Five Views on Interpretation

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Stanley Porter and Beth Stovell have compiled essays that present various approaches to the task of interpretation. Though “students and scholars alike struggle to differentiate between the meaning of terms like biblical exegesis, interpretation and hermeneutics,” their book focuses on hermeneutics in reference to biblical interpretation (9–10). Many of the books in this area tend to either focus on “step-by-step instructions” for interpretation or serve as “an introduction to the variety of methods of biblical interpretation” (10). In contrast, Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views invites authors from different interpretative traditions to enter into dialogue about “questions regarding the nature of interpretation itself” (11).

Given the Bible is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16), how important is it that we rightly handle the contents? Simply stated, the Bible deserves as much care as we can muster when it comes to reading it, seeking to understand it, and then applying it to our lives. How exactly we undertake that task of interpretation, and what principles guide us, is often a point of disagreement among Christians.

The Five Views

Here I’ll rely on Porter and Stovell to summarize each view, with the exception of the Philosophical/Theological approach. In reference to Westphal’s work, I needed to let him state his own position as Porter and Stovell give us too little information. However, to understand each theory of interpretation, you’d need to dive into the book for yourself.

Historical-Critical/Grammatical (Craig L. Blomberg) — “The historical-critical/grammatical view seeks insight for interpretation from taking a critical [i.e. analytical] view of the history behind the text, on the one hand, and utilizing a grammatical analysis of the text, on the other” (21).

Literary/Postmodern (F. Scott Spencer) — “…literary/post-modern interpreters use a synchronic approach instead of the diachronic approach more common in traditional criticism, and they are attuned to literary questions of style, character and narrative, as well as to hermeneutical issues raised by poststructuralism, postcolonialism and reader-response theories” (22).

Philosophical/Theological (Merold Westphal) — “First, [this approach] is not just about interpreting the Bible…is not restricted to interpreting texts…is not a method or strategy for interpreting” (71). Quoting Hans-Georg Gadamer, “My real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing” (71). Westphal summarizes, “In other words, the question is: what is going on, often behind our backs, when we interpret texts and other phenomena?” (71).

Redemptive-Historical (Richard B. Gaffin Jr.) — “Proponents of a redemptive-historical view, following the theological interpretation of the Reformers as well as scholars such as Geerhardus Vos, argue that the role of Christ in his redemptive work is central to interpreting the whole of Scripture, whether the Old or the New Testament” (22).

Canonical (Robert W. Wall) — “Robert Wall … represents canonical criticism well by arguing for the necessity of reading the entire canon in relationship to each part of the canon. Thus the Old Testament should be read in light of the New Testament and the New Testament in light of the Old Testament. More than this, however, even the parts of the canon should be read in light of each other, such as the placement of Acts within various canonical groupings and how this determines interpretation of the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, or the other Catholic Epistles” (23).

Conclusion

Here are a few takeaways:

  • I found helpful elements in every chapter. I did not expect this. I expected to find elements I’d appreciate in Blomberg, Gaffin, and Wall. I did not, however, expect to enjoy the chapters on literary/post-modern and philosophical/theological approaches. Yet, both contained elements that were instructive. Of note, Spencer showed that a commitment to some form of postmodernity does not, at least in his practice, require an “open text” to mean a free-for-all in interpreting the Bible. That is encouraging, even though I think a postmodern approach eventually leads to a free-for-all if consistently applied.
  • The final form of the biblical canon is important. I’ve given thought before to the providential control of God when arranging the Bible. However, what particular ordering we should pay attention to is something Wall did not address (the Hebrew ordering [TaNaK] is not the same as the English ordering in our modern Bibles).
  • Gaffin and Blomberg are the most helpful. Blomberg shows how foundational a historical/grammatical approach to a particular text is within the process of interpretation. Gaffin reminds us that any text is only rightly read in the context of God’s overarching redemptive-historical revelation.

At the end of the day, interpreting the Bible is something we should do with care. And though there are disagreements over approaches to interpretation, we still tackle the task with confidence. Why? Because we know our God desires to speak and has indeed spoken to his people through his Word

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