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

Craig G. Bartholomew
Published by Baker Academic in 2015

During the last two decades, Craig Bartholomew has authored and edited an impressive number of volumes covering a wide range of subjects (550-551). A partial topical list includes the Bible’s unified story (The Drama of Scripture, 2004, co-authored with Michael Goheen), Christian worldview (Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview, 2008), the book of Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes, 2009), a theology of place (Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today, 2011), and Christian Philosophy (Christian Philosophy: A Systematic and Narrative Introduction, 2013). He is widely known and appreciated for his work as the convener of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar and editor or co-editor of the many volumes that group has produced. With his range of scholarly interests, it is not surprising that Bartholomew has ventured to publish this academically ambitious and pastorally helpful book.

The title seems intended to attract the widest possible audience. But it is misleading if one expects a textbook for a course in basic introduction to biblical interpretation for college or seminary students. Rather, it will best suit undergraduates taking a capstone class in Biblical Studies, Theology, or Philosophy and seminarians who have benefitted from a strong integrated theological curriculum. Of course, teachers may effectively use one or more of the book’s sections in a particular course, but as a whole it requires a more engaged and committed audience. Indeed, there are four reasons I believe it could best serve faculty members of Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries.

First, this is a boldly Christian book. The first two chapters strike a clear note. While gladly embracing the need to learn from non-Christians, Bartholomew stresses the confessional nature and Trinitarian basis of a proper biblical hermeneutic in chapter one (3-15). For him this means Christocentric reading that accepts the Bible as an authoritative, unified, and diverse whole; that believes the Bible is ecclesial in origin and purpose; that is committed to hearing the dialogue between the Old and New testaments; and that “exalts and humbles academic interpretation” (9). Bartholomew notes that biblical scholars often offer neutral readings of scripture and contends that this approach will not combat the nihilistic worldviews offered “amid the bloated comfort of the West, which has enjoyed some seventy years of relative peace and affluence” (4).

Chapter 2 claims that Christian biblical interpretation best occurs through careful reading, careful listening, and diligent application (40-44). Readers must not mine the Bible for academic or therapeutic gold. Rather, Christian readers must listen humbly to God’s voice in scripture so they can love learning that grows from desiring God (44-46). Bartholomew’s views clearly confront the uncommitted reader.

These opening chapters provide a welcome and bracing challenge. Bartholomew affirms that learning is important, for God calls many people to teaching and research. Yet he correctly contends that fellowship with God must take priority in the scholar’s life because teaching and learning matter more than even the most committed academic can imagine. The Bible, God’s word written, provides the means for knowing God. Fellowship with God sharpens the mind and will for action. Teaching and research best flow from this fundamentally necessary relationship.

Second, this is a systematic and learned book. Bartholomew boldly asserts that the Bible makes sense of “The Story of Our World,” which means biblical interpretation ought to flow from a robust Biblical Theology (51-84). This Biblical Theology should include major themes such as God’s act of creation, humanity’s sin and need of redemption, God’s relationship with his people through covenants, and God’s future kingdom. Here Bartholomew revisits and deepens themes he and Goheen discuss in The Drama of Scripture. He asserts that these unifying concepts are best connected through careful attention to the Trinitarian God, through treating Christ as the center of the Bible, and through maintaining the primacy of scripture when addressing ecclesial, ethical, and cultural concerns (83-84).

With these foundational principles in place, Bartholomew then proceeds in chapters 3-12 to examine the development of Biblical Theology (85-110), the history of Biblical Interpretation (113-278), and the role of Philosophy, History, Literature, and Theology in Biblical Hermeneutics (281-462). He presents a historical survey of each discipline before drawing conclusions about how the scholarly traditions of these liberal arts aid reflective scripture reading and thoughtful scholarship. He then closes the book with chapters on “Scripture and the University” (463-484), hearing the Bible using Hebrews as a test case (487-522), and preaching (523-545). While experts in these various areas will suggest works to exclude or include (see below), all will likely agree that Bartholomew exhibits wide reading and strong synthetic skills. Reading some of these surveys can be heavy going when one has a limited background in one or more of the disciplines covered, as is true of me. Yet the book repays the effort expended, for Bartholomew consistently summarizes his arguments and ties them to previous material. I found his treatment of the history of doctrine (113-250) especially helpful.

I have a few quibbles with these chapters. For instance, the chapter on literary theory repeats the standard criticism that New Critics did not care much about historical context. While Bartholomew cites, for instance, Cleanth Brooks’s The Well-Wrought Urn (1937) as an example of treating poetry as a literary artifact (398), he does not mention Brooks’s later work (for example, Community, Religion, and Literature, 1995) that incorporates historical analysis and answers the charge of indifference to historical context. Citing such works would have bolstered Bartholomew’s case that literary study enhances careful historical-theological reading of the Bible. He could have also covered the reasons New Critics turned from speculative historical analyses, such as how many sources Shakespeare used, as part of his argument against Wellhausen’s historical-critical approach to the Pentateuch (220-224).

Also, the chapter on Biblical Theology often cites C. R. Scobie and Brevard Childs favorably and effectively. Yet Bartholomew would have improved the chapter had he utilized Biblical Theology collections edited by Scott Hafemann and Don Carson and monographs by Walter Kaiser, Stephen Dempster, and other North American writers committed to Whole Bible Biblical Theology. He utilizes William Dumbrell and Graeme Goldsworthy well, but could benefit from noting other Australian biblical theologians (e.g., Donald Robinson and Peter Jensen). These writers treat the New Testament as the natural next step in biblical revelation rather than as a dialogue partner with the Old Testament.

The chapter on Theology rightly praises Karl Barth for his insistence on Trinitarian and Christological readings of the New Testament (230-237). But I find that Barth’s exegesis of Old Testament texts undermines the importance of history by agreeing with Wellhausen and other historical-critical proponents who deny the historicity of much of the Old Testament and then arguing that nothing has been lost theologically. Bartholomew could have used his own conclusions about the importance of history for hermeneutics to press both historical-critical and grammatical-historical scholars (such as myself) to know more about history when making claims about the Bible. I also doubt that Barth’s view of inspiration and authority of scripture will sustain evangelical scholarship as well as those of Millard Erickson, Carl Henry, and James Packer have thus far.

Finally, Bartholomew ought to revise the chapter on preaching for a second edition. It is the one place where I think he does not offer his typically thorough and balanced disciplinary analysis. Nonetheless, it takes courage to commend Martyn Lloyd-Jones as a model of preaching that engages the heart and the head (533), and I appreciate his doing so.

Third, as has been alluded to already, this is a judicious and irenic book. Bartholomew typically displays a deft and fair approach to his subject matter. He does not batter opponents or overstate his side of the argument. Thus, his tone befits a solid academic work, but runs counter to a lot of what passes for theological discourse on social media. His book will not stir up the young and restless Calvinist or Arminian to do theological battle. Instead it will press them to think about what Christian scholarship informed by a deep appreciation of the Bible looks like. This will help young and old alike to mature as thinkers, learners, and scholars.

Fourth, this is a radical book given the current state of Christian higher education. In the chapter devoted to “Scripture and the University,” Bartholomew depicts the divisions of a university as a great leafy tree. He argues that the disciplines of Arts and Sciences must grow from roots of faith, scripture, Biblical Theology, a Christian worldview, Christian Philosophy, and Christian Theology (475). This organic approach fits Bartholomew’s Reformed commitments. Yet it stands apart from Christian traditions that treat scripture, faith, and reason as equals, from traditions that deem social action primary, and from traditions that treat all disciplines as equally important for the university’s mission. It is worth saying that Bartholomew’s approach also opposes once-vibrant Christian universities becoming merely universities with a Christian heritage. It also raises, as it should, the age-old questions of how universities find and grow trustees, faculty, and staff able to utilize comprehensive Christian faith in their disciplines and duties to shape Christian students for faithful church, family, and community service.

In short, the book provides an excellent foundation for Christian universities and seminaries to continue conversations about faith and learning. For best results in these conversations, I wish Bartholomew had provided a clearer definition of two terms vital to the book’s aims. Like some other works I have read recently, Bartholomew criticizes “the academy” and its independence from “the church.” He hopes for the unification of the two for common Christian work, a hope I fervently share.

But “the academy” is hardly a uniform entity, despite how some constituents and government overseers have tried to make education an industrial product. Frankly, “the academy” is an abstraction, and an unhelpful one at that. If by “the academy” Bartholomew means the great universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Toronto, Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley, then he knows his proposal for academic and ecclesial unification is dead on arrival (473). The same is true if by “the academy” he means, for instance, the Alabama Junior College system or any number of state universities. These institutions will not as a whole embrace a confessional biblical stance, and in many cases it would be illegal if they did. There are certainly good Christian teachers and students in these institutions, and some universities welcome Christian scholars to their faculties and encourage their work. These scholars will take heart from Bartholomew’s witness and instruction. Perhaps this volume will encourage them to find and support one another more fully.

Happily, there is more hope if by “the academy” he means colleges and universities where trustees, administrators, faculty members, and staff members try to integrate ecclesial commitment, biblical theology, dedicated scholarly teaching and writing, and regular opportunities for worship (478). Christian colleges and universities large and small, old and fledgling, exist in North America and elsewhere. They provide daily occasions for engaged, thoughtful academic and community ministry. They send faculty members and graduates to various venues to use their skills to advance faith and learning. Though a minority in higher education circles, their remnant status gives them a clear, distinctive presence.

Even so, these colleges and universities are individual places with their own personalities and terrains. Each establishes community differently. Over the past 30 years, I have taught temporarily or full-time at academic institutions in rural, suburban, and urban settings in different parts of the United States, Asia, Australia, and Europe. Each setting provided a cross-cultural experience. Each place defines daily and individually what it means to teach, live, love, and work there. Each place shapes what scholars write for publication more than most of us recognize.

Similarly, the term “the church” needs incarnation, since “the church” is the body of Christ on earth. Christ’s body walks the earth daily, for Christian individuals and congregations dot neighborhoods around the world. These people hold convictions, hopefully biblical ones, dear. They live in places that shape their thinking and acting, whether they know it or not. They worship the triune God in ways informed by the Bible, their traditions, and their cultures. Thus, the Bible, as Bartholomew asserts repeatedly, must be read, heard, and lived so God, who created the people and places where the congregations meet, will be Lord over non-biblical practices.

Recognizing and discussing the earthed reality of universities and congregations could help Christian scholars fulfill Bartholomew’s vision of an interdisciplinary approach to biblical hermeneutics that helps unite God’s people. Local congregations and local colleges interface through literature, music, conversation, shared responsibility, work, and the other daily aspects that constitute local, regional, and national culture. They share common places and histories.

Embracing and embodying these connections will help colleges fulfill their role. Their Christian responsibility is to educate students to go home or to go to other communities ready to be Christian workers, spouses, parents, friends, and members of local churches. Fulfilling this responsibility will help preachers recall that they must challenge Christians to think, as Moses, Solomon, Jesus, and the apostles asked their audiences to do. Congregations may find such renewed thinking helpful in an always-changing world. Colleges and congregations might thereby cooperate more fully with each others’ ministries. Bartholomew gives a good theoretical base for these positive possibilities.

Christian scholars can benefit individually from this book, as I have. Certainly I think my teaching of Old Testament Theology and Hebrew and my writing about literary subjects will be better because of it. Yet Christian college faculty workshops, colleague reading groups, and seminars for new faculty members may gain the most from Bartholomew’s heartfelt and thorough work. He has tried to enter into conversation with his readers, and his readers ought to take that conversation forward. Doing so forthrightly and appreciatively may be the best way to honor Bartholomew’s able contribution.

Cite this article
Paul R. House, “Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:1 , 79–84

Paul R. House

Beeson Divinity School
Paul R. House is Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University.