Below is a Q&A for Hermeneutics in Romans: Paul’s Approach to Reading the Bible with translator, Bror Erickson. Hermenuetics in Romans is written by Timo Laato.

1. What initially prompted you to translate this book?

Dr. Timo Laato asked me and I found the title to be interesting. A few years ago, a Swedish friend of mine attending seminary who had been at Concordia Ft. Wayne asked if I could translate a piece for Dr. Laato. It was a short article on justification that an English publication wanted to publish quickly. I did that, and was impressed by the incisiveness of the work. Later, I got to meet Dr. Laato in Sweden for a conference celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and he asked me to work on a couple other things for him. Everytime I translate for him, I feel like I’m taking a master class in exegesis and hermeneutics. The man is thoroughly Lutheran, very conservative and well respected internationally for his scholarship. Yet, what draws me most to his work is the pastoral concern that drives it. So I have become accustomed to just saying yes when Dr. Laato asks me to translate something for him.

2. You brought together a team of translators for this project. Can you tell us a bit more about how that process looked and why you did that?

Dr. Laato brought this team of translators to the project. Weslie and Kristina Odom had started this project. In reality, when I received this project there were only a couple of chapters left for me to translate, and then the numerous footnotes which had not been touched. Kristina is from Finland and so knows Dr. Laato that way. Weslie is an LCMS pastor who has just accepted a call to Pagosa Springs, about two hours away from me, where he will be headmaster at a Lutheran day school specializing in classical education. They are a wonderful couple I’m looking forward to having in my neck of the woods for pastoral gatherings. I really do not know how they got started on this project, however a couple years ago their family was expanding and they did not think they could complete it in a timely manner. That is when Timo asked if I could take over.

Translating as a team is a difficult process. I find it to be a deeply personal endeavor and every translator I know attacks projects and translation problems differently. I have been at this gig now for 20 years, and have learned a lot about the process by doing. So it is always a bit precarious taking over someone else’s work. The first thing I had to do was read the original and their translation in tandem, to see what their word and style choices had been for translation. A translation is going to suffer more than continuity if a second translator decides to use a slightly different word than the one originally used. Often a translator can choose from up to five or six words all with different shades of meaning to use for almost every word on a page. A translator has to get the feel for how the author is using that word in his text and then how to best translate that word given the context and style of the original author. Sometimes this makes it hard to translate word play, or make the same distinctions the author is able to make in the original. It also happens that you find a better word or decide to change how you are translating the term or phrase at the end of the project too. When you are finished with a rough draft you begin to change things in the editing process. Weslie and Kristina had done a very fine job of translating and their style meshed quite well with mine from the get go. I found I did not have to rework their material anymore, less maybe, than I normally do for my own in the editing process.

3. In the Translator’s Foreword, you say, “To translate and edit this man’s work has satisfied every academic itch I have.” What parts of this translation project did you particularly enjoy?

If you would indulge me, I’d like to answer this question from two perspectives.

Dr. Laato is well known academically and has had work published in major journals, but is perhaps not as well known to popular audiences as he should be. I enjoy making his work accessible to people who otherwise would not be able to read him. Timo has a love for Jesus that expresses itself in pastoral concern for people, for the culture, and for his students and colleagues. It really is incredible how this bleeds into his academic work. I think it takes something that could be dry or polemical and makes it pastoral instead without losing any academic rigour. I especially enjoyed that aspect of this translation project, to see how his pastoral concern turned into a highly academic book that answers some very interesting questions in a pastoral way.

Second, I really do love a good footnote. For marketing reasons publishers have been moving away from footnotes and making them endnotes. This has been done with this book too. However, the footnotes are great. I like to see how an author will briefly acknowledge an opposing view by citing a particular author and stating why he may disagree with him. I also enjoy the brief excurses that are found in the footnotes. These tend to do damage to my pocket book too. I could not tell you how many book purchases I have made over the years because of a footnote. Sometimes, these in turn become translation projects.

4. Dr. Timo Laato relies on the maxim, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Why is Paul’s letter to the Romans important for understanding this idea?

Yes, this is perhaps the most important of hermeneutical, or interpretive maxims, when it comes to understanding Scripture. So it is fun to see how Paul used this concept even when writing Scripture.

The idea of Scripture interpreting Scripture is generally applicable to all sorts of literature. You have to read a book to understand a book. Oftentimes, you become familiar with the way an author uses a term or a phrase as you read, and this changes the way you interpreted the author when you first began to read the book. Sometimes there is a key sentence in the book that sheds light on the rest of the story and changes everything. When it comes to scripture, Jesus supplies this key sentence in John 5:39: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.”

When we understand that all of the Bible, not just the New Testament, or the Gospels, are really about Jesus, it changes the way we read and understand Genesis, Isaiah, the Psalms and Romans. This is what hermeneutics is all about.

This puts many of us in a precarious position. The Bible is an intimidating book on many levels. Parts of it are easier to understand than other parts, or at least they seem easier to understand than other parts. The Ten Commandments seem straightforward enough, for instance. Perhaps a bit easier to understand than the instructions for building the temple, and what all the symbolism there was supposed to convey. Yet, even here, Scripture informs our understanding of what the Ten Commandments mean by a graven image. A person who just read the full text of the First Commandment where God forbids the making of graven images might think that any artwork whatsoever would be a violation of that commandment, but then that person would have trouble explaining all the images used in the construction of the temple. Reconciling the texts, we come to see graven images as something a bit more complex than the mere image of a bull, twelve of which held up the bronze sea. The more we read Scripture, the fuller it becomes. It is not something we can treat like a terms of use agreement. No one reads those, we just click the “I agree box” at the end and move on with life.

What Dr. Laato does in this book takes this maxim to a meta-level. He examines Paul’s own hermeneutical strategies. He takes Paul’s use of Old Testament texts and references in Romans and looks to see how Paul arrived at his conclusions to find out what was guiding Paul in his selection of texts, and his interpretation of them. The idea is that this would also help us, especially those of us who are professionals, understand how we should read and interpret Scripture, and he does this with a concentration on some rather controversial passages.

The more we read Scripture, the fuller it becomes. It is not something we can treat like a terms of use agreement.

5. In the introduction, Dr. Tim Laato discusses the modern problem with hermeneutics. In what ways does this book provide a solution to the modern crisis experienced within Christendom?

The “enlightenment” as many call it, has not been kind to the Christian cultural institutions of the west. This was a philosophical movement characterized by skepticism for the sake of skepticism, and associated with various philosophers such as Descarte, Hume, Leibniz, Spinoza and Kant among others.The crisis has been complicated today because philosophy in general is denigrated by society. People think it is largely an impractical study. So now not only do people, even Christians, have a skepticism towards Christianity, they do not understand the philosophical assumptions that brought this about, nor do they have any desire to question the philosophical assumptions that are governing their own lives and often robbing them of meaning. Dr. Laato concentrates on Kant’s philosophical reasoning which has been used more than others, especially in Europe, to challenge Christianity and Scripture.

Basically, the idea with Kant is we cannot know anything about God perhaps more than that he exists. The “metaphysical” is relegated to the unknowable because it is supposedly outside any historical or scientific investigation. Of course, Kant was challenged very deftly by contemporaries such as Johann Georg Hamann, whose work is also experiencing a renaissance today, and Kierkegaard, but this did not stop Kant from dominating academia. Kant wants everyone to assume the atheistic position which then leads through circular reasoning to prove the atheistic position. Dr. Laato exposes the atheistic assumptions governing “academic” studies of Scripture and shows the futility of assuming them.

6. Is there any advice or thoughts you want to share with potential readers?

Do not be intimidated. Actually, the book is very short. While this book may be a bit more academic than what you are used to seeing from 1517, it is not so academic as to be inaccessible to the average reader. Also, read the endnotes. Put a bookmark back there to follow along and make the flipping back and forth easier, but read them. Many of them are short little masterpieces all by themselves, but they also add a bit of depth to the main material.

Hermeneutics in Romans: Paul’s Approach to Reading the Bible is now available to order