Lessons from the Past

Milton Terry:

“A knowledge of the history of biblical interpretation is of inestimable value to the student of the Holy Scriptures. It serves to guard against errors and exhibits the activity and efforts of the human mind in its search after truth and in relation to noblest themes. It shows what influences have led to the misunderstanding of God’s Word, and how acute minds, carried away by a misconception of the nature of the Bible, have sought mystic and manifold meanings in its content.” source

Time does not permit the review of every interpreter of Scripture.  We will organize into schools and trace the major tendencies.

Allegorical Schools

The allegorical approach assumes that Scripture speaks in extended metaphors.  The real and obvious meaning is treated point by point as representing another reality.  Allegorical interpretation supposes that the real meaning of a passage is beneath the surface.  Compare Bunyan’s, Holy War or Pilgrim’s Progress, obviously intended allegories.  This assumption inevitably leads to a form of Gnosticism, allotting to the elite interpreter the powers of fabricating meaning.  Historically, allegory began in the Greek school.

Greek Allegorism

In the last few centuries BC, Greek scholars, such as Theogenes of Phedium (520 BC), and Stoics such as Chaeremon and Cleanthes interpreted their classic texts, Homer and Hesiod, by means of allegory.  They distinguished between the letter (rhete) or obvious (phanera) and the real and spiritual sense (hyponoia).  They were concerned with deeper philosophical and ethical things than the mythological tradition handed to them.  Conveniently, they interpreted these classics as to change their original character and intent.  The allegorical method became very wide-spread throughout the Mediterranean, and made its way into other cultural and religious traditions, including Judaism.

Jewish Allegorism

Particularly in Alexandria, Jewish scholars intermingled with Greeks who practiced the allegorical method.  A pioneer of Jewish allegorism was Aristobolus (ca. 160 BC).  He became impressed with Greek cosmology and morality, as well as the allegorical method.  He came to the supposition that Greek philosophy had borrowed from the OT, especially Moses.  He adopted the allegorical method to find the principles of Greek philosophy in the OT and prophets.  The Letter of Aristeas, written in Alexandria around 100 BC, illustrates this practice.  It indicates that the dietary laws were to teach discrimination necessary to obtain virtue.  For example, the chewing of the cud by some animals signifies reminiscing on life and existence.

The most famous Jewish allegorist was Philo (ca 20BC-54AD), not surprisingly from Alexandria.  He viewed the Torah as having been dictated directly by God.  He reconciled its teaching with that of Greek philosophy by elaborate allegory.  The literal meaning was not useless, but it was immature.  It was the body of Scripture, whereas the allegorical sense was the soul.  Note the following principles Philo practiced:

a)  grammatical and stylistic peculiarities are hints of deeper spiritual truth.  When it is written that Adam hid himself from the God, this must be an allegory, since God sees all things.

b) manipulation of words brought out deeper truth;

c)  symbols and etymology of names are gateways into whole complexes of allegory;

d)  many natural objects signify spiritual things (heaven the mind, earth the sense).

For example, here are Philo’s comments on the garden of Eden:

“In these words Moses intends to sketch out the particular virtues And they also are four in number: prudence, temperance, courage, and justice.  Now the greatest river from which the four branches flow off is generic virtue which we have already called goodness and the four branches are the same number of virtues. Generic virtue therefore derives its beginning from Eden which is the wisdom of God which rejoices and excite and triumphs being delighted at and honored on account of nothing else except its Father God And the four particular virtues are branches from the generic virtue which like a river waters all the good actions of each with an abundant stream of benefits.” source

Elsewhere, Philo identifies Abraham’s journey to Palestine as the journey of a philosopher who leaves Chaldea (sensual understanding, stops at Haran (“holes”) – signifying the emptiness (holes) of knowing things by senses, to real enlightenment, signified by Palestine.  Jacob resting on the stone at Bethel signifies the self-discipline of the soul.

Christian Allegorism

The practice of allegory crept into the church already in the second century AD.  The so-called Epistle of Barnabas illustrates this.  For example, the 318 servants of Abraham (Gen. 14:14) represent Christ.  The Greek t stands for 300 and represents a cross.  I and e represent 10 and 8 respectively, and spell the first two letters of the name Jesus.  The practice of seeing significance in numbers if called gematria.  Psalm 1:3 speaks of the cross and baptism.  more

However, the widespread acceptance of allegory by many in the Christian church cannot properly be understood without reviewing the negative legacy of Marcion and the Gnostics.


Around the middle of the second century, a prominent figure originally from Pontus, Marcion, rejected the Jewish Scriptures as the work of a wrathful, vicious, evil God, opposed to the God of love proclaimed by Jesus and revealed to Paul.  He established his own reduced canon, comprising ten Pauline epistles and the gospel of Luke, supposedly, the only gospel “purged of Jewish contamination.” Marcion’s heresy was condemned by the early Church.  Nevertheless, Marcion’s sentiment lived on in a qualified form.  Many found allegory a convenient way to transpose the “offensive” character of the OT.

Justin Martyr of Samaria (ca 100-164) took Leah as the Jews, Rachel as the church, and Jacob as Christ who serves both.  Aaron and Hur’s holding up the arms of Moses represents the cross.  more

The Gnostics

The Gnostics took allegory to the point at which it was simply philosophical construction and no longer even the appearance of interpretation.    Valentinus (died ca. 160-175), was one of the founders of the Gnostic school.  By means of allegory, he set forth the idea of emanation from the “divine depths.”  There are at least thirty aeons, arranged in fifteen pairs with different names.  There is the aeon of thought also called grace or silence;  then mind, or “the only begotten” or truth, then word or life;  then man or church.  There is the aeon of wisdom, which played an essential role in the process of the creation of the physical world by “ignorance” or “error.”  Creation and Fall is fused together, by the postulation of the “fall of wisdom.”  The aeons of Christ and the Spirit become necessary to bring everything back into harmony.  In Christ, through knowledge, the passions are separated and become the elements of the creation of the cosmos  (etc., etc.).  This heresy was essentially pagan philosophy, and was therefore vehemently combated by the orthodox.  However, such men as Iraeneus used less excessive forms of allegory to combat Gnosticism, rather than dispense with allegory altogether. Iraeneus (130-202 AD) in fact stressed the natural sense of Scripture.  He charged the Gnostics with neglecting the order and context of Scripture passages and interpreting the clear with the obscure.  He also emphasized the rule of faith and tradition flowing from apostolic succession (elders). “To know nothing against the Rule of Faith means to have all science.”  Nevertheless, Tertullian’s use of typology frequently lapsed into allegory.  He determined that the three (!) spies hidden by Rahab were types of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Tertullian likewise faulted the Gnostics for their excess.  The answer to heresy “is the rule of faith,” that is the teachings of orthodoxy in the church.  Yet, he too ventured into allegory, indicating that Gen. 1:2 referred to baptism, the twelve wells of Elim, the twelve apostles.  Note the continued apologetic use of allegory as well as the emphasis on church leadership and tradition.

The Alexandrian School

It was Clement of Alexandria and Origen who institutionalized the allegorical method as it would be practiced throughout the Middle Ages. Clement of Alexandria (155-216) found five meanings to a passage of Scripture.  The historical, doctrinal, prophetic, the philosophical, and the mystical.  His disciple, Origen (ca. 185-254 AD), excelled Clement in learning and influence.  He reduced the five meanings of Clement to three – a literal, a moral, and allegorical – and defended this tripartite with a reference to 1 Thess. 5:23, though in reality he stressed only two, the literal and the spiritual.  The donkey upon which Christ entered Jerusalem represented the OT, the colt, the New Testament, and the two apostles the moral and mystic senses of Christ.  The Alexandrian school had considerably influence, even on erudite and orthodox men, such as Jerome and Augustine.

Jerome and Augustine

Jerome was a very learned biblical scholar and learned much from the Hebrew language and the Jews; yet he was influenced in his interpretation by the Alexandrian school, especially at first.  Later he retreated somewhat from the allegorical tradition under the influence of the Antiochian school.

We are indebted to Augustine for two important insights.  The first is the distinction between a thing and a sign.  He emphasized the role of language or semantics.  He notes the distinction between precepts and signs, that is natural objects (wood, metal) and signs (a tree may signify forestry service).

Chapter 2.—What a Thing Is, and What A Sign.

All instruction is either about things or about signs; but things are learnt by means of signs. I now use the word “thing” in a strict sense, to signify that which is never employed as a sign of anything else: for example, wood, stone, cattle, and other things of that kind. Not, however, the wood which we read Moses cast into the bitter waters to make them sweet, nor the stone which Jacob used as a pillow, nor the ram which Abraham offered up instead of his son; for these, though they are things, are also signs of other things. There are signs of another kind, those which are never employed except as signs: for example, words. No one uses words except as signs of something else; and hence may be understood what I call signs: those things, to wit, which are used to indicate something else. Accordingly, every sign is also a thing; for what is not a thing is nothing at all. Everything, however, is not also a sign. And so, in regard to this distinction between things and signs, I shall, when I speak of things, speak in such a way that even if some of them may be used as signs also, that will not interfere with the division of the subject according to which I am to discuss things first and signs afterwards. But we must carefully remember that what we have now to consider about things is what they are in themselves, not what other things they are signs of.  source

He defines a sign as “a thing which apart from the impression that it presents to the senses, causes of itself some other thing to enter our thoughts.” These signs may be conventional or natural.  Smoke is a natural sign of fire.  Conventional signs are those which living creatures give to each other. The Spirit is referred to by the word “wind”.  “wind” here is a sign.

Secondly, Augustine formulate the helpful rule:  Distinguish the times and you harmonize the Scriptures.  This is essentially the principle of the progressive character of revelation.  Polygamy conflicts with monogamy only if we fail to note the difference in time.

Notwithstanding these critical insights, Augustine lapsed into many allegorical interpretation by a misinterpretation of 2 Cor. 3:6.  He interpreted Noah’s drunkenness as representative of Christ’s suffering.

Catholic Allegorism

The preponderance of exegetical work in the Middle Ages was allegorical.  The Middle Ages codified the legitimacy and place of allegory in its fourfold sense or so-called quadriga.  It was classically formulated by John Cassian (360-435 AD):

Littera gesta docet (the letter teaches events);

Quid credas allegoria (allegory what you believe);

Moralis quid agas (morality what you do);

Quo tendas anagogia (anagogy whereunto you are heading).

Thus Jerusalem signifies the city of the Jews, the church of Christ, the human soul, and the heavenly city.  A popular format of biblical interpretation during the Middle Ages were catena (a chain of interpretation), pieced together from the commentaries of the church fathers.  This shows the increasing weight of tradition.  In addition, the Catholic church became the official custodian of Scripture.  Scripture, in turn was read under the epigenetic principle, or principle of development.  The doctrines of the NT are “seeds” which grow and develop into what the Catholic church teaches.

In conclusion, then, a method bequeathed by Greek philosophy made significant inroads into the Christian church, and while long abandoned by philosophers, it found and still finds widespread use in the Christian churches, not only of Roman name, but on many Protestant pulpits and homes.  Thankfully, the true interpretation of Scripture, as set forth in Scripture, and practiced by the apostles, has echoed down the halls of history as well. Before we turn to it methodologically, we will note its presence historically.

Literal Schools

The literal method can be defined as the approach of interpretation that accepts the literal sense of Scripture as the only true meaning of Scripture, unless the nature of the sentence of phrase or clause within the sentence compels otherwise.  For example, figures of speech, parables, etc. do not admit of a literal interpretation.

Ramm: “The spirit of literal interpretation is that we should be satisfied with the literal meaning of a text unless very substantial reasons can be given for advancing beyond the literal meaning, and when canons of control are supplied” (Prot. Biblical Interp. 45).

In my estimation, the authority for this method is in Scripture itself, but since we are looking at interpretation through the centuries, we will first survey its practice in the post-apostolic period, with a brief background in Judaism.

Jewish Schools

As we saw earlier, some Jewish interpreters and schools of interpretation dabbled with or embraced allegorism.  However, others set forth a number of sound principles of exegesis belonging to the literal approach to interpretation.  Ramm summarizes a few of these rules:

Words and sentences must be understood in terms of their context;

The teaching of Scripture elsewhere on the same subject matter should be compared;

Clear passages should illumine obscure passages rather than vice-versa;

Close attention should be paid to grammar and figures of speech.

Antiochian Schools

Ramm:  “It has been said that the first “Protestant” school of hermeneutics flourished in the city of Antioch of Syria, and had it not been crushed by the hand of “orthodoxy” for its supposed heretical connections with the Nestorians, the entire course of Church history might have been different.”  Representatives of this Syrian school, which centered in Antioch were Lucian, Dorotheus, Diodorus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Chrysostom.  This school resisted Origen as the inventor of the allegorical method.  At times its representatives would lapse into occasional allegory;  yet they staunchly defended, and usually practiced a literal and historical exegesis.  Diodorus wrote a book entitled, What is the Difference between theory and allegory?  He took theory to mean the genuine meaning of the text.  He distinguished between plain-literal and figurative-literal.  An example of the latter would be “The eye of the Lord is upon thee.”  They insisted on the historicity of Old Testament events.  Instead of allegory, they practice a reserved type of typology.  Essentially, the difference between the two was that allegorist sees the spiritual meaning floating above the historical, whereas the typologist sees it inherent in the historical.  Theodore wrote a book entitled, On Allegory and History against Origen.  In it he asked:  “If Adam were not really Adam, how did death enter the human race?”  Also, they admitted the progression of revelation.  The allegorist might find something far richer about Christ in Genesis than in Luke.  This school produced some of the finest exegetical work of the ancient church. Chrysostom (354-407), archbishop of Constantinople wrote published more than 600 homilies, containing 7000 quotations from the OT and 11,000 from the NT.  Theodoret (385-458) wrote commentaries on most of the Old Testament books, and Paul.  His comments, according to M. Terry, are “among the best specimens of ancient exegesis.”

The Victorines

During the Medieval period a strong historical and literal emphasis existed in the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris.  Some of the names associated with this school were Hugo of  St. Victor (1097-1141), Richard of St. Victor (died 1173), Andrew of St. Victor (died 1175).  There were friendly relations between the Victorines and Jews and their interactions led to a more literal focus in interpretation.  The Victorines believed that whatever place allegory had, doctrine had to be placed on the literal meaning of the text, that is the meaning as it arises from the syntax and grammar of the text.  Andrew disagreed with Jerome that the first part of Jeremiah 1:5 refers to Jeremiah and the last part to Paul.  Andrew wrote: “What bearing does this  have on Paul?”  Nicholas of Lyra (1279-1340) also stressed the literal sense.  Though he accepted the fourfold sense, he had little regard for anything but the literal.  His commentaries were influential upon Luther.

The Reformers

The approach of the Syrian school as it followed by the Victorines, became essentially the hermeneutical approach of the Reformers.  Already towards the End of the Middle Ages, there was a shift away from allegory.  John Wycliffe (1330-1384) strongly emphasized the authority of Scripture for doctrine and Christian living, thereby opposing the authority of tradition and hierarchy.  He proposed the following rules for interpretation:

1. obtain a reliable text;

2. understand Scripture’s logic;

3. compare Scripture with Scripture;

4. maintain a humble attitude seeking for the instruction of the Holy Spirit.

He stressed that “all things necessary in Scripture are contained in its proper literal and historical sense.”  In the meantime, there was a renewed emphasis on the original languages.  John Reuchlin’s work on “Hebrew grammar” and “A Grammatical Interpretation of the Seven Penitential Psalms” illustrates this shift.


Luther discovered the literal method by studying Romans.  Luther wrote:

“When I was a monk, I was an expert in allegories.  I allegorized everything.  But after lecturing on the Epistle of the Romans I came to have knowledge of Christ.  For therein I saw that Christ is no allegory and I learned to know what Christ is.”  source

He called allegories “empty speculations,” “dirt,” “a mere monkeygame,” “absurd, inventive, obsolete, loose rags.”  He wrote that the Scriptures “are to be retained in their simplest meaning ever  possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids.”  Elsewhere he praised the original languages.

“We shall not long preserve the gospel without the languages.  The languages are the sheath in which the sword of the Spirit is contained.”

Elsewhere he wrote:

“While a preacher may preach Christ with edification though he may be unable to read the Scriptures in the originals, he cannot expound or maintain their teaching against the heretics without this indispensable knowledge.”

He exalted the literal sense of Scripture:  “I have grounded my preaching upon the literal word.”  Elsewhere:  “Every word should be allowed to stand in its natural meaning, and that should not be abandoned unless faith forces us to.”  He embraced the sufficiency of Scripture:  “I ask for Scriptures and Eck offers me the Fathers.  I ask for the sun, and he shows me his lanterns.  I ask:  “Where is your Scripture proof?” and he adduces Ambrose and Cyril … With all due respect to the Fathers I prefer the authority of the Scripture.”  He staved off rationalism by his emphasis on the need for Christ and the Holy Spirit.  He wrote:  “Auch is das der reche Prüfstein all Bücher zu tadeln, wenn man siehet ob sie Christum treiben oder nicht” (This is the correct touchstone to test all books, if one sees if they urge Christ or no.”  Elsewhere he says: “If you will interpret well and securely, take Christ with you, for he is the man everything concerns.”  Again:  “We ought not to criticize, or judge the Scriptures by our mere reason, but diligently, with prayer, meditate thereon, and seek their meaning.”  Note:  Luther applied a Law-Gospel hermeneutical grid to Scripture which the Reformed tradition, especially Calvin, has refined.


Calvin called allegory a “frivolous game” and Satanic because it led men away from the truth of Scripture.  He accused Origen and others of “torturing the Scripture, in every possible sense, from the true sense.” (see v.12 here) He noted that the inexhausibility of Scripture was not in its so-called fertility of meanings.  In the preface to his commentary on Romans he writes:  “it is the first business of an interpreter to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing to him what we think he ought to say.”  Elsewhere:

“We were of this mind that the principal point of an interpreter did consist in a lucid brevity.  And truly, seeing that this is in a manner his whole charge, namely, to show both the mind of the writer whom he hath taken upon himself to expound, look, by how much he leadeth the readers away from the same, by so much he is wide … Verily the word of God ought to be so revered by us that through a diversity of interpretation it might not be drawn asunder by us, no not so much as a hair’s breadth … It is an audacity akin to sacrilege to use the Scriptures at our own pleasure and to play with them as with a tennis ball, which many before us have done.”  source

Calvin staved off rationalism by an emphasis on the necessity of illumination by the Spirit and the Christological nature of Scripture.


Tyndale wrote:  “Scripture has but one sense, which is the literal sense.” source

Bullinger wrote: “It is requisite in expounding the scriptures, and searching out the true sense of God’s word, that we mark upon what occasion everything is spoken, what goeth before, what followeth after, at what season, in what order, and of what person anything is spoken … Also, unless a man do always mark the manner of speaking throughout the whole scriptures, and that very diligently, he cannot choose in his expositions but err very much out of the right way. … And finally, the most effectual rule of all, whereby to expound the word of God, is an heart that loveth God and his glory, not puffed up with pride, not desirous of vainglory, not corrupted with heresies and evil affections;  but which doth continually pray to God for his holy Spirit, that, as by it the scripture was revealed and inspired, so also by the same Spirit it may be expounded to the glory of God and safeguard of the faithful.” source

Vermigli urged Christians not to go to Scripture with “a hardened and prejudiced opinion” but  to “lay aside all affectations … [L]et thy coming be wholly to learn” in order that “out of the plain and unpolished speech of the holy scriptures, is brought to light the most sincere and manifest knowledge of the truth.”

Zanchius wrote that the rule of interpreting Scripture consists in renouncing human wisdom and reason and, as children, submitting ourselves to the teaching of God in Scripture and making our thoughts subject to Christ.  The Interpreter of Scripture must be converted to God, detesting his earlier sinfulness, and proficient in piety.  He formulated 12 rules of interpretation:  Firstly, reading and interpreting Scripture must be preceded by the invocation of Christ Jesus who regenerates our souls and leads us to the right understanding of God’s word;  Secondly, interpretation must be undertaken in the fear of God, inasmuch as the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.  Thirdly, we must study the will of God as revealed in Scripture.  Fourthly, we must recognize that Christ is the scope to which all Scripture tends.  Fifthly, we must look to the end of the interpretation of Scripture, love of God to which are conjoined faith and hope.  The remaining rules deal with such matters as the analogy of faith, the obscure in light of the clear, etc.

Post-Reformation and Puritan Interpreters

Westminster and Westminster Divines

The Westminster Confession states:  “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself;  and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold but one). It must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

William Bridge:  “The same Scripture hath but one entire Sense.  Indeed Papists tell us, that one Scripture hath many Senses;  but the Protestants hold, That there is but one Sense of a Scripture, though divers applications of it ….  Though the sense of the Scripture be but one entire sense, yet sometimes the Scripture is to be understood Literally, sometimes Figuratively, and Metaphorically (but always Spiritually, for when it is taken Literally, it is taken Spiritually) for says the Apostle; If thy Brother offend thee, heap coals of fire upon his head:  that is not to be taken Literally, but Metaphorically.” source

John White:  “There are that make many senses of Scripture, but upon no sufficient ground, whereas it is apparent, there can be but one true and right sense.  Yet we grant that some places may have a proper sense, or a mystical or allegorical, as it is called, Gal. 4:24.  But if we weight it well, there is but one sense of the words, which is proper, the other is the sense of the Type expressed by those words, which represents unto us some mystical thing … Such Allegorical senses of Scripture, we must not easily admit, unless the Scripture it self warrant them.  Neither must we obtrude our Allegories upon others, as the sense of the Holy Ghost, much less to build upon them any ground of faith, or rule of life.” source

Ames and Perkins

William Ames (see chp 34; para. 22 here):  “There is only one meaning for every place in Scripture.  Otherwise the meaning of Scripture would not only be unclear and uncertain, but there would be no meaning at all – for anything which does not mean one thing surely means nothing.”

Perkins writes:  “Interpretation is the opening up of the words and statements of Scripture in order to bring out its single, full, and natural sense.”   The principal interpreter of Scripture is the Holy Spirit.  The one who makes the law is the best and the highest interpreter of it.”  He emphasized the analogy of faith, the context of a passage and other passages. source

John Owen

John Owen wrote:  “(1) The only unique, public, authentic, and infallible interpreter of Scripture is none other than the Author of Scripture Himself, by whose inspiration they are the truth, and by whom they possess their perspicuity and authority,  that is, God the Holy Spirit.  This He does partly through the express words of Scripture and partly by the revelation of God’s will contained in the wider context, which may be understood by a comparison of text with text, so that which seems to have been more obscurely spoken may be illuminated by what is plainer until an overall understanding of the divine will is gained.  In all of the Spiritual light is afforded the interpreter, so that he may be led into all necessary truths contained in the Word.  In fact, this is the appointed task of the Spirit, given Him by Christ, so that no pretended human arbiter (however much praised of men) could have any possible value without Him.  (2) Every person, however private, is called to a knowledge of God as revealed it in the Bible, and so it is the duty of all to learn and investigate, to expound and declare, as he is enable, the mind and will of God in the Scriptures according to the sense of them, and to apply all of the means at his disposal to that most necessary end, for the building up of his own and other’s faith.”

According to Owen, exegesis is “concerned with teaching the truth, that is, with exposition of the divine mind as contained in the Scriptures, and such exposition and explanation of the truth revealed in the words of Scripture is something instituted of God and aided by the Holy Spirit for the great purposes of teaching the flock, refuting errors, correction and discipline, and in short for every manner in the Church.”

Elsewhere Owen defines exposition:  “The explication of facts and the explication of words.”  He shows the necessity of interpretation:  “To reject all interpretation would thus be to deprive themselves of the Scriptures entirely, for all translation is, of necessity, interpretation.”  (all of the above quotes come from Owen’s Biblical Theology)


Scripture is not Subject to Various Interpretations

“In order to facilitate the pope’s placement upon the seat of judgment, Roman Catholicism maintains that one and the same text can have a fourfold meaning … The practice of assigning a fourfold meaning to every text however, must be considered absurd. We can tolerate the occasional use of one text to make several applications, and we can cope with someone who acts foolishly in this regard and exceeds the limits of reason. To maintain, however, that in every text the Holy Spirit has four interpretations in view, is to make the Holy Scriptures ludicrous. Even though God is infinite and therefore capable of comprehending many matters of infinite dimension simultaneously, He nevertheless is not addressing Himself, but rather men who have but a puny and finite intellect. As He speaks, He is as desirous to be understood as clearly as man when he uses speech to express his thoughts to others. Man’s ability to speak is not derived from the Bible; rather, the Bible is written in the language of man. It uses man’s language in a more distinguishable, clear, and intelligible manner than the most brilliant lawyer is capable of, so that there is not the least reason for misunderstanding. Misunderstandings concerning Scripture are generated by the darkness and obstinacy of man.”  (see page 43 here)

In conclusion, though the literal method had its champions throughout history, the apex of its formulation and practice corresponded to the Reformation, particularly Calvin and the Reformed Divines.  It was not long afterwards, that the influence of philosophy turned biblical scholars towards rationalistic and critical methods.  We turn to a brief review of this development.

Rationalistic Schools

The rationalistic approach is fundamentally to reject everything in Scripture which one considers unreasonable.  Rationalism views anything other than itself as authoritarianism.  Rationalistic views about the Bible were held by already by Hobbes and Spinoza.  With Descartes came an emphasis on subjective verification of the truth and an anti-authoritarian view of knowledge.  This was paired with an emphasis on historical consciousness and a sense of progress.  The pervasive influence of rationalism in biblical studies made itself felt particularly in the nineteenth century.  Biblical criticism is the child of these philosophical movements and its effects were very widespread in the twentieth century.  The large majority of Western seminaries and theological schools today, both Protestant and Catholic, could be called rationalistic schools.  Hermeneutics is no longer the traditional enterprise of determining appropriate rules for interpretation.  Hermeneutics has become the enterprise of questioning the possibility of interpretation and foregrounding one’s own opinion into the interpretation of Scripture.  So people will speak of “a hermeneutic of…”  A hermeneutic of liberation, a hermeneutic of equality, a hermeneutic of skepticism, a feminist hermeneutic, a vegetarian hermeneutic, a materialist hermeneutic, etc.  This is also sometimes called the New Hermeneutic.”  This development took place gradually.
Its fundamental hermeneutical tenets could summarized as follows:

  1. Scripture is subjected to certain laws of reason. The supernatural was thought to be against reason.  An early pioneer of rationalism in biblical studies was G. L. Bauer.  He held that “any idea of supernatural revelations of God through theophanies, miracles, or prophecies is to be rejected, since such things are contrary to sound reason and can easily be paralleled amongst other peoples.  Thus Bauer regarded Moses as a brave, intelligent man, well instructed in the wisdom of Egypt, whose high purposes were strengthened when he saw a bush which had been kindled by lightning in a thunderstorm.”
  2. Inspiration is redefined. Because rationalism rejected the supernatural, inspiration had to be redefined.  Today, it is largely understood as “the power to inspire religious experience” (Coleridge).  Revelation is understood as human insight into religious truth.  Note how certain terms are retained, but their meanings are twisted.  For a long time, liberals spoke about “the spirit of Jesus.”  The content given to this phrase was very different than the biblical one.  “What is permanent in Christianity is not mental frameworks but abiding experiences that phrase and rephrase themselves in successive generations’ ways of thinking and grow in assured certainty and richness of content” (Fosdick).
  3. The idea of evolution was applied to all religion. “We know now that every idea in the Bible started from primitive and childlike origins and, with however many setbacks and delays, grew in scope and height toward the culmination of Christ’s Gospel” (Fosdick). Wellhausen called for considerable rearrangement of books and materials within the OT to fit an evolutionary scheme.  Likewise the NT was seen as a deposit of evolving religion.  The NT critic is “likened to an archeologist who uncovers strata of accretions imposed on the true Jesus of history” (Ramm).
  4. The reduction of biblical truth to mere religious experience could not but remove its uniqueness among ancient religions. Moses’ doctrine of creation was just a form of primitive mythology, John’s high Christology incipient Gnosticism;  Paul’s doctrine of the atonement was related to the blood-baths of Mythraism, etc.

Under the influence of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) theology and biblical studies embraced subjectivism instead of trying to attain objectivism.  Meanwhile, man was still in the center with his emotions, self-consciousness, and feeling.  Nor was reason and criticism not abandoned but retained.  It was a convenient means whereby the terrain of religion (feeling) was distinguished from that of reason.
Existentialist philosophers such as Heidegger, Sartre, Gadamer, and also Kierkegaard have prompted the most recent shift within rationalism to greatly affect biblical studies and hermeneutics in particular.  The segue into biblical studies was forged especially by Rudolf Bultmann.  His hermeneutical approach can be characterized by the following points

  1. The scientific principle: Science determines whether a biblical event is factual or not.  If science determines that a person cannot walk on water, a man cannot sacrifice his intellect in faith.
  2. The critical principle (Sach-kritik): The Sache is that which a document is trying to communicate.  It is not what Scripture is saying, but what it wishes to communicate to modern man.  The Sache in the account of the virgin birth is not the fact of the virgin birth, but the idea that there may be life and hope in seemingly impossible circumstances (note the existential content of this Sache).
  3. The demythologization principle: This is the action of taking the “mythology of the Bible” and conveying its substance to modern man.
  4. The dialectical principle: If something is objective or historical, it is not existential;  if it is existential, it is not objective nor historical.  Faith lives only by decision and not by objective or historical supports.

The beginning of neo-orthodoxy is usually traced to the publication of Karl Barth’s Romans commentary.  It has also been called “crisis theology,” for it expressed a deep dissatisfaction for liberalism and its failure to achieve anything, and because it was in part evoked by the crisis of the First World War.  Barth sought insights from the Reformers.  He emphasized such things as revelation, Christ, and faith.  Though there is much in Barth and his school which sounds refreshingly orthodox, the designation “neo” is not without reason.  On well-nigh every point, Barth revises the content of doctrine.  Revelation is not infallible and contains much mythology.  The traditional concept of revelation is dubbed by Barth “propositional revelation.”  Revelation is when God speaks, when his Word reaches my mind with force.  The influence of existentialism is discernible – personal, existential experience is important.  The Bible is a record of and witness to revelation, but it is not the word of God directly.  We must look for the word behind the words. Christ is said to be the center of Barth’s theology.  In fact, only that part of the Bible which is a witness to the Word of God is binding.  There are no Christian doctrine unless they receive a Christological orientation.  Creation and sin are not to be approached directly from the OT, but only in Christ.  Neo-orthodoxy spawned an emphasis on Heilsgeschichte (salvation-history).  Factual history was not important, but history as a series of salvation events.  This was the object of “faith.”
Rationalism has left man with nothing more than his own experience.  The discipline of hermeneutics takes pride imposing its own presuppositions upon Scripture and hearing nothing but its own voice.  It is remarkable that rationalism now shows more affinity with allegorism than with the literal method, despite that it prized the literal method to the point of a “scientific” and “critical” method.  Here rationalism has essentially joined hands with irrationalism, though irrationalism began in different quarters.

Irrationalist Schools

Undoubtedly there have been irrationalist interpreters through history.  As a movement, it asserted itself in Anabaptist circles during the Reformation period, and has spread among fanatics and separatists since then.  Essentially, the irrationalist school is a reactionary school, and marks itself by a wholesale rejection of reason.  Certain Anabaptists and Quakers focused on “innerlight.”  In their minds, Scripture contained a certain sacred revelation or statement of the divine will, so far as it really originated from God, and proceeded from the inner light granted by Christ to those who penned the books which are called the Scriptures.  In acknowledging this, [they] say that this light is equally present in all men.  So that those who chose to apply this test to their thinking may declare the will of God with authority and infallibility equal to that offered in the Sacred Writings themselves.”  John Owen has given an elaborate animadversion against this method.  Inner light is tantamount to the embrace of new revelation and therefore a denial of the need for interpretation and a sheer reliance on human imagination.  This irrationalist movement still commands its followers.  Annually, countless books see the light of day but have not an ounce of reason in them.  I recall a fad surrounding “The Code.”  If the letters of the Bible were organized in a certain fashion and read diagonally or vertically, or backwards, all sorts of prophesies of post-biblical historic events and shady future events were discerned. There is no rhyme or reason to it. It just catches the fancy of some. Paul warned: “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth … But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men” (2 Tim. 3:8-9).


  1.  The human mind always tries to derail proper interpretation, pulling it this way or that: mystical or scientific, rationalistic, irrationalistic. We need faith seeking understanding, not understanding seeking faith.
  2. We need the Bible to tell us how to interpret it. We need a Scripturally based method: How does the Bible view itself? How does the Bible interpret itself?