Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: The Word of God for the People of God by J. Todd Billings
Book Review: The Word of God for the People of God by J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

In The Word of God for the People of God, J. Todd Billings provides a grounded and carefully argued case for the importance of a theological interpretation of Scripture. With the breakdown of the Enlightenment and the myth of the autonomous interpreter, Billings asserts that all readers come to texts with assumptions and their own preunderstandings. Instead of discouraging approaching a text with assumptions, which would be impossible, Billings argues that Scripture should be approached through the analogy of faith and with an acknowledgment that the Triune God uses Scripture to conform the church to the image of Jesus Christ through the work of the Spirit. We are not masters over Scripture, rather, God uses Scripture to transform its hearers according to the likeness of Jesus Christ. 

Billings describes the act of reading Scripture as a journey of faith seeking understanding. Billings warns the reader to avoid two common mistakes: failing to realize one’s own theological presuppositions and rejecting all other interpretations of Scripture. Both of these problems can be overcome through the analogy of faith. The analogy of faith points to Jesus Christ. It is in and through Jesus Christ that all Scripture should be interpreted since the center of Scripture is salvation in Jesus Christ.

While Scripture is unique in that it is the Spirit’s instrument for transforming God’s people into Christ’s image, general hermeneutics should not be ignored. After all, Scripture is composed of creaturely texts. Yet God uses these texts, through the power of the Spirit, to transform the people of God into the image of Christ. All readers come to texts with certain preunderstandings. Instead of trying to eliminate these preunderstandings, Billings argues that preunderstandings actually enable a reader to understand the text. In other words, there is no advantage to being neutral. The bias against preunderstandings is exemplified by the Enlightenment distrust of tradition. Seeing the value of preunderstandings helps us to appreciate the usefulness of tradition in providing a deeper and richer interpretation of Scripture. Billings recommends reuniting what the Enlightenment tore apart: a theological approach to Scripture and attentiveness to historical-critical issues. In the end, Billings posits the value of historical-critical methods but insists that they must never be separated from the theological base provided by hymns and creeds. 

In chapter three, Billings claims that one’s conception of who God is colors biblical interpretation. Billings offers two either / or’s: either revelation is based on inherent, universal human capacities and interpreted through a Deistic hermeneutic or revelation is the particular action of God with Israel and in Jesus Christ and is interpreted through a Trinitarian hermeneutic. Billings favors the latter and argues that revelation should be viewed as an aspect of God’s work of redemption. Revelation is a word from outside. Only God can make God known and he has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.

In Billings’s view, today’s exegetes must be aware of  the value of premodern exegesis. Attention to premodern exegetes can help us discover new insights and point out our own modern prejudices. The main difference between premodern exegetes and exegetes of today is that the premodern exegetes viewed the interpretations of their predecessors as a vital aspect of biblical interpretation. In addition, most premodern exegetes saw the Old Testament to be about Christ and the church.

Discussing practices for Scriptural interpretation,  Billings suggests that biblical interpretation should be seen as part of the Trinitarian theology of salvation. Rather than viewing the Bible as a source of abstract proposition to be applied to our lives, Scripture should be seen as an ongoing drama of God played out in the world. God’s people are all part of the play but God is at the center. Rather than mere information, God’s word received through Scripture is God’s action.

In criticism of this work, my main complaint concerns Billings’s claim that the final end of reading Scripture is a “face-to-face” (p. 9) encounter with the Triune God. He also refers to the end of the journey as a “transforming vision of the triune God (p.8).” My concern is that this language  implies a way of seeing God in His essence and apart from Christ the Mediator.  Caution is appropriate when dealing with questions of the beatific vision, for even in the glorified state, human beings will still be creatures and capable only of creaturely knowledge of God.

Overall, this work by Billings is a very helpful book on the theological interpretation of Scripture. Billings encourages the reader to come to the text of Scripture with preunderstandings about the nature of the Bible and of who God is. Readers of Scripture should approach the biblical text with the knowledge that it is God’s divinely authorized instrument which conforms God’s people to the image of Christ through the power of the Spirit. Reading Scripture through the analogy of faith guides and directs the interpretation of the text to its center, Jesus Christ. Rather than being wary of tradition and how others in the past have read Scripture, Billings points out that tradition and certain preunderstandings actually help to provide a fuller and richer interpretation of Scripture. Ultimately, Scripture must be viewed and approached in a manner that takes account of its uniqueness as the divine instrument which God uses, through the power of the Spirit, to call His people to Himself through Jesus Christ. 

Micah D. Throop

MAHT Candidate