Vern S. Poythress
Reviewed by: John W. Mahaffy
Date posted: 05/20/2007
God-Centered Biblical Interpretation, by Vern S. Poythress. Published by P&R, 1999. Paperback, 238 pages, list price $14.99. Reviewed by OP pastor John W. Mahaffy.
Understanding the Bible can seem like a formidable task. It is a complex book, not always easy to understand. Too often the Bible has been misinterpreted by those intent on fleeing from God. But even Christians can be seduced by some of the distortions of our culture. Dr. Poythress calls us back to the basic step of allowing our principles of interpretation to be determined by God: "People can do all kinds of crazy things with the Bible. But if we would profit spiritually, we must reckon with what God himself requires. Some ways of reading are right, others are wrong" (p. 10).
Because the Bible is the word of God, understanding it is not merely an academic exercise for professional theologians. Rather, each of us is involved in that task: "Thus the entire record of God's relationships with human beings colors our understanding of the covenant, and this understanding, in turn, controls our use of the Bible. Or, to put it another way, we must enter into a relationship with God and his word with our entire being" (p. 31). The pastoral tone of the book makes it particularly useful.
Thinking about the process and principles of interpreting Scripture (which is what hermeneutics is) can be complex. The book challenges the reader to think, to be self-conscious about how he or she understands God's Word. But God-Centered Biblical Interpretation is written clearly. It avoids unnecessary technical jargon, and will prove very useful to the serious student of the Bible. The book warns us that our culture seeks to seduce us into giving to some aspect of creation the whole-hearted commitment that belongs to God alone. We are far more creatures of our culture than we realize: "Most of us in the modern West are more likely to be attracted to false compromises than to false renunciations. We join the religious dance on Sunday for the sake of our psychological wellbeing and in order to get some instructions about how to minimize our sufferings. The rest of the week we live like everyone else, with enough superficial Christian distinctives and restraints to salve our consciences and give us a sense of superiority" (pp.172- 73).
Many of the chapters include a brief discussion among imaginary college students with names like Peter Pietist, Dottie Doctrinalist, and Herman Hermeneut. The device made this reviewer smile initially, but it effectively shows some of the ways in which the outcome of our study of Scripture is determined by our initial approach. Dr. Poythress serves us well by reminding us that our thinking about how we interpret Scripture needs to be touched by the redeeming work of Christ, just as much as every other area of our lives. He concludes: "Hermeneutical salvation, like all other aspects of salvation, is by grace alone. We act with hermeneutical responsibility only because God has acted on us, through the Spirit of Christ, the Redeemer" (p. 222).