The question is not, “What does this Scripture verse mean to you?” The question is, simply, “What does it mean?” But to interpret the Bible as it was intended to be understood requires responsible effort.
Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and that’s our topic for today’s interview with Dr. Craig Blomberg, co-author with William Klein and Robert Hubbard, Jr., of the book, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. It’s already a recognized textbook on the subject but now updated in its third edition.
Craig, great to have you back with us, and congratulations on the continued success of this book.
Thank you very much. Good to be back.
Give us a sense, just briefly, of the kind of work that goes into interpreting the Bible.
Well, it’s nothing magic. It’s the same process that goes into interpreting any active human communication. The Bible may be divinely inspired, but it’s also a completely human book. So just as when we are talking to our friends or listening to a speaker, there will be times when they will use expressions or words that we may not be familiar with or we realized they could mean more than one thing. Then we have to intuit based on the overall flow of someone’s thought or their cultural background or their history. What is it that they are saying? One of my favorite examples that I like to use with classes that comes from a news headline a number of years ago here in the Denver area is the announcement that, “Holy Family Crushes Sacred Heart.” I’ve often tried to imagine one of the Saudi immigrants that goes to the community college right across the street from Denver Seminary encountering that for the first time and wondering, in light of all bizarre things he’s heard and misinformation about Christianity, now what kind of strange religious ritual has he encountered. But if you grew up in America and you know anything about the names of Catholic high schools and if it happens that you notice that this headline is in the sports section of a newspaper or a website, then you realize it might be about a football or basketball game.
What is that about the Bible? We come to it and we assume it requires some kind of magic. We put it into a genre all by itself and somehow it becomes a mystical kind of experience to interpret. I love that; you’ve simplified it well.
Give us a brief overview of your book and the scope of the interpretive process you recommend. And with that, what contribution do you hope to make?
We hope that it will be a one-stop shopping textbook for people who have at least some familiarity with Scripture and perhaps some basic introductions through church or being brought up in a Christian family to the contents of Scripture. It’s a thorough book. We cover the history of interpretation. We talk about key principles for different parts of Scripture whether it’s Old or New Testament, whether it’s narrative or poetry or prophecy, the different genres of the New Testament, Gospels, Acts, letters, the puzzling book of Revelation. We get in briefly to some of the newer more avant-garde methods, particularly in more critical or liberal circles, try to assess their strengths and weaknesses. And then even some collateral areas like how was the canon of Scripture formed, how well have the manuscripts been copied, and then at the end we try to bring it home with the discussion of all the different ways that the Bible can be and should be used and how we arrive at contemporary application for the 21st century or any other century or culture that is far removed from Bible times. So it’s not the first book that a 14-year-old should turn to on the topic, but if you have a little bit of background, hopefully there’s a lot there for you. And you can pick and choose, there’s a rationale to the order of the chapters, but you certainly don’t have to read them straight through. You can pick the areas that you’re most interested in and go directly to them.
How is this new third edition different from previous editions?
It’s got the best looking cover ever (laughing). And despite the proverb, people do judge books by their covers, which is why publishers and marketers spend so much time on them. But more seriously, we have, as we did with the second edition, completely updated all the footnotes and bibliographies so that people can access the best and current and in-print literature to follow up on any of the topics that they want more detailed and more thorough information on. And then we have simply tried to keep abreast of what has been going on. Basic principles about interpreting Scripture and historical and literary and cultural contexts don’t change much, but this is the first time that there is a large enough segment of the scholarly guild that has developed what they call LGBTQ hermeneutic, that we have to take a few pages to assess that.
A lot of discussion has continued in areas like the transmission of the text as more and more ancient manuscripts of varying qualities continue to be discovered. There is more information we know than ever about the formation of the canon, the books that were and were not included. And some of what one has to do in updating a book like ours is take account of what we would call today the fake news, the misinformation that can still be very common, especially on the Internet. What were the alternatives? Were there really dozens of other Gospels that competed for acceptance in the canon? The answer is no, but 14 years after Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, there’s still a lot of people around who never recognized that he wrote a novel rather than fact, and for the first time in history we have to debunk the notion that the Council of Nicaea in 323 had something to do with the formation of the canon. It didn’t. Nobody ever said that until Dan Brown made it up in his novel and now I have students telling me that their professors of religious studies at undergrad have seriously taught that to them. So it’s a pretty sad day when it comes to that.
How is your method of interpretation different from that of earlier eras of the church? What have we gained over the years or centuries that we might consider an advantage?
Well, that sort of requires the shortest ever history of the interpretation of the Bible. Which in ridiculously oversimplified form says that by about the middle of the second century there was such a negligible Jewish presence within the Christian church that the Jewish backgrounds of both Old and New Testaments were quickly being lost sight of. And so an approach that was very popular in Greek and later in Roman circles to allegorize the narrative portions of Scripture increasingly became popular. That gave way in the Middle Ages to what was sometimes called a fourfold approach to interpreting Scripture where only one of the four methods that was used was really a literal reading of the text. What we do is, not surprisingly, heavily indebted to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, to the recovery of the plain sense of Scripture, the Protestant conviction that if a person had a good translation of the Bible in their own language and was beyond the age of six or seven, that you could understand the message. It wasn’t full of hidden meanings of all different kinds.
Then when you get to the late 18th century and down to the present, you begin to have the rise of modern biblical criticism with all of its strengths and weaknesses. Certainly one of the strengths is a very consistent appreciation of the fact that everything must be interpreted as the original authors could have intended their words to mean for an original audience. But, as modern biblical scholarship has evolved, there have also been all kinds of borrowings from literary criticism more generally. One of the most avant-garde and still popular at colleges and universities around the world, is what is called reader/response criticism. It takes issue with your opening remarks that it’s not about what the Bible means to you; it is about what the Bible means to you and your reading is a legitimate reading and everybody else’s reading is a legitimate reading as long as it is internally consistent. It doesn’t necessarily have to correspond to any external reality.
Those are just some very broad brush strokes. We share, as do almost all evangelical interpreters, principles with the earliest period of church history, with the Protestant Reformation, and certainly with what has been now 200+ years since Jonathan Edwards and the so-called evangelical awakenings.
What do you recommend for the person who has no access to the original languages of Scripture?
Good books, and well-chosen sites on the Internet. There are countless commentaries, book by book as well as on the whole Bible, Bible dictionaries, Bible encyclopedias. If you are a hard copy person, they are available for purchase new and used, as ever in the history of humanity. If you are a digital person, you can get programs like Bible Works, or probably the premier library is Logos Bible software and then add to it as you see fit. And as long as you have the ability to discern or separate the wheat from the chaff and recognize that not all websites are created equal, that is the catch. So one of the things that we do and that we have done again in the third edition of Introduction to Biblical Interpretation is have a pretty extensive bibliography at the end, of best books and best websites on a whole range of topics. And, of course, those are the things that have to be updated from one edition to the next. But certainly what we have there will be valuable for some time to come. And then for listeners who might be interested, Denver Seminary, on our website which is simply DenverSeminary.edu, under the link resources has a tool called the Denver Journal which is an online journal of largely book reviews, but it also contains Old and New Testament department bibliographies that we update annually that has a fair amount of overlap with what we have published in the book. So, if it turns out that because my two co-authors are now both in their early 70s, if it turns out that this is the last edition that the three of us do, it doesn’t mean that the bibliographies won’t continue to be updated and be available by those of us who teach at the seminary.
You have an excellent section at the end of your book on application. Can you give us a brief taste of that – how can we rightly apply Scripture to our own lives and situations?
Yes. I would love to draw a diagram for you, but I’ll ask people to imagine what you often find on the playground. The piece of equipment where a child climbs up a small ladder several rungs until he or she gets to a place where they are not tall enough to reach the ground, and then you move hand over hand across a distance holding onto the rungs above you, until you come to a parallel ladder on the other side and then you climb down that back to the ground. There are all kinds of abstract principles in Scripture that need very little clarification and one can apply them to most every place and culture – the double love command, loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. But the more specific a detail is, whether in a command or a story, a prophecy, a poem, the more likely that it is somehow tied up uniquely with the culture in which it was first written. And we have to climb up what Haddon Robinson has often called the ladder of abstraction. If I see a command to greet one another with a holy kiss and I’m an average Anglo-American; well, if I’m a highly hormonally challenged young man, I might like that idea, a lot; but I have to ask, “What was the purpose of that? Was that something sexual?” And the answer is, no, it was a culturally appropriate signal of intimate but nonsexual loyalty in families and among close friends in the ancient Mediterranean world, as it is in some Mediterranean cultures and some Latin American cultures to this day. So that’s climbing up the ladder to figure out the principle that I can then walk across with my hands, so to speak, to today’s world and then ask, “What will create that same phenomenon, today?” I could choose to very literally tell my congregation that when we pause for the time to greet one another, that everyone needs to kiss somebody on the cheek. And I think I probably would have a problem. But, I can say, in our subculture, where other men and women find it appropriate, a good hug may accomplish that. For some people who aren’t into hugging, a warm handshake may be the appropriate counterpart. And so I am actually obeying the command to greet one another with a holy kiss by doing something that’s not a kiss at all. That’s just one example, but I think a good one, of what we have to do throughout both Testaments.
We’re talking to Dr. Craig Blomberg, co-author with William Klein and Robert Hubbard, Jr., of Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, now in its third edition. It is as Tom Schreiner calls it, “a tried and true” resource on hermeneutics that has proven profitable to many, and we’re happy to commend it.
Craig, good to have you with us, as always.
Thank you very much.
Buy the books
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation: Third Edition