Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction

By Elliott E. Johnson
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (1990). 330 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
2.2 (Fall 1991) : 207-210

This work is a vigorous attempt to state principles to help expose the meaning of God and His human author in the biblical text (p. 23). The writer is Professor of Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Fourteen chapters are arranged under five headings: Bible Study and Hermeneutics, Recognition, Exegesis, Application, and Validation. The book is printed two columns per page, with documentation in obvious interaction with good scholarship in pageby- page footnotes.

A few of the volume's abundant good features include the following:

(1) Johnson cites six ways that proper use of historical criticism illuminates the historical meaning of a text (pp. 42-43). (2) He demonstrates the oneness of meaning even in biblical poetry, such as in Psalm 46 which can have a unified meaning even with its distinctive components (p. 45). The three interpretations are part of a comprehensive whole, a blend of several aspects. This unity also applies to prophecy, as when Abraham's "seed" turns out to be those of faith among his physical descendants and also those of faith among other peoples, as in Galatians 3 (pp. 47-48). Johnson sees both physical and spiritual aspects as parts of a composite oneness, in harmony with each other.

(3) Though sometimes unclear in his wording, Johnson argues that the human author did not grasp the full import of every detail God used him to write (p. 51; cf. 1 Pet 1:10-11). For instance, if the writer of Dan 9:24-27 did not know the date of the decree, he wrote more than he knew but what God fully knew (p. 52). (4) Chapter 4 energetically answers eight objections to finding a single and unified meaning intended by God in His use of human authors. (5) Chapter 10, among many other things, deals with prophecy. Johnson agrees that Isaiah was fulfilled when the Medes struck Babylon (13:17), but he finds phrases that point to a more ultimate judgment against the wickedness of Babylon. The passage has a single sense`judgment against Babylon`but with different times of expressing the judgment (pp. 196-97). Johnson does not say whether literal Babylon must be rebuilt to fit the demands of Isaiah 13 and Jeremiah 50-51.

(6) He states reasons for a literal understanding of the thousand years in Revelation 20 and of the animals in Isa 11:6-9 (pp. 198-200). (7) He sees four defining characteristics in OT typology (providence, historicity, resemblance, and dissimilarity in extent and effectual fulfillment, pp. 208-9). The fourth is an example of much in this work that needs to have the wording clarified. Why not refer to the "dissimilarity" element by some simpler term such as "elevation"? (8) Pages 278-88 provide help in understanding specific passages. The correction of the Jehovah's Witnesses error about Jesus Christ being a created being in John 1:1 is helpful (p. 280). Further, such explanations would help clarify the writer's point more. (9) The glossary is quite beneficial, defining nearly seventy terms. (10) Indexes of persons, subjects, and Scriptures are a valuable addition.

Johnson's emphasis on a single meaning for each passage is well taken (chap. 3). He contrasts this with multiple meanings as proposed by Origen and Augustine. But the illustration from Jas 2:14- 15 is misleading (p. 32) in taking "save" to refer to the salvation of a person from his lack of food or clothing through another person's act of faith in performance of works to relieve (i.e., save) him. That meaning strangely clashes with what the text says, because v. 14 deals with whether faith can save professing Christian A and v. 15 introduces professing Christians B or C as the ones who are in need. So the issue is, can the faith Christian A professes save him (professing Christian A, not the ones in need) when that faith allows him to shun B or C? Rather than giving a textually based meaning, the discussion changes what the text says.

Sometimes the book uses many sources, reflecting various views. This at times works against clarity for readers by its ponderous complexity and verbosity. Laborious discussions linger on and bring in numerous issues. Yet in this maze of details the serious student with strong perseverance will find considerable valuable information.

The title of Chapter 5 is too general to be definitive: "The Task of Recognition." A recognition of what? Why not use a more direct title such as "Recognizing the Meaning of the Text"? The author eventually states this as the topic (pp. 75, 82).

Why is "Recognition" listed in sequence (p. 75) after "Meaning" and before "Exegesis"? It would appear to belong before "meaning" or after "exegesis," because preliminary-reading recognition suggests the meaning and some exegesis must be done before an interpreter can recognize the essential point of the text? Further, what is the difference between (1) "Meaning," (2) "Recognition," and (3) "Comprehension" (p. 76)? Recognition is defined in the book as recognizing the divine author/human author's intended meaning by grasping the general meaning of the whole text, i.e., in an essential summary (p. 76). Following a listing of these items in an apparently arbitrary and repetitive order is not easy. Much clarification is needed here. On the other hand, discussion under some subpoints is clear and rewarding. For example, the section about discerning the "Subject" has a helpful list of what this entails (pp. 83-84).

A better title for Chapter 6 would be "Literal and Historical Premises in Recognizing the Meaning," and for Chapter 7 "Literary and Theological Factors in Recognizing the Meaning" would be an improvement.

Why is it necessary to complete one's inductive study of a text before doing exegesis (cf. p. 135)? Is this not included in exegesis -i.e., a part of "leading out" the meaning of the text?

The treatment of application in Chapters 11-12 is sometimes too complex. Chapter 12 is too long and tedious (41 double-column pages). A possible remedy would be to divide it into smaller segments to highlight each idea more effectively.

Much of Chapters 13-14 is cast in complicated phrases that hinder readability. On the subject of "validity" Johnson has an extensive section on a biblical worldview. For purposes of hermeneutics, the discussion is too general, and affords little direct help for interpretation.

To single out ten interpretations of John 15:1-7 is arbitrary. Several of the ten only partially represent what authors hold, because some may actually be in agreement with others, while simply stating a view differently from someone else. One of the ten might actually concur with another of the ten if more of what he holds were correlated (pp. 292-93). This possibility could reduce the number of different "views." The rest of the comments on John 15 add to the confusion. They do not teach clearly what John 15 in the context of John or the Bible is saying because of an artificial control on some of the chapter's ideas and an omission of elements that could lead to a different conclusion. Selection of a simpler passage would illustrate the relevant hermeneutical principle better than the book's discussion of this allegory.

This reviewer has commented on both positive and negative aspects. All in all, the book is of a ponderously informative nature. Interpreters seriously willing to think, weigh, and persevere will often find it very rewarding. That the author has read relevant literature is plain, and that he has given much thought to many issues is apparent. With the high value of this edition, perhaps a later edition can improve a good book into a better book, even one of a quality usable as a primary seminary text. The author's painstaking work earns the volume a right to be read, though improvement in several areas is needed. One need is smoother readability; another is to show the relevance of long sections that go into minute detail. Chapter titles can be more specific, and more discussion of specific passages to illustrate hermeneutical principles would be beneficial.