Friday, August 13, 2010

40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible, Book Review

Title40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible
Author: Robert Plummer
Publisher: Kregel, 2010
Price: $17.99 (amzn)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 347

Answering questions might be one of the primary tasks of a teacher. Robert L. Plummer sets out to ask and answer forty of them in 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible. Plummer is a New Testament professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and in this volume he has rendered his course on Biblical Hermeneutics into a series of “frequently asked questions.” Plummer aims for his work to “serve as a textbook for an introductory Bible course,” but wants it also to be “beneficial for any curious Christian.” Consequently, he attempts to be “accessible without being simplistic” and “scholarly without being pedantic” (11).

Choosing the Q&A format makes the structure of the text readily accessible but also weakens the narrative flow of the book. The questions and answers are self-contained and not necessarily meant to be read in order or even in light of each other. To compensate for this disjunction, Plummer fashions the macrostructure of the “parts” and “sections” of the book in a way that eases the reader into the discussion.

Part one addresses preliminary questions on “text, canon, and translation” (chapters 1-7). Part two examines “approaching the Bible generally,” with sections of questions related to interpretation (chapters 8-13) and questions related to meaning (chapters 14-20). Part three talks about “approaching specific texts” and deals with genres that are equally distributed in both Testaments (chapters 21-27), genres that primarily occur in the Old Testament (chapters 28-31), and those that occur primarily in the New Testament (chapters 32-35). Part four ends the volume with a survey of hermeneutical issues in recent scholarly discussions.

There is a movement here from very basic questions (e.g., “What is the Bible?”) to more advanced matters (e.g., “What is Speech-Act theory?”). Thus, in addition to using the book as a reference tool, beginning students would benefit from moving through these larger sections sequentially.

The content of most chapters is in the form of wide-angle lens overviews. Some of the chapters are brief arguments for Plummer’s position, like in chapter four where he quickly answers the question of whether the Bible contains error in the negative and lays out a positive case for biblical inerrancy. Other chapters outline the major options on an issue, and Plummer argues for the option he thinks is best. For instance, chapter fourteen answers the question, “Who determines the meaning of a text?” Plummer walks through the choices of the reader, the text, and the author (he argues for the author).

Many of the chapters basically consist of bullet-points that provide a framework for thinking about an issue or a question. For instance, in chapter ten, Plummer lists five “general principles for interpreting the Bible” (95): Approach the Bible in Prayer, Read the Bible as a book that points to Jesus, Let Scripture interpret Scripture, Meditate on the Bible, and approach the Bible in faith and obedience.

As I made my way through these chapters, I occasionally thought to myself, “Who is this book for?” One of the challenges of writing for a broad audience involves maintaining a level of consistency in the terms used and the style of writing employed. Plummer attempts to write for both lay readers and beginning students of theology, and he does both in various places. However, at times this characteristic gives the flow of the book a feeling of unevenness.

Plummer’s writing style is deliberately informal and brings clarity to a number of complicated issues. To make the discussions accessible to a broad audience, Plummer sprinkles his chapter with illustrations, made-up conversations, personal anecdotes, and simplified definitions. He also makes use of humor. For instance, when explaining the importance of examining the literary context of a passage, Plummer recounts, “I tell my students to hold onto the biblical text like a rider in a rodeo holds onto a bull. And, I also warn them that the only persons in the rodeo ring not on bulls are clowns” (105).

Alongside this informal tone, though, there are a number of places where terms or concepts are introduced without definition or explanation (e.g., lingua franca, Codex Vaticanus, and diglot, etc). Further, because of the subject matter, the content of some of the chapters is unavoidably technical (e.g., the discussion of figures of speech in chapter 27). There is also a striking range of sources cited. Whereas on one page Plummer points readers to Wikipedia, on other pages he quotes from unpublished doctoral dissertations. Though this unevenness might simply be the byproduct of writing for students in a clear and easily understood manner, there still lingers the sensation that there are essentially two different types of books lurking within these chapters.

Any introductory textbook will need to make a myriad of exegetical and interpretive decisions in its presentation. Thus, professors looking to adopt this text for their hermeneutics courses will inevitably have a few questions of their own about Plummer’s questions. To give only one example, Plummer at times seems to equate the OT with the old covenant (17, 23, 161). Many will take issue with this presentation, arguing that it is imperative to distinguish clearly that the OT is not coterminous with the Mosaic covenant. In fact, some would argue that the Pentateuch itself is not the old covenant, but rather intends to demonstrate the failure of the old covenant.

Despite the presence of these types of debatable issues (something unavoidable), Plummer’s format can be easily adjusted or modified in person by professors who see various issues in a different light. Many of the chapters would function well as the starting point for interactive classroom discussion.

One feature of Plummer’s book that will edify believing Bible readers is his consistent integration of comments regarding the spiritual components involved in the task of interpretation. Plummer writes from a confessional standpoint that seeks to take into account key theological realities. For instance, Plummer frequently emphasizes that the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors in the writing of their texts. The overarching message of these inspired texts is, in turn, all about Jesus. In other words, the Bible is “Christocentric” (15, chap 18, etc).

Interpreters should also acknowledge their own sinfulness and their inability to grasp the fullness of this message without the illumination of the Spirit (145). Accordingly, Plummer holds up the practices of reading the text and praying for God's guidance as necessary elements of a sound interpretive approach. To give one example, Plummer’s outline for reading the Psalms includes the exhortations to read, pray, memorize, and sing the Psalms. These elements will especially benefit readers attempting to foster a thoroughgoing hermeneutic of trust.

For what it is, this volume of hermeneutical catechesis achieves its purpose of providing helpful answers to a number of questions about interpreting the Bible. At its best, the book serves as a primer for those unfamiliar with the formal study of hermeneutics and as a refresher for advanced students on basic (and therefore sometimes neglected) theological concepts.

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