Handling the Biblical Text

Robert L. Plummer. 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible. Ed. Benjamin L. Merkle. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010. 347 pages.

There is a certain irony associated with books on biblical interpretation. They are arguably among the most important works in print (insofar as they shed light on the Bible), and yet they are often so steeped in technical nomenclature, pedantic theories, and less than engaging prose, that few Christians give them serious attention. This isn’t to say that we should avoid such books—au contraire. When I finally girded my loins and dove into the interpretive conundrums of the synoptic problem and speech act theory, for instance, I found hermeneutical gems which have enriched my exegetical method ever since. Unfortunately, however, few of these books are accessible enough for a pastor to recommend to the uninitiated congregant.

Thankfully, Robert Plummer’s volume titled 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible is now available. The genius of Plummer’s work is its combination of academic heft with accessibility, substance with clarity, thoroughness which is at the same time relevant to all Christians. Thus, it’s not simply the cookies he’s putting on the bottom shelf; he’s delivered every course of the hermeneutical meal—from “What is the Bible” to “Theological Interpretation of Scripture”—and laid it out in a manner that is appealing and digestible.

In his foreword, Andreas Köstenberger offers a helpful synopsis of the kinds of questions that Plummer addresses: “Who introduced chapters and verse divisions regularly found in our current Bibles? What do we mean by “autographs”? What is the proper definition of “inerrancy”? How were the biblical manuscripts copied and transmitted over the centuries? What is the oldest extant fragment of the New Testament canon? What is the Apocrypha? Is the canon closed? What is the best available English Bible translation? What is the overarching message of the Bible? Why can’t people agree on what the Bible means? [Plummer] has, in essence, provided us with a book on biblical interpretation broken up into digestible bits and pieces, using a format that makes it easier to stomach a subject that often gets stuck in beginning students’ throats” (9).

The structure of 40 Questions consists of four parts:

(1.) Getting Started: Text, Canon, and Translation
(2.) Approaching the Bible Generally (a.) Questions Related to Interpretation (b.) Questions Related to Meaning
(3.) Approaching Specific Texts (a.) Shared Genres: Questions Applying Equally to Old and New Testaments (b.) Primarily Old Testament Genres (c.) Primarily New Testament Genres
(4.) Issues in Recent Discussion.

Organized around common FAQs, the format allows readers to select whichever issue happens to be of interest. There is also good reason to move progressively from beginning to the end. The overall link and flow leads one from basic questions of the Bible’s nature to ways of navigating through specific hermeneutical challenges.

The pages dedicated to each question have a clear, uniformed shape. After providing the historical background and general context of a particular issue, Plummer walks readers through interpretive principles, proposing different possible approaches, examining Scripture, considering contributions of history, exposing flaws, marshaling evidence, before finally suggesting an answer. The scope of these lessons is broad enough to instill confidence that Plummer knows what he’s talking about, yet not so broad that it gets bogged down in obfuscated detail. This thoroughness is also evidenced in the healthy number of footnotes that appear on most pages, which in addition to citing sources also provide explication of an idea, suggestions of resources for further study, or in some instances application of a devotional thought.

After each of the 40 answers there are “Reflection Sections” and another “For Further Study,” with recommendations of additional books and resources. This is the other feature that makes it so well suited for the local church. Consider, for instance, these reflection questions chosen randomly (172-173):

1. Has anyone ever accused you of picking and choosing your morality from the Bible? How did you respond?
2. Do you feel confident explaining why Christians are not to obey food laws or sacrificial laws in the Old Testament? Try giving a brief explanation. Be sure to cite Scripture to support your answers.
3. Read Judges 11. Is the behavior of Jephthah prescriptive or descriptive? How do you know?
4. In Romans 16:16, Paul writes, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.” In what way is this command applicable today? Explain.

I suppose the part of 40 Questions that I most appreciate—in addition to being a wonderful primer for students, accessible to laypersons, and an overall good summary of how to handle the Old and New Testaments—is its consistent emphasis upon Bible study as a means toward worship. As Plummer writes in his postscript:

Imagine that you and I are talking together on a warm summer day. I describe in details the delicious flavor of a new ice cream treat. I then pull one from a box and offer it to you. As you sink your teeth into the snack, you are suddenly struck by a rubbery, bland sensation in your mouth. A nearly invisible cellophane wrapper around the ice cream has prevented you from enjoying it.

This book is like a cellophane wrapper. I have spent a lot of time talking about the Bible, but unless you, the reader, actually pick up God’s Word and savor it for yourself, this bland wrapper of a book will soon be forgotten. If, however, I succeed in motivating you to read, pray, sing, and meditate on the Scriptures, then this book will have served its purpose. May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, guide you on a lifetime of delight in his Word (327).

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