How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God’s Word Today By Mark L. Strauss (Baker, 2011)

How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God’s Word Today (Paperback)
by Mark L. Strauss

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This is another work in the “genre” of application studies: “The question [is] not whether a passage of Scripture applies to us, but how (11). For Strauss, the “central message” of the Bible is “the story of redemption,” and “living biblically” means “recognizing our place in God’s story and living in such a way that we reflect his nature and purpose in the world”—the living out of a Christian worldview (58, 65). This is also to imitate Christ—imitatio Christi—as the New Testament amply demonstrates (72–74).

How exactly do we find out in any given passage what we must do to be more Christlike? Strauss suggests that the interpreter focus on the purpose of the passage—“who we ought to be (attitudes and character) and what we ought to do (goals and actions) as those seeking to reflect the nature and purpose of God” (78–79). He goes on to assert the importance of placing the passage in the larger story of Scripture, discerning the author’s purpose in light of the passage’s genre and historical and literary context, understanding how the passage informs us of the nature and ways of God in the world, to finally land on what the passage teaches us about our attitudes, character, goals, and actions (81–91).

The bulk of the book (107–205) is distributed between two chapters that address the interpretation of diverse genres of the Old and New Testament, respectively. These contain some helpful guidelines that readers of this Journal will have encountered elsewhere.

For the Gospels, Strauss notes that while “their goal [i.e., goal of the authors of the Gospels] is to produce a trustworthy account [a single account?] of Jesus’ words and actions,” they are also theological, written for a purpose: “to proclaim the message of the salvation accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah” (162). I wish the theological purpose would have been a bit “thicker” and more consistent with what he claimed was the goal of Scripture—redemptive in the broader sense of creating a people who “reflect his nature and purpose in the world” (58). While the Christocentric thrust is a part of this broad purpose, it seems less than hermeneutically sound to restrict the Gospels to “the message of salvation.” Mark, for instance, deals almost exclusively with discipleship, rather than with salvation (justification).

The last chapter concludes with three theoretical models of how one could conceivably move from text to application (210–221). The hermeneutical bridge, which is essentially to make a principle out of any passage of Scripture and apply that principle to the current situation. Strauss’s second model is the pyramid/ladder of abstraction, which does not look very different from the bridge model, for this one also draws upon principles. While these methods employing principles might work for the genre of law (after all laws are principles themselves), “it is not so clear how it functions with a variety of other literary forms” (215). The third model is Webb’s “redemptive-movement” hermeneutic. He critiques this approach for its seeing an “ultimate ethic” outside of Scripture (see accompanying review in this issue of Webb’s latest work, Corporal Punishment in the Bible). Strauss sums up by listing eight criteria that ought to govern any move from text to application: purpose of the writing, cultural correspondence (a lack thereof between “then” and “now” should caution us), canonical consistency (imperatives unchanged through the canon may be easily applied), countercultural witness (if the teaching goes against the grain of contemporary ancient near eastern culture, it is likely to be normative), creation principle (teachings are transcultural if rooted in creation), and redemptive priority (fit everything within God’s restoring and redeeming acts). Again, nothing new, but worth a repeat hearing.

One problem preachers will find in such works on hermeneutics is a lack of empathy for those of us who deal with the canonical text of Scripture pericope by pericope from the pulpit. Theologians and scholars do a remarkable job when it comes to canonical and testamental and biblical theology; but they pay scant attention to what is the hermeneutically life-changing slice of Scripture God’s people come into contact with week by week—the pericope, or the preaching unit. And so, in Strauss’ work as well, I wish there had been more of a focus upon how one attends to application pericope by pericope, which, after all, is what preachers do, and which, after all, is how the body of Christ primarily engages the biblical text.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 12 (2012): 82–83

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