Biblical Interpretation, An Integrated Approach

By W. Randolph Tate
Peabody, Massachusetts : Hendrickson (1991). xxi + 226 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert Thomas
3.2 (Fall 1992) : 235-237

An associate professor of biblical studies at Evangel College, Springfield, Missouri, has added to the avalanche of literature on hermeneutics that is currently emerging. A distinctive of Tate's work, however, is that rather than concentrating on a small phase, it provides a general overview of a number of the proposed, new hermeneutical twists. For this reason, it is an excellent source to satisfy one's curiosity regarding present trends in biblical interpretation.

The author divides contemporary approaches into three categories: author-centered, text-centered, and reader-centered (xvixix). As his book title indicates, he advocates an integration of all three into an interpretive method before it can be considered adequate (xixxxi, 210, 212). He identifies the author-centered approach as the prevailing method before the advent of New Criticism in the 1940's (xvi). The text-centered approach first appeared in the 1950's, seeking to dislodge the text from its historical mooring and deny the role of authorial intention in interpretation (xviii). At about the same time another group of scholars emerged, heavily emphasizing the function of the reader in creating the meaning of the text (xix).

Tate finds traditional criticism deficient in its unwillingness to move beyond what the text says to what the text is about, i.e., beyond the world of the text to the real world (61-62). In narrative literature, for example, the real world is the actual world of the author, but the story world is that of the text where sequence and characteristics of people do not equate to historical chronology or real-world persons (77).

He also faults traditional criticism for limiting the text to a single meaning. Because each reader brings his own set of circumstances to the text, the biblical text has at least two levels: an original meaning and a contemporary significance, the latter being that construed by the reader (147). Readers can never divorce themselves from their own world and completely submerge themselves into that of the author.

The informative value of this book is unquestionable. Yet an evaluation of its contents must raise questions regarding its clarity, its consistency, its accuracy, its emphasis, and its evangelical orientation. (1) Tate urges an integration of the three approaches, but nowhere does he clarify in what degree and in what ways the three can be balanced with one another. Obviously the three conflict with one another frequently. How are these conflicts to be resolved? The author offers no definitive counsel.

(2) He appears to be inconsistent with himself in including aspects of source and form criticism under both "text-centered" (115- 21) and "author-centered" (xvii, 178-79) approaches. Perhaps this reflects that these two approaches as well as the third are not mutually exclusive of each other. (3) The apparent relegation of redaction criticism to a period before the 1940's (xvi-xvii) contradicts a prevailing opinion that redaction criticism, specifically that which deals with the gospels, did not originate until the 1950's. Also, an incorrect definition of "verbal inspiration" occurs when Tate describes it as presupposing "that God dictated each and every word of scripture to each individual author and that they wrote scripture in a robotic fashion, faithfully and inerrantly recording exactly what was received" (170). Few, if any, advocates of verbal inspiration and biblical inerrancy could endorse this definition.

(4) The emphasis of the treatment is upon how much contemporary readers cannot know for sure. Reader subjectivity "is always present and can no more be absent from the interpretive process than stripes from a zebra" (162). "There is no such thing as a pure reading, an objective interpretation" (165). Is it desirable never to be dogmatic regarding the meaning of a passage, however? This author advocates an ideal balance that lies somewhere between interpretive dogmatism and individual solipsism or skepticism (212). Does this mean that the evangelical quest for propositional truth is futile?

(5) Presumably, Tate calls himself an evangelical. Yet he has incorporated a number of positions that he apparently endorses, but ones that will be very troublesome to the vast majority of evangelicals. One of these is his espousal of the old JEPD theory regarding the source of the Pentateuch (176-77). Two others are his denial that harmonization of the gospels in a traditional sense is possible (182) and his non-traditional dating of the Synoptic Gospels (178). In addition, he seems to concur with questioning the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles and calls 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians "Pseudo-Pauline" letters (124, 129). His distinction between "truth" and "truth-value" (95) also raises questions.

Biblical hermeneutics is a major focal point of theological developments in the 1990's. Every Christian needs to be aware of the issues involved. This book presents as good an opportunity as any to gain an overview of many questions that are emerging. But a critical eye should govern its use.