The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice By Keith D. Stanglin (Baker, 2018).

Stanglin’s work is a concise review, “from the early church to modern practice,” of the art of interpreting, literally and otherwise. I came to this book as a preacher, asking: How do we interpret Scripture now for ourselves and for our listeners in the pews? In light of the remarkable blossoming of language philosophy and our clearer understanding of how texts work, our conception of how Scripture works has significantly improved, by leaps and bounds. Therefore, I have trouble with reliance on historical modes of interpretation, most of which are not congruent with our contemporary (and better) understanding of how language functions.

As an example, in the early days of medicine, physicians used to prescribe mercury for sexually transmitted diseases, animal excrement for all kinds of injuries, skull boring (trepanation) for epilepsy, and engaged in other assorted grisly practices. No doubt, these morbid undertakings are of considerable historical interest. But surely, they are best avoided today, in light of our better understanding of medicine and therapeutics.

Stanglin confesses: “One cannot get away from the fact that the earliest Gentile Christians did not know exactly what to do with the Old Testament” (28)! Indeed, it is the rush by Christocentric interpreters to find Christ in the Old Testament that led (and still leads) to most of these kind of abuses, for “the truth about Christ justified the exegetical methods” (22). But, do notice Stanglin’s affirmations: “If Scripture indeed has to do ultimately with Jesus Christ, then one must account for the fact that the Old Testament, with the exception of a few fairly overt messianic prophecies, is silent about him” (42). Quite right, yet he affirms that “there is no book of the Old Testament, no matter how intimately tied to its ancient Near Eastern context, that is not finally about Christ” (43). One has to engage in some serious hermeneutical contortions to make those two affirmations of our author work together.

“Words can play and gain new meaning,” declares Stanglin (26). That sounds exactly like Humpty Dumpty in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” When Alice responded: “The question is … whether you can make words mean so many different things,” Humpty countered, “The question is … which is to be master—that’s all.” Yes, indeed, that is the question: Who is the master A/author, the one(s) who wrote the texts or I, the interpreter?

Stanglin also considers Jesus’ own parabolic interpretation (or that of the NT authors) as “imaginative” and “allegorical,” thus justifying early Christians’ own odd approaches to the text (90), including the claim that the Good Samaritan’s two coins indicates the two sacraments (à la Augustine). But one must make a distinction between illustrations/applications of the OT in the NT and valid expositions (the latter are few and far between: 1 Tim 5:17–18 comes to mind). However, Stanglin does not seem to be leaning in the direction of illustration or application: “Spiritual interpretation is something more, though, than application of an ancient text. It is the willingness to say that, while this Old Testament text is about David, it is also about Christ” (217). Not illustration, not analogy, not application, but “it is about Christ.” Calvin was right; on the florid interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan by his predecessors, he writes: “I have no liking for any of these interpretations; but we ought to have a deeper reverence for Scripture than to reckon ourselves at liberty to disguise its natural meaning” (137).

That is not to say modern interpretation is free from errors. Here are some: faulty notions of the supremacy of reason and ideals of objectivity; the misguided goal of being purely academic to the exclusion of faith; an ill-advised inclination towards individualistic, rather than communitarian, interpretation; the unhappy penchant for the world behind the text (the non-inspired, actual historical bases for the text); etc. (160–77). But the remedy for these errors is not interpreting Scripture willy nilly.

The rest of Stanglin’s historical survey takes us from patristic to modern exegesis. In brief, there is increasingly greater emphasis upon authorial intent, and increasingly lesser focus on an allegorical reading. You can either read the text as it is meant by the A/author to be read or read it entirely as you wish, deploying your creative imagination. You can either catch the A/authorial doing within texts, or you can do things with texts yourself. I’d rather stick with the former option in each case.

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 20.1 (2019): 104–107

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