Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible

40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible (40 Questions & Answers Series)40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert Plummer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m always a sucker for a new book introducing the Bible. So much hinges on how we approach and interpret it. This book is an excellent starting point for someone with lots of questions about the Bible. Plummer answers foundational questions such as “What is the Bible” and “How is the Bible organized?” to more advanced ones, like “Can a text have more than one meaning?” If you have a question about the Bible, chances are you’ll find an answer here.

The book has been written such that the reader can start with any chapter, an approach entailing some repetition for the reader ripping straight through (p.11).

Early questions deal with who determined what books to include in the Bible, and what is the best English translation. On canonization, Plummer writes:

“For Protestant Christians, the canon is not an authorized collection of writings…rather, the canon is a collection of authoritative writings…Canonization is the process of recognizing that inherent authority, not bestowing it from an outside source” (p.57).

In the chapter on translations, the author explains how all translations fall somewhere along a spectrum delineated by functional equivalence on one end, and formal equivalence on the other. Functional equivalent translations are most suitable for reading large portions, while formal equivalent are superior for detailed study. But reading from multiple translations is best (pp.71-2)!

What are some general principles for interpreting the Bible? Well, one of them is to read the Bible as a book that points to Jesus:

“If we study or teach any part of the Bible without reference to Jesus the Savior, we are not faithful interpreters” (p.97).

It is also vital to pay attention to context:

“One of the most painful exhibits of such hermeneutical failure [not respecting the context] is a preacher who bullies and blusters about the authority and inerrancy of Scripture while practically denying its authority through his sloppy preaching” (p.104).

Another important general principle he lays out for interpreting the Bible is to read it in community (pp.105-6).

Want to become a better interpreter? Then “read and listen to faithful preaching and teaching” (p.110). Quoting Spurgeon

“Some, under the pretense of being taught of the Spirit of God refuse to be instructed by books or by living men. This is no honouring of the Spirit of God; it is a disrespect to him, for if he gives to some of his servants more light than to others--and it is clear he does--then they are bound to give that light to others, and to use it for the good of the church. But if the other part of the church refuse to receive that light, to what end did the Spirit of God give it? This would imply that there is a mistake somewhere in the economy of gifts and graces, which is managed by the Holy Spirit” (p.111).

Warns against the two common dangers of word studies: the illegitimate totality transfer and the etymological fallacy (pp.119-20). No one ought to make public comment about what a Greek word “really” means until understanding these two dangers.

A highlight of the book is when Plummer goes back in time and interviews Isaiah on Isaiah 7.14, discovering that Isaiah is totally OK with Matthew’s citation of him in Matthew 1.23 (pp.137-40)!

In interpreting historical narratives, it is very important to remember that not every detail is normative. Plummer once heard some audio messages on parenting in which the speaker exhorted parents to place their babies in cribs because, after all, didn’t Mary put Jesus in a manger (Luke 2.7)?! Says Plummer: “The key interpretive question of course is: why does Luke tell us that Jesus was placed in a manger? Was it to teach us how to put our children to bed, or was it to emphasize the Savior’s humble origins?” (p.193).

The book includes a helpful discussion of various figures of speech employed in the Bible (metaphor, simile, merism, hendiadys, synecdoche, metonymy, personification, anthropomorphism, litotes, and idioms) (pp.227-32).

The above is just a sampling. Apart from a few minor quibbles (on page 80 Plummer equates “word of truth” in 2 Timothy 2.15 with the Scriptures, when really it is the gospel message), I heartily recommend this book to those with questions on the Bible. And hopefully that’s everyone!

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