How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth is written by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. Gordon Fee holds a Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia where he taught for sixteen years. He has also taught at Wheaton College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. His field of expertise is New Testament textual criticism. He has also authored other books including a textbook on New Testament interpretation and several commentaries that include on 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Galatians, 1 Corinthians and Philippians (http://www.regent-college.edu).
Douglas Stuart holds a Ph.D. from Yale Divinity School (Harvard University) and is currently professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts where he has taught since 1971. His field of expertise includes Biblical Interpretation, the Church, Old Testament studies, and Biblical Languages. He has also authored other books including Old Testament Exegesis and contributed to The Preacher’s Commentary, New American Commentary, Mastering the Old Testament, The Communicator’s Commentary, et al. (http://www.gordonconwell.edu).
According to the authors, the purpose of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worthis to show that a clear understanding of the Bible “isn’t only for the few, the gifted, and the scholarly” (Back Cover). Instead, it is meant to be read and understood by everyone from “armchair readers” to “seminary students”. Their point is that the Scriptures are accessible to anyone who is armed with the proper understanding and tools.
Fee and Stuart’s approach to this book is concerned mainly with the understanding of the ten different types of literature or genres that make up the Bible and how they are to be thusly to be interpreted (Loc. 205). They believe that it is imperative that the reader of the Bible understands that there are distinct differences between the genres (e.g., a psalm and an epistle) in the Bible and those differences determine not only how each genre is to be read, but also how each one is to be understood in the effort to achieve a proper interpretation that leads to application in the lives of modern believers (Loc. 223).
This starts with the task of exegesis which is the careful, systematic study of the Scripture to discover the original, intended meaning. They refer to this as the historical task. It is critical to the explanation or interpretation of a text, and is an effort to determine what the text originally meant (Loc. 376). The secret lies in the ability to ask the right questions about the text. Of course, these questions differ depending upon the genre of the text in question. There are essentially two questions that must be asked of any text: those that relate to historical and literary context and those that relate to content (Loc. 426).
Those questions that relate to historical context include: the time and culture of the author and his readers (i.e., geographical, topographical, and political factors that are relevant to the author’s setting and the occasion of the writing). For example, were they writing before the exile, during the exile, or after the exile? All of these factors are important in order to gain an accurate understanding of the text. This is also where the reader is going to have to employ the use of “outside help” and a good commentary comes into play (Loc. 442).
Fee and Stuart agree that the main question when it comes to relating to the literary context is simply, “What’s the point?” To figure this out, the reader must remember that “words only have meaning in sentences and that sentences only have clear meaning in relation to the preceding and the succeeding sentences” (Loc. 459). The goal therefore is to understand what the author was thinking at the time of the writing and why. This information will help the reader to determine what the author is saying next and why.
Having dealt with the issue of context, Fee and Stuart say that the next issue to focus on is content. “Content” has to do with the meaning of the words, their grammatical relationships in the sentences, and the original text in which they were written (Loc. 475). For this, they assert that outside help is usually necessary; however there are tools that can be used by the reader which should minimize that need. These tools include: a good translation of the Scriptures, a good Bible dictionary, and good scholarly commentaries.
After the exegesis stage, the second task for the reader, in the Fee and Stuart’s narrower sense, is hermeneutics. However, they are adamant that this stage must only come after the exegesis stage to avoid “total subjectivity” (Loc. 492). To do so, only encourages improper interpretations that lead to such things as baptizing for the dead, the rejection of the deity of Christ, a prosperity gospel, snake handling, and the advocacy of the American dream as a right of all believers (Loc. 496). They contend that “proper hermeneutics begins with solid exegeses” as a point of control.
Of course, Fee and Stuart argue that all of this must be done while understanding that the Bible is God’s Word. Therefore, it is eternal in relevance, and speaks to all mankind in every age and in every culture (Loc. 341). However, because God chose to use human authors, each book is “conditioned by the language, time, and culture in which it was originally written (Loc. 341). Therein lies the challenge for the reader.
After discussing the issue of translations of the Bible and why every serious student of the Bible should have at least one copy of a formal equivalence translation (e.g., NASB, ESV, NRSV, etc.) and one functional equivalence translation (e.g., NIV, TNIV, NJB, etc.), Fee and Stuart move on to discuss the uniqueness of the epistles, Old Testament narratives, the book of Acts, the Gospels, the parables, the Law, the prophets, the Psalms, wisdom books, and the book of Revelation. While not exhaustive, they did a very good job of showing the reader how to interact with each of these genres.
The first genre they dealt with is the epistles. The crucial thing to remember about the epistles is that they are mostly letters and thus have an “occasional” in nature. This means that they were written on a specific occasion in response to a specific question or problem. Thus, they are not necessarily theological treatises, but contain “task theology” or theology that is dealt with because of the task at hand (Loc. 992). The challenge for the reader is to try to determine not the answers to the questions that are already found in the letter, but to ascertain the questions or problems that had arisen that caused the letter to be written in the first place (Loc. 979). Therefore, determining historical context is paramount to the reader.
To be honest, while I am in total agreement with the authors on this, I have never thought of the epistles in this way. However, it makes total sense that the writers would be addressing issues that were occasioned by either the reader’s side or the author’s (Loc. 979). Knowing that now, it is obviously crucial that much effort be placed into determining the occasion. These occasions could include behavioral issues, doctrinal disputes, and misunderstandings that needed to be clarified, etc. (Loc. 979). Obviously, these need to be discovered as closely as possible to arrive at an accurate interpretation.
The second genre dealt with was the Old Testament narratives. This is the most common type of literature in the Bible as that over forty percent of the Old Testament and this also includes the Gospels and the book of Acts in the New Testament (Loc. 1542). Their point is that narratives are stories of historical events in the past that are intended to give direction to those of us in the present (Loc. 1550). The caution that they offer is that these stories must not be seen as merely allegorical and are not intended to teach moral lessons (Loc. 1598). However, they do illustrate what is taught explicitly and categorically elsewhere in Scripture (Loc. 1610).
For my part, I’ve always struggled with what to do with prostitutes (e.g., Rahab) and lying midwives (Exodus 1:19) being blessed by God. However, as Fee and Stuart pointed out, the purpose of narratives is to show what God is doing in the redemptive history of Israel and not the moral failings of those in the text (Loc. 1815).
The third genre is the book of Acts. Fee and Stuart felt that it was important to note that even though Acts is a narrative as are the Gospels, it should be treated differently because most Christians do not read it that way (Loc. 1884). Instead, they see it as a book that patterns Christian behavior in the church, and thus serves as the normative model for the church at all times (Loc. 1892). However, the danger with this is the risk of a “restoration” mentality that seeks to take the church back to the first century. The problem with this is that what happened in Acts is not necessarily normative for all times (Loc. 2096).
I know of many churches that make it their aim to get “back to Acts”. However, after reading this section, I agree with Fee and Stuart that incidentals must not ever become primary unless Scripture explicitly says otherwise elsewhere (Loc. 2096). Therefore, it is not wise to establish a precedent based solely on the Acts narrative.
The fourth genre is the Gospels. The authors agree that when it comes to interpreting them, some problems are immediately evident. They believe that all of the difficulties encountered are the result of two things: Jesus was not the author of either and there are four of them (Loc. 2242). Thus, they lend themselves to probably more speculative scholarship than anywhere else in the New Testament.
There is no doubt that I’ve heard some pretty farfetched things come out of some teachings from the Gospels. Much of it is precisely because they fail to realize the historical context (i.e., Jewish books, written to Jewish people, by Jewish writers, about a Jewish messiah). Far too many teachers fall into the trap of interpreting before proper exegesis. Thus, there is a misunderstanding and misapplication of context, Jesus’s use of hyperbole, and a proper understanding of the “kingdom of God” (Loc. 2590).
The fifth genre is the parables. Fee and Stuart actually introduce this section by saying that much of the misinterpretation that occurs when dealing with the parables is because of what Jesus said in Mark 4:10-12, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables, so that seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand” (NKJV). This, of course, has led many (e.g., Augustine) to seek out hidden meanings rather than proper exegesis.
I agree that even today, there is some pretty weird teaching out there based solely on the parables. I had a Bible College teacher tell us one time that one should be in the ministry at least twenty years before they even attempt to teach on the significance of the kingdom parables of Matthew 13. That being said, I do agree with the authors that to even come close to properly interpreting them, the teacher must determine the point of the story being told and the intended solicited response expected from the original hearers (Loc. 2724).
The sixth genre is the Law. The authors felt the need to have a special section on the law because of its “covenantal nature” (Loc. 2894). Point being, the Law must be viewed as God’s gift to his people, the Jews, so that they can live in community with each other and with Him. However, we are not under the old covenant any longer. The church operates under the new covenant, and therefore, the Law is really not applicable unless specifically stated so in the New Testament (Loc. 2919).
I found this section to be refreshing because so many today try to operate under the Old Testament covenant by avoiding certain foods, keeping certain days, etc., when it is so clearly not for the church age. I like how they further delineated how the church is no longer under obligation to keep the civic or the ritual aspects of the Law. However, the church does have an obligation to acknowledge certain aspects of the ethical law (Loc. 2983).
The seventh genre is the prophets. Fee and Stuart pointed out that more books of the Bible come under this heading than any other in the Bible (Loc. 3214). They are also quick to point out that they are among the most difficult books in the Scriptures to interpret and understand (Loc. 3227).
They did a great job of pointing out that prophets are not to be seen as primarily predictors of future events, but their primary function is to speak for God to their contemporaries, therefore anything that they say must be seen in this light (Loc. 3239). I also have never heard them described as “covenant enforcement mediators” (Loc. 3264). Also, that their messages were unoriginal in that they were merely restating what God had already expressed to them in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy (Loc. 3328).
The eighth genre is the Psalms. The authors note that the Psalms are considerably difficult to interpret because of their distinctive nature (Loc. 3656). Unlike the rest of the Scriptures which communicate God’s Word to people, many of the Psalms communicate to God or about God. Therefore, they do not function to primarily teach doctrine or moral behavior. Instead, they serve to model how God’s people are to express joy, sorrow, success, failure, hope and regret (Loc. 3669).
I like the fact that they pointed out that psalms are first and foremost poetry. Therefore, it is essential that the reader understand that they are intentionally emotive (i.e., meant to arose emotion). Therefore, we must be very careful not to fall into the trap of “overexegeses” (Loc. 3686). There is also a warning of the temptation to “decontextualize” which will inevitably lead to wrong conclusions (Loc. 3753). Its goes back to the old expression, “A text out of context is a pretext.”
The ninth genre is the wisdom literature. Fee and Stuart show that the wisdom books include: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, but also can include the Song of Songs (Loc. 4004). They go on to warn about the potential abuses that result from a misunderstanding of their purpose, which is to state a “brief and particular” expression of truth. Of course, this lends itself to a multitude of abuse because “the briefer a statement is, the less likely it is to be totally precise and universally applicable (Loc. 4127).
I appreciate that the authors went on to list the many abuses that can result if proper exegesis does not occur when trying to interpret wisdom literature. This includes that people many times read these books only in “bits and pieces” and end up failing to grasp the overall message. Thus they end up with “snatches of wisdom” that are taken out of context (Loc. 4015). They go on to say that they may sound profound and even practical, but still out of context. I must admit that I have been guilty of this on many occasions and must be a little more careful in my approach to wisdom literature in the future.
The tenth and final genre is the book of Revelation. The authors state that the majority of problems that the interpreter encounters in this book “stem from the symbols” and that it deals with future events, and at the same time, first century context (Loc. 4441). The book also relies heavily on the Old Testament because John cites from it over 250 times. Therefore, a thorough exegesis is crucial. Additionally, to compound the difficulty, the book blends three very distinct literary types with apocalypse, prophecy and letter (Loc. 4453). Unfortunately, the most pronounced is apocalypse, which as a literary form, does not even exist in our day.
My take away on Fee and Stuart’s observations is that we must be very careful when dealing with this type of literature. Far too many are too tempted to lose sight of proper exegeses and jump straight to improper interpretation. A good rule that the authors offered that I appreciated is for the reader to use those images that are clearly interpreted by the author himself as the starting point for the other images in the text (Loc. 4541). That one point alone would clear up much of the wayward teaching that is around today in regards to this book!
Personally, I found this to be one of the best books that I have ever read on this subject. Fee and Stuart did a marvelous job in taking a potentially very difficult subject and presenting it in such a way that not only the scholar and those in academia will be challenged, but also in such a way that the average lay person can pick it up and not drown.
Their approach was to simply take a look at each of the ten different types of literature that is contained in the Bible (i.e., the epistles, Old Testament narratives, the book of Acts, the Gospels, the parables, the Law, the prophets, the Psalms, wisdom books, and the book of Revelation) and to show how they are best interpreted in the light of the distinct genres that they represent. Their desire was that the reader would arrive at the best possible interpretation of the text that will not only enhance the life of the believer, but also advances the kingdom of God. This book is highly recommended for anyone who believes that God’s Word has eternal relevance, and speaks to all mankind in every age and in every culture (Loc. 341).