Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship: A Review

Jessie and I have, once again, settled into a new city! This time around it is Greenville, South Carolina. We are here until at least February while I continue looking for jobs. In the meantime, some folks at a local bike shop have been kind enough to put me to work building and fixing bicycles. So now, I arrive to work early enough to do some reading in the cool morning air.

Cover image for Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship has been my morning read this week. (Many thanks to Baker Academic for providing it for review!) The author, David I. Starling, is a New Testament lecturer at Morling College in Australia. He was, before reading this book, unknown to me. I must say that I am now most excited to get my hands on more of his work.

The book attempts to broaden the meaning of Scriptura Scripturae interpres, Scripture interprets Scripture. The common understanding of Scripture interprets Scripture is that if something in the Scriptures is confusing, you can use the helpful cross-reference in the margin and simply find out what the passage might mean by reading another passage. In other words, the Scriptures can be read plainly and, if you read them all, then you will understand them all. Starling gives us a helpful quotation from another biblical theologian, Kevin VanHoozer: “The Reformers indicated that obscure passages should be read in the light of clearer ones” (p. 10). Starling is not at all saying that this method is wrong; rather, he thinks it goes much further than this.

Starling imagines the Scriptures coming to us like a snowball rolling down a hill:

“While Christian theology and hermeneutics rightly speak of Scripture as a unity, it is a weighty, complex, multilayered unity. The Bible did not fall from the sky like a single snowflake; it rolled down the hill of salvation history, adding layers as it went. Each new layer of the accumulating collection presupposes what came before and wraps itself around it; in so doing it offers direction in how to read it and asks, in turn, to be interpreted in light of it” (p. 14, emphasis mine).

This image is helpful for giving us a sense of what Starling wants to do in this book. He is attempting, as a geologist might consider the layers exposed at an archaeology dig, to learn to see the layers of interpretation that exist within the Scriptures themselves. From there he wants to become an apprentice to those internal Scriptural hermeneutics. “Crucial to the claim that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture,’” Starling writes, “is an awareness of and attention to the significance of the intertextual relationships between the biblical books and the interpretive work of the biblical authors themselves” (p. 13).

The book is not heavy on methodological explanation per se. Instead, Starling gives all 15 chapters of the book’s body to exemplifying this method. These chapters are playful and thought-provoking. Jeannine Brown is not exaggerating when she suggests that Starling’s approach “is as refreshing as it is insightful” (back cover). Following Starling’s lead, I would like to simply invite you all to experience some of the most thought provoking sections that illuminate the method of this delightful book.

David StarlingIn the chapter “Matthew and the Hermeneutics of Obedience,” Starling is interested in listening to Matthew’s gospel as an interpreter of the Old Testament, but also as an interpreter of the person of Jesus Christ. He approaches this topic in conversation with the “Red Letter Christianity” hermeneutic that privileges Jesus’s words an interpretive lens for reading all of Scripture. He is not persuaded that their argument, in particular, is sustainable. “The red letters of Jesus’s teaching do indeed have a special significance for disciples of the Lord Jesus and fulfill a particular function in the economy of Scripture,” he writes. “But the relationship between the black letters and the red is not a one-way street; it is a recursive, reciprocal relationship. The black letters of Old Testament prophecy and apostolic testimony lead us to Jesus and urge us to listen to him; the red letters of Jesus’s teaching, in turn, commission and authorize his apostles as heralds of the gospel and send us back to the Old Testament to learn its meanings and its implications afresh in light of his coming” (p. 102). Such an insight is arrived at by seeing Matthew’s interpretation of Old Testament themes and events throughout his narrative and also by recognizing the unique genre of “gospel” itself.

Another example, a quite relevant one as it were, comes from the chapter “1 Peter and the Hermeneutics of Empire.” Having observed Peter’s use of Old Testament rhetoric alongside Roman categories of speech, Starling makes a bold, meaningful claim about the christological nature of biblical interpretation:

“Scripture, interpreted christologically, gave Peter a language and a rationale for an argument that included both a warrant for deference to secular authority and a limit to its claims; for exhortations that fostered both a willingness to accept alienation from pagan patronage networks and a readiness to engage in works of public benevolence; and for a vision of what was beautiful and glorious that embraced both a radical recalibration of the empire’s system and a hope that some at least among the empire’s citizens and magistrates would see glimpses of beauty and glory in that vision’s social embodiment” (p. 190).

Such a claim ought to help us Christians in America, now preparing for the cultural shifts a Trump presidency could bring, to think deeply about how we interpret the events before us or, more significantly, how we are called to respond to such events. We are not to unquestioningly accommodate cultural tropes of the empire into our faith — Christianity, for instance, is not about “making America great again” — but we are to “radically recalibrate the scale of values on which honor and preciousness are measured” in light of the “suffering figure of the Crucified Jesus” (p. 188). I am grateful for the community of John Wesley United Methodist Church for exemplifying this very sentiment. While they, a primarily black congregation, lamented the death of people of color across the United States, and while they recalibrated who and what is considered precious in American culture, they “honored” the president-elect by praying for him and for his administration. Though they acknowledged the empire, they recalled, with boldness, through song that “it is good to know Jesus.” A christological interpretation of the Old Testament, taught to us through the letter of First Peter, teaches us how to engage in today’s political discourse.

Starling has written a very fine book. It is clear and instructive. I think students studying biblical interpretation would greatly benefit from reading at least the introduction and a few selected chapters, if not the whole book. He has, I think, also made it accessible for laypeople who are interested in becoming apprentices to interpretive methods found in Scripture. And, as Starling concludes:

“The wisdom God has given us to learn in Christ is an unbounded and infinite wisdom, and the combination of our human finitude and the ever-changing world in which we are to learn means that the lessons we learned once, we will need to relearn over and over again. In the getting of that wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord, we are always apprentices…So take and read, and keep taking and keep reading, so that the Spirit may be our teacher as we seek within the Scriptures the wisdom that we need to receive and interpret and apply them as we ought” (p. 206, emphasis mine).

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