Biblical Interpretation

The Bible comes to us from different ages and cultures from our own and in different languages from our own. It is necessary, therefore, that it should be interpreted so each generation of Christians in their own setting may understand its meaning. By the first century a.d. there were a number of different approaches to the interpretation of the OT. Philo* of Alexandria used the method of allegory to bring out of the text of the OT, including what appear to be literal historical narratives, the philosophies of Platonism, Stoicism, and neo-Pythagoreanism.

The Qumran community used the pesher method to suggest that the real meaning of general statements in the OT was to be found in the particular personalities and circumstances of their own sect. The rabbinic school of Shammai was generally literal in its own understanding and harsh in its application, while that of Hillel was more subtle and had a number of rules designed to apply the Law to the contemporary situation. In the postapostolic period similar methods were used in interpreting both Testaments. Origen* in particular emphasized the allegorical approach, believing that all Scripture had a threefold sense, the “body” for the simple, the “soul” for beginners, and the “spirit” for the mature. The school of Antioch was more literal and grammatical in its approach than the Alexandrians*; Jerome and, to some extent, Augustine in the West tended to follow the Antiochene* way.

In the Middle Ages it was fairly generally accepted that there were four senses: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. The approach of Nicholas of Lyra* who laid more stress on a literal and christological interpretation prepared the way for Luther and the Reformers. They denied the supreme authority of the church and believed that by proper grammatical study and comparing Scripture with Scripture the true meaning would be given through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. The enormous advance in knowledge of the text, background, and languages of the Bible over the last century or so has helped greatly toward more accurate interpretation, but this has often been nullified by the tendency to read into the Bible modern philosophies which have no place there.

The correct way to understand the Bible involves seeing it as both a collection of human documents and also a unified, divine book. To the first end must be applied all available knowledge about the background, circumstances, intention, and language of the individual writings. It is often of special importance to know what type of literature a biblical book is supposed to be. The meaning of the smaller parts can be discovered by noting the usage of words and phrases. Where there is apparent symbolism, we must ask whether that is in addition to or instead of a literal meaning. It must then be remembered that the biblical canon has been defined because its constituent parts provide a unified witness to the saving purposes of God, particularly as they are centered in his actions in Christ. This means that not only do many OT passages provide a background to the NT, but also the principles which they are setting forth find their fullest meaning in what God was to do later through Christ. This is the way in which the OT is interpreted in the NT, and it should be the pattern for us. There is no one, cast-iron hermeneutical system into which the meaning of the Bible can be forced for all time. Each generation and each culture must seek, using the wisdom of Christians throughout the ages and depending upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to find as fully as possible for itself the meaning of the faith once for all delivered to the saints and enshrined in the Holy Scriptures.

R.V.G. Tasker, The Old Testament in the New Testament (1954); B. Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (1956); J.D. Wood, The Interpretation of the Bible (1958); D.E. Nineham (ed.), The Church's Use of the Bible (1963); R.N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (1975).