How to Read the Bible for All Its worth.

Jeff Kennedy


INTRODUCTION Fee, Gordon D., and Stuart, Douglas. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003. At the outset of his ministry, Jesus made it clear that the hallmark of true discipleship was the commitment to put his teachings into practice (Mathew 7:15-27). Application of his teaching was the distinguishing feature between those who were considered “wise” and those who were considered “foolish.” Since it is impossible to apply what one fails to understand, the commitment to apprehend the meaning of scripture is the disciple’s highest priority. In it’s third edition, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth offers the serious student of scripture a roadmap to accurately understanding the plain meaning of the biblical text. Authors Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart offer a scholarly but accessible approach to the craft of interpretation. The book delineates two essential approaches to interpretation: general rules that apply to all biblical books, and specific rules that are particular to a given genre. SUMMARY AND ANALYSIS The first part of the book presents the dilemma for the modern interpreter. The plain meaning of scripture is often obscured by all that the interpreter imports to the text, and by the nature of scripture itself (Fee, 14). Fee and Stuart assert that because God’s word to us first comes as his word to “them” we must not bypass the step of discovering the historical peculiarities of the biblical text (Fee, 17). Therefore, one must begin with a commitment to the methodological constraints of exegesis. Exegesis is the attempt to draw out the intended meaning from the text. The authors commend the student to thinking exegetically as second nature. The key to doing this, according to Fee and Stuart, is to engage the text methodically and skillfully, paying close attention to the

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


historical, literary and immediate contexts. This can be done with a few simple tools, and by developing a few simple reading habits. The second task, according to the authors, is to move from exegesis to hermeneutics. In this book, hermeneutics specifically refers to the current relevance of the ancient text and its meaning (Fee, 25). Therefore, the goal is to translate the intended meaning of scripture to our contemporary lives. In stating this, Fee and Stuart stress again that the meaning of scripture and its bearing on our modern life cannot be arrived at by the interpreter without the controlling factor of the author’s original intent (Fee, 24). However, this definition of hermeneutics seems to be too restrictive and narrow. It is preferable to view hermeneutics as the overarching framework in which all the disciplines and interpretive approaches should fit. The book commends the student to picking up a reliable translation, and specifically advocates the NIV, the NRSV (with caution) and possibly the GNB. There is a brief explanation of the differences between literal translations such as the NASB and the KJV, and the dynamically equivalent translations of the NIV and NRSV (Fee, 28-30). Additionally, chapter two gives the student a basic primer in textual criticism designed to explain the importance of reading the textual notes in the footnotes of modern translations. After first addressing the need to interpret along with the foundational discipline of exegesis, as well as the essential tools involved in the task, the authors turn their attention to a discussion of genre. Chapter three begins with the New Testament epistles. Fee asserts that, in spite of the epistles’ apparent ease of interpretation, the epistles are embedded with many cultural phenomena that can present difficulty for the average interpreter. The answer to this difficulty in interpretation is a contextual approach. The first priority is to take into consideration the historical context. Reading carefully through the text will typically help the

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


interpreter to recover the original situation, the recipients, and the purpose of the letter. Fee and Stuart recommend beginning with a reliable Bible dictionary or reference work that will give the student much information about the original situation. After establishing the original context, the authors recommend reading the entire document while making observations of the text. After these initial observations, the student is to outline the epistle. Fee and Stuart then walk the reader through a passage from 1 Corinthians and Philippians, using the method of historical and literary context. They advocate that the student should learn to think in paragraphs (Fee, 54). Lastly, the authors note the difficult passages such as Paul’s words the to the Thessalonian believers that they should recall all that he taught them while he was with them (59-60). The difficulty here lies in the fact that we do not have access to Paul’s teaching when he was with them, and he assumes they already understand the issue in question. This is where the interpreter must come to the text with great humility and must refrain from being dogmatic. Chapter four explores the hermeneutical problems that the interpreter faces. Fee raises the question about whether it is appropriate to practice extended application of a text granted that there is contextual parallel and a specific parallel to our modern situation. His answer is emphatically – no! If we amplify our application of the text to many situations beyond the direct parallel, he argues, then why bother with exegesis at all (Fee, 66-67)? He then addresses the issue of contexts and situations that have no parallel in our modern culture such as the relative silence of women and the worship of objects as gods. The authors suggest that in these cases, the interpreter should start with solid exegesis of the passage so that the principle may be transferred to its modern day cultural equivalent (Fee, 68). Fee and Stuart then give guidelines for situations that are culturally relative, and how to distinguish between something that is culturally relative and instruction that is binding for all

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


generations and cultures. For example, it is crucial to distinguish between the timeless “sin lists” of Paul which apply to all cultures in all times, with those peripheral issues that only affect a culture, and are not morally binding e.g. the role of women in ministry. Next, the interpreter must take note of those places where the New Testament presents a unified and consistent witness (Fee, 72). Lastly, the interpreter must be content with the relative silence from scripture on matters of theology. Since the epistles are all occasional in nature, their theology is what Fee and Stuart refer to as “task theology” (76-77). The implication for the modern interpreter is that we must be content with the limits of such task theology. In my view, there are no flaws in the reasoning and logic of this chapter. Chapter five addresses the genre of historical narrative. Contrary to pure history or myths that are meant to be taken allegorically, Fee and Stuart insist that the stories in the Old Testament are divine narratives in which God himself is the hero in the story (Fee, 81). Because these narratives present God as the hero, Fee and Stuart assert that they do not always teach us an immediate lesson about ourselves (Fee, 82). Instead, many of the Old Testament narratives function simply as connecting links that illustrate lessons that are taught elsewhere in scripture (Fee, 82). Fee and Stuart claim that the danger in approaching biblical narratives is to approach them as if each individual unit can yield specific points of application for our modern lives. In other words, the narrative’s greatest point is found as the reader zooms all the way out and takes in the full breadth of the story being told. The authors provide us with several keys or guidelines for understanding narratives. It is critical, they assert, that we not confuse what the Bible records for what it approves. Or that we not press the narratives for theology the way we might Paul’s epistles, or the laws. In essence, most narratives teach implicitly a lesson that can be found elsewhere. Although some stories

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


teach explicitly about God, their primary purpose is not to communicate the gamut of theological truth about a given subject, but instead refer to specific issues that the story touches (Fee, 84). Fee and Stuart then proceed to walk the interpreter through the stories of Joseph and Ruth (briefly). They caution the reader against making the common mistake of wringing a specific moral or lesson(s) from the narrative. Fee and Stuart’s argument seems to be that we should be careful about what scripture intends for us to take as normative behavior, or a typical experience for the modern believer and reader (Fee, 85). They end the section with some additional cautions about the abuse of narratives such as allegorizing, decontextualizing, selectively citing, falsely combining, and redefining texts. Though the point is well argued, one wonders if the reader should not draw out general principles from narratives that demonstrate how God interacts with people. Though it is true that one should not press the narratives for a moral that it doesn’t intend to convey, it seems clear that God has a certain pattern of interaction. Though the details of each event may vary, general principles of how God interacts with his people can be very beneficial. As well, it seems that the mistakes and victories of each biblical character should also to be taken into account. Chapter six addresses the question of the book of Acts and historical precedent. The authors suggest that what has plagued the restoration movement’s interpretation of Acts has been whether the narratives are descriptive or prescriptive. Fee and Stuart suggest that the reader learn to distinguish between what happened and what must happen (Fee, 106). Their general principle is that unless the Bible explicitly prescribes belief or behavior, then the interpreter must refrain from making that narrative a normative pattern for church life and doctrine. One is to pay attention to the details in the narrative that are incidental and inconsistent. These details serve to accentuate the main point, and should not be forced to yield meaning where there is none.

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


The point is well taken that a text describing how first century Christians behaved does not necessarily prescribe that behavior. However, it is also true, that if that practice is beneficial to a modern church or group, the scripture is not explicitly forbidding that practice either. This issue does not seem to be addressed in the chapter. Chapter seven touches on the genre of Gospel. The Gospels tell one story with an apparent patchwork of genres contained within them, and therefore qualify as a unique literary category altogether (Fee, 114-115). Several peculiar oddities surface as one compares the Gospels to each other. Fee and Stuart suggest that the reader is not to be put off by their apparent lack of exactness with regards to chronology and the specific wording of the same narrative found in each (Fee, 114). Fee and Stuart commend the interpreter to return to the basics of exegesis, which is to establish the historical context above all. They begin with the general historical context and move to the specific context of Jesus’ world. The authors caution against viewing the moral imperatives as cultural and viewing them as law. They are neither (Fee, 130). Additionally, the narratives do not primarily teach a moral lesson. Those lessons are secondary to their purpose. Instead, the narratives, particularly the signs and miracles, teach us about the power and importance of the Kingdom (Fee, 130). Fee and Stuart impress upon the interpreter the need to grasp Jesus’ Kingdom message. Understanding the overarching Kingdom idea will keep the reader from arbitrarily assigning meaning to the passages (Fee, 131-134). Again the same criticism for historical narrative can be adapted for the Gospels. Even though the individual narratives should not be forced to yield doctrinal content, we should examine them to understand how Jesus interacted with disciples, Pharisees, Roman soldiers, Samaritans, and women etc.

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


Fee and Stuart devote an entire chapter to parables and their use. Jesus used a variety of similitudes, metaphors and short stories (true parables) to illustrate his truth (Fee, 137). The authors assert that the parables only have one major point, and are designed for reader response (Fee, 136; 138-139). Parables are very much like jokes. To over-examine a parable and wring too much out of it causes one to miss the punch line. Interpreting a joke will of course ruin the joke. Similarly, one should not explain parables. Instead, the reader should become familiar with the referents to which the first century audience would have been so familiar. The details are there to give the final twist, or the pithy ending of the parable its “punch” (Fee, 139). Additionally, parables are not allegories (Fee, 140). In an allegory, every specific detail has independent meaning all its own. The entire story serves as a vehicle to convey those particular meanings that are encoded in the details of the story. However, a parable functions much the opposite way. The many details are mere scenery so that the speaker may lead the listener to the turn around, or the twist which is surprising and illicits response. In my view, Fee and Stuart have done the body of Christ a great service in establishing these guidelines, and helping the modern interpreter to understand this specific rhetorical device, and the differences between analogous material, true parable, and “kingdom” parables (Fee, 144-146). Chapter nine addresses the role of the law for New Covenant people. The authors offer six guidelines that will help the reader of scripture to understand the role of the law. First, the interpreter should understand that the Old Testament law is a covenant, or a contract in which God as the suzerain unilaterally establishes benefits for covenant observance and the consequences of noncompliance (Fee, 150-151). Secondly, the Old Testament is not our Testament. It is critical for the New Covenant person to understand that Israel’s Testament is theirs not ours. Thirdly, some stipulations have not been renewed in the New Covenant. Fourth,

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


part of the Old is renewed in the new. Particularly many of the timeless ethical demands that are rooted in God’s character. Fifth, all the Old Covenant is still the word of God for us, even though it is not the word of God to us. Sixth, only that which is explicitly renewed in the New Testament from the Old will be considered applicable for us (Fee, 150-154). Beyond this, Fee and Stuart explore the role of the law. It is incorrect to assert that possession of the law was a badge of membership for Old Covenant people. Instead, it was God who saved them, not their law. Fee and Stuart mention two kinds of laws, apodictic (general laws) and casuistic (case by case) laws (Fee, 154-158). All of these laws serve as the kind of standards that we should expect from God as his New Covenant people (Fee, 158). Chapter ten unpacks the purpose and nature of prophetic literature. The first caution that the authors address is the tendency to view the prophets as mere predictors of the future. The authors remind us that only 1 percent of all Old Testament prophecy deals with future events, 2 percent relate to the Messiah, and only 5 percent refer to the New Covenant at all (Fee, 166). Instead of seeing the prophets as prognosticators of the future only, we should view them as God’s spokesman, covenantal mediators who most often speak back into the Torah to remind Israel of their roots and restorative promises (Fee, 165-172). Fee and Stuart assert that without some external helps (commentaries and a Bible dictionary) the student will find it nearly impossible to understand the prophetic oracles (Fee, 172-176). The individual oracles are a collection of oral prophecies and are difficult to read without a knowledge of the historical background. Additionally, one must understand the various rhetorical devices in which the prophets engage. The prophet can use lawsuit, promise, and poetry. The hermeneutical key to understanding their message to us, according to Fee and Stuart, is to draw out the principle where possible (Fee, 181).

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


The authors go on to give the reader a caution about collapsing “temporal” predictions into future ones. In certain cases e.g. passages in Ezekiel, the prophecy was fulfilled within decades of its utterance. However, there may be passages that speak of the future New Covenant (Ez. 37), but we must be careful not to amplify temporal passages with a future application (Fee, 181-183). In the same way, the interpreter should not look for second meanings (sensus plenior) in all prophetic passages. When New Testament writers see fuller meanings in Old Testament passages, it is because they are being given a prerogative that we do not have. Seeing the Old Testament passage as analogous to our New Testament experience was an inspired perspective that does not continue in perpetuity for all believers (Fee, 183-186). Though the authors caution the interpreter to refrain from this approach altogether, I do not think that using the text illustratively is a problem as long as the interpreter is not asserting that the analogy they have drawn is the one interpretation of the text. Indeed, the fact that the biblical writers use the Old Testament this way can not invalidate the use of allegory altogether. Chapter eleven sheds light on the Psalms and their usage. Fee and Stuart instruct the reader to refrain from over-exegeting the psalm. Instead, the psalms are messages about God primarily in poetic form. The various prosaic truths understood from the psalms are communicated poetically, and are not intended to teach doctrinal content. The “vocabulary” of poetic literature is intentionally metaphorical, and should not be literalized (Fee, 190). As literature, there are various types of psalms that the Israelites were aware of that the modern reader may not understand. Bridging this “type” barrier for the modern reader is therefore critical (Fee, 191). Each of these types of psalms serve a particular function, have a specific form, and demonstrate various patterns. The psalms should always be taken as a literary unit. The authors suggest that the modern reader learn to become familiar with several of these

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


types: laments, thanksgiving psalms, hymns of praise, salvation history psalms, celebration and affirmation psalms, wisdom psalms, psalms of trust, and imprecatory, or negative psalms. The Psalms serve as a prayer book, helping us to worship God, to express our feelings and thoughts, and to meditate on God’s ways (Fee, 204-205). Psalms are to be used in

devotional commitment to and reflection upon God, not as guarantees of future blessing (Fee, 205). Chapter twelve introduces us to wisdom literature. Wisdom literature is often misunderstood because the reader doesn’t understand the nature of ancient sources of wisdom as well as the role wisdom played in ancient cultures. It is the wise application of knowledge. Ancient cultures often employed wise teachers known as “wise men” (i.e. the satrapi of Babylon). These men were instrumental in composing and collecting wise sayings (Fee, 210212). Similarly, the biblical order of wise men emerged at the same time as the monarchy and instructed Israel regarding the wise application of its laws to daily affairs. Job presents historical wisdom (narrative wisdom), Proverbs presents poetic wisdom, and Ecclesiastes communicates cynical wisdom. Fee and Stuart provide the modern reader with various cautions against the abuse of ancient wisdom literature such as pressing proverbs for promises, or transposing a particular narrative to modern life (Fee, 225-230). Fee and Stuart end the book with some specifics on how to approach apocalyptic literature, particularly the book of Revelation. The problem with the book of Revelation is that it uses unfamiliar symbols, it speaks of the future, it is set in history, and it presents an apocalyptic vision of God’s coming kingdom (Fee, 231). The authors strongly caution the interpreter to approach the book with a degree of humility and to become as familiar with the historical background as possible.

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


There are several distinguishing features of apocalyptic literature. First, the “taproot” of apocalyptic is Old Testament prophetic literature (Fee, 232-234). Second, apocalyptic is a literary work from stem to stern. They are not intended to be spoken and collected (as oracles were), but are intended to be written and read. Third, the material of apocalyptic is presented in highly charged visions, cryptic dreams and symbolic activity. Fourth, the imagery of apocalyptic is most often that of fantasy imagery rather than that of reality. Fifth, because it is primarily literary, the “sets” of images do not necessarily follow each other, or communicate a sequential reality. Though Revelation is apocalyptic literature, it is also prophetic. This distinguishes it from Jewish apocalyptic in that it intends to present a message from God to the recipient (and the reader), instead of being just an allegorical re-telling of a particular historical event. Therefore, God has a message to the churches of that time, and his temporal message to these churches has application for ensuing generations of believers (Fee, 233-235). Lastly, the Revelation is also an epistle. It has both an epilogue and salutation, which distinguishes it from typical apocalyptic literature. The significance here is that like Paul’s letters, the Revelation is “occasional.” That is, a particular circumstance has prompted the need for the vision and the letter. In this case, the church is facing corrosion from within, and persecution from without. Fee and Stuart suggest the following guidelines for interpreting this genre: first, the reader should appreciate the rich background of the various symbols. John pulls from the Old Testament as well as mythical and extra-biblical apocalyptical imagery. Second, one must distinguish between constant images and specific ones. Third, John’s own interpretations of the

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


images must be the starting point for any subsequent interpretation. Fourth, one must see the visionary content as a whole and refrain from pressing the details for meaning (Fee, 236-238). Lastly, Fee and Stuart draw attention to the clear distinction within the text between tribulation and wrath. To view these two critical themes as interchangeable will leave the modern reader in a state of hopeless confusion (Fee, 239). Additionally, the modern reader must learn to distinguish between the various genres contained within Revelation. In my view, though the book clearly deals with future events, it would be a violation of the literature to ignore the literal churches and the literal threats they faced in the first century or early second century. To immediately extrapolate to a future perfected church during a “tribulation” would be to ignore the original recipients and the implication of the prophetic message to them. One may be able to get there, but you have to get there from the past, not in blatant disregarding of it. CONCLUSION How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is one of the most critical books for our postmodern era of interpretation. The “worth” of scripture, according to author’s Fee and Stuart, is found in the biblical author’s original intention to his original audience. Its message to us must be first be found in his message to them. Fee and Stuart rightly suggest that there is a right way and a wrong way to interpret scripture. The right way is to be thoroughly acquainted with the general rules that apply to all forms of literature, and the specific rules that apply to various genres. This book offers many practical insights to help the serious student to understand the contents of scripture. These insights will assist the modern interpreter to extract as much as possible as they learn to “take up and read” the biblical text as it was intended.

How to Read the Bible for All Its worth. Jeff Kennedy


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