Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views
Stanley Porter, Beth Stovell
How should we read the Scriptures? Should we try to figure out what the author meant, assuming God is the ultimate author (and hence the human author’s words should be taken at something less than full value), she we try to understand the application of these words to our lives (without worrying so much about what they “mean”), or… ?? Is there an overarching narrative binding the Scriptures together? If so, what is that narrative? All of these questions – and more – fall within the realm of hermeneutics, or the study of the way we read and apply a text. Many of the modern theological controversies devolve to hermeneutical questions, or end up being expressed in the language of hermeneutics. Hence, hermeneutics is one of those things the average Christian should read on, and try to understand, at least.
But where to start?
There are few better places to start than with a four or five views book, such as Biblical Hermeneutics: Five Views. When dealing with an overview of this type, there are several important points to consider. Is every essay in the book understandable, or easy enough to read that the average person can “get it?” Are the topics covered fully and fairly? Is there enough focus to explain and illustrate without overwhelming? Is there a good set of “contra” essays, providing balance?
This book does a good job in each of these areas. The five views represented cover a wide spectrum of hermeneutical ground, from more literal readings to generally post-modern readings. The assignment each essay author is given is two-fold: explain the view, and then provide an example using Matthew 2:7-15. This narrowness of scope does a fairly good job of focusing each essay along a common set of themes that allow the reader to make a reasoned comparison of the different views presented. Some of the contributors do launch into esoteric or technical language, but it’s difficult to find any solid discussion of hermeneutics that doesn’t, so this is something the reader is just going to have to bear with if they want to gain any traction in this space.
If there are any weaknesses to this collection, it is in two areas. The first is the lack of real sparring. While no-one really likes to argue, sometimes a more pointed exchange can bring out a greater depth of understanding in the area being discussed. There are few pointed discussions here. The second is the deliberate choice of mostly “middle of the road” examples of each view. While this does help promote understanding by furnishing the reader with a core of ideas from which to work, it also flattens the discussion a bit, making all the views seem much more similar than they truly are.
The five views covered here are the Historical-Grammatical view by Blomberg, The Literary/Postmodern view by Spencer, the Philosophical/Theological view by Westphal, the Redemptive-Historical view by Gaffin, and the Canonical view by Wall. The three that will be of interest to most readers is the Historical-Critical, the Postmodern, and the Redemptive-Historical – these three views actually relate to Dispensational, emergent/postmodern, and Covenant theology, which are the three broad movements within the Evangelical Christian church today.
Overall, if you’re looking for a foundational book in the area of hermeneutics, to gain some understanding of what the field is all about, and what the different views are, there are few better places to start than with this collection of essays.