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Book Review - Knowing Scripture
January 20, 2004
One of Satan’s greatest triumphs is in convincing Christians to abandon the Bible, or at least keeping them from really mining its depths. He tries to convince us that the Bible is outdated, unimportant or less important than many other things. He tries to convince us that it is difficult to understand and that we should rely on others to interpret it for us.
R.C. Sproul wrote Knowing Scripture early in his career to address these concerns and out of a desire to see Christians dedicate themselves to a systematic study of the Bible. Written in 1977, this is one of Sproul’s earliest but most important and highly recommended books.
Sproul begins with an introduction to why we should read the Bible. He dispels myths regarding Scripture being too difficult to understand or too boring to hold our attention. From that foundation he shows how the principle of private interpretation was a pillar of the Reformation and thus remains a pillar of Protestantism. He explains what private interpretation is and what it is not. He shows, for example, that it does not preclude us from verifying our interpretations against those of others. He also stresses the need for objectivity as we read the Scripture. In short, he keeps us from viewing private interpretation as being a method of forcing Scripture to say what we want it to say.
He dedicates a chapter to an introduction to hermeneutics. Do not be scared by this technical word as it simply means “a list of rules and guidelines for interpreting Scripture.” Some of the concepts he introduces are:
- The analogy of faith. This says that Scripture interprets Scripture, or that one passage supports and explains another. It also means that one part of Scripture never corrects another part, for Scripture needs to correction.
- Literal Interpretation. This says that Scripture needs to be scrutinized as literature, paying attention to grammar, word choice and genre. Just because the Bible is a special book does not mean we can ignore standard literal interpretation.
- Genre Analysis. This says that Scripture must be analyzed for genre and it is crucial that we distinguish between genres such as history and poetry.
- Grammatico-Historical. This is a method of interpreting Scripture that focuses on, among other things, grammatical constructions and historical context. This is the traditional and most accurate method of hermeneutics.
- Authorship and Dating. It is important to understand the dating of a particular book or passage as well as its authorship.
The bulk of the book is contained in a chapter that lays out ten rules for Biblical interpretation. They are:
- Do not change the rules of interpretation for the Bible. Read the Bible just like any other book
- Seek to empathize with the Biblical characters
- Narratives must be interpreted by the didactic
- The implicit is to be interpreted by the explicit
- Determine the meaning of words using lexicography, etymology and context
- Note the presence of parallelisms
- Note the difference between proverb and law
- Observe the difference between the spirit and the letter of the law
- Be careful with parables
- Be careful with predictive prophecy
Each of these points receives careful attention. Though some of them may sound shocking (such as “read the Bible just like any other book”) Sproul provides solid reasons for the necessity of each.
The author then turns his attention to a discussion of culture and the Bible. Just I am confined to a specific cultural setting, so were the authors of the Bible. We need to be able to discern the difference between principle and custom in regards to the Bible. Sproul provides several guidelines for doing this.
The book closes with a discussion of some resources that may help in studying the Bible. These range from commentaries to dictionaries and lexicons. If there is an area of this book that shows its age, it is in this section. There are so many more resources at our disposal now, especially on the Internet, that this section loses some of its usefulness. A discussion of modern translations and some of the newer commentaries would be helpful. Perhaps a second edition of this book is in order. One thing I found amusing is that the author says he does not agree with study Bibles, yet years later was the editor of the New Geneva Study Bible (later renamed the Reformation Study Bible). I presume his view changed!
This book does a wonderful job of introducing hermeneutics for the lay person and I would recommend it for any Christian. It presents advanced concepts in a way that it easy to read and understand. My only complaint is that it advances many rules but does not dedicate any attention to the “how’s” of hermeneutics. Some examples where the author led us through some difficult passages would have been most welcome and would have helped ensure we not only understood the rules but also understood how to use them.
byR. C. Sproul