Vern S. Poythress. Reading the Word of God in the Presence of God: A Handbook for Biblical Interpretation. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2016. (ISBN: 978-1-4335-4324-1). 463 pp. Pb. $35.00.
Vern Poythress is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary. This book comes near the end of his stellar career and represents his contribution to the ever growing field of biblical hermeneutics.
The title of the book represents Poythress’s desire to respond to what he sees to be a major failing of modern biblical interpretation: the method. According to Poythress, “We need to become aware of mistaken presuppositions less obvious and more difficult to uproot—like the idea of a method as a way to master meaning, and the idea that a method can easily stand free from the presuppositional influences of modern life and the academic disciplines” (p. 413). But if it is not a correct method that we need, what is necessary for good interpretation? He goes on,
“We need to reject the ideal of mastery, the ideal of mastering the meaning of each text in isolation, the ideal of mastering cultural setting, and the ideal of mastering a piece of history, isolated so that it is small enough to digest. So let us love God and submit to him. And if we do, we will find that any grain of truth in worldly “methods” will find a place as a perspective, that is, a moment of focus on one aspect of the infinity of God in his communication to us. We will find insights that harmonize with God’s own purposes for his communication and for us, rather than falling into a pattern of truncating the fullness of communication in order to isolate a piece” (p. 414).
This then, is the motivation of Poythress’s approach. He is advocating an approach to biblical interpretation that begins with humility and proceeds with love.
This book, then, represents Poythress’s attempt to teach both pastors and more advanced students how they should rightly read and apply the Word of God. Poythress’s approach is known as redemptive-historical approach and is a very common approach among reformed circles. The view is most commonly supported by Luke 24:44–47 where Christ says that “everything written about [Him] in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” On the basis of this text, the redemptive-historical approach argues that “God has one plan and one program encompassing all of history, and the Bible describes how he works out his plan over the centuries” (p. 223).
Therefore, this approach maintains that everything in the Old Testament points forward to Christ. This approach is ultimately carried out through what is called types. A type is “a symbol that points forward to a greater or climactic realization,” namely Christ (p. 242). Thus, the goal of biblical interpretation is understanding how the text points to Christ and his work of redemption on the Calvary.
At this point, Poythress breaks from many reformed interpreters by going beyond to what he terms “The Fulfillment Approach” (ch. 31). This approach “includes the typological approach, plus the acknowledgement of Christ’s superiority” (p. 323). This added element “means not only that the antitype is more than the type, by way of escalation, but also that it is other than the type, by way of exclusion” (p. 323, italics original). Thus, for Poythress, the tabernacle can remain a type of Christ despite the many differences between them precisely because Christ is more than and other than the tabernacle.
I hope that it has become clear from my description that this book is not in line with what dispensationalists believe about biblical interpretation. Instead, this book comes from deep within the reformed tradition of interpretation for whom the Old Testament cannot be read on its own terms. Rather, in order to read the Old Testament for all that its worth, it must be read through the lens of the New Testament (p. 33). To not do so, would be to misunderstand the Old Testament text.
One of the greatest strengths of the book is Poythress’s overtly theological mentality to biblical interpretation. Every page is dripping with the author’s conviction that theological truths such as the Trinity, Chris’s lordship, and the inerrancy of the Scriptures have a profound impact on the way that Christians should approach the Bible. This was a refreshing aspect of this book. Indeed, he discusses many topics that are rarely addressed in recent books on hermeneutics. For example, he warns believers of their need to reckon with their motives. He writes,
“Believers themselves are not free from sins, including intellectual sins. Sins contaminate the mind and bias our study of Scripture. Bias appears in an obvious way when we resist the teaching of Scripture, or twist its teaching in favor of our pet ideas, or make our own behavior an exception to biblical ethical principles” (p. 409).
Another strength of the book is the highly practical nature of many of the chapters. For example he includes a chapter on “Using Commentaries,” a topic that is rarely discussed with seminary students and even more rarely discussed in hermeneutics books.
Another helpful chapter, entitled “Alternate Paths of Interpretation,” discusses approaches to biblical interpretation which Poythress does not advocate. For those of us who do not adopt a typological approach to the Bible, chapters such as this are helpful for us to make sure that we are not blind to potential pitfalls or our approach.
Poythress’s appendices are also well worth the space that he has given them. They include most notably: 1) An extended discussion on how different sinful mindsets can adversely impact our interpretation; 2) an analysis of different secular views of meaning; 3) a short survey of different critical approaches to the Bible; and 4) a discussion of philosophical hermeneutics.
In the final analysis, this book will prove to be a great asset to those in the reformed camp. However, for dispensationalists, this book may leave them scratching their heads in confusion. How exactly is typological interpretation different than allegorical interpretation? Wasn’t the Old Testament fully sufficient and meaningful to the Old Testament believers? What about the Glory of God, doesn’t Christ do everything to the glory of the Father? These are questions that Poythress does not sufficiently answer.