Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach

W. Randolph Tate Baker Academic, Peabody, MA May 1, 2008
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Tate’s third edition of his Biblical Interpretation reveals a mature approach to the subject of hermeneutics. This volume is organized around “three worlds”: author, text, and reader. Tate suggests that approaches that focus on one or two of these ultimately fail by neglecting one or two of the other “worlds” (p. 5). He states that “meaning results from a conversation between the world of the text and the world of the reader, a conversation  informed by the world of the author” (p. 5).

The book is organized around these three worlds. Unit one explores the world “behind” the text. This is a discussion of reconstructing the world of the author. Chapter 1 is a defense of the use of backgrounds, which to Tate is the exegetical process to which most students are exposed in seminary or Bible school. Tate’s label “backgrounds” is broader than that with which many will be familiar. It includes word studies, grammar, historical and cultural backgrounds, and the ideological context. The ideological background may be new to some readers. Thus this is a helpful addition. The unit concludes with a discussion of three methods that focus on the world behind the text: source, social scientific, and canonical.

The material in unit one will be familiar to many readers for it is what many think of as exegesis. Tate includes a number of tools for work in this “world” (pp. 26–29): bibliographies on Bible dictionaries, word study books, lexicons, and concordances (original language and exclusively English). One could wish other such “tool” bibliographies were included (e.g., grammars and background sources). To some extent the “Suggestions for Further Reading” section provides this information, but these bibliographies are not focused on tools. Although the idea of a tool bibliography is helpful, the section has five problems. First, there is little discussion about which tools are best. The tools are merely listed. For example, two lexicons (by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker; and Thayer) are included in the same list without any indication as to which is more helpful or authoritative. Second, there is little discussion of how a specific tool is to be used. The work by Liddell, Scott, and Jones is listed as a lexicon but there is no mention that it will best be used for classical works. Third, the dates for some volumes are reprint dates without any notation that the books are reprints. For example Vincent’s Word Studies, first published over one hundred years ago, is dated 1985, with no indication of its original date. Fourth, some tools are listed that are out of date and/or inaccurate (e.g., Wuest’s Word Studies). Fifth, important tools are missing. It is interesting that Vincent and Wuest are listed but not Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, or Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (although Theological Dictionary of the New Testament is mentioned by abbreviation only in the midst of a discussion about the cautious use of such tools; p. 29). Further, a section on computer software would have been a helpful addition to this unit. For most students unit one will be the least helpful unit in this book.

Unit two, the world within the text, emphasizes various genres found in the Bible. Tate describes a number of subgenres that apply to the entire Bible. Many would label these figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, euphemism, metaphor, simile, symbolism, allegory). Specific genres in the Old Testament (narrative, poetry, prophecy) and the New Testament (Gospels, Epistles, subgenres in the Gospels and Epistles, apocalyptic) are also introduced. The unit concludes with a supplement on redaction, literary, and genre criticisms. This is a helpful unit.

Unit three, the world in front of the text, exposes the world of the reader. Readers often fail to realize how much they bring to the text. This includes theological presuppositions. Included in this unit are interesting discussions of what the role of faith is and how one’s belief in inspiration affects one’s reading of the Bible (pp. 222–26). This unit concludes with a supplement on reader-response, autobiographical, and feminist criticisms. This important unit helps interpreters realize their role in the process. No one is completely objective. Tate’s decision to include this unit last is interesting. His approach helps readers focus first on the text and then on themselves.

The final unit is an integration of the three worlds in an interpretation of the Gospel of Mark. This is helpful because it demonstrates how all three of these areas are necessary and are integrated. It would have been helpful if the book discussed the process of applying the ancient text in modern times.

Review questions are included with each chapter to help the reader think through the issues. Also key terms are recalled (without explanation) and further reading is suggested at the end of each chapter. As noted in the summaries above, each of the three main units conclude with a supplement on relevant critical methods for each unit. Four appendixes are added. The volume concludes with a select bibliography and three indexes (modern authors, subjects, and Scriptures and other ancient sources).

The book is especially helpful for those who have already studied hermeneutics or exegesis. Most of these students have probably been exposed to what is discussed in unit one and to a lesser extent what is covered in unit two. This is natural in hermeneutics and exegesis courses. The skills of grammatical analysis, word study, and the like are foundational and often demand serious attention to grasp. However, once mastered, the other material will become helpful.

Readers will also benefit from Tate’s discussion of critical methods. This is a simple introduction to methodologies within the context of interpretation. Many readers may not have been exposed to these or may have had little interest in learning about them. Care must be taken with these methods; however, when used carefully they can prove helpful. Tate had to make a choice between introducing the reader to a number of methods or using one method to describe the interpretation process. It is to the reader’s benefit that so many methods are introduced.

This volume is a helpful addition to resources on interpretation. Its focus on three worlds provides a perspective that will help readers balance their approach in the exegetical process.

—Joseph D. Fantin

January 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2011 vol. 168 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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