Interpreting the New Testament: Introduction to the Art and Science of Exegesis. Edited by Darrell L. Bock and Buist M. Fanning. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006. 480 pp. Cloth, $29.99.
This work was done to honor Dr. Harold Hoehner, the Chairman of the New Testament Department at Dallas Theological Seminary for many years, including the seven years I was there for my master’s and doctoral work. I am, as most of the contributors to this volume readily admitted, deeply indebted to Dr. Hoehner. He helped me to grow in my ability to interpret the Word of God.
This work is designed to be a textbook for seminary and Bible college classes on how to exegete the NT. It contains 26 chapters. Thirteen chapters deal with exegetical methods and procedures (pp. 23-310). Thirteen chapters deal with exegetical examples and reflections (pp. 313-461).
The science of exegesis is covered fairly well in this work. While there are elements which I feel are missing or which are handled incorrectly (see below), the discussion is reasonably thorough and extensive. I would think second or third year students of NT Greek would benefit from this book if they are well aware of the deficiencies, some of which I cite below.
I found the chapters on textual criticism, lexical analysis, epistolary genre, application, and the so-called Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8:26-40 to be the best and most helpful.
Probably the most significant of all the chapters is the opening one by Dr. Darrell Bock entitled, “Opening Questions: Definition and Philosophy of Exegesis” (pp. 23-32). While there is much helpful material in this chapter, I found one aspect of the chapter to be troubling. One of Bock’s main points is that the NT exegete must appreciate three things. The third of his three points shows a major flaw in the exegetical method proposed in this book.
First, the exegete must appreciate how to read texts. This means he must give “serious and careful consideration of the text and what the author sought to communicate through it” (p. 28). This is excellent.
Second, the exegete must appreciate the role of the reader. By this Bock is referring primarily to the modern reader, not the first readers: “What a reader sees and how a reader reads is determined not only by what is in the text but by how the reader is prepared to read by his or her culture, theological perspective, personal background, and appreciation of the text’s setting. As much as we may wish to try, we cannot make ourselves bland slates as readers when approaching a text. We are better off appreciating how this influences our reading than to pretend we can entirely neutralize these factors” (p. 29). While such a view is a bit pessimistic (and postmodern) and tends to underestimate the work of the Spirit in our study of the Word of God (more on this below), I do appreciate this caution.
Third, the exegete must appreciate the role of communities. This is the point which I feel is a major weakness in this chapter and the book as a whole. Bock puts it this way: “One way to check the undisciplined reading of a text is to appreciate that the Bible functions within communities of readers…From a historical point of view, the Bible has been read and studied for centuries…Although the goal of exegesis is to make the student competent in making exegetical judgments, this goal is not reached by a kind of solitary exegesis in isolation from the discussion that has swirled around texts” (p. 30).
I certainly agree that it is helpful for an exegete to consult grammars, lexicons, commentaries, and journal articles. This aids him in knowing existing views and arguments for those views. However, that consultation should be done after one has independently exegeted a passage on his own. The danger in consulting sources first is the reader is no longer studying the NT for himself. Instead, he is studying what others say about the NT. He will often be blinded to the meaning the author intended because no one in his community even mentions that view. More than one leading Evangelical scholar has ruled as ridiculous and out of hand some of the views of Zane Hodges, Jody Dillow, and others precisely because they are not widely held in the Evangelical community.
It is easy to see why Dispensationalism is dying. If exegesis occurs in community, and if the Evangelical community does not believe the NT teaches Dispensationalism, then it is only a matter of time before Dispensationalism as we know it will cease to exist. This is especially true since Dispensationalism did not appear until the middle of the nineteenth century. The community hermeneutic essentially makes any view that is not the historic teaching of Christianity to be highly suspect if not clearly wrong. This means that even justification by faith alone is highly suspect since this is a relative recent development and since most Evangelicals today do not believe it.
While I think it was an error to even mention the role of community in exegesis, I would think that pages of disclaimers should have followed if such a position were stated. But there are no disclaimers. The student should have been told, but is not, that he himself will appear at the Judgment Seat of Christ, not his community. He himself will be evaluated for what he teaches (Jas 3:1). He won’t be able to say, “But the community that You gave me told me such and so was true.” The student should be told that the majority is on the broad path of destruction and that most in Evangelicalism are not even regenerate. But he is not.
When I was a student in seminary, my favorite professor, Zane Hodges, required his students to study a passage for themselves and draw their conclusions first before going to the commentaries and journal articles to see what others said. Today that no longer seems to be the case. I’ve heard scores of exegetical papers presented at various conferences over the past 20 years, and except in Free Grace and Pre-Trib circles, I’ve rarely heard someone actually exegete the text. What I’ve heard most of the time is speakers who survey and sometimes slightly tweak the views of others about a given text.
This community hermeneutic is certainly not stressed in this book in terms of the amount of pages explicitly devoted to it. But it is promoted in the opening chapter and in the chapters on lexical analysis (e.g., p. 152) and on validation (e.g., pp. 155-56). That is enough to make this an emphasis in the book, and there are no cautions given. The idea of the importance of community is in the background of the entire book. This is unfortunate.
JOTGES readers will be bothered by references to final salvation (p. 446), the already inaugurated kingdom (p. 374), realized eschatology (p. 372), and assurance by works (p. 459 n 22).
Regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in exegesis, slightly more than a page is devoted by Bock to this question (pp. 31-32 top). Frankly his explanation is hard to follow. Another reviewer, Dr. Bill Heth of Taylor University, understood him to be saying the following, “The Holy Spirit’s role in biblical interpretation is not to help the modern-day reader know the meaning of the text (which only comes through hermeneutically sound exegesis) but to help the reader welcome it as applicable to one’s life and [to] correlate God’s truth with the whole of Scripture (p. 31)” (JETS, March 2008, pp. 132-33, italics his). It should be noted that Bock does say that the Spirit “helps us get to the meaning,” and helps us to “more fully appreciate the text’s meaning and import” (p. 31). However, taking the entire section as a whole, including the words, “The meaning of Scripture is available to any careful reader as a matter of comprehension” (p. 31), I’d say that Heth has accurately captured the position of Bock and evidently of Dallas Theological Seminary on the role of the Spirit in exegesis.
I am very bothered by this view. Quite a few passages in Scripture make it clear that comprehending the Word does require the work of the Spirit in our lives (Ps 119: 12, 18, 19, 26, 27, 34, 73; Luke 8:18; 19:26; 24:27, 32, 45). Exegesis is not merely a matter of correct technique. The work of the Spirit is more than merely helping us apply and appreciate the Word.
After reading the book and meditating on what I’d read, it hit me that what is not said in this book is rather startling. The following are not mentioned as important to exegeting the NT: prayer, the work of the Spirit (see previous paragraph), the analogy of faith, the role of meditation on the text, the role of a mentor in learning the science and art of exegesis, the Bema (see Jas 3:1), the perspicuity of Scripture, milk of the Word versus meat of the Word, Dispensationalism, inerrancy, and inspiration.
I highly recommend this book for pastors and Christian educators. It is exceedingly helpful in learning what theological students are being taught today in terms of how to exegete the NT. I would also recommend it for laypeople who wish to have a better grasp of what the next generation of pastors is being taught about how to interpret the NT.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society