Reviewed by David B. W. Phillips
How to Understand and Apply the New Testament, along with its companion volume How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament by Jason DeRouchie, are new entries to the growing list of recent works on interpreting Scripture. This volume is designed to offer a practical method for interpreting the New Testament that is accessible to students, pastors, and others with formal theological training, and to thoughtful Christians who have not had formal instruction in biblical or theological studies (xxv). This is a wide audience, but the book accomplishes its goals admirably. On the one hand, it offers guidance that would benefit most seasoned seminary students, while on the other hand it always defines its terms, offers clear examples and illustrations, and does not require a working knowledge of Greek or hermeneutical theory to engage the material. What it does require is for readers to be interested in and committed to reading, understanding, and applying the Bible to their lives.
Naselli, who is Assistant Professor of New Testament and Theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, MN, organizes his book around an exegetical process that, borrowing from D. A. Carson, begins with exegesis, moves to biblical theology, then to historical and systematic theology, and concludes in practical theology (5–8). The first step, exegesis, is further broken down into eight specific tasks: understanding genre, engaging in textual criticism, translating Scripture, using Greek grammar, argument diagramming, understanding the historical-cultural context, understanding the literary context, and doing word studies. He is careful to note that while he has laid the process out in twelve steps, it is not simply linear. While the entire process has a forward movement from exegesis towards practical theology, each of the later disciplines nonetheless influences the earlier ones. Further, the twelve tasks are not discrete steps in an exegetical process. They have been divided and ordered for practical purposes so that they can be examined but are interrelated, and the actual process will not move neatly from one to the next (4).
These twelve tasks serve to divide the book, with each task being covered in one chapter. There are also two additional appendices, encouraging readers to study and memorize the Bible. All the chapters do a superb job of arguing for the importance of a certain task, but some are more theoretical, while others focus more directly on equipping the student to engage in the task. This is largely by design. For example, the chapter on Greek grammar is meant to “help [the reader] better appreciate grammatical issues that interpreters wrestle with” (82). The remainder of the chapter is a very condensed version of Wallace’s categories from his Exegetical Syntax and then a series of examples demonstrating the exegetical value of engaging in Greek grammar. In this respect it is well done, as a single chapter could not adequately train a person in Greek grammar. Similarly, the chapters on biblical, historical, and systematic theology, along with the chapter on translation, describe the nature of these tasks, explain how they function in the exegetical process, and demonstrate their importance for exegesis. However, on their own they are not adequate guides for engaging in these tasks.
Other chapters, such as the chapters on argument diagramming (on which see further the discussion below), historical-cultural context, literary context, and practical theology, more thoroughly equip students to make use of a certain exegetical tool. This distinction between chapters is not a weakness of the book but a beneficial reminder that the exegetical process involves more than what is normally covered in hermeneutics textbooks, and that this content cannot be comprehensively covered in a single book. The upshot is that the book is best viewed as an introduction to exegetical methodology while also serving as a fitting supplement for teaching the various interpretive tasks.
In view of the above overall assessment, it should be noted that the book is strongly oriented towards exegetical method, not hermeneutical theory. Its practical orientation makes it well equipped for use in exegesis classes. It would also work well in introductory hermeneutics classes where it could supplement a more traditional hermeneutics textbook. The book would also be useful in a New Testament survey course that was designed to help students not only cover the content of the New Testament, but give them a foundation for exegesis. In addition, several chapters would be profitable in other classes (e.g. Greek), some of which will be noted below.
Five strengths of this volume deserve to be highlighted. First, the chapter on argument diagramming deserves special commendation. While there are other works that describe phrase diagramming, sentence diagramming, and bracketing/arcing, this chapter is arguably the best introduction to the topic. Naselli ably demonstrates the usefulness of the tool and describes the various methods of argument diagramming, discussing their differences. He gives the strengths and weaknesses of each, advocates for phrase diagramming as the best method, and gives clear instruction on how to do it, using both the Greek and English texts. This chapter should be required reading for Greek students, especially in their third semester, and for exegesis classes.
Second, the chapter on Bible translation is particularly helpful. As already noted, the purpose of the chapter is not to equip students with the tools to translate but rather to describe translation theory. While readers who are opposed to “gender-accurate” translations (to use Naselli’s language) may disagree with his presentation on translating gender, it is well argued and irenic in tone (72–75). The chapter also contains useful and pastoral advice on how we should handle disagreements about translation philosophy, as well as a superb discussion on the challenges of translating (57–72). It should be required reading for every seminary student, especially those pursuing pastoral ministry.
Third, the chapter on historical-cultural context has not only a discussion of the value of background information, but also specifically addresses the question of whether it is necessary to properly understand the Bible (162–68). This is a discussion that is coming up more frequently in evangelicalism (Naselli uses Wayne Grudem as a dialogue partner), and he offers a thoughtful argument for why historical-cultural information is necessary and the role it should play in exegesis.
Fourth, each chapter contains a bibliography of helpful resources suited to help students make use of the tool under discussion. What sets this volume apart from most others, however, is that each of these bibliographies is annotated. These entries range from one or two sentences to nearly half-page descriptions. In total, the book contains forty-three pages of annotated bibliographies, providing not only a list of resources but the thoughts of an excellent scholar on how those works can aid the student.
Fifth, each chapter contains numerous examples illustrating the tool under discussion. These are not short blurbs or add-ons, but an essential part of the book that takes up substantial space in each chapter. For example, approximately 1/3 of the chapter on argument diagramming is dedicated to examples (145–59). This may not be surprising, given that this tool will likely be a new one for most students, but such detailed use of examples is found elsewhere, too. For example, in the chapter on biblical theology, two-thirds of the content is given to examples (239–59). These illustrations not only help show readers how to make use of the tools Naselli is discussing but further serve to underscore their importance in the exegetical process.
There are a few weaknesses that deserve to be mentioned as well. First, the chapter on genre is surprisingly short, only 21 pages long (15–35). In comparison, Köstenberger and Patterson’s Invitation to Biblical Interpretation spends 202 pages on interpreting New Testament genres; Duvall and Haye’s Grasping God’s Word (2nd ed.) use 75 pages; and Robert Plummer’s 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible devotes 57 pages to New Testament genres (some of which is included in a discussion of genres that span both Testaments). The inclusion of the chapter on argument diagramming means that the book is particularly strong in understanding how to interpret epistles. And while good material on the other genres was provided, I was left wanting more detailed discussions of how to specifically engage the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation.
Second, the chapter on word studies, while doing an outstanding job of describing and demonstrating the proper way to do word studies, had no mention of engaging in concept studies (semantic field studies). This material would have made an already strong chapter even better.
These shortcomings are minor, however. Andy Naselli has written a very helpful book that will find its place in college and seminary classes (including but certainly not limited to hermeneutics classes), pastor’s libraries, and home libraries as well. I would happily and heartily recommend it to students, pastors, and others with formal theological training, as well as to thoughtful Christians who have not had formal instruction in biblical or theological studies. In addition to being an enjoyable introduction to understanding and applying the New Testament, from beginning to end Andy Naselli passionately encourages his readers to study Scripture fervently and love God more.
David B. W. Phillips is a Ph.D. candidate at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology