Grasping God's Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible
My first class in seminary was not on hermeneutics. It should have been. When I finally did take a hermeneutics class, my professor told us, “If you only take one class in seminary, this should be it.” Today I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, and I find myself teaching “hermeneutics principles” to my church parishioners all the time. And I love to integrate hermeneutics principles into all the seminary classes I teach. My argument in this review is that theological education (especially cross-cultural theological education) should begin with hermeneutics as its bedrock, and the best one-stop-shop Biblical hermeneutics volume for this purpose is Grasping God's Word (GGW) by Duvall and Hays. I don’t say that because this volume is my favorite volume on biblical hermeneutics or because it’s the most comprehensive. Pride of place in my heart goes to Grant Osborne’s Hermeneutical Spiral (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). I have jokingly told some aspiring pastors to skip seminary and just memorize that book! Nevertheless, I still say that GGW is the best choice because it is the most versatile. In addition, application of the authors’ principles doesn’t require a large reservoir of secondary sources.
My first trip to Cameroon was quite an experience. I was all set to give a seminar on the manifest presence of God in the church. I was fired up to preach and teach. I was ready to impart wisdom. I was ready to advocate for the centrality of the church in the Christian mission. But I found out quickly that this wasn’t what they needed the most. The issue I noticed was that the faithful Cameroonian pastors I served alongside were beleaguered by home-spun prophetic declarations from their marginal parishioners. The pastors were also battling against loud “prosperity gospel” advocates in their community who would cherry-pick Bible verses to promote a perverse agenda. The church itself understood manifest presence and the work of the Spirit in the church. They probably understood it better than I did. But they struggled to view the Bible as a collection of books with authors and genres and authorial intention.
My second trip to Cameroon was different. A group of seasoned pastors and experienced cross-cultural leaders encouraged me to lead a seminar focused on hermeneutics, and specifically the interpretation of OT texts. I jumped at the chance. I was thrilled to find out that GGW had already been introduced to my audience, and they had already worked through the basic principles of that book. My experience teaching in Cameroon was demonstrably more fruitful this second time around, and I even got to show them the hermeneutics process by example as I preached repeatedly in local churches. It proved to be a much better use of time and energy. I’ve had similar experiences in Romania and Serbia. I’m convinced that the need in most cross-cultural settings is the same need that we have in the United States: people need to know how to interpret and apply the Bible. That’s the bedrock of all other theological study.
For years, I’ve marveled at the popularity and the ubiquity of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Has any one volume been more influential on budding young theologians, pastors, and their well-read parishioners all at the same time? Why has it been so popular? I think it boils down to structure, readability, and accessibility. It filled a void in Christian circles when many systematic theology volumes went over people’s heads or far afield of conservative evangelical convictions. And even though GGW hasn’t experienced the same level of popularity and success, I think it should be the hermeneutics volume of choice for evangelicals, and especially evangelicals who teach cross-culturally.
Why? Aren’t there many other, good hermeneutics volumes? Yes, there are. In fact, I had many professors in seminary who bemoaned the number of hermeneutics volumes. And I heard more than once the lament, “People want to write more about hermeneutics than they want to practice hermeneutics.” I don’t think that accusation is valid for Duvall and Hays. Many of us in the West have had to slog through a fifty-page discourse on epistemology as part of a hermeneutics course. We’ve also had to deal with burgeoning issues like postmodern relativism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and higher criticism. Hermeneutics volumes tailored for North American scholars, thinkers, and pastors need to touch on these issues. But in my experience, these concerns are much less prevalent in other parts of the world. What most pastors need instead is a basic understanding of how to approach the Bible and how to extract rich nutrients for themselves and their congregations. GGW moves quickly from the theoretical to the practical, and the vocabulary of the book makes it readable and accessible in the mold of Grudem’s Systematic Theology.
The strength of GGW is not just its readability and accessibility; there are also excellent illustrations and visuals in the book. For example, the illustration of the “Principlizing Bridge” is solid gold. I can still remember walking my Cameroonian listeners through the five-step process of interpretation.
Step 1: Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?
Step 2: Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
Step 3: Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?
Step 4: Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the NT teaching modify or qualify the principle, and if so, how?
Step 5: Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out this modified theological principle?
They loved this. And I kept coming back to that “bridge” every time I taught through a different book of the Bible or a different genre of Scripture. It was exactly what they needed to process the sometimes difficult and abstract theory of Bible interpretation. It made sense to them, and it helped them process each book of the Bible with a trustworthy grid that led to present-day application.
Another strength of this volume is that the principles don’t require a lot of secondary source research (e.g., commentaries, Bible dictionaries). Those resources are sometimes hard to come by outside of North America, and sometimes hermeneutics volumes can assume easy access to libraries, personal or otherwise. That’s not something cross-cultural educators can assume with their students. Of course, the authors of GGW encourage the use of secondary sources; they even have an appendix that shows students how to build a personal library, but the essence of their methodology doesn’t require secondary sources. That’s key.
A few weaknesses of the book should be stated as well. The book is too long and involved to effectively teach in a one-week course or seminar (500+ pages). Ideally, a professor would teach the material in two sections: 1) Hermeneutics and the OT; 2) Hermeneutics and the NT. This could even be integrated into classes that teach Intro to the OT and Intro to the NT. If that wasn’t feasible, then I would encourage teachers to skip (or abbreviate) part 3 of the book, “Meaning and Application.” Another weakness is the decision to put the NT (part 4) before the OT (part 5). This rubs me the wrong way as an OT specialist, because the OT is so formative for everything we read and encounter in the NT. Teachers should feel free (like me) to reverse the order of the book. I also think that the Law section of the book (chapter 19) is confusing. I much prefer Calvin’s (and Luther’s) threefold use of the Law to Duvall and Hays’ approach. For my part, when I taught on the OT Law, I supplanted GGW’s chapter with my own discussion on moral, civil, and ceremonial Law.
The great opportunity that I see with having a one-stop-shop for all things hermeneutical is the standardization of methodology and illustrations. I believe that the best hermeneutics volumes emphasize the same things. They affirm inerrancy. They strive to discern authorial intent. They move from observation to interpretation to application. But many volumes take a more circuitous route to get to application than GGW, and this can bog down the learning process for students. Like the authors say in their own volume, Grasping God’s Word is organized pedagogically rather than logically. A logical organization would begin with theory before moving to practice. But that is boring to students and they lose interest before they ever get to the ‘good stuff.’ We have organized the book in a manner that motivates students to learn (17-18).
I believe that the authors have accomplished that objective, and I’ve seen it firsthand in my interaction with students. Also, I would love to see the “Principlizing Bridge” illustration become the standard visual for biblical hermeneutics. Once explained, this illustration can transform the way students interpret the text. I’ve seen that transformative effect in my own life and preaching, and because many cultures are more visually-oriented than text-oriented, the book’s illustrations provide helpful pedagogical tools.
The biggest obstacle that cross-cultural teachers will have to overcome is the perception of a Western bias as it relates to hermeneutics. Why do we emphasize authorial intent? What about the Holy Spirit’s role in interpretation? Is the methodology in GGW too structured, rigid, and cerebral? Teachers need to be ready to address these issues and argue from a perspective of universal communication principles. We should not fixate on education or expertise at the expense of basic communication theory. In other words, we should focus on respecting the intent of the person communicating and not defraud the communication act by importing our own meaning into the author’s words. This may take some time to process with students. Teachers should be prepared to contextualize that conversation in the particular setting of the students. This will help them to see the universality of this communication principle (i.e., nobody wants their words twisted or misunderstood by a listener). Then the principle can be applied to Scripture.
Also, a teacher should not be dismissive of the Holy Spirit’s role in the interpretation process. Keep stressing that the same Holy Spirit who wrote the Scriptures indwells the person who reads and applies them! This should be a point of emphasis that reinforces the methodology and doesn’t supplant it. If necessary, Chapter 12 of GGW can help with this.
There is a plethora of hermeneutics volumes on the market for theological education. This superabundance can be overwhelming, and that’s partially why identifying the best and most versatile volume is so important. While many volumes would faithfully fulfill the duty of teaching hermeneutics, Duvall and Hays have produced the best all-in-one source for this task. Teaching hermeneutics is incredibly important in both the North American context and abroad. So, it’s crucial for teachers to have the right resource that will give them the best bang for their buck to maximize their teaching efforts. If you have an opportunity to teach only one class cross-culturally, teach hermeneutics. If you only have one monograph to bring and work through, use Grasping God’s Word.