Review: Biblical Hermeneutics

Title of Work:

Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views

Author of Work:

Stanley E. Porter and Beth M. Stovell


Pastor John Derme

Page Number:

Format Availability:


Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views, Edited by Stanley E. Porter & Beth M. Stovell. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 224 pages.

SS.34.Biblical Hermeneutics, Five Views..LgStanley E. Porter is president, dean, and professor of New Testament at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He has authored or coauthored eighteen books, edited over seventy volumes, and published hundreds of articles and other contributions on the language, writings, and interpretation of the New Testament. Beth M. Stovell is assistant professor of biblical studies at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Florida. She has authored one book and contributed to several edited volumes.

According to the editors, Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views “represents a new way of presenting several of the major views within biblical hermeneutics. Rather than introducing the individual hermeneutical approaches in survey fashion or providing a step-by-step instruction guide to interpretation, this book provides a forum for discussion by including contributions from several of the major advocates of these diverse models” (11,12). Each of five contributors submitted an essay that describes the hermeneutical method that he employs, including an interpretation of Matthew 2:7-15. After reading the initial essays, each contributor then submitted a response that allowed him to criticize the other methods and review the strengths of his own method in light of the others. The editors contributed an introduction, which set the context of the discussion, and a conclusion, which focused on what they saw as the strengths of each method and highlighted what the methods have in common.

Craig L. Blomberg of Denver Seminary offers the historical-critical/grammatical view as the foundational approach to any interpretation of Scripture. He presents it as a middle road between the historical-critical method and what he calls the grammatico-historical method. Once historical-criticism is cleansed of its antisupernaturalist worldview, its textual, source, form, tradition, and redaction criticism are essential for understanding “the contents of an original document, its formation and origin, its literary genre and subgenres, the authenticity of the purportedly historical material it includes, and its theological or ideological emphases and distinctives” (46,47). An example of the conclusions that he draws according to his method is that he identifies the book of Matthew as a redaction of the book of Mark with material added from a lost compilation of sayings called “Q” and a lost collection of traditions called “M” (35, 144). Blomberg claims that we can hold on to inerrancy even though we criticize what the Bible presents as historical fact. He explains that his approach is grammatical, because it pays attention “to the meanings of words in their historical and cultural contexts as collocated in phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and still larger units of thought” (47). Finally, he sees his method as different from all the rest, because he seeks the original meaning from an author to his audience, whereas the other contributors take later writers, texts, and/or readers into account when determining meaning.

F. Scott Spencer of Baptist Theological Seminary presents the literary/postmodern view. He explains that literary-focused critics concentrate not on an author-oriented approach to biblical interpretation, but on text- and reader-oriented approaches. The justification for this method, as he explains, is that we don’t know who wrote the first Gospel, and we don’t know his purpose, but we do have his text and we do have his readers’ response (although not the response of his original readers). Spencer highlights five textual foci: final text (we read the biblical documents as complete and compelling works of literature); cotext (rather than atomizing texts, we read each one as a flowing narrative with a plot); intertext (we study how texts are influenced by other texts, e.g. the New Testament quoting the Old Testament); context (we focus on the temporal, spatial, and social environments of the cultural world surrounding the documents, knowledge that the writer assumed his readers would have); and open text (we study the interchange between text and readers, who are shaped by texts and create meaning from them when they bring their own perspectives to interpretation). Postmodern criticism “staunchly resists” any claim that there is one legitimate way to interpret a text, but instead demands that the Bible will be read in multiple ways. Therefore he objects to interpretation according to the rule of faith, saying that 21st century readers should not be restricted by an ancient rule from the church fathers (a concern particularly of the feminists, to which he is sympathetic). He also disagrees that Scripture is a unified whole with Christ as the central character of the Old Testament.

Merold Westphal of Fordham University presents the philosophical/theological view. His view of hermeneutics is different than the other four contributors, because it focuses on the theory of hermeneutics and doesn’t actually prescribe a method for the practice of exegesis. Philosophical hermeneutics is not so concerned with what the interpreter does, but rather with what happens to the interpreter when he reads. This is illustrated by the “hermeneutical circle.” The hermeneutical circle describes how a reader comes to a text with presuppositions, which affect his interpretation. That interpretation, in turn, affects his presuppositions, and so on. Westphal explains that interpreters cannot escape presuppositions, but that they must sort out the good presuppositions from the bad. Philosophical hermeneutics denies unilateral authority to the author for fixing the meaning of a text. It does see value in understanding his original intent in order to avoid taking a text “anywhere and everywhere.” However, it says that his intent cannot “open” a text to us (78). Meaning is found chiefly in the historical situation of the interpreter. “What did God say to the original audience,” and “what is God saying to us” are two separate questions and must remain open to different meanings in different contexts, according to this method. There is no such thing as one interpretation of any passage, but rather there are a variety of interpretations. Westphal sees this as a middle ground between a claim to absolute authority and “anything goes” relativism. He was the one contributor who refused to interpret Matthew 2, since he does not advocate a method of interpretation.

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. of Westminster Theological Seminary offers the redemptive-historical view. He says that the name of his method may be new, but that his was always the approach of the church, especially at the Reformation. He explains that God has revealed himself in his historical words and deeds. All of this revelation serves God’s redemptive purpose. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the culmination of his redemption. Since revelation is the history of redemption, Christ must be the center of Scripture. We are saved by what God has done, and he reveals what he has done in the Scripture. This method is based on exegesis along the lines of grammatical-historical procedure, and is faithful to the principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture” and that all of Scripture is united around the subject of redemption history, centered on Christ.

Robert W. Wall of Seattle Pacific University explains the canonical view. He says that there is actually a variety of canonical approaches, which are all “guided by a common commitment to a theological conception of the Bible’s final (or ‘canonical’) shape” (111). He approaches Scripture as a human text (with a firm recognition of its human agency and historical nature); a sacred text (the church recognized its inspiration by its clarity and practical use), a single text (the canon was formed as a single unit to be read together), a shaped text (individual writings were formed into coherent units in a purposeful way), and the church’s text (the authority, intellect, and virtue necessary for faithful interpretation are developed within the body of Christ). Wall says that Scripture is not divine revelation, but rather bears witness to divine revelation. The church formed the canon under God’s direction by recognizing its practical effect on people’s lives. It formed Scripture into units based on how it could best be used in the church. Some examples of Wall’s conclusions based on this method are the following. Wall claims that there were multiple written and oral versions of the gospel circulated before the four-fold gospel was fixed. The church recognized the canonical gospel toward the end of the second century and arranged it into its present four-fold form. He also says that even though modern scholarship does not recognize the Pastoral Epistles as genuinely Pauline, we read them as Pauline because the church placed them into Paul’s corpus. He explains that although Luke was referring to his own gospel in Acts 1:1, the church overrode him and placed John between Luke and Acts to make Acts 1:1 refer to the entire four-fold gospel. And he says that the first gospel was titled “Matthew” not in order to attribute authorship to the apostle, but to legitimize its message as apostolic. The purpose of exegesis, according to this method, is not to establish an absolute meaning, but to build consensus with Christian communities and form Christian disciples for today. A text’s full meaning does not belong to the author, nor to the first audience, nor to the readers of today, but is illumined over long history in changing contexts. This full meaning is summarized in the rule of faith. Therefore any interpretation of Scripture should agree with the rule of faith.

The strengths of the historical-critical/grammatical method, as presented in this comparison, are that it takes the grammar of Scripture seriously and is interested in the author’s original meaning. Its chief weakness is that it assumes that Scripture contains errors. In regard to the literary/postmodern view, Blomberg identifies Spencer on the conservative end of postmodern interpreters (133).  Yet Spencer shows that his method gives him the freedom to make things up about the magi that he boasts we would have missed “on a more pious, traditional reading” (67). We can agree with the assertion of the philosophical/theological view that there is great value in what happens to us when we interpret Scripture (although we may not agree with Westphal on what that happening is). We cannot, however, agree with the way this method takes from the gospel its objective power when it denies that the meaning of a text is certain, because God’s promises are certain no matter what a person’s historical circumstances are. The redemptive-historical view is the closest of the five to a confessional Lutheran perspective. It sees Christ as the center of the Scripture and finds its basis on what Gaffin calls grammatical-historical procedure. The canonical view attempts to reach orthodox conclusions while asking historical-critical questions. For example, Wall criticizes Gaffin for saying that Bible’s history is accurate (196), but advocates nonetheless that we read the Bible in the form that the church has received it.

The greatest weakness I saw in this “five views” format is that when men are describing their own positions, it can be easy for them to use terms without defining them, so that their positions remain hidden behind these terms. For example, although all the contributors claim to believe that the Scripture is inspired, one gets the obvious impression that by “inspiration” they do not all mean the same thing. (In his response essay, Gaffin states that he is the only contributor who clearly asserts divine authorship.) The primary benefit of this book for our pastors might be that it would help them to understand the hermeneutical principles of the authors they are reading in books and commentaries published outside our circles. If you are looking for one book that takes a snapshot of some of the ways that many Christian academics interpret the Bible today, you may find Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views useful.