Biblical Hermeneutics; A Comprehensive Introduction to Interpreting Scriptures

By Bruce Corley, Steve Lemke, and Grant Lovejoy
Nashville : Broadman & Holman (1996). 419 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
8.1 (Spring 1997) : 110-113

Three professors at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, have tried to produce a book that is plain and simple (2), fit for introductory students, covering four areas they felt other books do not—philosophical presuppositions, history of biblical interpretation, the practice of interpretation (actual guidance in doing exegesis), and using the skills in moving from exegesis to sermon (x). To achieve this, they employed twenty-three writers in twenty-two chapters, all committed to Scripture's inspiration and authority (xi, 7-8).

In the assessment of this reviewer, the book is comprehensive and well-informed, stuffed with explanations on history of interpretation, definitions of matters related to exegesis, and surveys of approaches to interpretation. He does not believe, however, that the book is adequate to guide beginning students. It too often lacks the simplicity that was its goal. Its explanations of exegetical and hermeneutical matters would bog students down, and actual steps to interpret a passage are not specific enough. One comes away with much information about the subject, but not much about the practical process. The data given comes largely from what one can learn from the English text, without a grasp of the biblical languages, whereas more help for students who can to some degree use language tools would have been beneficial. The reviewer in his excitement over possibly finding a text suitable for beginning students was disappointed to discover little concrete help in how to use context, word study, grammar, cross-reference, and other definite principles in an integrated and complimentary way.

Corley intends his nineteen-page introduction to prime students to do exegesis. The book also has a glossary of biblical terms (353-84), which is excellent, and a guide to reference works and commentaries (385-416). Both are good features geared to aid students. The guide has only unannotated general comments about the works it cites. Along with good books, it lists critical works opposing a high view of Scripture and has no warning to students with a high view of inspiration. The absence of premillennial dispensational works is unfortunate. Examples of the very helpful works it omits are C. L. Feinberg, Jeremiah, A Commentary, Zondervan, 1982; Leon Wood, A Commentary on Daniel, Zondervan, 1973; Stephen Miller, Daniel (New American Commentary), Broadman, 1994; Robert Thomas, Revelation 1-7 and Revelation 8-22 (2 vols.), Moody, 1992, 1995. Interestingly, the list has premillennial commentaries of far less detail and exegetical penetration on the Apocalypse, such as by George Ladd and Alan Johnson. A topical index (417-19) is useful.

Corley's introduction offers a good definition of hermeneutics and the distinction between hermeneutics (the principles) and exegesis (the practice, using the principles). He stumbles a bit in defining exposition as "what the text means now for the contemporary reader" (5). Is it not what the text and its principles mean for readers then and now? Corley's seven steps in exegetical study never get specific on the use of original languages, for his focus is on "English grammar" (15). He does mention using Hebrew and Greek earlier (11), but in discussing express steps, he does not integrate this. He also makes no reference to prayer, an urgently important matter in dealing with God's Word; he only says "wait for insight" (16) and approach the text with "expectancy" (18), with the attention focused only on books, paper, and computer (13).

Each chapter ends with a sizeable list of works to facilitate further study. The lists are good, but for a beginning (or advanced) student they give no help as to why or how each listing might be profitable.

Chapter 1 deals with ancient Jewish hermeneutics. In several chapters, scholars who are well aware of definitions and explanations often do not clarify their brief statements to assist students who lag far behind them in that awareness. Frequently, examples to clarify brief discussions are missing, resulting in vagueness that will frustrate some readers. For instance, in the nebulous remarks about a distinction between how hermeneutics was defined a few hundred years ago (learning to use rules for interpreting) and the more recent focus on a philosophical study of language and epistemology (how we know what we think we know), illustrations would have brought clarity. Another case where examples would have helped is in the volume's discussion of complex theories of textuality. These voids can leave a beginner groping, without a clue about how the words relate to interpretation.

The book has a good definition for allegorical exegesis (28-30) with an illustration from Philo. It also says that allegorical interpretation, when rightly applied, can be sound without danger to literal meaning (31), but it gives no explanation or example to remove the haze. Later, a good discussion takes up how Jews of the Greco-Roman era were avid to represent what the text said, and used pesharim (interpretations attempting to explain OT texts, 31-34). Here, examples do appear. Jewish exegesis called midrash (from Heb. darash, "to seek out") is handled well (35-38).

E. Earle Ellis offers light on the NT use of the OT (chap. 2). As in much of the book, however, so much information is present that the book becomes heavy, slow toil for a student to stay with, digest, and put to practical use. In much of the work, contributors do not show students the relevancy of information to the actual interpretation.

Valuable chapters survey the interpretive methods of early church fathers and of the medieval, Reformation era, and of modern scholars (chaps. 3-7). Chapter 8 on contemporary philosophical, literary, and sociological hermeneutics will reward the plodder who reads and re-reads, but probably much will still be difficult to grasp. Chapter 9 on the inspiration and truthfulness of Scripture surveys five views of inspiration with strengths and weaknesses of each, but students will be uncertain which view the writer (Lemke) favors. The section raises problems for inerrancy but does not suggest plausible solutions, as on the size of the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32) (157). After all the uncertainty, the writer appears to finish on the side of inerrancy (160-62), but he has not shown why the student needs that view.

Some readers will not escape puzzlement in the chapter (13) on Preunderstanding and the Hermeneutical Spiral. A dense fog prevails here. Yet the writer profitably argues for approaching Scripture with valid assumptions backed by sufficient evidence, such as the unity of OT and NT and the NT as interpreter of the OT. He also has a good stress on the presupposition of faith in approaching Scripture, balanced with the Word itself fostering faith (Rom 10:17) (208). The following claim will produce bewilderment: "[T]he process of hermeneutics does not lead to some objective end to the understanding of Scripture. There can be no closure to the disclosure of meaning in God's written revelation; there can be no absolute knowledge within the techniques of biblical hermeneutics" (208). That suggests that one can never be sure of anything (i.e., have any absolutes) from interpretation, even though humbly submissive to learn from God through good hermeneutical procedure. Given the authors' high view of inspiration, the statement surely means something else, but this is not clear.

Chapter 14 on the Grammatical-Historical Method appropriately stresses grasping words in the meaning the original authors intended in the original languages. But, for seminary students, the discussion makes too much concession to study in English translations, without enough emphasis on working to learn the languages and get at truth through them. It pays brief recognition to distinguishing the literal from figurative language (221-24), but mentions only a few kinds of figures. On some figures, the treatment says only enough to leave a student perplexed and guessing about how to distinguish one device from other devices. The paragraph on typology (224-25) is not very definitive. The chapter mentions symbols without an example. It leaves a reader with some things defined, some treated vaguely, and no method illustrated. Chapter 15 dealing with inductive Bible study methods gives some good pointers as in its suggestions using Phil 4:6-8. Even here, however, it gives no specific help on where to go for information and how to learn distinctions between the four words for prayer (v. 6) and where one learns that "keep" (guard) was used for a Roman sentry on guard.

One disappointment in the book was the absence of detail on parables, prophecy, and typology, and how specifically to handle them. For an introductory survey text, these are very important.

Though chap. 18 has the title "From Biblical Text to Theological Formulation," it generalizes on how to interpret. One reads a lengthy discussion but never finds a definite method. The recommendation is to go from reader to text for theological formulation and back again in a "hermeneutical spiral." Discussion falls short of showing how to do this and still get a valid meaning. Chapters 20-22 try to escort a student from biblical criticism to a biblical sermon. They define and describe many kinds of biblical criticism (e.g., source, form, redaction), and leave the student somewhat at sea as to their validity. They never exemplify a valid process in actual interpretation—i.e., how to get the central idea, how to use principles to interpret (e.g., word study, grammar, near and far context).

The book is, for a patient reader, generally informative regarding biblical studies, and at times offers helpful practical pointers. It suffers too often from generality, unrelatedness to actual practice, and a lack of simplicity that can lift a student out of the bog and stir him with the joy of biblical study.