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Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 111–13 

Book Review

Introduction to Biblical Interpretation

William Klein, Craig Blomberg, and Robert Hubbard. Dallas, TX: Word, 1993. 518 pages.

Reviewed by Jerry D. Truex

Three professors from Denver Seminary have set forth an exceptionally comprehensive introduction to biblical hermeneutics. Not only do they describe what interpretation is about, but they also provide concrete instruction, abundant examples, and seasoned insight throughout their five-part text.

Part one introduces three preliminary matters. First, the authors contend that appropriate methods are necessary to interpret Scripture dependably, to hear God correctly, and to apply the text responsibly. They convincingly argue that the distance between the biblical world and our own--the distance of time, culture, geography, and language--requires specific methods, which they present later in the book. Second, the authors survey the history of interpretation, from Jewish midrash to modern canon criticism. Despite its brevity, the history alerts the reader to methodological traditions that have anticipated and influenced contemporary hermeneutical practice. Third, the Old Testament and New Testament canonization process is reviewed. Noteworthy is the authors’ discussion about the potential threat of opening the New Testament canon to such books as the Gospel of Thomas. The authors want a closed canon; however, they concede the following:

We must say that the [NT] canon theoretically remains open--if some document would meet all the criteria for canonicity. But practically, the canon is closed, since a work that had not been used for nearly twenty centuries could not meet the criterion of catholicity (65).

The professors recognize that canon and community are inseparable; the church authorized the canon and continues to authorize it. Hence, the book resonates well with the Mennonite belief that the community of believers validates biblical interpretation.

Part two presents the theoretical heart of the book. First, relying on the model of E. D. Hirsch, the authors maintain that the goal of biblical interpretation is to grasp the meaning that the biblical author intended to convey to the original audience. This is a quest to discover the historical meaning, to grasp the probable intention of the author as expressed in the text. Hence, the professors advocate an author/text-centered approach, which insists on historical and grammatical procedures. The authors say they welcome literary methods but, unfortunately, they never explain, much less demonstrate, modern literary methodology as reflected by {112} narrative analysis or reader-response criticism.

Second, the authors ask whether a biblical text has one fixed meaning or several levels of meaning. As a case study, the authors present Matthew 2:17, which seems to misinterpret Hosea 11:1; Matthew understood “son” to refer to Jesus, not Israel, as Hosea intended. After exploring five responses to the conundrum, the authors, at variance with what they argue elsewhere, conclude by saying, “our reading of how NT writers employ the OT still leaves us reluctant to say that the historical meaning of a text is the only meaning” (138). Here they candidly admit that the author/text-centered paradigm, which seeks the author’s intended meaning, is cracking, unable to account for Matthew’s innovative use of Hosea.

At this point, the professors state that “we must be open to a possible place for our own creative use of biblical texts”--presumably reader-centered approaches (144). Then two guidelines are offered. First, a valid interpretation is partially determined by the author/text, which echoes Hirsch’s approach. Second, a valid interpretation is partially determined by the community of believers who exercise control over textual interpretation by demonstrating how texts are practiced in life, a view which leans on Mennonite scholar Willard Swartley. Disappointingly, the authors cling to the first guideline, both in their definition of meaning and in their techniques of interpretation, and fail to demonstrate a creative, reader-centered approach that might give opportunity to test the second guideline.

In parts three and four, the authors retreat to what they know best. In the process, I believe they have produced the finest text of its type. They provide a thorough introduction to techniques and principles for discovering the biblical author’s intended meaning. Two chapters provide general rules for interpreting prose and poetry, including steps for analyzing the literary context, excavating the historical-cultural background, researching word meanings, discovering grammatical-structural relationships, recognizing poetic euphony, and understanding literary devices such as metaphor and irony. Two more chapters introduce a wide variety of Old and New Testament genres, including law, narrative, poetry, prophecy, gospels, epistles, and apocalypse. Copious examples and clear-cut principles make this a superb resource for teachers and students.

Part five provides a four-step method for applying the text. Once again, following Hirsch, the professors assert that while there is one fixed meaning of a biblical text (determined by the biblical author’s intent), the text may have a variety of significances for readers. Essentially, the professors call for extracting timeless principles from the Bible and then applying the principles to analogous situations in the present. The advantage of this method is that it is easy to teach and learn. The danger of this method is that it suggests that once we have found a set of principles {113} we may ignore the Bible.

Finally, the thoroughness of the Denver professors is admirable and evident at every level. They provide 1322 footnotes, an appendix of modern approaches to interpretation, and a 32 page annotated bibliography. Despite shortcomings—namely, the failure to integrate author, text, and reader-centered approaches—I recommend this book to all seminary students and thoughtful Christians as the place to begin the study of biblical hermeneutics.

Jerry Truex
Instructor in Biblical/Religious Studies
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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