Thursday, November 20, 2014

INTERPRETING THE FUTURE OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION: A BOOK REVIEW

The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics. Edited by Stanley E. Porter and Matthew R. Malcolm. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 165 pp. $18.00. ISBN 978-0-8308-4041-0.

            For those who believe that the Bible is the word of God, and, therefore, that not only life in the church, but the life of the church should be regulated by the Bible, it is of the utmost importance to properly understand the Bible. It seems, then, that understanding how to properly interpret the Bible should be one of the most important questions that any believer could ask. In The Future of Biblical Interpretation, the various contributors approach the question of “responsibility” in biblical interpretation and hermeneutics from a number of different angles. The idea of the editors, Stanley Porter and Matthew Malcolm, was that the contributors would present how it was possible to maintain a moderate interpretation of scriptures within the plurality of interpretations that the scriptures allow (p. 157-158). They express, in the conclusion, their frustration that the contributors ended up defending their own individual understandings of what hermeneutics constitutes (p. 158). Though the editors noted that they did not quite get what they aimed for, the end product still provides the reader with an important understanding of the current state of biblical hermeneutics and interpretation. The articles in this book are the product of a conference that was held in honor of Anthony Thiselton’s work in hermeneutics (p. 8). In this review I will provide a brief overview of the book, and conclude with some comments on its relative worth for the contemporary reader (Due to the nature of this book – a compilation of 8 essays – I cannot allow myself to offer any detailed analysis or critique of this work.).

            The book is divided into 8 main chapters that are preceded by an Introduction and followed by some Concluding remarks, both written by the editors. The first chapter, written by Anthony Thiselton, seeks to explain what it means to provide a responsible interpretation of scriptures in light of the plurality of hermeneutics. The author draws on his own previous work in hermeneutics (which was heavily influenced by such well-known philosophers as René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, Hans-George Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur) in order to explain what type of plurality is intrinsic to hermeneutics and to offer suggestions on future avenues for research in hermeneutics. The second article, written by Stanley E. Porter, attempts to explain what it means to be theologically responsible in one’s interpretation of scripture. Of interest in this chapter is Porters belaboured distinction between hermeneutics and interpretation. The third article, written by Richard S. Briggs, seeks to explain how the plurality of hermeneutics can be reasonably applied to scriptural interpretation without forfeiting the worth of scripture. Briggs bases his theory on the distinction between understanding “scripture is” and understanding “scripture as”. The fourth article, written by Matthew R. Malcolm, seeks to situate the plurality of scriptural interpretations in the missional understanding of the church and the text which gives it that mission in each era of church history. The fifth article, written by James D. G. Dunn, argues that a responsible interpretation of the scriptures will primarily situate the text in its historical (original) context, and that any later understanding of the text will be necessarily subordinate to the primary historical understanding. The sixth article written by Robert C. Morgan, seeks to develop a notion of properly interpreting the Bible from within a critical standpoint. By and far this was the least useful of the articles in this book. The seventh article, written by Tom Greggs, seeks to redefine the notion of Sola Scriptura in order to remove the individualistic interpretation of scripture that is often associated with it and to bring it into agreement with the communal understanding of the church, and of interpretation as the activity of the church community. The final article, written by R. Walter L. Moberly, seeks to explain how biblical interpretation is dependent on the church, and, inversely, the church is dependent on biblical interpretation, and this through an examination of the relationship between the church, its canon, and its interpretation of its canon.


            Most of these authors, if not all of these authors, have been heavily influenced by the contemporary school of hermeneutics that was born from Martin Heidegger’s post-turn philosophical work, and was explicitly worked out by Hans-George Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur. For a person who thinks that Heidegger, Gadamer, and Ricoeur where pioneers of the proper way of understanding hermeneutics and biblical interpretation, this book is going to be a wonderful resource, and a delicious read. For myself, however, as a person who, though appreciative of Heidegger’s powerful intellect, is wary of the consequences of his philosophy, and, who is allergic to the results of much modern and contemporary philosophy, this book presented itself as a warning sign of a clear and present danger. In spite of its dependence on modern and contemporary philosophy, as well as its (and many individual authors) emphasis on plurality in interpretation and hermeneutics, there are many important insights that can be gleaned from this book. Though I would not recommend this book to a beginner in hermeneutics, nor to a person who has not studied the history of philosophical thought, I think that the trained philosopher and exegete will find much in this book that is worthy of deep reflection.