A Basic Guide to Interpreting the BibleBy Robert H. Stein (Baker, 2011)

A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules (Paperback)
by Robert H. Stein

Price: $14.93  |  69 used & new from $6.50

This is the revised edition of a work that first appeared in 1994, by Stein, (now-retired) professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The title hints at the metaphor of a game that ties the book together, but unfortunately that potentially useful motif crops up only infrequently in the work, mostly in chapter titles; it is not developed to any significant extent. Perhaps the most substantial revision is in the chapters on the genres of the Bible. Besides that, I am not certain much has been changed since its first iteration.

As Stein noted in his “Preface to the First Edition,” [a] great debt is owed to E. D. Hirsch, Jr., whose Validity in Interpretation has made a lasting impact on my thinking” (x). Many evangelicals share Stein’s sentiments with regard to Hirsch, as also do I. His work is magisterial. However, Hirsch wrote quite a bit more than this oft-cited first foray of his into hermeneutics in 1967, and I wish evangelicals would pay more attention to his later productions which, building upon Validity in Interpretation, go much further, especially with his perspicacious discussions on what constitutes contemporary application, from ancient texts, both religious and legal. Perhaps if we had paid closer heed to these works as well, the state of biblical hermeneutics, particularly as it concerns preaching, would have been a lot more fruitful and precise.

Chapter 1 is an introduction to hermeneutics that deals with the fundamental elements of writing: author, text, and reader. He uses the example of Eph 5:18 (“be not drunk with wine”) to make the statement that “what Paul consciously willed to say in the past also has implications of which he was not necessarily aware, and those implications are part of the meaning of the text” (19). “Wine” indicates the “principle or pattern of meaning” = alcohol, and so would imply (today) even beverages other than wine, including beer, whiskey, rum, etc. “These implications do not conflict with his original meaning. On the contrary, they are included in, and are part of, the principle he sought to communicate” (19). Such potential applications could conceivably include an alcoholic libation X, yet to be discovered/concocted in the future. All this is vintage Stein!

Chapter 2 deals with the vocabulary of hermeneutics. One item defined is “subject matter” (= “content … talked about in a text, without regard to how it is used by the author to convey meaning” [41]). By this Stein means, at least in part, the event of history behind a narrative text. His distinction between such an “event” and the “account of the event” is helpful, though I wish it could have gotten more than two paragraphs worth of space (43). A mere reproduction of events was not the intention of the author; rather his goal was a recounting of those events in such a manner as to further his inspired theological agenda. This is not a splitting of hairs; it is this very tendency to pay more attention to the recreating of the events than to the text itself (i.e., the account of the events) that has stunted biblical hermeneutics, at least as far as preaching is concerned. Later, Stein does add: “[T]he meaning of such [narrative] texts involves not primarily what happened but rather the interpretation of what happened” (87; italics mine). Exactly!

Chapter 3 deals with the role of the Holy Spirit in interpretation, encompassing his work of inspiration, the formation of the Bible, and illumination of the interpreter. Chapters 4–14 address the issues of genres in Scripture, “games” for which there are specific “rules.” They include exhortations to pay attention to context, to watch for introductions/conclusions and dialogue (in narrative genre), to attend to authorial comments and summaries, to listen for repetitions, parallelisms, figurative nature of prophecy and its “fuller meaning,” etc., none of which are unfamiliar to the readers of the Journal.

There are a couple of unusual inclusions in this section on genres:—“The Game of Jargon: Idioms,” and “The Game of Exaggeration: Overstatement and Hyperbole,” that seem to be forcing figures of speech rather arbitrarily into the category of genres.

All in all, I found the first section on General Hermeneutics the most interesting; but that part remains hardly changed from the first edition. You might find the latter for far less than $19.99 and, if you do, grab it.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 12.2 (2012): 82–83

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