An Overview of the History of Interpretation (Part 1)

This is a revision of a series I wrote some years back.

The history of the interpretation of the Bible is a long and involved one. For many centuries some have approached the Scriptures supposing that they should be interpreted literally whenever possible. Others have believed that one ought to look deeper than the surface meaning to find its true spiritual center. Still others have believed that the Old and (to a lesser extent) the New Testament is opened up by means of three or four hermeneutical strategies. Today, the amount of interpretative proposals for various parts of Scripture is dizzying.

In this article I shall try to review the main schools of interpretation throughout the history of the Church. But we’re going to start off where I intend to end: with the Bible’s own witness.

1. Pointers within the Bible.

If we take certain statements in the Bible itself as our guide, it will help us to see how the Holy Spirit wants us to interpret His Word. For example, Isaiah wrote,

To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isa.8:20).

What is important about this verse is that it implies a standard by which false teaching can be measured. For that standard to have any credence it has to be stable and clear. The prophet’s reference to “the law and the testimony” (cf.v.16) implies that the whole Old Testament is to be viewed as possessing this stable character. Taking a different example, in the opening lines of the Book of Ezra we read,

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying: 2 “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. (Ez. 1:1-2)

A simple passage like this presupposes a lot. For one thing it assumes that what God said to Jeremiah could be easily verified by Ezra. It only follows from this that if Jeremiah’s prediction of a return from exile after 70 years had not actually come to pass the rest of the Book of Ezra would have never been written. In the Law the test of a true prophet was whether what he said came true (See Deut. 18:22). For that to be a reliable benchmark the fulfillment would have to match the wording of the original prophecy literally. If this were not the case then anyone could spiritualize the prophecy and claim its fulfillment, no matter what the original wording said.

In John 21:21-23 the Evangelist seems to want to make a point that what God says must be grasped before we can correctly interpret. Thus, we think there is scriptural warrant for stable and plain hermeneutics. The anchor-points for this hermeneutics are God-given and are themselves clearer than perhaps anything else in the Bible. These are the Covenants which God Himself has made with men. But this is something we shall have to return to.

2. The First Two Centuries of the Early Church.

Before anything else is said, we must stress that the Post-Apostolic church was not inspired and should not be looked upon as authoritative in matters of interpretation. However, their use of Scripture is often instructional.

We cannot understand the church of the second and third centuries without knowing something about the difficulties which these early Christians encountered. On the one hand there was the very real threat of persecution from a Roman state not at all sympathetic to the beliefs and aims of these people. And on the other hand there was the persistent problem of heresy, which dogged the early church. These two major issues both played their parts in the formulations of hermeneutics. As a defense against the polemics of the influential anti-Christian Roman writers, such as Pliny the Younger, Menander, Celsus, and Porphyry, believers had to produce apologies that could address them, and in particular, their attacks upon the Old Testament, and their misunderstanding of the Christian God.

But alongside this the Christians had to respond to the rise of Gnosticism and the proliferation of Gnostic writings. To cite two examples, Valentinus (born, c.A.D. 100) was an extremely effective communicator who was perhaps even on the verge of becoming a bishop before his heresies were discovered. It was his followers who first composed commentaries on New Testament books. Second, Marcion (active ca. A.D.140-155) taught that the Old Testament was useless as a Christian document. He also severely edited the New Testament, producing one in which only Paul’s epistles were included, together with a condensed version of Luke’s Gospel, carefully purged of any Jewish “contamination.” All the Gnostics held that the God of the Old Testament was another lesser deity than the God of the New.

This then, was the kind of pressure that was being applied to these early saints and their Scriptures. It is hardly surprising then, that the most prominent Christians of the second century were apologists. The main three were Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100-163), a converted Platonist who was the first to use the term “Israel” to describe the Church (A.D. 160). Then there was Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-200), Bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern day France), who wrote extensively against the heretics, produced the first formulation for biblical interpretation: the so-called “Rule of Faith.” This formulation was really a short statement of doctrine. Irenaeus believed that a Trinitarian meaning attached to both Testaments. This Trinitarian schema was observed in the apostolic witness, which, in turn, placed an emphasis upon the Christological interpretation of the whole Bible.

Hence, the Rule of Faith gave a kind of unity to the Church. Consequently, any interpretation which did not measure up to this Rule of Faith (such as the teachings of the Gnostics) could be rejected as contrary to the preaching of the Apostles. The Rule of Faith also made the interpretation of the Bible a province of the Church, and so, of Church tradition. But Irenaeus also promoted non-literal interpretations. In the midst of dealing with heretical teachings he allowed for hidden meanings in some passages of the Bible. As one writer puts it:

“…the early Christians acknowledged that their claim to the Christian meaning of the Jewish Scriptures [i.e. the OT] was less a matter of what these documents said, and more a matter of how they were to be read…For passages obviously commensurate with the Rule of Faith, the reading would be literal (with allowance for genre distinctions and figurative expressions) whereas, for passages that required a second reading to agree with apostolic teaching, that second reading would be figurative.” – William Yarchin, History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader, xviii.

One may notice how already the assumed doctrines protected by the Rule of Faith begin to authorize the kind of interpretations deemed acceptable. This side-effect would have serious repercussions later on.

It is worth noticing that all the early fathers of the Church were premillennial in their eschatology. Nevertheless, they also tended to drift to and fro between literal or face value interpretations and spiritual interpretations.  This was clearly the case with the third prominent writer, Origen (born 184/5).

Roy Zuck notes that, “From these early church fathers it is obvious that while they started out well, they were soon influenced by allegorizing.” Owing especially to Origen’s influence (he wrote commentaries on many books of Scripture), this form of interpretation became the dominant one from the middle of the second century until the Reformation in the sixteenth century. It would therefore be helpful to review this phenomenon before examining the major figures of Jerome and Augustine.

To be continued…

1 thought on “An Overview of the History of Interpretation (Part 1)”

  1. the two proof-texts you gave at the beginning were helpful. I wonder if you could make a list of all the similar passages. One that immediately comes to mind is Ezekiel 20:48. and also i suppose Jeremiah 34, where God expects Zedekiah to keep to his “plain-sense” promise.

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