by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 39/2 (Spring 1977): 408-409. Used with permission.]

(Eds.) Samuel J. Schultz and Morris A. Inch: Interpreting the Word of God: Festschrift in honor of Steven Barabas. Chicago: Moody Press, 1976. 281. $8.95.


This collection of essays on interpretation represents an evangelicalism trying to appropriate what is good in the historical-critical method. The essays do not break new ground for scholars, but they do present the pastor and the Bible student with challenge after challenge to revise and deepen his interpretive methods and results. There is a welcome heavy emphasis on the importance of understanding biblical passages and books in their original historical context. The articles interweave discussions of general principles with examples of their effects, thereby encouraging the reader to dig more deeply into the resources of archeology (section 1), Old Testament and New Testament historical background (sections 2 and 3), and lessons from the history of interpretation (section 4). As a stimulus to fresh awareness, the book is both readable and helpful.

The most explosive question in the book concerns the nature of the cultural conditioning or cultural adaptation of the biblical discourses. God spoke of old, and spoke in a manner adapted to the original hearers. On that all agree. Starting from that point, essays by Gordon Fee and Alan Johnson raise directly the question of what is culturally relative (1 Cor. 11:6,14 on pp. 106, 135) and what is binding on us (Rom. 3:23, Eph. 2:8, etc., on p. 107). Some other essays (e.g., Jennings and Hagner) touch on the same question more indirectly. The general answer given is that we are bound by what the author intended to teach (pp. 116, 139, 198). Well, that is near to the truth.1 But there is a danger, recognized by Fee (p. 116), of interpreting too narrowly and by-passing or denying what seems incidental. Thus J. Jennings is unsure whether the tree of life in Genesis 2-3 is a historical reality or merely a literary allusion (p. 19). Johnson appears to maintain that we are not bound to hold that the earth was formed out of water and by water (pp. 141-142; cf. 2 Pet. 3:5-6).


p. 409

In my view the situation might have been further clarified by insisting even more thoroughly on a historical approach. The approach should be structured in terms of the Bible’s own view of God and history. Then the most crucial question would not be what the human author intended. (Though that question is important, it may lead quickly into unfruitful psychologizing speculation.) Rather, the central question would be what the text bound upon its original hearers, as they received it from the author. What were the hearers obliged to believe and to do? This would lead to somewhat less emphasis, for example, on Abraham’s social situation reconstructed from archeology, and more on the message to Israel concerning Abraham in Genesis (pace Jennings, p. 42). It would lead to less emphasis on redaction and synoptic sources, and more on the message of each Gospel to the hearers (pace Fee, p. 122).

Despite these few problems, the book is a powerful, encouraging stimulus to a positive utilization of the historical settings of biblical literature.

Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary,

1 Cf. my discussion in “Problems for Limited Inerrancy,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 18 (1975), 93-104.