Book Review: How to Understand and Apply the New Testament

I had several reasons for getting How to Understand and Apply the New Testament by Andrew David Naselli. I very much enjoyed his book about the conscience. We attended the same church (though several years apart) in SC (in fact, I’m pretty sure I knew his wife and her parents when she was a little girl). He has respect for two men from that church whose exposition I trust more than anyone else’s. And the book I am writing discusses understanding and applying the Bible, among other things, so I wanted to use this book as a reference.

As I perused the table of contents and flipped through several pages, however, I wondered if perhaps I was in over my head. But I gleaned much that was beneficial for this average suburban homemaker. Even when the author used terms unfamiliar to me, he explained them in a way that was easy to understand.

Naselli starts by explaining the difference between exegesis — drawing the meaning out of the text — and eisegesis — reading meaning into a text. And of course we want to do the former: we want to understand what God said and meant in His Word, not project our own thoughts onto it.

Naselli then details several ways to exegete a text. First you have to consider the genre. For example, poetry has different characteristics from the law and prophecy, etc. Then he advocates comparing the manuscripts or copies of the original text, studying Greek grammar, and comparing translations. He shows different ways to trace the process of thought through a passage. He advocates studying any passage both in its historical and cultural context as well as its literary context (how it fits within the particular book of the Bible). He recommends word studies to help understand words and phrases in the text more clearly. Then he considers different theological aspects: biblical theology, how the passage relates to the Bible and its progression as a whole; historical theology, how Bible scholars have understood the passage through history; systematic theology, how a passage fits into the teaching of the rest of the Bible; and practical theology, how to apply the text to ourselves and others. He devotes a chapter to each of these topics. He doesn’t check all of these off as a list each time he studies, but they each factor into his study to varying degrees.

Admittedly, some of this is beyond many of us. Most Christians don’t study Greek or know how to navigate textual criticism (although he explains textual criticism very well). We rely on a good study Bible to help us out with some of these categories. Nevertheless, there were good points to consider in every chapter. And Naselli ends every chapter with a list of resources for further study and commentary on each one, like which he considers the best, which is more scholarly and which is more accessible, etc. And, as he notes in the chapter about Greek grammar, “at the very least, this chapter can help you better appreciate grammatical issues that interpreters wrestle with” (p. 82). That applies to some of these others issues as well and should motivate us to pray for our pastors, and for ourselves, as we study.

Though I have myriad places marked, one of my biggest takeaways from this book was what he calls argument diagram: not an argument as in a fight, but as in a debate: discerning the line of thought in a passage. We tend to read isolated passages rather than tracing the flow all through a given book and within particular passages. As he says:

The New Testament is not a list of unrelated bullet points. It’s not pearls on a string. No, the New Testament authors argue. They assert truths and support those truths with reasons and evidence. They attempt to persuade others to share their views. Their arguments are always profound and sometimes complex. Connectives such as but, therefore, and because can be hugely important to understanding what an author is arguing. Tracing the argument is not dull. It makes your heart sing” (p. 123).

The last thought he pulls from a letter of C. S. Lewis, in which Lewis speaks of studying

. . . the general drift of whole epistles: short passages, treated devotionally, are of course another matter. And yet the distinction is not, for me, quite a happy one. Devotion is best raised when we intend something else. At least that is my experience. Sit down to meditate devotionally on a single verse, and nothing happens. Hammer your way through a continued argument, just as you would in a profane writer, and the heart will sometimes sing unbidden (p. 123, from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis).

Naselli then explains and provides examples of several ways of tracing an argument through a passage: arcing, bracketing, and phrasing. I had never heard of any of these, but they all look beneficial. Phrasing appeals to me the most.

A few quotes that stood out to me:

The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. So a sound principle is that we should interpret less clear passages in light of more clear passages. We shouldn’t zoom in on just one text and interpret it without reference to the rest of the Bible. That’s what heretics do (p. 16).

Don’t view English Bible translations as a competition–in which you choose one as the best and then look down on the rest as inferior in quality. Good Bible translations are incredibly helpful resources, and English readers should benefit from more than one of them. It’s both-and, not either-or (p. 60).

Grammar matters because God chose to reveal himself to us with grammar (p. 82).

Sometimes a New Testament author may write a command to prevent an error rather than to counteract a present error. When you see a command or prohibition in a text, you shouldn’t automatically assume that this reflects a present problem in the church that the author addressed (p. 172).

The beautiful thing about the Bible is that it never gets old. You can read it every day and make connections that you hadn’t made before (or remind yourself of details and connections you had forgotten!). It’s a special book–a book like no other, a book God himself wrote. And we have the pleasure of reading it at this time of salvation history: Jesus the Messiah has come, and he is coming back to consummate his rule. So read every part of the Bible in light of the whole (p. 239).

Christ-centered teaching and preaching is not eisegesis. It’s exegesis that requires biblical theology. It doesn’t creatively make stuff up to imaginatively get to Jesus. It follows themes and trajectories that are right there in the text if God gives you eyes to see them. And when you do see them, you worship God for his wisdom. He breathed out Scripture through individual men who didn’t always understand every nuance of typological trajectories to which they were contributing. And the entire finished product brilliantly coheres (p. 238).

I have no patience for suggestions that preachers need to dumb it down. Preachers need to be clear, and they need to be able to explain things in understandable ways. But human beings do not need the Bible to be dumbed down. If you think that, what you really think is that God the Holy Spirit did not know what He was doing when He inspired the Bible to be the way it is. Not only does the suggestion that the Bible is more than God’s people can handle blaspheme God’s wisdom; it also blasphemes His image bearers. People are made in the image of God. Human beings are endowed with brains and sensibilities of astonishing capacity (p. 258, from a quote from James M. Hamilton Jr.’s Text Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon).

As you can surmise, this is not a cozy, warm fuzzy type of book. It’s more of a “gird up the loins of your mind” book. But that’s exactly what the Bible tells us to do. And, as the author quotes B. B. Warfield as saying, “pitting doctrine against devotion is a false dichotomy because God intends them to go together” (p. 9). He quotes Warfield further from “Spiritual Culture in Theological Seminary”:

I have heard it said that some men love theology more than they love God. Do not let it be possible to say that of you. Love theology, of course: but love theology for no other reason than that it is THEOLOGY–the knowledge of God–and because it is your meat and drink to know God, to know him truly, and as far as it is given to mortals, to know him whole (p. 10).

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Literary Musing Monday)

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: How to Understand and Apply the New Testament

  1. Pingback: Reading Plans for 2019 | Stray Thoughts

  2. Pingback: End-of-June Musings | Stray Thoughts

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