Invitation to Biblical Interpretation
We’re grateful for our friends at The Gospel Coalition who have recently released a new course on biblical interpretation. The course is based on our book, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, co-authored by Richard Patterson and myself. Throughout the course, we explore the hermeneutical triad of history, literature, and theology—an essential framework for interpreting the Bible. Over the next several weeks, we wanted to devote our attention to the important topic of biblical interpretation. In the weeks to follow, we’ll be posting several audio interviews on the subject. Today, I’d like to answer a few questions about the hermeneutical triad.
The subtitle of the book is “Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature and Theology.” Can you tell us why you and your co-author, Richard Patterson, took this particular “Hermeneutical Triad” approach?
When we come to any particular passage in Scripture and want to interpret it in keeping with its original author’s intention, we always should (1) study the historical setting; (2) discern the literary flow and argument; and (3) probe the theology of the passage. That’s true no matter what kind of literature we’re dealing with—historical narrative, wisdom, poetry, apocalyptic, Gospel, and so on. So, after introducing our “Hermeneutical triad” approach, we flesh it out with individual chapters on each of the major biblical genres. We also have a very thorough chapter on preaching biblical messages on passages from each type of literature, written at my request by my good friend and colleague Scott Kellum, plus recommendations of major study tools.
Thinking about the three aspects of history, literature and theology, is there any one of these that is typically underappreciated or underdeveloped among students working on biblical interpretation?
That’s a great question, because we believe balance is key here. What you often find is that people will focus primarily on the aspect they think is most important while neglecting the others. But that’s like only eating your favorite food, say, pizza or steak, while neglecting some of the other vital food groups. Today, historical study has often been given a bad name, because many who practice a historical approach are highly critical, even skeptical, that any of the biblical events, such as the exodus or even Jesus’ resurrection, actually happened. So many avoid historical study because they think that it will necessarily result in skepticism. Theology is often neglected as well. It seems quite common today for people to read the Bible primarily as literature or story without adequate attention to its historical and theological dimensions.
I note that the volume is aimed particularly at seminary and Bible college students. How well do you think this book would serve pastors and the general public?
Having been in churches for decades and having listened to hundreds of sermons, let me tell you, most pastors could use a healthy dose of hermeneutics! You may have seen the cartoon where somebody asked the pastor who that was weeping in the back row of the congregation, and his answer was, “That was my hermeneutics professor!” Anyway, we’ve written our book in such a way that all serious students of Scripture will benefit. I think most will find the “hermeneutical triad” approach (history, literature, theology) very intuitive, and the book is clearly laid out and follows a logical sequence essentially from Genesis to Revelation. In every chapter, we have a list of key words; there is a glossary at the end; there are interpretations of sample passages, and many other practical features in the book (such as a list of our favorite Old and New Testament commentaries and study tools).
In your experience, how well equipped are current generations of Bible exegetes compared with the past? Or to put it another way, do you think there is appropriate focus upon hermeneutics in the education of students and pastors today?
Good question. I think we’ve made some strides in that more and more people are realizing the importance of sound hermeneutics, but at the same time we’ve still got a long way to go. What I’m hoping is to make a small contribution and to be strategic, training a small group of students who can then disseminate the information to faithful members of their congregations, who will pass the word on to still others. Sound familiar? That’s essentially Jesus’ practice, and Paul’s as well (2 Tim. 2:2). In my experience of teaching hermeneutics at every level (college, seminary, doctoral) for a quarter century, I’ve found that hermeneutics is not an easy subject to teach, but a very important and rewarding one. That’s ultimately why I wrote the book with my friend Dick Patterson, because most books on hermeneutics are either too simplistic or too advanced. We’re trying to bridge the gap and serve serious Bible students who want to go deeper in their study of God’s Word.
These days, there are many high-quality, in-depth, technical commentaries in volumes such as BECNT, NICNT, NIGTC; Pillar, WBC, etc. For examples, Ephesians has outstanding commentaries by Hoehner, Thielman, and others, but there must be a danger that students and pastors might become over-reliant given that few can match the competency of these scholars. At a practical level, how do you encourage students to balance their own interpretive work against the views of leading scholars in such large-scale technical commentaries?
You’re exactly right, there are a lot of excellent tools out there today. I once briefly considered writing a commentary on Ephesians but quickly decided that there was no need for another Ephesians commentary, because the ones already on the market are truly excellent! Also, there are some outstanding study Bibles, such as the ESV Study Bible or the CSB Study Bible. Still, there is no substitute for our own study of Scripture. There is great joy in discovering scriptural truth for ourselves, and no one else but you can make God’s truth personal in your own life. This is why it’s so important to study the Bible prayerfully, even reverently, and with a willingness to obey and to do what God tells us to do in Scripture. So, I encourage a balanced approach: benefit from the insights of others, but do you own work as well. Remember: even the best commentators don’t always agree on everything, so at least in those cases you’ll still need to determine what you think a passage means.
A related question to the above is whether the lack of biblical languages is a serious handicap to biblical interpretation. Can someone without Greek or Hebrew still be an effective exegete, given the widespread availability of tools?
Yes and no. Looking at available hermeneutics texts, I found there is often a great deal of ambivalence as to whether readers are supposed to know Greek and Hebrew or not. In our case, we chose to include a meaty section on the basic features of biblical Greek and Hebrew so as to equip those readers who have absolutely no background but hopefully are willing (even eager) to learn. On the one hand, it’s true that you don’t need to be a Greek scholar to understand the saving message of the gospel or even to understand most passages in the Bible. On the other hand, those of us who have taken the time and made the effort to learn the biblical languages know how beneficial it is to know the original languages first hand. One important reason for this is that it is often hard for English translations to preserve features of the text in the original language, such as figures of speech, emphases, sentence structure, and so forth.
Who do you particularly admire among past and contemporary scholars for their abilities in Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics?
Well, I have great admiration for my mentor Don Carson, also my good friend Robert Yarbrough. These men are great models of careful, judicious, reverent scholarship. They are humble, and they use their knowledge to serve others in the church and in the academy. They also live out the truth of the gospel in their own lives, especially in global missions, but also in their families and their personal lives.