Saturday, May 04, 2013

Book Review: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Robert H. Stein

A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible comes to this reviewer as a recommendation by a friend and member of his Sunday School class. There was no expectation of a review, but the opportunity could not be passed considering the focus of the book: hermeneutics. Theology is an important aspect of the apologist's endeavor. The apologist defends what is true- what scripture teaches about the world. However, the apologist needs to make sure that they understand what scripture actually does teach about reality; otherwise, they may be wasting time defending something that is false. When something false is believed and defended, it can be easy to defeat and made the object of ridicule among skeptics. Correctly understanding what scripture teaches about reality requires that the reader understand how to interpret what is written in scripture. Dr. Robert Stein offers a basic overview of proper ways to interpret scripture that will be vital to the apologist's efforts.

Part 1: The General Rules of Interpretation

Chapter 1:  Who Makes Up The Rules? An Introduction to Hermeneutics
In the first chapter, Stein sets the foundation for his overview. He explains that with any communication, there are three parts involved: the author, the message, and the reader. He explains the different views on where meaning is found. If meaning is determined by the reader, then any message (the biblical text, in our case) can mean anything- thus meaning nothing objectively. The text itself cannot convey meaning since mere symbols are inanimate objects incapable of intentionally communicating to the reader. Stein argues that only the author of the text determines what it means.

Stein examines arguments against his position- including the fact that the reader is incapable of entering into the mind of the author to fully understand his(her) thoughts and emotions. Stein points out that it is not the goal of the reader necessarily to experience the precise emotions of the author or even understand every minute detail of thought, but to understand what the author is consciously intending to communicate.

He then looks at the unique roles of each the author, text, and reader in properly interpreting the text. The author is the original communicator that the reader must attempt to understand via the text. Stein explains that it is important to distinguish between the specific meaning and the general meaning of the text. The specific meaning often takes the form of an example, while the general meaning is the pattern the example demonstrates. The pattern of meaning does not change, but it has multiple ways to be applied based on reader. What the author intends to communicate has both objective meaning and subjective significance.

Chapter 2: Defining The Rules: A Vocabulary for Interpretation
To help the beginner, in the second chapter Stein defines several different terms related to hermeneutics: meaning, implications, significance, subject matter, understanding, interpretation, mental acts, norms of language, norms of utterance, literary genre, and context. By clearly explaining the meaning of these and giving examples, Stein prepares the reader to not only understand the rest of the book more clearly, but to be able to get more out of personal or group Bible studies. Stein provides much more detail than what can be given here, but very quickly (and generally):

  • Meaning: The general idea that the author intends to convey to the reader
  • Implications: Specific examples that the author may not have had in mind when communicating the general idea, but do logically follow
  • Significance: How the meaning applies to specific people
  • Subject Matter: Anything that the text is talking "about" (be it incidental or intentional)
  • Understanding: This takes place when the reader mentally comprehends the general idea the author intends to convey
  • Interpretation: The communication of understanding from one person to another
  • Mental Acts: The precise mental state of the author at the time of writing- not required to be known to discover the author's general idea
  • Norms of Language: Culturally accepted range of meanings of words within the language the author is using to communicate 
  • Norms of Utterance: The single correct meaning of a word within the norm of language that the author intended
  • Context: The overall general idea of the text surrounding the text the reader is attempting to understand
Chapter 3: Can Anyone Play This Game? The Spirit and Biblical Interpretation
In the third chapter Stein examines the role of the Holy Spirit in interpreting scripture. He explains that there is nothing special about discovering the meaning of an author of scripture. The unbeliever can discern what the author intended to communicate just as well as a Christian can. He proposes both a philosophical and scriptural argument for this position. However, he does not leave out the Holy Spirit- the role of the Holy Spirit is in recognizing the significance and implications in our lives of what the authors communicated. It is not the role of the Holy Spirit to help understand the meaning, but it IS the role of the Holy Spirit to see that what is meant applies to our lives and compels us to act upon it. Stein concludes the chapter by emphasizing that we should not "use" the Holy Spirit's "guidance" as an excuse to not consult those who've studied scripture and do understand its meaning, but it is imperative that we seek the Holy Spirit's guidance in the recognition of how the meaning applies to us.

Chapter 4: Different Games in the Same Book: Different Forms of Scripture
In Chapter 4 Stein introduces the reader to the concept of "genre". He makes the distinction between informative and emotive language and explains that the different books of the Bible were written using styles and norms of language that fit these styles. He uses a personal example to show how interpreting a passage with the misunderstanding of the incorrect genre can limit our understanding of the text, if we don't completely misunderstand it. He also cautions that there is not an exclusivity to these. Poetry can contain historical narrative, while historical narrative can contain poetry. This chapter sets the stage for the second part of the book where the rules of the different genres will be discussed.

Part 2: The Specific Rules for the Individual Games

Chapter 5: The Game of Wisdom- Proverbs
Stein begins his examination of the different genres of biblical literature with a short look at proverbs. He lists several proverbs that are commonly quoted and known, then makes note that they do have exceptions. He informs the reader that proverbs cannot be taken as rules that cannot be broken, rather they must be read in the context of being a general truth that is the result of general observation by the author. The author is saying that what they are writing is correct in the majority of cases in their observations of the world. If exceptions are noted, the author would point out that that is expected; their statements were not meant to be without exception.

Chapter 6: The Game of Prediction- Prophecy
In the sixth chapter prophecy is the focus. Stein points out at the beginning that prophecy does not always refer to predictions of future events, as is the common belief today. Rather the majority of the biblical prophetic literature speaks of judgment. Referring to the passages of judgment, Stein recognizes that there are some predictions that do not come true because of the repentance of the people the prophecy is speaking to. He, however, refers to Jeremiah 18:7-8 as the important context that all judgment passages must be interpreted through, when determining if they indeed took place. The passage states that all proclaimed judgments are "if...then" statements. So, if a nation does repent, then God will not bring judgment, thus the prophecy of judgment is fulfilled even when the nation repents.

Stein also looks at predictive prophecy. He notes the figurative, symbolic, and exaggerative language that is often used. He points out predictions of Pentacost that never took place, if they are interpreted to be like rolling video of the future event. However, if the prediction is interpreted as being figurative, there is no such failing of the prediction. He also refers to conflicting predictions of the time after Christ's return to show that a photographic interpretation cannot be what the author intended. Stein emphasizes that it is important that the interpreter understand prophetic literature as the hearers/readers would interpret such prophecy; otherwise, contradictions arise.

Chapter 7: The Game of Rhythm- Poetry
Regarding the genre of poetry, Stein explains the characteristics, the rules, and how to identify poetry. He points out that an author writing poetry is often appealing to the readers' emotions. Literal and objective language tends to be dry and appeal mainly to the mind, so the author uses figurative language in order to paint a vivid and emotional picture for the readers. He explains that since poetry contains so much figurative language, the reader must be careful to not necessarily interpret the words in a literal sense. This does not compromise the truth of the text because it is precisely how the author meant it to be understood. Of course, the reader must be able to identify poetry. This is where Stein discusses rhyme and rhythm. He shows that if these can be identified, then it is safe to conclude that the passage is poetry and interpret the passage through that lens.

Chapter 8: The Game of Jargon—Idioms
Idioms are a feature of all languages. Simply put, they are words (or phrases) that mean something other than what is found in normal language. A modern day example given by Stein is "bad". Often used to actually mean "good". The reader of scripture needs to be aware that idioms existed in biblical languages and must be able to identify them; otherwise, they can be interpreted to mean what the author did not intend them to mean.

Chapter 9: The Game of Exaggeration—Hyperbole
One of the often unrecognized characteristics of the biblical authors' writing is the use of hyperbole. As with idioms, every language has it, and people use it quite often. Stein points out that the authors of scripture used it quite a bit, and not recognizing such usage can yield incorrect, if not ridiculous, interpretations of the text. Stein lists and describes ten ways to identify hyperbole and provides several examples of each in scripture. He also uses hyperbole in his writing of the chapter, which emphasizes his point even further (it is unclear if this was intentional or not because he does not announce it beforehand or bring it to the reader's attention afterward).

Chapter 10: The Game of Comparison—Parables
Many parables exist in scripture. They are told in order to draw a comparison- often one that the audience is not expecting. Stein explains that it is important to recognize that parables have one primary point- this will prevent the temptation to allegorize every detail. Using several of Jesus' parables he shows why it is imperative that the reader recognize what the speaker's intention was in telling the parable. He also points out that even though Jesus told the stories, the writers of the gospels interpreted them- in some cases they applied the parables to a different audience, but still followed the principle described earlier in the book of "meaning". Stein also makes clear that the writers of the gospels were divinely inspired, so their drawing of implications was also inspired.

Chapter 11: The Game of Stories: Biblical Narrative
The genre of biblical narrative is used to record historical events. Stein begins by explaining attempts to naturalistically reconcile historical narratives that include miracles and why these attempts ultimately fail. He reminds the reader that one must look for what the author intended to communicate, and that the author intended to communicate historical events when they used this genre. Stein examines several principles for interpreting what the author intended in these passages. He covers context, the author's comments and commentary, repetitive material and phrases, whom the author tended to quote most often, and the distinction by the author between summaries of conversations and actual quotes. Stein concludes the chapter by explaining to the reader that the meaning cannot be changed, whether the events are historical or not, but if they are not historical, then they have no significance whatsoever.

Chapter 12: The Game of Correspondence—Epistles
Biblical epistles are a unique genre that tend to include more developed and nuanced statements in Scripture. Because of this, it is important that the reader understands the specifics of grammar and specific word meanings in order to understand what the author is attempting to communicate. Stein takes this time to look at some of the attributes of biblical Greek that makes it unique from English. He details several of the most commonly found causal relationships between phrases in the Epistles to help the reader understand properly. He also explains the importance of using texts by the same author to help understand the meanings of words. He points out that finding the root meaning of a word is rarely useful, due to the fact that language is dynamic and the author is who determines the meaning of a word in the sentence, not the words origins.

Chapter 13: The Game of Treaties, Laws, and Songs
The final chapter deals with covenants, The Law, and Psalms. Regarding covenants, Stein describes ancient suzerianty treaties and shows how the covenants that God made follow the same outline. He explains how understanding the ancient format helps us interpret the covenants properly. The covenants include stipulations that those under the covenant agree to keep. These laws also follow a unique format that was common in the ancient world. Stein touches a bit on the distinction between cultural and ethical laws, and emphasizes that the specific laws given often refer to a general meaning but have implications beyond what is specifically mentioned. In the section on the Psalms, Stein outlines several different types of psalms and explains how the ability to recognize them accurately helps us to understand what the psalmist wished to communicate.

Reviewer's Thoughts
A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible is a great introduction to scriptural hermeneutics. Without using too much technical language, Stein is able to present important information to the reader. He makes using the book for study more accessible by including a glossary, an index, and a list of scriptural references. Stein also encourages group discussion of his book by including a series of review and thought-provoking questions at the end of each chapter. has recently made available a series of lectures by Stein that follows his book.

Any Christian will benefit from reading this book; however, the apologist will get an extra benefit of being able to ensure that they are defending what scripture actually teaches. For those already quite familiar with interpretive methods, this book can serve as a good recommendation for those who are new to proper hermeneutics and may merely be curious, but don't want to get overwhelmed. This particular copy was lent to this reviewer, but his own copy will be purchased as this is one that needs to be on the shelf for future reference and lending out to other friends.


bbrown said...

Wonderful review. Thanks so much for these, they are invaluable.

May I suggest a book: Lesslie Newbigin's "Foolishness to the Greeks", on the apologetic and missionary endeavor to the modern "world" or culture. I'm reading it now and I think you would enjoy it as much as I am. It's by a profound thinker, theologian, and missionary.

Forest, Virginia

MaryLou said...

I concur, Bill, on both your points -- this is an excellent review and Foolishness to the Greeks is a terrific read.

I recommend the following books as well:

Introduction to Biblical Interpretation by William Klein, Craig Blomberg and Robert Hubbard, Jr.

New Testament Exegesis by Gordon Fee

How To Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart.

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