The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation

Written by Grant R. Osborne Reviewed By Craig L. Blomberg

Fifteen years ago, I took my first course in Biblical Hermeneutics from Grant Osborne of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In those days, he distributed over 100 pages of a single-spaced typed syllabus in outline form and spoke of some day turning it into a textbook. At last, with much more detail and additional topics fleshing out that original skeleton, Osborne has fulfilled his dream. Although only 500 pages in length, the small print (and even smaller print of the numerous, lengthy content endnotes) makes the volume equivalent to a book half again as long with normal-size print. It is truly a comprehensive introduction; the question which remains, however, is if introductory students, apart from Osborne’s own personal tutelage, will be able to make adequate sense of it.

In the introduction, hermeneutics is defined as the combination of exegesis (what the text meant) and contextualization (how it applies). The latter has both a personal and a corporate dimension, as reflected in private devotions and public preaching. The major thesis of the book is that valid hermeneutics involves a spiral from text to context, from meaning to significance. One repeatedly tests one’s pre-understandings by detailed interaction with the text, which then modifies one’s interpretation, which then is again submitted to the text (and to the bar of other opinions within. the Christian and scholarly communities), and so on. Two appendices defend the possibility of equating the meaning of a biblical text with the intention of its original author(s) and of, recovering that meaning of the text in the first place.

In between, Osborne divides the body of his work into three major parts. Part One deals with general hermeneutics—chapters on historical and literary context, grammar, semantics, syntax and historical-cultural backgrounds. Part Two turns to genre analysis, discussing, in successive sections, narrative, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, apocalyptic, parable and epistle. Part Three deals with applied hermeneutics, going beyond traditional textbook topics to consider biblical theology, systematic theology, contextualization and sermon preparation and delivery. A very ample bibliography and detailed indices conclude the volume.

Numerous helpful features and discussions appear which are not often found in works of this genre. Under general hermeneutics, one learns how to chart a book, separate it into paragaphs and diagram the paragraphs. One sees examples of mechanical layouts and arcing. Brief introductions to textual criticism are followed by tips on looking for the most relevant features of Greek and Hebrew grammar. Common semantic fallacies are identified and illustrated, as are methods for distinguishing sense and reference, semantic range, syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships and deep v. surface structure. One learns to translate with dynamic equivalence, performing back transformations, isolating kernel sentences and recombining them in forward transformations. Figures of speech are labelled and categorized (when was the last time you had epizeuxis, zeugma or aposiopesis clearly explained to you?). A balanced use of social-scientific methodology is presented, as are sources for identifying relevant cultural practices of the biblical period, including family customs, athletics and recreation, and music and art.

The section on genre analysis provides a worthwhile introduction to narrative criticism, discussing implied author and narrator, point of view, ideology and narrative world, story time, plot, characterization, the implied reader, and the like. Under poetry one learns to distinguish synonymous, step, climactic, antithetical, introverted and incomplete parallelisms. Wisdom and prophetic literature are helpfully subdivided into numerous smaller literary forms. Apocalyptic literature provides symbols which ‘are literal in that they point to future events, but not so literal that they tell us exactly how God is going to accomplish his purposes’ (p. 228). In general, the main characters or symbols of parables contain significance, enabling interpreters to chart a balanced course between no allegory and uncontrolled allegorizing. Epistles raise important issues of culturally limited v. trans-cultural principles and application.

Hermeneutics is not complete, however, unless one moves from the exegesis of individual passages to syntheses which combine these exegeses to determine the major themes of individual books, then of authors, testaments, and finally of the entire Bible. Part Three thus begins with a method for biblical theology. But this must then give way to valid syntheses for systematic theology and insightful applications for homiletics. Specific principles and strategies are enumerated for each of these tasks. For example, in assessing the supra-cultural value of a particular command of Scripture one must (1) determine the underlying theological principle which dominates the surface application; (2) look to see if the writer is depending on traditional teaching or responding to specific cultural phenomena; (3) ask if the teaching transcends the cultural biases of the author and readers; (4) ascertain if the language of the command contains indicators of a local custom or cultural institution; and (5) notice if the commands are primarily moral or theological in nature, inasmuch as these will be more closely tied to the timeless will of God.

I found this book immensely valuable reading. To be sure, the insights are often uneven in level, varying from highly technical to quite practical, and the prose can often be dense or turgid. But for scholars who want, in summary form, a one-volume introduction to just about everything going on in the world of hermeneutics today, with the necessary references to pursue topics of interest in more detail, Osborne will give them what they want. On the other hand, I found it inconceivable to imagine assigning the book as required reading to any but the most advanced of my divinity students, apart from those engaged in doctoral studies. Doubtless, others can glean valuable insights here and there, but I fear they will be so over-whelmed with the technical detail that they may despair of becoming competent interpreters (or, more likely, they may simply give up on the kind of scholarship represented here as being of any benefit for them). I would be delighted to be proved wrong, but I remain sceptical. Nevertheless, the book deserves a wide readership among scholars and would-be scholars, not least because Osborne demonstrates in exemplary fashion how evangelicals can gain command of an impressive breadth of scholarship and appropriate valid insights from a wide variety of hermeneutical traditions.

Craig L. Blomberg

Craig L. Blomberg
Denver Seminary
Denver, Colorado, USA