David Jasper has admirably succeeded in achieving his purpose for this book, having produced a brief yet clear and coherent overview of the developments in Christian hermeneutics in the West from its beginnings to the end of the twentieth century. This is not one of those histories of hermeneutics that provide complex and nuanced accounts of hermeneutical theories; instead, Jasper presents us with an intellectual history that sets aside detail in favor of an easily grasped narrative. By focusing on basic questions of meaning, along with concise descriptions of major contributions and developments, Jasper keeps the book surprisingly short and readable yet comprehensive in breadth.
This work will be especially helpful as an introduction for undergraduates, who are the intended audience. Presupposing no background, Jaspers leads his readers into the questions of interpretation in a way that challenges us to recognize and to reflect on our own presuppositions about interpretation so that we can better grasp the various ways of interpreting the Bible in the academy as well as in our society. Notwithstanding his focus on the Bible, it should be noted that Jasper is not concerned solely with interpreting the Bible or other religious texts, however, but instead provides an introduction to the general issues of interpretation that have been central to developments in Western thought. Thus, this book could be as helpful in an introductory philosophy course as it would be in a Bible or religious studies course.
The quality of the summaries of the thinkers and intellectual developments presented in this work also deserves mention. An instructor will want to supplement at least some of the discussions in the text and perhaps to provide a counter voice at times, but on the whole Jasper's ability to combine succinctness with accuracy is most impressive. He consistently gets right to the heart of very complex debates with astonishing brevity and clarity.
Perhaps the greatest strengths of this book as a teaching instrument are found in its clear articulation of what many college students will recognize as their unspoken assumptions about what a text means, as well as its ability to present these issues as ones with which we are all personally involved. Basing this book on notes from a course he has taught repeatedly, Jasper retains the lively and conversational style appropriate for a classroom setting in a way that provides the foundation for an energetic engagement between instructor and students on these important ideas.
In my judgment, the first two chapters of the book are its most important contribution. The discussions therein of the basic questions of hermeneutics and the issues of Biblical interpretation in the early Church period are particularly clear and engaging. Together, these chapters provide a challenging introduction to the issues with which the rest of the book is concerned. A later chapter on Aquinas is also especially important for those who wish to understand the distinctively Catholic forms of Biblical interpretation.
As with any good historical overview, the reader will find that most of the obvious giants of the field are covered. The section on Schleiermacher is, however, surprisingly brief (even among these usually terse summaries), and the discussion of Augustine emphasizes the literal sense more than some readers of Augustine will consider warranted. Among the contemporary and near contemporary figures, the material on Heidegger, Ricoeur, and Derrida is particularly successful in summarizing the ideas of these complex thinkers in relation both to the history of hermeneutics and to our current cultural and intellectual context. Ricoeur especially receives here the credit he deserves for the importance and originality of his various contributions.
Anyone considering using this text for an undergraduate class (which I strongly encourage) will want to attend to the chapter summaries and class exercises appended at the end of each chapter. These are well done and unusually helpful pedagogical tools, far surpassing the trite offering often found.