Tag Archives: hermeneutics

Karl Barth on The Lens To Which We Read Holy Scripture

Mark Bowald in describing Karl Barth’s typology of theological hermeneutics cited this helpful quote about the lens of which we should read Holy Scripture:

No one has ever read the Bible only with his own eyes and no one ever should. The only question is what interpreters we allow and in what order we let them speak. It is a pure superstition that the systematizing of a so-called historico-critical theology has such a greater affinity to Holy Scripture itself and has therefore in some sense to be heard before the Apostle’s Creed or the Heidelberg Catechism as a more convincing exposition of the biblical witness. What we have in the historical critical theology is simply the commentary of a theology if not a mythology. The only thing is that this commentary has not been affirmed by a Church, that so far the theology or mythology has wisely hesitated to claim the character of a real decision. Obviously we cannot choose between the biblical text and a Church confession. We are definitely pointed and bound to the text, and not to the commentary. Again, we cannot choose between the possibility of using all available commentaries for and understanding of the text, including that of the historico-critical theology—or that of using only a few more convenient ones, including, of course, the Church confession. But we have the possibility of giving first place among all the voices which have to be heard to that of the Church confession, i.e., to listen to it first on the assumption that it has something particular to say to us as the solemnly gathered deposit of the significant existing experience of the Church with Holy Scripture. We then have to be constantly ready for corrections of its view either by other voices of by our own insight…If we cannot do this, if we have to reject as contrary to Scripture the direction indicated by the confession, we then have to face the difficult problem of an exchange of confessions, that is, an alteration of our ecclesiastical position.”1

  1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2, 649–51. Quoted in Bowald, Mark Rendering the Word in Theological Hermeneutics pp. 181–182. ↩︎

Augustine: Allegory and the Good Samaritan

Augustine often receives a bad rap for some of his allegorical exegesis. This is especially true of his interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10.29–37)[1], which has become the whipping boy for the supposed dangers of allegory. The Samaritan is Christ, the animal of the Samaritan is the flesh of Christ, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are the Satan and his minions, the inn is the church and inn keeper is the apostle. Modern day Hermeneutics 101: do not interpret the text like Augustine[2]!

But what would Augustine have to say against the charge of his “fanciful” interpretation?

In an essay by Ronald Teske[3] he gives three responses that Augustine may have given based on other writings on hermeneutics.

From The Confessions and his discussion of the creation account he argues that one may seek to determine what the author of Genesis intended but we shouldn’t stop there but we should also determine other truths that the passage shows us. Therefore, one may try to determine what Luke was saying in the parable but Luke would also want us to find other truths within the parable even if he did not have them in mind (354–55).

Second, it is true that Augustine does seek to find the sense or intent of what the author was writing but contrary to modern day exegesis he does not stop there. Some interpretations are hidden therefore we should “choose only that interpretation which sound faith prescribes” (355)[4]. We are also allowed to seek the truth that Scripture speaks of elsewhere to help us understand a passage. Also, lest we forget the divine author of Scripture, we can also see interpretations that “the Spirit of God who produced the passage through him certainly foresaw (356).” A passage of Scripture is not limited by the human author’s intent. Teske argues, “Augustine’s christological interpretation of the parable is in full accord with the Christian faith and also makes the point most effectively which John clearly taught in his Gospel (356).” Augustine’s allegorical interpretation aligns with a canonical reading of the Gospels as well.

Finally, Scriptural interpretation should ultimately lead to the love of God and love of neighbor. One may be able to get a sense of the words and exegete that authorial intention of a passage but if that has not led the reader to a greater love for God and neighbor that interpretation is in vain. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable is indeed useful for this purpose.

On the surface it may seem that Augustine produces an interpretation that is not in accord with proper hermeneutical methods. Augustine reads the parable in multiple ways: a “literal” interpretation along with a allegorical/christological interpretation. He does not limit himself to the historic sense but opens the text up to be read canonically, christologically, and ultimately in a way that builds up love of God and love of neighbor.

The image is Vincent van Gogh’s painting of the good samaritan. Image Credit: Art and the Bible


  1. David Gowler has a helpful series of posts on Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3  ↩

  2. It should also be noted that elsewhere Augustine does interpret the parable in a similar way as modern day exegetes by explaining that the parable shows us who is truly our neighbor. See Sermo CCXCIX and Contra mendacium.  ↩

  3. Roland Teske. “The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29–37) in Augustine’s Exegesis.” In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick Van Fleteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, 2 edition., 347–57. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001.  ↩

  4. De Genesi ad litteram I,xxi,41: CSEL XXVIII,31  ↩

QOTD: Augustine on the Scriptures

In one of Auguestine’s letters he writes to Volusianus, a young aristocrat, who had doubts about the Christian religion. Volusianus argued that the Christians philosophy challenged Roman ideals and is one of the reasons for Visigoths plundering Rome in 410. A young Augustine reaches out and argues that to attack the Christian philosophy you must first understand the Christian scriptures for they are the foundation for the Christian’s thinking. The posture one must come to the Scriptures is one of humility and submission to the wisdom and knowledge contained in them. In a letter responding to Volusianus he writes concerning the nature of the Scriptures,

The Christian writings are so astonishingly profound that even if I had more free time, more intense desire, and more talent to master them alone, from the beginning of boyhood up to my decrepit old age, I would still find myself making progress in them on a daily basis. I don’t mean to say that readers come to those matters necessary for salvation with such great difficulty. But even though each person grasps them through the fait without which no one lives a pious and upright life, many, many things remain to be understood by those making progress. These matters are cloaked in such shadows of mysteries, and such fathomless wisdom lies hidden in them—not only in the words they use to say what they say but also in the realitities that give themselves to be understood in them. So much so that those with the most years of experience, with the most intelligence, and with the most intense desire to learn are the very ones who experience what the same Scriptures say elsewhere: “When people come to the end, then they’re at the beginning” [Sirach 18:6].

Translation and background information from Cameron, Michael. Christ Meets Me Everywhere: Augustine’s Early Figurative Exegesis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

From Augustine’s writings in Ep. 137.1.3 (CCL 31B:258)

Logos Link (you must have the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers)

QOTD: Richard Hays on Interpretation

Richard Hays on interpretation,

That is a way of saying that texts can generate readings that transcend both the conscious intention of the author and all the hermeneutical strictures that we promulgate. Poets and preachers know this secret; biblical critics have sought to suppress it for heuristic purposes. At times, the texts speak through us in ways that could not have been predicted, ways that can be comprehended only by others who hear the voice of the text through us—or, if by ourselves, only retrospectively

and

To limit our interpretation of Paul’s scriptural echoes to what he intended by them is to impose a severe and arbitrary hermeneutical restriction. In the first place, what he inteded is a matter of historical speculation; in the second place, his intertextual echoes are acts of figuration. Consequently later readers will rightly grasp meanings of the figures that may have been veiled from Paul himself. Scripture generates through Paul new figurations; The Righteousness from Faith finds in Paul a new voice.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scriptture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 33

Book Review: Reading Backwards by Richard Hays

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Richard Hays, Dean of Duke Divinity School, changed the landscape of understanding Paul’s use of the Old Testament with his Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul and now seeks to write a “Gospel-focused sequel” to this work (ix). Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor University Press) is the product of the Hulsean Lectures in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University and with minor changes made for this publication. Thus, this book feels like a primer for understanding the Gospel writers use of the Old Testament primarily focused on their figural Christology. I look forward to a full-fledged “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” type work that examines the fourfold witness in more detail. Nevertheless, this work is a helpful starting point in understanding the Gospel writers figural interpretation.

The thesis of the book argues that “the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels (5).” Hays works this out by primarily focusing on how this effects the Christology of each of the Gospel writers. He does this through six short chapters (lectures):

  1. “The Manger in Which Christ Lies”: Figural Readings of Israel’s Scripture
  2. Figuring the Mystery: Reading Scripture with Mark
  3. Torah Transfigured: Reading Scripture with Matthew
  4. The One Who Redeems Israel: Reading Scripture with Luke
  5. The Temple Transfigured: Reading Scripture with John
  6. Retrospective Reading: The Challenges of Gospel-Shaped Hermeneutics

At the outset Hays lays out his methodology building on the work of Erich Auerbach and his definition of “figural interpretation.” According Auerbach,

Figural interpretation establishes a connection between two events or persons in such a way that the first signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second involves or fulfills the first. The two poles of a figure are separated in time, but both, being real events or persons, are within temporality. They are both contained in the flowing stream which is historical life, and only the comprehension, the intellectus spiritualis, of their interdependence is a spritual act (2)[1].

Thus, figural interpretation can only occur after both events have happened, which changes the significance of each event. Hays argues that this form of interpretation is not necessarily dependent upon the authorial intent of the original writer but respects the historical reference of the text being used (15). When the Gospel writers employ this type of hermeneutic they are not twisting the Old Testament scriptures but are reading backwards in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Only after his life, death, resurrection, and ascension can we go back and reread the Torah, Writings, and the Prophets.

Hays then argues that each Gospel writer has a distinct voice and purpose for their figural reading of the Old Testament. The Gospel of Mark is shrouded in mystery and the figural exegesis is “evocative” shedding light into this mystery. For example, Hays argues that Mark 1:2–3 is subtely showing that the Lord of the Old Testament is Jesus, which is spoken about in Isaiah 40:3. This example alone is just one of the many places Mark quietly shows that Jesus is the Lord of the Old Testament (21). Mark’s Christology is a narrative that can only be understood by putting together the pieces of the whole story. Each figural reading builds upon one another to give us a robust but mysterious portrait of Jesus.

Unlike the mysterious Mark, the Gospel of Matthew is bold, clear, and didactically explains Jesus’ divine identity. Beginning and ending with the “Emmanuel” theme Matthew shows how Jesus is God incarnate explicitly through Old Testament fulfillments and figural rereadings of the Scriptures. One interesting figural rereading that Hays examines is a possible subtle allusion to Genesis 28:12–17 in Matthew 28:20. Hays argues that Jesus is playing the same role as God when he says in Genesis 28 “Behold I am with you…” and Jesus tells his disciples, “Behold I am with you…” in Matthew 28:20 (48). Along with the explicit high Christological statements through Matthew this subtle allusion shows a figural rereading of the Genesis story showing Jesus’ “embodiment of Israel’s God (52).”

“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:27).” This passage, Hays argues, “is to bring us up short and send us back to the beginning of the Gospel to reread it, in hopes of discerning more clearly how the identity and mission of Jesus might be prefigured in Israel’s Scripture (56).” This rereading will show how Luke shows Jesus’ divine identiy narratively. Hays explains that Luke presents this narrative divine identity in two ways (58): 1) mouths of characters in the story (see Luke 4:16–21) and 2) implicit correspondences (allusion and echo). These allusions and echoes manifest themselves in several ways:

  1. Jesus as the awaited Lord of the new exodus (62)
  2. Jesus as Kyrios (64)
  3. Receptin and rejection of the divine visitation (68)
  4. Jesus as object of worship (69)
  5. Jesus desires to gather Jerusalem under his wings (69)

Hays concludes by arguing that the modern assumption of Luke’s “low” Christology does not take account of his many allusions and echoes that show Jesus is divine and the one who will redeem Israel (72).

The Gospel of John is the most “figural” of the Gospels but also contains the least amount of explicit Old Testament citations and allusions. Hays argues that John 1:45 gives us the clue to understanding and seeking out the figural rereading of John. Hays argues, “If Luke is the master of the deft, fleeting allusion, John is the master of the carefully framed, luminous image that shines brilliantly against a dark canvas and lingers in the imagination (78).” When Jesus references Numbers 21:8–9 in John 3:14 Hays argues that this allusion is more “visual” rather than “auditory” (78). The allusion to the serpent is only given by a couple words: Moses and serpent. Hays then suggests that John may also be alluding to the “lifting up” of the suffering servant in Isa 52:13 (LXX).

The conclusion is worth the price of the book alone. Not arguing against modern critical readings but arguing that we need to broaden our hemerneutical lense lest we miss what the Gospel writers are saying. Hays asks, “what if we learned to read Israel’s Scripture not only through the lenses of modern critical methods but also through the eyes of John and the other authors of the canonical Gospels (93)?” This book aptly gives us a taste of the imagery and figural readings the Gospels present us.

The final chapter gives a helpful overview of the strengths and weaknesses of each Gospel writers figural rereading. For example, the strength of John’s gospel is the “poetic reading of the texts (101).” This allows us to Jesus as the divine Word that “underlies and sustains all of creation (101).” John’s weakness is that it can lend its hand to “anti-Jewish and/or high-handedly supersessionist thoelogies (102).” This opens the door for some readers of the Gospel for “ahistorical quasi-gnostic spirituality (102).” But as stated at the beginning a figural rereading of the Old Testament does not “deny the literal sense but completes it by linking it typologically with the narrative of Jesus and disclosing a deeper prefigurative truth within the literal historical sense (102).” Hays then examines 10 ways the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament.

So, what can be said about this provocative argument that we should be engaged in a figural rereading of the Old Testament scriptures? I think that Hays’ overal argument is valid and that the Gospel writers do present us with a model of how to read the Old Testament in light of Christ. Many ways which the Gospel writers reference the Old Testament are only valid because of the resurrected Jesus. To say that Moses lifting up to the serpent speaks of Christ being lifted up on the cross can only happen after the subsequent event. This involves a “rereading” of the story in Numbers.

One area of critique that I would have of Hays’ own rereading of the Gospels and his rerereading(?) of their interpretation of the Old Testament is that he sometimes seems to stretch the ways in which the Gospel writers allude to Old Testament passages. Is John really symbollically alluding to both the serpent being lifted up and the suffering servant being lifted up? Personally, it seems better to possibly argue for our own rereading of both the Gospels and the Old Testament. Is it possible for us to say that this John’s allusion to the lifting up of the serpent can also be reread figuratively (to use Hays’ language) to that of the suffering servant in Isaiah? That is, do we need to discern some type of authorial intent of John alluding to Numbers and Isaiah or can this be our own rereading of the text?

With this critique aside, the overall argument of this book is one which New Testament interpreters need to wrestle with. Indeed, the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels and likewise the Gospels teach us how to read the Old Testament.

You can purchase the book here.


  1. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), 73.  ↩

How the Gospels Teach Us to Read the Old Testament (Hays)

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I’ve begun reading Richard Hays’ new book Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Witness and with all of Hays’ content it is provacative, engaging, and thought provoking. As you can probably gather from the title of the book, his thesis is, “the Gospels teach us how to read the OT, and—at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels.”[1] This retrospective hermeneutic argues that we cannot fully understand the writings of the Old Testament without the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.

In the first chapter, after explaining how the Old Testament teaches us how to read the Gospels, Hays examines how Luke 24 teaches us how to read the Old Testament. He concludes with three observations.[2]

  1. The Gospels teach us to read the OT for figuration. The literal historical sense of the OT is not denied or negated; rather, it becomes the vehicle for latent figural meanings unsuspected by the original author and readers. It points forward typologically to the gospel story. And, precisely because figural readings affirms the original historical reference of the text, it leaves open the possibility of respectful dialogue with other interpretations, other patterns of intertextual reception. This is a point of potentially greater significance for conversation between Jews and Christians about the interpretation of Israel’s Scripture.”

  2. “The story of Israel builds to a narrative climax in the story of Jesus.”

  3. “The figural disclosive reading that the Gospels teach occurs rightly in a community of discipleship and table fellowship.”


  1. Reading Backwards, p. 5  ↩

  2. Reading Backwards, p. 15–16  ↩

QOTD: Vanhoozer on “Meaning”

Vanhoozer getting at the heart of interpreting and rightly understanding the Bible:

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‘What it means’ is ultimately not a matter of theory only but of practice, not a matter of sheer knowledge but of wisdom. How do we know which interpretation best grasps the significance of the text? How can we evaluate various judgments as to what the text means in today’s context? I suggest that we may find a criterion in the demonstration of wisdom, in the right use of literary knowledge. Those whose minds and visions have been shaped by the biblical story and by the other types of communicative action will develop a Christian habitus—a way of life that forms habits of the head, habits of the heart, and habits of the hand. To read with understanding is to develop a Christian worldview, a spiritual orientation, and a loving way of life. The Spirit’s power is demonstrated in wisdom. Those who rightly apply “what it meant” attest the efficacy of the Word. We can go further. I propose the following four criteria for discerning the Spirit’s “ministry of the Word” among contemporary readers. We should prefer those interpretations of the Bible’s significance that demonstrate

  1. faithfulness: interpretations that extend the meaning of the text into new situations
  2. fruitfulness: interpretations that enliven the reader and show forth the Spirit’s fruits
  3. forcefulness: interpretations that edify the community, resolve problems, foster unity
  4. fittingness: interpretations that embody the righteousness of God and contextualize Christ.

Here Vanhoozer collapses “meaning” and “application” into seemingly one category. Meaning is not something abstract that we can just do our research and come up with a single timeless meaning of the text but rather meaning and application are wrapped into one. Meaning is not truly understood until it takes root in the believers life.

This seems similar to Augustine’s view, which he says “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” – On Christian Teaching

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Landmarks in Christian Scholarship) (p. 431). Zondervan.

Learning from John Calvin: Drinking Deeply from the Early Church

When we speak of Calvin’s use of the Church Fathers and advocating it as an example for us today it should be held up more than a mere example of using the Fathers in our exegetical papers, journal articles, and finding references in sermon prep.[1] No, to hold up others before us, such as Calvin, who drank deeply from the well of insight from the early church, means that we must also soak ourselves in their writings. Calvin didn’t merely begin writing about Galatians 4 and open up Logos Bible Software, find a reference to Galatians 4 in Chrysostom[2], and then cite him in a paper. No, he has already been reading the giants of the church and can use them as exemplars, disagree with them, or not use them at all. He has built up a mental repository that he can pull from in order to use them in his exegesis. His thought has already been previously shaped by reading them, which in turn influences his hermeneutics.[3]

This is just as much a call to myself as it is a call to everyone who sees the benefit of integrating the early church in our hermeneutical method. We will not grasp fully what they have to say to us by hunting down specific references and citing them in our studies. Let’s personally drink deeply from the literature of the fathers so we have our own minds shaped and expanded as we interpret in a present day situation.


  1. See my previous post “Thoughts and Notes on ‘Calvin as Bible Interpreter’”  ↩

  2. See Calvin, Jean. “John Calvin : preface to the Homilies of Chrysostom.” Hartford Quarterly 5, no. 2 (December 1, 1965): 19–26  ↩

  3. For a helpful introduction into Calvin’s hermeneutics see John Thompson’s article, “Calvin as Bible Interpreter” by McKim, Donald K (ed).John Calvin: Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2004.  ↩

Thoughts and Notes on “Calvin as Bible Interpreter”

The notes and thoughts below are just from my reading of the essay. I decided to post because the article gives an insightful look to Calvin as Bible interpreter.

Notes from John Thompson’s article, “Calvin as Bible Interpreter” by McKim, Donald K (ed). John Calvin: Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Paving the Way

  1. The printing press was key in making books (and information!) more accessible for the general public.
  2. Many philological discoveries were happening that paved the way for Calvin
  3. Also, a feeling of angst with the medieval Catholic church primed the way for Calvin. He did not want to be a reformer but his position, exegesis, and importance in the community made him one.
  4. Calvin entered into the “second wave” of the Reformation.

Calvin’s Statements on the Theory and Practice of Biblical Interpretation

Calvin writes his commentary different than Bucer and Melanchthon. Melanchthon wrote a very detailed commentary that chased rabbit trails of dogmatic importance where Bucer was very overview. Calvin decided to leave dogmatic pursuits to his Institutes and stick with exposition and application in his commentary.

Two key places that Calvin’s states his hermeneutical methods are in:

  1. Preface to the 1539 edition of his commentary to Romans
  2. Preface to the Homilies of Chrysostom

Four Aspects of Calvin’s Interpretation as summarized in the preface of his Romans commentary

  1. Seeking to lay out the mind or intention of the writer (this includes both the supposed author and also the Divine author). This would be accomplished by historical context, background, and philological studies.
    1. Thompson notes that “Calvin often stresses less what the apostle intended to say than what Paul intented his words to effect in the life of the church at Rome.”
  2. Calvin wanted to plainly explain the letter to his hearers in such a way they could easily understand
  3. Calvin did not rely on Scripture alone for interpretation but used other sources, such as the early church, in his interpretations. It is not solo scriptura but sola scriptura.
    1. This understanding of the reformers is becoming more widespread but still needs to be stated. They understood the helpfulness and guidance of previous interpreters. Even when they didn not agree, as Calvin often times does, they still interact and find them useful in exegesis.
      1. “There are extant on this Epistle many Commentaries by the ancients, and many by modern writers: and truly they could have never employed their labours in a better way; for when any one understands this Epistle, he has a passage opened to him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.”[1]
  4. The two works: Institutes and his commentaries reveal his goal of differentiating himself slightly from Melanchthon and Bucer.

Three Observations from Preface to the Homilies of Chrysostom

  1. A sustained apology for the Church Fathers
    1. Thompson says, “They offer sub- stantial benefits, including guidance in the meaning of Scripture, examples of and exhortation to moral uprightness and discipline, and insight into the life and practices of the early church, which was better ordered and purer than the church of later centuries.” – p. 63
    2. The early church was to be read along side scripture to help guide interpreters.
  2. Biblical interpretation in general and more specifically his commentaries are to serve the uneducated lay person.
  3. Calvin thought highly of Chrysostom because of his literal exegesis. This term needs to be clarified:
    1. Calvin’s literal exegesis (and that other early church) should not be read through the lens of the modern historical-critical method. A stark contast exists that needs to be noted.
      1. For example in his discussion on Galatians 4 Calvin asserts that Paul’s allegorical reading is valid because “Paul can compare the fracture in Abraham’s family to the birth of the church in the New Testament because in Abraham’s own day his household was the church, literally and historically.” – p. 68 What the literal sense today means compared with Calvin is substantially different.
      2. Thompson also notes, “Thus, he generally shies away from “allegory” but will happily embrace plausible analogies, types, metaphors, and so on – as a rhetorically trained critic, his technical vocabulary is rich and precise – so long as he sees a warrant in the context of the narrative that serves as the source of the type or analogy or application. Accordingly, Calvin will dismiss out of hand any allegory that he finds utterly off the subject of the scriptural text or that wrenches words out of context while ignoring the plot. On the other hand, as we will see, he finds embedded in both the New Testament and the Old many other instances of “allegory” – defined, to be sure, as a rhetorical device or metaphor rather than as a theological discovery.”
        1. My thoughts – This is interesting because the early church would generally use an allegorical interpretation after finding the literal sense. In other words it was a four-fold sense of scripture. Doctrine can be establish from the literal but not the allegorical. It has also been noted in Peter Martens excellent book “Origin and Scripture”, which he explains that Origen’s allegorical interpretation is rooted in the historical/literal sense. Only when the historical/literal sense is understood can one interpret allegorically.

  1. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), xxiv.  ↩

Book Review: Interpreting the General Epistles: An Exegetical Handbook (Kregel)

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Kregel Academic is continuing their helpful Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis series with Herbert W. Bateman IV’s Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook. Bateman is also the author of Jesus the MessiahCharts on the Book of Hebrews, and A Workbook for Intermediate Greek.

The book is broken down into 8 parts:

  1. The Genre of the General Letters

  2. The Background of the General Letters

  3. The Theology of the General Letters

  4. Preparing to Interpret the General Letters

  5. Interpreting Passages in the General Letters

  6. Communicating the General Letters

  7. From Exegesis to Exposition of the General Letters

  8. Selected Sources

The book’s format lends itself well to being a helpful guide for students when they begin to exegete the general letters. It contains a number of charts that allow the student to quickly summarize the content presented in the book. Following a standard hermeneutical approach Bateman guides students in the following steps of interpretation:

First, the student must identify the genre and background of the text. Next, he provides a 9-step outline from interpretation to teaching the letters:

  1. Initiate a Translation
  2. Identify Interpretive Issues
  3. Isolate Major Textual Problems
  4. Interpret the Structure
  5. Interpret the Style, Syntax, and Semantics,
  6. Interpret the Greek Words
  7. Communicate Exegetically
  8. Communicate the Central Idea
  9. Communicate Homiletically

He concludes with helpful examples from Jude 5-7 and Hebrews 10:19-25. At the close of the book the author provides students with a guide through major commentaries by giving the name of the commentary series, the stated purpose of the series, and the titles and authors of relevant volumes along with other resources for specific books.

Overall, the book is a helfpul guide for both students and pastors. The book is easy to read without simplifying the information. Coupled with the numerous charts this book provides convenient text to both read through and refer to when encountering the general letters.

A couple concerns came to mind when examining this text. First, it would have been helpful for the author to provide a brief introduction to his exegetical method before diving into the genre of the letters. When I first started the book I was left wondering what is overall purpose and goal was for interpreting the text. Is it to get to the original thought and mind of the author? Is it to provide both an individual and canonical interpretation of the text? Is there more to teaching and preaching a text than the steps outlined in the book? My general sense after reading the book is that the author’s goal in interpreting a text is to get back to the original meaning and find a relevant application for intended audience.

Also related to the previous point, no discussion of other prominent hermeneutical approaches are mentioned. Within the last 20 years there has been a push to incorporate other approaches in the interpretation process such as a canonical reading, biblical theology, history of interpretation, and more. The book employs what Jonathan Pennington in his Reading the Gospels Wisely book calls a “behind the text” and “in the text” reading1. If the author is against or for an “in front of the text” or canonical/theological approach to interpretation this would have been helpful to know in the beginning.

These concerns aside the book is still a helpful text for students and pastors. My only advice would be to supplement this book with other hermeneutical approaches that also integrate a more holistic approach to interpretation.

Many thanks to Kregel Academic for this free review copy.


  1. Pennington argues for an approach that integrates a “behind the text”, “in the text”, and “in front of the text” reading. See chapters 6-7 in Reading the Gospels Wisely ↩

QOTD: Ulrich Luz on Understanding Texts

Historical reconstruction means to describe the life situations to which the texts — as their frozen memories belonged and to which they referred. But again, this is not yet to understand the texts. Frozen food becomes meaningful only when it is unfrozen and can be eaten. A photograph becomes meaningful only when it is combined with our memory and when, through it, the persons represented in it come alive again in our hearts. In a similar way biblical texts are meaningful only when they become part of our life. In other words, to understand a New Testament text does not mean to understand the words of the text only but to understand the living Christ to whom it testifies and the life situation that was shaped by him, and to understand both as a gift, a question, and a challenge for our own lives. Understanding such texts is not an intellectual knowledge that can be separated from other dimensions of life; rather this understanding is possible only when it encompasses human life in its totality — intellectual insights, feelings, actions, and suffering

— Luz, Ulrich. Matthew in History: Interpretation, Influence, and Effects. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994, 14

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QOTD: A Trinitarian Hermeneutic

“As our teacher, God must give us the eyes to apprehend the truth. This problem is addressed byway of a Trinitarian hermeneutic, one in which the knowledge of God arises from the initiative of the Spirit, who opens our eyes through Scripture to Jesus Christ, the Word of the Father. In this vision, scriptural interpretation is part of a process of growing ever deeper into the knowledge of God as we receive the word and fellowship of the living Christ by the Spirit’s power…Just as water is taken up into the divine work of baptism, and bread and wine are taken up in the divine work of the Lord’s Supper, so also the creaturely words of Scripture are taken up into the triune God’s work of salvation.”

– J. Todd Billing in The Word of God for the People of God

The Spiritual Sense(s) Today

Often times the early church turns out to be the “black sheep” for hermeneutical methodology. In the academic world and the church there has been a growing interest in “theological exegesis.” Part of the struggle in this movement is how do we understand and model the early church’s hermeneutical method? Ideas such as “allegory” versus “literal” are often used with little understanding of how the early church understood these terms in their own right. It is often times the Protestant’s concern how can we know the “real meaning of Scripture” if it is allegorized? Will that not lead to a hermeneutical that is not grounded in the historical consciousness of the original writing? What about authorial intent? All these questions are valid today but the early church still dealt with these types of questions (albeit they were framed in a much different manner).

I have been reading through Origen’s homilies on Luke and I have noticed that he often times seeks the “literal” (understood here in the historical meaning of the passage) first and then moves onto a spiritual reading. With these thoughts going on I came across an articled titled “The Spiritual Sense(s) Today” by Glenn W. Olsen in The Bible and the University[1]. In this essay he articulates how the early church understood exegesis and one section in particular stood out to me and helped make sense of Origen’s practice. He says,

The important point is that, using whatever terminology, the Fathers tended to distinguish between a use of the Scripture to articulate doctrine; a use of it to determine how Christians are to live, that is a moral use; and a use of it to articulate a path of spiritual progress. That is, the Scriptures could be seen as aiming at various things. Especially from the time of Origen, there was a tendency to associate doctrine with the the literal sense, and morals and spiritual growth with the spiritual senses. This does not mean that the Fathers did not think that all three — doctrine, morals, and the spiritual life — could be found in the literal sense, but that they tended to think of the spiritual senses as ways of particularly pursing something more personal than doctrine, such as spiritual development (128).

There is definitely more to this idea than this post will allow. But I am beginning to see that in my readings of the early church’s practice (i.e. homilies, commentaries, letters etc.) generally goes against much of the caricature of their hermeneutical method. I find in the early church a generally helpful way of reading the scriptures that is edifying for the church today. Let me end with this quote from the same essay:

A spiritual sense was a way of asking, in fidelity to the corporeal sense of Scripture, what its implication might be for some such subject as the life of one’s soul or the life of the Church. Since there was no such thing as an ‘academic theology’ which could be separated from daily living, all the senses of Scripture were seen as intertwined. Theory or theology was to lead to practice (128).


  1. Jeffrey, David Lyle, and C. Stephen Evans. The Bible in the University (Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, V. 8). Zondervan, 2007.  ↩

Review: Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern

I would first like to thank IVP Academic for this free review copy.
You can purchase the book here.
Download the PDF of the review here

Introduction

Imitation is ingrained into the human experience. People naturally imitate who they admire or honor. Whether it is a child imitating his parents or a student imitating his professor, everybody imitates someone. This can be for better or for worse. Jason Hood’s new book Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern stresses the importance of recognizing imitation as a valid and correct way of reading the Bible.

As with all methods of reading the Bible there can be both helpful and harmful ways of interpretation. Imitation done properly is not exact copying but rather is “actions and mindsets that reflect the actions and mindsets of another (12).” He notes that in todays Christianity there are three main groups that use (or don’t use) a hermeneutic of imitation. First, the “latitudinal left”, who use imitation but leave out the theological grounding. Second, the “muddy middle”, who seem confused and tend to “focus on imitation (that is) disconnected from God’s work for sinners (14).” Finally, the “reluctant right”, who are suspicious of anyone who places an emphasis on imitation. Hood’s goal is to reclaim imitation in the life and practice of the church.

Overview

The foundation of the book as a whole is that since human beings are made in the image of God then it necessarily follows that we are imitators of him. Hood continues to show the emphasis that the Old Testament stresses on imitation of God. he notes that many studies of imitation of Jesus and Paul have already been done by imitation actually starts in the Old Testament by imitating God. He says that humans are God’s image-bearers so we should “imitate the character he displays as he works (40).” To be human is to imitate God in all areas including his faithfulness, forgiveness, generosity, and righteousness (40). By imitating God humans are responding to God’s work and are being sanctified. Christians must realize the dual nature of the way God works in the world, it is both his work and our work, we must hold these in tandem. Imitating God is part of the human experience. He notes that often times in Old Testament interpretation interpreters tend to use a “Christ-centered” only approach but the New Testament also uses the Old Testament to exhort people to godly lives. The impetus for imitating Christ is the Old Testament’s call of imitating God.

Hood continues into his next section to focus on the imitation of Jesus. Jesus is the “true image, the true human” and because of this believers are also to imitate him. Jesus as the Messiah is also the “representative human” but the theology of Jesus “should not stop at describing him as a substitute.” Imitation includes all aspects of Jesus life, such as bearing shame and scorn as Jesus did. Imitating Jesus also means imitating the vocations that he gave his disciples. Hood notes three vocations: 1) authorized agents 2) apprentices 3) ambassadors (65–68). Each of these aspects should play a role in the believers life. This can not be done alone but it is only the Spirit empowered life that can imitate Jesus properly. Imitation also takes a major role in the New Testament letters. Hood emphasizes that the imitation that Paul calls for is rooted in the Gospel. Since believers are a new creation this is the “engine” that drives imitation, it is not legalism or moralism but an integral aspect of being a Christian.

The final section on “who” we imitate addresses imitating the “saints.” This section largely argues that we should see the characters in Scripture (Abraham, Moses, Job, Paul etc.) as ones to imitate. Drawing from the New Testament Hood shows that the New Testament writers use characters in the Old Testament as ones to be imitated. James refers to Abraham, Rahab, Elijah, and Job as all ones to be imitated (160) and Peter, Jude, and John also provide numerous examples (161). He concludes, “the use of characters for moral instruction–a pattern so ingrained in New Testament authors that they even used angels as examples–is virtually absent from some contemporary interpretation (161).”

The most helpful aspect of the book comes in the final chapters (13–15). Hood addresses objections that interpreters commonly give to imitation. This section is largely written for the “reluctant right” and quotes numerous pastors and theologians that voice strong opinions for not using imitation in preaching and teaching (Horton, Greidanus, and others). But if preachers and teachers are going to follow the New Testament example they need to include imitation in their teaching. He argues that one of the functions of Scripture is to be used as moral instruction (169). Interpretation should include both a Christ-centered focus and an imitation focus. Too often the “right” solely focuses on the former. finally, he shows how interpreters of the past included imitation in their preaching and teaching. This list of interpreters includes snippets from the apostolic and early church fathers, Calvin, Luther, Edwards, and others. while this chapter seems to focus on the right it is really a call to all interpreters to rethink imitation and look to the past to a time where imitation was rooted in the gospel and taught to the church

Thoughts

Hood is an engaging writer who presents the biblical text clearly. He is able to weave in more scholarly works with a pastors heart that is still accessible to a wide range of people. Throughout the book he tracks through biblical texts showing how every section and genre of Scripture exhorts its readers to imitation. If you do not think imitation is a biblical concept then this book is for you.

I think his analysis of the left, middle, and right is helpful addressing a large range of readers. By showing that this is not necessarily a new concept but one that has been lost in the church’s interpretation today. Hood is reclaiming the church to imitation. For readers who are not familiar with this concept or against a reading of imitation. Pastors, youth leaders, and students are the focus of this book. Pastors will be able to see a vision of how imitation is used throughout the Bible and to spark ideas how to apply imitation properly in preaching and teaching. Imitation is an important concept that should be taught in the church today. We need to follow in the footsteps of the New Testament writers and the interpreters throughout church history and including imitation and are teaching and reading.

The following is not necessarily a critique of the book but rather identifying who this book is for. Personally, while reading this book I found myself wanting more from various topics (imitation in the Gospels, cross bearing, history of imitation etc). Hood covers a plethora of texts in little space. By having a biblical theology of imitation in a short amount of space many concepts are only briefly addressed. It is important to remember the audience when reading a book. Hood successfully writes a helpful introduction to imitation while critiquing various conflicting positions.

One thing that I would like to see is a “how-to” book on imitation for preaching and teaching. This book successfully gets the word out on imitation but a follow up would be helpful to those who are newly persuaded to theologically grounded imitation.

Overall, Hood provides a solid critique of the contemporary scene lack of solid imitation exegesis throughout the Bible. I would recommend this book to anyone who is not familiar with the idea of imitation or is outright against it. If you are wondering what the Bible says about imitation this book is for you. This book will give you a solid foundation of imitation that will allow you to pursue more works that delve more deeply in this idea (see Drama of Doctrine by Kevin VanHoozer). This book is a helpful launching point for discussions within the church for integrating imitation with discipleship.

I’ll end with this quote from Jay. Gresham Mecham:

“Jesus as a matter of fact it is a Brother to us as well as a savior –an elder Brother who steps we may follow. The imitation of Jesus as a fundamental place in the Christian life; it is perfectly correct to represent him as our supreme and only perfect example.” (70)

Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in Matthew

Daniel Gurtner has a helpful essay in the most recent issue of Bulletin for Biblical Research (BBR)[1], titled “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in Matthew.” The goal of the essay is to outline a methodology for interpreting “apocalyptic symbolism in Matthew”[2] (I would say after reading the essay this could be applied to the other Gospels as well). After briefly summarizing the apocalyptic interpretation in Matthew he concludes that some, such as David Sim, place too much emphasis on “Matthew’s community”. While recognizing that apocalyptic literature typically arises out of an oppressed community he argues that Matthew’s gospel is not an apocalypse but rather a bios with apocalyptic imagery woven in. It is better to understand Matthew’s use of apocalyptic to “convey the meaning of history more profoundly than would be possible from a straightforward narrative” (544). Therefore, one loses sight of the reason Matthew is using apocalyptic writing when they tried to establish a community in which Matthew is writing in.

Gurtner says that the one aspect that is similar in all types of apocalyptic writing is symbolism. Since symbolism is present in post apocalypses (literary genre) and other genres that contain apocalyptic language (i.e. the Gospels) then this should be the interpreters entry into studying the apocalyptic writing of the Gospels. In order to identify and interpret these symbols he uses the interpretive methods G.K. Beale uses in understanding Revelation:

  1. When the symbol is not clearly identified by the author the interpreter must look at a “known commonplace association of a picture” (shared corpus)
  2. If the first option is not identifiable the interpreter should look at the “literal subject itself” (534). Gurtner notes that symbolic does not necessarily mean nonliteral. He gives the example of the exodus and the resurrection. Both events are highly symbolic (exodus = salvation/deliverance) but they are both understood to be literal events.

The rest of the essay provides an example using Gurtner’s interpretation of the tearing of the temple veil in Matthew. He has already done many studies ( dissertation, essay in JETS) but the purpose of this essay is to show the methodology of his interpretation rather than shed new light on the text.

Not having much history with apocalyptic writing I found this essay helpful as an entrance into the world of apocalypticism in interpreting the symbolic nature of the writing. The essay is worth a read as a helpful example of working through an apocalyptic writing within the Gospel narrative.


  1. Gurtner, Daniel. “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in the Gospel of Matthew.” Bulletin For Biblical Research 22, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 525–546.  ↩

  2. Gurtner acknowledges that the term “apocalyptic symbolism” is a “contradiction in terms. And, ironically, it is precisely this confusion in terminology that has led to confusion in interpretation” (525)  ↩