Book Review, Hermeneutics

“The Hermeneutical Spiral” by Grant Osborne: A Book Review

In The Hermeneutical Spiral, Osborne argues that biblical interpretation entails a “spiral” from text to context, from original meaning to significance for today’s church (p. 22). As one wrestles with biblical interpretation, he is spiraling nearer and nearer to the text’s intended meaning for contemporary significance. For Osborne, the hermeneutical enterprise has three levels: 1) what it meant (exegesis), 2) what it means for me (devotional), and 3) how to share what it means to me (sermonic). In this comprehensive overview of hermeneutical principles, Osborne addresses general hermeneutics (Part 1), genre analysis (Part 2), and applied hermeneutics (Part 3). Two additional appendices deal with the problem of meaning and authorial intent.

Summary

In Part 1, Osborne deals with context (ch. 1), linguistics (chs. 2-4), and historical-cultural backgrounds (ch. 5). Osborne identifies two areas of context: historical context and logical context.

Historical context deals with the background information of the text (authorship, date, etc.); logical context refers to the scale that begins in the immediate context and moves toward the context of the whole Bible and the particular genre of the passage. Chapters 2-4 deals with three areas of linguistic study: grammar, semantics, and syntax. Grammar deals with the laws of language. Semantics is about the study of words, while syntax studies the sentence units. Before a grammatical analysis of the text, the text must first be established through textual criticism. Chapter 3 addresses word study fallacies and provides a methodology for lexical studies. Chapter 4 argues that meaning is not found in individual words, but in the message of the entire utterance as a whole (p. 113). It ends with a lengthy analysis on figures of speech. Chapter 5 analyzes the use of historical-cultural backgrounds in Bible study. Osborne argues that value of archaeology is not primarily for apologetics, but for hermeneutics. It provides significant information—regarding geography, politics, economics, etc.—that is a shared assumption between the original author and his readers that is lost for today’s readers.

Chapters 6-14 (Part 2) focuses on genre analysis. Chapter 6 explores the OT Law, presenting the purpose of the Torah and a discussion on the sacrificial system. Chapter 7 highlights narrative criticism as one of four aspects to studying narrative. Helpful discussion follows on key elements of a narrative: implied author and narrator, point of view, plot, characterization, setting, etc. The section on poetry (chapter 8) includes an analysis on the structure of the Psalms, key features of Hebrew poetry (metric patterns, parallelism, etc.), NT poetry, theology in the psalms, and hermeneutical principles. Chapter 9 classifies Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes as Wisdom Literature, excluding Song of Solomon (perhaps categorized as poetry?). Osborne defines biblical wisdom as “living life in God’s world by God’s rules” (p. 242), and he correctly cautions that proverbial statements are general principles given as advice, not rigid codes (p. 247). Chapter 10 corrects erroneous views on prophecy and enhances the value of biblical prophecy. Osborne emphasizes that the primary role of a prophet is to declare God’s Word (“to forth-tell”), which sometimes may include predicting the future (“to foretell”).

Chapter 11 deals with apocalyptic literature with revelatory communication, angelic mediation, esoteric symbolism, and pseudonymity as some of its formal features. Osborne warns against interpreting symbols based on one’s present situation; instead, one must consider the symbol’s ancient setting. Regarding parables (chapter 12), Osborne argues that Jesus taught parables to prepare citizens of the kingdom, not to help the young to be responsible members of society (p. 292). Some features of a parable include earthiness, conciseness, major and minor points, repetition, and reversal of expectation. Chapter 13 focuses on the epistles, including discussion on letter-writing in the ancient world, form and authorship of NT epistles, and hermeneutical principles. Osborne observes that the epistle is perhaps the simplest genre, and the general principles in chapters 1-5 fit well in interpreting epistles. The final chapter in this section is the NT’s use of the OT (chapter 14). It includes a treatment on Jewish exegetical patterns (pp. 324-27) and provides NT examples of Paul’s use on p. 338. Osborne’s defines “typology” by distinguishing it from direct prophecy. Prophecy is forward-looking and direct prediction of the NT event; typology is indirect and analogously relates the OT to the NT event. A very beneficial section is the analysis of the NT authors’ tendency in using the OT.

Part 3 focuses on “Applied Hermeneutics.” Chapter 15 discusses Biblical Theology (BT), including its relationship to other disciplines, issues related to unity versus diversity, analogy of faith and progressive revelation, and methods of BT. Osborne’s preference is a combination of the various BT methods (“the multiplex method”), which minimizes the weaknesses of some methods while employing their strengths. The purpose of chapter 16 (“Systematic Theology”) is to provide a method for discerning between theological viewpoints. The section on the components of theological construction proves to be valuable; the five components are Scripture, tradition, community, experience, and philosophy. Osborne provides valuable criteria for determining the validity of a theological position based on coherence, comprehensiveness, adequacy, and consistency. Chapters 17 and 18 are on homiletics. Chapter 17 deals with contextualization, emphasizing methods in discerning whether a biblical command is normative or needs to be contextualized for modern day’s application. Chapter 18 contains various tips and suggestions on sermon preparation.

In some sense, Appendices 1 and 2 serve as the foundation for the entire book, but delegated to an appendix. They seek to answer the question, “What is the meaning of meaning?” Is meaning determined primarily by the text, the author, or the reader? Osborne analyzes various philosophies and movements on determining meaning. Osborne’s treatment is a valuable introduction on the topic before readers dive into more technical reading like Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text?

Analysis

Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral is a comprehensive treatment on hermeneutics. Osborne seems to leave no stone unturned on significant hermeneutical issues. Its goal seems to serve not only the academy, but the church pulpit. In the onset, Osborne encourages his readers not to be satisfied with surface level Bible study, but to dig deeper for greater treasures (p. 21). Furthermore, Osborne views hermeneutics more than just a science and an art, but also a spiritual act whereby the interpreter depends on the leading of the Holy Spirit (pp. 21-22). Part 3 of Spiral deals with the communication of truth from biblical theology to the sermon. The flavor and tone of Osborne’s work, however, appeals more to the academy than to preachers.

Helpful Contributions

Osborne has provided several helpful contributions towards biblical hermeneutics. First, his summaries of major works are valuable introductions to other fields in hermeneutics. Osborne has done a great job condensing large topics into a few pages. For example, his treatment on Biblical Theology summarizes thousands of pages from various authors explaining their BT method. Throughout the book, Osborne introduces his readers to the major scholars in certain fields of interpretation (e.g., study on semantics introduces James Barr; theories of BT introduce Brevard Childs or Thomas Watson; etc.).

Second, Osborne’s philosophy that “the text should dictate the organization of an expository sermon” (p. 50), which is also argued also in chapter 17, should continue to be a core commitment of Bible expositors. For Osborne, a sermon outline that stems from the congregation’s needs and not from the outline of the text is problematic and unnecessary (p. 457).

In preparing the sermon the pastor takes that final outline and contextualizes each main point to speak dynamically to the congregation. Some (such as Jay Adams’s Pulpit Speech. have said that the sermon outline stems from the congregation’s needs and not necessarily from the outline of the text…. However, I find that problematic and unnecessary. It is problematic because the busy pastor could easily skew the meaning of the passage…by ignoring the context from which they come. Adams is not saying that one should neglect exegesis, but on the pragmatic level this would occur. Further, such a method is unnecessary because the pastor could do the same thing by following the text’s outline and contextualizing specifically at those points. The outline of the text must provide a control on the common tendency to analyze a text subjectively (from the congregation’s needs) rather than objectively (from the author’s meaning).

The Hermeneutical Spiral, Page 457

Third, Osborne cautions against extreme interpretation all throughout the book. For example, he addresses the fallacies in word studies in chapter 3. He warns about the weaknesses of narrative criticism in chapter 7. Regarding the current Pauline interpretation debate, Osborne’s cautions that Talmudic traditions are difficult to date, whether they occur before or after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, which redefines Judaism practices. In other words, one must exercise caution before putting significant weight on interpreting Paul through Talmudic traditions. Though one may not agree with all of Osborne’s interpretive methods, his exegetical care for thoroughness and precision must be appreciated.

Fourth, Osbornes provides several insightful observations on his treatment of each section. For example, on the parables, Osborne points out that the reversal of expectation feature is often lost on modern readers. If Jesus’ intention was “to unsettle the original audience, to reverse their value system, and to force them to rethink their religious priorities” (p. 300), then the Bible expositor must convey the same tone by bringing in the historical background or by illustrating the parable with a modern parallel. Another example is the criteria for validity of doctrine in chapter 16 as an effective gauge for analyzing doctrines and creeds (p. 399). More points could be added to this list: Paul’s use of Jewish exegetical patterns (p. 338) or the practical section on using illustrations in a sermon (p. 447), for example. In other words, Osborne has gifted the church with a valuable resource for interpretive tools to be used when one works through passages of Scripture.

A Few Questions

A few questions on specific discussions and some recommendations, however, are necessary. First, regarding diagrams in chapter 4, the various tools on paragraph diagramming were helpful, but to include a section on arcing and would be an improvement to this section (p. 117). Furthermore, the section on Louw’s transformational translation (p. 116) seems to be missing an explanatory ledger for the symbols like “(R + E).” It could not be found on the page or endnote.

Second, although Osborne correctly addresses the common problems in word studies, he argues that “the best tool for serious word study is not a theological word book but a lexicon” (p. 86). Certainly, a lexicon is greatly valuable, but a lexicon could still fall into the same trap as the theological word books. It is a little disappointing when he suggests that “we will have to be satisfied with secondary sources like BDB or BAGD, or…the better commentaries” (p. 102). This statement seems to undermine Osborne’s helpful methodology for lexical study in pp. 109-112. Additionally, the top lexicons he listed could also be updated to include BDAG (replacing BAGD), Louw-Nida, and HALOT (for Hebrew).

Third, the section on OT law (chapter 6) may leave some readers wondering, how does one properly interpret OT law? Osborne concludes the discussion by stating that the OT laws have “been fulfilled in Christ, so [one] must determine their theological purposes and apply them to current situations” (p. 199). But how does one determine the law’s theological purpose? How can it be applied? There was no satisfactory answer given. Osborne’s examination was more on what the law is, and not so much on methodology of how to study the OT law genre.

Fourth, in the section on prophecy (chapter 10), Osborne quotes Fee and Stuart who argue that “less than 2 percent of Old Testament prophecy is messianic, less than 5 percent relates to the new-covenant age and less than 1 percent concerns events still future to us” (p. 264). Granted that Osborne qualifies the statistics that the number largely depends on exegetical decisions, one may still wonder what specific chapters in the prophetic section were they categorizing as “messianic” and “future”? A casual reading of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Minor Prophets (that is, without actually counting occurrences) seems to suggest that Messianic references, New Covenant passages, and eschatology comprise more than the 8% that was suggested.

Fifth, the discussion on typology (p. 328) lacks engagement with those who have a narrow definition of type, namely that “type” is only considered a type when the NT calls it a type. Osborne has been consistent on warning against interpretive extremes, but he does not warn about extremes regarding typology.

Lastly, The Hermeneutical Spiral seems to deal primarily with the theory and philosophy of hermeneutics rather than the practice of hermeneutics. While it includes practical steps on how to study, let’s say, OT Law, it does not provide adequate biblical examples of law passages and demonstrate ways to interpret it. Osborne primarily deals with secondary literature on how scholars have understood interpretation. With that said, it is uncertain whether Osborne really had in mind pastors who are looking for a hermeneutics textbook as a guide for sermon preparation. The work seems more for a theological student who needs to be introduced to the major hermeneutical works and theories in academia. This is true even on the grammar section (pp. 67-69), where a person unfamiliar with Greek and/or Hebrew may be lost in the arguments, but a theological student with at least two years of Greek and Hebrew may find much of the discussion elementary (e.g., functions of Greek cases).

Conclusion

Osborne’s core commitments to an inerrant and authoritative text, relevant and text-driven applications, and meaning derived from authorial intent are greatly appreciated. With those commitments, Osborne has given a comprehensive treatment on the major issues regarding hermeneutics. The reading is not light work, but it accomplishes what Osborne says he desires to do—to demonstrate how hermeneutics encompasses not only meaning, but also significance.

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