Brief Reviews

John H. Walton – Wisdom for Faithful Reading [Review]

Wisdom for Faithful ReadingA Call for a Careful Reading of Scripture

A Review of

Wisdom for Faithful Reading: Principles and Practices for Old Testament Interpretation
John H. Walton

Paperback: IVP Academic, 2023
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Reviewed by Kevin Wildman

Reading the Bible can be difficult and overwhelming, especially when we deal with the Old Testament. As a Christian, I am continually trying to have a better grasp of Scripture and what it means, and thus how to live faithfully in response. As a pastor in a local congregation I am regularly trying to equip those whom I serve with the ability to read, understand, and live faithfully in response to Scripture. In both realms I strive to fight against bad hermeneutics and the effects of them. Walton states from the start that his “…goal in writing this book [is] to accumulate insights that may set a course for all who take the Bible seriously as we seek to become faithful interpreters” (xiii).

Wisdom for Faithful Reading: Principles and Practices for Old Testament Interpretation, published by the Academic division of IVP, is a helpful tool, and will be for years to come. Walton asserts, “ I did not write this book as a textbook—I wrote it to help academically minded people in the church who are trying to improve and inform their reading of the Old Testament” (xv). While I would agree that this book isn’t written like a textbook, it should be noted that it is a read that requires effort and attention from the reader. Furthermore, it reads more like a textbook than a devotional or pleasure read, though it is not overly difficult or technical. 

As we approach Scripture it is important to remember that each “Testament” is written from the perspective of a different covenant. As Christians we live under the new covenant presented in the New Testament, which creates more interpretive issues as we approach the Old Testament. Being part of the New Covenant increases the difficulty in understanding the Old Testament. These difficulties are intensified by the hermeneutical approaches often employed today. Walton addresses the numerous hermeneutical fallacies we practice, and exposes why each of them fall short.

As Walton addresses the hermeneutical fallacies and offers a better approach, he does a great job using specific texts as examples. However, I suspect that for many, our hermeneutical habits are so deeply ingrained that at times it will be difficult to accept what Walton presents. For example, when Walton talks through Genesis 23, I would urge the reader to push through and resist building walls to what is being presented. While one may not agree with everything in the book, I do think Walton presents a helpful approach that improves our reading and understanding of Scripture. If there is any challenge that we need to be willing to consider, it is to improve how we read, understand, and live faithfully in response to Scripture. As Christians, we cannot afford to arrogantly assume that we have it all figured out.

A professor at the college I attended would often say “if context is king, then humility is queen.” We cannot approach Scripture appropriately, unless we have the humility to believe that we don’t understand everything, and that there is more for us to learn. Again, I would urge readers to listen to Walton’s critiques and suggestions. Walton addresses our attitude and submission to Scripture writing, 

“Faithful interpretation—that is the essential quest for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. If we believe the Bible is God’s revelation, carrying God’s message, then we must receive it as a trust over which we have a certain stewardship. When we talk about being faithful, we are acknowledging that we must submit to the authority that is inherent in the Bible—because it was given by God. Submitting ourselves means that we recognize our accountability to God and the human instruments that he used. We are not free to pursue our own meanings and message. We cannot be content with ‘what this passage means to me’ as we seek to appropriate the message that is inherent in the text itself. God’s message is in the text, so we are accountable to the text. Nevertheless, the message was communicated by Spirit-led authors, writing with purpose and intention. So our accountability to the text cannot be separated from our accountability to the literary intentions of its author” (4).

In all that Walton communicates, he regularly returns to the author’s intended meaning of a text being our goal, this is the refrain of the book. Early on Walton writes, “The text can never mean what it never meant, yet its significance can transcend that original meaning” (21). The difficulty in this understanding, and what is difficult about reading this book (especially with some of the examples) is this will inevitably lead to a necessary change of understanding. Walton notes this as well, “We can be committed to orthodoxy, sound doctrine, and the innate authority of Scripture while at the same time recognizing that we may occasionally have to change our mind about the interpretation of a particular passage.” (23)

Often, as a pastor, the questions I regularly receive about Scripture revolve around details the author doesn’t communicate (i.e. how long were Adam and Even in the garden before they sinned). Walton addresses this writing, “Interpreters may well be curious about some of the omitted details, but the interpretive task must focus on what the author did communicate” (14-15). While the example question I gave is not significant, and many of the inquired-about details provoke some devotional thoughts, the risk really arises when people build theologies around hypothetical details that are omitted. Walton’s charge in this area is a helpful reminder that we need to keep our curiosities from going too far. And most importantly as he proclaims throughout the book, we must seek to understand what the author intended to communicate. 

One key point communicated by Walton centers around application. Walton reminds us that while we are often interested in application, we cannot rush too quickly to application of a text. Before we can faithfully apply a text to our lives, we must first interpret the text faithfully. And faithful interpretation Walton continues to assert is found in the author’s intended meaning.

Wisdom for Faithful Reading is a work that I think can be helpful for many Christians as we strive to better read, understand, and live in response to Scripture. One of the real treasures of this work is that it breaks the Old Testament down into genres so that we can better understand the interpretive keys for each genre. Again, I would urge readers to allow themselves to be stretched. In the last chapter Walton addresses what is at stake, writing,

“We all have in our heads a methodology for reading Scripture, though it is often an unexamined one. The cost for carelessness is potentially high since it can compromise our ability to be the church, shining the light of Christ to the world. Our methods can render our light dim and our salt spoiled. It can bring dishonor to the name of our God rather than testifying to his glory” (212-213).

May we heed Walton’s call to examine our methodologies for reading Scripture. And may we strive to read, interpret, and apply faithfully, so that we may glorify God in all that we think, say, and do. 

Kevin Wildman

Kevin Wildman lives in west central Indiana with his bride and their five children. He is a pastor and football coach, as well as an alum of Lincoln Christian University (B.A. Preaching 2008 and M.A. Spiritual Formation 2014). He enjoys running and has completed two full marathons. When it comes to reading Henri Nouwen is his favorite author.

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