Grasping God’s Word [Book Review]

Hermeneutics, the principles of interpretation with which one approaches the Bible, will be largely determinative of the one’s theology. Therefore, it is paramount for the student of the Word to understand hermeneutics. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays set out to aid students in this endeavor with their book entitled Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. J. Scott Duvall received his M.Div. and Ph.D. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently a New Testament professor at Ouachita Baptist University, where he teaches hermeneutics. J. Daniel Hays received his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Hays also teaches at Ouachita Baptist University along with Duvall.

The question of why someone would write another book on the subject is especially relevant regarding Hermeneutics. There are numerous books that define and explain Hermeneutics. What the authors attempt to contribute in Grasping God’s Word is a uniquely balanced and practical textbook that avoids the extremes of either being far too simplified, or far too technical. Duvall and Hays have worked to craft a thorough, but manageable, introduction to interpreting and applying Scripture. They have succeeded in this goal, as Grasping God’s Word serves as a practical guide to understanding the process of accurately reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible.

In Part One, the authors introduce how to read the Bible. The authors begin by providing a brief explanation of the history of English translations of the Bible, the two basic philosophies of translation, and a helpful guide in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the many different translations. In an age when the amount of Bible translations available to the English speaking Christian can be overwhelming, this is a valuable chapter.

The authors also introduce the reader to what they call the “Interpretive Journey,” which is a creative and helpful way to conceptualize the process of interpretation and application. The authors explain the five steps in the Interpretive Journey thusly:

  1. Grasp the text in their town. What did the text mean to the original audience?
  2. Measure the width of the river to cross. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
  3. Cross the principlizing bridge. What is the theological principle in this text?
  4. Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
  5. Grasp the text in our town. How should individual Christians today live out the theological principle?

This is a surprisingly helpful way to visualize the task of hermeneutics, helping show the reader how to give attention to things that may not be natural unless noted specifically. The authors then get into more specifics about reading the Bible in sentences, paragraphs, and discourses, also noting such features as figures of speech and literary genre.

Part Two deals more specifically with the extensive historical-cultural gap between ancient and modern times. In order to understand the text, the reader must be able to apprehend such important contextual things as the author’s background, the literary context, and the particular circumstances of the passage. The authors also give a valuable caution to the reader about how easy it is to read one’s own circumstances and culture back into Scripture.

Part Three begins to put into practice the groundwork from parts one and two and deals with meaning and application. Part Three is fundamentally about communication. Is there meaning to this text? Who determines the meaning? For whom was the text written? The authors also anticipate a question the reader may be having by this point in the book: “If we have the Holy Spirit… why do we need to worry about proper procedures?” The argument is well made in response that the role of the Holy Spirit is not so much in the cognitive functions involved in interpreting the text, but in the discerning of truth, and especially in the application of truth to one’s life.

In Part Four, the authors begin applying the theory and principles given thus far. Once again, Duvall and Hays display their competence for the task at hand. Namely, they discuss the New Testament first, and then the Old Testament in Part Five. Their reasoning for this is that the reader is most likely much more familiar with the New Testament than the Old, and the width of the river (of differences) would be far greater with the Old Testament than with the New. The authors clearly have students in mind as they craft their work in as practical and helpful a manner as possible. Part Four discusses in depth the issues surrounding the interpretation of the four categories of writings found in the New Testament — the letters, the Gospels (to which the authors ascribe the genre of “christological biography”), Acts (with a helpful discussion of how the reader discerns what is normative or merely descriptive in the book of Acts), and Revelation.

Part Five then deals with the Old Testament, and Duvall and Hays are careful to point out that as a New Covenant believer, the reader must not read the Old Testament the same way as he would prior to the cross of Christ. This makes the bridge and map in their illustration all the more important, as the reader must work hard to discern how the principles of the Old Testament apply to believers today. Thus, the authors expand the fourth step for the Old Testament; it now reads: “Consult the biblical map. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible? Does the New testament teaching modify or qualify this principle, and if so, how?” Duvall and Hays then practically and precisely take the reader through five genres of the Old Testament — narrative, law, poetry, prophets, and wisdom literature. The book then concludes with three appendices, in which the authors deal with the inspiration, inerrancy and canon of Scripture, writing an exegetical paper, and building a personal library (complete with a bibliography of suggested titles). Again with the appendices, Duvall and Hays find the right balance between surface and depth, in a manner that is truly beneficial to the reader of any level.

Grasping God’s Word is highly recommendable for college and seminary students, Bible teachers, pastors, and lay leaders alike. Some hermeneutics textbooks tend to focus too narrowly on the denotative meaning of the text, with little thought of application. Others emphasize application, but fail to properly teach the reader how to understand the text in its historical and literary contexts. Many hermeneutics books are far too technical for the college student, or even the seminary student, who is just being introduced to the methodologies of interpretation, while other books barely scratch the surface in an attempt to simplify the concepts. Duvall and Hays have struck a careful balance, in Grasping God’s Word, by creatively and practically introducing the reader to the process of the accurate interpretation of the content, with insight into the historical and literary contexts, and meaningful application for the life of the believer. This book will be a valuable resource to anyone wishing to become a more competent student of the Word of God.

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