Reading the Bible is an activity to which Christians are constantly encouraged; however, it would seem that many either have difficulty developing the habit or for those who do, the ability to understand what they are reading. It is the latter situation which authors Fee and Stuart devote themselves to addressing in their joint work, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. It is that work which is the subject of this review.
As with many endeavors in life it is best to approach the task at hand in an orderly fashion. Therefore, my approach will be arranged as follows: first a summary of book will be provided addressing each of its major divisions as well as presenting the stated goal(s) of the authors. Secondly, opportunity will be taken to identify any weaknesses, strengths, or bias discovered. Finally, a conclusion will be offered which will include recommendations of or reservations concerning the tome and its use within the local church.
As men who have dedicated themselves to scholarly pursuits in regards to studying theology, Fee and Stuart humbly present what they hope to provide the reader as not rules, but guidelines that every Christian can use as they read the Bible (35). The presentation of these guidelines provides the content of the chapters which follow. In order to provide an adequate analysis of this work, it is first necessary to present a brief summary of its content from beginning to end.
Of first note is the fact this review deals with the fourth edition of Fee and Stuart’s original work. The Preface of these editions is included, providing the reader with a genealogy of sorts for the information which will be encountered in the pages to follow.
The contents proper of the book include thirteen chapters beginning with an introduction, followed by twelve numbered chapters, an Appendix and separate indices for Scripture and individual Names. Although the work is divided in such a way, it is not necessary to deal with it in a chapter by chapter manner for it is just as easily addressed thematically.
In the introduction the authors lay out what would seems to be the obvious; every reader of the Bible is an interpreter of the same (22). However, the observation of this truth is not meant to be insulting nor demeaning. Rather, it serves to inform the reader that they have already been engaged in an activity for which this book will serve as a sharpener. The introduction pairs well with Chapter 2, dealing with Bible translations and their selection.
Chapters 3 and 4 move directly into the application of the skills of which the reader has recently been informed, comprising the art and science of hermeneutics. Together these chapters view the grid by which the New Testament Epistles might be more easily understood. Chapter 3 does this by pointing the reader to the historical context of these letters (61-65). Chapter 4 offers examples of the various difficulties in interpretation one might encounter and presents solutions and mitigating practices to the same.
Chapter 5 moves the reader from a section of Scripture which is likely familiar, the aforementioned Epistles, to a more intimidating or neglected portion – the narratives of the Old Testament. Fee and Stuart do fine work introducing the reader to the purpose of Old Testament narrative and its message by providing a comparison of what this genre of Scripture is and is not (94-95, 96-97). This comparison provides the platform for the remainder of the chapter.
Chapters 6 through 8 bring the reader back to the New Testament. These chapters compliment Chapter 5 by continuing to address the genre of narrative history. Chapter 6 not only introduces New Testament narrative history by way of Acts, it also presents the question to be asked when reading the book.
Namely, is what is being described a prescription of practice for the church in all places at all times, or is it a description of the practice of the church at that place and time (123-124)? The answers to such observations serve to relieve much stress and strife in church life today. Chapter 7 then follows with an examination of the Gospels in their historical, literary, and even theological contexts.
The final chapter of this thematic grouping is used to address what might be named a sub-genre found in the Gospels – parables. In so doing Chapter 8 might seem superfluous to some, but as is noted “the parables have suffered a fate of misinterpretation in the church second only to the book of Revelation”, (154) which demonstrates the necessity of such treatment.
In Chapters 9 through 12 the authors return the reader to the Old Testament. Chapter 9 provides insight into understanding and applying the Law in the life of the Christian by first developing an understanding of this component of Scripture in light of Israel’s own history (169).
Likewise, Chapter 10 teaches the reader the diversity of roles the prophets of Israel fulfilled (188, 190-195). Thus the Christian is taught the prophets were not merely nor only, the foretellers of God’s future, but rather served to remind God’s people of His faithfulness and of His demands. Chapters 11 and 12 turn attention to the remaining genres of the Old Testament, poetry and wisdom. The Psalms represent the major portion of Old Testament poetry, addressed in Chapter 11.
In this chapter the reader is informed of the various usages and types of Psalms (218-223) allowing for deeper insight into the context of individual Psalms. A genre with which many western Christians are unfamiliar is explained in Chapter 12. In this final chapter dealing with the Old Testament, wisdom literature is addressed in each of the books where it is to be found.
The closing chapter of the book aptly deals with the closing book of the Bible – Revelation. It may seem appropriate to address Revelation last as it occurs last in the canon, but it is most appropriate to do so as it presents a combination of the genres previously dealt with in preceding chapters (259). Following this final chapter is an Appendix which serves a similar purpose as Chapter 2, except, instead of Bible translations the subject matter is commentaries on the Bible.
In this summary of the work under review the task has been to provide an overview of some of the themes, topics, and issues presented with little to no evaluation of them. Therefore, in the section which follows attention will be on analyzing what has been covered in the summary.
In the process of analyzing any particular object, opportunity should be taken to identify possible weaknesses and strengths. Likewise, if one is to be honest in this process, support for the same should be forthcoming. Therefore, in keeping with this self-imposed standard, time will be taken to provide a balanced presentation of information falling into each of the four preceding categories.
Upon reading this work, the concept of it being weak either in content or presentation rarely entered the mind of the reviewer. However, there were at least two areas which stood out as possible stumbling blocks for some readers. First, Chapter 2 had the feeling of a sales pitch for the New International Version of the Bible.
At first glance this might not seem like such a big deal considering the excellence of this particular translation; however, when it is remembered that Fee, a major contributor to this work, served on the translation committee, it seemed a bit more biased than may have been intended (11, 19). This is pointed out as a weakness for there are likely some who will read this book who have already chosen a sound translation to use and be led to believe they have made an improper choice.
Secondly, even though the work is presented as an introductory work on hermeneutics it reads more as an intermediate treatment of the same in the mind of this reviewer. Perhaps if the authors undertake a 5th edition of their work they will be afforded the opportunity to include more introductory material in order to smooth out the more complex issues treated within the body of the book. This particular observation is made in light of the fact that often times those who have a level of expertise not achievable for the average church-goer, forget the basic knowledge divide separating the two.
The strengths of the work are too numerous to allow for the treatment of each one. Therefore, only three will be presented. The first of these strengths is the partnership of Fee and Stuart as co-authors. By working together each of these scholars is able to focus on those portions and genres of Scripture for which they are recognized experts (19). The second is the inclusion of application of the hermeneutical principles of each chapter to a passage of Scripture in the genre being addressed.
These examples serve to mitigate opportunity to misunderstand the practice being advocated as well as answering anticipated questions. The final strength to be introduced is the actual organization of the subject matter within its pages. The various genres are grouped together with respect to their occurrence in both the Old and New Testaments. This allows the reader to both retain what is being learned as well as see how the hermeneutical principles being presented are applicable to the entirety of the Bible written in that genre. Thus the strengths of this work should be seen to far outweigh the weaknesses of the same.
It has been the thrust of this critique to provide, at a minimum, a summary and analysis of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. This task has resulted in a thematic summary of the work as well as a broad analysis of the same. Therefore, all that remains is to present any recommendations or reservations in relation to all that has been presented.
First, the sole reservation of this reviewer: due to the intermediate nature of the work perceived by the reviewer, it is unlikely he would recommend it to newer believers as a stand-alone book. This should not be taken to imply the book is not useful to believers across the spectrum of spiritual maturity. Rather, that it would likely be paired with a more elementary work covering the same information.
Despite the stated reservation this is definitely a book which will be re-read and recommended to others who desire to develop their skills in the discipline of Bible reading. It would likewise be put to good use in the context of a local church Sunday School class or small group as a means of “equipping the saints for the work of ministry” (cf. Eph. 4:11-12).