Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.
40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible: Second Edition (40 Question Series) by Robert L. Plumber, 368 pp. Kregel Publishing, 2022
When it comes to studying and interpreting the Bible, there is an avalanche of reasons as to why Christians should want to improve their skillset in this area. Have you ever noticed that almost every cult arises from improper Bible interpretation? Have also noticed how many skeptics and people from other faiths misinterpret the Bible? Also, have you noticed how in many cases, you go to a “home group” or a Bible study and the group leader asks the participants, “What do you think the passage means?” These are common problems that happen on a regular basis. This is why 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible: Second Edition by Robert L. Plumber is an important book. Once again, in line with the 40 Questions Series, each chapter is short but quite detailed. If the reader wants to go further, there are always reading suggestions at the end of each chapter.
The first seven chapters of Plummer’s book discuss text, canon, and translation. I think this is the proper order. After all, if the reader doesn’t trust the Bible or question whether it is an accurate deposit of divine revelation, that can be a hindrance in wanting to learn how to interpret it. Plummer makes a case for inerrancy mostly adhering to “The Chicago Statement on Bible Inerrancy.” Thus, anyone familiar with that document (which can be read online), will be familiar with Plummer’s arguments.
The next six chapters cover general issues that are related to interpretation such as principles for interpreting the Bible, how we can improve as interpreters, and a list of some helpful tools we can use to enable us to interpret properly. He notes that knowing the genre of which book is important, as well as knowing the cultural context is critical. After all, the Bible was written in a totally different culture and language. It wasn’t written to Westerners. Also, paying attention to the context of the passage is crucial. As Plummer notes, “Any portion of Scripture must be read within the context of the sentence, paragraph, chapter, larger discourse unit, and entire book. “- pg. 118. In my experience, this is the most common mistake people make. Every systematic theology debate stems from “proof texting.”
Proof Texting is the method by which a person appeals to a passage/ passages to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing. Then they assert, “theologian A has a more ‘biblical’ theology than theologian B” based upon counting up verse in parentheses (on a random page from each work) and claiming to have three times as many. For example, when someone says, “You can lose your salvation,” and they quote a passage/ passages out of context, someone can turn around and say “No, you can’t, and I have my passages to show you to prove my point” (out of context again). This happens with the Calvinism/Arminianism debate as well as other debates as well. It gets exhausting. Furthermore, since I have dealt with several people in cults, they constantly take passages out of context and base their entire theology off one text.
One example is Mormonism. They may quote the following passage: John 10: 14-15 which says “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also.” But since they take this out of its original context, they assume Jesus is saying he must come to America and bring in other sheep (he must reveal himself to them). Thus, they assume Jesus came to America in person to do this. I could cite other examples as well. It is tragic and sad. A common mistake is to forget to allow “Scripture to interpret Scripture.” As Plummer says, “We need to listen to the full panoply of texts that touch on a specific topic.”- pg. 109. Plummer also stresses that it is important to interpret the Bible within community. We live in a very individualistic age. But we can’t afford to not take advantage of gifted teachers in the Body of Christ (Eph 4: 11-13).
One of the most important questions Plummer tackles is “Who Determines Meaning of a Text?” He notes that “the dominant approach in the secular academy to interpreting literature highlights the reader as the ultimate determiner of meaning.” – pg. 141. Reader created meanings can be driven by social concerns such as feminist, liberationist, or Marxist readings. In this case, they just read into the text what they want. Obviously, if the reader is the determiner of the meaning of the text, you end up with several contradictory interpretations. This happens in small group studies as well. I am quite jaded because I have seen too many studies where the leader asks the participants “What do you think this passage means?”
This leads to what is called eisegeis (the interpretation of a text (as of the Bible) by reading into it one’s own ideas) vs “eisegesis” which relies on the original context of a biblical passage to determine that passage’s meaning. Also, good exegesis will take authorial intent seriously. There has been a debate over authorial intent. The question at hand is whether a passage of Scripture can have a meaning other than what the author intended in the text. This is a very important question to answer because if a text can have a meaning other than what the author intended, then another standard or set of principles is needed to determine that meaning. In other words, if meaning does not resign with what the author intended, then who?
If the reader is the one who determines meaning, then which reader is correct? In all honesty, when someone says, “What do you think the text means to you,” my response is “I don’t care what you think the text means.” In other words, I want to know that the author meant to the audience he was writing to (which isn’t us). Once we do the hard work to figure that out, we can then attempt to make an application to our own lives. So many Christians are jumping to an application without even asking what the original author meant to his own audience. Furthermore, just as people involved with cults take many passages out of context, they are constantly read into the text what they think it is saying.
Plummer also takes the time to give several tips on how to interpret the books of the Bible (i.e., Prophecy, Proverbs, the Psalms, the Parables, Historical Narratives. Apocalyptic Literature, etc). Plummer also discusses some of the current trends in Bible Interpretation. Overall, anyone who wants to enhance their interpretative skills will benefit from Plummer’s work.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback or any specific type of review.