Saturday, June 29, 2013

Interpreting the Pauline Letters, A Book Review

Interpreting the Pauline Letters: An Exegetical Handbook by John D. Harvey is the first in a series of handbooks (Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis) by Kregel Academic that seeks to equip Bible readers and teachers to understand and communicate the text of the New Testament to the contemporary mind. The series is organized and focused on the issue of genre, or type of literature in the New Testament. It seeks to look at narrative, letter and apocalypse as the three major genres in the New Testament literature. The series will be rounded out with volumes on the Gospels and Acts (Narrative), General Letters (Letter) and Revelation (Apocalypse). The series is aimed at students with some experience in Greek.

Each volume will ambitiously include:

  1. The nature of the literary genre
  2. The background and historical setting of the books
  3. Major Themes
  4. Steps in preparing to interpret the text
  5. Issues of interpretation specifically related to genre
  6. Communicating passages in light of genre
  7. Examples of moving from Exegesis to Exposition (interpretation to preaching and teaching)
  8. List of selected resources and a glossary of technical terms

I’m not sure if every volume will contain this feature, but in Harvey’s inaugural volume each chapter begins with a helpful “chapter at a glance” and concludes with a “chapter in review.” I found this helpful (I wish all books had these!) in navigating the chapters that especially included some technical discussions of terms and ideas. If one is looking to address a specific issue, term or concept in interpreting Paul’s letters, the table of contents and these chapter summaries should be sufficient in finding the practical help that is needed.

The value of textbooks using the “text to sermon” model is very much necessary (and appreciated) in our day. Textual issues can easily obscure the goal of actually bringing this particular text to the audience of a particular people, so this tension must always be kept before us as we seek to understand and share God’s word. The examples used in this volume (Col 3:1-4 and Phil 3:12-16) offer helpful models of this.

My only criticism of the book perhaps is that the transition does not go far enough in this regard. In commentary writing, Gordon Fee has shown decisively (in my opinion) that every text has a spirituality behind it and that the process of exegesis is not fully complete until the readers/hearers have begun to participate in this life (See his Commentary on Philippians and his book, Listening to the Spirit in the Text). For this reason, I am always on the lookout for such in handbooks and commentaries. I wish Harvey’s volume contained more in this regard. But overall, the work is very well done and to be commended to the student and teacher of Scripture as one more tool in the toolbox!

[This copy was provided to me by Kregel Publishers in exchange for an unbiased review]

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