Monday, February 22, 2010

Summary for “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth”

Chapter by Chapter Summary for “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth”

Summary for Chapter 1

Introduction: The Need to Interpret

To interpret is to get at the “plain meaning of the text” through enlightened common sense. But interpretation is not equal to simple reading, since it requires understanding of both the nature of interpreter and the nature of the Scripture.

A reader is an interpreter at the same time. One can easily read into the text the preconceived notion about particular words, phrases, and sentences. This is called eisegesis. But the real task of an interpreter is to exegete, bringing out the original authorial intent of the text.

The Scripture is the Word of God given in human words in history. This dual nature of both divine inspiration and human context makes the interpretation both challenging and necessary. The Bible as the Word of God has eternal relevance that demands our attention and obedience. The Bible written in human words in history has historical particularity that must be discerned. Thus, the Bible was written in many literature genres to which both general and genre-specific rules should be carefully applied. Also, the Bible was written to the people of biblical times whose vast separation from us both in temporal, cultural and historical settings creates the necessity to interpret correctly.

The task of interpretation comes at two levels: (1) exegetical analysis of the original intent of the biblical text as spoken then and there and (2) hermeneutical application of the text speaking to us here and now (note Fee and Stuart’s narrower and restricted use of hermeneutics in the book). Exegesis must be done while reading EVERY text by asking questions relating to both the context (historical and literary) and content, with help from good sources and tools.

Summary for Chapter 2

The Basic Tool: A Good Translation

All translations involve exegesis and are thus a product of the exegetical choices made by the translator. No translation can be perfect. Several good English translations should always be consulted to reveal consistency or nuances and difficulties with a particular verse.

Text is the first hurdle faced by translators. Is the Hebrew or Greek text early and closest to the original manuscript? KJV/NKJV translations are based on medieval, corrupted manuscripts and thus tend to be less reliable than other translations such as NRSV/NIV/TNIV based on much earlier manuscripts discovered later. Textual criticism is a science, an imperfect one that compares and contrasts manuscripts based on both external and internal evidences. External evidence concerns the quality and age of the manuscripts while internal evidence relates to the copyists and authors.

Using language that keeps or bridges the historical gap between then/there and now/here represents the next hurdle. To translate more literally (structural or formal equivalence) or less so (functional or dynamic equivalence) are two basic schools of translation theory. Literal translations include KJV/NKJV, NASB, and NASU. The latter translations (such as RSV/NRSV, ESV, NIV/TNIV, NAB, NJB, GNB, REB) still keep historical distance on all historical and factual matters but use modern expressions for matters of language, grammar and style. An extreme form of non-literal translation is free translation using paraphrase, such as NEB, LB and The Message. Fee and Stuart recommend TNIV/NIV, GNB/NAB, NRSV/NASU, and REB/NJB.

A few problem areas in Bible translations are identified and illustrated, including weights, measures and money, euphemisms, vocabulary, wordplays, grammar and syntax, matters of gender.

Summary for Chapter 3

The Epistles: Learning to Think Contextually

Epistles are not homogeneous in that not all conform to the six-part pattern: writer, recipient, greeting, prayer wish or thanksgiving, body of text, final greeting and farewell. Nevertheless, they are all occasional documents arising from and intended for a specific occasion during the first century. The occasional nature of epistles makes it difficult for us to second guess the questions and issues in the first century from the answers provided. This is like epistolary Jeopardy! It helps to bear in mind that epistles are not expounding systematic theology, but rather task theology for the occasional situations.

The first order of duty in exegeting epistles is to form a tentative but informed reconstruction of the historical situation that the epistle is addressing. Using 1 Corinthians as an example, Fee and Stuart suggest consulting Bible dictionary or commentary introduction to find out as much as possible about Corinth and its people. Then it helps to get the overall impression by reading and rereading through the whole book in one sitting. Jot down any notes or questions while reading. Draft a working outline for the book after reading. Reread section by section using at least two translations. List everything that tells something about the recipients and their problems. List separately key words and repeated phrases pertaining to the answer.

The next step is studying the literary context. Reread the section paragraph by paragraph and summarize each paragraph in a sentence or two about what and why. In the end, check if the exegesis is self-contained and self-sufficient, all deriving from the section in question. In handling problem passages, Fee and Stuart suggest four guidelines: (1) Historical situation may not be privy to us, so do not be dogmatic about any uncertainty; (2) Distinguish what is certain and what is not about a text; (3) Get the clear point despite some uncertainties; (4) Consult a good commentary.

Summary for Chapter 4

The Epistles: The Hermeneutical Questions

What do these texts mean to us today? We all do hermeneutics implicitly or explicitly, in ways influenced by our upbringing and theological commitment. We should avoid “getting around” certain texts that run contrary to our prior convictions.

Fee and Stuart set two ground rules for epistolary hermeneutics. Rule #1: A text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or original readers. Rule #2: Whenever we share comparable particulars (i.e., similar specific life situations) with the first-century hearers, God’s Word to us is the same as his Word to them.

Four problem areas are identified that warrant our careful attention. (1) The problem of extended application: Can we legitimately extend the principle of a particular text? Yes, if that is the intent of the text. (2) The problem of particulars that are not comparable: Is a clear principle articulated that transcends the historical particularity? If yes, apply it not randomly, but to genuinely comparable situations despite incomparable particularity. (3) The problem of cultural relativity: Distinguish the central core of the message from what is dependent on or peripheral to it, distinguish what is moral and what is not, distinguish what is uniformly taught and what is variant, distinguish principle and its specific application, distinguish many-option options from one-option option, distinguish first and 21st century differences, and display Christian charity toward differences. (4) The problem of task theology: Be content with the limited understanding and avoid speculations, and do not try to find answer from a text not addressing a question of later time.

Summary for Chapter 5

The Old Testament Narratives: Their Proper Use

“Narratives are stories—purposeful stories retelling the historical events of the past that are intended to give meaning and direction for a given people in the present.” All narratives have three elements: characters, plot, and plot resolution. There are three levels to a narrative. The highest level is metanarrative (God’s grand scheme or universal plan). The second level is the story of God’s redeeming a people for his name, as embodied in the Old and New Testament. The lowest level is the numerous, individual narratives that make up the other two levels. OT narratives are not allegories or stories filled with hidden messages. They seldom teach moral lessons. They teach indirect and implicit lesson that is direct and explicit in Scripture.

Hebrew narratives have several characteristics. First, the narrator is comparably “omniscient” and responsible for the perspective from which the story is told. Second, Hebrew narratives are “scenic”, like moving clips of movie scenes. Third, characters in the scenes often appear in contrast or in parallel, with words and deeds. Fourth, dialogue is crucial to unlock the story plot and the character of the speaker. Pay attention to contrastive and repetitive dialogues. Fifth, notice the slowed pace in an otherwise fast moving plot. Sixth, to a hearing culture, narrative is often structured to enhance hearing by devices such as repetition and inclusion (e.g., chiasm and foreshadowing).

To figure out what is taught implicitly in the narrative, one should read between the lines. Implicit is not secret, it is embedded in the story without openly stated.

Several pitfalls are to be avoided: allegorizing, decontextualizing, selectivity, moralizing, personalizing, misappropriation, false appropriation, false combination, redefining.

Summary for Chapter 6

Acts: The Question of Historical Precedent

Acts is a book of history for the apostolic age. Fee and Stuart offer guidelines for finding out what and why in Acts. First, read the whole book in one sitting. Make note of observations and ask questions. Notice the natural divisions, based on ministries of Peter (chs.1-12) and Paul (chs.13-28) or on geographical expansion of the gospel: Jerusalem (chs.1-7), Samaria and Judea (chs.8-10), to the ends of the earth (chs.11-28). Alternatively, take hint from Luke’s brief summary statements in 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:4; and 19:20.

Luke’s chief purpose in Acts was not so much in the biography of apostolic personalities or normative modeling in church organization, ministry and polity as the Holy Spirit-directed, radiant mission movement from Jew/Jerusalem-centeredness to gentile/worldwide phenomenon.

Does the apostolic church precedent become the absolute norm for the future church to follow? According to Fee and Stuart, the precedent in Acts does not serve as normative models, due to the incidental nature to the main point of the narrative and the ambiguity of details from narrative to narrative. One commonly held assumption is this: “Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative (i.e. obligatory) way—unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.” One must discern what is primary and secondary in doctrinal statements about Christian theology, Christian ethics, and Christian experience or practice. The latter is most often derived by way of precedent, not by direct teaching. For example, to baptize is primary, how and when to do it is secondary. What is merely recorded may be a repeatable pattern but is not the same thing as what is advocated or mandated, unless it is so intended.

Summary for Chapter 7

The Gospels: One Story, Many Dimensions

The difficulties with the gospels arise from the fact that Jesus did not write his own gospel and there are four canonical gospels that are not carbon copies to each other, but function as hermeneutical models to the first century churches. The gospels record some of Jesus’ doings and some of his sayings. They are biographical but not biography.

Fee and Stuart recommend some good outside readings that help to understand the historical context of Jesus in general. The specific context, however, is much harder to come by, due to the scanty description of such context in the gospels. The evangelists were apparently free to put various blocks (pericopes) of sayings of Jesus into whatever contexts in the gospels. Another, somewhat different, historical context relates the evangelists. What prompted each evangelist to write the respective gospel can be indirectly informed by the way he selected, shaped, and arranged his materials.

To exegete individual pericopes in their literary context, one must think horizontally and vertically. To think horizontally for a pericope means to study the parallels in the other gospels. To think vertically means to be aware of the historical contexts of both Jesus and the evangelist. How the evangelists selected, arranged and adapted Jesus’ life ministries helps to explain many of the discrepancies in the gospels. Fee and Stuart affirm that such selective and adaptive telling of the Jesus story is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Hermeneutical guidelines for epistles and historical narratives should be applied for the gospels. Also, “One dares not think he or she can properly interpret the gospels without a clear understanding of the concept of the kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus.” This means eschatological thinking for the already but not yet nature of the kingdom of God.

Summary for Chapter 8

The Parables: Did You Get the Point?

Parables are a mixed bag, including true parables (a story having a beginning and end with a plot), similitudes, metaphors, similes, and sayings that may sound similar to allegories, although parables are not allegories. The story parables are intended to throw a punch to, or call forth a response on the part of, the first hearer who readily understands the points of the reference in the parable as in a joke. Our hermeneutical task is to recapture the punch of the parables in our times and settings.

The requisite keys to understanding the point of a parable (the punch line or intended response) are the points of reference—those parts of the story with which the original listener identifies. A helpful resource on the cultural background of the biblical times should be consulted to get the fine points of reference. For contextless parables, it is important to repeatedly reread the parable until its points of reference and original audience become clear. The kingdom parables all have an emphasis on one or both aspects of “already and not yet”.

To our modern day audience, we need to translate the same point of the parable into our own context. This may mean retelling the story in a parallel way that we identify with the new points of the references and feel the same feelings of the original listeners. In addition, just as Jesus used parables as vehicles to proclaim the kingdom, we need to immerse ourselves in the meaning of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus and proclaim with urgency the impending judgment and salvation.

Summary for Chapter 9

The Law(s): Covenant Stipulations for Israel

The law(s) have various connotations, including (1) the specific laws (600+ of them), (2) collectively the laws, (3) the Pentateuch or the Books of the Law (almost all in four of the five books), (4) OT religious system, and (5) OT law as interpreted by the rabbis. The focus of the chapter is on uses 1 and 2. In addition to the Law, Pentateuch also contains narrative materials. The most difficult with the law(s) is the hermeneutical relevance to us today.

While Christians are no longer under the OT law, we should understand our relationship with it. Fee and Stuart give six guidelines: (1) The OT law is a covenant that brings blessings or curses. (2) The OT is not our testament. (3) Two kinds of old-covenant stipulations, Israelite civil laws and ritual laws, have clearly not been renewed in the new covenant. (4) Part of the old covenant (such as some aspects of the OT ethical laws) is renewed in the new covenant (e.g., the two chief laws of loving God and loving your neighbor). (5) All of the OT law is still the Word of God for us even though it is not still the command of God to us. (6) Only that which is explicitly renewed from OT law can be considered part of the NT “law of Christ”.

Apodictic laws (general, unqualified dos and don’ts) in OT are paradigmatic, examples rather than exhaustive. They are very comprehensive in spirit and are impossible to keep on our own. Casuistic (case-by-case) laws, the bulk of 600+ OT laws, are only applicable to some people in some situations, not to everyone in all situations. None of them are explicitly renewed in NT. Regarding slaves laws (Deut.15:12-17), God’s provision was gentle, loving and protective for the slaves while restrictive to slave owners. The food laws have protective purposes. The laws about the shedding of blood set a high standard for justice and due process for sacrificial atonement for Israel, foreshadowing the substitutionary sacrifice by Christ.

Summary for Chapter 10

The Prophets: Enforcing the Covenant in Israel

Prophecy is not all messianic or about future yet to come; it is mostly about the immediate future (i.e., our past) of Israel, Judah and other nations around them. Prophets are primarily not predictors of future but speakers for God to their own contemporaries. Longer prophetic books contain collections of spoken oracles often without chronological order or historical context. The historical distance makes it difficult for us to understand the prophets.

It is important to understand the function of prophecy in Israel. (1) The prophets were covenant enforcement mediators. (2) The prophets’ message was not their own, but God’s. (3) The prophets were God’s direct representatives. (4) The prophets’ message is unoriginal, but new wording—in each prophet’s own style and words—of the original Mosaic message from God.

Outside resources are helpful for our exegetical task. They include Bible dictionaries, commentaries, Bible handbooks, and “How to Read the Bible Book by Book” by Fee and Stuart. The tumultuous three centuries from Amos (ca.760BC) to Malachi (ca. 460BC) form the larger context for covenant enforcement mediation by prophets. The specific context of a prophetic oracle should be understood next, including the date, audience and situation. It is recommended to think oracles in isolation, just like one should think paragraphs in the Epistles. Also pay attention to the forms of the prophetic utterance, such as the lawsuit, the woe, the promise, the enactment prophecy, and messenger speech.

Two hermeneutical suggestions: (1) A caution: the prophet as foreteller of the future (usually our past). (2) A concern: prophecy and second or fuller meanings (sensus plenior) in NT different from in OT. Sensus plenior is a function of inspiration, not illumination.

Summary for Chapter 11

The Psalms: Israel’s Prayer and Ours

Psalms are prayerful words spoken about God or to God. They are rich in human emotions, be they joy or sorrow, gladness or anguish, hope or despair, praise or curse.

Psalms are poems—musical poems. Hebrew poetry has three distinguishing features: synonymous parallelism (the first line is repeated or reinforced by another line), antithetical parallelism (the first line is contrasted by another line), and synthetic parallelism (the first line is supplemented or completed by another line).

Fee and Stuart point out three additional features with Psalms as poetry. First, “Hebrew poetry, by its very nature, was addressed to the mind through the heart (i.e., much of the language is intentionally emotive)”. Thus, Psalms use more colorful language than a prose or narrative. It is prudent not to “overexegete” in thinking that synonymous parallelism says more than originally intended. Second, “The psalms themselves are musical poems”. Thus they are primarily not cognitive and doctrinal, but to appeal to our emotions and to evoke strong feelings. Third, “The vocabulary of poetry is purposefully metaphorical”. The key to correct interpretation is to look for the intent of the metaphor, not the literal meaning of a metaphor. For words not meant for a metaphor, however, correct and often literal exegesis is in order.

Psalms are also a form of literature. Fee and Stuart provide five cautionary notes. (1) Psalms are of several types. (2) Each psalm is also characterized by its formal structure. (3) Each type of psalm was intended to have a given function in the life of Israel. (4) There are also various patterns within the psalms. (5) Each psalm has its own integrity as a literary unit. This is to caution against taking any verse out of its context in a particular psalm.

Summary for Chapter 12

Wisdom: Then and Now

Wisdom is the ability to make godly choice in life. It has nothing to do with IQ. There are proverbial wisdom (Proverbs), experience-based speculative wisdom (Ecclesiastes and Job), lyric wisdom (Song of Songs) and psalm wisdom (Psalms). Wisdom is often expressed in poetry. Understanding wisdom literature takes wisdom to avoid abuses and misuses. Common misuses: reading these books in bits and pieces; misunderstand wisdom terms and categories as well as styles and literary modes; fail to follow the line of argument (especially in Job).

Proverbial wisdom emphasizes practical attitudes and behavior in everyday life. It is a brief, particular expression of a truth. It is inexact statements pointing to the truth in figurative ways. It may not be universally applicable. Fee and Stuart offer hermeneutical guidelines: (1) Proverbs are not legal guarantees from God but poetic guideline for good behavior. (2) Proverbs must be read as a collection. (3) Proverbs are worded to be memorable, not to be theoretically accurate. (4) Some proverbs need to be translated to be appreciated.

The Book of Job contrasts the worldly wisdom (from Job’s friends) with God’s wisdom. On the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, Fee and Stuart part hands in their understanding. One takes Ecclesiastes to be an expression of cynical wisdom, a kind of foil regarding an outlook on life that should be avoided. Ecc.12:13-14 is the final, corrective, orthodox warning. The other views the book more positively, as an expression of how one should enjoy life. The lyric wisdom in Song of Songs is not allegorical, but centers on human love between a man and a woman. When understanding Song of Songs, one should appreciate the overall ethical context, be aware of the genre, read it as suggesting godly choice rather than merely describing these choices, and notice the different values from those of our modern time.

Summary for Chapter 13

The Revelation: Images of Judgment and Hope

Revelation is a unique, finely blended combination of three literary genres: apocalypse, prophecy, and letter. As apocalypse, Revelation finds its taproot in OT prophetic literature, especially in Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and parts of Isaiah. Yet, apocalypses are a form of literature in its own style. It is often presented in visions and dreams with cryptic and symbolic language. The images are often fantasy instead of reality. As prophecy, it is a word from God for the present situation of the seven churches under persecution. As letter, it has an occasional aspect.

To exegete Revelation, one is to seek the authorial intent. Do not overuse the concept of the “analogy of Scripture” in the exegesis of the Revelation; instead, find intrinsic clues to the book or its original recipients. With regard to images, images borrowed from OT or other sources may not have the same meaning. Images may be of various kinds, with fixed or shifting meaning. Intrinsic interpretation by John must be strictly adhered to. One should see the visions as a whole and not allegorize all the details. Pay attention to the echoes from OT. Downplay the chronological account of the future.

As before, historical and literary contexts are keys to understanding Revelation. The historical context is clear: The church was being persecuted by the state. The main themes are: tribulations will continue to be endured by the church; the wrath of God will be exacted on those that persecute the church. As for literary context, per Fee and Stuart, Chapters 1-3 set the stage and introduce the key characters, John, Christ, the church. Chapters 4-5 further help to set the stage. Chapters 6-7 begin the unfolding of the drama. Chapter 8-11 reveal the content of God’s temporal judgments on Rome. Chapter 12 is the theological key to the book. Chapters 13-14 describe the vengeance from Roman Empire, followed by their doom in Chapters 15-16. Chapters 17-22 conclude with a tale of two cities.

Some hermeneutical suggestions: (1) Pictures of the future are just that—pictures. Do not expect a literal fulfillment in every detail. (2) Certainty of God’s judgment does not mean “soon-ness”. (3) Temporal judgment is not simultaneous with eschatological, despite closeness to each other to the original readers. (4) Allow some ambiguity. (5) There are eschatological pictures yet to be fulfilled in our future (e.g., 11:15-19; 19:1-22:21).


Erich said...

As a long-term missionary to Taiwan setting up a church class on basic Hermeneutics, I found your summary of Fee's book extremely helpful. Many thanks!

Dana Perkins said...

Thanks so much for this summary. I just taught a class on How to Read the Bible - and this summary is quite helpful in reviewing what we talked about.

st jeff the prophet said...

limits understanding of the scriptures to narrow confines of human understanding. where is Open thou my eyes so I may behold wonderful things from thy word. Corinthinas says only the Spirit of God can interpret the words spoken by the Spirit. this is dry bones with no flesh

About Me

Ph.D Biochemist, Itinerant Evangelist