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Spring 1995 · Vol. 24 No. 1 · pp. 119–21 

Book Review

Understanding and Applying the Bible

Robertson McQuilkin. Chicago, IL: Moody, 1992. 335 pages.

Reviewed by Ken Peters

McQuilkin provides a well-balanced, introductory-level textbook on hermeneutics suitable for Bible school and Bible college-level instruction. This revised edition of his 1983 release lists the principles and guidelines necessary to instruct the beginning student not only how to understand but also how to apply the Bible.

To substantiate his hermeneutical approach, McQuilkin creates a polemical argument indicating what a proper Biblical hermeneutic is not (pp, 1-80). He succeeds in crippling four oft-used hermeneutical presuppositions whose main failing is their subjectivism. These include the naturalistic (higher or historical-critical), supernaturalistic (spirit-guided), existential (reader-response) and dogmatic (doctrinal) approaches.

The remainder of the book is partitioned into three sections. Each of these is governed by a principle and followed by a number of supporting guidelines. His first principle addresses the realities of Scripture’s human authorship: assessing the historical, physical and cultural settings of the writings. He includes a review of technical skills used to exegete various genres of language. He skillfully develops the "how to’s" of word study and of thought structures. Devoting a whole chapter to the importance of probing the meaning of a text within the cradle of the larger context of book and canon is a welcome move.

McQuilkin’s second principle underscores Scripture’s divine authorship: developing interpretive skills which seek the unity and coherence of Scripture while dealing with alleged discrepancies. McQuilkin’s maxim throughout: only Scripture can authoritatively interpret Scripture.

The last segment of the book is devoted to skills employed to identify the intended audience for each specific Scriptural writing. McQuilkin argues first, that all Scripture is universally applicable unless otherwise specifically stated by the biblical author himself. Second, because there is only one meaning intended by the author, once that meaning has been determined, any given biblical truth derived from the text can be expressed in terms of principles. Biblical principles which evolve out of the exegetical process then become the discretionary criteria for all matters of Christian life and faith.

Useful features of the book include a brief summary helpful for skim reading or refreshing one’s memory, and a small select bibliography at the end of every chapter. The book comes with both a Scripture index and a subject index. {120}

McQuilkin’s book offers several strengths. The reading is easy, Its light user-friendly language steers clear of higher criticism verbiage; terms in the original languages are transliterated. McQuilkin’s high view of Scripture and principle-centered approach is helpful for introductory level students who often begin biblical studies by questioning the Bible’s authority.

Some areas of caution should be listed. McQuilkin is radically insistent that each student of the Bible perform his or her own personal study of the Bible prior to using any study aids or attending to the commentaries. This appropriate exhortation also raises at least one logical concern. On what basis does McQuilkin believe a novice student’s private personal study can act as an objective anchor, when face to face with the work of biblical scholars who have invested their whole life in specialized research on the text in question? Is not McQuilkin’s advice ironically an encouragement for people to fall into the very trap of human subjectivism he so detests? Perhaps his fears of subjective interpretation might be assuaged if he were sympathetic to a community hermeneutic, but such is never mentioned.

While attempting to protect God’s Word from the fallible corruptions of human agency, McQuilkin succeeds in painting any and all human engagement with the text as toying with evil subjectivism. One comes away from reading the book with an uncomfortably dismal view of humanity.

McQuilkin avoids dialogue between his approach and other equally valid schools of hermeneutics which hold that biblical texts may have more than one intended meaning, thus offering a wealth of interpretive options which would in turn disallow the ready formation of applied principles. McQuilkin asserts that texts have only one meaning, but he never clearly establishes by what criteria any person or group chooses what that one intended meaning ultimately is. If there is indeed only one intended meaning in any given passage, would it not be feasible to believe that nearly 2000 years of scholarship (longer with the OT) would have unearthed that single meaning? Is McQuilkin advocating more insight from this generation than it can possibly deliver?

A case in point is McQuilkin’s matter-of-fact explanation of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed. Appropriately, he believes each parable has but a single theme. The principle in this case is that one’s eternal life depends on one’s response to the Word of God. “Many of the details were deliberately designed to reinforce that central message” (p. 192). But is this parable not about the Kingdom of God? Rather than McQuilkin’s human-centered motif, could this parable not have as its singular theme the growth and advancement of the Kingdom of God in this world regardless {121} of how God’s word is appropriated by human hearers? Why not a theocentric understanding?

I was astounded to find an author in 1992 who, by his consistent use of non-inclusive language, communicated blatant disregard for female Bible scholars.

In summary, I would heartily recommend that Bible teachers use McQuilkin’s book as an introductory-level text in tandem with other textbooks which offer a complementary approach to the task of hermeneutics.

Ken Peters
Student, Master of Divinity Program
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary
Fresno, California

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