31 August 2010

Book review — 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, by Robert L. Plummer

by Dan Phillips

40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, by Robert L. Plummer
(Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010; 347 pages)

I dug right into my review copy of Plummer's 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible, frankly, because I myself wanted to see how he handled the questions. Plummer sets himself a terrific array, including:
  • Who determines the meaning of a text?
  • Can a text have more than one meaning?
  • What is the role of the Holy Spirit in determining meaning?
  • What is the overarching message of the Bible?
  • Is the Bible really all about Jesus?
  • Do all the commands of the Bible apply today?
  • Why can’t people agree on what the Bible means?
  • How do we interpret historical narrative?
  • How do we interpret prophecy? (Part 1—General Guidelines)
  • How do we interpret prophecy? (Part 2—Typology)
  • How do we interpret apocalyptic literature?
  • How do we interpret proverbs?
  • How do we interpret poetry?
  • How do we interpret parables? (Part 1—History of Interpretation)
  • How do we interpret parables? (Part 2—Principles of Interpretation)
But it is one thing to set a laudable goal. The question is: did Plummer succeed?

Generally, how did Plummer do? Amazingly well. It's really a terrific book, and I'm glad to commend it to you.

The chapters are mostly 6-8 pages long, with 12 pages the longest ("Who Determined What Books Would Be Included in the Bible?"), and 6 the shortest (several). Therefore Plummer has to dive right into his subjects, without dilly-dallying. Yet he nicely bull's-eyes a balance between the solidly academic and the engagingly conversational. While obviously resting his instruction on solid, conservative scholarship, Plummer nonetheless brightens up the chapters with humor, personal illustrations and observations. He makes it look easy, but anyone who's tried can attest that it isn't.

Overview: I was delighted to find such an up-to-date, yet thoroughly faithful, Christ-centered survey. Plummer says his aim is to help the reader understand the Bible, addressing himself to "any curious Christian," though specifically hoping that the text would serve for introductory Bible courses in college or seminary (11). He succeeded admirably. I would unhesitatingly put this in the hands of any new Bible reader, or recommend it for Bible study electives in church or in institutions. I will note a reservation or two, but they'd not give me a moment's pause. I don't know any work of its kind nearly as useful.

The book is divided into four main parts, of which the second and third have two and three subdivisions, respectively. The first part contains seven questions dealing with issues of the text of Scripture itself, the books of the canon, and translation. The second part is more general, containing six questions relating to interpretation, and seven relating to meaning.

The third part is more specific in scope, containing three subdivisions. The first of these encompasses both testaments, responding to seven questions about various literary genres and specifics. The second aims four questions at the OT genres of proverbs, poetry, and psalms. In the third, NT genres of parables and epistles are treated in four questions. The fourth part contains five questions about more recent issues such as Biblical criticism, "speech act theory," and others.

Specific pluses. As I mentioned, Plummer's style is very readable, while conveying a lot of content. I appreciate how unapologetically Christ-centered he is, and how unapologetically faithful he is to the text. Nor is Plummer apologetic about being conservative. He alludes to a 15th-century (not 13th-century) Exodus several times (i.e. 20-21), refers to conservative writers like Stott and Archer (20), and mentions the possibility that Job antedates the Pentateuch (20).

Plummer's also an emphatic inerrantist, explaining and defending the position very helpfully and well in a full chapter (37-46).

Plummer gives a solid, brief overview of the history of Biblical interpretation in chapter 9, starting with the New Testament itself and going on to the present (85-94). In the following two chapters' survey of general principles of Bible interpretation, we find a happy marriage of the spiritual (pray, trace the text to Jesus, meditate, approach the text in faith and obedience) and the intellectual (note the genre, be aware of historical/cultural issues, attend to context). This is blessedly characteristic of Plummer's book as a whole.

In chapter 13, Plummer lays out helpful resources for Bible interpretation, including study Bibles, concordances, and rules for word studies, commentaries, and even software programs and web sites.

I was particularly interested in how Plummer would respond to a couple of questions. One was, "Can a Text Have More Than One Meaning?" (chapter 15, 135-141). He quotes Robert Stein defining meaning as "The paradigm or principle that the author consciously willed to convey by the shareable symbols [i.e.writing] he or she used" (135). Plummer distinguishes meaning from implication (submeanings legitimately falling within paradigm or principle), significance (reader's response of acceptance or rejection), and subject matter (focus of the text; 135-136). He illustrates this from Proverbs 11:1 (136-137).

Plummer's treatment of the sage's aphorism is, in my opinion, more successful than his subsequent handling of Isaiah 7:14, which he asserts flatly refers to a child who would be born to the prophetess (137). Plummer suggests that Matthew (in 1:23) is not asserting a second meaning, but either an implication (so Robert Stein) or a typological fulfillment. Plummer creatively brings out his understanding by means of an imagined dialog between himself and Isaiah (138-139) which succeeds in terms of communication, but falls far short of persuasion. He also leaves the door open for multiple fulfillment here and in Isaiah 9:6 (139-140).

On the other hand, I really appreciated Plummer's chapter on the role of the Holy Spirit in determining meaning (143-150). Believer and unbeliever alike may see the same data in the text, but the Holy Spirit works in the heart of the believer to lead him properly to value and to love the truths he sees therein. I love Plummer's analogy opening up the Spirit's illumination: two boats manned by treasure hunters, representing believers and unbelievers. Both see something gold and shimmery at the murky bottom. The unbeliever says "I see light reflecting off of the sand," and stays in the boat. The believer with the Spirit working in his heart says "I see something that shines like gold, and I want it," and dives in. (This summary doesn't do Plummer's explication justice; get the book and read 144-149!)

I also appreciated the clear-eyed way Plummer takes the concept of Christ being the center of the Bible and moves it from the level of slogan to a practical reality (Questions 17 and 18, 151-166).

Disagreement, odd facets,  or just-wondering. I'm a little puzzled as to why Plummer sums up Job through Song of Solomon as "Wisdom books" rather than "Poetry" (25, 62); I think not many would agree with that categorization. I also wondered why, in the fine chapter on ancient manuscripts, he didn't include another really fine book from Kregel.

Plummer has a chapter titled "Which Is the Best English Bible Translation?" (69-75), which does not remotely come close to answering the question. Oh, he talks about the history of English translations, and philosophies of translation (which features an odd double typo: "On one side is the functionally equivalent translation, sometimes called dynamically [sic] equivalency.. [sic]" [71]). Then he's done! The titular question is never answered. Not even, "The best formal equivalent version is ___, and the best dynamic version is ___."

Plummer takes a gratuitous (and wrongheaded) potshot at dispensationalism, saying that "Traditional dispensationalists...sometimes insist on literal interpretation of figurative language, though they have no defensible basis for doing so" (82). Really? Who, specifically? When, for instance? Plummer does not say. Without examples, documentation, and explanation, it just reads like a cheap shot at a safe caricature. Straw flies, the scarecrow topples, a false coup is counted.

Plummer's approach to prophecy is similarly valuable, yet it falls short here and there as well. He begins with an inadequate definition of prophet ("someone who is sent by God with a prophecy--that is, a message from him" [197]), proceeds to water down the gift too much for the New Covenant era, defining prophecy again as "Spirit-inspired utterance" (198). But then Plummer rightly urges attending to introductory matters and context (199). For this blog, I'll leave off other criticisms, except to note my disappointment at Plummer's concession to the Grudem error ("the ongoing gift of Christian prophecy is different from the inscripturated prophecies we have in the Bible"; 202). Yeah, except no.

Sum. More detailed interaction would be beyond the scope of a blog review, so let's sum it up. Do I have disagreements? Sure. Would I recommend the book? Without hesitation. The book is a great help and a great contribution, and I see it having a great use in Sunday School and other church discipleship settings.

Dan Phillips's signature


NoGood said...

I'm on it!

Robert said...

Thanks, Dan. I think I'll buy this and parallel it with my reading of "Living By The Book"...we're starting a study of that in our men's group.

CotnerMD said...

Sounds like a good one. Added to my Amazon "Wish List" until my book fund is replenished.

By the way, Dan:

"The best formal equivalent version is ___, and the best dynamic version is ___."

I am curious as to how you would fill in those blanks. Care to opine?

Tom said...

I've used several chapters from Plummer's book in teaching through various aspects of bibliology in the college class I lead at church.

I would also recommend it to others.


J♥Yce said...

Thanks so much, Dan!

Would love to know what books have been included on the list of materials your family has used in homeschooling, btw. :-)

Rachael Starke said...

Sometimes it's hard to get off the merry-go-round with new believers or unbelievers when it comes to the actual content/doctrine of the Bible, vs. how to even approach the Bible in the first place. This sounds like a great book for helping with at least half of that - thanks for the recommendation.

J♥Yce said...

came back to dump and redo as the last part should have been emailed but the garbage can is missing. Sorry, Dan ~ mind is on overload today.

Sir Aaron said...

@DJP He's not the first to classify the books as "wisdom" literature. Personally, I prefer that category to "poetry."

@Rob: I'm going to get the book too. Are you order through Amazon or picking it up locally?

DJP said...


Jacob said...

Thanks DJP! Though I now wish you'd written it because then those two areas (prophecy and Bible versions) would be that much better. =)

DJP said...

CotnerMD asks how I'd fill in the blanks about Bible versions.

I didn't snap off an answer because it's worth a whole post. I did offer thoughts in this essay, under question 3.

The best formal equivalence version would be a combination, at varying points, of the ESV, the NAS, the NKJ, the CSB, and a few touches of my own. One of which, would be the losing of the embarrassing, indefensible practice of hiding Yahweh behind "LORD" and "GOD."

The best dynamic equivalence version... is a dead one.

Ba-dum bum.

More seriously, it would be a cross between the NIV and the CSB, probably.

Sir Aaron said...

@DJP : because poetry signifies the type of literature whereas wisdom denotes the theme. That's all.

Sir Aaron said...

The book is on sale at Amazon although it appears shipping is a couple weeks out.

VcdeChagn said...

though specifically hoping that the text would serve for introductory Bible courses in college or seminary

I'm thinking about doing this for my oldest. It might make a good Bible course after he finishes his catechism this/next year. Thanks for the idea!

The book is on sale at Amazon although it appears shipping is a couple weeks out.

The DJP effect? (sort of like getting slashdotted but except for people like us :) )

Rob said...

Dan, I appreciate your gracious review. (A student pointed me to your website today.) I confess that you are right about my side comment about traditional dispensationalism. I had already considered removing that sentence in a future revision. I've got an ongoing list of improvements I'd like to make.

One person who posted a comment above noted that Amazon has a 2-3 week delay in shipping. Sorry about that. Kregel just informed me that the printer is doing a second run of the book right now. It is currently 'in stock' at other locations - www.christianbook.com, etc. Shalom!

DJP said...


I would imagine that, to an author's ear, the only words sweeter than "second run!" must be "second edition"!

sbrogden said...

Dispensationalism, being the "Bible Code" of the 19th century, does not warrant much serious consideration.

Sir Aaron said...

Amazon moved up my shipping time.

@Rob : I like Christianbook, but Amazon is usually less expensive with free shipping.

@DJP Who's the drive-by?

DJP said...

Just another traditionalist who likes unconsciously aping Luther's Diet of Worms critics.

JD Gunter said...

I'm taking Plummer's hermeneutics course right now through Southern. Great class, laid back guy, and a good textbook. It is somehow reassuring when the professor wrote the textbook.