Book Review: In All the Scriptures, by Nicholas G. Piotrowski
Nicholas G. Piotrowski, In All the Scriptures: The Three Contexts of Biblical Hermeneutics. InterVarsity Press, 2021. 289 pages.
How did Jesus and the apostles read the Hebrew Scriptures?
According to Nicholas G. Piotrowski in his book In All the Scriptures: The Three Contexts of Biblical Hermeneutics, Jesus and the apostles read the Old Testament attending to the literary, historical, and theological (christological) contexts—and we should do the same. Dubbing his approach to the historical-grammatical-christological hermeneutic, Piotrowski leaves nothing in question, repeating his aim several times (4, 9, 15–16, 71).
Piotrowski makes his case across eight chapters, bookended by an introduction and conclusion. He also provides a glossary of hermeneutical terms and a bibliography of over two hundred titles related to biblical studies. As Piotrowski states in his introduction, his intended audience is anyone who wants to “read their Bible better,” though ministers of the Word are especially in view.
SUMMARY OF THE CONTENT
Chapter 1 lays out a brief overview of hermeneutics throughout church history, favoring Antioch over Alexandria, calling the biblical theology movement an Antiochene discipline (44). “The rest of this book operates within this tradition” (46). Chapter 2 examines Jesus’s and the apostles’ hermeneutics, arguing that they paid attention to literary, historical, and christological contexts, in particular through typology. Chapter 3 focuses on literary context, Chapter 4 on historical context, and Chapters 5 and 6 on christological context. Chapter 7 surveys the various genres of Scripture, and Chapter 8 addresses the vital work of application.
Though In All the Scriptures is not a picture-book, strewn strategically throughout its pages are eighteen figures to illustrate Piotrowski’s points. For example, arguing for “canonically situated theology and application,” Piotrowski features a drawing that contrasts this approach to an “Abstract Theology and Application” approach. Rather than merely distill theological truth from a biblical pericope or passage, we should read the pericope or passage following the flow and terrain to and through the gospel, which then leads to “diverse gospel application” (241–242). Piotrowski’s words are clear enough, but his visuals are instructive.
INTERACTION WITH THE CONTENT
In All the Scriptures is a good book. From the author’s lucid prose to the editorial polish of section headings to the designer’s illustrative figures and page layouts, it was a delight to read (and study).
Chapter 8, “Be Doers of the Word: Christological Application,” was especially insightful. I could see myself regularly returning to this chapter during my sermon preparation. For starters, I agree with Piotrowski’s conviction concerning the gospel. He writes,
The gospel provides a huge overarching umbrella for the meaning of life, the universe and everything, and gives a powerful response to the pressing reality of death (Hebrews 2:14–15). Thus, application that runs through the gospel first is true, and can bear the great weight our brief lives need to put on it. And that new outlook on God, self, world, history, sin, salvation then creates a powerful world-and-life view that prepares a person (or better, a whole community) to think gospel thoughts and make gospel application every day.
Thinking gospel-logically will prove itself in application without fail. Sermons, in turn, will be about whatever the pericope is about. They will not have the goal of “meeting the people where they are.” They will have the goal to “bring the people to where God is.” They will be worshipful, mind- and heart-exulting. They will make us look up, not at ourselves. (256–7)
Hear, hear! This chapter alone made this book worth its weight in gold, and, personally, I’d love to see it further developed as its own resource for ministers of the Word.
My one concern with the book is found in Piotrowski’s definition of the Bible. He writes,
The Bible is the Spirit-inspired record and interpretation of God’s historical acts of redemption that climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and his ongoing work among the nations. (236, see also 160)
In my view, “record” is an inadequate (or at least confusing) way to refer to the text of Scripture. The Bible certainly contains records, but to refer to the Bible as a record at its nature interferes with the Bible as revelation. In other words, we might ask: Which has God inspired, the historical act (which the biblical text sometimes recorded) or the biblical text (which sometimes records historical acts)?
Well, in all truth, we know that God has been active in both historical acts and the composition of the biblical text, but the Bible itself attests that it is the text that is inspired (2 Tim. 3:16). The implications here have to do with whether we read Scripture to understand the text itself or to get “behind the text” to understand the historical act. Should pastors preach the Word, or should they use the Word to preach a historical act? The answer is obvious (see 2 Tim. 4:2), but such a question remains a helpful diagnostic in how we incorporate historical context in our exegesis.
For example, I’ve at least felt (and likely succumbed to) the pressure to excessively mirror-read Galatians 2:1–14, which then leads to using the text to expound a piecemeal scene in history, rather than limiting the piecemeal historical scene to be strictly informative in my exposition of the inspired text. More could be said here, but practically speaking stressing the nature of the biblical text as revelation itself guards against such a mistake. I realize that Piotrowski most likely uses “record” to emphasize Scripture’s historicity (and importance of remembering the historical context!), but my caution is that the language of “record” puts the priority of understanding on the things recorded, not the text itself.
RECOMMENDATION FOR PASTORS
In summary, I gladly recommend this book as a resource for pastors and serious students of the Bible. It would be an especially relevant title for undergraduate students. Not only does Piotrowski provide a solid primer on hermeneutics in general as “the theoretical study of the science and art of how to legitimately and ethically interpret texts” (4), he also lays out a solid foundation for a historical-grammatical-christological approach to the Bible.
Lastly, In All the Scriptures isn’t just a solid and trustworthy book itself on biblical studies, but it’s also a guide for building a library on biblical studies. This should not be an unsung feature! I refer again to the outstanding bibliography in the back of the book and the “For Further Study” and “For Advanced Study” sections at the end of each chapter. If your local church were interested in building a church library, might I suggest that you first fill it with excellent books, perhaps even using Piotrowski’s bibliography as the blueprint.