The Future of Biblical Interpretation: a book review

Interpretation of the Bible is called legion for they are many. There are many hermeneutical approaches and countless interpreters. Of course not all interpretations are equal, some fail to attend to important aspects of the hermeneutical process. In order to read the Bible responsibly, you need to pay attention to the original intent, the theological tradition, the church, contemporary issues, etc. Stanely Porter and Matthew Malcolm have edited together eight brief essays advocating for responsible interpretation of the Bible in an age of plurality. While the contributors share broad theological commitments, they each speak with their own voice, in their own discipline and bring their unique gifts to the hermeneutical task.

The essays in The Future of Biblical Interpretation: Responsible Plurality in Biblical Hermeneutics are book-ended by an introduction and a conclusion from Porter and Malcolm (who each also contribute an essay).  In between these, each contributor unfolds what he (and they are all he) what it means to interpret the Bible responsibly. Anthony Thistleton’s essay sets the tone for the volume, where he discusses responsible plurality and the future of biblical interpretation.  In each of the chapters that follow, the contributors discuss one aspect of hermeneutical responsibility. These include:

  • Theological Responsibility (Stanley Porter
  • Scriptural Responsibility (Richard Briggs)
  • Kerygmatic Responsibility (Matthew Malcolm)
  • Historical Responsibility (James Dunn)
  • Critical Responsibility (Robert Morgan)
  • Ecclesial Responsibility (Walter Moberly)

Here is a brief walk through:

In chapter one, Thistleton defines what he calls ‘responsible plurality’ by contrasting Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of ‘polyphonic meaning’ with Jacques Lyotard’s pluraformity. The former approach acknowledges the diversity of genre, authorial intent, as well as interpretive approaches. Lyotard’s approach relativizes all meaning and therefore marginalizes the notion of responsible reading (22). Thistleton argues for a polyphonic concordance, and closes his essay with some suggestions of how the discipline of hermeneutics can fruitfully develop.

Porter discusses the interface of biblical hermeneutics and theological responsibility (chapter 2). Porter contrasts biblical hermeneutics with biblical interpretation by positing that interpretation involves processes and techniques related to interpretive acts, whereas biblical hermeneutics is  a broader study of how we read text (31-32).  This means not just attending to the original, or authorial intent, but the whole hermeneutical process and what the Bible means in a contemporary context. Included in Porter’s essay is an implict critique on the recent theological interpretation movement, which proposes a method of reading the Bible (with deference to precritical sources) without paying sufficient attention to the history of theological reception.

In chapter three Briggs argues for scriptural responsibility by using hermeneutical framework of ‘Scripture as’ to  explore the ways that scripture functions. Briggs describes the Bible as a series of texts which explore theological themes dialogically (162). So he suggests that scriptural responsibility involves attending to the two-testament structure, fostering hermeneutic discussion between those with competing theological claims,  and understanding scripture as a means of grace where God communicates himself through the various genres of the biblical material (64-9).

In chapter four Malcolm discusses kerygmatic responsibility  This is a fascinating essay reflecting on the proclamation and mission of the early church and the reader reception of the New Testament. Malcolm suggests that the reader most able to respond responsibly (and responsively) to the text is the one who is a ‘primed’ and ‘faithful’ intepreter. In the examples Malcolm gives, a primed reader (of Pauline Epistles) will ‘know that Paul’s kerygma focuses on the humiliating death of God’s Messiah’ (81), this will illuminate aspects of the Biblical text and make the reader aware of common themes emerging throughout the New Testament documents. Likewise the faithful reader is ‘a cruciform interpreter.’ Malcolm writes, “one who is shaped by the cross is particularly attuned and open to the formational orientation of the kerygma, whether explicit or subtle (82).

Dunn argues for Historical responsibly (chapter 5). By this he means attention to the original context as the primary factor for understanding the meaning of the text (99). More than other authors in this volume, Dunn relativizes the contributions of church tradition to the hermeneutical task.  Morgan urges critical responsibility (chapter 6) nad argues that we should make use of critical scholarship and approaches to help us get a better grasp on the biblical witness. Gregg argues for relational responsibility. He pays homage to the Reformation’s idea of sola scriptura and the normative authority of the Bible. However modern interpretation is constrained by the early councils and creeds which helped define theological orthodoxy. The creeds did not create orthodoxy ex nihilo but interpreted the Bible faithfully. Hence the Bible remains the supreme authority. Morbley’s essay rounds out the collection with some reflections on ecclesial responsibility. He observes that his own theological education taught him to question traditional notions like Pauline authorship of the pastoral epistles, but did not equip him to interpret texts for the church which affirms veracity of these epistles as part of the canon.  Porter and Malcolm’s conclusion discusses the distinctive character of each of the above essays.

Despite being a short book, this is not a light book. There are a number of ideas and important considerations discussed here for any one who wants to interpret scripture well. This book is probably too technical for readers who have not studied  the topic of Biblical hermeneutics. Those who have will find these essays  suggestive, provocative and challenging.  As with all multi-author books particular chapters are more stimulating than others. I particularly enjoyed Thistleton’s chapter and his survey of contemporary developments. I also enjoyed reading several of these essays because I have books by these authors and it is helpful to be able to map their interpretive philosophies.  I give this book four stars.

Thank you to IVP Academic for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review







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5 thoughts on “The Future of Biblical Interpretation: a book review”

  1. Thank you for the great review. The title caught me immediately.
    However, where is “Social Responsibility,” or the act of reading toward the world. I am in North America, where the Bible has been used for all kinds of social evils (and still is). Perhaps Malcolm’s chapter covers some of that? This absence concerns me that this group still does not sees the whole picture.

    1. I agree. Thistleton’s essay addresses this a little, though he wonders about the continual influence of post colonial and liberation readings because they tend to focus on a few biblical passages.

      I think the plurality that they are speaking of, is more characterized by interdisciplinary approaches to the Bible than culturally diverse interpretation. The contributors are all Anglo (though mostly not North American). Certainly there is a need to widen the conversation!

      1. That is a good plurality, but isn’t the “future” of BIblical Interpretation found in the world that is actually reading the Bible–the Southern Hemisphere? Largely Catholic, Evangelical, and Pentecostal, it will bring a whole new conversation as the Church of the South becomes dominant.

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