The present work by Craig Bartholomew is a substantial and solid book on biblical hermeneutics. It is not always easy reading, and the title ‘Introducing . . .’ could mislead some prospective readers. Many students might find the book heavy going and rather abstract in many places. This is not intended as a criticism, but to make clear the nature of the book as an intermediate textbook rather than a primer.
A major theme of this book is the integration of faith with hermeneutics, that is, the need to read Scripture ‘listening’ to God speak. This is indeed a healthy and much-needed emphasis in an academic environment which is frequently sceptical. Bartholomew engages these sceptical voices as he seeks to encourage believing students not to lose touch with God’s voice in the course of studying Scripture.
The first two chapters set the scene for this emphasis. In his opening chapter, Bartholomew sets out eight statements about Trinitarian hermeneutics (pp. 8–15). These points are neither argued nor debated, but lay out his integrative agenda. Most notably, a Trinitarian hermeneutic will regard the Bible as authoritative, as a whole as Scripture, and as ecclesially focused. The goal of such a hermeneutic is obedient attention that takes God’s address seriously. The second chapter focuses on listening and includes an encouragement to practise a lectio divina method of approaching Scripture, a method mentioned occasionally later in the book (e.g., ch. 14). While Bartholomew repeatedly urges ‘careful attentiveness’ to Scripture (p. 20), it might have been helpful to develop this more practically. How does one carefully attend to Scripture?
The second section of the book expounds an emphasis that readers of Bartholomew will be well familiar with, namely, biblical theology. His presentation of the coherence and essential unity of the whole Bible is important for highlighting the primacy of narrative and its role in the quest for the Bible’s big picture. I find an awareness of these matters lacking both in modern scholarship, as Bartholomew argues, but also in the church in general, not least in Asia where I teach. So in this section Bartholomew reminds us that Scripture has one ultimate and united voice, namely, God’s, and that Jesus is the key to Scripture. While these foundational points are contested in academia, Bartholomew does not so much defend them as present them as fundamental.
Part three of the book provides a history of biblical interpretation. Unlike standard surveys of the discipline, Bartholomew states that his aim is to ‘indicate major contours in the reception of the Bible as Scripture so as to equip contemporary interpreters to orientate themselves amid current trends’ (p. 120). That is as good as any summary of the book’s overarching purpose to guard readers against liberal and unbelieving trends in biblical scholarship. A key point for Bartholomew, which is raised in this section and developed later (esp. ch. 13), is the importance of philosophical awareness for good biblical interpretation. In underscoring this need, Bartholomew is attempting to direct readers to foundational matters of worldview that influence approaches to and interpretation of Scripture. He shows, for example, the role that philosophy played in W. de Wette’s liberal approach to Scripture (p. 215) and bemoans the fact that so many interpreters leave their philosophy hidden (pp. 216, 223; see also p. 235 on Barth’s caution about philosophy).
Part four addresses biblical interpretation and, in successive chapters, philosophy, history, literature, theology, as well as including a chapter on Scripture and the university. All of these chapters build upon issues raised in the section on history of interpretation, and indeed trace that history in more specific detail. Again Bartholomew highlights the importance of philosophy in approaching Scripture, along with an introduction to the philosophy of language. Various issues relating to history and narrative are also developed, with appropriate warnings against the historical-critical method whose presuppositions are often irreconcilable with traditional belief (pp. 352–53). It is in the chapter addressing history that Bartholomew rehearses his ‘drama of Scripture’ approach to the Bible found in his earlier works (with Michael Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014]).
Finally, section five of the book draws practical applications under the heading, ‘The Goal of Biblical Interpretation’. One chapter is devoted in this regard to the book of Hebrews; here Barthlomew’s plea for a ‘faith-full interpretation’ summarises the heart of his book—the need for believing and obedient listening to the text of Scripture. The final chapter, unexpected perhaps in a book on biblical interpretation but very timely indeed, is devoted to preaching. Some of the themes in Bartholomew’s outstanding little book on preaching (Excellent Preaching: Proclaiming the Gospel in Its Context and Ours [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016]) are also echoed here. As one who spends most of my time training preachers, this chapter is worth reading above all. Our world needs the reminders of this chapter about the primacy of preaching for the church, and it is in preaching that the keys of biblical interpretation are most needed and applied.
As I said at the outset, this is not a simple book. The text is 545 pages with almost fifty pages of bibliography. Bartholomew is both extremely widely read and, as has been the case since his doctoral work on Ecclesiastes, somewhat of a polymath with interests in philosophy, literary theory, Bible, and ministry. This book draws all of that, and more, together in a book well worth reading, though perhaps a bit too theoretical for most undergraduate students. In the course of reading, I kept wanting some worked-out examples to show the application of the theory and to illustrate the differences between what Bartholomew advocates and what he is arguing against. Towards this end, my desire was in part answered with some extended examples from Luke, Genesis 1–2, and a whole chapter on Hebrews. While there is nothing too original in those examples and more are needed, they do concretise the theory in helpful ways.
Finally, the key message of this book is abundantly welcome. More than ever, we need to correct the academic trends away from obedient listening to the text of Scripture. Bartholomew has done much in redressing this need.