Thoughts of John

What is on my mind.

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2003. 288 pp. (Kindle Edition) $8.99.

Gordon D. Fee is Professor Emeritus of New Testament Studies at Regent College. Douglas K Stuart is Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Fee and Stuart in the book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth give a set of guidelines for different genres of the Bible on how to interpret those genres. Each genre of the Bible does have its own structure that needs to be interpreted differently. Fee and Stuart give a very well thought out general understanding on how to interpret each genre.

It is important to know that everyone who reads the Bible is also an interpreter of the Bible. As a person reads the Bible the assumption is made that a person understands what is being read. As a person reads a given text of the Bible it is being interpreted with all of one’s culture, experience, and preconceived ideas and understandings. All of these presuppositions can cloud the interpreter’s understanding of the given text. The understanding may be different than what the author intended.[1]

The Bible is a very unique book of literature. It is God’s word written to all of mankind. It is written by sixty-six different authors over a span of thousands of years. The Bible message does not change from author to author throughout the whole Bible. The significance to all of this is the eternal consequences of the Bible. “One of the most important aspects of the human side of the Bible is that, in order to communicate his Word to all human conditions. God chose to use almost every available kind of communication: narrative history, genealogies, chronicles, laws of all kinds, poetry of all kinds, proverbs, prophetic oracles, riddles, drama, biographical sketches, parables letters, sermons, and apocalypses. God used these forms of communication through different kinds of cultural backgrounds and different times in human history.”[2]

The interpreter must do two things according to Fee and Stuart to arrive at the proper intention of a given text. First, a person must conduct an exegesis of the scripture to get the proper understanding of what was said and heard back then and there. Exegesis is concerned with the historical context and the literary context. Second, a person must conduct hermeneutics to learn to hear the same text in the here and now.”[3]

Fee and Stuart work off the premise that the reader of How to Read the Bible for All its Worth is a Bible student who does not know the Hebrew or Greek languages. So, a whole chapter is devoted on picking the correct translation for studying the biblical text. The authors go through the genres of the Bible in this order Epistles, Old Testament narrative, Acts, the Gospels, the Parables, Old Testament Laws, the Prophets, the Psalms, Wisdom literature, and Revelation.

Fee and Stuart start the analysis of the different genres with the Epistles. “It becomes clear that epistles are not as easy to interpret as is often thought. Thus because of their importance to the Christian faith and because so many of the important hermeneutical issues are raised here, we are going to let them serve as models for the exegetical and hermeneutical questions we want to raise throughout the book.”[4] The Epistles are letters written to a specific group of Christians and the Epistles needs to be understood in that context. The Epistles then need to be looked at on how they fit into the New Testament and then the Bible as a whole.

After the Epistles the authors move on to the Old Testament Hebrew narratives. The majority of the the Old Testament is written in Hebrew narrative so it is a very important to understand this genre. Most Christians do not read the Old Testament narratives the way they should be read and this can cause interpretation issues. “If you are a Christian, the Old Testament is your spiritual history. The promises of God to Israel are your historical promises and calling. People force incorrect interpretations and applications on narrative portions of the Bible as much or more than they do on any other parts.”[5] The narratives of the Bible are an integral part of the Bible. Most of the Bible is written in narrative form so it is imperative that the interpreter understand and properly interpret the narrative passages.

After the Old Testament narratives the authors move on to the New Testament narratives that are contained in Acts, the Gospels, and the Parables. These three genres each have their own structure. Acts is used as a basis on how the modern day church is to structure itself. According to the authors the genre of Acts does not support this at all. “Unless Scripture explicitly tells us we must do something, what is only narrated or described does not function in a normative way—unless it can be demonstrated on other grounds that the author intended it to function in this way.”[6] The genre of Acts is about the history of the early Christian church and the spreading of the gospel to all parts of the world.

“The four gospels form a unique literary genre for which there are few real analogies. Their uniqueness is what presents most of the exegetical problems. But the major hermeneutical difficulty lies with understanding ‘the kingdom of God,’ a term that is absolutely crucial to the whole of Jesus’ ministry, yet at the same time is presented in the language and concepts of first-century Judaism. The problem is how to translate these ideas into our own cultural settings.”[7]

The Parables are a sub-genre of the New Testament narratives so it gets its own chapter because the authors state that they are misinterpreted more than being interpreted correctly. The parables have a long history for misinterpretation. “Jesus himself is asked about the meaning of the parables and he states that the parables contain mysteries for those on the inside and they harden those on the outside. The parables were considered to be simple stories for those on the outside to whom the ‘real meanings,’ the “mysteries,’ were hidden; these belonged only to the church and could be uncovered by means of allegory.”[8] A parable is a short story told by Jesus that has the purpose of calling forth a response from the hearer. “In a sense the parable itself is the message It is told to address and capture the hearers, to bring them up short about their own actions, or to cause them to respond in some way to Jesus and his ministry.”[9] The response from the hearer is were the interpretation of the parable has caused the issues in misinterpretation. The story is given orally and we have it in written form. Every story is full of references to common things that everyone knows. The key to understanding the genre of the parables according to Fee and Stuart is to determine what the hearers heard so that the correct response is found.

The books of the Law are difficult and a problem for most Christians because they are not sure how to apply the biblical text to their life.[10] In the case of studying the law in the first five books of the Bible the authors give six guidelines for studying this part of the Bible. First, the Old Testament law is a covenant. Covenants during Old Testament times were a normal way of life. The Old Testament covenant that the books of the law center around is between God and the chosen nation of Israel. Second, the Old Testament covenant is not a Christian’s covenant. The Old Testament is the story of the lives of the Israelites living out the old covenant between them and God. Third, the civil and ritual laws of the books of the law are no longer valid. Fourth, as New Testament Christians who are under the new covenant and not the old covenant of the Old Testament. Fifth, even though Christian’s are not under the old covenant, the Old Testament is still the Word of God. Finally, only those laws that have been renewed in the New Testament are Christian’s bound to[11]

Jesus said that he came to fulfill the law. The modern day Christian reads this statement in the New Testament and does not want to discover what the law even is in the Old Testament since it does not pertain to them. However, there is so much history in the first five books of the Old Testament that the Christian who does not study this part of scripture is missing out. Even though the many laws that are written about in the Old Testament are for the Israelites sacrificial system of worship there is a lot to be learned about the other laws that can be applied to the modern day Christian. This is precisely what Fee and Stuart are getting at about this part of the Old Testament and that it is still God’s Word and it is in the Bible for a reason and therefore should be studied.

The genre of prophecy is the single longest section of the Old Testament. The prophetic books of the Old Testament “are among the most difficult parts of the Bible to interpret or read with understanding. The reasons for this are related to misunderstandings as to their form and function.”[12] The modern day reader of the prophets of the Old Testament typically read the prophets simple looking for anything that points to the coming of Jesus Christ. The opposite is true in the prophets. The majority of the prophets are predictions around the Israelites not keeping the covenant that was made with God and the prediction of the consequences of not fulfilling their part of the covenant. The key to understanding the genre of the prophets is “one must learn to do is to think oracles. That is not always an easy task, but to know that it is difficult but necessary to do this is the beginning of some exciting discovery.”[13]

The genre of wisdom literature is one of the most difficult to understand. Hebrew wisdom literature “is the ability to make godly choices in life.”[14] Hebrew wisdom literature is a large part of the Old Testament and is usually misunderstood by most modern day Christians. The reason that most Christians do not understand or misinterpret this genre is because the Christian does not understand Hebrew poetry. According to Fee and Stuart once an interpreter understands how Hebrew poetry is written then it will come alive to them. Not only does it come alive but now the interpreter can understand exactly what God was telling the Israelites then and it can now be applied to the Christian in today’s world.

The book of Revelation is a one of a kind book and genre in the Bible. It is the only book that is apocalyptic literature. The book uses symbolism that is seen through the eyes of the Apostle John as the writer. John is writing the book of Revelation through an understanding of the Old Testament which makes the symbolism more difficult to understand. Revelation is written with a combination of apocalyptic and prophetic elements that are cast in the form of a letter. The letter is written to seven known churches of the first century.[15] “Apocalypses in general, and the Revelation in particular, seldom intend to give a detailed chronological account of the future. Their message tends to transcend this kind of concern. John’s larger concern is that, despite present appearances, God is in control of history and the church. And even though the church will experience suffering and death, it will be triumphant in Christ, who will judge his enemies and save his people. All of the visions must be seen in terms of this greater concern.”[16] According to Fee and Stuart once an interpreter understands that Revelation is an Epistle letter with its own style of literature then interpretation becomes a little easier. The authors give some pointers on how to interpret this particular kind of genre and if those points are followed then the interpreter will get vasts amount of understanding toward this style of God’s word.

The genre drives the method to be used to understand what the author is trying to tell the reader. The genre contains the content of the scripture and points that the author is making to the interpreter with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The interpreter needs to know the genre that is being studied in order to get the most out that particular text that is being studied. Knowing the correct genre is vital to understanding the message the author wants the reader to hear. Fee and Stuart do an exceptional job in explaining the various genres that make up the Word of God.

The point of view for the authors centers on studying the biblical text. A person cannot just sit down and do a cursory read of the biblical text and get everything out of it. The reader needs to study each kind of text differently. Reading the poetry of the Psalms and Proverbs is much different than reading the prose in narrative form in the books of the Law of Genesis through Deuteronomy.

The books of the law (the first five books of the Old Testament) are God’s words to the people of Israel. The Psalms are words spoken to God or about God by the psalmist. The author’s book centers on the various genres of the Bible. Once the Bible is broken down into its different genres then interpreting it becomes a much easier task. Fee and Stuart focus on the different genres because the Bible is a book of literature. As a book of literature each individual writer through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is conveying a message about God to the reader. God through the human instrument uses every know kind of written communication because not everyone understands the same genre.

The main perspective that is brought to the book is that everyone with a few skills can have great result in biblical interpretation. As long as a few simple methods are applied to each kind of genre in the Bible then misinterpretation can be avoided. In the very beginning of each chapter Fee and Stuart explain their perspective on why that particular genre can be difficult to interpret. After explaining why it is difficult they proceed to explain how to get over the difficulty of that genre.

The points and examples that Fee and Stuart use are explicit in showing their perspective. The authors use their expertise to demonstrate the proper way in explaining how to do biblical interpretation. Fee and Stuart go through each genre and explain what is difficult about interpreting that genre. It is then explained what is important in doing an exegesis of each particular genre. Finally, some hermeneutical principles that can be used to apply to that specific genre.

The evidence that the authors have starts with the Epistles. Fee and Stuart work with Epistles as a basis for the whole book. The process that is used throughout the book centers on the historical context, the literary context, and the hermeneutic approach. The examples that the authors use are very clear in proving their point of view.

The argument that Fee and Stuart have throughout the book is very well written. The argument of the book centers on the different genres of the Bible and how to interpret them. The argument is very logically to follow since the same process is used for every chapter throughout the book. The whole argument stems from the Epistles as the basis. The book is written for a general overview of biblical interpretation. As long as the reader has that premise in mind then no gaps are seen. Fee and Stuart are exceptional biblical scholars who cover all aspects of the particular subject that is being written about. There are no contradictions that a reader would outright pick up on.

The start of the hermeneutical process with the Epistles is a weak point. It is weak because the Epistles are one of the most difficult to interpret. The Epistles contain some of the most contextual and literary difficulties in the whole Bible. It would have been better to start with the Old Testament narratives. The narratives are much easier to understand and interpret.

Another weakness is the choice of a Bible translation to use for studying the Bible. According to Fee and Stuart “it is a good practice to use mainly one translation, provided it really is a good one. This will aid in memorization as well as give you consistency.”[17] There are two ways to look at translations. The translation can be either formally equivalent or functional equivalent. A formally equivalent translation is “the attempt to keep as close to the ‘form’ of the Hebrew and Greek, both words and grammar, as can be conveniently put into understandable English. The closer one stays to the Hebrew or Greek idiom, the closer one moves toward a theory of translation often described as ‘literal.’”[18] The opposite of formal equivalent is functional equivalent. “Functional equivalent is the attempt to keep the meaning of the Hebrew or Greek but to put their words and idioms into what would be the normal way o saying the same thing in English.”[19] Formally equivalent is a more word-for-word translation and functional equivalent is more of a thought-for-thought translation. The English Standard Version (ESV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) are formally equivalent translations. The New Living Translation (NLT) is a functional equivalent translation. The New International Version (NIV) and Today’s New International Version (TNIV) both are in the middle between formally equivalent or functional equivalent.

Before a person picks a translation two things should be considered. First, a translation should be chosen from a committee of translators and not an individual. A committee is more likely to make decisions not affected by personal bias. Second, a translation should be chosen in the language that the reader can best understand that is as close to formally equivalent as one can get. As a person does exegetical work on any given biblical passage several translations should be used so as to pick up any nuances from the Hebrew and Greek through the translators use of the English language. The nuances are more likely to come out when more than one translation is used. Another aspect in choosing a translation is how understandable the translation is to the person reading that translation.

Fee and Stuart recommend the TNIV as the best translation to use. Fee just so happens to be on the committee that did the translation work for the TNIV version of the Bible. There would be some bias for Fee in choosing this version. A better translation would be the ESV because of its readability and because it is a formally equivalent translation. A very good translation for children is the New Century Version (NCV) or the NLT. Both of these version are more on the functional equivalent side but they are in easier English for kids to understand.

The biggest strength that Fee and Stuart have centers on the layout of each chapter. The authors follow the same method on each genre. The chapter begins with the issues involved with the interpretation of that particular genre. Then the authors move to the important aspects for the exegesis of that genre. After looking at the exegesis of the genre the authors move to the hermeneutical issues for that particular genre.

Fee and Stuart also break the Bible up into the different genres. This is very helpful in understanding how to do biblical interpretation. It also aids in making biblical interpretation in an easier way to handle the different genres of the Bible. A particular book might have multiple types of genre. So it is important on how to break those types down and apply the correct exegetical method to that genre.

The person who sits down to read the Bible and just reads the Bible like any other piece of literature misses out on so much. The Bible is full of different genres and once a person understands those different genres the Bible comes alive for that individual. Fee and Stuart do a marvelous job in explaining the nuances of each genre. Since the authors break down the genres of the Bible there is such a great value found in the way that Fee and Stuart show the reader how biblical interpretation works through the various genres. The book How to Read the Bible for All its Worth is the perfect book for anyone who wants to get more out of reading the Bible then just what is found from doing a cursory read.

[1] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2003), 340.

[2] Ibid., 398, 429.

[3] Ibid., 429.

[4] Ibid., 985.

[5] Ibid., 1606.

[6] Ibid., 2150.

[7] Ibid., 2302.

[8] Ibid., 2708.

[9] Ibid., 2760.

[10] Ibid., 2998.

[11] Ibid., 2998, 3027, 3057, 3087.

[12] Ibid., 3311.

[13] Ibid., 3511.

[14] Ibid., 4105.

[15] Ibid., 4531, 4585.

[16] Ibid., 4673.

[17] Ibid., 586.

[18] Ibid., 744.

[19] Ibid., 744.


February 8, 2014 - Posted by | Bible, Bible Study, Biblical Interpretation, Book Review, Christian, Christianity, Religon | , , , , ,

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