task of the reader, the “World in Front of the Text” is a welcome summary and analysis of recent scholarship in reader-response theory. What happens when I read? How do my presuppositions influence my understanding of the text? How do the methods I use affect interpretation? These are the basic questions Tate seeks to answer. Reading is active, not passive; texts depend upon the reader for their vitality. No two readers are exactly alike. Readers grow more competent as they become informed. Because the nature of language is characterized by polyvalence, literary texts also have a certain plasticity {118} or layeredness, making a number of readings possible. However, the texts themselves establish certain parameters of meaning which may constitute one interpretation as more legitimate than another.

The role of preunderstanding and the choice of method affect interpretation in many ways. Most frequently, the agenda of the interpreter determines what method is used. Reader-centered interpretation seeks to apply interpretive strategies to the text. These strategies then determine the formal features of the text and thus, the reader and his/her community become determinative of meaning. Reader-response criticism, feminist criticism, narrative criticism and deconstruction are all represented under the heading of reader-centered interpretation; which Tate summarizes and categorizes with admirable clarity.

The book is praiseworthy in almost every way. The organization and layout made it both an attractive volume and an eminently usable one. Questions at the end of each chapter, suggestions for further study, lists of key words and concepts and a fine preliminary bibliography make it a fine resource for students. The only quibble I would have is that there is no subject or biblical reference index.

This book includes many examples of the Biblical interpreter at work. The exegesis of 1 Corinthians 12-14 was exemplary and provided an excellent model for students to follow. The writing was of a high standard and always kept the reader’s interest.

It would have been helpful to have had a greater emphasis on the positive pedagogical role that theology plays in hermeneutics, especially as it informs or contributes the presuppositions one brings to the text. Questions such as, “What role does the interpretive community play in promoting these presuppositions?” and “Are reading strategies the same as theological presuppositions?” still need to be answered. At times I was disturbed by the author’s tendency to ascribe too much significance to the reader in the interpretive process. However, Tate seemed to eventually redress the balance.

In summary, the integrated approach advocated by Tate is one with which this reviewer is in essential agreement. Meaning is most clearly derived from a conversation with all three partners—the author, the text, and the reader—taking their rightful place in the dialogue. I recommend this book most highly as an educational tool and as a contribution to the debate in its own right. It is a model others would do well to emulate.

Kelvin Dyck
Dean of Students
Winkler Bible Institute
Winkler, Manitoba

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