I mentioned a while back that I’ve been reading through Rob Plummer’s new hermeneutics primer 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible. It has been an excellent read, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a smart, introductory-level text on biblical interpretation. I’ll wager it’s the only hermeneutics book in history with endorsements as illustrious and varied as Darrell Bock, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Jerry Vines.
Don’t let the title fool you though. This is not a book of 40 random questions thrown together haphazardly. The book has four parts treating the following topics: (1) text, canon, and translation, (2) interpretation and meaning, (3) biblical genres, and (4) issues in recent discussion. The 40 questions are arranged systematically under these headings. So the questions range from “What is the Bible?” to “Who determines the meaning of a text?” to “How do we interpret poetry” to “What is ‘Speech Act Theory’?” (and a host of others).
There are several reasons that make this book stand-out among other introductory hermeneutics texts.
(1) Its back-to-basics approach – Vince Lombardi used to give his players a remedial lesson at the beginning of each football season: “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Plummer begins this book with that kind of a back-to-basics approach, in essence saying, “Gentlemen, this is the Bible.” In chapter one, he answers the question, “What is the Bible?” Readers find out that it is a collection of 66 books divided into two testaments (old and new). The purpose of the Bible is “to make [a person] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (p. 18). Plummer provides a basic chronology of biblical history as well as many other ground-level facts about the scriptures. Some will think this approach is too basic. But given the great biblical illiteracy of the current day, I would argue that it is not. Most introductory students will need this infoâ€”including many who have grown-up in church.
(2) Its Accessibility â€“ Plummer says that his book would serve ideally as a textbook for an introductory Bible course at a college or seminary, but I would argue that this book would be useful to a much broader audience. A person with little or no knowledge of the Bible could read this book and profit, and so could someone who’s been reading the Bible for years. The book contains very readable, non-technical prose that any lay reader could follow. Moreover, the book is organized such that particular topics may be accessed without knowledge of prior chapters (p. 11). So it serves as a valuable FAQ on all things hermeneutical.
(3) Its Christocentric Focus â€“ Plummer adopts a Christological approach to interpreting the Bible. In other words, he believes both Old and New Testaments are about Jesus. He writes, “If we study or teach any part of the Bible without reference to Jesus the Savior, we are not faithful interpreters” (pp. 96-97). Thus Plummer does not commend the divide-and-conquer method of interpretation that is so popular among many professional biblical scholarsâ€”an approach that treats the Bible as a polysemous, self-contradicting collection of ancient books. Plummer sees a unified message with Jesus Christ as the focus of divine revelation (p. 151).
(4) Its Author-oriented approach â€“ Plummer rightly eschews text-centered (e.g., New Criticism) and reader-centered (e.g., reader-response) approaches to interpreting texts. Instead he argues that authorial intent is the ground for understanding textual meaning. In doing so, he also argues that God inspired the Bible and assured its inerrancy. He does not affirm a sensus plenior approach to understanding the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. Instead, he argues that difficult passages such as Matthew 1:23 can be understood typologically while honoring the author’s original intent (pp. 137-139).
(5) Its View of Illumination â€“ Plummer argues that the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential when one interprets the Bible. He rejects a definition of illumination that would make interpreting the Bible a revelatory event. He agrees with Grant Osborne that, “The Spirit enables us to free our minds to the text but does not whisper to us the correct answer” (p. 145). Plummer argues that the noetic effects of sin mar the reader’s ability to understand the Bible. He writes, “The sinful human heart manufactures evidence to justify its distorted perspective. . . the Spirit does not whisper some secret meaning inaccessible to others, but the Spirit does enable us to perceive facts and judge the plausibility of arguments with greater clarity” (p. 146). This to me is the correct way to understand how our minds are ill-suited to understand the Bible apart from the Spirit.
[I’ll tweak Plummer on one minor point in this section. I think he too hastily dismisses Daniel Fuller’s argument that the Holy Spirit affects only the will in illumination (p. 146). I think Fuller would agree with Plummer’s view of the noetic effect of sin and of the Holy Spirit’s role in counteracting that effect in interpretation. But this observation is less a substantive critique than it is a difference in our understanding of Fuller’s proposal.]
(6) Its Treatment of Genre â€“ The authors of scripture wrote using a variety of different literary types, each of which has its own set of conventions for proper interpretation. The authors of scripture assumed that their readers would be sensitive to these conventions. We cannot, therefore, properly ascertain what an author means without understanding genre. Plummer gives a helpful overview of the different genres found in the Bible and divides his treatment into three sections: shared genres, primarily OT genres, and primarily NT genres. In each chapter he gives keys to interpreting each type.
(7) Its Treatment of Current Hot Topics â€“ Plummer closes his book with a survey of some hermeneutical items in recent discussion among biblical scholars. What does the Bible tell us about the future? What is biblical criticism? What is speech act theory? For me, the most helpful chapter in this section is chapter 39, “What is the Theological Interpretation of Scripture.” This is the best one-stop summary of TIS that I have read. From now on, whenever anyone asks me what TIS is, I will be pointing them to chapter 39 in this book.
Plummer has done a great service to the church in producing this book. It is a wonderful introduction to hermeneutics, and I will be adopting it as a required text in future hermeneutics courses that I teach at Boyce College. But this book is not just for seminary students. Almost any lay person with an interest in learning more about the Bible will benefit from this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.