In one of our lighter moments we toyed with the idea of calling this book Not Just Another Book
on How to Understand the Bible. Wisdom prevailed, and the "title" lost out. But such a
title would in fact describe the kind of urgency that caused this book to be written.
How-to-understand-the-Bible books abound. Some are good; others are not so good. Few
are written by biblical scholars. Some of these books approach the subject from the variety of methods
one can use in studying Scripture; others try to be basic primers in hermeneutics (the science of
interpretation) for the layperson. These latter usually give a long section of general rules (rules that
apply to all biblical texts) and another section of specific rules (rules that govern special types of
problems: prophecy, typology, figures of speech, etc.).
Of the "basic primer" type books we recommend especially Knowing Scripture,
by R. C. Sproul (InterVarsity). For a heavier and less readable, but very helpful, dose of the same
one should see A. Berkeley Mickelson’s Interpreting the Bible (Eerdmans). The closest thing to
the kind of book we have written is Better Bible Study, by Berkeley and Alvera Mickelson (Regal).
But this is "not just another book"-we hope. The uniqueness of what we have
tried to do has several facets:
1. As one may note from a glance at the table of contents, the basic concern of this
book is with the understanding of the different types of the literature (the genres) that make
up the Bible. Although we do speak to others issues, this generic approach has controlled all that has
been done. We affirm that there is a real difference between a psalm, on the one hand, and an epistle on
the other. Our concern is to help the reader to read and study the Psalms as poems, and the Epistles as
letters. We hope to show that these differences are vital and should affect both the way one reads them
and how one is to understand their message for today.
2. Even though throughout the book we have repeatedly given guidelines for studying
each genre of Scripture, we are equally concerned with the intelligent reading of Scripture-since
that is what most of us do the most. Anyone who has tried, for example, to read through Leviticus, Jeremiah,
or Proverbs, as over against 1 Samuel or Acts, knows full well that there are many differences. One can get
bogged down in Leviticus, and who has not felt the frustration of completing the reading of Isaiah or
Jeremiah and then wondering what the "plot" was? In contrast, 1 Samuel and the Acts are especially
readable. We hope to help the reader appreciate these differences so that he or she can read intelligently
and profitably the nonnarrative parts of the Bible.
3. This book was written by two seminary professors, those sometimes dry and stodgy people
that other books are written to get around. It has often been said that one does not have to have a seminary
education in order to understand the Bible. That is true, and we believe it with all our hearts. But we
are also concerned about the (sometimes) hidden agenda that suggests that a seminary education or seminary
professors are thereby a hindrance to understanding the Bible. We are so bold as to think that even
the "experts" may have something to say.
4. The great urgency that gave birth to this book is hermeneutics; we wrote especially
to help believers wrestle with the questions of application. Many of the urgent problems in the church
today are basically struggles with bridging the hermeneutical gap-with moving from the "then and
there" of the original text to the "here and now" of our own life settings. But this also
means bridging the gap between the scholar and layperson. The concern of the scholar is primarily with
what the text meant; the concern of the layperson is usually with what it means. The believing
scholar insists that we must have both. Reading the Bible with an eye only to its meaning for us
can lead to a great deal of nonsense as well as to every imaginable kind of error-because it lacks controls.
Fortunately, most believers are blessed with at least a measure of that most important of all hermeneutical
On the other hand, nothing can be so dry and lifeless for the church as making biblical
study purely an academic exercise in historical investigation. Even though the Word was originally given
in a concrete historical context, its uniqueness is that that historically given and conditioned Word is
ever a living Word.
Our concern, therefore, must be with both dimensions. The believing scholar insists that
the biblical texts first of all mean what they meant. That is, we believe that God’s Word for us
today is first of all precisely what his Word was to them. Thus we have two tasks: First, to find out
what the text originally meant; this task is called exegesis. Second, we must learn to hear that
same meaning in the variety of new or different contexts of our own day; we call this second task
hermeneutics. In its classical usage, the term "hermeneutics" covers both tasks,
but in this book we consistently use it only in this narrower sense.
Thus in chapter 3 through 13, which deal in turn with ten different kinds of literary
genres, we have given attention to both needs. Since exegesis is always the first task, we have spent
much of our time emphasizing the uniqueness of each of the genres. What is a biblical psalm? What are
their different kinds? What is the nature of Hebrew poetry? How does all this affect our understanding?
But we are also concerned with how the various Psalms function as Word of God. What is God trying to
say? What are we to learn, or how are we to obey? Here we have avoided giving rules. What we have offered
are guidelines, suggestions, helps.
We recognize that the first task-exegesis-is often considered to be a matter for the
expert. At times that is true. But one does not have to be an expert to learn to do the basic tasks of
exegesis well. The secret lies in learning to ask the right questions of the text. We hope, therefore,
to guide the reader in learning to ask the right questions of each biblical genre. There will be times
when one will finally want to consult the experts as well. We shall also give some practical guidelines
in this matter.
Each author is responsible for those chapters that fall within his area of specialty.
Thus, Professor Fee wrote chapters 1-4, 6-8, and 13, and Professor Stuart wrote chapters 5 and 9-12.
Although each author had considerable input into the other’s chapters, and although we consider the book
to be a truly joint effort, the careful reader will also observe that each author has his own style and
manner of presentation. Special thanks go to some friends and family who have read several of the chapters
and offered helpful advice: Frank DeRemer, Bill Jackson, Judy Peace, and Maudine, Cherith, Craig, and
Brian Fee. Special thanks also to our secretaries, Carrie Powell and Holly Greening, for typing both
rough drafts and final copy.
Permission has been granted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, to use material
in chapters 3, 4, and 6, that appeared earlier in different form as "Hermeneutics and Common Sense:
An Exploratory Essay on the Hermeneutics of the Epistles," in Inerrancy and Common Sense (ed.
J. R. Michaels and R. R. Nicole, 1980), pp.161-86; and "Hermeneutics and Historical Precedent-A Major
Problem in Pentecostal Hermeneutics," in Perspectives on the New Pentecostalism (ed. R. P.
Spittler, 1976), pp. 118-32.