Lecture 21: Hermeneutics for Parables (Part 1) | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 21: Hermeneutics for Parables (Part 1)

Course: Biblical Hermeneutics

Lecture: Hermeneutics for Parables (Part 1)

I want to look at the genre of Parables.  There are Parables in the Old Testament and the very term, parable, mshal in the Old Testament is a very broad term and I remember, I was taught that a parable was an earthy story with a heavenly truth.  Some parables are not stories at all, I mean ...  In the norms of language, Jesus says “Doubtless, you will quote me this parabolae”– parable – most of the translations say proverb, ‘Physician heal yourself.’” 

Now that is a parable, in the sense that a parable is some sort of a comparison, metaphor, extended into a story or short, pithy and so forth. So we have to go by what the New Testament interprets as parable which is wide-ranging.  [Hard to hear] mostly these story parable as such.

We want to talk about various principles for interpreting these parables and the way I like to do that is to deal with a very famous parable, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, follow through history, how this has been interpreted, arrive at some basic principles, apply the principles to this parable and another parable and see how that all works out.  Now the parable itself and you and just listen to me as I read it occurs in Luke 10:30. Jesus replied,

30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’

Very short parable but certainly one of the most famous – maybe if you talked about which is the most famous of Jesus’ parables, it is probably this one or the one of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  Now, as we look at how parables have been interpreted in the past, we are going to look at some that we will think, look kind of foolish and we may want to look down our nose on them – what kind of silly people came up with things like that.  But be careful who you ridicule because, these are giants. These are some of the greatest theologians – Luther – Calvin, Augustine, Clement of Alexandria and people like that.  I think what happens is that sometimes, you are so much a child of your own environment that you buy into their presuppositions and you make their mistakes and you kind of take it for granted.  Fortunately we live in a day and age where we don’t do that anymore.


And so if we want succeeding generations to look upon us with compassion and mercy, let us also do that with those in the past. Alright? Now, we are going to look at some of the mistakes made and we are going to arrive at some of the basic principles.  The earliest reference to this whole thing – this whole parable is by a man named Marcion.  Marcion was the son of a bishop who lived in Northern Turkey. He came to Rome, joined the church, gave a large gift of money to the church and it was soon discovered that he was a Gnostic – a heretic.

Gnostics believe that matter was evil.  They were kind of Platonic philosophers. If matter is evil and spirit was good, well then God’s son could have never become a man, because that would have meant that he took upon himself evil – matter – and corrupted Himself. So they argued it would only look like the Son of God took upon Himself a man and that heresy became known as Docetism, from the Greek word, dokeo, which means seeing or look. And it looked like to outsiders, he was really a man although, he was not.  He was disguised in various ways. Well. Leaving that all aside, Marcion is the first person to refer to this parable and he makes this statement,

“The Son of God first appeared in history as the Good Samaritan on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.”

It is the first time he appeared in history.  Well, you say, “That’s ridiculous. He had to be born.” – Not if you are a Gnostic. Because to be born meant, you would have taken on yourself physical material substance, a body and he would have corrupted Himself.  And so he is arguing, Jesus never had a birth. He was never incarnate, but He first appeared in history as the Good Samaritan, on the road from Jerusalem and Jericho.  And the first reference we have to this parable – first known reference, 140. It is allegorized and Jesus is the Good Samaritan. Alright? Very first reference.

Jesus is the Good Samaritan and we have what we call an allegorical interpretation.  Now after that they become hot and furious. Clement of Alexandria, about 180, he interprets the parable this way:

You are not going to have a chance to write all this down. If you are interested in it, all this material is in Stein’s An Introduction to the Parables.  You can get it all there. But right now, we just don’t have time to spend on all these materials here to write it all out.

But Clement of Alexandria – the Good Samaritan is the neighbor, who is ultimately Jesus Christ. The thieves are the rulers of darkness and the wounds that he experienced, this man, are the fears, lusts, passions, pains and deceits that we experience. 

The wine poured on his wound for healing is the blood of David’s wine.  The Son of God is a descendent of David. Of the vine of David, so the wine represents his blood.

The oil represents the compassion of God the Father.  The binding of wounds represents love, faith and hope.

So notice what you do in allegory. Do you look at the details and you try to find meaning in those details. What does this detail mean? And to do that, you allegorize all the details and find meaning in the details in that manner.  The success of Clement of Alexandria was a man by the name of Origen.

Origen was one of the giants of the early church. Great, great, scholar. He made this kind of interpretation, the allegorical interpretation into a pseudo-science.  One of the key verses to support this way of interpreting for Origen was 1 Thessalonians 5:23.

There Paul says, “May the Lord sanctify you wholly in body, soul and spirit.” Origen said, “Aha. Paul teaches a tripartite understanding of humanity, consisting of a body, soul and a spirit.”

I don’t think that is what Paul means.  I don’t think that is a correct interpretation, but that is beside the point. He thought it meant that. Now, he then said, just as human beings have a tripartite nature – a body, soul and spirit – so God’s Word has a tri-part nature of body, soul and spirit. The body part is the literal meaning of the text. The soul part is the moral meaning of the text. And the spirit part – the deepest meaning – is the spiritual meaning of the text, and the way you get to the spiritual meaning of the text is by an allegorical interpretation. Here is his interpretation.

The man going down to Jericho is Adam.
Jerusalem from which he was going is Paradise.
Jericho is this world.

Notice in the parable, a man was going down – down from Paradise into this world.  The robbers who beat up the man and leave him half-dead are the hostile influences and enemies, such as mentioned in John 10:3, where Jesus said, “All who came before me were thieves and robbers.”

The wounds the man experiences are his disobedience or his sins. The priest represents the law and the Levites, the prophets and they are not able to save us. Only Jesus, the Good Samaritan can save us.

The beast which bears the man to safety is the body of Christ, which bears the sins of the world. The inn to which he is brought for good keeping is the Church. The two denarii to take care of him is the knowledge of God, the Father and the Son. The inn-keeper to whom he is brought are the angels placed in charge of the Church.  And the return of the Good Samaritan is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Now that’s allegorical interpretation.  Each detail, you look for its meaning. There was some protest by what we call, the Antiochene Church Fathers.  They came from the area of Syrian-Antioch. Antioch in Syria, Antiochene Church Fathers, and some of them.  [Hard to hear] Pelusium, Chrysostom and the like, they protested this way of interpreting the Bible and the parables.  For the most part, they were voices crying in the wilderness and the Church proceeded with the allegorical way of interpreting the Parables.

Perhaps the most famous way of interpreting this parable is by Saint Augustine.  Now, this is the single greatest theologian between Paul and the Reformers.  So this is a giant.  His interpretation of the parable:

The man going down from Jericho is Adam.  Jerusalem from which he was going down is the city of heavenly peace. Jericho is the moon which signifies our mortality and you say, “Now. Where in the world does that come from?” 

Augustine knew Hebrew and he knew that the word Jericho and the word for moon in Hebrew, both looked and sounded alike.  And as the moon waxes and wanes, so we wax and wane. We are mortal. 

The robbers are the Devil and his angels. Stripping meant they took away his immortality. Adam was mortal and able to die.  Feeding him meant, the persuaded him to sin.  Leaving him half-dead was that due to sin, he was dead spiritually, but he was still half-alive, because he had some knowledge of God.  The priest, the law and the prophets of Levi.  In the Old Testament, they are not able to save; only the Good Samaritan, Jesus can do that.  The binding of the wounds are the restraint, God places upon our sin.  The oil is the comfort of a good hope. The wine is the exhortation to spirited work. The beast is the body of Christ  [Hard to hear] the church.  The two denarii - is where he differs from Origen – are the two commandments, to love God with all ones’ heart, strength and mind and ones neighbor as ourselves.  That takes care of ourselves during this lifetime. The innkeeper to which he is brought is the apostle Paul. Augustine was a Pauline scholar and he was partial to Paul. And the return of the Good Samaritan is the resurrection of Christ.  So now you have some differences there but in the main, you have quite a bit of similarity.

Now this was the dominating way of interpreting the parables.  In fact it was the dominating way - allegorical interpretation – of dominating – of interpreting most sacred literature.  And there were two reasons for that.

For one, there is a parable of Jesus – the parable of the soils – and there is an interpretation associated with that. Now a lot of critical scholars say that Jesus didn’t give that interpretation.  Somebody in the early church wrote it up and it became attributed.  That is irrelevant. When Augustine read it and the early church read it, they read it as Jesus’ interpretation and this is Jesus’ interpretation of the parable and it is an allegorical interpretation of the parable.

For the seed that fell among the weeds are those who hear the Word of God, and those that fell among good soil are those who received, hear the Word of God and receive it with a good heart.  Those who fell among the rocky soil are those who believe but trials and tribulations come and so forth and so on.

So, you have a parable and Jesus’ interpretation of this is an allegorical interpretation.  Well. If Jesus thought His parable, this parable should be interpreted allegorically, probably the way you should read all parables. So that interpretation of the four soils became a pattern by which all parables should be interpreted.  Just like this one interpretation that Jesus gave to us, well, we should try to interpret in a similar manner.

Now there was a second reason and that was that this method of interpretation was very common in the ancient world, especially among sacred literature of one sort or another. Whenever you came across some sacred literature in which you had real difficulties in them, how did you escape the literal meaning, which seemed to be contradictory or not of worth anything or really maybe even giving a false interpretation.

An example: The gods on Mount Olympus – what do you do with their behavior? You can’t Zeus’s words, go and do likewise, because the gods up there are more immoral than most of us in this world are. So you look at that and you say, you can’t take that literally.  So it must mean something else. You need to allegorize this.  And what the gods are lusting after are not the beauty of human women or something like that.  You need to go to a spiritual interpretation of this and allegorize it. And what you realize is what they are lusting after are the virtues of good character, of nobility, of honesty and so forth and so on. And the way you do that is by allegorizing. Because the literal meaning is too difficult.

And now it is not just the Greeks that did that. For instance, how do most of the people in your church interpret the Song of Solomon? Allegory right? Its an allegory of Jesus and the Church – the love of Jesus for His Church.  Well. Long before that Judaism had the same problems with the passage and that was the God of Israel, Yahweh’s love for the people of Israel, for His people.  And the way you do that is you allegorize that.

So it’s a very common way of trying to make difficult literature that you hold dearly into some sort of a meaningful work that you can now accept in one way or other.  So very common way of interpreting parables.  The center of most of this which was really famous for allegorical interpretation was the city of Alexandria. And Clement of Alexandria, Origen, that’s where they came from.  What the early church did was kind of take up this method which was so dominant in the world and they practiced it in regard to their own interpretation of the parables and of Scripture in general.

What I gave to you in the examples of Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Augustine are examples coming from the early church.

Let us divide for the sake of simplicity, the history of the church into several periods. The early church goes up to the 500.  Actually, better at 540, but 500 is a nice number. I can remember 500, 540 I can’t. So its 500.

The Middle Ages, 500 to 1500.  That’s a nice clean number too. It is easy to remember. Then we have the period of the Reformation, 1500 to the turning point, 1888, and then after that the modern period.  So, the early church we just looked at.   Now we are going to deal with the Middle Ages.

And in the Middle Ages, a man by the name of John Cassian had given not only a three-fold meaning to the text – the moral, the literal and the spiritual – but he came along and he gave a fourth level of meaning.  So there was the literal, the moral, the spiritual and now you had the heavenly meaning of the text.  And the example that was most famous in this regard was when you came to read the Bible, if you came across the word Jerusalem, you could interpret that at four different levels.

The first level, the literal level would be the city, longitude X, latitude Y, surrounded to the east by the Kidron Valley, to the south by the Hinnom Valley. City – [Hard to hear]

At the moral level, whenever you came across Jerusalem, you should understand that they are here talking about the human soul.  If you’re talking about the spiritual meaning, you are talking about the church.  And if you get to the really heavenly meaning, now you are talking about the Heavenly Jerusalem.

And when you read any verse of Scripture with the word, Jerusalem, you can interpret it from those four perspectives: the literal, the moral, the spiritual, the heavenly meaning of the text. So John Cassian gives that. So now the system of allegory continues.

One of the leaders in the Middle Ages was a man by the name of the Venerable Bede, from England. He interprets the parables this way. 732 is when he dies. 

The man going down to Jericho is Adam.  Jerusalem from which he is going is the City of Heavenly Peace.  Jericho as the moon would signify is variation and change.  You know who he is dependent on? Building on Augustine.  Stripping meant they stripped Adam of his glorious vestment, of immortality and innocence. The wounds are his sins.  The priest, the priesthood of the Old Testament, the Levite, the ministry of the Old Testament, the Samaritan is Christ, the oil is repentance, the Beast is the flesh in which the Lord came to us – that’s the Incarnation – and so forth. ~ The Venerable Bede.

So we have a continuation of this allegorical method of interpretation, through the Middle Ages, 500 to 1500.

I remember reading once the work of Thomas Aquinas, who is probably the greatest of the theologians during the Middle Ages. Wrote this tremendous system of theology which is still very very influential in Roman Catholicism.  And he defended this four-fold way of interpreting the parables.  And the way he defended it was this way:

There has to be four levels of meaning in the text, because there are four directions. North. South. East and West.

Now that is not very convincing, but that is not the important thing. What you have to know here is – if everybody assumes there is four levels of meaning, you can use those kinds of arguments. But if you have to prove it, it wouldn’t get very far.  But it is so certain, you can use that kind of frivolous in our understanding – way of arguing for the four fold method of interpretation. But everybody agreed to it. Four levels of meaning.

Now let us just stop for a minute. How would something like Augustine’s interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan – how would that play in your church? Don’t people like it?

Student: Probably wouldn’t mind it.

Dr. Stein: There might be some that would be very nervous about it.  But if my mother were alive, she would probably say to me something like, “Bobby. You know that man, Augustine knew how to get a lot out of the Bible.”

And I would say probably something like, “Yeah. Mom. He did get a lot of the Bible.”

At the age of ninety-five or so, how much debate on hermeneutics do you want to get into with your mother, right?  Alright now, this is the dominant way of interpreting the Parables. When we get to the Reformation, there is going to be a break with allegorical interpretation in general.

For instance, when Luther was asked, what he thought about Origen’s exegesis, he said, “Its worth less than dirt.” Which was not at a premium in Germany, at that time apparently.  And allegorizers were for him clerical jugglers – religious jugglers performing monkey tricks.

And the word, monkey tricks in german is kind of cute: It is affenspheel. Affen are chimpanzees. Its chimpanzee games. That’s what they are doing in that regard. And he was very much opposed to the allegorical interpretation.

Now the reason for that is clear. In contrast to the Roman Catholic position, in which there was a three-fold source of truth and authority in the church, there is the papacy. There is the Scriptures and there are the Early Church Fathers.  And all three of them always agree. And so they teach a unified doctrine, and so you have these three sources of revelation.

The living voice of the church and the papacy and its bishops and councils and so forth. You have the Early Church leaders, the Augustine’s, the Origen’s and so forth. And you had the Scriptures.

Well, in contrast to that what do the Reformers argue?

Student:  [Hard to hear]

Dr. Stein: Scripture only. Sola Scriptura. Only in the Bible. Well. If you now eliminate 2/3rds of your source of truth and revelation, that means that you need to have a clear hermeneutical theory to approach Scriptures.  And so the Reformers begin to work very heavily on how do you interpret the Bible. And one of the things that frustrated them to no end, would be the allegorical method of interpretation.

How do you argue with somebody on what Paul means in Romans, when the other person’s allegorizing has nothing to do whatever with what Paul means in the text? It is like fighting a cloud. Have you ever tried to fight one? Grab one? Just nothing and you get very frustrated by that and so the Reformers were very much opposed to that, because the allegorists can do pretty much anything they want. 

Now there were certain rules that they had laid down as to allegory, and they were good rules.  If you are going to allegorize, these are good rules to have.  

One of the rules was, you can never find an allegorical meaning in a text that violates the teachings of the Church in the Bible.

In other words, you couldn’t read heresy into the text by allegory.  Someone further - some said you can’t find anything in the allegorical interpretation of the passage that is not explicitly taught in elsewhere in the Church’s doctrine, teaching and the Bible.  It became even more restricted.

So there is a sense in which, they said, you can’t read by allegory something in the Bible that is heretical in the Church’s understanding.  That is good.

If you are going to read something in the Bible, don’t read into it heresy.  Read something true. Alright? Now the real question is – should you read anything in the Bible? We talked about eisogesis – reading into the text, instead of exegesis, reading out of the text, what the text is trying to teach.  The Reformers would be arguing for exegesis, not eisogesis.  But if you are going to read into the Bible something, please read something that is not heretical into it.

Now, Luther however when it came to the parables, continued to follow the procedure of the church for the 1500 years preceding him and he allegorized.   He had a little of his Lutheran twist into it however.

The man going down to Jericho is Adam and all humanity.
The robbers are the devils who robbed and wounded us.
The priest, the fathers before Moses.
The Levites, the priesthood of the Old Testament. They can’t save us.
The Good Samaritan is the Lord Jesus Christ.
The oil and the wine poured on the wounds are the whole Gospel from beginning to end. You see a little Lutheran emphasis there.

Elsewhere and by the way, I found this material in various sermons and lectures of Luther.  It is not just in one place, where you saw the oil was the whole Gospel, the beginning and end. Elsewhere he talks about the oil being the grace of God. The wine is the cross the Christian is called to bear.  The beast is Christ the Lord.   [Hard to hear] Christianity and the world or the church. The innkeeper, the preacher of the Word of God. So you have a Lutheran emphasis with respect to the allegorical interpretation of the parable.

Calvin was the best of the exegetes. He was also by far the best interpreter of the parables. When in his commentary, he comes to the passage on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, he writes as follows,

“An allegorical interpretation devised by proponents of free will is really too feudal to deserve an answer. According to them under the figure of a wounded man is described the condition of Adam after the Fall. Whence they infer that the power to act well was not quite extinct, for it is only said to be half-dead.  As if Christ would have intended to speak here about the corruption of human nature and discuss whether the wounds they had struck on Adam was fatal or curable. As if he had not plainly declared without any figurative talk, that all are dead unless he quickens them with his voice. John 5:25. I give as little respect for that other allegory which has won such regard that nearly everyone comes down in its favor like an oracle. In this they make out the Samaritan to be Christ, because He is our protector.  They say that wine mixed with oil was poured into the wound because Christ heals us with repentance and the promise of grace. And a third cunning story has been made up that Christ does not immediately restore health, but sends us to the church, that is the innkeeper to be cured gradually.”

Great statement coming.

“None of this strikes me as plausible. We should have more reverence for Scripture than to allow ourselves to transfigure its sense so freely. Anyone may see that these speculations have been cooked up by meddlers quite divorced from the mind of Christ.”

John Calvin is the first person we know of in the whole history of the Church that said that this parable is not an allegory about Jesus.  After 1500 years of people saying this – Augustine, Ambrose of Milan, Thomas Aquinas, Origen, Clement of Alexandria – everyone – he stands up and he says, “No. They are all wrong. This is not about Jesus.” It takes a lot of courage to do that doesn’t it?  There was one other person who did say, it was not an allegory about Jesus, but I can’t remember his name, because he never wrote anything so no one ever read what he said about that. But everyone else who wrote anything – they did.

Now, he was really a superb exegete of the parables. When you think how everybody is allegorizing the parables, he refrains on most of the parables from doing it. There are a couple of parables that he allegorizes.   [Hard to hear] the guy be perfect, I mean he stands up against the whole world and he says, “No. This is not the way to interpret the parables” so Calvin is really very strong in not allegorizing the parables. He did a few, but very very few.

But with his death, the allegorical method continues to reign after the Reformation. Now with regard to interpreting the rest of Scripture, the allegorical method and chains of its interpretive process around the Scripture were broken once and for all. Never again will you start allegorizing a healing miracle of Jesus. Never again will you start allegorizing an argument of Paul in 1 Corinthians or something like that. That was over.

The chains of allegorical interpretation had it controlled Scripture for 1500 years.  That was broken with the Reformers. In every area but one.  And that one area – the parables – they continued to be allegorized.

Now the greatest interpreters of the Parables in the English speaking world in the 19th century – there was a man by the name of R.C. Trench. Archbishop R.C. Trench and his book, Notes on the Parables of our Lord was still being printed, just a few decades.  It might still be in print, still be being printed in that way, but it had a long long period. And after a literal interpretation of the parable, he gets to this deeper spiritual meaning.  The man going down to Jericho is Adam.  Jerusalem, the Heavenly city.  Jericho a profane city, a city under a curse.  The robbers are the Devil and his angels. Stripping him meant, they stripped him of his original robe of righteousness, leaving him half dead.  Let me read it all here.

“Covered with almost mortal strokes, every sinful passion and desire a gash from which the lifeblood of his soul is steaming – yet still maintaining a divine spark which might be fanned into flame.”

That was very very common terminology in the 19th Century.  Humans may have sinned, but they had a divine spark within them that could be fanned into flame by Christian teaching.

The priest and the Levite – the inability of the law to save. The Good Samaritan - Christ.
The Binding of wounds – the sacraments which heal the wounds of the soul.  The oil is the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  The wine is the blood of Christ’s passion.  The inn is the church.  The two denarii are all the gifts and graces, sacraments, powers of healing, of remission of sins. “Whatever more you spend” – reward for righteous service.

One other. 

Placing the man on the beast and walking alongside reminds us of Him, who though He was rich yet for our sakes became poor.  So 1800/1843, 41 when this was published.  This is the dominating way of interpreting the parables. Allegorically. 1800 years of allegorical domination of the parables.

Let me stop there and see how we are doing.  We are going to get 1888. It is the turning point. We will talk about that in just a minute. Alright?

“You ought to have more reverence for Scripture than to transfigure its sense so freely.” ~ John Calvin.

Probably the hardest thing for me is to find that there are liberals out there who don’t have a hard doctrine of inspiration at all.  But they treat the Bible much more reverently than the evangelicals do. For a lot of Christians, the Bible, you have a very very strong doctrine of inspiration, but you mustn’t believe it because it is play-dough.  You just shape it in whatever form you want it.

You know it is a scary thing to think that someday we who teach and preach the Word of God are going to have to stand before God and have to explain, “Thus saith the Lord” and quoted Scripture and explain Scripture and we were not saying what God was saying.  And for somebody like myself, my responsibility is really heavy, because I am teaching a couple of generations of preachers.

Student:  [Hard to hear] What do you think about sermons like that?

Dr. Stein: The way I would try to get an application is to make sure I know what the pattern of meaning is of the passage.  And then as I look for an implication that fits our situation, does it fit this pattern of meaning. I think God can at least respect us if we are trying to do that.  If we don’t care and we just do our thing, then I think the judgment is going to be strong and heavy. Heavy handed.

I mean we are saying, “This is what God is teaching and He is not teaching it. We are false witnesses.”

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