Review of Stein on Parables

by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 44/1 (spring 1982): 158-160. Used with permission.]

Robert H. Stein: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981. 180. $8.95, paper.


Robert H. Stein has now provided us with the best book ever written from an evangelical viewpoint on the parables of Jesus. He does not discuss all the parables one by one. But he provides a good balance between laying a foundation by discussing crucial hermeneutical issues (chaps. 1–5), and fleshing his methods out by applying them to a generous selection of longer parables (chaps. 6–10).

The book presents us not so much with an innovation but a consolidation of the best in parables research to date. It takes account of and utilizes the positive insights of redaction criticism, Dodd, Jeremias, Derrett, and others. At the same time it keeps hold of a high view of biblical authority


p. 159

and consistently rejects the imbalances of predecessors. The book even has something positive to utilize from structural and aesthetic criticism of the parables, though it rightly rejects the tendency to detach the message of parables from the controls given by the first century contexts (pp. 65-71). The book consistently shows excellent exegetical judgment in the determination of the central point of individual pericopes. On top of all this, the book is stylistically clear and well-organized. It will be of great help to seminary students and pastors.

If there are any questions at all about the contents of the book, they would seem to me to lie in two main areas. One is in the area of the “tradition history” of parables. Stein is comfortable with the idea that, on occasion, the Evangelists’ versions of the parables may exhibit considerable verbal distance from the ipsissima verba of Jesus. He nevertheless maintains that, in such cases, the Evangelists’ editorial activity has resulted in a legitimate, in fact inspired, application of the basic meaning of the parable to a new situation (cf., e.g., pp. 91, 111). Some evangelicals will feel very nervous about this. Perhaps indeed Stein has sometimes postulated more “distance” than was actually there. And perhaps at times his opinions about the ipsissima verba and the original Sitz im Leben need more qualifications with “possibly.” On the other hand, a strong affirmation of inerrancy is compatible in principle with the existence of interpretation on the part of the Evangelists in order to bring out the significance and implications of Jesus’ sayings. Stein’s work is needed to wake us up to the possibility in principle of speculation on tradition history. The enormous abuse to which this speculation has been put must not force us to retreat from the kind of sane treatment that Stein offers.

A second area for further reflection is the question of single-point vs. many-point meaning. Do the parables have a single main point? Stein says yes (p. 72). But in what sense? Madeleine Boucher (The Mysterious Parable: A Literary Study [Washington, D.C.: Catholic Biblical Association 1977]) has pointed out that one cannot effectively “count” points in a neutral way. One main meaning arises through the joint contribution and interaction of many partial meanings. Moreover, a continuum exists between the most elaborate allegories and those comparisons that make almost no special use of any detail. Hence “parable” and “allegory” in a general literary-critical context are partially overlapping rather than mutually exclusive categories. Stein recognizes this complexity in practice when he discusses the significance of some of the details in the parable of the sower, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, and the parable of the wheat and the tares. However, his hermeneutical terminology still


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owes too much to the overreaction (which he acknowledges) in Jülicher’s single-point theory.

Stein formulates his first hermeneutical principle thus: “I. Seek the one main point of the parable. Do not seek allegorical significance in the details of a parable unless it is absolutely necessary” (p. 56). Such a formulation is analogous to the popular dispensational principle, “Literal if possible.” The proviso “unless…necessary” or “if possible” in both cases is an understandable reaction to excessive use of imagination. When the church is flooded with untamed subjective elaboration in its interpretation, a reaction is necessary. On the other hand, the above formulation embody a one-sided bias against language-play, allusion, suggestion-without-saying-it-in-so-many-words. There is an a priori assumption that figures of speech will always proclaim themselves to be such with unmistakable obviousness. But that ought not to be assumed uncritically any more than it ought to be assumed that details give us allegorical meaning “whenever possible.”

Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary

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