Previous | Next

Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 113–16 

Book Review

The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation

Grant R. Osborne. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1991. 499 pages.

Reviewed by Devon H. Wiens

In a weighty tome, the author, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, charts the entire process, somewhat garrulously, of moving from exegesis to homiletics, with many stops between. He disavows the commonly held distinction between exegesis, as the study of the text, and hermeneutics, as the study of the relationship of the text to the contemporary scene, in favor of a more inclusive use of the rubric hermeneutics, as encompassing both aspects. He dubs these two aspects exegesis and contextualization (or significance). He defines his theoretical basis in two lengthy appendices, where he extensively and evaluatively summarizes recent and contemporary hermeneutical approaches.

The twin facts of the publication date of 1991 and the seven-year hitch in writing the book mean that it is already somewhat outdated, especially in its review of contemporary critical modes of biblical study. (But, then who can keep up with the modern Athenians of biblical criticism, who spend all their time hatching up new schemes to construct, deconstruct, or reconstruct the text?) The extended period of writing may also help explain a rather tenuous connection between the different parts of the work. An example of this desultory or at least discursive nature is his treatment of genre analysis. One readily assents to the importance of such analysis, but how and where is it best dealt with in a book such as this?

If one divides the discussion between “General Hermeneutics” and {114} “Applied Hermeneutics,” as does Osborne, does positioning this analysis after initial discussions of Context, Grammar, Semantics, Syntax, and Backgrounds imply that genre analysis already represents application of the foregoing? Indeed, the content of the genre chapter suggests such a conclusion: “The basic hermeneutical task outlined in chapters one to five must now be applied to specific genres, or types of literature” (p. 149). If so, why not include it under “Applied Hermeneutics?” One might wish for further definition of the various genres he discusses [narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, apocalyptic, parable, and epistle], in light of their ancient analogues; this is particularly important in his treatment of narrative, concerning which there has been a wealth of recent investigation and debate; e.g. the question as to whether the gospels are bioi.

Osborne wends his way along the path from text to sermon (though, curiously, he begins with the notion of context: “The first stage in serious Bible study is to consider the larger context within which a passage is found” [p.19]). This seems to be discrepant with his earlier statement: “The major premise of this book is that biblical interpretation entails a ‘spiral’ from text to context . . .” (p.6) [italics mine]. To be fair, he includes discussion of both cultural context, which he actually covers much later, in Chapter 5, under “Historical and Cultural Backgrounds,” and of the larger and smaller literary placements of the text. There are extended discussions of grammar, semiotics, syntax, genre analysis, biblical theology, systematic theology (he assumes, incidentally, the questionable notion that biblical theology is supposed to provide the raw, amorphous mass of biblical data which systematics refines and develops into systems), and homiletics.

Perhaps the book itself is a mixed genre, with the purpose never clearly defined and the plan vaguely explained. Osborne simply plunges immediately into the fray, by discussing presuppositional items. True, he does refer to three levels of discussion about the text; the three consist of exegesis, contextualization, and homiletics: “what it meant, what it means to me, and sharing with you what it means to me (p.6; the “me” is altered to “us” on p.14). Notice the individualistic cast of this rhetoric; it flies in the face of his later and constant insistence on the importance of communal efforts in interpretation. Or, is it that he prefers, in actuality, the categories of "meaning" and "significance" stemming ultimately from E. D. Hirsch, as seems to be the case (e.g., p. 7, and reviewers’ comments)?

Having broached the community idea, one must say that it is good to see such an emphasis in an evangelical work. Fundamentalists and many evangelicals are “kissing cousins” of individualistic critical scholars, especially those who assign priority to the reader over against the author or the text. Osborne rightly rejects the fatalism of much reader-centric {115} theory in which each reader is unalterably tied to a relativistic reading of the text on her own terms alone. Against this he argues the need for communal correction, both within a particular tradition and from other theological traditions, the former of which, to a greater degree, and the latter of which, to a lesser degree, are something obviously quite congruent with Anabaptist understandings.

He scores again when he emphasizes the need to combine the study of the historical and cultural world of the text (something dismissed by structuralists, post-structuralists, and deconstructionists, as well as the evangelical pop culture) and the literary features of the finished text (something scuttled by earlier source and form criticism). Also, in attacking the hallowed idea represented by the Begriffe (“concept”) approach of The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, namely, that the key to a word’s meaning lies in its origin and history, he rightly states: At all times the synchronic dimension has priority, and diachronic considerations are utilized only if current usage makes such possible and if the context itself makes historical allusions probable” (p.71). A repetitive but welcome feature throughout the book is Osborne’s recognition that busy pastors and neophyte exegetes necessarily engage the text at different levels from that of the scholar who deals with the primary evidence (p.89). In accommodation of this reality, he continually strives to focus the basic requirements of working with the text, by making abundant and felicitious use of both OT and NT examples, and its contemporary contextualization, in terms of what is “useful” (an American bon mot, if ever there was one!). But even this, I am afraid, not quite sharing Osborne’s optimism, may appear daunting to today’s evangelical “fast expositional food” culture.

A fundamental problem, in my estimation, is that the metaphor “spiral” in the title is never adequately described. The diagrams which attempt to do this are not always helpful. He is to be commended for wishing to avoid “circle” language, as in the so-called hermeneutical circle. The problem with such a circle is that it often becomes a closed one, in which one’s predispositions are not openly acknowledged as influencing one’s reading of the text, or one’s mental Gestalt remains unaffected by one’s reading. However, “spiral” language does not entirely escape this same tendency. Whether one spirals upward or laterally or downward from the text, through the text, or to the text, it is safe to say that the trajectory of the spiral can also be predicted or predetermined because of one’s social location, personal predilections and idiosyncrasies, or one’s theological tradition, though perhaps this model minimizes the mischief of using the text to buttress one’s preexisting understanding.

In conclusion, a melange of less significant items may be noted. Some of his conclusions are somewhat predictable: the early dating of Daniel {116}, the Pauline authorship of the Pastorals, the use of evangelical shibboleths such as “inerrancy,” and the tradition-hallowed distinction between biblical and systematic theology. Typically, he warns about the danger of overemphasizing diversity in biblical statements and maintains that: “The recovery of unity allows us to reaffirm the absolute nature of scriptural truth-claims . . .” (267). But, one might ask, in response, what about the danger of a precipitate identification of such unity, something which George Ladd resisted, but for which Osborne faults him. According to Osborne, Ladd failed to seek unifying themes that would link the NT traditions. Osborne seems to be unaware of one of Ladd’s earliest works, The Pattern of New Testament Truth.

Quibbling would dictate that one ask, for example, what is intrinsically “Jewish” about chiastic structures and inclusio devices (p. 39). They are found by moderns all over the place in ancient classical literature, whether their authors intended them or not! Osborne characterizes Dan Fuller’s arcing method of inductive study as “new” (p. 34). This is hardly the case, since this reviewer tried to machete his way through this exegetical jungle in Fuller’s Galatians class some 30 years ago! On another matter, he points out that prophecy has only today become a “fad” (p.204). One need only read Paul Boyer’s recent study, And Then Comes The End: Prophecy Belief in American Culture, to discover the tendency, of long standing, for Americans to fixate on the biblical prophets as crystal-ball gazers.

In conclusion, one may be grateful to Osborne for this valiant attempt to cover the hermeneutical waterfront. The requirement that evangelicals, as well as others, engage the complexities involved in the question, Does the ancient biblical text speak to modernity (actually, post-modernity), and, if so, how, is nobly, if not always convincingly, met.

Devon H. Wiens
Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies
Fresno Pacific College
Fresno, California

Previous | Next