Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture

Craig G. Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015. pp. xiv + 623. $44.99.

Painting with a very wide brush, and not including exegetical guides, I distinguish two genres of hermeneutical books written by evangelical and broadly-evangelical writers. Authors in the first genre are attempting to situate the Christian reading of the Bible within the broader academic understanding of philosophical hermeneutics. There is a combination of general and sacred hermeneutics with a significant general-hermeneutics emphasis. These books are responding to newer hermeneutical views (e.g., postmodern relativism) but also seeking common-grace insights from these newer views (e.g., speech-act theory). The audience for these books are usually evangelicals and right-leaning critics. Examples include Thiselton’s The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description (1980) and New Horizons in Hermeneutics (1992), Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text: The Bible, The Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (1998), and Zimmermann’s Recovering Theological Hermeneutics: An Incarnational-Trinitarian Theory of Interpretation (2004).

Authors in the second genre are those that, although aware of general-hermeneutical issues, more directly use the Bible to develop hermeneutical implications for interpreting the Bible (e.g., aids to typological interpretation, factors related to the sufficiency of Scripture, proper use of creeds). That is, these are more focused on sacred hermeneutics. The audience tends to be more exclusively evangelicals as the arguments are more tied to a high view of Scripture. These would include Berkhof’s Principles of Biblical Interpretation: Sacred Hermeneutics (1950), Virkler’s Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation (1981), Swain’s Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and its Interpretation (2011), and Poythress’ Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God: A Handbook for Biblical Interpretation (2016).

Of course, these two genres overlap, especially for evangelical writers, and both genres are valuable. I would place Bartholomew’s Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture in the first genre. Bartholomew is well-qualified to write this type of book. He is a philosophy professor at Redeemer University College (Ontario) with a PhD in OT and has an extensive record of publications related to philosophy, OT (especially Ecclesiastes), and hermeneutics. I would place Bartholomew theologically in the neo-Calvinistic Dutch tradition of Kuyper/Dooyeweerd/Spykman/Plantinga.

The book is separated in five parts. Part 1 is “Approaching Biblical Interpretation.” Here Bartholomew makes some of his strongest statements. Affirming the neo-Calvinistic tradition, he sees no neutral starting point for hermeneutics. He condemns critical scholars for often assuming in practice that they have a view of truth that produces “autonomous, value-free research” (p. 5). He wants scholars from AAR and SBL to admit their presuppositions which would then produce “genuine pluralism in which different foundational commitments [are] allowed to come to expression so that the real, in-depth dialogue could begin (p. 5, emphasis his). Bartholomew admits his foundations; his is a hermeneutic that is Christocentric and Trinitarian (pp. 5-8) and assumes the unity of the whole Bible (p. 57). He does not really give a defense of this strong Christian starting point as he simply references the reader to Plantinga’s argument for “warranted” belief (p. 57, 468).

Bartholomew has an intriguing discussion of “respectful listening” to Scripture (pp. 17-47). He mentions Mary (Martha’s sister) as the “patron saint” (Luke 10:39). He uses this to include meditation and prayer in the process of interpretation and a corrective for those who only analyze the text.

Part 2 presents Bartholomew’s emphasis on narrative and biblical theology. He strongly affirms that systematic theology and philosophy are part of biblical interpretation (pp. 11-12, 444), but he also wants to emphasize that “narrative biblical theology should be . . . primary, with other legitimate approaches subsumed under it” (p. 63, emphasis his). The narrative emphasis is justified because Christ is the center of biblical theology and his mission is eschatological. This eschatological focus gives the narrative aspect. The “drama of Scripture” is presented in “six acts: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, mission, and new creation” (p. 360).

Part 3 is longer and covers the history of Christian and Jewish biblical interpretation. Part of the rationale for this is another one of Bartholomew’s emphases throughout the book: the ecclesial context for interpretation should be primary over the academic (pp. 9, 33, 38, 44-46). “Scripture is primarily God’s Word to God’s people, and thus communal, ecclesial reception is primary” (p. 9). No, Bartholomew is not arguing for a “complete subservience of academic interpretation to ecclesial understandings . . . but it is wrong – folly, in the biblical sense—to see academic interpretation as a corrective to ecclesial” (p. 46).

In his history of interpretation, he separates the modern period into four hermeneutical “turns:” (1) historical (historical-critical method), (2) literary (denial or agnostic toward historical referents), (3) Postmodern, and (4) Theological (e.g., Fowl, N. T. Wright, Childs, Brueggemann, Webster, Watson, Vanhoozer).

The heroes of the historical chapter are Calvin and Barth. They “represent the sort of historical bloodline that urgently needs transfusing into the present” (p. 233). Calvin and Barth have a commitment to the whole Word of God and combine exegesis, theology, and faith, along with rigorous scholarship. (Throughout this book, Bartholomew often commends Barth, but he occasionally qualifies his approval [pp. 359, 446, 527].)

In Part 4, Bartholomew discusses “Biblical Interpretation and Academic Disciplines.” He more-or-less takes one chapter for each of his four turns to discuss the current state of that academic discipline along with his suggestions. He has a chapter on philosophical hermeneutics that concludes Augustine’s faith-seeking-understanding is best as opposed to the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition or postmodernism (p. 326).

His polemic in the literature chapter is to “privilege” the biblical text as we have it (final form) as the “focus of interpretation.” But he does not want to discount the historical referents or the process by which the text came together. That is, although the synchronic reading is primary, one should not “drive a wedge between the synchronic and diachronic aspects of biblical texts” (p. 410). Here he sees Sternberg and N. T. Wright as two excellent models.

Another emphasis of Bartholomew in Part 4 is his advocacy of a “communicative hermeneutic” that gives attention to three foci: sender, message, and receiver (pp. 379, 418). Many others use this general model. Bartholomew’s discussions here are well informed.

In his theology chapter, he has a plea not to abandon the Bible’s emphasis on creation. This affects the “story” aspect of hermeneutics and has Trinitarian, Christological, and eschatological implications. Here he praises Spykman and Gunton (pp. 449, 458).

Part 5 is short with two sections. One is an example of his hermeneutical method(s) using the book of Hebrews. The other is his thoughts on preaching. Expanding upon his view that the ecclesial context is the primary context of interpretation, Bartholomew has a very high view of preaching and urges academic biblical scholars to be exposed to and practice preaching (p. 524).

Bartholomew complains about the influence on evangelicals through Haddon Robinson’s view that one is to preach the text with a unifying “proposition” and truth claim. For Bartholomew, this reduces the Bible’s many-faceted illocutionary forces (pp. 530-31). John Broadus and even Reformed stalwarts such as William Perkins and Charles Hodge have contributed to this truncating of the Bible’s impact with their emphasis on a enlightenment view of truth (p. 532-33).

Bartholomew is in the neo-Calvinistic tradition; I am in the traditional-Calvinistic covenantal-theology tradition with a Van Tilian twist. Bartholomew wrote a hermeneutics book in the first genre of hermeneutical books described above; I am more at home with the second genre but appreciate aspects related to the first genre. Despite these admittedly minor differences, I am in general agreement with most of his hermeneutical conclusions, although I have a twinge of hesitancy.

Much of my hesitancy is really a difference of emphasis. For example, Bartholomew’s primacy of story and significance of philosophy is a difference of proportion to my emphasis on a robust, traditional covenant theology. He likes Reformed epistemology (Plantinga) as a justification for an explicit Christian starting point and argument for no neutrality; I would rather argue for the same from a Van Tilian perspective. Of course, these two philosophers have significant overlap. Bartholomew tends to describe various models and then assert which one fits best within a Christian worldview; I would prefer to see more direct arguments from the Bible itself. He sees the importance of tradition and the ecclesial context as influencing interpretation; I agree but was disappointed that he did not include creeds. Bartholomew recommends a “communication” model; similarly, I promote an “authority dialogue” model (Richard Pratt’s term) – Christians dialogue with an authority, God. Our difference is that I tend to put more emphasis on the implications of the Scripture having a divine author. He is concerned with the reality of the historical referents in the biblical text. Finally, Bartholomew often uses Calvin, Barth and N. T. Wright as positive examples; I use Calvin, Warfield, Murray, and Poythress.

In sum, Bartholomew is a reliable guide for describing the major issues and players relative to past and present broad philosophical-hermeneutical issues for biblical interpretation. In addition, his philosophical-hermeneutical conclusions dovetail reasonably well with those that I teach in my hermeneutics class at RTS. If one has not recently read a hermeneutical book in this genre, this is the one to get.

Robert J. Cara
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte