The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture By J. Todd Billings (Eerdmans, 2010)

The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Paperback)
by J. Todd Billings

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Billings who teaches at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI, wants “to introduce readers to the practice of interpreting Scripture in the context of the triune activity of God, the God who uses Scripture to reshape the church into Christ’s image by the Spirit’s power” (xiii). I was gratified to run across this phrase or something like it—that describes the Word of God as an instrument of the Spirit to change lives—over and over again in this work, not something one sees very often in the hermeneutical literature of Christendom. That language is an instrument of the user, employed to achieve something, is well accepted in the circles of language philosophy: the author is doing something with what he/she is saying—the domain of the field of pragmatics. In other words, there is more to textual interpretation than simply the analysis of the semantics of the text; one must also attend to the pragmatics of the text. This is especially important for interpretation of the inspired text of Scripture that is intended to culminate in preaching for life change, for unless the homiletician asks, “What is the A/author doing what is what is being said?” valid application that is authoritative will never be within reach. Here is Billings again: “For Christians, the Bible is the written word of God, the Spirit’s instrument for transforming God’s people into Christ’s image” (36).

Chapter 1 of The Word of God for the People of God addresses what a theological hermeneutic is; chapters 2 and 3 develop a “Trinitarian-shaped” hermeneutic; chapter 4 deals with contextual interpretation of Scripture; chapter 5 mines the utility of a premodern exegesis; and chapter 6 provides a synthesis of the book. In all, Billings has sought to integrate “theory and practice, biblical studies and theology, and critical methods and the practices of prayer and worship” (xvii), and I think he has succeeded.

A theological hermeneutic recognizes the sovereign hand of God in the reception of his word, as Mark 4:26–29 teaches (3–4). Nevertheless, how the reader approaches Scripture is critical to its understanding; that human element is also underscored in Mark 4:23. Billings appropriates the metaphor of drama to describe this human element—“When we read Scripture …, we enter into what some authors have called a ‘drama.’ … As ones who are in Christ and empowered by the Spirit, we become participants in God’s drama and performers of the script of Scripture.” I particularly appreciated Billings’ suggestion that with, in, and through Scripture, a “new world” is being portrayed, though the mixing of metaphors tended to obscure what exactly this drama and world were, not to mention the rather nebulous “journey on the path of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit” (8; italics added). The picture of a journey is, nevertheless, valuable, particularly for us preachers: we seek to enable our listeners to have sermonic encounters with Scripture—a weekly journey of moving towards Christlikeness, in the power of the Spirit.

I was puzzled, though, with Billings’s statements like this one: “The path itself is Jesus Christ: it is in and through Jesus Christ that we interpret all of Scripture” (10). No doubt, Jesus is the way, but how hermeneutics operates “in and through Jesus Christ” needed more explication. Is it simply a stratagem that forces the interpreter to see Jesus Christ in every text, or at least preach him in every sermon? Because, as Billings asserts, the New Testament authors interpret the Old Testament in the light of Jesus Christ, “[i]n a sense, the whole of the Old Testament becomes a book of prophecy to New Testament writers”(19). Such an understanding renders the entire scheme of biblical history as merely “promise-fulfillment.” To me, at least, that is an inadequate hermeneutic. A more nuanced take would be one that Billings himself refers to, but only tangentially: “I am suggesting that what is central is that we find salvation in Jesus Christ, and that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to walk the transforming road of life in Christ” (24). Exactly! All of Scripture points to Jesus Christ—i.e., it portrays what Christlikeness is. And in the fulfillment of the demands of God in practical sanctification, one approaches that Christlikeness.

How is the interpreter to think of the Bible as God’s revelatory instrument? While general hermeneutics deals with the interpretation of any text, special hermeneutics deals with the interpretation of this text, the Bible, for it is not just any other text. “Apart from a special hermeneutic that sees the biblical canon as God’s word fulfilled in Christ, there is no reason to think that the collection of writings in the Bible are truly one book—a book with diversity, but also unity, in its witness to God in Christ” (32–33). Such a consideration of special hermeneutics does not, however, preclude the employment of general hermeneutics in the interpretation of Scripture, for “God does not speak his word through Scripture in a way that bypasses human creatures, but in a way that works in and through them, In other words, on one level the Bible is a human-produced book like other human-produced books” (33). Therefore, Billings exhorts Christians to encounter the text by “understanding” and “explanation” (44), by which I suppose he means that the reader is to privilege the text in the interpretive endeavor. Privileging the text is key, for the peril in following the critical methodology of general hermeneutics is that one might “fixate on behind-the-text issues such as the date of the text’s origin and the circumstances that gave rise to it, as well as issues and problems related to manuscripts, redaction history, the original audience, and so forth” (59; italics added). One might add that a related danger is the exclusive focus upon the events behind the text. All of this makes the text merely a window through which one looks; instead the text is a picture at which one gazes. “In the course of these explorations [behind the text], they lose the subject matter of the text itself” (59–60). Indeed! But what exactly this “subject matter” is, or how one apprehends it from a given pericope is not detailed, outside of the repeated (and less than clear) exhortation that the interpreter be motivated by “a conviction that all scriptural interpretation is done on the path of Jesus Christ and leads to conformity to Christ by the Spirit” (62).

Billings warns us that often Scripture is read as a series of messages from God “about how to succeed, how to make good decisions, how to have a happy future, and so forth. The error of this approach is not that it sees the Christian faith as having practical outcomes; that is true of a living faith. The problem is that it sees Scripture’s witness to God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as incidental to these outcomes rather than central to how we are changed and who we are called to be. This pragmatic form of Christianity … fails to recognize that all true Christian transformation takes place through the power of God, in Jesus Christ, enable by the Holy Spirit” (87). Guilty as charged—we preachers stand corrected! Instead, Billings promotes a “Trinitarian theology of revelation,” “one in which the knowledge of God arises from the initiative of the Spirit, who opens our eyes through Scripture to Jesus Christ, the Word of the Father” (102–103). Sadly, details are scant and methods lacking; I’d have appreciated some guidelines for undertaking this “Trinitarian hermeneutic” each Sunday in my preaching.

The author is all for a return to “premodern” biblical interpretation: “a ‘spiritual’ reading of Scripture—reading an Old Testament text in light of Jesus Christ” (153). Thus, for Billings, premodern exegesis is ultimately about a Christological reading. “The history of God’s historical action narrated in the Old Testament takes on meaning that would have been inaccessible to the human writers.  What was thought to be history apart from Christ is shown to be what it really is, a ‘shadow’ waiting fulfillment in Christ” (157). Billings, here, cites Luke 24:44–45. Thus what he seems to be proposing is that the redemptive trajectory of Scripture be imposed on the canon. Nothing wrong with doing that to obtain a big picture of God’s work across time, and across the breadth of the canon. The problem is when descends to the level of the pericope employed in the weekly sermon to God’s people—those who are already saved, and who are seeking to advance in the journey of sanctification. How does one make applicable each pericope of Scripture applicable to these children of God week after week? What does one do with those biblical texts not directly related to the Heilsgeschichte? Do we need to turn to Jesus Christ and his atoning work every week, from every text? Billings seems to think so: “there is a sense in which the whole Old Testament—including its varied genres of law, poetry, and historical narrative—becomes a book of prophecy about Christ. … the entirety of the Old Testament comes to be applied to the person of Christ” (165). I disagree that every text is prophetic about Christ. Forcing those texts to be talking about Christ, rather than about how to be Christlike, is to virtually negate the specificity of those texts, in favor of broad theological generalities.

All that being said, I heartily assent to Billings’ observation that “[f]or premodern exegetes, discerning the meaning of difficult texts requires more than a good lexicon and a ‘Bible-background’ commentary. It requires a life of prayer and worship before a holy and mysterious God” (182), for “approaching Scripture with prayerful meditation is not so much an exegetical method as a disposition appropriate to Scripture because Scripture is the instrument of God’s communicative fellowship” (216). May there be more of that premodern ilk today!

One gets the feeling in all of this that preaching, for Billings, is merely a rehearsal of history: “Preaching is not the proclamation of a human effort to find God but the proclamation of the revelatory history that we access through Scripture. Preaching proclaims the great drama of creation, fall, and redemption” (218). Thus he is solidly against preaching on solitary texts. “Preaching on atomized, individualized texts does not necessarily lead the hearers to focus on the gospel of Christ and the Spirit’s transforming work. In a word, such an approach does not make disciples. … Preaching on atomized texts rather than the canon is not preaching the gospel of Christ” (218–219). If “atomized” means preaching pericope by pericope, I could not disagree more. The alternative, preaching the entire canon every week, yields the same sermon each time. Instead, the specificity of individual texts must be respected, rather than using each pericope as springboard to dive into the vast pool of the canon.

Overall, The Word of God for the People of God is a masterful work, worthy of a slow digest, for those interested in hermeneutics and especially for those involved in the communication of the biblical text for life change. It will make you think!

Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54 (2011): 211–214

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