Let the Reader Understand: A Guide to Interpreting and Applying the Bible

By Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton
Wheaton, IL : Victor (1994). 360 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
5.2 (Fall 1994) : 223-226

This well-researched book covers the main aspects of interpretation and is quite readable. Bruce Waltke on the back cover rates it as "the best introduction" to the subject. McCartney is Associate Professor of New Testament, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Clayton is Executive Director of World Vision in Great Britain.

The work has ten chapters: truth, language, and sin; presuppositions about the Bible and creation; presuppositions and interpretation (tradition and the church, and the Holy Spirit as the ultimate interpreter); main ways the church has interpreted the Bible during history; what the grammatical-historical method is; moving from what a passage means to how it applies now; how to study Scripture; biblical genres; the Bible in worship and witness; and Scripture and guidance. Two appendices are "Where is Meaning," dealing with authorial intent and reader response, and "The Historical- Critical Method." Copious chapter notes (293-346) add documentation, frequent valuable insights, and evidence of a broad scholarly awareness.

A good section discusses bad and good aspects of tradition in interpretation (73-74). Tradition is bad where it controls interpretation of Scripture, despite proper exegesis, but good as in "tradition" that Paul advocates (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15). Interpreters ought to evaluate tradition, not necessarily reject it (74). Helpful comments appear on the Holy Spirit as the ultimate interpreter (78-80).

A chapter on the history of interpretation cites clear examples of allegorism such as that by Origen on Ps 137:8-9. Origen labored to avoid literal ideas he construed as offensive, e.g., infants dashed against stones (89). The authors recognize that Origen also practiced much literal interpretation.

Sections on Luther and Calvin are brief but profitable. Luther practiced both literal and allegorical interpretation, in the latter case missing the true sense of texts (93-96). Calvin was literal more than Luther. He did not reject James as Luther did, but saw James' emphasis on works and Paul's on faith as in harmony (97). The discussion about the time from Calvin to today is general, treating only Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Bultmann (1884-1976). This does not provide an adequate picture of interpretation during that span (99- 111). The book could have cited some wholesome examples of interpretation.

Chapter 5 on the grammatical-historical method focuses on uncovering the text's meaning for its writer and immediate recipients. Background (cultural, social, geographical, linguistic, historical), word study, cross-reference within that writer, and literary genre and context are avenues to obtain this meaning (112-13). This section has many benefits despite being quite general. One is the caution against seeing too much information in a word. Another is the need to see the basic unit of meaning such as the sentence, so that one interprets words in their setting, not in isolation (115-16). Biblical instead of nonbiblical examples would have strengthened several of the discussions.

Certain statements will appear arbitrary and unpersuasive. An example is the statement about Rev 3:20 where the authors see only a generalized reminder to Christians that Christ is ready to commune with and strengthen His people (119-20). This is not a general invitation to non-Christians to open their hearts to Christ. However, what about other contextual aspects that question whether all people in the churches have genuinely experienced salvation (e.g., 2:12-14; 2:24- 25; 3:1-3 compared with 3:4)? A number of scholars see clues pointing to a mixed audience.

The point about accuracy in the choice of words is good. "Our rector is literally the father of every boy and girl in the village" sounds like the rector had had sexual escapades with every woman who became a mother there! A better wording would be, "Our rector is a kind of spiritual father to. . . ." The section on interpreting metaphors is well done (121-29). McCartney and Clayton are wise to recognize that some texts are ambiguous (132-36). Interpreters should not be dogmatic about the meaning, but have an openness to learn new factors and not leap to conclusions.

The work makes fine observations about the principle of context (141-50). The authors see context in various ways`textual, circumstantial, redemptive-historical, and cultural-linguistic. They have a healthy focus on finding a text's overall meaning so as to interpret a part of it rightly -a paragraph within its communicative unit/section/book or a word in relation to other uses of that word in the paragraph, chapter, or book (142).

Some points will not convince every reader. An example is in the reasoning drawn from a veil being over the minds of those who do not believe in Christ (2 Corinthians 3) so that they do not grasp the real meaning. This does not mean, as the authors seem to imply, that Christians can detect meanings beyond the grammatical-historical interpretation of a passage (150). Also, the hardness of Jeremiah's and Ezekiel's immediate audience is not an indication that their prophecies were for a later audience who had liberty to see added meanings in their words. Rather, later readers would, presumably, see the meaning that Israelites should have seen, not something beyond it (150). The authors are more persuasive in citing 1 Cor 9:9-10 as extending the principle about muzzling the ox (Deut 25:4) to apply to people. Their overall point is good: NT passages sometimes show more of what God saw in OT passages. However, the book cites dangers of reading new meanings into the Word and stresses four ways to apply what a text teaches (151 ff.).

Some treatments do not convey the precise point in verses cited. An instance is, "The OT read by itself was a `mystery,' but this mystery has now been made known" (153). The writers cite Eph 3:9 and Col 1:26. Actually, Ephesians speaks not of the OT in general, but particularly of the one point of Jews and Gentiles in one body. Colossians refers to Christ indwelling Jews and Gentiles, that specific matter. Much in the OT was not a mystery during the writing of the NT.

The initial definition of types (153) leaves out a vital aspect: that a type prefigures an antitype which is greater. The writers in time reveal their awareness of this aspect of elevation. They reflect it in such words as "greater deeds of God in the future," "Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of Israel's tradition-building process," and "a more perfect sacrifice" (Hebrews 8`10) (154). Finally, pages later they write that the antitype "must be greater" (158).

The book favors seeing more types than the NT expressly mentions. One example, on which opinions differ, is viewing Joseph as a type of Christ, the greater preserver/deliverer of God's people, in accord with Abrahamic promises. They also cite resemblances Joseph bore to Christ, "the ultimate Man of God" (158-59).

Chapter 8 on genres clarifies much on theological history, law, poetry, prophecy, and parables. But it is quite general about how to interpret such things as prophecy (only about 2 pages, 219-21) and parables (3 1/2 pages). Specific details would make a good book better.

Appendix A, "What is Meaning?," is very complex. The authors discuss views on whether a text's meaning is already there in its own horizon -whether an interpreter grasps it correctly or not- or is the one derived from both an original intended idea and a reader's response`in a kind of fusion. They seem to reject the latter. The writers conclude that there is a distinct, determinate, objective meaning from an absolute God (283-84). Interpreters can perceive this by proper use of good hermeneutics and by having the guidance of the ultimate interpreter, the Holy Spirit (75-80).

The book has strengths and weaknesses. It is, by and large, quite worthwhile and up-to-date. Its main contributions will be as a basic seminary textbook and in helping pastors and other serious readers sharpen their awareness of interpretation.