No Dichotomy Necessary: A Review of “Education or Imitation” by Curtis Allen

A simple word can change an entire sentence. Comedian Demetri Martin remarks how “sort of” can alter the entire meaning of a sentence: You’re going to live…sort of. I feel like Curtis Allen’s use of the word “or” does that in his book Education or Imitation?: Bible Interpretation For Dummies Like You and Me. Allen not only paints a false dichotomy between education and imitation, his approach to interpretation in the book contradicts it.

Allen firmly believes that Christians have made Bible interpretation a profession. “Bible interpretation has become too exclusive,” he writes (15). We are a culture obsessed with education, even in the church. If a person doesn’t have a degree from a Bible college or a seminary they are often convinced that they simply can’t interpret the scripture. That’s a task for the professionals. He writes:

Not many ever say it, but it’s easy to start to think that interpretation is out of your league, reserved for the few who have ascended to the heights of clarity. The rest of us are down in dumb-boy land somewhere just trying to have a thirty-minute quiet time. (14)

I love Allen’s willingness to confront professionalized Christianity. Serving in a church full of recovering addicts and college students I want to communicate to each of them that they can read and understand their Bibles. But Allen does a peculiar thing by giving us a dichotomy between education and imitation. His thesis states it plainly:

Interpretation of Scripture, followed by right application, is the primary way that we are to be like God. This is not an issue of education. It’s an issue of imitation. (21)

This distinction is not helpful and it contradicts Allen’s own approach to the subject.

Allen argues that since Jesus is the perfect interpreter of God’s Word we ought to imitate him in our approach to the Scriptures. Surely no one would argue with this point, and so the author moves on to unpack how Jesus interprets the Word of God. Only we don’t get any clear principles from that explication. The delineation isn’t so much a guide to how we can interpret Scripture as it is an example of good exegesis on Allen’s part.

There are times where he almost takes for granted that his readers already understand the concept of interpretation. He walks us through Matthew 5:27-30 and explains Jesus “pattern” of interpretation as follows:

Verse 27: jesus quotes God’s Word

Verse 28: Jesus rightly interprets God’s Word.

Verse 29-30: Jesus gives application of God’s Word (45)

He does a good job of exegeting the passage, but this pattern assumes that I already know how to “interpret God’s Word.” We learn about applying Scriptures in much the same fashion. So Allen unpacks the model of Jesus in Matthew 12:3-8. He tells us that Jesus rightly applies the Word by answering four questions about life. But again the average reader is left to figure out how Allen came up with these four questions from the text. And Allen does an excellent job of drawing connections across the historical redemptive narrative, connecting Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:9-13 with the theme of Sabbath rest across the Scriptures. He does a wonderful job of pointing out that “Rest is a Person.” But once again, he never explains why or how he has done this. The average reader will find themselves reading Curtis Allen’s wonderful exegesis and feeling no more competent to duplicate it than before they read this book. And that is the defect in the “education or imitation” model. You can’t imitate what you don’t understand.

And of course Allen knows this because that’s ultimately why he wrote this book. The dichotomy isn’t strong in reality, for his whole book is essentially educating readers. He can say that there’s “No intelligence required” (70), but he doesn’t mean it. The whole unspoken premise of this book is that readers don’t know how to interpret God’s Word, but with a little bit of education they can. And that’s true. There is a distinction to be made but it’s not that of “education or imitation.” Both education and imitation are necessary for the believer. The proper distinction is between professional education and basic discipleship. Not everyone needs to go to seminary or Bible college, but everyone needs educated.

There’s much to laud in the work as a whole. The final chapter “From Me-ology to Theology” is a great help in maintaining the right focus as we seek to interpret God’s Word. And throughout the book Curtis Allen gives us constant reminders that professionalized Christianity is not the Biblical model. I love that! But his design to help us understand how to interpret the Bible is never achieved, not even close. He assumes far too much about his readers. In fact I think many will read this book and be discouraged that when they go to the text of Scriptures they can’t imitate either Jesus or Curtis Allen in understanding the bible. I’ve found far more helpful books for beginning hermeneutics in Gordon Fee and Doug Stuart’s How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, or in Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays, or in Bob Stein’s A Basic Guide To Interpreting the Bible. Those works are accessible by a general audience, and yet they achieve what they set out to do. I fear Allen’s work tries so hard to avoid educating that it not only accomplishes that task, but in addition fails to teach us how to imitate Jesus in interpretation too.

False dichotomies are never helpful. It’s important that we learn from Curtis Allen’s book. It’s important that we be reminded that Scriptural interpretation is a responsibility of all Christians, not just pastors and theologians. But there are far more effective books to help us in learning interpretation than Education or Imitation?

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