Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology

Written by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson Reviewed By Richard L. Pratt

In their lengthy book, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, Andreas Köstenberger and Richard Patterson have given us a wide-ranging guide to the interpretation of Scripture. The subtitle of the book, Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology, identifies the threefold model that undergirds the entire work. The terms of this triad have been used in different ways in a number of other books, including my own. So it is helpful that an introductory chapter spells out how these authors use the terms. The main body of the book divides into three parts: history as “the context of Scripture” (p. 89), literature as “the focus of Scripture” (p. 150), and theology as “the goal” (p. 689). Then a final chapter closes the book with a discussion of “application and proclamation” (p. 727). The fact that this book tackles all of these topics with the entire Bible in view makes it difficult to imagine a more ambitious, if not impossible, goal for one volume.

Contrary to what the language of the title and subtitle may suggest, this book is much more methodological and prescriptive than invitational and exploratory. This is not surprising, given that the authors define hermeneutics in the narrow traditional sense as “the methodological principles of interpretation” (p. 157n1). This book is not a heuristic look into the historical, literary, and theological dimensions of biblical interpretation. So don't expect it to break much new ground. Instead, the authors set forth principles that map a rather well-known path that they believe others ought to follow. This methodological focus makes the book a valuable introduction for inexperienced students. More experienced students and scholars, however, will quickly see its limitations. For our purposes, it will help to point out a few of these values and limitations.

The greatest value of Invitation is that the authors unabashedly state their conservative, evangelical frame of reference. For far too long, many evangelical scholars have hesitated to admit how their religious commitments influence their interpretation of Scripture. By contrast, our authors boldly affirm the inspiration and full historical reliability of Scripture and argue for the priority of Scripture over extra-biblical data in historical reconstructions (e.g., p. 117). They insist that attention to the Holy Spirit is essential and that the spiritual condition of interpreters deeply affects their understanding of Scripture (e.g., p. 64). The authors' self-awareness and boldness serve as a model for students and scholars everywhere.

Another value of the book is its attention to andragogy (learning strategies focused on adults). The stated goal is “to teach a simple method for interpreting the Bible” (p. 23). One merely needs to read the “Personal Note to Teachers, Students, and Readers” (pp. 23-30) to see the authors' devotion to this goal. Their style is at times quite personal, informal, and even anecdotal. Each lesson begins with a list of objectives and an outline. Graphics and charts appear from time to time. Each lesson ends with practical guidelines, a list of key words, study guides, assignments, and bibliographies. On a larger scale, the logical organization of the entire book is something to behold. The “Complete Outline” (pp. 31-47) indicates that much effort was given to keeping the discussion as linear as possible. The same can be said of the subheadings of each chapter. These features of the book will delight many teachers and students.

More than this, the authors are usually judicious when they address issues over which evangelicals commonly disagree. For instance, their moderation is evident in the ways they handle the account of creation (pp. 97-99), the relevance of the Mosaic law (p. 166), the interpretation of OT prophecy (pp. 346-358), Christ-centered interpretation (p. 159), and the book of Revelation (pp. 522-25). In these and other ways, the book models the kind of humility and spirit of unity that every evangelical discussion of hermeneutics should reflect.

Despite these and many other very positive features of Invitation, at least three limitations should be mentioned. First, the academic level is uneven. For instance, the authors translate some Latin expressions, but not others. They refer their readers to popular study Bibles as helpful resources (e.g., p. 94), but they apparently believe that these same readers will understand their observations on the Old Greek, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Siniaticus, and Codex Alexandrianus as they discuss the Septuagint (p. 155). These and other examples of unevenness are likely to be problematic for many students.

Second, the amount of attention given to some issues is disproportionate. Nearly twenty-two pages are devoted to a history of biblical interpretation (pp. 67-78) and primary sources (pp. 117-26). Yet neither of these sections contributes much to the book. These pages may have been better spent on other much more important issues.

For instance, the authors assert, “authorial intention is the locus of meaning” (p. 118), but they never explain what an authorial intention is. Nor do they address how their view differs from others who treat the author, the document, and the original audience as interdependent loci of meaning. These issues are far too important to be overlooked.

One of the weakest points in the book is the claim that “there are three primary themes that form the focal points of the OT: God's law, the exodus, and covenant” (p. 162). This statement is made in the context of establishing large scale, canonical perspectives that guide more detailed interpretation. Had the authors simply said that these are important themes, there would be no problem. But as it stands, the proposal is highly problematic because it falls so short of representing the systemic theological perspectives of the OT. As just one example, the themes of God's kingship and his kingdom permeate the OT and link it to the theology of the NT. Yet the authors barely mention these crucial themes (p. 188).

In much the same way, many readers will be surprised to find so little attention given to the now well-established hermeneutical significance of NT eschatology. The authors certainly understand the subject (e.g., pp. 187, 215, 343, 518). Yet they give very little attention to the ways the eschatology of Paul and other NT authors provide all-important interpretive frameworks for both Testaments. Disproportionalities like this leave enormous gaps that students will not be able to fill on their own.

On the whole then, Invitation will be very helpful for many upper-college and entering-seminary students. Most beginners, however, will have to be helped through its many details. More advanced students and scholars will wish for more discussion at every turn, but this is to be expected of a book that touches so many issues. Their greatest benefit is likely to come from evaluating the methodological dimensions of the book. In all events, we all have much to learn from the path that Köstenberger and Patterson recommend for those walking through the difficult terrain of biblical hermeneutics.

Richard L. Pratt

Richard L. Pratt
Third Millennium Ministries
Fern Park, Florida, USA

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