A Feature Review of
Listening to Scripture: An Introduction to Interpreting the Bible
Craig G. Bartholomew
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
Biblical interpretation is becoming a difficult activity to engage in as the poles of Christian faith grow further apart and more lines of doctrinal adherence are being drawn in the ecclesiastical sand. If Paul is correct (and I believe that he is) that God is not a God of chaos but of order (1 Cor. 14:33), then it is logical to assume that God’s Spirit sent to indwell God’s people will guide us to rational conclusions about our faith. Yet, we can all recount times when we have looked a fellow Christian in the eyes and graciously responded, “What? How?” We have, for too long, confused reading with studying and have substituted doctrinal substance for cultural soundbites, which is why books like this one from Bartholomew are needed and will continue to be needed. However, not all books about hermeneutics are created equal.
I wanted to like this book, to really like this book. I like Bartholomew’s work, especially his work with long-time writing partner Michael Goheen. I have used their work The Drama of Scripture (and it newly slightly trimmed version The True Story of the Whole World) in my expository preaching class for years and I have referenced it in several other Bible and theology courses. Personally, I find their 6-act storyline of the Biblical story far more compelling than the 5-act storyline proposed by N. T. Wright. And, honestly, I did like this book. However, I did not like this book. There are elements included in this book that I often critique for not being in other similar books, such as examples or ways of processing the concepts. And this book has those elements often missing in similar books.
However, I have some issues with this book that prevent me from liking it as I would like to. Three in particular stood out to me. First, the book is lacking in process. Books about hermeneutics, the practice of interpreting scripture, come in a variety of formats. Some of them focus on a particular Biblical theme, such as Paul K.-K. Cho’s recent book on suicide and martyrdom in the Old Testament. Some focus on applying a particular hermeneutical lens to the Biblical text, such as Phyllis Trible’s classic work on rhetoric in Jonah. And some serve as a general introduction to the discipline of hermeneutics, such as Michael Bird’s 7 Things I Wish Christians Knew About the Bible or Reading While Black by Esau McCaulley. This book from Bartholomew falls under this final category, that of serving as a general introduction to hermeneutics. And while Bird’s book does not intend to offer an approach to hermeneutics, Bartholomew’s book does—and, ultimately, fails to deliver on the process. Now, this book never promises to function like Michael Gorman’s excellent Elements of Biblical Exegesis—to provide a thorough model for Biblical interpretation. However, in the final three chapters, Bartholomew does present three approaches that he defines as liturgical, ethical and missional, and provides sample readings. However, the process is missing. What is offered is more akin to solving a math equation in your head without showing the steps taken to arrive at the conclusion.
Second, as both a preacher and teacher of preaching, I take issue with his chapter on preaching and teaching (chapter 8). Now, I tread cautiously here because I do agree with Bartholomew on “clarity,” that we can trust scripture. My teaching practice is undergirded by two statements from Fred Craddock, that preaching can be done and that it can be done well. However, as any novice preaching student can attest, preaching and teaching can be a dangerous business because there are portions of scripture that are difficult to understand. Although he has written a book on preaching, I have to question his homiletic acumen. There was a strange aroma of inerrancy and, especially, infallibility permeating his writing here. I have found these to be strange and unnecessary lines to draw in the theological sand. If inspiration was enough for Paul, why can it not be enough for contemporary Christians?
Finally, while I appreciate the bibliographies that he provides and his references note a number of international scholars (Bartholomew himself is of British descent from South Africa), there is a noticeable dearth of references to women and scholars of color. In saying this, I only offer a critique that, in a book about hermeneutics that includes a chapter offering a missional perspective, he misses a real opportunity to advocate for the beautiful diversity that is available in Christian scholarship.
Yet, there are some elements of this book that shine a more positive light on this book. The main strength is that what Bartholomew does well, he does very well. This may seem strange to say, given my above critiques, however it is true. For example, his chapters on literary forms in scripture (chapter 5) and the metanarrative of scripture (chapter 6) are quite strong. Additionally, his chapters on the act of studying the Bible (chapter 1) and revelation (chapter 3) demonstrate that studying the Bible is an intentional process that goes beyond simply reading a passage of scripture.
Second, despite my above critique, I like that he offers both his triadic approach to reading and studying the Bible (chapter 4) and his liturgical, ethical and missional hermeneutic concepts (chapters 9-11). Although I do wish he had provided more process with his three hermeneutical concepts, what he offers in his triadic approach to reading is valuable and may be the best part of the book. Recognizing the historical, literary and theological dimensions of a text goes a long way to discerning a text’s meaning.
Finally, I appreciate that he engaged in recent political and social events that have become unnecessary litmus tests for doctrinal orthodoxy, such as Brexit and the events connected to the 2020 US presidential election (specifically the January 6 insurrection). In doing so, Bartholomew demonstrates why being able to read and interpret the Bible in a mature fashion is so crucial, not only to doctrinal orthodoxy but also to correct practice of our faith. In the contemporary landscape of Western civilization, far too many are daily demonstrating that they have traded hard-learned truth for cheap and easy revisions and reconstructions of both theology and history. We engage in hermeneutical activity beyond interpreting the Bible. Yet, it is how we interpret the Bible that guides our other hermeneutical activity and, therefore, how we live.
Rob O'Lynn is Associate Professor of Preaching and Ministry, Director of Graduate Bible Programs, and Dean of the School of Distance and General Education at Kentucky Christian University. He has served congregations in Arkansas, Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky. You can follow him @DrRobOLynn on Twitter or Instagram.
Reading for the Common Good
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