Matthew R. Perry

“The Hermeneutical Spiral” by Grant Osborne (Book Review)

In Book Review on July 21, 2007 at 9:58 pm

9780830828265.jpgDr. Grant Osbourne provides a comprehensive volume on biblical interpretation in the second edition of The Hermeneutical Spiral. Osborne (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) serves professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He also serves as series editor for the IVP New Testament Commentary Series.

This book serves as a response to scholars of the New Hermeneutic who advocate biblical interpretation as a “hermeneutical circle” (22) in which the reader can never understand the true meaning nor intent of the author. Osbourne states, “The major premise of this book is that biblical interpretation entails a ‘spiral’ from text to context, from its original meaning to its contextualization or significance in the church today” (22). Osbourne adopts a “meaning-significance format” (23) in which the author intends one meaning yet the implications and significance are numerous for the individual readers.

Summary

Osbourne deals with General Hermeneutics in Part I (Chapters 1-5). He first addresses the area of context, calling this “the first stage in serious Bible study … [grasping] the whole before attempting to dissect the parts” (37). Within context, he deals with two particular areas: the historical context and the logical context. In the next chapter, Osbourne speaks on the issue of grammar, which “denotes the basic laws of language behind the relationship between the terms and the surface structure” (57).

Next, Osbourne addresses semantics which looks at “the meaning of individual words as each functions in the sentence” (57). He notes that only since the 1950s has this realm of study come to the forefront of academics and that this area involves “not only syntax but also the historical-cultural background behind the statements” (83). In the following chapter, Osbourne discusses the role of syntax in interpretation. He refers to syntax as “all the interrelationships within the sentence as a means of determining the meaning of the unit as a whole [and] includes compositional patterns, grammar and semantics, and so forms a valid conclusion to the previous three chapters” (113). In Chapter Five, Osborne deals with historical and cultural backgrounds. Osborne notes that “background knowledge will turn a sermon from a two-dimensional study to a three-dimensional cinematic event” (158).

Chapter Ten deals with biblical prophecy, an area in which there is a “widespread misunderstanding” (258) about its nature and purpose. Osborne clearly states that is “not just to correct these erroneous views but to enhance the value and power of biblical prophecy for today” (258). Chapter Eleven helps the exegete understand the apocalyptic genre, who may find himself “caught between the literal and the symbolic, not knowing quite how to approach these works” (275). In Chapter Twelve, Osborne addresses the genre of parables. He notes that “few portions of Scripture [are] as exciting and relevant for preaching, [yet] they have been among the most written about yet hermeneutically abused portions of Scripture” (291).

In Chapter Fifteen, Osborne addresses what he believes “constitutes the first step away from the exegesis of individual passages and toward the delineation of their significance for the church today” (347) — that is, biblical theology. Chapter Sixteen deals with systematic theology, which Osborne defines as “the proper goal of biblical study and teaching. Every hermeneutical aspect … must be put into practice in constructing such a theology for our day” (374).

Critical Analysis

In the Preface to the Second Edition, he states:

The purpose of this volume is to provide a comprehensive overview of the hermeneutical principles for reading any book, but in particular for studying and understanding the Bible, God’s Word. … The one thing of which I am certain is that Christians want to be fed, and my goal is to enable pastors and teachers in the churches to know how to discover these precious biblical truths and then turn them into sermons and Bible studies for the flock God has given them (15).

This overview is indeed comprehensive. In this volume, Grant Osborne provides a picturesque method of a hermeneutical spiral that seeks to take the meaning of the biblical text and contextualize the text for the contemporary church. As stated earlier in this review, Osborne uses this picture in response to advocates of the New Hermeneutic and their picture of the Hermeneutical Circle. He notes:

I am not going round and round in a closed circle that can never detect the true meaning but am spiraling nearer and nearer to the text’s intended meaning as I refine my hypothesis and allow the text to continue to challenge and correct those alternative interpretations, then to guide my delineation of its significance for my situation today (22).

While Osborne succeeds in this endeavor, anyone who does not possess a scholarly intelligence able to process this vast amount of information will find this work intimidating and cumbersome due to the intricate detail he uses to make his case. One understands however why this work remains a mainstay in theological academic circles. Osborne takes the exegete from the very beginning of the process in dissecting a passage’s meaning and context to the very end of the process in helping the preacher deliver his sermon based on the research.

The main strength of this work is the balance with which Osborne makes his case for his hermeneutical spiral method. He possesses a dogged determination to find the intended meaning of the author while also using his exegetical tools to help find the significance for the author’s message for today. He presents this in his introduction beautifully. As he advocates deductive study, he notes that this method

… take[s] us away from the contemporary meaning of the word symbols in the text, which, because of our preunderstanding and personal experiences, we cannot help but read back into the text. Our effort then is to get back to the meaning the ancient author intended to convey (32).

In the next paragraph, he rightly notes, “the contextual or theological research completes the task of interpretation” (32). With this mindset, he holds that this method will lead to a development toward biblical, then systematic, then homiletical theology that will bring forth the text’s significance.

In the section on General Hermeneutics, he gives some helpful and thorough information dealing with each initial step of exegesis. As he begins with context, he rightly notes that the exegete must understand the big picture before he examines the parts of the whole. “Without a situation to give the command content, it becomes meaningless. In Scripture the context provides the situation behind the text” (37).

He takes his understanding of context too far in his examination of the debate on inclusive language. He defines this debate in these terms:

The issue is whether all masculine-oriented language in Scripture should be translated literally or in accordance with the larger intentions. . . . Inclusive language translation replaces male pronouns or terms that refer to more than men in the context with inclusive substitutes like one, you, they, people and such unless the context is describing the ancient cultural setting (153).

While Osborne admirably brings out both sides of the issue, his conclusions are troublesome. While he is correct in saying “inclusive language is better because it makes the meaning clear when a passage is intended inclusively” (157), he misses an important dimension when he said, “In conclusion, neither formal nor functional translations are wrong. In fact, they should be used together in studying the Word, the one for the form and words used in the original, the other for the intended meaning of that language” (157). Osborne earlier contends, “It is not form but meaning that matters” (156). Yet, at the beginning of the chapter on syntax (where Osborne’s excurses of the inclusive language debate is contained), he notes, “Individual grammatical decisions likewise are based on the structural development of the whole statement. . . . Word have meaning only as part of the larger context” (113). Osborne seems to say in one area that form does not matter, but earlier he believes that the structure or form is crucial in understanding the whole statement. Since God inspired all Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17), then God would also inspire the structure or form be inspired as well as the meaning.

In his section on Applied Hermeneutics (chapters 15-17), he expertly defines biblical theology as, “That branch of theological inquiry concerned with tracing themes through the diverse sections of the Bible … and then with seeking the unifying themes that draw the bible together” (349). Osborne comes to this particular area with a great deal of honesty in how we approach the Scriptures. “The answer is a proper ‘hermeneutical circle’ or spiral within which the text is reconstructed on the basis of our theological system, yet challenges our preunderstanding and leads to a reformation of our tradition-derived categories” (352). Seldom will the reader find an author of hermeneutics to encourage him to approach the Scriptures with his theological system in full view. Yet Osborne understands that all of the people of God are reared and trained within certain Christian communities with distinct beliefs and traditions. Rather than ignore those traditions, he advocates bringing those beliefs to the text, yet balances this mindset with a willingness for the reader to be challenged. Only this way may the believer and the church of Jesus Christ find reformation.

Sadly, the average busy pastor would find this work intimidating and inaccessible. While this book gives thorough detail in every aspect of hermeneutics, this book may serve well as a reference book but will overwhelm pastors with little formal theological education. Osborne seems to sense this objection. In his chapter on grammar, he predicts for the reader, “There will probably not be a more boring ‘read’ than this chapter” (58). Elsewhere, Osborne says, “The pastor does not have the unlimited time necessary for such detailed research” (140).

Osborne rightly notes that his method will be helpful as the exegete “can utilize the secondary tools with greater expertise (commentaries, background books, lexicons, and so forth), noting when the commentator has done his homework or has made a shallow decision” (140). The concern remains that this method’s detail is so extensive that much of the value of this work will be lost in the minutia.

Conclusion

Having read all the assigned sections, I would recommend Osbourne’s work as a key reference work for expository preachers and hermeneutics professors alike. Although this work does not serve as a book in which the average reader may sit and read straight through, The Hermeneutical Spiral could serve as a very valuable resource for pastors, students, and scholars who wish to dig deeper into this field of study.

(Osbourne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. 624 pp. $25.00)

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