A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Jonathan Atkinson
In Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship, David Starling argues that the interpretive methods of the Christian ought to be shaped fundamentally by the interpretive practices of the biblical authors themselves. The book, then, is a collection of “case-studies” in which Starling seeks to uncover certain hermeneutical principles of a particular biblical author.
David Starling teaches New Testament, Greek, and Theology at Morling College, Sydney Australia where he serves as the head of the Bible and Theology Department. He is the author of UnCorinthian Leadership: Thematic Reflections on 1 Corinthians and is currently working on commentaries on Colossians, Ephesians, and 1 Corinthians.
In the introductory chapter to the book, Starling engages the current state of hermeneutics in an attempt to properly locate his work within the discipline. What follows are fourteen chapters assessing the hermeneutic of the biblical authors, concluded with an epilogue.
Chapter one looks at how the Psalter aims to instruct, through song, the contents of tōrāh and the biblical covenants., presupposing that the readers are familiar with tōrāh and these covenants elsewhere (24–25). The authors of the Psalter reveal that interpreters must have the right “dispositions that are to characterize our use of the text” (32). And so the goal is not to approach tōrāh with mere attentiveness but with delight.
Chapter two looks at Moses’ role as not only a giver but an interpreter of the law in Deuteronomy, seeking to answer the question that the next generation will ask: What is the meaning of these laws (Deut 6:20). Starling identifies that Moses speaks of three temporal horizons—(i) the coming generation, (2) the generation that will go into exile, and (3) the restored community—and the importance of the “heart” of the people. He concludes that since the day of fulfillment was always future, interpreting the law is meant to produce repentance and faith (45).
Starling exposes the hermeneutics at play within the book of Ruth in chapter three, specifically, again, the interpretation of the law. He concludes by stating that keeping the letter of the law was never its intent but rather keeping its heart that reflected the ḥesed of YHWH (52–53).
The Chronicler, Starling argues in chapter four, does not recount bare history but interpreted biblical history (59), and so he does not exclude the negative elements of David’s life because he is trying to erase it from history, but these elements are not important to the purpose of his work (60 n.10). In fact, the Chronicler assumes “his readers are already familiar with the larger, messier account in the Pentateuch and the books of the Former Prophets” (59). The Chronicler thus models for Christians a way to read Scripture that is historical, intertextual, typological, eschatological, repentant (e.g. Manasseh), and doxological (inclusion of psalms) (65–69).
The book of Job reflects not only interaction with the book of Proverbs but also with the laments of Jeremiah and the Psalter (77) as Job’s friends speak the theology of Proverbs and Job responds with lament, not rejecting Proverbs, but questioning their adequacy to answer the question of suffering and evil in the world (76). Starling argues in chapter five that the fear of the Lord does not give a “God’s-eye view” or a magic key to resolve the tension between Scripture and experience but is the correct posture of a Christian (80).
Starling uses the book of Zechariah in chapter six to discern the nature of fulfilled and unfulfilled prophecy as canonical Scripture. Zechariah refers to earlier prophecies that are now fulfilled and also prophesies of events yet to come. Starling concludes that the prophets contain both foretelling and forthtelling. However, what was once foretelling, if now fulfilled, continues to have canonical significance as forthtelling Scripture (91).
The hermeneutics of obedience are addressed by Matthew’s use of Scripture in chapter seven, in which Starling concludes that Scripture’s self-interpretation is useful as a formal principle for getting hermeneutical wisdom, but Christology is the material principle of a Christian hermeneutic (102). Chapter eight looks at salvation-history within Luke and the Christian’s continuing role in that narrative. Chapter nine seeks to answer epistemological questions from the gospel of John. Starling concludes that “(t)hose who seek human glory rather than the glory that comes from God…will inevitably fail to receive the words of Jesus rightly, or to respond to them in a way that does justice to his claims” (124). Thus, a person must experience “hermeneutical conversion” (126) and Christian interpretation must be “Spirit-enabled hermeneutics” (128).
The typology in 1 Corinthians allows the Christian to “understand their situation in narrative continuity and typological correspondence with the stories of God’s action in the past” (139). Paul’s use of “allegory” in Galatians does not communicate the technical way we understand allegory today. Starling shows in chapter eleven that Paul has warrant for his allegorical/figural reading, namely that (i) within Genesis itself there are two sons of Abraham, (ii) within Isaiah two Jerusalems are presented, (iii) and Paul also draws upon Israel’s own story in which Israel is, in his day, exiled among the nations. Since Starling is seeking to learn from the biblical authors, he concludes that we can imitate this type of figural reading so long as it is “grounded in the phenomena and themes of the original source text, attentive to its intertextual relationships with the rest of the canonical Scripture and directed by the shape of the scriptural story of salvation history” (160).
The author of Hebrews presents God’s words as a present communicative act through the use of Psalm 95, i.e. “Today…”. Starling argues in chapter twelve that this is warranted from Psalm 95 itself and that:
This function of Scripture in the sermon as the present address of God to the hearers does not obliterate the significance of Scripture’s original human authorship or collapse the time between Scripture’s first context and the situation of the sermon’s hearers: the hermeneutic of Hebrews is still, in an important sense, a “historical” one that distinguishes between the “old” and the “new” in the sequence of God’s communicative actions, and locates the disjunction between them in the remembered and attested events of the earthly ministry of Jesus (169).
Starling looks at the hermeneutics of “empire” influencing 1 Peter and argues that Christians should view themselves as exiles living in Babylon (180). Chapter fourteen rounds off the book with a look at Revelation. Starling argues that we live in the same day as the original readers of Revelation, and so it speaks to us addressing the same issue, namely, the timing of the consummation and the need for perseverance (201).
The reader of Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship will certainly benefit from the unique perspective of Starling. It is not initially what one might expect, as most works on the hermeneutic of the biblical authors deal almost exclusively with either the New Testament or with citations, usually the NT use of the OT. Starling, in a fresh approach, shows how the OT can also be used as a source of hermeneutical methods and how there is more than simply looking at citations to uncovering the hermeneutic of the biblical authors. Covering every genre of Scripture, this work is also comprehensive in that sense.
One of the highlights is his chapter on Ruth. It is worth quoting Starling’s introductory remarks and conclusion to the chapter to represent the method undertaken in this book. He remarks regarding Ruth that underlying the story:
lurks a string of interpretive questions about how to understand and apply the commandments of the law of Moses—in particular, the law on redemption of land in Leviticus 25, the levirate marriage provisions in Deuteronomy 25, the stipulations regarding gleaning in Leviticus 19 and 23, and the ban on Moabites in Deuteronomy 23 (49).
He then notes that Ruth’s request for marriage from Boaz as a gō’ēl goes beyond the letter of the law as far as we know. Her appeals evidence that she reads “Israel’s laws and customs not merely as prescriptions of duty but also as expressions of the ḥesed of YHWH, which is to be imitated and manifested in the actions of his people” (52). Thus, she does not expect Boaz to merely keep the letter of the law—redemption of property—but to evidence the heart of the law, the ḥesed of YHWH, by marrying herself, a widow. This also influences the author or Ruth’s understanding of the explicit ban on intermarriage from Deuteronomy 7:1–6. Starling remarks:
A law designed to safeguard the loyal love of Israel to YHWH and enact judgement on the cruelties of Moab is hardly to be invoked against a marriage to a woman who has abandoned the gods of Moab and made Israel’s God her own, who has demonstrated a gracious fidelity that unmistakably reflects the covenant-making and covenant-keeping kindness of YHWH, and who–together with her widowed mother-in-law—has cast herself, in desperate need, upon the mercy of YHWH and his people (53).
The weakest chapter is the one on 1 Peter where Starling argues for a hermeneutic of empire. In all other chapters, he argues for how the biblical authors utilize earlier Scripture. However, in this chapter, the understanding of empire appears to function as the “hermeneutical key” to understand 1 Peter. For example, Starling argues that the reason Peter calls the believers not to fear is because empires are built on fear (179), and his emphasis on good deeds is because these would have social and theological resonances within a system of patronage (183). While it is clear that the cultural milieu impacts the writing of a biblical author, and background studies are important in interpretation, Starling seems to place undue hermeneutical weight on “empire,” especially in a book such as 1 Peter that draws so much from the OT.
It is unfortunate that there is no attempt at synthesis to describe a biblical hermeneutic at the end of the work. Possibly Starling believes this is impossible. The introductory chapter is the only chapter that deals with method. There, Starling notes the importance of authorial intention (understood as the illocution and perlocution of a text), and application (2–4), and admits that “perfect understanding” and “universal consensus” are both elusive ends of interpretation. Thus, the goal of interpretation is not “perfect understanding” but, relying on Augustine and Kierkegaard, love (5–6). However, he is quick to note the caveat that this “love” must be based upon proper knowledge or it will be misleading. So it seems that adequate or best-as-possible understanding are still the goals of interpretation.
Starling adds two unique contributions to the discussion of biblical hermeneutics. In noting Scripture’s passive (an object of interpretation) and active (an agent which interprets the reader) sense, he adds the reflexive sense of Scripture to describe the reformation maxim that Scripture is sui ipsius interpres. Starling argues that this maxim must mean more than simply letting the clear passages of Scripture interpret the obscure. For, by what measure does one determine what is clear or obscure to prevent arbitrariness (clear or obscure to whom?)? Thus, the key component of understanding Scripture as its own interpreter must be discerning how later biblical authors interpret earlier texts. These texts should foundationally influence the understanding of earlier texts, and these later texts become the lens by which we interpret earlier texts, rather than haphazardly interpreting “obscure” texts through “clear” texts.
Why the priority given to later texts? Starling adds to the hermeneutic circle and spiral the hermeneutic “snowball.” The snowball imagery deals with the “relationships between Scripture’s constituent parts” (14) and Starling describes it this way:
The Bible did not fall from the sky like a single snowflake; it rolled down the hill of salvation history adding layers as it went. Each new layer of the accumulating collection presupposes what comes before and wraps itself around it; in so doing it offers direction in how to read it and asks, in turn, to be interpreted in light of it (14).
He also notes the limits of metaphor and cautions that the snowball should not communicate a “one-dimensional “progressive revelation” model” nor undermine the continuity and discontinuity in Scripture (15). This imagery is very helpful in understanding the priority of later texts as hermeneutical lens of sorts through which to interpret earlier texts, while also interpreting later texts in light of what has gone before. Starling does not, however, address the knotty issue of how one determines what is an earlier text.
The goal of Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship—to create Christian apprentices sitting at the feet of the biblical authors learning how to read Scripture—is a laudable one. Starling is evidently aware of the debates within the discipline of biblical hermeneutics, most explicit in his introductory chapter, however he does not allow technical terminology to spill over into the bulk of the book. The aware reader may notice certain comments throughout that are engaging with a certain “discussion within the disciple,” but a preunderstanding of biblical hermeneutics is not needed to engage the content of this book. This makes the book uniquely profitable both as a contribution to the discipline of biblical hermeneutics, possibly a classroom textbook, and as a stand-alone introductory work for the beginner. Moreover, given the usual character of hermeneutical textbooks—technical terminology and limited to methodology—Starling’s book is a breath of fresh air in which the majority of the book is comprised of case studies where the method is put to work. May this book achieve its goal in apprenticing Christians after the biblical authors!
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Buy the books
Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship: How the Bible Shapes Our Interpretive Habits and Practices