Three New Books on Hermeneutics (Gupta)

Three New Books on Hermeneutics (Gupta) April 8, 2016

In the last few decades “theological hermeneutics” has become all the rage. Biblical scholars and theologians have become interested, not just in the methods of interpretation (what I tend to call “exegesis”), but in the philosophy of interpretation based on the nature of Scripture and its purposes. These are some latest offerings on this subject.

Hermeneutics Bartholomew.jpgCraig Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture (Baker, 2015). Comprehensive indeed – this is not your grandmother’s hermeneutics textbook. This is a 600-page tour de force making a case for listening to Scripture as divine address (see pg 18). Much of the book falls on the philosophical and theoretical end, delving into topics such as the development of the study of “biblical theology,” a sketch of the history of biblical interpretation, vignettes on relating biblical interpretation to academic disciplines such as philosophy, history, literature, and theology, and consideration of the goals and aims of biblical interpretation. Lest the book only work in the theoretical realm, Bartholomew wisely offers a kind of case-study applying his framework. He wisely chooses the book of Hebrews (pp. 487-540).

For my part, I struggle to understand the philosophical elements of the discussion at hand (my problem, not Bartholomew’s), but I did appreciate his case-study in Hebrews. I also echo Jimmy Dunn’s endorsement that commends Bartholomew for his illuminating study of the history of biblical interpretation.

I found much in this book that reminded me of work done by Walter Moberly, and also Richard Hays’ idea of a hermeneutic of trust.

Bauckham The Bible.jpgRichard Bauckham, The Bible in the Contemporary World (Eerdmans, 2015). This book is a collection of mostly previously published essays by Bauckham. Bauckham explains, in the introduction, how (as diverse as the topics may seem) “They stem from my long-standing and strong conviction that part of the responsibility of a Christian interpreter of Scripture today is to try to understand our contemporary context and to explore the Bible’s relevance to it in ways that reflect serious critical engagement with that context (ix). This requires, says Bauckham, interpreting both the text and the world. Some of the essays are about hermeneutics itself (e.g., ch1), but other chapters treat themes such as globalization, ecology, suffering, prophecy, and wisdom. I am always impressed by Bauckham’s interdisciplinarity, his judicious argumentation, and his theological reasoning. The book is ~170pp.

Reading Sacred ScriptureStephen Westerholm and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (Eerdmans, 2016). Westerholm/Westerholm treat the long-debated topic: shouldn’t we read the Bible like any other book? Westerholm/Westerholm’s answer is clearly “no” – because if one ignores its uniqueness (“its peculiar nature”), the reader is denied “the possibility of experiencing the transformative impact that the biblical texts have always had within communities of faith” (27). Starting with the earliest Christian writers,Westerholm/Westerholm examine how believers read Scripture as the words of God.

There are already a number of good books out there on the history of biblical interpretation (I am thinking of Yarchin, Hauser/Watson, and also McKim), so why another? Westerholm/Westerholm argue especially that their book intentionally includes interpreters prior to the Enlightenment (though the examples I gave above do as well), and also Westerholm/Westerholm focus on this question of reading Scripture in view of its inimitable nature. They offer chapters devoted to first century Christians (“before the Christian Bible”), Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, The Pietists and Wesley, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Barth, and Bonhoeffer. All of these are good choices, of course, but I was discouraged not to see a post-Patristic non-western interpreter, nor was a woman included. I know this would take the discussion “out of the mainstream” of theological study, but I think it is high-time we do that anyway. What about Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila? Or more modern women such as Aimee Semple McPherson or Phoebe Palmer?

Well, these shortcomings do not make the great value of this book obsolete – there is much wisdom here. This statement comes in the conclusion: “At the heart of the Christian reading of Scripture…is the sense that God has spoken, and still speaks, through its texts and that no interest in the Bible as such should be allowed to replace the humble, engaged, reading that is attentive to God’s voice” (426). One can see resonances here with both the interest of Bartholomew and Bauckham!


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