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Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics | Book Review

Introducing Biblical HermeneuticsIntroducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture
By Craig Bartholomew
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015
640 pp. | $44.99

The first time I heard Craig Bartholomew speak I was taken aback. He has a commanding presence in front of a room, and a magnetic pull to him. With his South African accent and European garb, he speaks as if he has read just about everything. Still, his demeanor is neither arid nor condescending. Instead, it is both passionate and pastoral.

Considering this, along with the fact that Bartholomew interacts well with the interrelated fields of philosophy, theology, and biblical studies, I was eager to crack the binding on his newest work, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics. In this volume, Bartholomew offers his take on a biblical hermeneutics textbook, penned from a perspective that sits squarely in the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS) camp.

Summary

Bartholomew divides his book into five parts.

  1. Approaching Biblical Interpretation
  2. Biblical Interpretation and Biblical Theology
  3. The Story of Biblical Interpretation
  4. Biblical Interpretation and the Academic Discipline
  5. The Goal of Biblical Interpretation

Part 1 begins by outlining a trinitarian hermeneutic. Here, Bartholomew is forthright with his confessional stance, and he urges others to do likewise. A trinitarian hermeneutic approaches the Bible as: (1) authoritative Scripture, (2) a whole, (3) for the church, (4) exalting and humbling academic interpretation, (5), attending to the discrete witness of the Testaments, (6) rightly discerning the goal (obedience) of reading the Bible, (7) not closing down but opening up interpretation of the Bible, and (8) taking God’s address for all of life seriously.

Following this, and rounding out Part 1, is one of my favorite portions of the book. Here, Bartholomew asserts that we do not approach the text to master it, but to humbly listen: “There is no method to learn listening; it requires careful attentiveness” (p. 20). He helpfully employs the Shema in this section, showing that the replacement of listening with seeing turns Deuteronomy 6 (and Christian tradition) on its head.

After the above foundation is laid in Part 1, the following sections of the book proceed to build upon this groundwork. In Part 2, Bartholomew ties hermeneutics to biblical theology (BT) arguing that we need to view Scripture as a whole, and therefore BT becomes a foundational part of the hermeneutical endeavor. In Part 3, he walks through the history of biblical interpretation explaining that we are all reading within a tradition. Bartholomew begins with the church fathers and works his way up to modernity and postmodernity. Part 4 deals with the academic disciplines of philosophy, history, literature, theology, and Christian scholarship. Part 5 gives a practical example attempting to tie all that Bartholomew has advocated in an interpretation of Hebrews.

Strengths

As expected, a central strength of the book is its comprehensiveness. Too often, primers on hermeneutics become overly focused on historical backgrounds, exegetical skills, biblical theology, philosophy, or theology, depending on the interest(s) of the author. Rather than narrowly focus on one or two of these, Bartholomew seeks to address all of these foci, tying them to the matter of biblical interpretation.

Particularly evident in this book is Bartholomew’s strong grasp of philosophy. Owing to his sensitivity to such matters, he continually emphasizes that every reader of Scripture has an implied philosophy and epistemology – even though most are unreflective about it. Intriguingly, Bartholomew does not always side with the majority in his assessment of those philosophers whose work he details. For example, he is not overly critical of Kierkegaard. Among the many gems of philosophical insight included in this book, one that stands out to me is a large section devoted to Kant’s contemporary and friend, Johann Georg Hamann. Although Hamann is not a household name, he should be in Christian circles.

Another welcome contribution in this book is Bartholomew’s tying in of BT to hermeneutics – although some might argue that BT comes after the hermeneutical process. Bartholomew rightly recognizes that most everyone already has a sense of the whole, and that it is better to acknowledge this and move forward, rather than trying to wipe the board clean. This section is vital for Bartholomew, as he believes we need to read the parts in light of the whole.

If I were to direct readers to three chapters to read off the bat, I would refer them to chapters 1, 2, and 13. Chapters one and two are unapologetic in their confessional and historic stand upon orthodox Christianity. Too many hermeneutics books begin tabula rasa. Bartholomew airs out his tradition, and contends that it will direct rather than distort his reading. Chapter 13 wraps the previous 12 chapters into a coherent whole, tying them together in a tight strand.

Weaknesses

The breadth of the project, which has earlier been mentioned as a key strength, also turns out to be one of the volume’s weaknesses. The book covers a wide array of many topics, figures, and eras. In the thick of exploring these diverse concerns, it is at times easy to lose track of how these individual components directly connect with the field of hermeneutics.

In addition to (and perhaps because of) this, the book does not flow as expected or desired. Each chapter seems as if is mostly self-contained, rather than explicitly connected to the surrounding chapters. The arrangement or ordering of the chapters feels somewhat arbitrary, and the effect is that there is little movement to the reading. When I look at the contents, I can see that Bartholomew was intentional in his ordering of the material. However, this does not show up overtly in the transitions within each chapter. Admittedly, he does attempt to tie the previous chapters together in chapter 13 but I was hoping that he would draw me along as he went.

While this book, on the whole, is a good primer on how someone in the TIS camp would approach hermeneutics, it seems that Bartholomew either toned down or disagrees with some of the more controversial issues of TIS. For example, though he is more negative towards postmodernism than I expected, he rarely refers to the rule of faith (except for tying it together with BT), and he does not do much with tradition (at least not explicitly).

An assortment of smaller disagreements came up as I was reading. I am increasingly speculative of the phrase “listen to the Old Testament on its own terms,” which Bartholomew employs at the beginning of his book. With Bartholomew’s inclinations toward BT and philosophy, he should be well aware that we cannot read the OT without the witness of the NT anymore. I am also surprised by his negative comments on allegory, and his portrayal of Antiochene vs. Alexandrian interpretation. This neat division is rapidly falling apart, and I was disappointed to see Bartholomew still purporting such a view, or at least not nuancing it.

I don’t particularly like mentioning what is not in the book, but since the sub-title includes the word comprehensive, I think that assessing the book’s comprehensiveness is fair. For a “comprehensive” view of biblical hermeneutics, I am dissatisfied with the lack of discussion of epistemology. While it is a topic that is always near at hand in this book, Bartholomew never really did much but dip his toe into this pond, and reference its importance. I would have liked a full immersion from Bartholomew on the subject, knowing that he has provided the foreword for one of Dru Johnson’s books (on epistemology). Nor does Bartholomew spend much time on the NT use of the OT, which would have been a valuable addition.

One of the biggest astonishments for me is that Bartholomew upheld N. T. Wright’s proposal in NTPG concerning method and history. This came somewhat as a shock to me, because those in the TIS camp have been foremost (though not alone) in critiquing Wright’s view of the epistemological process. Hays, Rae, and Evans all critique Wright, and even label his method as being akin to methodological naturalism.

Conclusion

Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics is a good resource for those trying to figure out what TIS is all about, and how this camp would approach hermeneutics. It is not a book for an introductory class to hermeneutics, as it is too long and goes into too much depth (still, a few of the chapters could be copied as a reading supplement for an introductory class, and be a valuable addition in this sense). Rather this book would be best served as a textbook for an “Advanced Hermeneutics” course, or for the teacher or student who wants more depth than a typical introduction will give them.

In terms of how this book compares with other similar advanced hermeneutics textbooks, I would say that works well as a compliment to Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral, in that Bartholomew’s primer does not focus on method as much as Osborne does. It differs from Kostenberger’s work, in that it more searchingly addresses history of interpretation and philosophical issues. Likely the closest comparison might be Dan McCartney’s book, Let the Reader Understand, but there are still significant differences. In other words, Bartholomew’s book is not just new wine in old wineskins, but new wine in a new wineskin.

All in all, this book reveals a great deal of research and advanced reflection, and it was a pleasure for me to read. Although I wish the book had flowed better, it will nonetheless be a book that I will constantly return to for fine summaries of important subjects related to hermeneutics, and also to check the footnotes for further reading. Bartholomew is to be congratulated on this monumental achievement.

About Patrick Schreiner

Patrick Schreiner is Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary. He completed his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy at The Southern Baptist Seminary. In addition to his pastoral ministry experience, Patrick also enjoys writing. You can follow Patrick's journey and his thinking online at his blog, Ad Fontes. You can also follow him on Twitter.