A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Jimmy Roh
Hermeneutics is an often-neglected area of study for many pastors and church leaders. Despite its critical importance, engaging with the subject can often lead to an unexpected dive into the deep waters of philosophical hermeneutics. Amidst the sea of hermeneutics literature, Matthew Malcolm, dean of the faculty of liberal arts at Universitas Pelita Harapan, Indonesia, contributes an important volume that seeks to provide an accessible introduction to the subject. As the title suggests, Malcolm’s goal is ambitious as he seeks to span the broad trajectory of biblical interpretation from hermeneutics to exegesis. What’s more, Malcolm seeks to accomplish this in a welcoming 166 pages. In comparison, other volumes on hermeneutics range from 500-900 pages (e.g., Malcolm references Brown’s Scripture as Communication, Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral, Köstenberger and Patterson’s Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, and Thiselton’s Hermeneutics: An Introduction, et al.). Due to the accessible nature of the book, Malcolm is only able to provide a high-level overview of the various issues related to biblical interpretation. And yet, he covers an extraordinary amount of ground, treating the subject both comprehensively and practically.
In chapter 1, Malcolm defines key terms. Drawing upon the work of his doctoral mentor, Anthony Thiselton, he defines hermeneutics as “the study of what is happening when effective interpretation or understanding takes place” (5). He thus views hermeneutics as a second-order discipline which explores the operating “conditions and criteria” that ensure faithful interpretation. He distinguishes his view from “the popular Christian usage” or the “exegetical handbook usage” which, according to Malcolm, respectively understand hermeneutics to be the application of exegesis or the interpretation of texts according to proper principles. In his approach, he features the image of the two horizons of text and interpreter along with the circle of refining interpretation. If hermeneutics is a second-order discipline, exegesis refers to the actual process of interpreting a text. He defines exegesis as “intentional, attentive, respectful interpretation of a particular written text” (6). In contrast to applying principles of hermeneutics to exegesis, Malcolm argues that the insights of hermeneutics “help us to conduct exegesis with eyes wide open—open to features such as the context of the text, our own locatedness as readers, our indebtedness to prior traditions of understanding, and the situations in which fruitful understanding frequently take place” (9, emphasis original).
In chapters 2 and 3, Malcolm provides some historical context by tracing the development of hermeneutical thought from ancient philosophers and Church Fathers such as Plato and Augustine to modern theoreticians such as Anthony Thiselton and Hans Robert Jauss. In chapter 2, he argues that “the early history of hermeneutics suggests that interpretation of texts involves a multifaceted encounter of others” (25). He expands on the theme of “otherness” in chapter 3 as he traces the emphasis on the “locatedness” of the author (Schleiermacher), text (New Criticism), and reader (Reader-Response). Malcolm argues that an awareness of the “located otherness” of the author, text, and reader is “the most basic commitment that the discipline of hermeneutics asks of its students” (43).
In chapter 4, Malcolm introduces the concepts of general and special hermeneutics. General hermeneutics, also known as philosophical hermeneutics, refers to the study of human understanding. Malcolm draws the lineage of this perspective from Schleiermacher and Heidegger to Gadamer. From this perspective, the Bible should be approached like any other text. Critics, however, argue that a general approach does not account for the divine inspiration of Scripture. One response is to conceive of general hermeneutics in a theological manner—theological hermeneutics or special hermeneutics. On the other hand, Daniel Treier and Kevin Vanhoozer have argued for a “theological interpretation of Scripture” (TIS), which seeks to recover a precritical orientation towards the Bible. Malcolm seeks a way forward between the impasse of TIS and general hermeneutics by advocating for a “Christian interpretation” which arises from general hermeneutics, theologically understood. In other words, while the Bible can be discussed by all, Christian interpreters “must at some point adopt the faithful prejudice of approaching the Bible as the divinely inspired witness to their common Lord, Jesus Christ” (52).
In chapter 5, Malcolm lays down a theological foundation for his hermeneutical approach. He frames the chapter around the epistemological gap between man and God and the nature of Scripture as human language. Drawing upon Augustine and Calvin, he unpacks a view of accommodation theory by which God bridges the gap between “others” through the incarnation. By accommodating to human language, the Bible evidences the characteristic features of human communication including otherness, openness, dialogue, refinement, and impact.
In chapter 6, Malcolm sets out the goal of the hermeneutical encounter as a “transforming engagement of horizons” (80). He conceives of the hermeneutical encounter as an interview by which the interpreter refines his understanding of the text through a series of questions. A significant portion of the interview involves recognizing the locatedness of both interpreter and text. Malcolm proposes a model of hermeneutics based on the categories of realm, mission, emergence, and reception. He employs these categories in a hermeneutical circle which leads to transformation.
In chapter 7, he picks up on his model for Christian interpretation by further explaining three facets of Christian preunderstanding: theology, canon, and gospel. The Christian interpreter brings a certain preunderstanding to the Bible, shaped by a systematic conception of its message. While there may be room for multiple voices in Scripture, the canon defines the key realm and boundaries to be considered. And the gospel provides the provisional center to allow the interpreter to read the canon Christianly.
In chapters 8 and 9, Malcolm bridges the gap between hermeneutics and exegesis by unpacking his analogy of the interview. The interview process, he argues, entails two stages: priming and refining. Priming is a pre-interview stage of identifying the locatedness of the text and interpreter through the categories of realm, mission, emergence, and reception. The refining stage is “most properly referred to as ‘exegesis’” (103). Refining is a process of asking questions of the text for “rigorous, respectful interpretation of a particular text” (109). This process is a circular movement from the general to the particular back to the general. In chapter 9, he further explores methods for exegesis. He locates various methods according to a spectrum based on the horizon of author, text, and reader. From the author’s side, he explores historical criticism (source, form, and redaction), archeological analysis, and social-scientific criticism; from the text’s perspective, he introduces genre criticism, canonical criticism, rhetorical criticism, narrative criticism, and linguistic analysis; and concerning the reader, he highlights reception history as well as postcolonial and feminist approaches.
He concludes the book with two chapters on interpreting the Old Testament and New Testament, respectively. Citing the opposing views of Walter Kaiser and Richard Hays, Malcolm argues that a Christian interpretation of the OT requires both a forward and backward reading. In other words, a messianic reading of the OT is “both prospective and retrospective” (140, emphasis original). In chapter 11, he situates the NT according to the categories of realm, mission, emergence, and reception. He concludes with an exegetical case study on 1 Cor 13:1–3.
From Hermeneutics to Exegesis is an excellent introduction to the subject of hermeneutics, and philosophical hermeneutics in particular. Malcolm is to be commended for making a complex subject highly accessible to pastors and church leaders. He is able to cover a considerable amount of material while still giving careful attention to particular matters of debate. He also includes a helpful summary section along with discussion questions and a short bibliography at the end of each chapter. Malcolm’s work is most helpful in surveying the broad landscape of hermeneutical approaches. For more detail on specific matters related to biblical interpretation, some of the other volumes referenced by Malcolm, including Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral and Köstenberger and Patterson’s Invitation to Biblical Interpretation, will still prove to be a very helpful resource.
Jimmy Roh is a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO.