Invitation to Biblical Interpretation – A Review

Review of Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology, by Andreas J. Kostenberger & Richard D. Patterson, Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, hdbk, 891 pp 

This large volume has already positioned itself as a premier textbook for hermeneutics for evangelicals. The authors; one an OT commentator, and one a NT commentator, have put a lot of thought into their production.  The publisher has produced an attractive, well planned volume.

But why buy this book over others?  The collaboration of Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (2nd ed.), covers all the main introductory issues.  The Kaiser/Silva Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics (2nd ed.), intriguingly allows digression between the authors.  Bauer’s Inductive Bible Study updates Traina’s famous manual.  I am partial to Zuck’s Basic Bible Interpretation as a “safe” starter.  And, of course, there are many others.  So what does this book have going for it?

The first thing that struck me was the overall clarity of the writing.  Kostenberger and Patterson have worked hard to really “invite” the reader to study with them.  This translates over to the way they have refrained from putting technical materials in front of the student until later in the volume.  They move through the triad of History, Literature, Theology steadily, imparting help and sustaining interest (in most cases) as they go.  The subject matter is reviewed before and after to aid the memory.  Additionally, short bibliographies at the end of each section are varied enough to cover more than one line of thinking.  I only wish that they were annotated!  That said, the real bibliographical help is in the footnotes, which are very informative.  Whatismore, throughout there is commendable interaction with many of the standard hermeneutics volumes.

Along with readability and general usefulness, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation guides students into the usual areas of genre, structure, forms of speech, etc., and imparts much usable and up-to-date information. I would have liked a little more clarity on the precise role of historical backgrounds (though see Exegetical Fallacy #3, 635-636). And, although expected, still I would have preferred to see some kick-back against the “already/not yet” views of G. E. Ladd (341-342, cf. 187).  I liked the material on the biblical covenants in chapter 3, although I think the book leans too much in favor of interpreting them in terms of ANE covenants, especially land grants.  Related to this, towards the end of the book (in chapter 15), the treatment of Biblical Theology was surprisingly scant.

That said, I thought the discussions of “apocalyptic” were, when push came to shove, quite thin (when are they not?).  In spite of this the authors advise that “a basic acquaintance with the nature and features of apocalyptic genre” is necessary (330).  Yet they don’t include Daniel and Zechariah as truly apocalyptic because they were written earlier than the second century B.C.  Of course (and as their own sources show), the scholarship on “apocalyptic” is headed up by writers who do believe these books, or at least parts of them, originated around that date.  Such presuppositions play vital roles in interpretation.   This quibble is transferable to most hermeneutics texts, and it needs to be said that this volume does offer more help than is often the case for those with evangelical sensibilities.  I thought the chapter on Prophecy, though good at the level of subgenres, needed to be fuller.  For example, if prophets were to be tested by the validity of their predictions (Deut. 18), surely those predictions couldn’t be subject to the requirements of a genre that didn’t even exist when the prophet wrote?

Hermeneutics is not just the art and science of how to interpret, but is also reflection on how we already interpret.  This is tacitly acknowledged on page 65 n.22 where there is a suggestion made to meditate on passages in the Psalms and Isaiah before interpreting.  But they quickly go on to affirm the importance of “the literary and linguistic aspects of the biblical material” (66).  This point is well taken, but it is the employment of these aspects within a theological matrix that is often the problem.  To give another example, despite some rather involved discussions in chapter 11 (on Apocalyptic and the book of Revelation), especially of symbolic literature, this reviewer was not convinced that the views of dispensationalist or progressive dispensationalist scholars were carefully represented.  To give one example, how can the authors justify citing Tim LaHaye on the Book of Revelation and not Robert Thomas?  The writers finally come down in favor of a mainly symbolic interpretation over against a literal one (551), and the result can be seen in how they emerge from an exegesis of Revelation 11:1-4 with the proposal that the “Two Witnesses” are the churches of Smyrna and Philadelphia (563).

Contemporary evangelical hermeneutics is somewhat uncomfortably positioned between what has been termed “genre override” on the one hand and theological special pleading on the other.  This means that no one book will supply all that one needs to know; although this one does a fair job.  As pointed out earlier, the writers want us to spend time preparing ourselves for interpretation by reading from the Psalms and Isaiah, but the increasingly sophisticated stances of modern hermeneutics continue to make the divide between reading and interpretation ever wider.

But I don’t want to end the review on a down note.  As modern hermeneutics manuals go, this one gets a lot of things right.  I benefited from its perusal and will return to it again.  A devotee of plain-sense hermeneutics will, like me, have to supplement this work with one arguing for that approach.


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