Book Review: 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, by Rob Plummer
For many people, reading the Bible can feel like getting lost in the woods, rather than taking a pleasant guided tour along a well-marked trail. Thankfully, Robert Plummer’s new book 40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible provides a reliable trail map for understanding and applying all of Scripture.
As the title suggests, this book features forty key questions concerning the topic of biblical interpretation, along with Plummer’s succinct answers. The author helpfully grouped the forty questions into four parts: (1) Getting Started: Text, Canon, and Translation; (2) Approaching the Bible Generally; (3) Approaching Specific Texts; and (4) Issues in Recent Discussion. These four parts of the book are like a series of well-placed information booths positioned along the trail in a national park.
INFORMATIONAL BOOTHS FOR YOUR TREK THROUGH SCRIPTURE
The first information booth (Part 1) stands at the beginning of the trail and consists of seven pamphlets that help orient the traveler by addressing basic questions they might naturally ask at the outset of their trek into the Bible: (1) what it is, (2) how it is organized, (3) who wrote it, (4) whether it contains error, (5) whether the manuscripts were transmitted accurately, (6) who determined which books were included in the Bible, and (7) what the best English translation is.
The traveler is perhaps surprised to find how little they journey on the trail before seeing the second information booth (Part 2), which actually appears to them as two smaller booths: booth 2A marked “interpretation,” and booth 2B labeled “meaning.” These pamphlets are also preparatory in nature in that they prepare the reader to get the most out of the journey.
Booth 2A (interpretation) contains 6 pamphlets that address (1) why interpretation is important, (2) how it has been done throughout church history, (3 and 4) what some general interpretive principles are, (5) how to improve at interpreting the Bible, and (6) what tools are helpful for interpreting the Bible.
Booth 2B (meaning) contains 7 more pamphlets on big questions like (1) who determines meaning, (2) if there is only one meaning per text, (3) the role of the Spirit in determining meaning, (4) the overall message of the Bible, (5) if the Bible is really all about Jesus, (6) if all the commands still apply today, and (7) why there is so much disagreement about what the Bible means.
The hiker now begins the longest leg of the journey (100 pages). The pamphlets in booth 3 are like pamphlets that you stick in your back pocket and pull out as you encounter various sights along the way (i.e., different literary genres). The questions here naturally subdivide into three sections: 3A (genres found in both the OT and the NT), 3B (genres found primarily in the OT), and 3C (genres found primarily in the NT).
Booth 3A has 7 pamphlets. The first covers how to interpret literary genre and why it matters, while 2 to 7 give guidelines for interpreting (2) historical narrative, (3) prophecy in general, (4) typological prophecy, (5) apocalyptic literature, (6) exaggerated language, and (7) figures of speech.
Booth 3B has four OT pamphlets dealing with how to interpret (1) proverbs, (2) poetry, (3) psalms in terms of classification, and (4) psalms in terms of interpretive principles, while booth 3C has four NT pamphlets covering (1) the history of interpreting parables, (2) general guidelines for parables, (3) the structure and nature of letters, and (4) general guidelines for letters.
When the traveler reaches the end of the trail, they find one last booth. Booth 4 (Part 4) contains informational pamphlets that discuss recent trends and issues raised by other travelers like (1) what the Bible says about the future, (2) what biblical criticism is, (3) what “speech act theory” is, (4) what the “Theological Interpretation of Scripture” is, and (5) other recent trends in biblical interpretation.
This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the Scriptures. First, it is extremely well-written. Bruce Ware’s endorsement on the back cover is right on target: “how appropriate” that this book on understanding the Bible is itself “eminently understandable, crystal clear, and thoroughly engaging.”
Second, the book has a helpful and intuitive format. The question and answer structure of Kregel’s 40 Questions series honors an important principle: people often read books because they have specific questions that they want answered. We could call this the pamphlet principle. Someone who wanted to read this book as a whole would undoubtedly attain a more comprehensive understanding of how to interpret the Bible, but others who want to investigate specific issues will also be well served.
As someone who teaches biblical interpretation at the seminary level, I have given this book my highest endorsement by adopting it as a textbook for my class. It is not my main text because the condensed nature of the question and answer format sometimes means that the book does not provide enough detailed help on specific issues, especially for seminary students. Thus, Plummer’s book should be accompanied by the works of others like Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard’s Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Thomas Nelson, 2004) which shine in ways that this book does not.
I hope that it’s easy to see why this book’s strengths are important to me as a seminary teacher: I want students studying for the ministry of the Word to understand the Word! But my endorsement runs deeper. I have also found that it’s important to provide people with models that exemplify what you want them to learn. This book is a sterling example of how to answer specific questions clearly and succinctly, which is something all who teach the Bible must learn to do well.