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Historical Perspective of Biblical Interpretation
Historical perspective of biblical interpretation
It is often said that history informs people about the events of the past from which lessons can be learned and mistakes can be avoided. The reason for this article and a subsequent one (second part), is not only to examine the mass of chronicles on biblical interpretation, but also to trace its practice in Africa. In my attempt to explore the history of biblical interpretation, I will examine the principles of Jewish interpretation as a starting point. The period of the Church Fathers, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, Confessionalism and the modern era will also be examined.
The principles of Jewish interpretation
The roots of the Christian faith can be traced back to the Jews whom God chose to reveal to humanity. From the very beginnings of the faith, the Jews played a significant role in the compilation and interpretation of the sacred words of Yaweh. I will examine the roots of interpretation in the following categories:
The Palestinian Jews
This group of Jews considered the Scriptures to be the infallible word of God. This perception brought with it the need to be very careful to copy every letter of the Law, the Prophets or the Writings. They also numbered each letter to prevent them from getting lost in the transcription process.
Louise Berkhof observed that the Palestinian Jews paid a special emphasis on the interpretation of the Torah (Law) against the Prophets and the Writings. This was because the latter were interpretations of the former. Two types of interpretation emerged from his emphasis: The first was of a legal character that dealt with matters of binding laws in a strict sense known as Halakha; the second was an interpretation of a freer and more edifying tendency, covering all the non-legal parts of the Scriptures. This they called the Haggadah.
The Alexandrian Jews
In contrast to the Palestinian Jews, the Alexandrian Jews paid great attention to the philosophy of Plato in their interpretation of Scripture. They argued that one should not believe anything unworthy of God, thereby disregarding the literal sense of Scripture. Philo, the main giant of Alexandria, proposed the opinion that all the Scriptures should be understood allegorically. He maintained that the literal sense should be excluded when something declared is not worthy of God. On the other hand, the text is to be allegorized when the expressions are doubled; when superfluous words are used… when there is something abnormal in the number or the time.
Apart from these two schools of Jewish interpreters, there were also the Karaites who considered the Scriptures as the only authority in matters of faith; the Kabbalists who combined literal and allegorical methods of interpretation; and the Spanish Jews who employed the principles of language and exegesis in their interpretation.
Despite the apparent disparity in Hebrew interpretation mentioned above, Jewish interpreters found agreement on many common points. First, they believed in the divine inspiration of Scripture. Second, they affirmed that the Torah contains all of God’s truth for the guidance of mankind. Third, Jewish exegesis considered both the plain or literal meaning and the implied meaning in its interpretation of a written passage. Finally, they argue that the purpose of any interpretation is to translate the word of God into life, thus making it relevant for people in their particular situation.
The Patristic period
The patristic period that began with the early church that stretched for the compilation of creeds saw significant contributions to the history of biblical interpretation. Its history can be traced through three main schools examined below:
School of Alexandria:
The Egyptian city of Alexandria was at the beginning of the third century AD an important seat of learning, where the Jewish religion and Greek philosophy met and influenced each other. Always under the influence of Platonic philosophy, the catechetical school of Alexandria integrated philosophical analysis into biblical interpretation in its curriculum.
The main teacher in Alexandria, Titus Flavius Clement adopted the allegorical method of Philo and placed the motto of the Alexandrian school in the words “unless you believe, you will not understand”. the triple sense of Scripture: the Corporeal, Physical and Spiritual. Beyond these, Origin argued that all biblical texts have a spiritual sense, but not all have a literal sense. Therefore, if Scripture is to be interpreted, the soul must ascend from the level of the flesh to the realm of the spirit.
School of Antioch:
In contrast to the school of Alexandria, the school of Antioch placed a special emphasis on “Theory” (to see) as the basis for biblical interpretation. The scholars of Antioch, including the two greatest of all, Mopsuestia and Chrysostom, recognized a fine line that separated literal. , spiritual, historical and typological interpretation methods. He puts it well, “an event in Scripture had only one meaning – a meaning which to the trained eye of the ‘theoretical’ exegete was at once both literal and spiritual, historical and typological.”
The Western School:
The Western school supported by men like Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine was more eclectic in its methods of biblical interpretation. These giants tried to combine the allegorical method of Alexandria and the literal method of Antioch to project a balanced mixture of the two. They argue that taking only one meaning of Scripture betrays the historical background against which the message came.
The period of the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages period was most noted for the rise of ignorance that affected not only the laity, but also the clergy. It was a period that saw little or no contribution to the historical developments of biblical interpretation. In an attempt to curb this increased ignorance, the church instituted Augustine’s framework of biblical interpretation (Literal, Typological, Allegorical and Analogical). In order to interpret the biblical text, it had to adapt to the tradition and the doctrines of the church.
Perhaps the most remembered exponent of the Middle Ages is the archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langhan (1150-1228). His impression in biblical interpretation was his capitulation of the Bible in its present form. Although he preferred the spiritual sense to the literal sense of Scripture, but his interpretations were in line with the doctrines of the church.
Another contributor, Thomas Aquinas defended the literal sense as the basis for all other senses of Scripture. However, he reasoned that the interpreter must understand that the Bible also has symbolic meanings, since heavenly things cannot be put into earthly terms without using some form of symbolism.
The period of the Reformation
The period of the Reformation could not have received the work and meaning that it did if it had not been for the work of two men belonging to the period of the renaissance, Reuchlin and Erasmus, credited for their respective publication of texts Hebrews and Greeks. These texts provided the basis on which Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin based their theories of interpretation.
Martin Luther (1483-1546) the great reformer did a tremendous service to the German public by translating the Bible into their vernacular. Although he started with the allegorical method, Luther asked for the literary analysis of a text in biblical interpretation. Erasmus (1466-1519) found the priority of the literal sense.
John Calvin (1509-1564) the greatest exegete of the Reformation, more than anyone else developed the tendency towards the use of the grammatical-historical exegetical method as the basis for developing the spiritual message from the text. Because of their emphasis on a more complete sense located in the Christological meaning of Scripture, the reformers were linked with Jesus, the apostles and the early church.
The effect of the Reformation on Catholic exegesis is worth noting. Catholicism did not make exegetical progress during the Reformation period. Berkhof’s comment suffices to qualify Catholic opposition to Protestant exegesis:
They do not admit the right to private judgment and
defended as against the Protestants, the position
that the Bible must be interpreted in harmony with
To make this direct opposition against the right to private judgment in the interpretation of Scripture a reality, the Council of Trent was convened and the following resolutions were adopted:
(a) that the authority of ecclesiastical traditions must be maintained
(b) that the highest authority was to be assigned to the Vulgate, and
(c) that it is necessary to conform its interpretation to the authorities
of the church and with the unanimous consent of the Fathers.
It must be stressed that a historical perspective on interpretation is a non-negotiable factor in biblical interpretation. Christianity is a Judeo-Christian faith. Since “one cannot understand the Christian faith unless it is believed”, the documents of the Christian faith must be initially studied, understood and considered authoritative before they can be interpreted for the community of faith.
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