More on Fee/Stuart

A very productive comment from my friend Doug has convinced me to post a set of notes I started taking on Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s bestselling little book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Zondervan, 3rd ed: 2003). So, here are the notes, headed by the quotations from the book on which I’m commenting.

15 October 2010 @ home: Notes on Fee & Stuart _How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth_, 3rd ed (Zondervan, 2003) — noting objections for the use of this book by Orthodox Christians.

(I start these notes now after having read through the book into chapter 5 on the OT narratives. Through the course of my reading thus far, I have noted that my reactions have ranged from mildly pleased to slightly objecting (quibbling even) to outright rejection of various statements and even approaches. This body of notes intends to accurately chart these reactions to one of the better-contructed and most popular handbooks on Biblical exegesis (“Bible Study”) in the Protestant worldview. Perhaps, as is my hope, these notes will be useful to myself or to another in the construction of such a work for an Orthodox Christian audience. For this reason, I begin now to read the book again and note things here, with my copy of the book bearing exclamation points in the margin and page numbers for this journal. We’ll see how that goes!)

p. 14:

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.

It must be admitted that inasmuch as such seminarians and sem. professors adhere to “historical criticism” they are right to be described as a hindrance to the understanding of the Bible that is valued by the Church and its faithful. If Christ is not the center, then such interpretation is a hindrance.

p. 14:

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 skills—common sense.

Note the focus on “the text”, not on the Church! In a Protestant view, the reader takes the place of the Church, in that the reader is presumed to possess the inherent possibility to approach the text (i.e. Scripture!) alone and with only the meager introduction of some various methods or reading and study. No wonder Protestantism is such a chaos of beliefs! It is the job of the Church to, among other things, provide the framework for every Christian by which all of life, including the reading of the Bible, is comprehended. The Body of Christ, permeated by the Holy Spirit, has had and does have an approach to Scripture that is its own, seen in the Scriptures themselves—that reading which holds our Lor and Saviour Jesus Christ as the central character of all history and of all this present age. And as much as we are members of His Body, we feel nothing otherwise is relevant. All notion of the individual as qualified to interpret the Bible is incorrect and to be avoided and indeed to be warned against.

p. 15:

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, our task is to find out what the text originally meant; this 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. To do both tasks well should be the goal of Bible study

—excellent paragraph.

p. 15 (and passim): “Word” is capitalized and used as a synonym for Scripture. For an Orthodox Christian, however, this is unacceptable—the Word, the Logos, of God is Jesus Christ Himself. HE is the ever-living Word, obviously, not a book. Our reverence for and delight in Scripture lies in its origin as inspired by God the Holy Spirit working in the Prophets and Apostles. We do not hold a view of Scripture that it is some kind of Christian Koran, an inviolate and perfect entity which is the copy of some eternal heavenly exemplar. For us, the Word IS God, and Scripture is a record of those who have in this world worshipped God, expected Him, worked with Him, and served Him in very particular and extraordinary ways, expressing and recording their thoughts and deeds through inspiration of God the Holy Spirit. They lived their lives filled with God’s Spirit—they were inspired to record what they recorded and how they recorded it.

p. 17:

Every so often we meet someone who says with great feeling, “You don’t have to interpret the Bible; just read it and do what it says.” Usually, such a remark reflects the layperson’s protest against the “professional” scholar, pastor, teacher, or Sunday school teacher, who by “interpreting” seems to be taking the Bible away from the common man or woman. It is their way of saying that the Bible is not an obscure book. “After all,” it is argued, “any person with half a brain can read it and understand it. The problem with too many preachers and teachers is that they dig around so much they tend to muddy the waters. What was clear to us when we read it isn’t so clear anymore.”

—the great Protestant objection and failure—every individual becomes Pope, rather than rejecting papacy altogether.

p. 18:

Interpretation that aims as, or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to “outclever” the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias).

—like Fee’s own peculiar reading of στεναγμοῖς ἀλαλήτοις as glossolalia!

p. 18:

The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the “plain meaning of the text.” And the most important ingredient one brings to this task is enlightened common sense. The test of good interpretation is that it makes good sense of the text. Correct interpretation, there, brings relief to the mind as well as a prick or prod to the heart.

—excellent paragraph!

—Fee uses “the church” lowercase to describe whom? All Christians? All charismatics and those approved by him/them? For the Orthodox , there is only one Church, capitalized, which is the Body of Christ—the Eastern Orthodox Church. There are those outside her boundaries whom we regularly refer to (perhaps improperly) as “Christians” just as we refer to members of the Church as Christians. But properly speaking they are not two groups of people in an identical category with regard to Christ. Only in Orthodoxy is the fullness of truth held and guarded and preserved. Those outside the Church are adherents of various heresies. However, it is clear that God in His mercy and wisdom works where He will, without consulting or informing us! In view of this, I would opt for a usage of “Orthodox” or “Orthodox Christian” or even “Christian” for an Eastern Orthodox believer, but “other Christians” or “another Christian” or “non-Orthodox Christian(s)” for the others. Otherwise, lowercase “church” will, as is proper, be used to refer to a building of a local church, not to the Church Universal.

p. 18:

The first readon one needs to learn how to interpret is that, whether one likes it or not, every reader is at the same time an interpreter. That is, most of us assume as we read that we also understand what we read. We also tend to thing that our understanding is the same thing as the Holy Spirit’s or human author’s intent. However, we invariably bring to the text all that we are, with all of our experiences, culture, and prior understandings of words and ideas. Sometimes what we bring to the text, unintentionally to be sure, leads us astray, or else causes us to read all kinds of foreign ideas into the text.

Several points:
1.) Proper exegesis will only be possible for someone who is fully conversant with theology, properly Orthodox theology. Only such a person has the unshakable foundation on which to build a proper reading. And how rare that is! It is why we rely so heavily on those Church Fathers who have left us commentaries, and why we do not arrogate to ouselves the ability to avoid all heresy in the process of constructing a personal reading of Scripture. In fact, there is no such thing as “a personal reading of Scripture”—this does not exist in the Church. One who insists on a personal reading is an heretic, pure and simple. Such a one is also not truly approaching Scripture, but is approaching their idiosyncratic idea of Scripture. Scripture belongs to the Church, through which alone is a correct reading possible.

2.) Nearly all aids to Scripture—lexica, dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc—are, from an Orthodox perspective, tainted by the heresies of others. The vast majority of such works are produced by Protestants (either confessionally active ones or Protestants by intellectual heritage, as is “critical scholarship”). A large number are Romen Catholic. While the latter are in some ways sometimes closer to an Orthodox approach, the subtle difference are perhaps more dangerous for their subtlety. The all-pervasive papism of such works is an abomination and grave heresy, not adiaphora. There are undoubtedly a number of resources available from the Orthodox homelands (Greece, Russia, etc), but these are seldom translated into English. They are insufficiently available, what translations there are, or they are of insufficient quality. There number is dwarfed by the Protestant works, however, as they are also outdone in quality and availability. The sheer preponderance of these works lead many Orthodox (innocently ignorant) to believe any number of peculiar things—things which are not Orthodox—heresies. All this through availability! We need excellent tools of our own, motivated not by a “me too!” or a ghetto mentality, but rather as a natural result of our prayerful desire to save our souls and the souls of our fellow Orthodox, providing them a way to learn about Scripture from which every danger has been removed. The wretched “Orthodox Study Bible” does not count, as it was compiled by theological simpletons, with a hybrid translation of heretical origin, printed in a substandard manner on inferior materials. It will not do, and does not count toward the solution of providing excellent Orthodox Scriptural tools except perhaps as an excellent example of what to avoid doing.

—An idea: provide notes on various popular translations which would describe the problems that exist in the translation for Orthodox. E.g., not the mistranslaions in the NIV of all words relating to “tradition” (παραδιδ-). Various of us Orthodox could take a translation or two and then we’d collect our notes on them—the more involved, the better. This would be primarily for the NT, of course. The MT-based OT should be used only secondarily by Orthodox. Our OT is the LXX, for which NETS (not w/o its problems) is the only full translation of recent years widely available and of excellent quality. But, above all, we need our own approved tools!

p. 21:

The authors of this book labor under no illusions that by reading and following our guidelines everyone will finally agree on the “plain meaning,” our meaning! What we do hope to achieve is to heighten the reader’s sensitivity to specific problems inherent in each genre, to help the reader know why different options exist and how to make commonsense judgments, and especially to enable the reader to discern between good and not-so-good interpretations—and to know what makes them one or the other.

Separation of the contents of Scripture into a variety of genres, each w/ its own exegetical method for recommended results, is ingenious, but ultimately too atomizing. Most books are a mixture of genres, and it is as books that Orthodox readers will encounter Scripture, or isolated stories/pericopes, or psalms. Some core assumptions for Orthodox reading of Scripture:
1.) Christ is the centre of the OT as He is of the NT.
2.) Type-antitype or typological reading requires that we properly understand both the type and the antitype, with each illuminating our understanding of the other.
3.) The ways of reading exemplified by the Apostles in the NT and by the Church Fathers in their writings are not only suggestive for our own approach, but are normative. A properly Orthodox reading will not contradict their readings either in method or conclusion. If a reading does, then it’s a failure, an example of individual interpretation and likely heretical, even if unintentionally so.
4.) The 9 Rules of Orthodox Biblical Interpretation promulgated in 1786 by Metropolitan Platon of Moscow, Rector of the Moscow Ecclesiastic Academy:
1.) Open the literal meaning, and where it is dark because of translation or an ambiguity in the language, explain it in such a way that no passage is left which students cannot understand, apart from the very rare texts which are too complex to comprehend.
2.) Interpret spiritual and mysterious meanings, especially in the Old Testament, in those passages where such meanings are transparently concealed. In doing this, one has to be cautious so as not to do this with force. Thus, one ought not to seek out a secret meaning where there is none (or where one is forced, as is noticeable with many interpreters), but where links and the parallel passages follow directly from the words. Interpret spiritual and mysterious readings in agreement with the best interpreters.
3.) For a better understanding of dark passages, find and link the parallel passages, for this will make comprehension easier, since what is said in one place is often said ambiguously and briefly in another place, and despite the similarity between the two texts, the one differs in terms of a more detailed and clearer account.
4.) In interpreting Scripture, do not forget to conclude with the moral teachings flowing from the text. Formulate it with great regard.
5.) In interpreting the books of the Old Testament Prophets, indicate clearly when and in which circumstances their prophecies were fulfilled in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
6.) Where passages of Holy Scripture seem to contradict each other, explain these texts in agreement with published sources that contain general agreement.
7.) Wherever passages are found from which some false conclusions were drawn and which subsequently led to schisms or heresies, one is obliged to clearly indicate the right and true meaning of these passages, and to invalidate the opinions and arguments of heretics and schismatics.
8.) Where passages of Scripture are found to which human wisdom might make objections, such objections must not be hidden. Instead, allow them to be seen in a clear and satisfactory form.
9.) On the part of the teacher, it is critical to consult the Church Fathers, to read scrupulously the best Church teachers and interpretors, to know Church history well, and, above all, to beseech often and diligently the Father of Light to open the eyes toward understanding the wonders in His Law.
(adapted from Alexander Negrov, _Biblical Interptetation in the Russian Orthodox Church_ [Mohr Siebeck, 2008], pp. 61-62).

To be cont’d

And that’s where I ran out of steam, realizing that the way I was commenting, I’d have 500 pages of notes by the time I got through the Fee & Stuart book!


  1. Your notes are fun, but they aren’t quite as fun as I hoped. You view Fee-Stuart through an Eastern Orthodox lens and find that the book comes up short, but the more shocking perspective is to try to evaluate the book as it relates to its apparently intended audience, Evangelical Protestants. One comes to the inevitable conclusion that even for this audience the book is a poor choice.

    Fee-Stuart are praised by many Evangelicals, but it seems that Fee-Stuart encourage their readers to take a relatively simplistic approach to reading the Bible (no four senses of scripture here). The fact that the book is so widely praised indicates to the extent of the failure of the Evangelical educational program in spreading Biblical literacy — which is remarkable given the centrality of Biblical reading in Evangelical philosophy.

    The sad fact that a quick Google search will confirm that Fee-Stuart is actually used as a textbook in a number of Evangelical colleges and even some seminaries. It boggles the mind.

  2. Yeah, they’re less fun than I remembered, too! Since my whole goal in this occasional hobbyistic dipping into “How to Read the Bible” books is to formulate an approach that would work for Eastern Orthodox Christians, a method that is both functionally and theologically robust, and definitely not superficial, I haven’t approached them as books directed toward their primary audiences at all. That shows clearly in the above. All my other notes on such books are the same. It seems that each of them may grasp some few elements of the process and explain it lucidly, but these gems are otherwise foundering in muck.

    And while I’d love to be competent to review a book à la Evangelicalism (or anything else!), I’m simply not. I’ve never been a part, but have only observed this amorphous umbrella concept’s adherent groups (often with appreciation, more often with astonishment) from the outside. I don’t think I could give a fair evaluation of it, to be honest. I’m simply not competent for such a thing.

    But I agree completely, that the Fee/Stuart book is, in the end, shockingly simplistic. I can’t imagine that I would think much of the Bible if that were my introduction manual on how to approach reading it. Alter’s Literary Guide to the Bible is so much better an introduction (though I wish it went into more depth, and were therefore twice as long!), as is the Leithart Deep Exegesis that I mentioned in the other day’s post.

    I actually gasped when I read that there are places using Fee/Stuart as a textbook. That’s just amazing.

  3. I have remarked in the past that while my love for this little book knows no bounds (all those excellent paragraphs!), as an Orthodox Christian, I find too much in it that makes my blood boil. I understand well, and of course ultimately share, the sort of objection you detail above, but I agree with Doug: the objection from hermeneutical method is more pointed, and well, more fun!

    I’ve often thought of doing a series on How to Read the Bible from All Its Worth from that perspective, and our friend Nick Norelli has gently prodded me in that direction in the past; perhaps I’ll take it up as a blogging exercise in the New Year. (I’ve already decided to do a post in Spanish every other week or so with the same purpose.)

    Anyway, I’m glad you liked Deep Exegesis! And thanks for the reviewlets — as always, there were most insightful.

    1. I think my appreciation for the book is based most in the outline of its contents. The subjects are well-chosen, and these general categories could be filled in with alternate text in order to produce a very useful tool of any confessional stripe. People without the slightest idea actually do need to be told about things like “concordances” and the variety of translations available, and so on. So, while I think the organization of the book is superior to others, which is something that is very important, the execution lacks the same quality. Does that make sense?

      For instance, rather than note this or that volume as a fine available edition (thereby immediately causing your text to be thoroughly dated) of whatever tool, a detailed description of what makes a good dictionary/lexicon/atlas/concordance/etc would be of much greater value. And, to be frank, there are various “family lines” of editions by various publishing houses that have consistently maintained the kind of necessary quality for each of these tools. For instance, there is Carta for atlases, hands-down, with no other contenders. The others vary. But why are the Carta atlases so good? That’s what people need to know. Giving them the evaluative tools to be able to spot-test any volume for its quality will enable them to find good materials on their own, permanently. That’s much better than “Buy our updated edition because our old recommendations are now antiquated.”

      These are the kinds of things I think of that would be necessary for this kind of book. Perhaps a working concept title would be: How One Anglophonic Orthodox Christian Who Spent Years Learning More About the Bible than Other Anglophonic Orthodox Christians Have Time or Inclination to Learn Right Now Would Recommend Some Tools and Strategies Toward an Orthodox Reading of the Bible for the Newcomer to Bible Reading. That’s pretty much what’s rattling around in my head as the motivation for the above notes, and with other reading and notes I’ve done over the last few years. Aside from Stylianopoulos (which is not at all the same kind of book as Fee/Stuart!), I have yet to see any English manual-type treatment of Orthodox Bible Reading by and for Orthodox Christians. It’s a severe lack, especially in such an environment where so much is (as I noted above) available that could mislead Orthodox into non-Orthodox reading (which, as I am sure you are aware, is not uncommon!).

      Thank you for the compliment. I appreciate it. The reviewlets would have been better had I not done them in the midst of a terrible head cold. But it was the only time I’ve had to sit down and do them lately! (And no, I don’t want any cheese with that whine….)

  4. I hope you continue to post your comments. I use this text in a course I teach on Scripture, not because it expresses the Orthodox view on the subject, but because it shows how the Protestants do it, and provides something to start discussing some of the issues that need to be covered. I hope we some day see a really good Orthodox text that covers this topic… but so far, if such a text exists in English, I haven’t seen it. Have you?

    1. That’s a very interesting use to put it to, Fr Whiteford. I can see how that would be useful in an apologetic sort of way.

      But no, I haven’t seen or heard of anything remotely like this book in Orthodox circles, English or not. It is an acute absence, I think. But also, one doesn’t want to imply with such a book that someone could “lone wolf” it, and read the Bible properly without the context of the Church. That’s precisely the problem. But such a book is, I think, necessary, as are a set of basic tools for Biblical study for Orthodox. God knows that we would have all of these things had the various Orthodox homelands not had such trouble until relatively recently. In particular, I think the Russians were poised to really do many good things before the atheistic oppression, and are poised to do so again. And there are various things coming from Greece, but that workis generally at a much higher level than the average reader, more graduate school than high school level, so to speak. Beginning introductory handbooks, manuals, atlases, and the like are lacking. It’s something to look into.

      I’ll post more notes, though this post has exhausted those that I’ve done to this point. So stay tuned! Thank you for your comment.

    1. And a fine one it is!

      But that is a different category. Described above is the need for a book that explains to Orthodox how to condense such a statement out of Scripture not just in the manner of words, but in the manner of life: theosis. That is essentially what all such “How to Read the Bible” books are aiming at, each in its own way.

  5. I check this blog periodically and was delighted to find several new additions since I last checked. I would love to see more of these reviews. I can’t afford to purchase any of these books — but I can keep my local librarian busy with Interlibrary Loan requests! I’ve requested several.

    I especially appreciate the nine rules of Orthodox Bible Interpretation. Thanks.

    You wrote: ‘The wretched “Orthodox Study Bible” does not count, as it was compiled by theological simpletons, with a hybrid translation of heretical origin, printed in a substandard manner on inferior materials.’ Wow, what do you really think? 🙂 I have problems with it, but don’t think it is quite that bad.

    If I were wealthy, I’d fund the publishing of a multi-volume series of the books of Scripture which would contain interlinear Greek-English, interlinear Slavonic-English, (and possibly interlinear Syriac-English and Ge’ez-English), using the texts approved by the Church (not ‘eclectic’ texts, ‘scholarly’ texts, or ‘majority’ texts), an English translation, and commentaries from the Holy Fathers. I think such a work would not only be useful for Orthodox Christians, it would be a tremendous witness to heterodox (especially Protestant) Christians. Alas, my pipe dream.

    1. I’m happy to contribute to your reading addiction!

      The new OSB has a very interesting history, one which I followed from beginning to end, with the additional bonus of an informant who was involved throughout (and whose faith was nearly destroyed by the experience–alone enough reason to steer clear of it). It’s a tale of two projects, in essence. Originally, the translations were all done from scratch, and the articles were solicited from a small group of people. When Fr Jack Sparks became to ill to manage the project, Fr Peter Gillquist took over. And when pledged funds weren’t forthcoming (ahem), a deal with Thomas Nelson Publishers led to a change in the project: the New King James Bible was to be used as a base text and changed only where absolutely necessary. So, most of the various full translations were scrapped, and hybrid texts poorly edited into supposed conformity with the LXX. Size constraints led to the decision to print the prophets as prose rather than in poetic scansion, making them mostly unreadable. The paper and binding are atrocious. The numerous critiques of the materials included in the first edition (NT/Psalms) of the OSB were not corrected.

      Your idea of the multivolume project is an interesting one, but there are problems. First, the ecclesiastic texts of most of these are (some of them) about to be redone, and others (Syriac and Ge’ez) are not even precisely established. Critical texts of these various versions differ widely. But, in translation, most of the text of all those versions would be identical, as they are at root versions of the LXX. The few differences would be better displayed through annotation. On the commentary aspect, are you familiar with the Tolkovaya Bible? More on that, here. Translating that Bible would be a very helpful thing.

      1. As I said — it is my pipe dream, and I know it isn’t perfect.

        I wasn’t familiar with the Tolkovaya Bible. I wish I could read Russian. I may have a go at it with Google Translator.

        The ‘insider’ information about the OSB is sad to hear. I haven’t had problems with the binding (but I don’t use it very much), but I definitely agree about the paper — way too thin, IMO.

        And ‘reading addiction’ is too true. I should do less reading and more praying. 🙁

  6. EOC: EOC first, then from that flows everything else, including one’s understanding of Scripture.

    Prot: Scripture first, then from that flows everything else, including one’s understanding of church.

    P.S. I am evangelical.

  7. Hi Don, yes, that about sums it up. After all, it was a community that wrote Scripture, not Scripture that created a community. It ties in with our ecclesiology: the Church is, quite literally, the Body of Christ. So naturally Christ is always first, and books and other testimony about Him come always second. But this does not mean that Scripture is not respected as a perfect and special record of God’s revelation. We hold it supreme.

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