What should healthy biblical interpretation look like? Craig Bartholomew’s Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics addresses this question head on, giving a sweeping introduction to the subject that both explains the history and importance of various academic approaches while also developing for readers a vision of biblical hermeneutics that is trinitarian in shape and aimed ultimately at enabling “obedient attention to God’s address through his Word” (p.10). Bartholomew was born in South Africa in 1961 and now teaches at Redeemer University College in Ontario, Canada.
Hermeneutics deals with the study of interpretation, especially in regards to works of literature. Therefore, it’s a particularly relevant area of study for Christians given the uniquely authoritative role Scripture plays in shaping the beliefs and practices of the Church. Bartholomew invokes the words of Karl Barth to make clear the kinds of demands made by the Bible on its readers, “If Scripture is the Word of God, then, as Karl Barth rightly observes, no one can stand before it as a spectator” (p.45). Hermeneutics might seem intimidating and irrelevant, but Bartholomew argues that it actually is “the theory of a practice,” adding that when it’s done well, “hermeneutics deepens and enriches our practice of engagement with the Bible as Scripture” (p.12).
The book’s subtitle, “A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture,” gives a fitting description of what Bartholomew is trying to establish for his readers. In this review, we’re also going to use it to help organize a few necessarily incomplete reflections on the nature of Bartholomew’s work. There sadly isn’t enough time to work through each of his discussions in anywhere near the level of detail needed to properly do them justice. So, we will have to satisfy ourselves with looking first at some of the broad-brush ways in which he builds his hermeneutical framework and then briefly exploring how this framework can help deepen the way Christians read the Bible as Scripture.
A Comprehensive Framework
Bartholomew begins by considering biblical interpretation itself, which he understands to be an inherently communal endeavor (p.13). Given humanity’s fallen condition, which hinders individuals from completely understanding texts, “the conversation of readers in the body of Christ exercises an important control on interpretation” (p.393). To read Scripture well, Bartholomew insists that we need to remember that nobody comes to the text with a blank slate:
“The importance of tradition for biblical interpretation is closely connected with the hermeneutical insight that we never read or interpret Scripture with a tabula rasa… We bring our own prejudices—prejudgments—to the text, and we are heirs to a variety of traditions of biblical interpretation” (p.114)
He then spends the next few chapters familiarizing readers with the story of biblical interpretation’s history, starting with the Patristic era, devoting a chapter to the history of Jewish biblical interpretation, and tracing the story on up to the present. Within this narrative, Bartholomew’s command of the literature is evident, and his overview accomplishes its goal of situating readers so that they are able to better understand the ensuing discussion of how biblical interpretation intersects with other academic disciplines. He dwells on the ways in which philosophy, history, literature, theology have shaped and can also help inform a healthy model of biblical hermeneutics—again, Bartholomew is comprehensive so we must content ourselves with broad-brush strokes.
In his chapter on philosophy and biblical hermeneutics, Bartholomew unsurprisingly devotes significant time to the works of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, and Jürgen Habermas. He explains that, “The central insight of [textual] hermeneutics” is that both texts and readers are embedded within history” (p.284). Ignoring hermeneutical issues simply results in a “naive practice of exegesis” that uncritically (and unconsciously) assumes answers to important hermeneutical questions (p.325).
One of Bartholomew’s larger overarching points is that philosophical questions are involved in biblical studies from the very beginning. This holds true in his discussion of history and hermeneutics. One’s view of history inevitably impacts how one interprets Scripture (p.337). Bartholomew proposes that narrative biblical theology holds the most promise for aiding in the development of a biblical view of time and history:
[I]t is precisely a narrative biblical theology of the Bible that helps develop a biblical view of time and history. The genres apart from narrative in the Old Testament are canonically all connected into the grand story it tells, so that narrative holds the key to a biblical perspective of history. (p.342)
In a similar vein, Bartholomew suggests that readers should utilize a theology of history that understands the Bible as a drama in six acts: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, mission, and new creation, explaining that, “As a drama, Scripture reveals to us the drama we are involved in and invites us to actively participate in it” (pp.360-361). This proposal, by the way, is fleshed out considerably in Bartholomew’s older book, The Drama of Scripture, which he wrote with Michael Goheen.
While historical-critical work dominated much of biblical studies for a large portion of the 19th and 20th centuries, Bartholomew notes that the literary turn has been rising in prominence since the 1970s. For him, this is welcome news. There are, of course, multiple types of literary approaches; he advocates using a communicative hermeneutic, which is “a literary approach [that] focuses primarily on the text and its literary dimension in order to listen to the message being communicated.” (p.379). Bartholomew suggests that the final literary form should be seen as “more than the sum of its parts” and that interpretation must focus on this “final-form” while still taking historical issues seriously (pp.380-411).
One of the criticisms of the literary turn in biblical interpretation is that it imposes anachronistic theories of literature on biblical texts. Bartholomew is sensitive to these concerns. First, he points out that, “Because the Bible is literature, its literary dimension resists being ignored” (p.378). Secondly, he brings up the concept of the hermeneutical circle, contending that “we need a view of literature in order to attend to the literary aspect of the Bible, but this must be continually refined by the Bible itself” (p.391).
This is a good moment to bring up Bartholomew’s notion of reading texts “along the grain.” If we are going to incorporate literary approaches to interpretation that don’t overly-exalt the reader, then we must insist that the first step is to, “read the text along the grain, as it were, in order to discern the message of the text” (p.415). Bartholomew elaborates:
Texts are an expression of interpersonal communication: just as we cannot do as we like with people, so there are ethics of reading. A communicative model reminds us of the need to respect the otherness of the text and to allow its voice to be heard. (p.415)
I don’t think that he is advocating a return to problematic versions of modernist objectivity, though. Instead, “A thicker notion of biblical texts is required, which takes into account their historical, literary, and ideological/theological aspects” (p.415). A few pages later, Bartholomew explains that “before one can disagree with a text, one must read it, and to do so along the grain,” which I found to be one of the more memorable lines in the book (p.420). We must remember that only after first reading a text charitably can strong critiques be subsequently made of it.
The chapter dwelling on the intersection between biblical hermeneutics and theology focused in large part (at least on my reading of it) on two overarching relationships: exegesis and theology, and Scripture and doctrine (p.432). He laments the fact that the move from Scripture to theology is frequently a one-way street in modern scholarship, with no subsequent return to the text:
Scripture is the primary norm and resource for theology, and we need a truly biblical theology. Thus, we need theology that openly emerges from deep and wide ranging exegesis. At the same time biblical exegesis needs to be theologically informed so that theology deepens our exegesis. (p.432)
Bartholomew suggests that one helpful way of thinking about the relationship between Scripture and doctrine/theology is “the relationship between lived experience and theory” (p.436). Everyday life is the primary reality out of which theories are developed. “[T]he test of theory is whether it deepens lived experience” (p.436). Bartholomew connects this analogy with Scripture and doctrine/theology by saying that, “Doctrine abstracts landmarks of belief from the story of Scripture and seeks to articulate the nature of that belief systematically for today” (p.437).
In a comment that seems to be directed towards the work of people like Kevin Vanhoozer (who wrote The Drama of Doctrine), Bartholomew notes that “it is a mistake to translate the drama of Scripture into the drama of doctrine without carefully attending to the important differences in the two uses of ‘drama’ in these phrases” (p.436). He appears to be mainly nervous that recent efforts to highlight the narrative/dramatic aspects of doctrine will lead to potentially neglecting doctrine’s necessary cognitive dimensions. Nevertheless, he also insists that “‘propositional’ and ‘logical’ need not imply dry and boring!” (p.436). I would be very interested to see how people like Vanhoozer would respond to the cautionary tone taken by Bartholomew on this subject. Regardless of these rather technical concerns, he offers some good words of wisdom regarding the overarching goal of biblical hermeneutics when he states that “exegetical and commentary work… is incomplete if it is not directed towards listening for God’s Word. Biblical interpretation should move from listening and toward listening” (p.441).
For Hearing God in Scripture
In an important way, biblical interpretation is an endeavor undertaken for the Church. For Bartholomew, this is because “Scripture is primarily God’s Word to God’s people, and thus communal, ecclesial reception [of Scripture] is primary” (p.9). This potentially controversial assertion on Bartholomew’s part has some important consequences:
[I]f ecclesial reception of the Word is primary, then the Christian biblical scholar works out of that primary reception, which ought to lead back into that reception, deepening that reception as it does so. Like the preacher, the biblical scholar’s work ought to emerge out of sustained ecclesial reception and lectio divina and always be oriented toward attending to God’s address. (pp.45-46)
Throughout Bartholomew’s exposition of what it means to recover a “philosophy of listening,” he avoids implying that following such a strategy will automatically get rid of or smooth over the many important questions and points of tension raised by modern historical criticism, literary analysis, and other approaches to Scripture (pp.11,31). Nevertheless, he does contend that biblical hermeneutics must recover “the primacy of creative receptivity, of listening” (p.24). Why does he find this to be so important? He explains, “Theologically listening is an extension of our being creaturely; it is a manifestation of our creaturely humility” (p.22). He states his proposal well when he suggests that, “It is as biblical hermeneutics inhabits the trajectory from listening to listening that it finds its place and is enabled to flourish” (p.15).
Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics makes for an immensely stimulating read, and it leaves readers with much to mull over. It’s not hard to find scholars willing to decry the division between biblical studies and theology, or the Academy and Church, but it’s more rare to find someone who has invested so much time and energy into helping bridge those gaps with constructive proposals. For this, readers should applaud Bartholomew’s work. I’m still getting my bearings in the world of biblical hermeneutics, and wrestling with Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics has both increased my to-read list and better oriented me to the contours of the field. In my humble opinion, Bartholomew has given a true gift to the Church. I’m both curious to see how this book is received by those more familiar with the subject than myself and grateful to be spurred further on into the field of biblical hermeneutics as a result of it.
*Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic Publishing for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.