Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Review: How To Read the Bible For All Its Worth



Introduction

Originally published in 1981 and now in its third edition, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All its Worth asserts that the Bible is meant to be read by everyone and not simply scholars, seminarians, and professional clergy. Rather, the Bible is accessible to scholar and layperson alike who would seek to spend time in the Scriptures and comprehend their meaning. This readable book focuses on understanding the genre a particular part of Scripture is part of as the basis of understanding the intended meaning. The book addresses everything from the need to interpret and good Bible translations to the historicity of the Book of Acts and the multiple views of the Gospels and even the Book of Revelation. As an appendix, a very useful evaluation and use of commentaries is included.

Dr. Fee is the author of many books and is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.[1] Fee, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, comes from a Pentecostal background. Fee is a strong supporter of gender equality in biblical translation and serves on the Board of Reference of Christians for Biblical Equality.[2] Dr. Stuart is currently Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he has served since 1971. Dr. Stuart attended Yale Divinity School before graduating with the Ph.D. from Harvard University.[3] Stuart is also one of two pastors of serving Linebrook Church in Ipswich, MA handling most of the preaching duties.[4] The two men served on the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary together until Fee’s departure for Regent College in 1986.

Summary

Fee and Stuart begin simply enough by describing the need for biblical interpretation stating that the aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness. Rather, good interpretation should get at the plain meaning of the text.[5] Of course, there is more to this than simply reading the words contained in Scripture. The nature of scripture and the reader as an interpreter both serve to complicate what Fee and Stuart acknowledge should be simple. To consider interpretation simple they state is both naïve and unrealistic.[6] The importance of understanding how the Scriptures were understood by those who originally heard them cannot be overstated. Closely related to this is the literary context of Scripture. The authors rightly state that the starting point of interpretation is exegesis followed by hermeneutics going so far as to state that hermeneutics must be controlled by proper exegesis.[7]

Fee and Stuart follow their opening chapter with a lengthy discussion of the importance of a good translation of the Bible from the best available manuscripts. On full display is their enthusiastic endorsement of the use of dynamic equivalence in biblical translation over formal equivalence. The authors firmly state that in situations where something is unclear in the receptor language from the original language, clarity in the receptor language should take priority as this is precisely the point of translating in the first place.[8] Fee and Stuart do state that more than one translation should be used for Bible study and acknowledge value in both formal equivalence and free translations such as The Message in assisting in the basic understanding of Scripture. Having made a sort of affirmative statement concerning other biblical translation methods, the vast majority of the twenty pages in this chapter are seemingly intended to make a strong case for dynamic equivalence in general and for the use of the New International Version (NIV), Today’s New International Version (TNIV), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) specifically.

To emphasize the importance of understanding Scripture in context, Fee and Stuart go on to spend most of the book discussing the various literary genres such as the epistles, narratives, poetry, history, prophesy, and even apocalyptic. The emphasis on genre serves the authors and their readers well. For example, to simply read a Pauline epistle without understanding that the letter is conditioned by the first century setting in which it was written can lead the reader to either assume there is nothing relevant to the modern day Christian therein or something much worse, an incorrect understanding of the meaning of many of those passages.[9]

Narratives are stories that retell historical events and are meant to provide meaning to people in the present.[10] The authors point out that in the case of biblical narratives, rather than telling a general story, these portions of the Bible are telling God’s story becoming ours as God “writes: us into it. Fee and Stuart are clear in stating that narratives are not to be confused with allegory. Narrative is often told in a way in which the teller of the story and those hearing it share the same presuppositions. Thus the details the narrator may have taken for granted in telling the story are precisely the details interpreters should seek to discover. The job of the interpreter is to read out of the narrative rather than read into it.[11]

In the case of biblical poetry, Fee and Stuart remind their readers that Hebrew poetry is intentionally emotive and warn against finding special meaning where none was intended by the authors.[12] The writers of Hebrew poetry also were intentional in their use of metaphors in their writing. As such, it is important to make this distinction and not take the meaning of those metaphors literally. With prophetic writings, Fee and Stuart point out that from the viewpoint of the ancient Israelites, the prophets were pointing to events yet to come but for the modern reader those events have already come to pass.[13]

Critique

Dr. Fee’s service as the editor of the New International Commentary series and on the NIV review committee is on full display in How to Read the Bible for All its Worth.[14] Considering his work in these areas, there is little surprise in his strong support of dynamic equivalence and the Bible translations that result from this method of translation. While endorsing the TNIV, NIV, and NRSV specifically, Fee and Stuart state that the use of a good formal equivalence translation as a second source for study is useful to give the reader confidence as to what the original Hebrew and Greek looked like. This seems to contradict the assertion concerning the superiority of dynamic equivalence. If Fee and Stuart truly find formal equivalence translations useful, their support should be more evident than a passing sentence or two. This also begs the question: why would someone employing a dynamic equivalence translation such as those preferred by the authors need to be reassured as to what the original Hebrew and Greek looked like?

The authors’ discussion of the Apostle Paul’s use of Old Testament passages metaphorically in 1 Corinthians 10:4 revealing a second meaning of Exodus 17:1-7 and Numbers 20:1-13 labors to stop short of bemoaning Paul’s use of passages in a way other than the plain meaning they find abundantly clear in the original contexts.[15] It is as if Fee and Stuart are forced to concede that the Holy Spirit may use Scripture in any manner which He might see fit disregarding the rules of men.

While acknowledging, albeit begrudgingly, the existence of this sensus plenior, Fee and Stuart then go to great lengths to explain that while the Holy Spirit may use Scripture in this manner, it is inappropriate for men to do the same. It would seem interpreting the Old Testament with the New Testament in mind is something Fee and Stuart are quite uncomfortable with. It would also seem that Fee and Stuart would prefer to use textual criticism to explain away part of the biblical text with which they find fault yet are unable to do so.

Conclusion

Fee and Stuart are certainly well qualified to present a guide to biblical interpretation. Now in its third edition, How to Read the Bible for All its Worth is beneficial to the readers who seek to deepen their understanding of biblical hermeneutics. The approach taken by Fee and Stuart is both thorough and comprehensive; so much so that this is not a book for one new to biblical hermeneutics. Fee and Stuart seemingly approach their work with the assumption that the reader has had some experience with biblical interpretation. Given the audience that may acquire such a book, this is not surprising and should in no way be a negative reflection upon the authors.

How to Read the Bible for All its Worth is profitable for study by men and women of all denominational and theological backgrounds. That said caveat emptor! The reader should understand the theological leanings of the authors before determining whether or not to use their book. Dr. Fee and Dr. Stuart approach their work from a more liberal point of view than certainly this seminarian is accustomed to. Still, understanding differing approaches to hermeneutics is a good thing both for the student and cause for Christ.


[1] Fee, Gordon D. Gordon Fee. 2011. http://www.gordonfeeonline.com (accessed November 11, 2011).

[2] Christians for Biblical Equality International. CBE International Leadership. 2011. http://www.cbeinternational.org/?q=content/leadership#board-of-reference (accessed November 10, 2011).

[3] Faculty, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary -. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. 2011. http://www.gordonconwell.edu/academics/view-faculty-member.cfm?faculty_id=15891&grp_id=8946 (accessed November 9, 2011).

[4] Church, Linebrook. Linebrook Church About. 2011. http://www.linebrook.org/about/ (accessed November 12, 2011).

[5] Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981, 1993, 2003), 18.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 29-31.

[8] Ibid, 42.

[9] Ibid, 80-81.

[10] Ibid, 90.

[11] Ibid, 99-100.

[12] Ibid, 207.

[13] Ibid, 199.

[14] Fee, Gordon D. Gordon Fee. 2011. http://www.gordonfeeonline.com (accessed November 11, 2011).

[15] Fee & Stuart, 201-204.

1 comment:

Robert Hagedorn said...

Saint Augustine couldn't do it. But can you explain what kind of fruit Adam and Eve ate in the story? After thousands of years it's time to think, read, and give the real explanation based only on the facts in the story. No guesses, opinions, or beliefs. We've already had way too many of these. Treat the whole thing as a challenge. You can do it! Or can you? But first, do a quick Internet search: First Scandal.