CRITICAL BOOK REVIEW OF “HOW TO READ THE BIBLE FOR ALL IT’S WORTH” BY GORDON FEE AND DOUGLAS

STUART

BY
MICHAEL BOLING

SUNDAY, APRIL 5, 2009

CRITICAL BOOK REVIEW OF “HOW TO READ THE BIBLE FOR ALL IT’S WORTH” BY GORDON FEE AND DOUGLAS STUART Authors Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart have provided the evangelical community with a salient and veridical overview of hermeneutical principles that, when applied, are of great import to the study of Scripture. How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth is replete with concepts applicable to every believer, regardless of their level of theological acumen. Layman and seasoned theologians alike will find this book to be one that has lasting value as they exegete God’s Word. In the current theological milieu, a conspectus of the proper application of hermeneutics is sorely needed and in this regard, Fee and Stuart have answered the call. The main purpose of this book is providing the interpreter with a compendium of concepts on how to properly interpret Scripture through the dual concepts of exegesis and hermeneutics. Of particular relevance is the authors’ assertion that “one does not have to be an expert to learn to do the basic tasks of exegesis.”1 This statement ameliorates the perception that hermeneutics is a task solely for the clergy thus providing an impetus for all believers to engage this discipline. Prior to delving into the intricacies of hermeneutics proper, Fee and Stuart provide copious reasons for the pursuit of the interpretation of Scripture. This foundational understanding is essential as it provides a synopsis of the role of the interpreter and the numerous challenges they will face when attempting to mine the depths of Scripture. Fee and Stuart make no illusions that establishing generally accepted guidelines for interpretation is difficult and unlikely. The reality that various interpretations will dominate the theological landscape is clearly addressed. The historical and eternal aspects of Scripture are duly noted in the opening chapter of the text, with particular attention given to the methodology utilized by God to communicate to

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Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Grand Rapids, 2003), 15.

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mankind. The need for the interpreter to have a lucid understanding of the characters in Scripture and the geographical and cultural milieu in which they lived is brilliantly outlined. Additionally, the necessity to utilize Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias to understand historical context is given some consideration by the authors with additional discourse on biblical commentaries provided in the appendix. Discussion of the various translations was perhaps one of the more turbid and opinion laced elements of this work. The seeming dismissal of the New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the comment that if one “regularly reads only the NASB/NASU, then you are committed to an interpretation of the text that may not be what Paul intended”2 was parochial and dubious. Such comments give the impression as an effort to promote one particular translation of Scripture over another as evidenced by the statement the “TNIV reflects the best exegetical option.”3 Such conjecture, while hardly deleterious to the work en bloc, could have been omitted in favor of a discussion of the purpose and reasoning behind the various major translations and the inherent benefits and pitfalls subsumed therein. If brevity was a concern, the reader could have been directed to scholarly works such as F.F. Bruce’s The Canon of Scripture or Norman Geisler’s From God to Us for additional insight on the history and purpose of translations. Fee and Stuart conclude their prolegomena with a substantive overview of language and the issue of historical distance. The importance of addressing these issues cannot be overstated and the authors’ treatment of difficulties such as euphemisms, word plays and elements of grammar/syntax abound with relevant examples. The continued effort at promoting the NIV in

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Ibid, 34. Ibid.

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lieu of providing the reader with meaningful commentary on hermeneutical methodology was overreaching and biased contributing little to the topic. The discussion of genre dominates the book. Fee and Stuart expend considerable effort, and rightfully so, discussing the epistles, the Old Testament narrative, the book of Acts, the Gospels, the Parables, the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, Wisdom literature and the book of Revelation. Particular attention is given to hermeneutical issues surrounding the epistles. The inherent pitfalls involved in interpreting the genre of the epistles are clearly addressed in the statement “the ease of interpreting the epistles can be quite deceptive.”4 Fee and Stuart coherently emphasize the need for contextualization when studying the epistles. The tendency to misconstrue metaphors and first century cultural issues necessitates the need for an understanding of historical context before engaging in the interpretation of specific elements of a pericope. In this regard, Fee and Stuart appropriately aver that difficult passages should be approached holistically as it is the “big view that counts.”5 Indicative of this approach is the integration and application of issues relevant to the first century church to current theological conundrums. The extent the authors elucidate techniques of interpreting misinterpreted passages in the epistles is commendable and one of the highlights of their work. Hebrew narrative as revealed in the Old Testament is the next topic broached by Fee and Stuart. This rather lengthy discussion is necessitated by the prevailing “failure to understand both the reason for and the character of Hebrew narrative.”6 Indicative of this failure is the propensity to treat large sections of Old Testament narrative as allegory resulting in forced interpretations and rejection of the historically accurate nature of the Scripture. While Fee and
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Ibid, 55. Ibid, 60. Ibid, 89.

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Stuart’s treatment of Old Testament narrative is not as thorough as that provided in works such as “Introduction to Biblical Interpretation” by Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard, it is nevertheless a commonsensical and worthwhile approach. Of particular note is the authors’ contention that “narratives are precious to us because they so vividly demonstrate God’s involvement in the world and illustrate his principles and calling.”7 This statement articulates, perhaps even more than the discussion of the intricacies of narrative, the need for interpreters to properly evaluate historical genre. While the same pattern used for the exegesis of Old Testament is applicable to the study of Acts, the authors provide a separate treatment of this book since the majority of believers acknowledge that Acts serves as the “pattern for Christian behavior or church life.”8 The hermeneutical analysis of Acts shares similarities with the analysis of the epistles, especially in the area of modern application of first century issues and concerns. The relevancy of actions taken by the early church fathers to the modern church has often overstepped the bounds of scriptural exposition leading to misinterpretation of Luke’s intended purpose. While Fee and Stuart provide copious principles for interpreting Acts, their exposition of Acts can be encapsulated their following assertion:
“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.” 9

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Ibid, 105. Ibid, 107. Ibid,118-119.

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This evinces the overall pattern and approach for interpreting Scripture that should be utilized by all interpreters. Even though this statement was included in a discussion of Acts, it is nevertheless representative of the approach necessary for interpreting all Scriptural genres. The importance of a lucid perspicacity of the gospels, particularly in relation to the parables of Jesus, is addressed next by Fee and Stuart. The discussion of vertical and horizontal thinking was interesting, yet was mired in comparative word counting and percentages of agreement. A redeeming aspect was the treatment of the conceptualization of the understanding of the “kingdom of God” as both a present and future event; an oft overlooked foundational element of the gospel accounts. While Fee and Stuart’s treatment of this topic pales in comparison to that of George Eldon Ladd in A Theology of the New Testament, their cursory overview is nevertheless constructive and informative. The importance of understanding the “kingdom of God” cannot be overemphasized and its in this book should be commended. The parables are some of the most beloved portions of Scripture and also perhaps among the most misunderstood and misinterpreted. This is explicated in the statement “parables are not allegories – even if at times they have what appear to us to be allegorical features.”10 This statement is at the crux of how to exegete parables. Fee and Stuart accurately identify that the hermeneutical task in reference to parables lies in recapturing the “punch of the parables in our own times and our own settings.”11 All elements of the exegesis of parables are subsumed within this concept. The ability of Fee and Stuart to provide a terse yet substantive overview of the benefits and methods of interpreting parables is commendable. Contemporary application of the books of the Law has, for many, been absent from their spiritual repertoire. Formulating an understanding of the complexity and sheer number of
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Ibid, 152. Ibid, 153.

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religious laws outlined in the Torah is difficult and elusive to most believers. This is unfortunate, as the books of the Law possess considerable relevance to the holistic study and understanding of Scripture. As noted by the Fee and Stuart, “even though the Old Testament laws are not our law, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Law is no longer a valuable part of the Bible.”12 It is from this standpoint that Fee and Stuart engage the understanding and application of interpreting Old Testament law. A systematic understanding of the intent of the Law will illuminate the necessity of the discussions between Jesus and the Pharisees revealed in the gospel accounts. Fee and Stuart substantively examine the historical context of the law, in particular, the comparison of the Law of Moses to that of the Code of Hammurabi and other ancient codes of conduct. An awareness of the intention and influence the law had on ancient Israel will only enhance the understanding of the Biblical narrative; a position which Fee and Stuart repeatedly asseverate. One of the more intriguing sections is that addressed to the study of prophetic genre. Emphasis on the necessity of engaging historical context is again provided by Fee and Stuart as the initial means by which to approach the message of the prophetic books. While the discussion of the types of prophetic oracles is noteworthy, the statement that secondary meaning or sensus plenior “is a function of inspiration, not illumination”13 is the fulcrum upon which exegesis of prophecy rests. The tendency to search for double meanings in prophecy has resulted in far reaching interpretations unintended by either the author or God.

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Ibid, 169. Ibid, 203.

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The Psalms are not commonly thought of as containing exegetical difficulties. However, they are a “special kind of literature”14 and “require special care in reading and interpreting.”15 They are best understood as a collective outpouring of communication with God much akin to that found in a diary. Combined with a view of the historical context of ancient Israel, exegesis of the Psalms can provide the reader with an invaluable perspective in dealing with the vacillation of life. The literary and functional aspects of the Psalms are covered in great detail by Fee and Stuart resulting in a comprehensive evaluation and dissection of this genre. Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, better known as wisdom literature, contain teaching that when “taken out of context can sound profound and seem practical, which often results in misapplication.”16 Interpretation of these texts must be accomplished in the same comprehensive manner as any other pericope; a point duly noted by Fee and Stuart. While the books of wisdom are replete with inveterate insight, the overall context of wisdom literature should never be overlooked. Fee and Stuart provide a reasoned argument for a holistic understanding of wisdom texts. The multifarious aspects of Proverbs are adequately discussed including practical guidelines for understanding “proverbial wisdom”17; however, only a cursory overview is provided for Job and Ecclesiastes; two books whose messages are exponentially more difficult to assess. A one page assessment of Job and Ecclesiastes is wholly insufficient. Conversely, the commentary provided for the Song of Solomon, though terse, sufficiently addressed the significance of the necessity of fidelity and faithfulness in marriage.

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Ibid, 206. Ibid. Ibid, 226. Ibid, 235.

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Apocalyptic literature is satiated with symbolism and approaching such texts should not commence without a “proper degree of humility.”18 Revelation, perhaps more than any other book in Scripture, presents a bevy of challenges for the interpreter. Fee and Stuart do a venerable job of outlining apocalyptic genre without pursuing any particular interpretive agenda. Additionally, they avoid theological interludes in favor of focusing on the methodology of interpreting apocalyptic works. Their statement that “John’s larger concern is that, despite present appearances, God is in control of history and the church” is the capstone of this section. While interpretation of Revelation may continue to be elusive for the reader, Fee and Stuart remind the interpreter of the overarching approach to difficult pericope in Scripture: “If there are some ambiguities for us as to how all the details are to work out, there is no ambiguity as to the certainty that God will work it all out.”19 How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is a concise enchiridion of the dynamic nature of hermeneutics. Ultimately, the intent of this work is to present the interpreter with the hermeneutical tools by which to discern “between good and not-so-good interpretations – and to know what makes them one or the other.”20 Though other works of this genre are more comprehensive in scope, Fee and Stuart have written a lucid and intellectually remunerative guide to interpretation. Their extensive treatment of the genres of Scripture is beneficial to all believers, regardless of their level of theological acumen. This book avoids turbid theological meanderings in favor of providing the reader with basic hermeneutical tools necessary to understanding Scripture. In the sphere of hermeneutical discourse, its brevity is admirable, however, in terms of comprehensiveness, there are better works available. For the lay
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Ibid, 250. Ibid, 264. Ibid, 21.

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theologian, this book is more than adequate, but for the more seasoned theologian, it is merely a supplement to more voluminous expositions.

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REFERENCE Fee, Gordon and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

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