Book Review: “How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth” by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart (1982)

God’s Word is ultimately profitable, above and beyond any other text that has ever been written or compiled, and it is the study of this divine text that has for centuries been the source of the Christian’s greatest blessings and the Church’s greatest heartaches. Blessings come when Christians understand not only that God has communicated with and revealed Himself to men over millennia through the same books written thousands of years ago, but also that they must diligently study that communication in order to apply it. Heartaches come when individuals and churches forego that study and try to apply the Word without ever having understood it or the context in which it was originally written, thereby defiling God’s message and destroying unity amongst believers. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth seeks to guide its readers to a better understanding of God’s eternal message through a methodology of proper exegesis and hermeneutics. The following book analysis will first introduce both the authors of this text and their overarching focus, then compile a summary of the book’s three major sections, and finally analyze two specific themes found within the text, both the discussions on the translations of Scripture and the idea of occasional writing.

First, this book analysis will introduce both the authors of How to Read the Bible and their overarching focus throughout the text. As seminary professors, both Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart have given their lives to the study of God’s Word, and through their experiences in teaching and guiding, they have come face to face with many of the misinterpretation pitfalls that have trapped students of the Bible since the Word was first made accessible. The dire need for effective hermeneutics and proper application was the reason this book was written, for the authors, experts themselves, became convinced that individuals must need not depend on the results of the careful study of biblical experts, but must instead learn to wield the tool of hermeneutics themselves.[1] As a cohesive means for getting this point across, the authors teach their methodology through the idea of biblical, literary genres (i.e. Epistles, narratives, psalms, etc.), that each specific genre has its own characteristics which affect how one might discover and apply the principles found within the biblical text. Thus the focus of How to Read the Bible is the methodology of hermeneutics as it relates to each varying genre within Scripture.

Second, this book analysis will compile a summary of the book’s three major sections. These sections include first the basics of hermeneutics in Chapters 1 and 2, then a foundational walk-through of  how to implement these hermeneutical tools by exemplifying a study through the Epistles in Chapters 3 and 4, and finally the putting of these hermeneutics to practice in the remaining nine biblical genres in Chapters 5 through 13. The following three paragraphs will describe each of these sections in more detail.

A discussion through the basics of hermeneutics in Chapters 1 and 2 covers both the need for and the basic tool of interpretation. Regarding the need for interpretation, Fee and Stuart argue that, because God has elected to communicate with humanity over thousands of years through His divinely inspired, man-written Word, it is man’s responsibility to properly interpret it, an activity that involves three things: exegesis, hermeneutics, and enlightened common sense.[2] Without proper exegesis, much of Scripture would fail to make good sense today, because its text would remain archaic and foreign. Without proper hermeneutics, the principles taught both implicitly and explicitly throughout the Bible would seem inapplicable and hard to understand. Without enlightened common sense, the Bible becomes a dry history textbook that barely makes the bucket list of “Things to read before I die.” Fee and Stuart do well to magnify the Spirit-filled liveliness of Scripture, one that must be grasped and savored, for through it, humanity can meet God.[3] Regarding the basic tool of interpretation, Fee and Stuart delineate the importance of having a good translation, the discussion of which will follow in the third part of this analysis.

A foundational walk-through of  how to implement these exegetical and hermeneutical tools in Chapters 3 and 4 takes the reader to the books commonly known as the Epistles, allowing for an immediate hands-on approach to a study that focuses on both the exegesis and the hermeneutics of any given epistle or letter.[4] Regarding the exegesis of the text, the authors emphasize the importance of knowing the historical context of the epistle, which involves reading passages in their entirety, making broad notes on context, and consulting outside sources like Bible handbooks and dictionaries.[5] They also stress the importance on knowing the literary context of the passage, a process that involves both thinking in paragraphs and discovering “What’s the point?” of a passage.[6] By sharing two examples of how to work this way through a particular passage of Scripture, Fee and Stuart solidify the practices in the reader’s mind, allowing him to apply such steps to any epistle passage he chooses. In doing so, they establish their underlying methodology which becomes standard for studying Scripture of all genres. Regarding the hermeneutics, the authors suggest that common sense often dictates what readers must learn through the Epistles, though non-consistency in interpretation is perhaps a reader’s greatest pitfall. Rather than offering sweeping general principles for applying Scripture to today’s culture, the authors instead offer several warnings against misapplication. Under the theoretical umbrella that a text cannot mean what it never meant to the author or original readers, the authors warn against extended applications, applications of non-comparable particulars, ignorance of cultural relativity, and task theology.[7]

A systematic approach to hermeneutics based on the remaining nine biblical genres completes the book in Chapters 5 through 13. In this final section, the reader learns the methods of putting these hermeneutics to practice in genres such as Old Testament narratives, psalms, wisdom literature, parables, and the Revelation. This book analysis will not venture into summarizing the authors’ various hermeneutical suggestions for each of the nine genres they discuss through the rest of the book, but it will pull out several of the overarching principles that extend across the genre boundaries. First is the idea that to understand any Scripture text, one must seek to discover both the context and the understanding of the author and the original  audience.[8] Second, and similar to the basic premise that no text can mean what it never meant to the author or original hearers, is the idea that one must seek to read things out of the text, never into it.[9] Third, this type of reading things out of a given text is clearly encouraged in the authors’ persistent and considerate warnings against misinterpretations through dangerous methods that have become second-nature to many Christians today, for example allegorizing, selectivity, and spiritualizing.[10] Fourth, a reader must be careful to avoid originality or uniqueness in hermeneutics (i.e. uncovering a biblical mystery no one has ever found before), for although proper Bible study is difficult and time-consuming, even the most difficult passages contain readily accessible principles and spiritual points that are unchanging, much like the prophesies of prophets which were original in wording but never in message.[11] Finally, Fee and Stuart do well to summarize and list numerous guiding principles for each genre and for hermeneutics in general, and while they could have published a short form of this book with these imperative principles alone and experienced much the same success as they did with How to Interpret the Bible, their definitions and examples for each are certainly welcomed helps.

Third, this book analysis will analyze and interact with two specific themes of How to Read the Bible. The two following paragraphs will discuss these themes, both the discussions on the translations of Scripture and the idea of occasional writing.

The topic of the translations of Scripture, as described in the book, helps set the foundation for the authors’ hermeneutical methodology, and several points must be discussed in greater detail. First, the authors completed an entire book on biblical hermeneutics without making much more than a passing mention of the fact that the Bible was not originally written in English,[12] a failure that simply does not seem reasonable. A brief chapter on the implications of translation from original languages and the rationale behind the multitude of English translations would have been an acceptable addition of pages, for it would explain the “why” behind their suggestion to use multiple translations in Bible study.[13] Next, the authors suggest from the beginning discussion on translations several translations that, in today’s evangelical tradition, seem surprising.[14] For example, while they suggest as optimal the Today’s New International Version, they completely ignore the English Standard Version as even optional. They make obvious their dislike of both the King James Version—defending their position well in this regard—and the Amplified Bible, though with regards to the Amplified Bible, the authors fail to offer any reasonable explanation for why they would prefer to see it gather dust on a Bible student’s shelf.[15] Again, a brief chapter on translation as part of their introductory material could have laid some very essential groundwork for those craving to truly read the Bible for all its worth. Third, the authors state at one point that “God’s Word is to be found in the intent of Scripture,” a maxim that requires definition, for it is on this premise that they not only build their hermeneutical methodology, but also select their preferred translations.[16] Because hermeneutics is, narrowly, “seeking the contemporary relevance of ancient texts,” the authors would have done well to have laid a better foundation of these ancient texts before proceeding to build the structure of contemporary relevance upon it.[17]

The idea of occasional writing, as also discussed throughout How to Read the Bible, strikes a chord with students of the Bible, for it brings into questions the “why” of the text, or as the authors put it, “What’s the point?”[18] In writing about the Epistles, the authors explicitly state that “being occasional, [the Epistles] were not first written to be theological treatises.”[19] In considering this claim, however, one might disagree. Today, students of the Bible consider the Epistles to be the most theological in the Bible, and one major reason for this sentiment is that the Epistles were occasional. This is best exemplified by considering other theological “treatises” throughout Scripture, for example the sermons, which can be found in narratives and prophecies, and the Psalms, which were poetry. The theological treatises of both sermons and psalms were occasional, written about or in response to some event, making obvious the reality that theology is best evidenced in practicality. It is not fair to assume that the Epistles were not first written to be theological treatises, specifically when considering the time and place of writing,  for what true believer (especially one inspired to write Scripture) can deny the opportunity to theologize in response to a real event or need or occasion? Perhaps by saying “theological treatise” the authors mean to refer to divine ideas or theories about God, but “theology” and “theory” are neither synonymous nor, even, closely linked. The words are unrelated, for while the prefix for “theology” comes from the Greek theos, meaning “god,” the prefix of “theory” comes from the Greek thea meaning “to view.”[20] Understanding the importance of practical theology will invite all Bible students to seek out these occasional writings, understand the occasions themselves, and grasp the theology that permeates the messages.

Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart have provided a very practical, well-rounded textbook for biblical hermeneutics, one that appeals specifically to those just undertaking the Bible study adventure. While the authors certainly could have improved their book by making some essential additions like those noted above, they accomplished the goal they set out to meet: to teach their readers methods for reading the Bible for all its worth. This book would be a great asset to anyone just beginning their own serious study of God’s Word or to anyone desiring to teach others the basics of biblical hermeneutics.

Bibliography

Fee, Gordon D., and Douglas K. Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2003.


[1] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2003), 14.

[2] Ibid. 26, 29, 18

[3] Ibid, 30

[4] Ibid, 56-58

[5] Ibid, 59-60

[6] Ibid, 64-65

[7] Ibid, 74, 76-87

[8] Ibid, 23, 151, 254

[9] Ibid, 74, 99

[10] Ibid, 103

[11] Ibid, 17, 69, 187

[12] Ibid, 40-43

[13] Ibid, 52

[14] Ibid, 52-53

[15] Ibid, 40-52

[16] Ibid, 120

[17] Ibid, 29

[18] Ibid, 65

[19] Ibid, 58

[20] Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=theology&allowed_in_frame=0 (accessed November 11, 2011); Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=theory&allowed_in_frame=0 (accessed November 11, 2011)

©2011 E.T.

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