The revised edition of Grant Osborne's The Hermeneutical Spiral is a 624 page monster, but it would seem to be the gold standard in graduate level interpretation textbooks. Beginning with minute attention to grammar, he leads us through to biblical theology to systematic theology and finally to delivering the sermon. In addition, two appendices deal with some of the hermeneutical issues raised by postmodernism and other late twentieth century hermeneutical discussions.
Despite my usual critique of the "modernist evangelical" paradigm at some points, Osborne has proved to be someone who recognizes the complexity of the hermeneutical situation and is appropriately nuanced. He has won my respect with his careful thought. I have very seriously asked myself whether this should be the textbook for the now board approved and, Lord willing, approaching IWU MDiv degree. For the record, we'll probably stick with W. Randolph Tate's Biblical Interpretation with some significant videocast and paper samples of the exegetical process.
Under Part I, "General Hermeneutics," Osborne leads us through the familiar territory of context, grammar, semantics, syntax, and historical-cultural background. He covers all the appropriate topics, although I think his headings could be streamlined.
For example, why have a chapter on context and then have another chapter on historical and cultural backgrounds--which is context? Osborne also reveals his "propositional" inclinations when he calls the literary context the "logical" context. Herein lies one of my critiques of his book--it reflects the modernist evangelical paradigm by leaning a little too much toward the Bible as propositional. I should temper this critique because he recognizes the extent of narrative in the biblical text, so he only leans a little excessively in this direction, not a lot.
In the chapter on grammar is, by Osborne's own admission, the most tedious to the student in the sense that he reviews aspects of Hebrew and Greek grammar. If a person doesn't know anything about these, the chapter might as well be in Greek or Hebrew. He does begin with matters of establishing the text, which though a student will not be proficient after a few pages, is a topic to be covered in such a class.
In Semantics he deals with the meanings of words, including semantic fallacies. In syntax he deals with the relationships between words. I probably would rearrange some of this material. For example, I think I would have covered figures of speech in the chapter on semantics rather than syntax. Also, he has an excursus on rhetorical criticism in Syntax. I would have had an entire chapter on discourse (as Hays and Duvall do) and put some of the stuff from his chapter on Context there. Rhetorical criticism applies to the level of discourse.
There were some significant take-aways for me from these chapters, however. I have already said several times in classes this semester the idea that we should not see more meaning in a word than is necessary for its particular context--a good way to think of how not to commit the overload fallacy. A blind spot for me was the apparent consensus that the Masoretic text remains a more reliable textual tradition than the Dead Sea Scrolls. I had assumed otherwise. This is, however, also a double check item for me. Another one of my critiques of Osborne is that after he has done a great job of presenting the mechanics of inductive Bible study, his theological presuppositions then steer specific interpretations. It is not clear to me, however, that this contradicts his professed method, for pre-understanding is a good thing for him, and hermeneutics for him has both inductive and deductive elements.
Another take away actually relates well to my take away from Derrida--meaning is found much more in the "difference" between words than in the words themselves. Call it semotaxis if you will. Meaning is not finding a word for a word but finding the meaning space in the interplay of words.
The second part of the book proceeds through the various biblical genres. Here, as I just mentioned, Osborne's theological presuppositions begin to show. As some examples, he assumes without argument that Israel's law code was early and, unlike the pagan law codes of the day, were not idealized representations but actual demands (187). At the end of this part of the book, in his chapter on the use of the OT in the NT, Osborne assumes that the Jewish pattern of historiograph sought accuracy of content, as opposed to Thucydides' practice of inventing speeches (336). As far as I can tell, statements like these simply reflect modernist evangelical values and have no clear basis either in the biblical text or in ancient contexts.
In my opinion, some of Osborne's analysis in the genre section is flat, two dimensional. By that I mean that it lacks a certain depth in its apprehension of the socio-cultural dimension. And of course Osborne critiqued sociological approaches to historical background in chapter 5. His critique is probably fair to some degree.
However, I believe Mary Douglas' work on purity and holiness greatly enriches our understanding of clean and unclean. And I think that it was the dirt or uncleanness of the community, rather than sin in the way we might understand it, that was transferred to the ram on the Day of Atonement.
Here I might mention another critique of the book, Osborne often incorporates summaries of other scholars' work in the middle of his own discussion. This might seem a strength and maybe it is, although I would relegate the type of material he does here to the endnotes. The lists of claims of other scholars sometimes seem like foreign bodies in his text and make the reader work to ask whether Osborne actually agrees with the points of the other scholar or is simply presenting them. Osborne is a master scholar, yes! But his lists of other scholars' perspective come off to me like a high school book report--except of course that the material being covered is graduate level :-)
Osborne's theological presuppositions come out in the chapter on Law (an addition from the first edition) when he makes a strong claim that the Law has not been abolished in Christ but completed (199). This is a very important point for Osborne's theology of the Scriptures. My critique would be that the actual way in which the NT appropriates the OT is just plain messy. This is a nice sentiment, "completed in Christ," but it is unclear to me, for example, how this might fit with Osborne's sense of progressive revelation (something, I might add, he has toned down in the revised edition from the first, actually removing a section in the introduction with that heading!). Also, some of the OT just seems to be plain cultural rather than part of some tidy covenantal scheme.
The chapter on narrative is one of Osborne's best. By the end of the chapter we have not only been introduced to source, form, redaction, and narrative criticism, but he has led us to a deep consideration of whether narrative criticism intrinsically "fictionalizes" the biblical text. He correctly pinpoints the weakness of early narrative criticism for most Bible readers--because the real author and circumstances of the text's origins were bracketed from consideration, some strange meanings tended to emerge from a consideration of the text alone, particularly when an editor had left seams in the text. It did not take narrative criticism long to return to a consideration of such factors.
I did not find the chapter on poetry as helpful. Apparently OT poetry scholars have conducted a rather anal debate over whether we can truly speak of synonymous parallelism since every second line is going to be different in some way. Pointless. Osborne rightly concludes that the idea of synonymous parallelism is valid. I didn't find his organization of psalm types as helpful as it could be. Any outline in which "royal psalms" is a subheading rather than a main heading is less than optimal for use.
The chapters on Wisdom and Prophecy were fine. The chapter on Apocalyptic I thought was better, a very readable introduction to what can be a difficult genre to present. His evangelical presuppositions come out when he considers the history of the apocalyptic genre. Assuming that Daniel can't be pseudonymous, he must conclude that the apocalyptic movement started and then restarted again in the second century BC (290).
The chapters on Parable and Epistle are also fine, although Osborne again at times ends up listing the categories of other scholars in succession at times. He rightly dismisses the "one point" lunacy of Jülicher and those who argued Jesus didn't tell any parables with more than one point. I would suggest that he expand his epistle chapter next revision to include some of the recent work on secretaries, particularly that by Richards. He also does not give as much attention to the topic of pseudonymity as he might. I smiled widely when I read this comment, "I for one remain unconvinced regarding the late origin of works like Daniel, the Pastorals, James, or 1 Peter" (319). I smiled because of the book that's missing--2 Peter! Does the Grant Osborne of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School think that 2 Peter is pseudonymous??!!
By far my greatest criticisms of the book have to do with chapter 14, the "Old Testament in the New Testament," a new chapter in the revised edition. The NT authors simply didn't share modernist evangelicals concerns that OT passages be read in context. This datum has within itself the seeds of the paradigm's deconstruction. If your authoritative texts don't sanction your method of appropriating their authority, then your authoritative texts are not authoritative for you on the most fundamental level.
As we begin this chapter, Osborne begins with some highly questionable assumptions about the development of the OT and NT canons. For example, it is extremely doubtful that the OT canon was closed by 100BC. See the recently published The Biblical Canon. By far the "wow" sentence of this chatper was in reference to the apocryphal books: "the uncertainty of the early fathers about the extent of the canon is due more to their ignorance of Jewish views on the issue than to the actual state of the canon then" (324). What? Are you suggesting that the early fathers ideally would have realized that they were following an inaccurate canon in relation to the true canon--the one non-Christian Jews were using???
Perhaps it's not fair for me to treat the statement this way. Osborne's a smart guy. He probably would say, "No, I mean they probably were ignorant of the canon that Jesus and the apostles used as Jews since the Jewish canon was set by then." Really? The Greek speaking church was that out of touch with the earliest Christians? Time for Protestants to own up, it is far more correct to say that Luther took the Apocrypha out of the canon than to say that the Catholic Church added it in.
Osborne has the expected strong distinction between typology and allegory, the former of which supposedly pays attention to context and the latter of which tends more to ignore it. "It seems to me that typology [rather than allegory, pesher, etc...] is sufficient to explain the use of the Old Testament in the New" (329). Osborne admits he's in the minority (330). Frances Young put it well: the distinction between typology and allegory was “born of modern historical consciousness” and would have been confusing to the church “fathers,” Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1997), 152-53.
In the final section of the book, Osborne moves toward the appropriation of the meanings that we have discovered through the tedious process of interpretative method. I might at this point mention something he said way back in the introduction when he was speaking of the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture. Osborne amazingly argues that what is clear is the result of interpretation, not the process (27). In other words, the method necessary to arrive at the meaning is arduous, but the result will be a clear interpretation. The hermeneutical principles "are not restricted to any 'elite' but are available to all who have the interest and energy to learn them."
It seems to me quite possible that this conception of perspicuity will not stand. For one thing, the interpretive result is clearly not clear, going by the diversity of interpretations among scholars. Secondly, this is a difficult book for most students. Few will ascend these heights. The method may be available for all to learn, but if this is the path to God's Word, only an elite few will be able to climb it.
Chapter 15 is on biblical theology and I was pretty happy with it. For Osborne, the aim of biblical theology is to trace themes through the diverse sections of the Bible. Systematic theology (chap. 16) then systematizes the themes and homiletical theology (chap. 17) puts them in a contemporary, contextualized form for proclamation. We might also mention historical theology as the study of the unfolding of understanding of systematic theology in history.
Where I would differ on biblical theology with Osborne is of course his optimism with regard to unity. I suspect that we must do a good deal more theological gluing and sifting to arrive at a biblical theology than he thinks will be necessary. In my opinion, biblical theology is indeed the crucial step in the process, but it is a step that is already at one significant remove from the biblical texts themselves. The paradigmatic prioritization and arrangement of biblical materials into a theology already requires an authoritative vantage point ultimately outside the text from which to process the text.
Here let me mention Osborne's occasional discussions of the "rule of faith," the "analogy of faith," and the "analogy of Scripture" (e.g., 361). For Osborne, the "rule of faith" represents the centrality of ecclesial tradition in determining doctrine and he associates it with the Roman Catholic Church (28). My use of the phrase is similar, but important to distinguish here. For me, the "rule of faith" is the consensus of the church, which sets certain boundaries for biblical appropriation. It cannot, for me, set boundaries for biblical interpretation, for the text meant what it meant originally.
But as the consensus of the church has degrees and is in some sense susceptible to change, the boundaries are not equally fixed on every issue. Further, the rule of faith has more to do with how we cannot appropriate the text than with how we appropriate the text.
Luther of course rejected the rule of faith in deference to the analogy of faith (28). In the analogy of faith, Scripture interprets Scripture rather than the Roman Catholic Church interpreting Scripture, assuming the ultimate perspicuity of the overall text on fundamental issues. Although Osborne does not spell out his critique of the analogy of faith, I will read between the lines because I think I agree with him here.
The problem with Luther's analogy of faith is that it still treats biblical texts in a non-contextual way. In other words, it is not a deep or contextual understanding of one text that is used to interpret another, but a rather superficial or pre-modern use of biblical texts. Osborne aptly quotes Gerhard Ebeling, "the analogia fidei actually undercuts a true biblical theology, since in the end 'the faith' of the interpreter's preunderstanding takes precedence over Scripture itself" (361). According to Osborne, Calvin revised Luther's analogy of faith to an "analogy of Scripture" (28-29).
I have attempted to process what Osborne (and Calvin) might mean by the phrase "analogy of Scripture" and here is my analysis from within my own perspective. First, Osborne means a genuine reading of Scripture in context. In other words, we are finding unity between diverse texts rather than interpreting one text on the basis of another. Secondly, if there are instances where a text does not seem to have any analogous texts (like baptism for the dead), we just walk away. Osborne quotes Milton Terry writing in 1890 (28): "No single statement or obscure passage of one book can be allowed to set aside a doctrine which is clearly established by many passages."
In chapter 16, we now consider systematic theology, the "proper goal of biblical study and teaching" (374). In this chapter Osborne considers the role not only of Scripture but also of tradition, community, experience, and philosophy in the process of systematizing biblical truth. Osborne is to be commended in his acknowledgement that all these other factors are inevitably involved in forming a systematic theology, unlike Grudem, who believes that "theology should be explicitly based on the teachings of Scripture." Osborne thinks this is a commendable but ultimately impossible thing to do. The Bible simply is not systematic (404).
My main critique from this point out in the book is that I believe Osborne does not acknowledge the degree to which his non-biblical preunderstandings affect his interpretation and integration of the biblical texts. This denial of skew in interpretation and of tradition in his integration allows him to claim that his application is largely the outgrowth of the biblical text. But in reality, the most central processing paradigm derives as much from the traditions to which he belongs, both that of orthodox Christianity and that of the modern evangelical movement.
One of the more interesting discussions in this chapter is his treatment of metaphor. He rightly recognizes that metaphors cannot simply be reduced to literal statements. Osborne then goes on to discuss theological models like Calvinism and Arminianism as somewhat metaphorical in the sense that they are "creative approximations intended to depict a particular theory or belief graphically" (391). He urges a certain tentativity about such models and to distinguish between cardinal doctrines and nonessential ones.
The final two chapters deal with homiletics. Chapter 17 treats the principles of contextualization. Perhaps we can sense a great deal of nervousness in this chapter. Osborne is very concerned that our attempt to put truth in new contextual form does not undermine the priority of the Scriptural text. Accordingly, we interestingly find some of the strongest statements on the authority of Scripture in this chapter:
"A plenary-verbal, inerrantist approach to contextualization accepts the supracultural nature of all biblical truth and thereby the unchanging nature of these scriptural principles" (411).
"contextualization must occur at the level of form rather than of content" (414).
He objects to Charles Kraft's sense of the Bible as a "divinely inspired casebook" rather than a theological textbook (415). He is afraid that there will be "too little left of the text when Kraft finishes, too little that is supracultural" (416). My critique here is of a kind with that I have mentioned several times already, the appropriation of the Bible is messy. It does not reduce to simple theological schemes such as those Osborne advances. Kraft is more correct than Osborne. Osborne suggests that "The issue is not whether a passage is normative but whether the normative principle is found at the surface level (that is, supracultural) or at the principle level underlying the passage (with the surface situation or command applying mainly to the ancient setting)" (421). The level of complexity required to work this approach exhausts me just to think of it--it would require me to skew the interpretation at numerous points and, moreover, ignores an honest look at the way the NT itself interprets Scripture.
Occam's Razor suggests that maybe in fact the Earth goes around the sun, and that Osborne's paradigm is fundamentally flawed because it is too propositionally oriented. Not that others have not gone to the other extremes too with their relational and narrative approaches, but Osborne is also off center. Don't peg me on an extreme either--that's too easy and inaccurate. I actually would categorize myself as a modest foundationalist and critical realist along with Osborne. I agree with Osborne, for example, that sometimes specific commands in Scripture can be supracultural.
A couple items of note appear in the final main chapter on the sermon. First, I smile to see that, unsurprisingly, Osborne keeps the Holy Spirit on a short leash: "the Word [sic on the capital--Bible, not Christ] provides the objective authority, the witness of the Spirit provides the subjective authority (that understood by us) of the divine revelation" (436). Again, the NT's use of the OT authorizes the Spirit to blow through the text wherever He wants, without any constraint on the basis of the "objective" original meaning of the text.
More helpfully, Osborne suggests that we as preachers should have a devotional relationship with the text before we preach it. Unsurprisingly, the sermon must flow from the theological principles of the text as we have arrived at them through the hermeneutical process of the book. Osborne ends with some helpful tips on how to prepare the sermon in form.
And so the book proper has ended. But there are two appendices on theoretical hermeneutics, the first of which deals with the problem of meaning and the second with Osborne's solution.
In the first appendix, Osborne presents the recent devolution of meaning among hermeneuticians, from the older author centered approach of Schleiermacher and Dilthey to Gadamer, structuralism, poststructuralism, reader-response criticism, and deconstruction. Osborne is fair in his treatment of these movements. He acknowledges, for example, that "The metaphorical nature of language is for the most part correct" (486). One the most fun statements in the book for me was his recognition that "a great deal of what the deconstructionist argues actually occurs in some modern preaching and Bible study groups."
Basically, Osborne is dealing with the challenge of what Ricoeur calls the autonomy of the text (which of course Osborne does not ultimately agree with). Once a text is severed from its author, there is no control to fix the meaning of the text and it becomes susceptible to the whims of its readers. Wolfgang Iser, for example, has pointed to the inevitable gaps that texts leave behind for a reader to fill in. Stanley Fish has pointed out the role that interpretive communities play in the meaning of a text. For the latter, an author's intent is not what a text is ultimately about but the way reading communities appropriate it.
Osborne discusses individuals like Ricoeur who mediate a middle position not quite as extreme as Fish or Derrida (Mr. Deconstruction). Ricoeur speaks of a world of the text that we can allow to control our processing of it. In other words, some readings of texts clearly pay more attention to the overall text in question than others. Canon-critical approaches create an even larger world of the text from which to view the meaning of individual passages. In my opinion, this canonical approach is an important part of the puzzle in relation to the rule of faith, for it was the consensus of the church that set the canon and thus the consensus of the church that sets boundaries and canons for approaching the entire text as the reading community that is the church.
Of course this is not the trajectory Osborne is on. He is rather more interested in Kevin Vanhoozer's "ethics of meaning" and Anthony Thiselton's appropriation of speech-act theory. For Vanhoozer, there is a moral demand of a reader that we seek what the author of a text wished to convey. For Thiselton, following J. L. Austin, a text has not simply a locutionary or statement meaning. Texts also have an illocutionary dimension which presupposes an author's intent as to what kind of text it is (a promise, an assertion, a command, etc.). A good reader reads texts accordingly.
I affirm the appropriateness of trying to determine authorial intent in Scripture, especially if we follow Joel Green's claim that we are a part of the people of the same God that these biblical peoples were. However, the NT example does not allow us to see authorial intent or original meaning as the be all and end all of biblical interpretation.
I'll confess that I was disappointed with Osborne's solution appendix. He rightfully dismisses pychos like A. J. Ayer and Anthony Flew, but he should have focused more clearly and intently on what he calls "action theory," which is basically what I said above about the illocutionary dimension of speech acts. He then discusses the sociology of knowledge of Apel and Habermas and then paradigm change as taught by Kuhn and modified by Barbour. The thrust of all this is to make us aware of our own preunderstanding as we approach biblical texts.
Osborne sees preunderstanding as a positive and necessary feature of the hermeneutical spiral (which involves circling between reader and text as we get closer and closer to the meaning). Of course some preunderstandings he does not believe should be negotiable. We ultimately are not looking for certainty, either verifiability or falsifiability, but for probability, given such criteria as coherence (hypothesis fits better than others), adequacy (harmony of data inside and outside the text), consistency (viable pattern of data), durability (theory has staying power, recognized by others), cross-fertilization (accepted by more than one school of thought).
He ends with a "field approach" to hermeneutics after passing through a section on "propositional truth and the logic of narrativity." He is certainly right that the plot and structure of biblical narrative do indeed function at the levels of assertion as well as command and promise" (513). He acknowledges that "not all speech acts in Scripture take propositional form. I have no problem with what he says here, except for the baggage in the background.
His field approach attempts to integrate all the polarities in such debates. It is nice and my main critique is only that it does not sufficiently recognize the role of the Spirit and the Church in the process. It is in this section that Osborne mentions Vanhoozer's distinction between infallibility and inerrancy, that I have already blogged on. Another interesting definition is that "the literal sense of an utterance or text is the sum total of those illocutionary acts performed by the author intentionally and with self-awareness" (520).
And thus, near exhaustion, we end the reading of the book. We may not agree with Osborne at every point, but certainly The Hermeneutical Spiral must be considered the classic evangelical hermeneutical text. He deserves deep respect and admiration for it!