Naselli, Andrew D. How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017. 384 pp.
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” so the old proverb goes. The idea is that if you train someone for a particular task, the training will equip the person to function successfully and more independently in the said task the rest of his or her days for his or her good. How to Understand and Apply the New Testament is a teaching book. The book teaches its reader how to fish in the ocean of the New Testament so that he or she can rightly catch the meaning of and apply New Testament texts the rest of his or her days for his or her eternal good in Jesus Christ.
In How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, Naselli aims to “help you study the New Testament, specifically how to do exegesis and theology” (xxv). The ‘you’ he addresses includes Bible students in a university or seminary setting, pastors and those with theological training, and “thoughtful men and women who have no theological training” who choose to exercise their minds for the purpose of rightly understanding God’s precious Word (xxv). Similar to its Old Testament counterpart, Jason DeRouchie’s How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament, Naselli indicates that the task of rightly understanding the New Testament is a twelve-part process consisting of exegetical tasks (identifying genre, performing text criticism, translating the text, evaluating grammar, tracing arguments, grasping historical-cultural context, understanding literary context, and studying words and concepts) and theological tasks (understanding a passage in light of biblical theology, historical theology, and systematic theology to aid with practical theology).
One of the valuable contributions that Naselli makes toward New Testament exegesis is his willingness to state that exegesis is both art and science. He lists the twelve theoretical parts of the exegetical process but then concludes, “I don’t want to imply that exegesis is a mechanical, robotic process, that if you simply follow the instructions you will inevitably churn out the right interpretations. No, exegesis is both a science and an art because it involves weighing factors, not just counting them” (4). Just as athletes train to hone specific skills but don’t have a check box they use when they compete, so good Bible students hone particular interpretive skills for use in the exegetical process, a process that becomes “intuitive and integrated” the more one engages the Bible (4). Understanding the dual, art-science nature of biblical interpretation is helpful for me and my engineer-trained mind that tends to function in a very over-formulaic, scientific way.
A second helpful aspect of How to Understand and Apply the New Testament is its accessibility. Apart from a few chapters that require an understanding of elementary Greek to fully grasp, the overwhelming majority of the book is written in an easy-to-understand format. The illustrations used throughout the book are particularly simplistic and illuminating for those with an upbringing in the United States. On why you should start biblical interpretation by first identifying the genre of a text, Naselli illustrates, “For example, when you get the (physical) mail from your mailbox, you intuitively sort it according to genre before you read it: advertisements (which you’ll likely trash immediately), bills, personal letters, and so forth” (15). Consequently, this book can indeed be used in a seminary course while, at the same time, it can benefit a stay-at-home mom who wants to better understand how to read the Bible.
In chapter one, the author calls the reader to “discern why the Gospels and Acts recount the events they do in the way they do” in order to account for the literary purpose of each author (22). This exhortation is really helpful for readers today who get easily entangled with over-harmonizing the gospel stories. The gospels are individual narratives about the life and ministry of Jesus, often using the same stories, written to portray different but complimentary aspects of who Jesus is. We often miss the message of the individual gospel writers (ex. Jesus as the true Israel in Matthew versus Jesus as the Son of God in John) when we try to critically harmonize the gospels and all of their details into one story. Remembering that the gospels are purposefully distinct is important when trying to understand each one and its message about King Jesus.
I love the book of Revelation. The book is such an encouragement to Christians because it reminds us that Jesus is coming back to crush his enemies and to consummate his eternal kingdom with his redeemed people in a sinless new heavens and new earth, even though trials and persecution abound in the present. It’s a book that calls for hopeful endurance in the midst of suffering knowing that Jesus is risen, God is sovereign, and all evil will one day be defeated for our eternal good. Yet, so many Christians today avoid Revelation because we do not know how to make sense of the highly symbolic language. Naselli helps by saying, “Further, just about all the symbols in Revelation allude to the Old Testament—especially passages such as Isaiah 24-27; Ezekiel 38-39; Daniel 7-12; and Zechariah 1-6” (33). In other words, if you want to understand the book of Revelation, you don’t need prophecy charts and a wild imagination; you need to know the Old Testament well. I couldn’t agree more.
One of the most unique aspects of How to Understand and Apply the New Testament is the incorporation of historical theology (how a doctrine has been historically understood in the church since the days of the apostles) into the process of understanding a biblical text. What fruit comes from historical theology? Historical theology helps you distinguish between orthodoxy and heresy, it displays the fruit of orthodoxy and heresy, it can foster God-glorifying unity when fellow Christians disagree on nonessential issues, it helps you think globally, it can reveal your theological blind spots, it gives you perspective regarding seemingly novel views, it cultivates humility, it guards you against chronological snobbery (the uncritical acceptance of the climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited), it inspires you, and it reminds you that God sovereignly controls everything for his glory and our good (267-273).
If I were to offer suggestions about how the book could be improved, I would offer one minor recommendation. I think the book would be more helpful if the author chose a New Testament text and worked through all twelve exegetical and theological steps using the one biblical text as a comprehensive example, in addition to using the other good examples already in the book. Chapter ten, on historical theology, for example, gave a history of the doctrine of sanctification pertaining to Keswick theology, but the discussion was abstracted from a biblical text. Show me how going through the steps of the exegetical process for a text like Romans 6, for example, should cause me to think about historical theology in terms of Keswick theology and how the conclusions from that line of thinking should practically help me apply myself to the text of the gospel story I’m studying.
How to Understand and Apply the New Testament is an excellent resource on New Testament interpretation that blends multiple exegetical and theological disciplines to form a rightly integrated approach to understanding the Bible. This resource is for the church. If you, Christian, want to better understand and apply the New Testament, you should have this book on your shelf. Take up and read, and learn how to fruitfully fish the depths of the New Testament.
Note: A review copy was provided by P&R Publishing in exchange for an honest review.