How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stewart is a concise and understandable guide to interpreting scripture. Fee and Stewart, New Testament and Old Testament Scholars, respectively, take an orderly approach to explaining the science of hermeneutics and presenting how to apply that science across each biblical genre. Beginning with the New Testament Epistles, Fee and Stewart work their way back through the Bible from the new covenant to the old. They save for last the final and most difficult of book of the bible to interpret, Revelation. Before jumping into the interpretative method of any book, the authors discuss the need for doing hermeneutics and the various tools a reader has at his disposal to complete the hermeneutical task. Overall, the authors present a coherent and generally acceptable view of scripture interpretation; they present hermeneutical tools and describe how to use them to interpret the New and Old Testaments, providing plenty of examples along the way.
By first examining the necessity of doing sound hermeneutics, Fee and Stewart set the tone for the entire book. The underlying assumption (established in the first chapter) throughout the book’s survey of interpreting scripture is that the text cannot mean what it never meant. This is a sensible and easily acceptable assumption for any reader to accept no matter what prejudices and preconceived notions he may bring to the table. Throughout the remaining chapters Fee and Stewart rely on the reasonableness of this assumption as they challenge common misunderstandings of scriptural passages. The authors also rely on this assumption as they discuss the different English translations of scripture. Readers almost assuredly come the table with “their” translations of scripture. When it comes to matters of biblical translations, preferences and prejudices can run strong. Fee and Stewart, like others, have their preferred translations. In order to connect with the reader throughout the book, Fee and Stewart must show that the translations which they prefer and implement to perform the hermeneutical task communicate the original meaning of the text. Fee and Stewart present themselves as quite reasonable in advocating committee translations from a reliable manuscript tradition. Fee and Stewart clearly have a preference for functionally equivalent translations. Their readers may not agree with such a preference, but Fee and Stewart present themselves credibly by giving an objective assessment of literal and free translations and recommending that multiple translations be implemented for hermeneutical study.
Having laid the groundwork for their hermeneutical method, Fee and Stewart immediately address the epistles. By starting the interpretive journey through the Bible in the epistles, which are more recent, more straightforward and more western than other genres the Bible, the reader learns to how to apply the hermeneutical method in a less challenging environment. The hermeneutical method of understanding the occasion for writing, the intent of the author, and the historical context in which a book was written applies to all genres. Applying this method to the epistles and drawing contemporary parallels for theological application is comparatively easier than doing so to Old Testament prophecy. Fee and Stewart start the reader out on the bunny slopes (epistles), as it were, before moving onto the black diamonds (Revelation). This is of great benefit. Chapter Three is subtitled “learning to think critically” for good reason. Having learned to think critically, the reader is prepared to apply the hermeneutical method to the rest of the Bible. The Narrative parts of the Bible (the gospels, the Torah, and Acts) are the next genre to be examined. The three levels of Hebrew Narrative are explored along with the stories Acts. Fee and Stewart stress the importance of understanding God’s work in these narrative stories while not using them as prescriptive models for theology and church governance. This builds upon a previous idea explored while discussion the epistles: how to formulate systematic theology from scripture written for a specific occasion or used to tell a story. Once again, the authors are preparing a foundation for the reader; A Christian systematic theology must be understood through the epistles and narratives before the Old Testament law can be understood within a Christian framework. Before examining the Old Testament (the Law and the Prophets), the teachings and life of Christ himself are examined within the context of his life, times, and purpose since Christ’s nature and teachings undergird all Christian theology. Christ himself referenced the authority of the Law and the Prophets while exclaiming “It is these that testify about Me.”
Fee and Stewart, while acknowledging that the purpose of the law was to be fulfilled in Christ, stress that the law had other purposes, too. So did prophecy. The civil, ceremonial, and ethical facets of the law are explored along with the purpose of prophecy. The law was not just about Jesus, it was about setting the Jews apart. Prophecies were not all told about Jesus; much prophecy applies to the fate of Israel and has already come to pass. Fee and Stewart examine the many pitfalls of taking the Old Testament law and prophecies out of context. This leads into their examination of the misuse and misunderstanding of the wisdom literature which if often if not constant. Pitfalls of misinterpreting wisdom literature are given special attention for this reason. Misinterpreting the final book of the Bible (and the final book explored) isn’t hard to do if one is not careful. Having shown the reader how to carefully do hermeneutics, Fee and Stewart save revelation for last. The takeaway from their examination of this book is to build on what is explicitly explained by The Revelator when attempting to understand the prophecies in the book of Revelation.
After reading this book, one should have a workable understanding of how to soundly interpret scripture. Equipped with a conversance of the original biblical languages and/or a diverse collection of conservative commentaries, such a person should be well prepared to find doctrine and understanding in the pages of scripture. The book is a dependable source for evangelical readers as Fee and Stewart are evangelicals themselves. The authors write from the perspective that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and is not just another ancient set of books. If this is a bias, it is one evangelical Christians wishing to interpret scripture should look for in the authors they choose to read. One other bias of which the reader should be aware of is that of Fee; he is and outspoken Egalitarian and a member of the committee that composed the controversial Today’s New International Version translation of the Bible. Quotations from this translation of scripture are used and recommended throughout the book over and against more formally equivalent translations. Navigating an author’s potential bias is a small price to pay for the great benefit to be received from reading this book. It is a great foundation for hermeneutical study for those looking to learn at the popular or academic level.
Summation: Chapter 1 – Introduction: The Need To Interpret
Unique interpretations of scripture are probably wrong. Interpretations of scripture should not be based on biases. It is important to understand both the literary and historical contexts in which a passage was written, as well as the meaning of the language. Hermeneutics follows exegesis. “A text cannot mean what it never meant.”
Summation: Chapter 2 – The Basic Tool: A Good Translation
There are many translations but one God. Translations are either produced by individuals or by committees. Producers rely on differing methods to render the original language into the receptor language. Methods range from attempting to produce a literal translation (formal equivalence) to merely trying to express the ideas in the text (free translation.) Functional equivalence lies somewhere the middle. Regardless of method, a translation is only as good as the manuscript(s) it uses as its source. A variety of literal and functional translations are available for use.
Summation: Chapter 3 – The Epistles: Learning to Think Critically
Interpreting the epistles can be harder than it looks. Many statements in the epistles are straightforward, yet they still must be understood in the context (historical or otherwise) in which they were written. Some epistles were written for general consumption (to the church) while others were written for specific consumption (to a church or a specific person). Another thing to consider is the relationship of the author with the audience. What did they know about one another? Do we know it? What was the occasion for writing? Interpreting is not as simple as picking up a New Testament letter and reading what it says; it’s best to consult several commentaries to answer these questions.
Summation: Chapter 4 – The Epistles: The Hermeneutical Questions
All people do hermeneutics (p.71). This is a recipe for disagreements among Christians. Yet, there are surprisingly few because there is common hermeneutic ground. One of these grounds is plain common sense. Another ground is exegesis. Where we share common ground with the original audience, we can share common understanding. Extending applications of scripture outside of its time to our own can be problematic because we share less and less with people of antiquity as time goes on. Sound hermeneutics turns the task-oriented theology of the epistles into the systematic theology of today.
Summation: Chapter 5 – The Old Testament Narratives: Their Proper Use
A big chunk of the Biblical text is narrative. Narrative is often hermeneutically abused due to a misunderstanding of how (Hebrew) narrative works. Hebrew narrative consists of 3 levels: the meta-narrative of God’s plan, the story of God’ redeeming people through covenants (old and new), and the stories of individual people. The story of Joseph is a prime example of Hebrew narrative that shows the various levels as well as the components of this type of literature (the narrator, the scenes, the characters, the dialogue, and the structure). Some messages are explained explicitly and some are meant implicitly. Reading between the lines to find implicit messages should not be done too deeply and often results in error.
Summation: Chapter 6 – Acts: The Question of Historical Precedent
Acts is a historical narrative, but not Hebrew Narrative. It is Hellenistic historiography, a somewhat different genre. It also tells a different specific story, the story of the early church. It does so in six panels. There is not necessarily prescriptive theology in these panels because Luke’s purpose is giving a history and showing the work of the Holy Spirit, not teaching theology. Thus, readers must be careful not to treat Acts like a church operations manual.
Summation: Chapter 7 – The Gospels: One Story, Many Dimensions
There are four gospels that give an account of the sayings and life of the same man, Jesus and he didn’t write any of them. The gospels, though they tell many of the same stories and even use the same sources right down to the same words, must be understood both all at once (horizontally) and on their own (vertically). They also must be considered in the light of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who inspired the gospels in ways other “lives” works were not. Each story is told in a specific way for good reason and each reason must be understood in order to generate a faithful interpretation.
Summation: Chapter 8 – The Parables: Do You Get the Point
The parables are not allegories. Regardless of certain schools of thought, they were not meant to be hard to understand, they were meant to be easy to understand. In fact, we can expect that Jesus’ audience did understand his parables. We, too, can understand his parables and choose to accept his message if we understand the cultural context in which he told them and the points of reference within the stories.
Summation: Chapter 9 – The Law(s): Covenant Stipulations for Israel
Although Christians are not under the Old Testament Law, they should still see it as God’s inspired word. The law, which is presented like other ancient near eastern contracts, is designed to set Israel apart. It shows how high God has set his standard. It stands far and above the laws of proximate cultures and even its seemingly strange parts are rejections of the godlessness of Israel’s neighbors. Although Christians are only under those parts of the Old Testament ethical law that is reiterated in the New Testament, Christians can still appreciate the entire Old Testament Law (civil, ceremonial, and ethical) for what it was designed to do (set the Jews apart) and what it has done (shown Christ to be a worthy Messiah).
Summation: Chapter 10 – The Prophets: Enforcing the Covenant in Israel
The prophets are more than fore-tellers, though they do predict the future. When reading the prophets we must be careful not to be too focused on eschatology and messianic prophecy, remembering that when the prophets did predict the future, many of the predicted events came to pass before New Testament times. The prophets spoke, in various kinds of oracles. Understanding the different type of oracles and identifying the historical context in which they were spoken is essential to faithfully reading the prophets. Understanding Hebrew poetry helps ensure a faithful reading as well. It is also important not to insert New Testament parallels where none exist. Paul and Matthew were inspired by the Holy Spirit to do as such, we are not.
Summation: Chapter 11 – The Psalms: Israel’s Prayers and Ours
Psalms are poetry. Psalms are prayers and sayings to God from man inspired by God. The Psalms must be understood in their proper genre; they were written by various authors for various purposes. The expression of doctrine is not necessarily one of them, thus the reader should be careful when looking into the Psalms for doctrine. The reader should look to the Psalms for God’s inspired word as these words still carry meaning for today’s reader.
Summation: Chapter 12 – Wisdom: Then and Now
The chapter on Wisdom literature addressed abuses before it addressed proper uses. Wisdom literature is read more than any other type of biblical literature, is often misunderstood, and is often abused. It’s important to understand the Wisdom genre up against the wisdom literature of proximate cultures and understand that biblical Wisdom literature is God-focused and God-breathed. The Wisdom expressed can be lyrical, speculative, or prudential. It is never to be understood as a 100% literally applicable. Proverbs are aphorisms, not promises.
Summation: Chapter 13 – The Revelation: Images of Judgment and Hope
Revelation is a tough book to interpret. Like any book it must first be properly exegeted and understood as a product of its author, genre, and time. It cannot necessarily be assumed that its audience would have had access to other New Testament prophecies. Revelation should be exegeted in isolation of the prophecies and understood along the lines of the Old Testament which is references heavily. With regards to the symbolic imagery in Revelation, the images that aren’t explained should be understood in a similar fashion to those that are. It is not 100% clear just what parts of the foretold future have come to pass and what to what degree Satan’s part in the unfolding of the eschaton has been completed. The end is assured though; Satan will be bound and cast into Hell. Jesus will return for his church.
*Please note that the preceding is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of any entity by which I am employed, any church at which I am a member, any church which I attend, or the educational institution at which I am enrolled. Any copyrighted material displayed or referenced is done under the doctrine of fair use.