Invitation to Biblical Interpretation Interview

Nick Fullwiler and Peter Bell host The Guilt, Grace, Gratitude Podcast featuring conversations about Christian doctrine from the historic Reformed tradition. In this episode, they sit down with Dr. Köstenberger to discuss the second edition of his book, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation. You can listen here.

Note: The following is not a transcript, but the interview proceeded along the following lines.

Can you define your approach to Biblical Hermeneutics in this book? 

Sure. First of all, Invitation to Biblical Interpretation is part of a series, Invitation to Theological Studies, which also covers ethics, church history, and other biblical and theological disciplines. The core model the book employs is what I call the hermeneutical triad, that is, studying Scripture through the trifocal lens of history, literature, and theology. When we interpret a given passage of Scripture, we find ourselves needing to do some historical work to understand the original setting in which a book was placed (e.g., first-century Corinth in case of 1 Corinthians). Also, we need to understand the story and plot if we’re dealing with a narrative, or trace the flow of the argument when dealing with a letter such as Romans.

Finally, the Bible is a spiritual book containing divine revelation, so we need to ponder its theological message. While this may look slightly different when interpreting different passages of Scripture, in each case we’ll want to take a close look at the history, literature, and theology of that passage. So what we do in the book is, after introducing our readers to the hermeneutical triad, we first turn to history, and cover biblical chronology and matters of culture and history. After that, we discuss the Old and New Testament canon very broadly to set a general framework, since we will want to interpret the parts in light of the whole.

The bulk of the book then focuses on interpreting the different genres in the Bible, starting with Old Testament historical narrative, and then moving on to wisdom, prophecy, New Testament narrative, epistle, and apocalyptic. The book concludes with a chapter on preaching and application.

This is the second edition of this standard text in hermeneutics. What is different about the second edition?

The first edition was published in 2011. For this second edition, we added a brand-new chapter on the OT canon written by one of the world’s leading experts on the canon, Dr. Gregory Goswell, who teaches at Christ College in Sydney, Australia.

I also consulted extensively with leading experts on biblical chronology Andrew Steinmann and Rodger Young and with one of the foremost authorities on biblical preaching, Abraham Kuruvilla, who teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, in updating the chapters on history and preaching.

The last chapter, which uses some material from one of my former students, Scott Kellum, includes a completely fresh discussion of application genre by genre, for example, applying OT historical narrative, applying Old Testament wisdom, applying prophetical literature, and so forth.

In addition, I updated the footnotes in the entire book with references to literature published in the last decade. I will also make a set of PowerPoints, a sample syllabus, a chart, and chapter quizzes available to teachers who intend to use Invitation to Biblical Interpretation in the classroom.

Why is the “triad” of History, Literature, and Theology so important, and how do they “interact” with one another? Why specifically the movement from History, to Literature, to Theology?

It’s important to achieve proper balance in interpretation. It’s like a three-legged stool. It can’t stand on two legs, you need all three. In case of biblical interpretation, if you neglect any of these three elements, your interpretation is off balance. If you focus on history but neglect the other two, you get a thoroughgoing historical approach that is often skeptical, as in the case of the historical-critical method, and empties the Bible of its power and impact, and reduces it to little more than human religious consciousness that more often than not invented events that didn’t actually happen.

If you focus unilaterally on literature, you read the Bible as a good book that is aesthetically pleasing, but you give up the truth value of what it says, as in the Bible history and literature are closely wedded together. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain. If we only do theology but neglect history and literature, we get neo-orthodoxy or some other form of theological thinking that is no longer grounded in the original historical context and in the text. So, you see, to do justice to the different aspects of the biblical text, you need to explore all three – history, literature, and theology.

As to the order, I am less wedded to any particular order, as long as you do all three. I think it’s most intuitive to start with history, as often the book itself gives a historical setting. Think of many Old Testament books such as Esther or Ezra/Nehemiah, or even prophetic books, or New Testament Gospels and letters. So, it makes sense first to determine the historical setting and then to move on to explore literary features of a book, such as the plot and main characters in historical narrative, or the flow of the argument in case of a letter.

Then, it makes sense to leave theology till the end, as history and literature are the vehicles through which the theological message of a given passage is conveyed. This is where biblical interpretation differs from interpretation of other texts, as we believe that God revealed himself in Scripture, and so we can learn about God and his ways as he disclosed them to us in history through specific texts.

What “leg” of the triad do you think is most neglected in Bible interpretation today? Why do you think that is?

Well, it’s of course hard to generalize, but I think there are many today who focus primarily on literary or narrative study and neglect history, because they don’t believe much of the biblical material is historically reliable. There are also movements such as the Theological Interpretation of Scripture that try to put theology back in our study of Scripture because they realize that it’s fatal to neglect the theological dimension of Scripture.

So, I’d say, while there are some specialists who engage in detailed historical research, on the whole history seems to be most neglected. I see that in sermons I’m hearing in the churches I attend, where preachers often neglect history and the focus shifts almost immediately to application and contemporary relevance. Even when you look at the work of someone like Kevin Vanhoozer, he focuses primarily on literature, canon, and theology, and while he doesn’t deny the historical dimension, in my observation he does least work in history.

How approachable is this book to the average Christian “in the pew?” Can this be used by churches in Bible studies?

Well, let me say first of all that I have abridged the book for use in high school, college, or even seminary. The title of that book is For the Love of God’s Word. So, for those who want an introductory treatment of my approach and of the hermeneutical triad, this would be a great place to start.

At the same time, I think Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, too, is very accessible and written at a level that is ideal for serious students of Scripture. For example, in the first chapter, I talk about the need for skilled interpretation and the costs of failed interpretation, to underscore how important it is to study Scripture accurately. I also talk about growing in interpretive virtues such as historical-cultural awareness, canonical consciousness, sensitivity to genre, literary and linguistic competence, a firm and growing grasp of Biblical Theology, or an ability to apply and proclaim passages from every biblical genre to life.

Then, there is a third book on hermeneutics that I’ve written with my former student and colleague Richard Alan Fuhr, simply called Inductive Bible Study, where we blend the hermeneutical triad approach with the tried-and-true method of inductive Bible study: observation, interpretation, and application. So if you’re already familiar and comfortable with how to do an inductive Bible study, you’ll find that the hermeneutical triad further enhances your ability to get the most out of studying your Bible.

How is your book on Biblical Interpretation different from other introductions to reading the Bible well?

Great question. We discuss this right away in our book in a Personal Note to Teachers, Students, and Readers. Typically, most hermeneutics books such as Grant Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral move from general to special hermeneutics. In other words, they start with elements that you need to know about no matter if you study the Bible or another piece of literature: for example, grammar, or language (such as word study). Then, later in the book, they introduce the idea that we’re actually studying the Bible, and talk about special hermeneutics. In my book, I do the opposite: I start with special hermeneutics and talk right from the start about the need for faith in Scripture study and that the Bible is special revelation from God.

Also, I have two chapters right up front on the Old and New Testament canon, so as to provide a framework for biblical interpretation. In this way, we can interpret the parts in light of the whole, which is one of the bedrock principles of proper interpretation. That said, what I’ve found is that many skilled interpreters actually do engage in historical, literary, and theological study; they just don’t make this their overt method. For example, standard texts such as Dillard and Longman’s Old Testament Introduction or Sidney Greidanus’s work essentially approach the Bible in this way. I’ve also found quotes in Vanhoozer’s and N. T. Wright’s work that affirms the importance of these three steps in our study of Scripture.

Note: You can purchase Invitation to Biblical Interpretation here.

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