When did Biblical interpretation come into use? Why did it come into use? Is there a correct or incorrect way to interpret Scripture; and, if so, are there consequences to its misuse and misapplication? This paper will attempt to trace the early beginnings of Biblical interpretation through the post reformation era and the consequences on human history with each method. The majority basis for this discussion will be drawn from the work of Pentecost (Pentecost, 1958).
The topic of interpretation can be summed up in two schools: Literal (also known as historical-grammatical) and Allegorical. Both of these schools are very different in their approach to Scripture as will be shown. The beginning of Interpretation as presented by Pentecost is generally held to be during the time of Ezra and the return of Israel from exile (Pentecost, 1958, p. 16). Nehemiah, chapter 8, records that the people gathered together to hear the Scriptures read after being lost and neglected for many years. Scripture records that, “they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8, KJV). The need existed, due to the ignorance and neglect of Israel, to have the once familiar Scripture not only read to them, but also explained to them in detail. The job called for a dissection of the Scripture and a presentation to the people in language they could understand and relate to as they had exchanged their native language with Aramaic while in exile (Pentecost, 1958, p. 16). The job of Ezra would have been to read to them Scripture in the native tongue and translate its truth into the language of the people. This task no doubt was a literal translation and explanation of Scripture as supported by Pentecost (Pentecost, 1958, p. 16). It is clear that the method which Ezra executed, the Literal Interpretation, was indeed used by God to reach the people as Scripture records that the people understood what was read to them and became very sorrowful for their lack of respect and place of God’s Holy Word in their lives. So much so, that Ezra, the Levites, and Nehemiah had to encourage the people to remain joyful in that the Scriptures had been found and had been declared unto them once again so that they could understand and obey God’s Word (Nehemiah 8:10-13, KJV). Ezra’s approach to Scripture in a straight forward, literal rendering of interpretation gave the people God’s message as well as rendered results in God’s people. The Literal Interpretation approach enabled God’s people to understand God’s Word in a straightforward sense by taking God at His word for what was required to have a relationship with Him.
The Literal Interpretation “gives to every word the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether used in writing, speaking, or thinking” (Issues in Theology, 2012). Unlike today where so many different types of commentaries, textbooks, and other study helps are available for review, Ezra would have had only the pure Scripture in front of him. There was the absence of the huge volumes of literature that exist today that have perverted and twisted Scripture to make it conform and reach a goal or idea within a denomination’s belief system. Ezra relied on Scripture and nothing but Scripture. He read, believed, and presented the Scripture in the Literal method of hermeneutical practice. Because of this, the people under Ezra had a clear and understandable Word of God.
Not only did Ezra practice a Literal interpretation of Scripture, but it can also be shown that the process of Old Testament Interpretation as a whole involved a Literal Hermeneutical approach. While Rabbinism had flaws that would cause its end result to be incorrect, the method of its approach to Scripture was Literal. This fact is further supported by the Catholic Theologian Jerome who confirmed the Literal approach to Scripture as being Jewish (Pentecost, 1974). The problem, as stated by Pentecost, in their arrival of wrong Spiritual doctrine was not due to Literal interpretation of Scripture, but was indeed in their misapplication of that information (Pentecost, 1974). Rabbinical interpretation of Scripture was completed under thirteen rules which were further amplifications of the previous seven rules of Hillel (Killian, n.d.). These rules promoted a literal interpretation of Scripture and to this discussion there is no other conclusion. The weakness to this system, however, was the practice of Letterism, which involved the strong held beliefs by the Rabbinical schools that every single item within the Scripture, including grammatical and numerical inferences, were there for a purpose and that from a text many meanings could be drawn out (Ramm, 1970). These fallacies, along with the strongly respected existence of tradition laid a snare in which many interpreters of this time fell into thereby causing false application of Scripture (Ramm, 1970).
During the time of Christ, Literalism appears to have been the majority hermeneutical practice among the Jews (Pentecost, 1974). This was also the case with the Apostles and New Testament writers (Pentecost, 1974). In fact, during the first century, it is the Egyptian Jews who are first seen using allegorical application to hermeneutical principles in attempt to be more like the Greeks (Pentecost, 1974). It is Philo who begins using the Allegorical approach to Scripture in hopes of marrying the Greek and Jewish belief systems together so that it would be accepted by what he considered to be a more advanced Greek society (Pentecost, 1974).. The rise of Allegorism could be, in part, the result of a period of time in the first century in which many problems existed for Biblical interpreters during that time. Included in these were the fact that there was no established cannon of neither the Old or New Testament texts; work was being built upon previously false translations of Scripture; rules previously employed by Rabbinical schools were wrongly applied to the texts; and there was abundant pagan and Jewish practices within society thereby further causing confusion and roadblocks to an honest attempt at interpreting Scripture (Pentecost, 1974).
The Patristic period saw the emergence of three different hermeneutical schools of thought late in that era that arose out of the chaos of differing philosophical, cultural, and religious beliefs (Pentecost, 1974). These schools were known as the Literal and Realistic; the Allegorical; and the Historical and Grammatical (Pentecost, 1974). This period is generally held to be from the death of the Apostle John to the middle ages, 100-450 A.D. (McMahon, 2013). It is during this time that the church underwent persecution from Roman emperors yet still became a legal religion under Constantine is 321 A.D. (McMahon, 2013). Two cities that were of importance during this time in the teaching of hermeneutical processes were that of Alexandria and Antioch.
Aristobulus was part of the foundation of the Allegorical school of which beliefs Philo would eventually adopt and expand on false conclusions from poor exegesis of the Scriptures. The goal of Philo, as already discussed, was to create an environment of perceived harmony among both Jew and Greek philosophy so that the educated Greek society would welcome the antiquated Jewish Mosaic law. To accomplish this, Philo accepted and promoted earlier concepts of Aristobulus that Greek Philosophy arose from Old Testament teachings and that Greek philosophers, including Aristotle, were simply using tenets of philosophy already put in place by Moses and the Prophets earlier in time (Pentecost, 1974). Philo had great influence with these teachings within the school of Alexandria and relied on the Allegorical method to mesh the two society’s religious and philosophical beliefs together (Pentecost, 1974). This school of thought was further moved forward through the teachings of Pantaenus and Clement of Alexandria, who believed in divine origin of Greek philosophy and therefore the only way that Scriptures could be understood was through the Allegorical lens of interpretation (Pentecost, 1974). Origen would later develop, at the school of Alexandria, the formal allegorical method by which Scripture would be exegeted. His approach included a three point approach that acknowledged that: (1) Scripture had a literal meaning but hid a higher idea; (2) Scripture had a moral meaning that could be used to edify the people; and (3) Scripture had a mystical sense for those of higher intellect who could draw from the deeper knowledge (Pentecost, 1974).
The sad reality of the heretical use of the Allegorical method during this time was that it was the answer for two other false approaches to Scripture. The first was ecclesiasticism, which placed the church as the supreme authority of Scriptural interpretation (Pentecost, 1974). Augustine was the first to use this approach which made Scripture conform to the church and its perceived interpretation of its content rather than the opposite (Pentecost, 1974). The second false approach, as already discussed, was that of Jewish Letterism. This was also a belief that the people desired to be emancipated from as well as other philosophical heresies of the time (Pentecost, 1974). The dilemma seen with any of these approaches is that those seeking to know the reality and truth of Scripture are bound to the teachings of mortal men as divine proclamation. The Allegorical method, in its attempt to fuse Greek Philosophy and Jewish Law, was a colossal compromise by early scholars which did great harm to Scriptural integrity and further deprived the people of this period from a plain and truthful view of Scripture.
The School of Antioch stood in stark contrast to that of Alexandria in that it rejected the Allegorical method and stood firmly for the use of a Literal interpretation of Scripture (Pentecost, 1974). Diodorus of Tarsus is credited as the founder of the School at Antioch with a strong emphasis placed on the literal exposition of Scripture (Pentecost, 1974). It was his student, Theodore of Mopsuestia, however, that was the true star pupil of the day with the ability to best represent this system to the world. His study of Scripture was guided by three steps: (1)the sequence of thought of the writer; (2)the phraseology and separate clauses that are being used in the passage; and (3)an arrival of a properly exegeted passage that is capable of being understood and applied (Pentecost, 1974). In the end, it was the Allegorical method of interpretation that prevailed due out of necessity for ecclesiasticism which Augustine presented that required the engine of Allegorical interpretation to make Scripture fit beliefs and practices of the church and ensure that the church would continue to maintain power and control over the people. Had it not been for this political agenda, the School of Antioch could have changed history had it prevailed and possibly prevented centuries of heretical teaching and misfortune among all of humanity.
Following this period, and as the result of the School of Antioch being dismissed as heretical practice, a spiritual darkness from the seventh to sixteenth centuries ensued which produced nine centuries of silence from practically any fundamentally sound literal interpretation of Scripture (Pentecost, 1974). During this period, there was no solid attempt to draw a correct view of Scripture, but rather a continued heretical practice of twisting the Word to fit the needs of the governmental church and its corrupted leaders. There was, no doubt, a remnant of believers during these dark years who held a literal view and belief in Scripture, but the vast majority of subjects were trapped in the quagmire of misapplied and abused Scripture.
Thankfully, these long dark years of spiritual ignorance and corruption began to turn around during the time known as the Reformation Period (Pentecost, 1974). It is during this time that people such as Valla rightfully concluded that Scripture, to be rightfully interpreted, must be viewed through the lens of the laws of grammar and language (Pentecost, 1974). This would call for a literal interpretation hermeneutic, and thus popularity of this approach slowly began to gain traction. Erasmus was another key person during this time who laid strong importance on the grammatical interpretation of Scripture, and thereby also shining light on the practice of a literalistic approach (Pentecost, 1974). This Reformation Period was indeed the catalyst that caused the return to a literal approach to the interpretation of God’s Word.
It is also during this time in history that, as allegorical interpretation began to lose its grip on the world, that a new doctrine began to emerge among the reformers. This doctrine would later be known as the Perspicuity of Scripture (Breshears, nd). Simply defined, Perspicuity of Scripture implies that anyone of any intellect is able to read the Word of God and draw from it the means of Salvation and how to live a life pleasing to God (Breshears, nd). With this idea came the growing desire to put Scriptures into the language of the common people, as well as a growing revelation among the people that the Governmental Church was not the voice of God. With the new found freedom in private religious study came a growing public consensus that God’s Word is for every person – not just a select few who are said to speak on His behalf.
One of the key figures during this time was Martin Luther. Luther believed strongly in the practice of a literal interpretation of Scripture, but also on the importance of using correct grammatical principles in this process (Pentecost, 1974). Luther was very dedicated to seeing that the common person would have not only the Word of God, but the hermeneutical mechanics whereby to correctly discern and interpret its message (Pentecost, 1974). Luther’s belief included the idea that traditions of the church were not necessary to understand the pure Gospel, but rather the Gospel could be understood by any person as it was God’s desire for every person to know Him and had written His Word in such a way that this could be accomplished by anyone desiring to know the truth (Breshears, nd). Perhaps the greatest gift that Luther gave to the Reformation Period was his work of putting the Word of God into the German language – the language of the common people – in his own land and for the first time in history, allowing every man, woman, child, family, and community the ability to read and understand God’s message (Breshears, nd). This act would be greatly rejected by the church, so much that it was viewed as an act of incompetence and danger placing Scripture into the hands of the unlearned laity. In contrast, however, it would finally provide the people with the Spiritual freedom they had needed (Breshears, nd).
Martin Luther’s rules for interpretation were quite simple, yet very foundational to the Christian faith and practice. Luther believed that the final authority of any interpretive measure rested in Scripture alone, and that Holy Scripture was all sufficient and without need for any further clarification or addition from the church, government, or mankind (Pentecost, 1974). This also extended to each individual passage, whereby Luther rightly contended that every passage has but one very clear and definite meaning, and that other ideas or applications drawn from that intended meaning is simply man’s opinion (Pentecost, 1974). This belief upheld the doctrine known as perspicuity of Scripture and in doing so, thereby greatly rejected allegorical interpretation as a valid tool and proclaimed it as heretical practice (Breshears, nd). Finally, Luther was perhaps one of the first to maintain the ability, privilege, and right of believers to make private judgment in line with doctrine of spiritual priesthood of all believers and apart from the need of oversight or explanation of the church (Pentecost, 1974). Martin Luther provided much fuel to the fires of the Reformation and helped bring a world out of Spiritual darkness.
John Calvin was also very instrumental in the Reformation. Calvin’s defense against allegorical interpretation was so strong that it was said that no one had produced such a stance in Philo’s method in over a thousand years (Pentecost, 1974). While Calvin, like Luther, believed in the Perspicuity of Scripture, he also maintained that such knowledge came with a deliberate and consistent attempt to study and draw from God’s Word that which God desired for mankind to know. He maintained that it was through the illumination by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer that helped to bring about this understanding, and that the church was to be used as a nurturing element of every believer through its use of sound biblical teachers (Breshears, nd). Calvin introduced the new exegesis known as grammatico-historical during this period which gave more credence to the Literal interpretation of Scripture. His method reaffirmed the thought that the original Bible authors indeed had one concise thought for a passage, which could be literal or figurative, but not both at the same time (Pentecost, 1974). He further stated that explanation of Scripture and application of Scripture are two separate actions, but the application of Scripture must always be in line with the explanation of the text (Pentecost, 1974). Calvin’s work would continue to be used to help influence a new generation of scholars and preachers over the next two centuries, of which the truth of Scripture and need for Literal interpretation would continue to grow and gain popularity.
The Reformers held a critical and most crucial place in history in relation to turning a world of darkness back towards proper interpretation of Scripture. Their work enabled the masses to once again begin viewing God’s Word as the supreme authority and without need of any additional aid or revision by the church, tradition, or other written works (Pentecost, 1974). The Roman Church would attack this progress in 1545 with the Council of Trent (Breshears, nd). The purpose of this council was to reaffirm the church and its sole authority of the interpretation and administration of Scripture. Those who wish to continue to promote interpretations outside of the church were deemed to be heretical and punishable under law (Breshears, nd). Well into the 17th century, Protestants and Catholics continued to debate this position. The foundational issues of the debate continued to be: Who has the supreme authority to interpret Scripture? What method should be used to interpret? And how does one handle the unresolved unclear portions of God’s Word (Breshears, nd)? Progress in the battle for religious freedom came very slow and with great assault from the opposing side.
Post-Reformation would continue to be a time of growing and establishing, once again, the literal interpretation of Scripture. Even the church and its attempt to silence the masses of their right to individual interpretation through laws and punishment was not enough to quench the desire for a man to know his God on a personal level through studying the written Word. There were great men during this period who also stepped forward to drive the continued success of this method. One of these men was John Augustus Ernesti, who proclaimed that the Bible must be interpreted with the same process and principles as any other book (Pentecost, 1974). His school taught based on these principles which did much to strengthen the stand for a literal method of interpretation. Ernesti also produced a work on New Testament interpretation wherein four principles were introduced that would become invaluable to the student: (1) only the literal sense of Scripture should be maintained; (2) allegorical and typological interpretations should be rejected except only in those cases where it is clear that the author intended for the passage to be interpreted in that light; (3) the Bible should always be interpreted just as any other literary piece would be; and (4) dogma cannot be used to arrive at a literal sense (Pentecost, 1974). Ernesti’s work would be a beacon of truth in the interpretation of Scripture in whose reach would extend into modern times (Ramm, 1970).
The Post-Reformation period did much to continue to return the people to a literal sense of exegesis that was began by the work of the Reformers such as Lutheran and Calvin. It must not be forgotten, however, that the origin of the literalistic approach to interpretation of Scripture began with Ezra many centuries before, but due to greed and a desire to control the people, the allegorical interpretive method was allowed to take traction and derail proper exegesis of Scripture for centuries. It is therefore necessary – if not absolutely mandatory – that the student of the Bible today maintains the strong literal hermeneutical approach to Scripture. The student of the Bible must guard against any attempt to be led down the road to allegorical interpretation that desires to spiritualize Scripture and bring people back into the bonds of having Scripture and doctrine mandated to them by heretical systems and teachers. Truth – absolute truth – is to be found within the pages of Holy Scripture and is available for all who wish to partake. God’s Word is not a spiritual gift that is hid for the few to know and understand, but rather a proclamation to the world to proclaim to every person how to have a personal relationship with Him. Scripture is not relegated to mystical sayings and hidden meanings that must be defined by scholars and those in power, but rather is simple enough that a young child can draw from its waters without fear of drowning and the old saint can dive into its depths and never reach its end. God’s Word is the source of life, redemption, and eternal abode. The message of Scripture should be understood and interpreted in the same light as its true Author- literally.
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Breshears, G. (nd). The Perspicuity of Scripture. Retrieved October 22, 2013, from Western Seminary: http://westernseminary.edu/papers/faculty/breshears/perspicuity.doc
Killian, G. (n.d.). The thirteen rules of Rabbi Ishmael. Retrieved September 2, 2013, from Betemunah: http://www.betemunah.org/rules.html
McMahon, M. (2013). Introduction to historical theology- The Patristic period. Retrieved September 2, 2013, from A Puritan Mind: http://www.apuritansmind.com/historical-theology/introduction-to-historical-theology-the-patristic-period-c-100-450/
Pentecost, D. J. (1974). Things To Come. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Ramm, B. (1970). Protestant Biblical Interpretation. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Cushing-Malloy, Inc.