Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. Zondervan Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Copyright, 2012 third ed., 506 pages. [Reviewed by Peter VanDerSchaaf.]
J Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays are professors of Bible at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. In Grasping God’s Word they set out to fill the gap that exists between popular guides to understanding the Bible and the graduate-level texts on hermeneutics. The book is intended to help serious believers learn how to read, interpret, and apply the Bible. They wrote Grasping God’s Word as a textbook for college students and beginning seminary students. The authors give instruction in the three primary components of biblical interpretation: 1) the practical tools for reading the Bible carefully; 2) hermeneutical issues—i.e., the nature of inspiration, and the nature of Scripture; and finally, 3) guidelines for interpreting and applying each of the major genre, or literary types, of the books of the Old and New Testaments.
The authors succeed in the task that they have set for themselves. Their instruction on the nature and proper use of Scripture is sound. The practical steps for understanding texts within their contexts and within the overarching themes of the entire Scripture is detailed and thorough. Their chapters, which guide the reader through the proper ways to understand the various types of the Bible books, range from good to excellent, with the exception of their treatment of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. The advice that the authors give, also in detail, for applying God’s Word to our lives is wise. The entire book is replete with guidance on how to avoid most of the serious interpretive errors that Christians who are unskilled in the use of Scripture commit, and how to seek and apply the meaning that the Holy Spirit has placed into His Word.
Grasping God’s Word is divided into five parts. Part One introduces the reader to the basic principles and tools of biblical interpretation. Duvall and Hays give a five-part structure to the understanding and application of any text, which structure they call “The Interpretive Journey.” In their words, the five components to the Interpretive Journey are: 1) “Grasping the text in their town.” 2) “Measuring the width of the river to cross.” 3) “Crossing the principlizing bridge.” 4) “Consult the biblical map.” And 5) “Grasping the text in our town.” In other words, the Bible student must understand what the text meant to the original recipients of the book in which the text appears. Then he must understand what differences exist between the original audience of the book and the church in which he finds himself today. The most obvious differences would be those that exist between the old and new dispensations. The Bible reader must then list the theological truths that exist in the text. He must determine that his interpretation of the text is consistent with the immediate context, with the book in which the text appears, and with the overarching themes of the entire Bible. Last but not least, he must apply the truths of a text to his own situation, making sure that his application includes every important element of his text.
The first part contains a chapter on how to choose a Bible translation, and has three chapters on how to read a text carefully within its context. The list of items to look for as one carefully reads a text is, all by itself, worth the price of the book.
Part two introduces the concepts of historical and literary contexts. Duvall and Hays teach the Bible reader that the single most important factor in the correct interpretation of any text is its context. The historical context of a text includes the author, the audience, and any historical or cultural factors that appear in the book. The literary context consists of the genre, or type of literature, of the book or of the context. Part two devotes an entire chapter to the issues of preconceived notions that impair one’s understanding of the Bible, and to fundamental beliefs concerning the Scriptures. This section of the book ends with a thorough chapter on word studies.
Part three deals with issues of meaning and application. A chapter is given to the question of who determines the meaning of a text. Duvall and Hays are emphatic, even repetitive, in their insistence that the Holy Spirit has given the Bible objective meaning by His work of inspiration. Meaning is not a subjective construct of the Bible reader. The authors are equally emphatic that the Scriptures are the work of the Holy Spirit down to the vocabulary and grammatical details of the autographs, and are factually accurate. The chapter on the levels of meaning in Scripture addresses the misuse of allegory. There is also a chapter devoted to the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s understanding of the Bible, and another chapter on the proper ways to apply God’s Word to our own lives.
Part four gives detailed, practical instruction on the proper ways to interpret the four different genre, or types of books, that exist in the New Testament. These are letters, gospels, Acts, and Revelation or apocalypse. Part five does the same for the Old Testament, and identifies the types of literature as narrative, law, poetry, prophets, and wisdom.
The book is not perfect. The chapter on Bible translations gives much good advice in directing the reader away from paraphrases; but the authors also direct the reader away from the King James Version. While the authors state that the covenant is a primary theme of the Bible, they believe that the covenant is conditional. Their understanding of the themes of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon is seriously flawed. They contrast the Proverbs with Ecclesiastes, teaching that the Proverbs give the rational or predictable rules of life while Ecclesiastes shows us the irrational side of life. They see no more in the Song of Solomon than a legitimizing and celebration of the physical aspects of marriage. This reviewer can only guess that these shortcomings arise from the authors’ abhorrence of the abuse of allegory and from their insistence that the Bible interpreter must not see more types in the Old Testament than those that are cited in the New Testament.
Duvall and Hays are good teachers. Their book is clear. Their writing style is engaging. They restate important points at the end of each chapter to improve retention.
The shortcomings of the book can be easily discerned by readers of the Standard Bearer; and the book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. I hope that readers of the Standard Bearer will read Grasping God’s Word, and apply its good instruction to their own Bible study. I recommend that leaders of Bible study groups read the book and teach the sound principles and methods it provides to their discussion group members.