Evangelical Christians understand the Bible to be the Word of God, and the majority of them believe that they ought to be reading it. Those that do so all too frequently find themselves frustrated. They encounter a very old book with varied types of literature written over a period of almost 1,500 years and dealing with matters that seem very different from the world in which we live.
Given these difficulties, it is no wonder that some people over time have come up with bizarre interpretations of the Bible that badly misunderstand the meaning of the text. Others just give up home Bible reading and rely on the expertise of the pastor.
Newly updated in its fourth edition, and with nearly a million copies previously sold, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth provides a helpful guide for Bible study. The new edition updates material related to Bible translations, makes recommendations based on recently published commentaries, as well as making other appropriate revisions.
Opening chapters of the book provide a brief but helpful overview regarding textual criticism, which deals with the review of ancient copies for the purpose of determining as closely as possible the original text of Scripture, and of modern translations. These can be complex issues, but Fee does an excellent job of making the discussion understandable for the non-expert. Regarding translations, the author writes about the different approaches taken by versions that seek a more literal translation (such as the NASB) versus those more oriented toward “functional equivalence” (i.e., the NIV) and those that are paraphrases (for example, The Message). It is not surprising that Fee, who worked on the NIV translation committee, prefers that version for the majority of English language study, though he advises comparing Bibles taking all three approaches. Some readers will be disappointed to see him advocate for the 2011 version of the NIV, which generated controversy among evangelicals for its gender neutral approach. On the other hand, the ESV is not included among the recommendations, with Fee only referencing it for criticism of its lack of gender neutrality.
The heart of the book takes the reader through a discussion of nine literary genres found in the Bible – epistles, Old Testament historical narrative, Acts, the gospels, parables, law, prophets, psalms, wisdom literature, and the book of Revelation. Each of these types of literature has unique features for the reader, and Fee (who writes the New Testament portions) and Stuart (writing on the Old Testament) discuss the unique aspects of understanding each of these. It should be remembered that they are writing for a wide ranging evangelical audience, and many of us will have quibbles with things included or left out. Nonetheless, there should be value for any Christian working through these chapters. For each genre, the authors look at specific texts of Scripture and apply the concepts that they have laid out so that the reader has concrete examples of how to read a text.
Along with providing guidance unique to each genre, the authors offer some guidance that is universally applicable. They correctly insist that the original meaning of the biblical text (what they call “exegesis”) must precede understanding what it means to us now (which they refer to as “hermeneutic”). To fail to understand first the original meaning is to unmoor the Scripture from its foundations and render virtually any meaning possible. Second, they encourage readers to make use of good commentaries and other resources, but only after working through the texts themselves. Commentaries provide helps for understanding the world in which the Bible was written and the range of interpretations of difficult texts, but they should supplement, not replace, our own study. To that end, they supply some principles for the selection of commentaries.
One item that was regrettably missing from the discussion of Bible interpretation was the principle of “analogy of Scripture,” which is the notion that difficult passages should be interpreted in light of more clear ones. This concept is not brought up at all until the discussion of Revelation, where Fee only mentions and defines it in order to warn against its overuse. Given that the authors emphasize the careful exegesis of a given passage, it is perhaps understandable that they don’t want to bring in a principle that urges drawing help from outside texts, but given the importance of this to the history of Protestant Bible interpretation, it should have received more attention.
Additionally, some readers will be bothered that Fee seemed to go out of his way in the early part of the book to press for exegetical arguments in favor of an egalitarian understanding of gender roles in the church. Certainly, Fee has written more extensively on this issue in other works where readers can evaluate his arguments. However, in this book, there was not sufficient space for this argument to convince anyone who did not already agree with him on this subject. Because of this, the focus on the issue only distracts – and detracts – from his main points related to doing good exegesis.
Those caveats aside, this is a good work for either individual or small group study for pastors and laymen.