The Hermeneutical Spiral. A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.

By Grant Osborne
Downers Grove, Illinois : InterVarsity (1991). 499 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
3.2 (Fall 1992) : 232-234

A professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has contributed significantly to evangelical scholarship in this work, which he divides into three parts: General, covering context, grammar, semantics, syntax, and historical/cultural background; Genre Analysis in narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, apocalyptic, parable, and epistle; Applied Hermeneutics, i.e., application to Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Homiletics. The book has an impressive, up-to-date bibliography (436-80) and indexes.

The book will aid the highly motivated and mature seminarian or pastor. It also will contribute somewhat to beginning seminarians in repayment for laborious effort expended in wading through it.

Osborne argues that the hermeneutical process (likened to a spiral) embraces the original intent of a text, its application to a person in devotional practice, and a contextualized application of it one can share with the church in a sermon (6). The spiral is from the "horizon" of the text to the "horizon" of the reader, because the meaning of the text is not an end in itself. His attention to the role of the Holy Spirit throughout the process is good (5, 340-41).

The original intended meaning, he is convinced, is "a core that is unvarying" (7). Any application in any culture at any time should be true to this original sense and should not depart from that meaning in an effort to achieve cross-cultural relevance.

The author suggests useful sources that explain a context, i.e., commentaries, introductions, dictionaries, theologies, etc. (19-20). He discusses rules to help in deciding the best textual variant (44-47). He believes that a preacher who admits the difficulty of a reading needs to affirm "that this does not affect the integrity of the original and that no doctrine would be left unsupported if a favorite reading must be abandoned because of a more valid variant" (47). He briefly surveys Hebrew and Greek grammar and illustrates their impact on a number of texts (50, 51). However, he is more broadly informational than practically helpful in how to interpret when he suggests five points without developing them (62).

Chapter 3 on semantics gives nine cautions. One is the root fallacy, the idea that every usage of a word will necessarily represent the root idea (66-67). He shows that context determines a word's meaning, not a sealed, unvarying sense in the word. For instance, in James 1 peirosmos can mean "trial" in vv. 2-12, but switches meaning to "temptation" in v. 13 (76).

Osborne feels that the major contribution of archeology is sociological, as in illuminating customs, and that it has only a small apologetic value in confirming the Bible (129). He finds nine problems with the sociological approach. One is reading present culture back into Scripture and casting God's Word in a false light (141-44). Using sociology, liberal teachers of modern times distort Jesus to conform to their own ideas through a biased choice of facets that fit their theories and an ignoring of factors that oppose it. Osborne proposes seven guidelines to counteract this tendency and remain sensitive to biblical integrity (144-47).

Of the many other helpful discussions, one tells how a Bible writer can express his point of view and still write what is inspired by God (156-57). Another is a well-illustrated section of features in biblical narrative (154-64). Also, the author points out weaknesses in narrative criticism, such as its imposition of modern literary categories on ancient genres (164-68).

This reviewer offers a few constructive suggestions. Though some parts of the book are clear with good examples (e.g., the discussion of similes [103]), more simplification and clarity would assist readers, especially in the heavy academic sections (e.g., the chapter on syntax). The work is mostly a compilation of lists and interactions with scholarly views. Successive waves of ponderous material may submerge many readers. Even a strongly motivated student will find it tedious to pick his way through. Vagueness keeps recurring throughout the book. For example, a brief explanation of the favored covenantal view of the ceremony of God walking between the animal parts (Gen 15:7-21) (146) would have helped greatly.

Some statements are incomplete. The assertion that Ezek 39:25- 29 puts Israel's restoration "after the exile" (230) needs elaboration because of differing views about precisely when the restoration occurs. Some insist that fulfillment remains in the future even now.

Some guidelines are too general to be helpful. One is, "Study the psalm in terms of its type and basic stance" (189), because each type requires its own kind of study. How does one do this? Readers are to exegete Messianic psalms (189-90). Very well, but Osborne gives little help on how to implement this.

The author needs to rethink some areas so as to avoid confusion. He writes, "Prophecy is not just history written either after (liberals) or before (evangelicals) the event" (213). Evangelicals will agree with the first part, but may puzzle over how they are guilty of "overstatement" in this regard. Prophecy is stated "before the event," even though it does not reveal every detail about future events. So what is Osborne's point? It is not apparent.

This is a good book, but it could be better. Osborne's diligence in pulling together and interacting with many aspects of hermeneutics is commendable. The work is geared for advanced students, not those 236 The Master's Seminary Journal at an early stage of theological inquiry. Still, it should offer much help to all who in using it will show the same diligence as the author.