Biblical Interpretation Past & Present

By Gerald Bray
Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity (1996). 608 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
9.2 (Fall 1998) : 220-222

The Professor of Anglican Studies at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama, has written his impressive survey of how Scripture has been interpreted from NT times to the present. Bray’s work is a guide to this history for seminarians, pastors, and lay leaders. The effort is in three parts. First is “Before Historical Criticism,” interpretation up through the Renaissance and Reformation; second is “The Historical-Critical Method,” i.e., critical study in its beginning and the 19th and 20th centuries; and finally “The Contemporary Scene” with its academic, social, and evangelical trends.

Bray includes 29 bibliographies scattered at ends of sections throughout, then a 3-page general bibliography at the end, plus indexes of names, subjects, and Scripture.

In the introduction, the writer is disturbed when scholars’ reasoning confuses issues, muddies waters, and becomes difficult even for professional experts to follow. Many read their own agendas into Scripture and make it conform. He also finds disturbing the way scholars contribute only to the interests of a small circle and not to the teaching of the church. He wants to provide a source-book useful to the church.

The first of 13 chapters offers basic concepts in biblical interpretation that last through all eras. Among these are the ideas that God revealed Himself and the nature of the canon. Chapter 2 looks at hermeneutical methods in biblical times, chap. 3 at the patristic period (A.D. 100 to ca. 604) to see exegesis of texts to decide theological definitions in controversies, such as the ones on the trinity and the incarnation of Christ. Chapter 4 takes up the Middle Ages until Erasmus, during which, despite corruptions, many important trends developed that influenced later thought on the rule of law, Parliament, universities, the parochial system, etc. Chapter 5 surveys the impact of Renaissance humanism and the Reformation on the exegesis of Scripture. Here, Christian doctrine began to be systematized and biblical interpretation thrived under the Reformers’ aim to find the literal sense.

Chapter 6 covers why and how historical-critical study developed from the late Reformation debates and how the first modern critics gained their perspective on Scripture. Out of this, to some degree, came ideas for subsequent scholars as well as reactions against the criticism and the development of two camps, the “liberals” and the “conservatives.” Chapters 7-8 sketch 19th-century specialization in OT and NT exegesis, great progress in philology, archaeology, and “scientific” interpretation. Continued OT and NT research is the subject of chaps. 9-10, with further specializations of study developing to place increasing pressure on being able to synthesize so much thought. With this developed a pessimism by many, doubting that the historical-critical method is able to furnish creative resolutions to hermeneutical issues. It can, when used wisely, even if, as Bray says, some deny this.

Later chapters deal with more recent trends that offer alternatives to historical-critical methodology. Chapter 11 discusses a scholarly desire to achieve a new hermeneutic based in literary and philosophical thought, a hermeneutic that at times increasingly blurs the clarity of meaning. Chapter 12 deals with a hermeneutic that can cope with oppression to the poor, women, and minority groups (as though that takes a different hermeneutic than one that represents true biblical teaching). Chapter 13 is devoted to methodology to which conservative groups gravitate—sensitive to biblical authority and sufficiency—where Scripture itself helps in its own interpretation, submitted to in faith. The last chapter is a wrap-up.

The ponderous nature of the discussion as well as the detailed integration of many issues will make the book primarily useful to teachers and students who strive to grasp the whole picture and maintain an awareness of it. For the most part, these will find the bibliographies and the broad summations most valuable.

To those who do use the source, a veritable larder of information is available. The sketches of how interpretation was conducted in the different periods is very beneficial. In reflecting on biblical meaning, one finds bold-faced listings and paragraph profiles about many of the great names in history. A very few among the many are Shammai and Hillel, Irenaeus, Origen, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, David Kimchi (Jewish), Luther, Calvin, Thomas Scott, Bengel, DeWette, Hengstenberg, Keil, Delitzsch, Kittel, Baur, Strauss, C. Hodge, Henry Alford, J. B. Lightfoot, Hort, Westcott, Billerbeck, and Bultmann. More recent names among evangelicals are E. J. Young, Everett Harrison, Bruce Waltke, Howard Marshall, Donald Carson, and Douglas Moo. Bray omits many others who have made great contributions in exegesis.

The bibliography at the end leaves out many evangelical names, such as B. Ramm, Protestant Biblical Hermeneutics, and Elliott Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics, but does include names such as Donald Carson, A. B. Mickelsen, and Grant Osborne. To use the work is similar to using an encyclopedia, as it discusses each subject under such headings as different stages of history and guiding principles pertinent to periods. One finds, for example, a Medieval list of ten hermeneutical principles (155-56), Calvin’s hermeneutics stated in six points (201-3), and five points for rationalism in connection with the historical-critical method (251-53). Principle number 5 in the last list is that “Religion and the Bible must be purified of irrational and immoral elements,” which permits rational thinking to reject whatever it does not like. At one point Bray gives interesting remarks about how a “liberal” and a “conservative” could be characterized in 19th-century study (272-74).

As for an assessment, the work is a standout survey informed by meticulous study. It is bound to offer much help where inquiry seeks principles guiding Scripture interpretation in different time periods. It also helps readers to grasp situations in which issues arose and to give them an integrated picture of how some key interpreters fit into history.