Review of How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology by Andrew Naselli

February 19, 2020

Naselli, Andrew David. How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017, pp. 432, $30, hardback.

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Andrew David Naselli is Associate Professor of New Testament at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is also a pastor at the North Campus of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Moundsview, Minnesota. Before coming to Minnesota in 2015, Dr. Naselli was D.A. Carson’s personal research assistant. In addition to his teaching and pastoral responsibilities, he writes regularly at Andynaselli.com and has written many scholarly and lay-level journal articles and books. In fact, he is currently one of the editors of a massive dictionary project: G. K. Beale, D. A. Carson, Benjamin L. Gladd, and Andrew David Naselli, eds. Dictionary of the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, forthcoming [~2022]).

Dr. Naselli’s How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (HUANT) is his only book on New Testament hermeneutics. HUANT is the companion volume to Jason S. DeRouchie’s How to Understand and Apply the Old Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017). The sheer volume and diversity of material that Naselli has compacted into roughly 350 pages (excluding the appendices, glossary, bibliography, and indices) is rather impressive.

HUANT breaks down into twelve chapters—which correspond to the “twelve steps from exegesis to theology.” Chapter 1 (“Genre”) begins with genre instead of textual criticism because, as Naselli points out, before you begin the work of a textual critic, “you already have a sense for the sort of genre you’re in” (p. 15). Chapter 2 (“Textual Criticism”) provides five basic steps for evaluating variant readings: (pp. 38–42). On pp. 42–43, Naselli also offers a brief overview of the phenomenon and inconsistencies of the “KJV-Only View.” Chapter 3 (“Translation”) is a chapter that not only helps the student and pastor understand what makes an “excellent” translation (pp. 50–52) but also provides a very useful overview of a translation spectrum. Chapter 4 overviews the grammar of biblical Greek and how understanding grammar is crucial to biblical exegesis. Chapter 5 is all about how one can apply the grammar from chapter 4 to tracing a biblical author’s logic via sentence diagrams, phrasing, arcing, and bracketing. Chapter 6 (“Historical-Cultural Context”) demonstrates to the student and pastor the importance (and dangers) of understanding “the situation in which the author composed” (p. 162) a given book of the Bible. Naselli argues that staying aware of “extrabiblical information is essential to understand the Bible” (p. 164). Chapter 7 centers around a passage’s literary context and the importance of reading that passage in light of its most immediate context until its whole-Bible canonical context (pp. 188–189). As is expected, Dr. Naselli assumes not only a theological, but a literary continuity that spans the Testaments of the Bible. This chapter also contains a very helpful chart that maps out the approximate minutes and hours it could take one to read any book of the Bible in one sitting. Chapter 8 is about the importance of word studies, and how merely one word can drastically effect one’s exegetical conclusions.

When we come to Chapter 9 (“Biblical Theology”), Naselli shifts from a historical-grammatical framework to a framework more theologically-oriented. He begins with biblical theology, which he describes as “how the whole bible progresses, integrates, and climaxes in Christ” (p. 230). In Chapter 10, Dr. Naselli demonstrates how historical exegetes and theologians can (and should) influence our own exegesis and theology. Chapter 11 deals with systematic theology. For reasons stated below, this chapter is probably the weakest chapter in the entire book. And finally, Chapter 12—the final “step” from exegesis to theology—is on “practical theology,” a chapter devoted to how the church should “apply the text” to herself and the world (p. 309).

The strengths of Dr. Naselli’s book are obvious. For one, he has kept the main body of his text under 350 pages. Dr. Naselli’s prose is simple and clear, yet sophisticated. Second, like his prose, Naselli’s content is simple enough to reach a layperson and the beginning student but critical enough to reach the serious student and scholar of the New Testament. Third, this book was written by a pastor—one who loves God, his flock, and other Christians. This is reflected in the opening words of the Preface: “I love God, and I love studying his Word and his world. I wrote this book to help you study the New Testament” (p. xxv).

Despite its clear strengths, HUANT comes not without any minor downsides. I will briefly focus on one: Naselli’s chapter on systematic theology (ST). The issue with this chapter, in my view, is his fundamental understanding of systematic theology—namely, that ST merely “answers the question ‘What does the whole Bible say about ________ [fill in the blank]?’” (p. 283). This foundational assumption of ST ignores the organic ontological connections between God in himself (a se) and other attributes that flow from God, especially God in relation to creation. Naselli’s treatment of ST seems more like a scientific tabulation of data than a systematic unpacking of various divine attributes in relation to the One (theo-) whom scholars, students, and pastors study (-ology). Naselli’s view leads him write this about ST: “While biblical theology is organic and historical, systematic theology is relatively universal and ahistorical” (p. 293). To call ST “ahistorical” at best ignores the biblical-theological roots of ST (which are fundamentally historical) and at worst turns the Bible into a search engine that quickly generates simple answers to any biblical doctrine. Thus, for Naselli, ST is merely an efficient way to compile all the biblical data on a given topic in order to quickly pronounce a resolute conclusion of a particular biblical teaching. And again, the problem with this understanding of ST is that it ignores the real philosophical, biblical-theological (and therefore historical) roots of ST.

Nonetheless, despite this critique, the book is well worth the purchase. I hope to have shown that students of the NT will greatly benefit from Naselli’s work. Furthermore, this book will likely be seen in many seminary classrooms and on many pastor’s bookshelves for years to come.

Colton F. Moore

Bethlehem College & Seminary

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