Today’s entry continues the Worldview Lens Series: The entry is long but includes section breaks: It might be helpful to read one section at a time.
Read this entry slowly and carefully. It is an excellent introduction to the Art of Interpreting Scripture.
For emphasis, I have included italics, boldface, and underlining. I have included “Terms and Definitions.”
Written Down to Instruct Us: Interpreting Scripture
by The Rev. Dr. Michael Petty, St. Peter’s Anglican Church
In I Corinthians 10:1-5, Paul makes reference to Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea, the fact that Israel was sustained by miraculous water in the wilderness, and the fact that, while in the wilderness, most of Israel was not faithful to God. The result of this was that “they were struck down in the wilderness” [I Corinthians 10:5]. Paul presents this whole narrative to the Corinthians church as a warning against taking God’s grace and mercies lightly. He makes this clear, when he says that these events “were written down to instruct us.” [I Corinthians 10:11] The significant point made here is absolutely crucial: Scripture speaks to God’s people, across time.
[There are] two cardinal points with respect to the interpretation of Scripture:
First, we do not begin to truly interpret Scripture, until we allow Scripture to interpret us. If we are asking all the questions, we are not really interpreting it.
Second, in reading Scripture, we are not simply reading ancient religious literature but God is addressing us.
Interpreting Scripture: Modern Prejudices
- The common perception that the business of biblical interpretation is essentially a war between “fundamentalists” and “liberals” is a mistaken one. This view is too simplistic. The real conflict, which takes place as several different [conflicts] simultaneously, is between those who believe that the witness of Scripture is irreplaceable, unsurpassable, and contains the soul of the Christian faith, and those who see Scripture as simply a historically conditioned, human document, which may be set aside at will . . .
- The popular view, held by those unfamiliar with the history of biblical interpretation, that the Bible can be interpreted to mean whatever an interpreter wants it to mean, is manifestly false. If Scripture can be interpreted to mean anything, the consequence is that the Christian faith collapses into meaninglessness.
- The view that “modern people” [by which we usually mean ourselves] are so much better equipped to interpret Scripture than [were] past generations of Christians is simply a conceit. It is quite clear that our scientific and technical education has not brought us to a depth of scriptural understanding which surpasses all previous generations. One need only look at the quality of modern preaching to see this: The sermons of St. Augustine, in the fifth century, and the sermons of John Wesley, in the eighteenth, which were all preached to ordinary Christians, reflect deeply on scriptural texts, in ways that are often beyond the average Christian today. Yet, St. Augustine and Wesley were popular preachers.
- With respect to the interpretation of Scripture, [many denominations/churches] suffer from a defect, one that is potentially fatal: On the one hand, we profess that Scripture is our ultimate authority. [Article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion says that “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.”] On the other hand, we have no commonly-recognized way for adjudicating among differing interpretations of Scripture or any real way of articulating normative interpretations. This means that our claim about Scripture being our ultimate authority is a largely formal one, which has little actual application to our life as a church.
Interpreting Scripture: Some Historical Perspective
When considering the practice of biblical interpretation, it is important to have some historical perspective. In particular, we need to mention four points:
1. It is important to remember that the Christian faith began with the interpretation of Scripture. For early Christians like Paul, whose letters are the earliest New Testament documents, the Old Testament was not old but simply Scripture [as in 2 Timothy 3:16]. For Paul, the Old Testament is not simply a collection of stories or moral rules but contains God’s designs and promises for his people [Romans 1:1-2], all of which are fulfilled in Jesus Christ [2 Corinthians 1:20]. It is not simply that the Old Testament serves as a good introduction to the New Testament: Rather, without the Old Testament, the New Testament would not exist.
An example might be helpful: The first Christians labored to understand the nature and meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. Of course, they looked at the cross in the light of the resurrection but they understood both by interpreting the Old Testament. In Romans 3:23-25, Paul is doing just this. He describes Jesus as the one “whom God put forward as an expiation of his blood.” The word translated as expiation or atonement is the Greek work, hilastrion. Paul is clearly referring to Leviticus 16:2 and the Day of Atonement liturgy, in which the high priest makes atonement or expiation for the sins of Israel, by sprinkling sacrificial blood on the hilastrion or “mercy seat,” the gold lid on the Ark of the Covenant. Paul understands that the Day of Atonement finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The same line of thinking is present in Hebrews 9-10. The Old Testament provides the matrix, in which Jesus is interpreted.
2. The fact that the early Christians accepted the Old Testament as Scripture meant that, from the beginning, the so-called “lost gospels,” or Gnostic gospels, could never be accepted as Christian scripture, since these so-called “gospels” were composed by heretical Christian groups, which completely rejected the Old Testament. The acceptance of the Old Testament as Scripture ruled out, from the beginning, all the Gnostic gospels. As a matter of fact, no writings produced after 150 AD were even considered for inclusion into the canon of Scripture.
3. It is important to remember that the Church has been interpreting Scripture for some 2000 years and, in this time, has learned something. One of the central problems of the modern Church is that, through ignorance and intellectual sloth, we have cut ourselves off from what has been learned. The Church, as from the beginning, applied two cardinal principles to the interpretation of Scripture.
a. We must always interpret particular passages of Scripture in the light of the whole Scripture. What this has meant is that the Old Testament has been interpreted in the light of the New Testament. The whole of Scripture – Old Testament and New Testament – constitutes a two-testament witness to the one God. The strength of any interpretation lies in its ability to make sense of Scripture as a unified whole.
b. We must always interpret passages of Scripture in the light of the Church’s rule of faith, expressed in the ecumenical creeds [The Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds]. We do not read Scripture as we would an encyclopedia [as a neutral source of information] nor do we read Scripture as something whose meaning is determined by the reader. We read Scripture in the context of the faith, articulated by the Church.
4. What is now called fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon, being essentially a product of the nineteenth century. It emerged out of the modern context, in which truth was equated with factual information. Fundamentalism adopted a flattening approach to Scripture, which was really quite new and this resulted in interpretations, which were, surprising though this may sound, rationalistic in nature. Fundamentalism is a product of the modern world and was one of the many signs that the modern Church had lost touch with its past with respect to the interpretation of Scripture. The other product of the modern world, Christian liberalism, was equally flawed. It adopted a way of interpreting Scripture, which was just as flattening as that of fundamentalism, though it was seen as being more congenial to people who considered themselves enlightened. Both fundamentalism and liberalism are failed methods of biblical interpretation because both decide, in advance, what Scripture can and cannot say.
Christian interpretation of Scripture has always, until recently, recognized that the Bible has many senses and that the art of reading Scripture consists in allowing it to speak from the depth of its riches.
Traditionally understood, Scripture has been seen as having four senses:
a. The literal sense: The plain sense of what the text actually says, as discerned by sound methods of interpretation. St. Thomas Aquinas thought that this sense was the most important. To talk about the literal sense of Scripture meant that it had a meaning, which was not simply dependent on the reader.
b. The allegorical sense: Some things in Scripture are signs and types of realities in other parts of Scripture. Scripture contains some truths, which must be understood allegorically. Example: Romans 5:12-21.
c. The moral sense: Some passages of Scripture must/can be read as offering guidance in holy living. Example: 1 Corinthians 10.
d. The anagogical sense: Some passages of Scripture hold before us our eternal destiny, which is absolutely necessary to our earthly pilgrimage. Example: Hebrews 12:18-29.
It is important to note that, for the best Christian interpreters of Scripture, the allegorical, moral, and anagogical sense of Scripture never existed apart from or in conflict with the literal sense. The four senses of Scripture remind us that the goal of Christian interpretation has been to plumb the depths of Scripture and to present the meaning of Scripture in its entire splendor. This [approach] contrasts markedly with much of modern interpretation, especially the interpretation in liberal Protestantism, which seems to focus on getting as little out of Scripture as possible or, even, inoculating us against it. Something is clearly very wrong. As Pope Benedict XVI [then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger] noted in his now famous 1988 Erasmus Lecture, the crisis in Biblical interpretation is really a crisis in the faith of the Church.
Interpreting Scripture: Three Examples:
One of the most important methods of biblical interpretation is called intertextual interpretation. This method involves paying attention to the ways in which one text of Scripture interprets another. I want to offer three examples of intertextual interpretation and to show why each is significant. I will focus on one theme, the New Testament interpretation of the most important event in the Old Testament, the Exodus. The Exodus is a complex of three events–Passover, Red Sea crossing, and Sinai covenant—and these events constitute the soul of the Old Testament.
1. “Our God is a consuming fire.” [Hebrews 12:18-29]: This text offers a Christian interpretation of Israel’s experience at Mt. Sinai, in Exodus 19:12-22; 20:18-21 [cf. Deuteronomy 4:11-12, 5:22-27]. The experience of Israel becomes the matrix, within which Christians can understand their own experience. In Jesus Christ, Christians have not simply come to Mt. Sinai, awesome and important as it is. No, in Jesus Christ, God’s new covenant people, defined no longer by circumcision and Passover, but by Baptism and Eucharist, have come to the city of God, “the heavenly Jerusalem” [12:22]. But note this: While Christians have come to the heavenly Jerusalem, they have also come into the presence of the same God, Who met Israel on Mt. Sinai. It is not that Mt. Sinai reveals a God Who is awesome, demanding, and who gives his law to his people to form them in holiness, while Jesus reveals a God who is friendly, undemanding, and who just wants us to be nice. No, for indeed, our God is a consuming fire [12:29]. God revealed Himself on Mt. Sinai as a consuming fire and remains such, in Jesus Christ. Those who trifle with God’s grace, who sit loose to His Word, who neglect His holiness, do so to their own eternal peril. From Jerusalem to New Jerusalem, from Mt. Sinai to Golgotha, God is and remains a consuming fire. Those who do not take God’s holiness seriously simply cannot understand Scripture.
2. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” [1 Corinthians 5:7]: In response to widespread immorality in the Corinthian church, Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians, to make a fundamental point: that the Corinthians have failed to understand what it means to be the church. To make this point, Paul interprets the Old Testament, specifically Exodus 12:15-20, which gives instructions for the celebration of the Passover. During the seven days of Passover, Israel was to eat unleavened bread and all leaven had to be removed from homes. Anyone who ate leavened bread or whose home had leaven in it was disqualified from keeping Passover. The removal of leaven was seen as a sign of purity and Leviticus 2:11-16 forbids Israel from offering to God anything with leaven in it.
Paul takes all of this and transposes it into a Christian context. He reads leaven as moral impurity, Israel celebrating the Passover as the Church celebrating the Eucharist and the Passover Lamb as Christ. For Paul, therefore, moral impurity is completely inappropriate to the Church, not because this violates a few rules but because it violates the very essence of what the Church is. Paul uses the Old Testament to make it clear that Christian morality is not simply a matter of individual conduct but a matter of what is appropriate to God’s holy, covenant people. To fail to see that the Christian life is essentially about holiness in all dimensions of life is to fail to completely understand God, the Church, and Christ.
3. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48]: The Sermon on the Mount occupies Matthew 5-7. It has often been misunderstood. The most common misunderstanding of it today takes the form of supposing that Jesus came to replace all the hard demands of the Old Testament with easier ones. Thus, we frequently hear that the essence of Jesus’ teaching is that we should be loving and non-judgmental. But, listen to what Jesus Himself says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill . . . For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” [Matthew 5:17, 20]
After this, Jesus then reinterprets key commandments of the law. The prohibition against murder in Exodus 20:13 becomes a prohibition against anger. The prohibition against adultery in Exodus 20:14 becomes a general prohibition against lust. The “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” of Exodus 21:23-24, intended to limit revenge, becomes a command to completely forswear revenge. The thing to notice here is that, whenever Jesus interprets the Old Testament, he does not interpret it away but interprets it so as to make it more demanding, not less so. Jesus has not come to free us from God’s demands or to lead us into the sunny uplands of either liberal Christianity or Christian America: He has come to bring the holiness of God to bear upon every aspect of our lives. Lest anyone fail to understand what Jesus is driving at, He states his message quite bluntly:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48]
I close with an analogy from John Henry Newman: A church which is conformed to upper middle class American consumer culture, a church which is skeptical of Scripture but credulous about itself can no more make proper judgments about Scripture than can a blind person make judgments about shades of color.
Terms & Definitions [from InterVarsity Press Handbook of Theological Terms, unless otherwise noted.]
[Note: Compiled by Margot Payne.]
Expression, by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions, of truths or generalizations about human existence; a symbolic representation. [Webster’s].
A story in which the details correspond to or reveal a “hidden,” “higher,” or “deeper” meaning.
Method of biblical interpretation [which] assumes that biblical stories should be interpreted by seeking the “spiritual” meaning to which the literal sense points.
Greek: a “climb” or “ascent” upward. “Leading above” when by a visible act an invisible is declared. A method of interpretation of literal statements or events, especially Scripture. [Wikipedia]
Interpretation of a word, passage, or text, that finds beyond the literal, allegorical, and moral sense, a fourth and ultimate spiritual or mystic sense. [Webster’s]
Analogy of Faith:
A principle of interpretation that suggests that clearer passages of Scripture should be used to interpret more obscure or difficult passages.
For Augustine, the analogy of faith requires that Scripture never be interpreted in such way that it violates the church’s summary of Christian faith [i.e., The Apostle’s Creed].
For Luther, Christ is the analogy of faith, so that Scripture needs always to be interpreted as testifying to Christ.
For Calvin, the analogy of faith assumes that, because the Spirit oversaw its writing, Scripture and the Spirit together interpret other parts of Scripture.
Literally, “drawing meaning out of” and “reading meaning into,” respectively.
Exegesis is the process of seeking to understand what a text means or communicates on its own.
Eisegesis is generally a derogatory term, used to designate the practice of imposing a preconceived or foreign meaning onto a text, even if that meaning could not have been originally intended at the time of its writing.
The discipline that studies the principles and theories of how texts ought to be interpreted, particularly Sacred texts, such as the Scriptures.
Hermeneutics also concerns itself with understanding the unique roles and relationships between the author, the text, and the original or subsequent readers.
Literal or Historical:
A strict adherence to the exact word or meaning, either in interpretation or translation, of the Biblical text.
Attempts to understand the author’s intent by pursuing the most plain, obvious meaning of the text, as judged by the interpreter.
In translation, the attempt is made to convey with utmost accuracy, through the words of another language, the actual meaning of the biblical text.
Moral or Ethical:
The area of philosophical and theological inquiry into what constitutes right and wrong, that is, morality, as well as what is the good and the good life. Ethics seeks to provide insight, principles, or even a system or guidance in the quest of the good life or in acting rightly, in either general or specific situations of life.
Broadly speaking, ethical systems are either deontological [seeking to guide behavior through establishment or discovery of what is intrinsically right and wrong] or teleological [seeking to guide behavior through an understanding of the outcomes or ends that ethical decisions and behavior bring about.]
An interest or concern for matters of the “spirit,” in contrast to the mere interest and focus on the material. Christian spirituality, as expressed through participation in certain Christian practices, such as Bible study, prayer, worship, and so forth.
Differing from a symbol or an allegory, a typology is a representation of an actual, historical reference. According to Christian exegesis, biblical typology deals with the parallels between actual, historical [usually OT] figures or events in salvation history and their later, analogous fulfillment. Often NT events and figures are typologically understood and interpreted according to an OT pattern [e.g., Creation and New Creation, Adam and Christ, the Exodus and NT concepts of Salvation.] On this basis, typology became one of the four prevalent ways [together with the literal, the analogical, and the spiritual] of interpreting Scripture in the Middle Ages.