A Sketch of the History of Biblical Interpretation
During the pre-Christian period Old Testament writers interpreted each other. For example, Ezekiel 18 interprets Jeremiah 31:29, 30; 34:13). In these cases interpretations were inspired by God; God was interpreting His word. When God inspired New Testament writers to interpret Old Testament prophecy, God interpreted these prophecies. According to Ezra and Nehemiah, Ezra the “priest and scribe” and the “Levites that taught the people” translated and explained the Hebrew Scriptures to post exilic Jews (Ezra 7:6, 11, 12, 21; Neh. 8:1,3, 4, 7, 9; 9:4, 5; 12:26).
Ancient versions interpreted Scripture in the process of translation, then explained it to the people orally or in notes. Targums, which were Aramaic explanations of the Hebrew Scriptures, became expansive explanations as well as translations. In post-exilic Palestine, the interpreter had to translate the original Hebrew text into Aramaic and then explain the meaning of it (app. 500 -600 BC.). Generally the Septuagint (LXX) was more faithful to the Hebrew text than Targums, but it also contained paraphrase and supplementary explanations (app. 200 BC).
During the years from 168 BC until 10 AD, interpretation was highlighted by a series of friendly debates between two sets of rabbis called “the Pairs.” These debates kept alive interpretation and highlighted the main emphases in Judaism. The schools of Hillel and Shammai were probably the climax of this activity. Shammai’s interpretation was strict and rigid (by the letter of the law), while Hillel’s emphasized the qualifying factors of surrounding circumstances (interpreting within context). Hillel was famous for his seven exegetical rules. These rules dealt with such matters as inferences and analogies. He inferred general implications from one or more passages, stating the general by reference to particulars. He also inferred the particular by reference to the general, using one passage to interpret another, and the use of the whole context to interpret a verse or passage. These rules stress logical procedures in interpretation. Although the rabbis did follow the above rules, they often went beyond clarifying precise meaning conveyed by language and looked for “deeper hidden meaning” or allegorical meaning (Mickelsen 23, 24).
Alexandrian Judaism greatly influenced interpretation for a long time. Jews were scattered into many places, and there was a large Jewish community in Alexandria. They began to speak the Greek language in some places and were not skilled in Hebrew; thus, they needed a Greek translation of the hebrew O.T. The LXX was translated between 250 and 150 BC.This large translation project necessitated much interpretive activity. To translate from one language to another involves interpretation. A translator must determine the meaning of the document being translated to state it in another language. So the Septuagint project involved much interpretive activity.
The Jews tried to integrate Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato, into their religious beliefs. Consequently, Alexandrian Jews adopted the allegorical method of interpretation. The allegorical method often interprets the text apart from its grammatical and historical meaning. This gave them freedom to advocate interpretations that were not rooted in the text, but in their own traditions and desires. What the original writer meant to say was likely ignored. What the interpreter wanted the Bible to say became all-important.
Allegorical interpretation came into Alexandrian Judaism through Greek thought. Since Greek gods were often very immoral, they used the allegorical method to make Homeric gods and the Greek Pantheon acceptable. Thus, they could accept their religious writings, myths, and maintain their values. By allegorizing their immoralities, they made the gods acceptable. In addition, these Jews used allegorical interpretation to harmonize their Scriptures with Greek philosophy. They even sought to make it appear that the Greeks had borrowed their ideas from Moses.
Philo attempted to show the ideas of Stoicism and Neo-Platonism in the Pentateuch by allegorical interpretation. He also felt that some biblical material is unworthy of God, so he turned to allegorical interpretation to make it acceptable. He also said that plays on words are legitimate to show a deeper sense–an allegorical interpretation. Allegorical interpretation opened the door for them to make the Bible say what they wanted it to say.
In the beginning of Christianity, the New Testament (NT) uses the Old Testament (OT) in different ways, all of which show its value to Christians. The New Testament usually quotes LXX. There are 1,600 quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament, and even more allusions to it. Paul said the Old Testament applied as “instruction” for people in the New Testament period (Rom. 15:14). Peter asserted that the prophecy of the Old Testament was being fulfilled in his time (1 Pet. 1:10-12).
Some believe that Paul interpreted the Old Testament allegorically (Gal. 4). If we observe closely, we see that Paul used allegory as a teaching method, to illustrate, not as an interpretive method, except in cases where figurative language is obvious. He used historical events, as we often do, to illustrate principles–not as allegorical messages. The most common method through which the New Testament approached the Old Testament was typology (Rom. 5:12-21 & Heb. 7:1-17).
All of this resulted in three emphases in interpretation. The Old Testament references to the Messiah referred to Jesus, a Christological concern or Christocentric interpretation. Also the New Testament presented the church as God’s people–the new Israel. And Old Testament moral law (i.e., eternal principles that are rooted in the nature of God) was borrowed and expanded.
Between AD. 10 to AD. 550, the Rabbis produced much interpretive literature. The large number of commentaries they produced indicates the zeal of the Jewish people for interpretation. In fact they did not stop at interpreting Scripture; they interpreted Scripture and then interpreted the interpretations. Sometimes they even interpreted the interpretations of interpretations.
Scripture was important because the Jews believed that in the Scriptures they could find eternal life (Jn. 5:39). This caused them to seek salvation by doing what the Bible says (meritorious works) rather than by trusting Jesus (the merit of His death on the cross). There were two basic types of writings: the Midrashim and the Mishna. The Midrashim were commentaries on various Old Testament books. They concentrated primarily on legal materials. The Mishna were topical studies that were more practical than doctrinal. These writings focused on what God demands and how men should respond.
Rabbi Aquiba said every verse of Scripture has many explanations. He said there was mystic meaning in every letter of Scripture. The Rabbis had ways of getting out of Scripture what they wanted and often applied good principles wrongly and made their use invalid. The Mishna explained the Scripture, and the later scholars explained the Mishna. With so many contributors to this body of literature, many conflicting statements appeared. Consequently, the rabbis wrote the Palestinian Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud in an effort to bring these writings together. All of this removed interpretation far from the historical context of the texts being interpreted. In all of this we see how erroneous interpretations can be when the historical context is overlooked. They interpreted the Bible to mean what they wanted it to say.
Some Jews withdrew to ascetic communities to escape the pressures of the evil influence of social and political forces that made life so complex in Palestine. The Qumran community is well known among these communities. This community is identified by most as Essenes. In the Qumran community, they copied the Scripture and wrote commentaries, manuals on community life, and various essays. Peshir (interpretation) or pesharim (plural of Peshir—interpretations) were more applications than just interpretations of historical meaning, i.e., principles. They mingled Scripture quotations and applications.
Interpretation was frequently carried out without reference to context. They jumped context and interpreted biblical material in terms of their own context in Qumran rather than within the context of the writer and recipients. They should have distinguished between meaning and significance–first sought what the author intended to say to his first readers (i.e., meaning) and then indeed how that meaning applied to them in their own context (i.e., significance). In their haste to apply writings to themselves, they ignored the original context and what the writer intended to say. They made the mistake of interpreting out of context, jumping context. By this practice, they made the Scripture say what they thought it ought to say, what they felt they needed it to say, or what fit their agenda.
During the Patristic Period (AD. 95 – AD. 590), interpretation was dominated by Jewish religion and Greek philosophy. Jewish religion and Greek philosophy influenced each other. Consequently the period was characterized by Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and allegorical interpretation. The Catechetical School was influenced by and sought to accommodate philosophy by allegorical interpretation.
The Greeks used allegorical interpretation as a method of harmonizing religion and philosophy. Stoics had already applied the allegorical method to Homer. Philo reduced this approach to a method and applied it to simple narrative. But, the chief representatives of the allegorical school were Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Although these interpreters believed in inspiration and literal sense of the Bible, they believed only the allegorical method contributed to real knowledge.
During the Patristic period, the New Testament canon was established. Both Greek and Latin fathers interpreted the New Testament carefully and extensively as the basis of key theological formulations. Nevertheless, allegorical interpretation continued to grow until it had a firm hold on biblical studies, and this hold was not broken for a thousand years.
During the second century (or close of first century) Clement of Rome quoted extensively from Scripture. He saw the Old Testament as preparation for Christ. Also, he used Scripture to re-enforce his exhortation to faithfulness and service. Ignatius accepted this Christocentric approach to the Scriptures. He alluded to both Old Testament and New Testament frequently, but seldom quotes them. He usually avoided strained and allegorical interpretation. The Epistle of Barnabas used extensive allegorizing. Barnabas’ approach illustrates the effects of strong assumptions on interpretation.
Marcion would have thrown out the Old Testament. Of the New Testament, he accepted only Luke. He also, eliminated from the Gospel what he thought was Jewish interpolations. He felt that the God of the Old Testament was not the father of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Justin Martyr made an extensive use of the Old Testament. But, his writings provide examples of artificial interpretation. His interpretation of the Old Testament primarily concerned Christ and seldom what the prophets were saying to their contemporaries.
Irenaeus battled heretics admonishing them to engage in correct interpretation. His standard consisted of what was taught in the churches. So with him, church tradition controlled biblical interpretation. So began the concept that the church is the authoritative interpreter.
Like the Patristics, the School of Alexandria (founded about AD 185) focused Jewish religion and Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy and OT teachings contradicted each other. So, they also used allegorical interpretation to harmonize religion and philosophy. So the Alexandrian school was dominated by allegorical interpretation. Stoics had already applied the allegorical method to Homer. Although Philo reduced allegorizing to a method and applied it to simple narrative. The chief representatives of the allegorical school were Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Clement of Alexandria was the first to apply the allegorical method to OT and NT. He said that all Scripture must be understood allegorically. He also asserted that the literal meaning only furnished an elementary faith, but allegorical meaning led to true knowledge.
Origen was considered the greatest theologian of his time. He was best known for his textual criticism. He also furnished a detailed theory of allegorical interpretation. He held that the meaning of the Holy Spirit is always simple and clear and worthy of God. Moreover, he felt that all that seems dark and immoral and unbecoming in the Bible serves to encourage us to look beyond the literal sense. He considered the Bible as the means of salvation for man.
Based on Plato’s view that man consists of three parts (body, soul, and spirit), Origen said that biblical meaning has a threefold sense: literal, moral, and mystical or allegorical. He disparaged the literal sense of Scripture. So, he constantly employed the allegorical method in his search for true knowledge.
Examples of Origen’s allegorical interpretation illustrate that allegorical interpretation are but the imaginations and fancies of men, not the word of God. He said that Rebecca’s drawing water for Abraham’s servant and his camels means that we must come to the wells of Scripture in order to meet Christ. In the story of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, he said that the ass represents the letter of the law of the OT; the colt or foal of an ass (being gentle and submissive) speaks of the NT; the two apostles who obtained the animals are the moral and spiritual senses.
The School of Antioch was founded around AD 300. Diodorus, Bishop of Antioch and Tarsus, who wrote a treatise on principles of interpretation. He founded this school of interpretation. Theodore of Mopsuestia and John Chrysostom were disciples of Diodorus. Theodore was a liberal in regard to the Bible, and denied the inspiration of some books. Contrariwise, Chrysostom regarded the Bible as the infallible Word of God in every part. The exegesis of Theodore was intellectual and dogmatic. On the other hand, Chrysostom’s interpretation was more spiritual and practical.
The School of Antioch made great strides toward true scientific exegesis. By “scientific exegesis” I mean an approach that gathers and records pieces of evidence, reasons from specific evidence to a general conclusion–draws only such conclusions as the evidence supports. They consider the evidence without ignoring any or adding any that is not found in the text. The evidence must be stated expressly in the text or necessarily implied by the content of the text. Also, they sought to determine the original sense of the Bible. As a result, they attached great value to the literal sense of the Bible. As you would suspect, they consciously rejected the allegorical method of interpretation. Theodore of Mopsuestia defended grammatico-historical interpretation. Nevertheless, these interpreters did recognize the typical and figurative element in the Bible.
Generally, a mediating type of exegesis made its appearance in the West. This approach asserted the authority of tradition and the church in interpretation. Consequently, it ascribed normative value to the teaching of the church in the area of exegesis. To harmonize tradition with the Bible, this practice also put to use some elements of the allegorical school of Alexandria.
Jerome (AD 347 – 419) was primarily known as a translator, but was also an interpreter of renown. In his early ministry, he admired allegorical method. Later, he saw its weaknesses and attacked it in his exegetical work. He was familiar with both Hebrew and Greek. His work consisted largely of historical, linguistic, and archaeological notes. Regrettably, he did not completely throw off earlier practices, so he continued to practice allegorical interpretation.
Augustine (AD 354 – 430) did not have the knowledge of original languages that Jerome had, but he excelled at systematizing the truths of the Bible. He scorned the attribution of human characteristics to God (anthropomorphism) in the OT. He was influenced by Ambrose, who took Paul’s statement that “the letter kills but the spirit makes alive” as a slogan for allegorical interpretation. Nonetheless, he stressed the necessity of having regard for the literal sense and basing the allegorical upon it. Through allegorical interpretation, Augustine made “Christianity” plausible for himself. He indulged rather freely in allegorical interpretation. He also gave a deciding voice to the regula fidei or the faith of the Church (church traditions). Allegorical interpretation was convenient in supposedly harmonizing church tradition with the Bible.
Augustine adopted a fourfold sense of meaning: historical, aetiological, analogical, allegorical. The following are some examples of Augustine’s allegorical interpretation. He said that the lying down, sleeping, and rising up mentioned in Psalm 3:5 really refers to the death and resurrection of Jesus. He also asserted that in the narrative of the fall, the fig leaves mean hypocrisy; the coats of skins are mortality, and the four rivers become the four cardinal virtues.
Since the Middle Ages (AD 475 – 1450) and the Patristic period overlap by about three-quarters of a century, the Middle Ages were dominated by the control of church tradition and allegorical interpretation. Interpretation was shackled by dull conformity to church tradition: the church stood supreme. This control of the church and its tradition discouraged the study of the Bible and even the clergy lived in profound ignorance of the Holy Scriptures. Inferences from basic church teaching were more important than investigation to see if these basic ideas were biblical. All interpretations of the Bible had to be adapted to traditions or the doctrine of the church.
Hugo of St. Victor articulated the prevailing attitude of the Middle Ages: “Learn first what you should believe, and then go to the Bible to find it there.” Rather than letting the Bible speak a living message when people came to worship, the clergy offered a vast desert by articulating the church’s traditions. Interpretation was slavishly bound by traditional lore and by the authority of the Church.
The Middle Ages were dominated by a fourfold approach to interpretation. Interpreters saw a multiplicity of meanings in Scripture. According to interpreters of this age, revelation was not only expressed in Scripture, but it was hidden in Scripture. Some Latin poetry of the sixteenth century expresses this approach roughly in the following poem:
The letter shows us what God and our fathers did;
The allegory shows us where our faith is hid;
The moral meaning gives us rules of daily life;
The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.
Following is an example of the fourfold sense: “Jerusalem” for the medieval interpreters could refer to the literal city in Palestine. Allegorically it could mean the church. Morally (tropologically) it would refer to the human soul. Anagogically “Jerusalem” refers to the heavenly city. Thus their fourfold sense may be described as follows. The literal is the plain, common sense meaning. The moral sense tells man what to do. The allegorical tells what they are to believe. And the anagogical centers in what Christians are to hope for.
From AD 600 to 1200 allegorical interpretation had a hold on the minds of medieval theologians. The church circulated collections of allegorical interpretations. For example, the word “sea” was assigned the following possible meanings: a gathering of water, Scripture, the present age, the human heart, the active life, heathen, or baptism. From these lists of possible meanings, meanings for words and texts were chosen without consideration of context. Consequently, interpretations went far astray. Even though toward the end of the Middle Ages, the use of allegorical method declined, it was still extensively used.
During the Middle Ages the Glossa Ordinaria anthologies from the fathers were circulated. These took the form of Scripture printed in the text with comments or accepted interpretations written in the margin and between the lines. These quotations were chosen and arranged with the design to lead interpreters to interpretations that harmonized with church tradition. This was nothing short of “proof-texting” in the bad sense. Those who proof-text don’t let the Bible speak to them; they seek to speak to the Bible. They begin their studies with their minds made up and search for statements that (without contextual considerations) seem to support their preferred views. They take texts out of their contexts and piece them together in an artificial way that seems to support what they want to hear. Thus, in the Glossa Ordinaria, they made the Bible say what they wanted it to say.
Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225 – 1274) allegorized constantly. Nonetheless, he regarded the literal sense the foundation of all exposition of Scripture. In theory Aquinas did not deny the fourfold sense, yet in reality he admitted only two senses: literal and mystical. He based the mystical exclusively on the literal. Still, Aquinas complained about the mystical choking the literal, and demanded that only the literal be used in proving doctrine. Thomas Aquinas’ works strongly influenced Luther. Through Luther, he affected the Reformation. He held that the literal sense is what the author intended, but since God is the Author, we may expect to find much more meaning than the writer intended. At least, his stress on the primary importance of the literal represented a trend in the right direction. Aquinas faced the problems of figurative language: How do you know when language is figurative? What does the figure mean?
Nicholas of Lyra (1279 – 1340) stands as a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Reformation. He accepted the fourfold approach to interpretation. But like Aquinas, he stressed the importance of the literal. He was so careful that he criticized the Latin Vulgate, saying it was not always true to the Hebrew text. He even took explicit issue with some accepted allegorical interpretations. Nicholas taught at Erfurt, where Martin Luther studied, and his system of biblical interpretation probably influenced Luther. The Reformation began as men questioned the allegorical. The Middle Ages reveal the tragic result of combining allegorical interpretation with the authority of ecclesiastical tradition. Through allegorical interpretation, the clergy made the Bible say what they wanted it to say. This is how they could say they accepted the Bible, while they obviously contradicted it.
During the Reformation Period (16th Century), the reformers decided to make the Bible their supreme and sole authority. No teaching of pope or council was considered authoritative unless it was based upon a plain statement of Scripture. The battle cry was sola scriptura. This brought the Bible to the forefront. Both method and practice in exegesis and interpretation were advanced.
Martin Luther (AD 1483 – 1546) was a leading reformer from the beginning. Independent study of Scripture for his lectures on Romans and Psalms made Luther discontented with traditionalism and allegorization. He saw justification by faith as the major emphasis of both OT and NT. He also abandoned the medieval theory of a fourfold meaning in interpretation and stressed the single fundamental meaning. In addition, Luther championed the right of the individual to interpret the Scripture for himself.
Balanced the literal or grammatical sense with the spiritual depth of meaning. He asserted that training in linguistics, history, and theological reasoning is inadequate without the illumination of the Holy Spirit. With this we should agree, because the New Testament reveals (1 Cor. 2:7-14) that the Holy Spirit both gave us God’s revelation and helps us to understand it. Nevertheless, any interpretation that claims to have resulted from the illumination of the Holy Spirit must still be based on demonstrable evidence and also be rational. Otherwise, how do we know which of the interpreters to believe? The Holy Spirit does not give us interpretations for which there is no evidence in the text. Neither will He give conflicting interpretations to different interpreters. God will not ignore details in the text, neither will he contradict himself.
Luther’s interpretation was Christocentric or centered around Christ. He did not think very highly of Scripture that did not teach about Christ or salvation by faith. Contrary to the dominant trend of his time, he emphasized the necessity of context and historical circumstances in interpretation. He wanted to go back to the Bible and let it be the guide. Although his strong opposition to “work salvation” caused him to view the necessity of submissive or obedient faith, we owe Luther a great debt of gratitude. We must agree that man does not deserve salvation on the basis of his own merit rather than on the merit of the cross of Christ. But we must recognize that our acts of obedience are essential as a component of biblical faith and shows that we have submissive faith. Without submissive acts of obedience to God’s commands, our faith is not a valid Christian faith!
Luther fostered the basic Protestant approach to Scripture. He insisted that Christians should (1) strive to do all that the Scripture enjoins and (2) do nothing that the Scripture expressly forbids. Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer and contemporary of Luther, insisted that one more thing is essential. He insisted that Christians should (1) strive to do all that the Scripture enjoins, (2) do nothing that the Scripture expressly forbids, and (3) do nothing for which we do not have biblical authority. Thus, Zwingli championed the approach that distinguishes the Restoration Movement from Protestantism. He not only insisted on biblical authority; he insisted on the exclusive authority of the Bible. He believed that no man nor group of men have a right to authorize any teaching or practice without biblical authority. He did not make it clear how the Bible authorizes by command, approved account of action, or necessary implication.
Melanchthon was Luther’s valuable colleague and his superior in learning. He had an extensive knowledge of both Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. In an age when most insisted that interpreters must first understand theology and church doctrines before they could understand the Bible, Melanchthon asserted that interpreters must understand Scripture grammatically before they can understand theologically. He also stated that Scripture has only one certain and simple sense.
John Calvin (AD 1509 – 1564), whose career overlapped with the end of Luther’s, added a valuable dimension to the Reformation. Calvin was a theologian who sought to bring all scriptural teachings together in a rigid logical system. Yet, he was first a biblical interpreter and only secondly a theologian. In allegorical interpretation, Calvin saw a contrivance of Satan to obscure the true sense of Scripture. He recognized the typical aspect and Christ-centeredness of the OT, but did not agree with Luther that Christ should be found everywhere in Scripture. He insisted that the prophets should be interpreted in the light of the historical circumstances to which they addressed their writings.
Calvin insisted that “the first business of an interpreter is to let the author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.” This is closely akin to the big issue of our day authorial intent. It appears that he would agree that the Scripture means what the author intended for it to mean. It cannot mean what it never meant. It means to us what the author intended it to mean to those originally addressed. After we learn its meaning, we can wrestle with how it is significant and how to apply it in our culture and situation.
The Roman Catholics, of course, did not travel the route traveled by the reformers. They made no exegetical advances in the period of the Reformation. Neither did they admit the right of individual interpretation. As an organization, they insisted that the Bible must be interpreted to harmonize with church tradition. Their council of Trent reasserted their former approach. (1) The authority of ecclesiastical tradition must be maintained. (2) The highest authority had to be attributed to the Latin Vulgate. (3) It is necessary to conform interpretation to the authority of the church and to the unanimous consent of the Fathers. So, wherever they were enforced, their principles stopped exegetical progress.
In its second generation, the Reformation produced a “Period of Confessionalism.” Although the Protestants theoretically supported the principle that “Scriptura Scripturae interprets” and refused the domination of tradition and the doctrine of the church as formulated by councils and popes, they were in danger of leading it into bondage to confessional standards of the church. While refusing to allow interpretation be a slave to Catholic tradition, they made it a slave to their own traditions. Out of fear that the conclusions and teachings of the early reformers might be forgotten and lost, they wrote their interpretations into confessions of faith and bound them as creeds. Thus, they were overcome by what they had protested against. This should serve as a warning to us, of the Restoration tradition. While seeking to avoid the control of Catholic and Protestant traditions, we should be warned not to make our practice of interpretation a slave to our own traditional interpretations. We must evaluate new concepts and reevaluate traditional concepts in the light of the Scripture and accept only that which is truly biblical because it is biblical. We must study the Bible and record all of the details found expressly stated or necessarily implied by what is stated and consider all of these facts and nothing these facts in drawing conclusions about doctrine and practices. Yes, the occasion and purpose for what is stated must be factored in as the context for interpretation, but even the occasion and purpose of writing should be drawn from the text. During the period of confessionalism, exegesis became the servant of dogmatics and degenerated into a search for proof-texts.
During this period of traditionalism, the Socinians interpreted with the assumption that the Bible must be interpreted in a rational way, or in harmony with reason. Their theological system consisted of a mixture of rationalism and supernaturalism. Coccejus felt that using the Bible as a source of proof-texts failed to do justice to the Bible as an organism in which all the parts were related to each other. To the contrary, he insisted that every passage should be interpreted in the light of its context and of the prevailing thought and the purpose of the author.
But alas, because of a fatal confusion between actual sense and possible applications, he “introduced a false plurality of meanings.” If we see every possible “application” as “meaning,” we will make the same mistake. We must remember that the historical meaning, what the author intended, is “the meaning.” Meaning is one thing, and the application of meaning is another. There is one meaning, but many applications. Meaning (i.e., the author’s intent) is absolute, but application is relative. Meaning is general (universal). Application is specific to the individual in his or her particular situation. Since individual needs and situations differ from person to person, the how and the degree of application will vary from individual to individual. I mean, application varies because it depends on individual needs and circumstances, but meaning does not.
J. A. Turretin insisted that the Bible should be interpreted without dogmatic professions and with the aid of logic and analysis. The Pietists also represented a reaction against the dogmatic interpretation of their day. They insisted that interpreters should study Scripture in the original languages and under the enlightening influence of the Holy Spirit. In addition, they felt that the grammatical, historical, and analytical study of Scripture led to knowledge of the externals of divine thought, but that drawing inferences of reproof and practical matters penetrated to the kernel of the truth. The Pietists were the first to insist upon the necessity of psychological interpretation or that the feelings of the interpreter should be in harmony with those of the writer he sought to understand. Bengel is thought by many to be the best interpreter this school produced.
During the Post-Reformation Period (17th and 18th Centuries), a variety of different views appeared. Many chose reason as the final authority. They opposed the dogmatic interpretation of the Bible that had developed. The spirit of renaissance resisted dogmatism. Dogmatists draw conclusions based on biases rather than on evidence. Dogmatists hold to their views firmly in spite of the evidence to the contrary. Firm conviction is not necessarily dogmatism. Holding firmly to conclusions that are based on adequate and relevant evidence is not dogmatism. Nevertheless, some overextended the resistance to dogmatism and resisted any firm stand on matters of faith.
The spirit of reaction gained control in the field of hermeneutics and exegesis. An empirical approach came to the forefront in interpretation, and many were critical of any proposition that could not be proved by sense experience. A focus on the natural realm led to skepticism about the supernatural (divine revelation and miracles). Science began to be preferred over faith.
In this period, theology often controlled exegesis, rather than exegesis controlling theology. Many looked for texts to prove their theology and explained away evidence that seemed to contradict their theology. Also, many views of inspiration emerged. The common views agreed in the denial of verbal inspiration and the infallibility of Scripture.
Pascal (AD 1692 – 1762) never left the Catholic Church, but he shared much with Luther, Calvin, and other reformers. He put emphasis on the heart that feels, senses, and experiences God. He asserted “there is enough clarity to enlighten the elect and enough obscurity to humble them.”
Anabaptists were a bright spot during this period. They held to baptism of believers only. Also, they were more insistent than the reformers that the Bible was their sole authority in faith and practice. In their study of the Bible, they made a strong use of the New Testament. They stressed that the individual was illuminated by the Holy Spirit and could interpret the Scriptures for themselves. They insisted that each one had the right to live according to what they believed was the scriptural pattern. While belief in the ultimate authority of the Scriptures brought Protestants together, the differences in the views of Protestants on what the Scriptures meant kept them apart.
Great strides were made in the significant areas of textual criticism, linguistics, and historical studies. Textual critics made great progress in the study to determine the original text. Grammars and lexicons of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek began to circulate. Critics began to realize the importance of historical context into which Scripture was given. Wettstein (AD 1698 – 1754) and Bengel (1687 – 1751) were leaders in textual criticism and historical studies. Literary analysis and internal evidence began to be observed in the study of authorship.
As you would suspect, rationalism strengthened its hold during this period. Hobbes (AD 1588 -1670) and Spinoza (AD 1632 -1677) claimed that human intellect was adequate to determine what is true and false and what is right and wrong. This was to be done by observing what took place in time and space without a revelation from a transcendent God. Rationalism is closely interrelated with deism, humanism, and empiricism. This promoted naturalism rather than supernaturalism. They accepted only the natural and sought to explain everything as natural phenomena. In this manner many promoted anti-supernaturalism.
Critics began to practice a rigid historicism. Some held that history is a series of causes and effects that cannot be interrupted by any external transcendent or supernatural force. They decided that accounts of miracles were not historical. They decided that the Bible is a mere human production without the aid of supernatural intervention. They asserted that God did not intervene in history nor did he reveal the message to chosen men. They saw history as a closed continuum of causes and effects that could not be interrupted by transcendent or supernatural power(s). This all led to an elimination of the supernatural and miraculous. All of this led interpreters to spend their time trying to distinguish history from myth.
There was a carryover of an optimistic view of man, believing that man could reach a high level of good and God’s kingdom of peace could be arrived at through human nature or through natural means. World War II brought about a less optimistic view of man and turned critics back to biblical and interpretive studies. Theology began to be viewed as “interesting,” “thought-provoking,” and even “pertinent” to Christian living. Commentaries were still more filled with minutiae of literary criticism, grammar, historical parallels, and background information than with the message about God and Christ. Study with a purpose of finding the essential message was relegated to last place.
There was what is now called the “Old Quest for the Historical Jesus.” Critics became enamored with concern with the “theological wrappings” that surrounded the historical Jesus and sought to strip the writings of “the myths” expressing Christian faith and seek to draw out the true history of Jesus. So they stripped away the supernatural and miraculous. This made Jesus just a man who was only an ethical teacher. Albert Schweitzer rejected this approach as demanding a super colossal faith. He said it demanded the naive dismissal of large portions of the Gospels. Schweitzer emphasized the eschatological elements in Jesus and essentially brought to an end the nineteenth century quest for the historical Jesus.
A “New Quest for the Historical Jesus” arose. These critics were confident that the Christ of faith was the Jesus of history. They differentiated between the words and deeds of Jesus and the interpretations given by the early disciples who had little or no understanding of Jesus and why he did what he did. They arbitrarily distinguished between what they saw as the “kerygmatic” proclamations of the early Christian community and true statements of the utterances and actions of Jesus. The critics became the ones deciding what was kerygma and what was actual history.
During this period, however, we can see a renewed interest in the true message of the Bible and a move away from merely wanting to know how it came to be written.
We will look at more recent developments as we study the “New Hermeneutic” or “Postmodern Interpretation.
In all of the above, we see many approaches men have used to try to make the Bible say what they wanted it to say. But we also see that as others who truly wanted know the will of God struggled against bad hermeneutics; they set forth some sound and important principles of biblical interpretation.
© Dr. William T. (Bill) Lambert (2004)
Professor Emeritus – N. T. Literature and Interpretation
Searcy, AR 72149