The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation

From the Early Church to Modern Practice

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Keith D. Stanglin
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , August
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice by Keith D. Stanglin provides the reader a comprehensive review of the history of biblical interpretation. Stanglin states that this text lies “at the intersection of church history and biblical interpretation,” and that the review of that intersection should be guided by very important questions including, “How has the church viewed the Bible?”, “What is a proper method of interpretation?”, and “What are our goals in biblical interpretation?” (ix). Stanglin’s aim is to present an accurate historical examination of premodern exegesis that will serve as a basis for providing for a more accurate interpretation of scripture today (ix).

To address these questions, Stanglin takes the reader on a review of the historical literature on biblical interpretation, covering the following periods: (1) Earliest Christian Exegesis; (2) Later Patristic Exegesis; (3) Medieval Exegesis; (4) Early Modern Exegesis; and (5) the Rise of Historical-Critical Exegesis. During the examination of each period, Stanglin provides a review of the literature, an identification and discussion of major historical figures that shaped each period, a discussion of major controversies, and proposed solutions to address the controversies. This historical approach, which covers 80% of the text, proves to be a value-added contribution—as in the last two chapters of the text, Stanglin uses the some of the historical voices and methods of the past to inform his suggested model or method of performing a more robust biblical interpretation of the scripture. 

In the quest to provide a “history of interpretation,” Stanglin utilizes two pursuits, “ressourcement”and “theological interpretation” both which imply a rejection of the individualistic approach to the Bible that characterizes much of Evangelical Protestantism and promotes a growing consensus that the history of interpretation can be a means to better biblical interpretation today (5). 

The “ressourcement,”theological interpretation,” and the “history of interpretation” approaches used by Stanglin in this text are grounded in “retrieval theology,” which Stanglin states takes the best of theology and biblical interpretation of the past to inform our own theology and biblical interpretations of today (11). An initial strength of this text concerns his methodology—and Staglin makes clear to the reader the issues that could be raised by readers or reviewers of his approach. Stanglin reveals that he “surveys the whole, but it is episodic and not exhaustive, the teleological approach to history, and the issue of periodization” (11-14). Stanglin lets the reader know clearly that the story presented is a specific one, that his goal is an objective historical analysis; and that while historical periods are marked with continuities and discontinuities, he notes that biblical exegesis was practiced differently before 1500 and after 1800, and that he endeavors to trace the “centuries-long transition” (12-14).

After reviewing the efforts of biblical interpretation in the above-mentioned periods, Stanglin begins to present his proposed method in the last two chapters, “(Ir)Reconcilable Differences” and “A Way Forward.” Stanglin restates an earlier question in this section of the text, “[i]n light of the various historical trajectories, how should Christians proceed with responsible and faithful biblical interpretation?” Stanglin states that the “theological and historical approaches” that undergird his argument are really not mutually exclusive, and that an “interpreter might find something to put into practice from both approaches (195). Stanglin endeavors to bridge the perceived or real divides between the historical periods of biblical interpretation by acknowledging, but moving beyond the two problems of the historical-critical method: a preoccupation with authorial intent and historicity and authorial intent which excludes faith from biblical interpretation (199-202).

While critical of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, Stanglin wants to present to the reader a suggested approach to biblical interpretation that does not lapse into a purely descriptive endeavor that excludes personal faith and the faith of the historic church; and that the current suggested approach to biblical interpretation should be both scholarly and academic (202). To this end, Stanglin suggests that the theological and historical approaches could be improved by acknowledging—or adding various suggested components—such as a spiritual sense, Analogia fidei, Analogia scripturae, and interpretative humility (205-210).

In the final chapter, Stanglin reminds the reader that his theological and historical approach is grounded in “retrieval theology,”that is not based on strict replication, but rather on how the best of the past can inform the Christian faith and practice today. Up to this point in the text, I was wondering how Stanglin was going to pull all of the component pieces together in a workable framework or a system of biblical interpretation. After all, in my opinion, Stanglin presents a wealth of material over historical periods, and his endeavor is nothing short of promoting a paradigm shift in biblical interpretation, or possibly an attempt to construct a historically informed perspective on biblical interpretation. 

As monumental as the task of promoting a paradigm shift or constructing a new historically-informed perspective is, Stanglin states that his “retrieval exegesis,” coupled with his “retrieval theology,” contains a number of suggestions to aid in biblical interpretation—including the modern adoption of quadriga, regulated reading, and consideration of the Virtues of the Interpreter. The inclusion of these main suggestions is, according to Stanglin, for the purpose of promoting further thought and holistic biblical interpretation (212). For this effort alone, and to move interpreters of the Bible towards a more exactitude, Stanglin is to be commended. 

To conclude, does the “retrieval theological and retrieval exegetical” approach proposed by Stanglin present a better way to interpret biblical texts? Only time will tell. However, I am sure that The Letter and the Spirit of Biblical Interpretation will give any biblical scholar or serious student of scripture historical and contemporary tools to better interpret the sacred texts, while also holding to biblical inerrancy and the infallibility of the scriptures. I highly recommend this text to biblical scholars, pastors, and serious laypersons that endeavor to correctly interpret—or rightly divide the Word of Truth.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joseph A. Deering is Adjunct Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, University College, and a licensed minister.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Keith D. Stanglin is Professor of Scripture and Historical Theology at Austin Graduate School of Theology in Austin, Texas, where he also is coordinator of the master's degree program and editor of the faculty journal, Christian Studies. He previously taught at Harding University. Stanglin is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including The Reformation to the Modern ChurchJacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace, and Reconsidering Arminius: Beyond the Reformed and Wesleyan Divide.


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