Review: Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views

Stanley Porter and Beth M. Stovell (eds), Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views. Spectrum Multiview Books. IVP Academic, 2012.   224 pp.

 IVP Academic | Amazon

9780830839636I’m generally cautious about reading a “five views” book since I worry that too often the views are pitted against one another when they could actually peacefully coexist (maybe that’s also because I usually just want everyone to get along). However, this book accomplishes its aim quite nicely, describing the complex landscape of hermeneutics for the interested reader. While it has its weaknesses (see below), this book would function well in a classroom setting and spark plenty of conversation.

The five contributors and views are:

  1. Craig Blomberg: The Historical-Critical/Grammatical View
  2. F. Scott Spencer: The Literary/Postmodern View
  3. Merold Westphal: The Philosophical/Theological View
  4. Richard B. Gaffin Jr.: The Redemptive-Historical View
  5. Robert W. Wall: The Canonical View

The book is broken up into two parts: in Part One each contributor presents their position and Part Two offers their responses. Porter and Stovell bookend the two parts with an Introduction and Conclusion to help set the context for the essays and try to synthesize the multitude of views. These are also helpful contributions and students needing bibliographical help will appreciate the large footnotes.

Each author is given a set of guiding questions and issues, many of which have to do with the issues of meaning, readers, authors, theology and hermeneutics, and hermeneutics in relation to other disciplines. Furthermore, each author was asked to give an interpretation of Matt 2:7–15). Although this helps give some continuity to the book, each author, as one might expect, manages to go their own way and focus on what they deem most important.

To be honest, none of the essays offered anything new (to be fair, that wasn’t their goal) and so I won’t spend time rehearsing the details here. Instead, I should note that most of the essays read more like articulations of exegetical methods (and various forms of exegesis of Matt 2:7–15) than true hermeneutics. Therefore, I agree with Blomberg’s comment that “given [the original distinction in German philosophy between hermeneutics and exegesis], Westphal is the only contributor to this book to write exclusively on hermeneutics. The other four of us, in fact, make some hermeneutical comments but focus primarily on varying exegetical tools” (137–38).

The responses by Blomberg and Spencer were somewhat helpful but end up doing a lot of summarizing or merely agreeing with one another. Westphal, Gaffin, and Wall, on the other hand, ask a number of critical questions, point out weaknesses, and defend their views. All three of their response essays gave much food for thought.

One of my ongoing frustrations was with Blomberg’s essay where he notes that “without a foundation in history and grammar, philosophical/theological methods too easily twist meanings of texts to fit desired or preexisting syntheses or to address issues for which these texts were never designed” (41). I understand the point, and hear it often, but it misses the mark. There is a diversity of historical and grammatical views that, depending on the reader’s decision, determine their interpretation and thus are just as liable to “twist meanings of texts.” In fact, I find it just as easy for a historical-grammatical critic to have “preexisting syntheses.” These may not be theological systems, but historical reconstructions and various forms of background studies face similar dangers. Moreover, they act as predetermined frameworks by which the scholar approaches the text of Scripture. This is similar to Spencer’s concern that “historical Gospel critics base much of their work on reconstructed hypothetical documents and tradition units theorized from final texts” (49). I don’t’ think this excludes historical methods, but I’m not sure they can be solely foundational. I’m also curious how Blomberg would respond/react to Silva’s statement: “proper exegesis should be informed by theological reflection. To put it in the most shocking way possible: my theological system should tell me how to exegete” (“The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics,” 261).

My last concern with this volume is theological: why is no one discussing the Holy Spirit? This is, after all, a work on biblical hermeneutics. Regardless of how each author would parse it out, was not the Holy Spirit involved in the formation of the text(s)? Aside from doing the actual interpretation, is not the Holy Spirit necessary in order to illumine our hearts and minds as we construct hermeneutical theories? To be fair, Westphal adds that biblical interpretation “will be a matter of good listening, and that is more a matter of various virtues (openness, honesty, humility, fairness, etc.) than of method. The Word will have to be illumined by the Spirit, whom Jesus sent to be our teacher; and the Spirit is not a method” (163). Sadly, he, nor any of the other authors, develops this point any further.

This is one of the better books in terms of setting the stage for a broad understanding of biblical hermeneutics. The essays are clear, insightful, and paint a helpful picture for those less familiar with the changing and complex landscape of hermeneutics. Nevertheless, the danger with these kinds of books is that they will encourage readers to ignore the primary literature. This book is by no means comprehensive and therefore is best coupled with supplementary reading by additional works. One such work, for example, might be Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text? which had a surprising absence throughout the entirety of the book.

Many thanks to IVP Academic for a review copy.

About Jordan P. Barrett

PhD, Systematic Theology, Wheaton College
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