Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology, by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 891 pages.
Andreas J. Köstenberger (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Senior Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and Director of PhD Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Richard D. Patterson (PhD, University of California, Los Angeles) is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Liberty University.
In his well-known words to Timothy the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Biblical interpretation lies at the center of everything we do as pastors, teachers, and students of the Word, and we know that the rewards of proper interpretation are great while the dangers of poor interpretation can be deadly. The purpose of this book is to provide a framework to help students and teachers of the Bible properly interpret Holy Scripture.
Köstenberger and Patterson propose that in interpreting the Bible we follow what they call the hermeneutical triad, which consists of history, literature, and theology. The authors acknowledge that while the name for this approach might be new, the practice of studying Scripture in this way certainly is not. What makes this approach different from other geometrically named interpretative models (i.e. the hermeneutical circle and spiral), is that instead of moving from general (studying rules that govern interpretation of the text by examining the words, breaking down syntax, looking at the historical setting, etc) to special hermeneutics (studying the rules that apply to a text’s specific genre both literarily and theologically), the hermeneutical triad moves from special to general. The authors explain, “In doing so, we are building on the enormous amount of recent scholarship on the importance of the canon, theology, metanarrative, and Scripture as “theodrama”…As a result, we don’t start with words; we start with canon” (25). Instead of starting close and then backing up to see the larger picture, this book proposes that we start with the big picture and then move closer. Chapter 1 explains what the hermeneutical triad looks like in practice:
As an interpreter sets out to explore a particular biblical text, he will first research its historical setting (studying what is often called “introductory matters). After grounding his study in the real-life historical and cultural context of the biblical world, he will orient himself to the canonical landscape. This will place a given passage in its proper salvation-historical context. Next, he will consider the literary genre of a passage. He should imagine the different genres found in Scripture as topographical features such as valleys, mountain ranges, or plains, each of which exhibit characteristic features and call for appropriate navigational strategies. Finally, he will take a close look at the specific linguistic features of a text – larger discourse context, important word meanings, and figurative language where appropriate (66).
The rest of the book is divided into three main parts that correspond to the hermeneutical triad. Part one (chapter 2) covers the context of Scripture: history. Part two (chapters 3-14) focuses on the literature of Scripture, and part three (chapter 15) the goal of interpretation: theology.
Part one reminds us that since God revealed himself in history, it is important for the interpreter to learn as much about the historical context as possible in order to gain a background for understanding.
Part two on the literature of Scripture (chapters 3-14) begins with an overview of the Old and New Testament canons where Christ is presented as being at the heart of the Old and New Testament and the link that bonds them together. Chapters 5-11 (over 400 pages) survey the different genres of Scripture from Old Testament narrative to New Testament apocalyptic. Pastors could use this as a tool to read about each genre as it corresponds to the section of Scripture they are reading in their yearly journey through the Bible.
Chapter 12 focuses on the importance of context: grammar, syntax, discourse. Again the authors stress the importance of seeing the big picture: “Importantly, the proper textual unit at which meaning is to be discerned is not the individual word, the phrase or even the sentence, but the larger discourse, that is, the paragraph level and ultimately the entire document of which a given word, phrase, or sentence is a part. This simple insight, amply confirmed by recent linguistic research, has the potential of revolutionizing your study of the biblical text” (575-576). They also emphasize the importance of genre: “The medium (structure, words) and the message thus work hand in hand in the way language and literature work, and we must be concerned with both (not just the latter) if we want to arrive at an accurate and full-orbed understanding of the text” (603). We are reminded to spend time looking at the text from a bird’s eye view (reading the whole book), rather than just under the microscope.
Chapter 13 addresses the meaning of words and warns against falling into certain exegetical fallacies. The reader is warned that “the failure to appreciate that we are dealing here with language, which by its very nature is subjective and varied in style and often eludes being reduced to a simple formula or rigid dictionary definitions, hinders much of common biblical interpretation” (623). In chapter 14 on figurative language the authors put forth a convincing argument to show that figurative language is not opposed to truth and meaning, rather it is just a different way of expressing meaning. Context is integral to the correct understanding of figures.
Finally, chapter 15 provides a brief overview of biblical theology, and chapter 16 gives practical instruction on how to use the tools available and apply the word in preaching and teaching. There is also an extensive section on how to approach preaching on different genres that would prove helpful to those who find themselves in a pulpit on Sunday mornings.
While the scope of this review and this reviewer’s background knowledge on the different hermeneutical approaches prevents a thorough analysis and criticism of the hermeneutical triad, it seems like a fair and common sense approach to Scripture. This book was also a good reminder that there is a danger in putting too much emphasis on smaller units of meaning (words, syntax, sentences) to the neglect of the larger units (canon, genre, discourse units, etc). While the sheer size and scope of this book may be intimidating, it is written on a user friendly level and provides an easy to understand overview of almost everything that has to do with bible interpretation. The many charts and summaries on topics like biblical chronology, the Ten Commandments in the New Testament, and guidelines for interpreting parables would make this book a worthwhile reference and resource for pastors.