Justo L. “How the Bible Has Been Interpreted in Christian Tradition.”
In New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, 83-106. Nashville: Abingdon,
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HOW THE BIBLE HAS
BEEN INTERPRETED IN CHRISTIAN TRADITION
by JUSTO L. GONZALEZ
Christianity was born in the midst of a people who already possessed scriptures.
Although the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was not yet fixed, there was
general agreement as to a basic list of books regarded as authoritative.
From the very beginning, the early Christian community laid claim on these
Hebrew Scriptures as its own. Eventually, there would be debates between
Christians and Jews, as well as among Christians, about exactly which of
these ancient books--if any-should be considered "Scripture." Yet even
before such debates erupted it became clear that the vast majority of the
people of Israel would not accept the Christian understanding of Hebrew
Scripture. Christians claimed that Jesus of Nazareth, who had been-crucified
by order of the Roman Empire, was the Christ, the Messiah. Most Jews rejected
that claim. Such divergent understandings of the Hebrew Scriptures forced
Christians to interpret the texts anew, in order to show how they pointed
to Jesus as the Messiah. Thus it is true, as Rowan Greer has said, that
"basic to the task of the formative period is the transformation of the
Hebrew Scriptures so that they may become a witness to Christ (1)"'
THE EARLY CHURCH
In a way, the most important and urgent question the early church had to
face regarding biblical interpretation was that of the continuity or discontinuity
between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian gospel. This was the major
point at issue in the early conflict between Christianity and traditional
Judaism, at least as the book of Acts depicts it. Brought before the Sanhedrin,
first Peter and then Stephen claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus
are the fulfillment of Hebrew Scripture, and that any who oppose Christian
preaching are to be counted with those who in ancient times also opposed
the will of God. This the leaders of the Sanhedrin cannot accept, and it
is for that reason that Peter and John are flogged and Stephen is stoned.
Two main points are at issue here: the resurrection of Jesus (or his glorification,
for Stephen speaks of Jesus' being at the right hand of God, and not literally
of his being resurrected) and the interpretation of Scripture. Clearly,
the Leaders of the Sanhedrin cannot accept the claim that Jesus has been
raised from the dead. But closely tied to this is the fact that in order
to accept such a claim they would also have to agree to a particular interpretation
of Scripture; one that claims Jesus as indeed the Messiah announced by
the prophets and anointed by God for the salvation of Israel. Thus the
debate is not only about Jesus and his resurrection, but also about the
meaning of Scripture. The first Christians - who are also Jews - claim
that Jesus is the fulfillment of Scripture and that there is a clear continuity
between the biblical tradition and their own teaching; the traditional
Jews reject that claim, seeing a radical discontinuity between their Bible
and what the Christians preach.
On the other hand, Christians were not the first to face the task of interpreting
the Hebrew Scriptures. On the contrary, from the very beginning the people
of Israel were constantly faced with the need to interpret the events of
their history and the writings that spoke of them. When the Hebrew prophets
looked at the exile and return from Babylon, they saw those events in the
light of their ancestors' bondage in Egypt and their liberation from that
bondage. Later, when they had to struggle against Syrian and Greek power,
they saw that struggle in the light of both the exodus from Egypt and the
return from exile. Thus the Hebrew Scripture that Christians claimed for
themselves contained much of the history of its own interpretation-indeed,
much of it was the record of that history.
The same is true of the part of the Bible that we now call the New Testament
(NT). The writers of the NT did not consciously set out to write Christian
scriptures parallel to those the church had in common with Israel. Rather,
they interpreted the events of Jesus' life and of the life of the church,
in the light of the ancient scriptures of Israel. In doing so, they provided
the earliest Christian interpretations of the Bible, and these in turn
came to form part of the Christian Bible-just as the prophets' interpretations
of the exodus came to form part of the Hebrew Bible (HB).
This article deals only tangentially with NT interpretations of Hebrew
Scriptures, centering attention on the history of Christian interpretation
outside the  NT.
Yet, it is important to remember that what we are retelling is not a history
that began after the writing of the NT, or apart from it, but a history
that actually continues the very process by which the entire Bible - Old
Testament (OT) as well as NT - was written.
Even among Christians, however, the issue was not simple. It was not just
a matter of reading through the entire OT and clearly seeing Jesus and
his message in every line. As any preacher or Sunday school teacher knows,
much in the OT is not easy to relate to the Christian message. There are
commandments to annihilate entire cities, destroying everyone and everything
in sight. There are instructions for worship and sacrifice that hardly
seem relevant. There are lists of names that are not even interesting.
What are Christians to do with all that, and many other similar materials?
A radical but rather simple solution was to reject the OT altogether. The
most famous early Christian leader to take this position was Marcion. The
son of a Christian bishop and a firm believer in Paul's message of grace,
Marcion came to the conclusion that the god of the OT is not the same as
the Father of Jesus Christ. It is not that the OT is false or is a human
invention that passes for a divine word, but rather that it is the revelation
of another god than that of the Christian gospel. Indeed, the good news
according to Marcion is precisely that-far above the vindictive, jealous,
punctilious god of the OT, who has made this world-there is the gracious,
loving, forgiving God of Jesus and Paul, by whose grace we are forgiven
Therefore, although the OT is trustworthy in the sense of being a true
revelation of a truly existing god, it is not authoritative, since the
one who is revealed in it is not the supreme, loving God of the gospel.
This interpretation of the OT and its contrast with the Christian message
is based on a similar contrast between cosmology and soteriology-between
Marcion's view of the world and his understanding of salvation. Marcion
sees no good in the physical world, which to him is nothing but a prison
in which spiritual reality - namely, human souls - is entrapped. The god
of the OT, the merciless Jehovah, is also a god whose values are so twisted
that after making this world he "saw that it was good." It is a god who
grants spiritual significance to material things, and for that reason requires
bloody sacrifices and burnt offerings. Jehovah's jealousy and vindictiveness
is all of one piece with his having created this physical world, in which
our souls are deceived and entrapped. In contrast to this god of creation
stands the God of salvation, whose message is one of pure love and grace.
This is the God of Jesus and of Paul, but certainly not of the OT, who
therefore must be rejected, not as false, but as radically discontinuous
with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jehovah is the creator and thus the god
of this world, but 
above him stands the Father, the "foreign God" whose message Christians
Oddly enough, this manner of interpreting the OT and its relationship to
the gospel, while having a strong anti-Jewish element, agrees with the
Jewish claim that there is no real continuity between the Hebrew Scriptures
and what Christians proclaim. Marcion and Judaism agree that Christianity
and Judaism are different religions, so that one is not a legitimate outcome
of the other. Their point of disagreement - and an all-important one -
is which of the two is legitimate.
Marcion's views were not entirely original or unique, for others, particularly
among the Gnostics, also disparaged the OT. Earlier in the second century,
a certain Cerdo, who probably met Marcion in Rome c. 140, taught that the
god of the OT is characterized by a sort of vindictive justice that is
contrary to grace. The Ophites (from the Greek ophis, "snake") made
the serpent the hero of the creation story, who helps humankind advance
from the ignorance to which the creator god had subjected them. Similar
views were held by other Gnostic sects of which little is known, such as
the Naasenes, the Cainites, and the Sethites.
The very number of people and sects holding to such negative views of the
OT shows how attractive they were. That attraction is easy to understand;
if one believes that the OT is the revelation of a different god, or of
a power of evil, one is excused from the need to interpret it. All the
difficulties disappear. It no longer matters that Jehovah ordered all the
people in Jericho to be slaughtered, or that there are strange laws and
rituals in Leviticus and Numbers, or that Jehovah boasts of being "a jealous
God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the
fourth generation of those who reject me." It is now possible to start
anew, without any burdensome baggage of ancient scriptures.
This seemingly easy solution to the problem of OT interpretation, however,
creates new problems. Marcion's strongest critic was Tertullian, who combined
theological perspicacity with a keen sense of humor. Making fun of Marcion's
dichotomy between creation and redemption, Tertullian complains that Marcion's
God has not made even a miserable vegetable, while the supposedly inferior
god was making and ruling all of this world. Where was Marcion's God all
the while? Centuries later, Esnik of Colb, an Armenian who lived in the
posed a similar question: "Why did the Stranger not take pity on mankind
till twenty-nine generations were in Hell?" (3)
The point of such criticism should be clear: To deny all validity to the
OT is to turn Christianity into a religion that has nothing to do with
human history and to make its God a Johnny-come-lately whose supposed love
for humanity is thereby implicitly denied. Furthermore, Marcion's "solution"
was unacceptable to the vast majority of Christians for several other reasons.
It denied the doctrine of creation and, by implication, of providence.
By making the physical world evil, it tended to imply that the Savior could
not have come in the flesh - Marcion himself appears to have denied the
physical birth of Jesus. For similar reasons, such a view had difficulties
with the doctrine of the final resurrection, so cherished by Christians.
For all these reasonsand many others - the early church was not ready simply
to discard the OT. It was precisely this decision to claim a body of Scripture
written centuries earlier and under different circumstances that made it
necessary for Christians to find ways to interpret the OT.
Before turning to that matter, however, it is necessary to point out another
contribution Marcion made to the history of the Christian Bible and its
interpretation: the very idea of a NT. From the beginning the Christian
church had adopted the OT as Scripture. Although from an early date specifically
Christian writings used as authoritative were in circulation - in particular
the Gospels and the letters of Paul - apparently no one saw the need to
compile and define a list of such specifically Christian Scriptures. It
was Marcion who saw that need, made urgent for him by his rejection of
the OT. If the OT is not revealed Scripture - or if it is the revealed
Scripture of the wrong god - Christians are left without any scripture
at all, unless they can take some of their earliest writings and declare
them to have the authority of inspired scripture. This was precisely what
Marcion. did. Since he was convinced than no one had understood the gospel
of grace as well as Paul, the Pauline epistles were the core of his canon.
To this was added the Gospel of Luke, on the basis that it was written
by Paul's faithful companion. Naturally, in order to be consistent, Marcion
had to expunge from this canon all references 
to the OT, which he declared to be Judaizing additions to the original
text. The main point, however, is that, having rejected the entire OT,
Marcion was forced to develop an alternative list of authoritative books,
and thus offered the first canon of the NT.
In any case, the early church had to interpret the OT so as to relate it
to the church's message and its own life. This process obviously started
the very day the church was born, for initially all its members were Jews,
who, therefore, sought to understand the events surrounding the life and
death of Jesus, and their own life as a community, in terms of the Hebrew
Scriptures. The entire NT stands as a witness to that process, for its
various authors are constantly relating their message to the sacred texts
of the Hebrew people. Sometimes the process and the issues it raises take
center stage, as in Paul's letter to the Romans, where the issue is precisely
how the message of Christianity relates to the revelation of God to Israel.
Yet, even when this question does not appear at the very center of theological
discourse, all the authors of the NT agree that there is a close relationship
between the OT and the gospel they proclaim. On this matter, as on many
others, the early church followed the lead of the NT writers.
Even after one has agreed that the OT, just as much as the NT, is Christian
Scripture, the question remains: How is the OT to be interpreted so as
to show and understand its relationship to the gospel? That was the central
question of biblical interpretation for the first generations of Christians,
and we will explore it in the next few paragraphs.
Before we tackle that exploration, however, it is important to remember
that the early church posed and experienced this question very differently
than we do today. To us, it seems quite obvious that the writer of Leviticus
or Isaiah deals with questions of his time, very different from those of
the early centuries of the Christian era or from those of our own time.
Our tendency, therefore, is to begin by trying to understand the original
meaning of a text, in its historic setting, and then ask how it relates
to our setting-or even if it relates at all. That was not the attitude
of the early church as it approached the OT - nor of any of the ancients,
as they approached any authoritative text whatsoever. They took for granted
that the text belonged to their community and referred to it, and from
that premise moved on to explore what the text actually said to them.
Rowan Greer has expressed these contrasting approaches:
To the modern reader,
early Christian interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures appear to be transformations
of the biblical text that alter its meaning. We tend to think of an original
sense, understood historically, and to regard theological interpretation
as a departure from the true meaning of the text. Nothing could be farther
from the point of view of religious writers in late antiquity. Pagan, Jew,
and Christian were united in assuming the general correlation of sacred
texts with the beliefs and practices of religious communities. Scripture
represented the authority for those beliefs and practices, but at the same
time the religious convictions of the community unveiled the true meaning
of Scripture. Far from supplying a new meaning, the transformations of
sacred books disclosed their true significance (4).
This point is crucial if we are to understand early Christian biblical
interpretation. If we forget it, it may appear to us at times that the
ancients are not taking the text seriously, but are interpreting it according
to their convenience, without regard for its historical setting and original
meaning. Were we to level such an accusation at them, we might be surprised
to hear them respond that it is we who do not take the text seriously,
for we seek to analyze it as an objective, lifeless reality, when in truth
it is a living text, whose significance is precisely in its relationship
to a living community of belief and practice.
Having raised that caveat, we may now explore the various manners in which
early Christian writers interpreted the biblical text. In this regard,
it has become customary among modern scholars to classify such interpretations
according to three categories: prophecy, allegory, and typology. That classification
is a valid tool, as long as one is not too rigid about it. Indeed, although
the ancients did distinguish in theory among these three methods of biblical
interpretation, in fact they often passed almost imperceptibly from one
to the other, and no ancient Christian writer is entirely consistent in
their use. Again, they were not as interested in the theory of biblical
interpretation as they were in helping the community hear the word of Scripture.
Therefore, when we today seek to systematize their hermeneutical principles
and procedures, we must be careful lest we forget the living faith and
the living community in which those principles and procedures were or were
Let us look first at prophecy, which is the ancient method of biblical
interpretations that modern readers will find less foreign, since it is
often applied to this day. Although in the Bible a "prophet" is not necessarily
nor primarily one who foretells the future, but rather one who speaks in
the name of God, in most early Christian literature the term prophecy is
already used, as it is today, in the sense of prediction. That is what
is meant by most ancient Christian writers, and by modern historians of
biblical interpretation, by a "prophetic" method of interpreting scripture.
Briefly stated, this method sees in the words of an ancient text an announcement
of something that would happen in the future-most commonly at the time
of Christ, but also at the time in which the interpreter is living. This
method is found throughout the NT, although not as often as one might think.
(As we shall see further on, much of what we tend to read as prophecy may
have been intended as typology.)
Prophecy is certainly a preferred method of reading the OT in the Gospel
of Matthew, where the theme of the fulfillment of prophecy appears repeatedly.
According to Matthew, the birth of Jesus "took place to fulfill what had
been spoken by the Lord through the prophet" (Matt 1:22 NRSV), and the
same is true of his birth in Bethlehem (Matt 2:5-6), the flight into Egypt
(Matt 2:15), the slaughter of the innocents (Matt 2:17-18), the decision
to settle in Nazareth (Matt 2:23), and a host of other events.
The same method was employed by other early Christian writers, both in
the NT and outside of it. Very soon lists of prooftexts seem to have developed
- what scholars call lists of Testimonia - for it is clear that different
authors, some of whom do not seem to know each other's work, are quoting
the same texts in a similar sequence. Whether such Testimonia were actual
written lists of texts and their interpretation, or were transmitted orally
through preaching and teaching - much as today's preachers borrow illustrations
from each other - is not clear. The discovery of a Jewish list of testimonies
at Qumran would seem to indicate that, even before the advent of Christianity,
there were such written lists, some of them defending or promoting particular
positions within Judaism, and that Christianity took up and adapted, if
not the lists themselves, at least the practice of developing and employing
Prophecy had the decided advantage that it was a fairly simple and straightforward
method of showing the continuity between the religion of Israel and Christianity.
Significantly, early Christian writers used prophecy, so to speak, "in
both directions": They used it, much as it still is used today in some
circles, to argue that Jesus was indeed the Messiah and that, therefore,
if Jews are to be true to their Scriptures, they must accept him as such.
But it was also used against Marcion and others who denied the authority
of the OT, in order to prove that the OT was indeed the word of God-if
Isaiah, for instance, predicted the virgin birth, this proves that Isaiah
must have been truly inspired.
One of the fullest ancient discussions on the interpretation of the OT
as prophecy referring to Jesus and his followers is to be found in Justin
Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho. In this work, Justin depicts himself
as debating the meaning of the OT with a Jewish scholar. According to Justin:
Sometimes He [the Holy
Spirit] uttered words about what was to take place, as if it was then taking
place, or had taken place. And unless those who read perceive this art,
they will not be able to follow the words of the prophet as they ought.
For example's sake, I shall repeat some prophetic passages, that you may
understand what I say. When he speaks by Isaiah, "He was led as a sheep
to the slaughter, and like a lamb before the shearer," He speaks as if
the suffering had already taken place (5).
Strictly speaking, this is what is meant by an interpretation of the OT
as prophecy. Note that, according to Justin, the words in such prophetic
utterances did not refer to either the prophet's own time or to the past,
but rather to the future - and this is true even when they are in the present
or the past tense. In this sense, then, a "prophecy" is a word or saying
whose true meaning is not revealed until its fulfillment in a future event.
While this method of biblical interpretation proved to be a powerful tool
for early Christian polemics, it clearly had its shortcomings. These are
mainly two. The first is that, although this method makes sense of a number
of passages, which then become favorite prooftexts, there are numerous
other passages for whose interpretation it is utterly useless. Were we
to read the entire OT, marking every single passage that could be considered
prophetic by any stretch of the imagination, still most of the OT would
remain unmarked. Lengthy legal and ceremonial sections, historical narratives,
poetry, and other materials are part of the OT, but they cannot be interpreted
as prophecy. What, then, do we do with such passages? Do we simply declare
that, because they do not foretell the future, they are not part of God's
revelation? Do we simply ignore them, declaring that they are no longer
relevant? The reading of the OT as prophecy, although applicable to some
passages, is useless for most others.
The second shortcoming of a reading of the OT as a series of prophecies
is that it makes the authority and the applicability of the text depend
on its fulfillment, and be limited to it. If what Justin says is true,
and the Holy Spirit directly inspired a prophet to utter words that referred,
not to the prophet's own time, but to events seven or eight centuries into
the future, the clear implication is that the words themselves made no
sense and had no value to the prophet, nor to all the intervening generations
until their fulfillment. Taking Justin's example of Isa 53:7, if the "sheep
led to the slaughter" is Jesus and none other, what meaning could these
words possibly have had for the prophet and his contemporaries? What meaning
could they have had for a devout Jew living in the fourth century BCE?
Or one could illustrate this difficulty with an example of some of the
modern interpretations of the book of Revelation. According to one of those
interpretations, quite popular a few decades ago, the "beast" in Revelation
whose number is 666 was none other than Soviet communism. Does that mean
that this particular passage had no meaning for those first readers in
Asia Minor to whom it was addressed? That it had no meaning for the many
generations of Christians who have lived between the first and the twentieth
centuries? That it had to wait for Stalin and communism in order to become
significant for the church?
such difficulties as these made other methods of biblical interpretation
necessary. One of these other methods was allegory. Christians did not
invent or create the allegorical method of interpretation, just as they
were not the first to read the OT as a series of prophecies. On the contrary,
allegorical interpretation of sacred and other ancient texts had been common
practice in the Mediterranean basin long before the advent of Christianity.
Among the Greeks and those who shared their cultural inheritance, it had
become customary to interpret the ancient myths, particularly the poems
of Homer and Hesiod, as allegories referring to various virtues or to the
truths expounded more systematically by later philosophers (6).
The same procedure had become popular among Jews. Some of the material
discovered in Qumran, as well as a number of rabbinic writings of the same
period, already provide
examples of allegorical interpretation of ancient texts. However, it was
particularly in Alexandria that this method of biblical
among Jews who sought to show to their pagan neighbors that the Hebrew
Scriptures were not as "barbaric" as might otherwise appear.
Already in the second century BCE, a certain Aristobulos wrote an Exegesis
of the Law of Moses, whose purpose was to demonstrate that "Moses"
had stated in allegory
the same truths that the Greek philosophers later expounded, and therefore
that whatever there was of value in Greek philosophy had
been taken from Jewish Scriptures. Along the same lines, Philo of Alexandria,
who was roughly a contemporary of Jesus, wrote extensively on the true
meaning of sacred scripture, interpreting it as a vast allegory, and thereby
making it compatible with what he and his contemporaries considered the
best of Greek
Allegory thus had the advantage that it allowed exegetes to respond to
those who objected that the biblical narratives were too crass and "unphilosophical."
According to those who interpreted Scripture allegorically, in such cases
the crassness resides not in the biblical text, but in the objection itself,
which does not realize that the Bible speaks in a "spiritual" sense.
For who that has understanding
will .suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening
and the morning, existed without a sun, a moon, and stars? and that the
first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as
to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise
in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and
palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained
life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating
what was taken from a tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise
in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose
that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries,
the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally
Probably the best way to communicate the essence of the allegorical method
of biblical interpretation  is
to examine the hermeneutical method of that master of allegorical interpretation
who wrote those words, Origen of Alexandria. Numerous allegorical interpretations
of various passages of the OT had been given by Christians before the time
of Origen. At some point in the second century, the author of the so-called
epistle of Barnabas made ample use of allegory-although not exclusively.
Later, just before the time of Origen, Clement of Alexandria likewise provided
a number of examples of such interpretations. But none of them equalled
Origen, the great teacher who flourished in Alexandria early in the third
Origen approached Scripture as both a devout Christian and a Platonist.
As a Christian, he was convinced that God spoke through the sacred text
and that such speech demanded obedience. It is easy to underscore the freedom
of interpretation that results from Origen's allegorical method so that
one forgets that he was a true and faithful son of the church, ready to
seek martyrdom at an early age and never teaching anything contrary to
Christian tradition. On the other hand, as a Platonist, Origen yearned
for eternal, immutable truth, the sort of truth that cannot be perceived
by the senses, and he expected every text of Scripture to yield that sort
of truth. He was also convinced that, just as the physical world points
to spiritual realities, so also do the words of Scripture point to a deeper
truth beyond their literal sense.
A parallelism between the tripartite composition of human beings and the
meaning of Scripture stands behind Origen's theory of the triple sense
of Scripture. According to him, a scriptural text usually has three meanings:
a literal or physical meaning, a moral or psychic meaning, and a spiritual
or intellectual meaning. The reference to the tripartite constitution of
a human being, as body, soul, and spirit, is obvious. These various meanings
are hierarchically ordered, just as body, soul, and spirit are hierarchically
ordered. And, just as body, soul, and spirit are all God's creation, so
also are all the various meanings of a text true and valid, although one
should always seek the higher meanings.
This is at least the theory behind Origen's exegetical method. In truth,
he seldom expounds a particular text according to its threefold meaning.
On occasion, he declares that a text is clearly metaphorical, so that a
strictly literal interpretation would be wrong. Such is the case, for instance,
of John 15, where Jesus speaks of himself as a vine. At other times, Origen
grows enthusiastic with the manifold meanings he can discover in a text,
so that rather than three he expounds four, five, or even more meanings.
Most often, however, he simply elucidates two senses, the literal and the
spiritual or allegorical. As R. P. C. Hanson, one of his foremost interpreters,
has said, "On the whole the `moral' sense plays no significant part in
Origen's exegesis, not because he had no occasion to draw edifying or devotional
lessons from the text of the Bible but because in the practical work of
expounding Scripture he found it impossible to maintain the distinction
between the `moral' and the `spiritual' sense, and the former became absorbed
in the later" (8).
In any case, what is important for our purposes is that Origen usually
approaches a biblical text seeking to discover a meaning hidden behind
the obvious words, and couched in allegory. In this general approach, he
was no innovator, for Jewish and Christian scholars alike had long found
it expedient to interpret the difficult passages allegorically. The author
of the so-called epistle of Barnabas, for instance, could make no
sense of a literal interpretation of the prohibition of eating pork, and
therefore declared that what this precept means is that believers must
not associate with people who remember their Master only when they are
in need, as pigs do when they are hungry (9).
Likewise, the commandment regarding circumcision referred to what Paul
calls the "circumcision of the heart," and it was an evil angel that led
Jews to take it literally (10).
What Origen did add to this approach, already quite common in his time,
was the thorough and systematic manner in which he applied it.
To Origen, the entire Bible is an allegorical document, and its unity is
such that the entire document must be used to interpret each of its parts.
This is a rather common hermeneutical principle, often expressed in our
days in statements like "The Bible is its best interpreter," or "A text
must be read in the light of its context." When Origen applies this principle,
however, what he means is that, since every word has a hidden meaning,
one must search throughout the Bible in order to find that meaning. R.
P. C. Hanson has collected a few of the hundreds 
of words to which Origen thus assigns an allegorical meaning:
"Horse" in the Bible
usually means "voice"; "today" means "the present age"; "leaven" means
"teaching"; "silver" and "trumpet" mean "word"; "clouds" . . . mean "holy
ones"; "feet" mean "the counsel by which we tread the journey of life";
"well" means "the teaching of the Bible"; "linen" means "chastity"; "thighs"
mean "beginning"; "unmixed wine" means "misfortune"; "bottle" means "body";
"secret" and "treasury" mean "the reason (11)."
A second hermeneutical principle to which Origen refers repeatedly is that
"nothing is to be said of God that is unworthy of him." In practical terms,
this means that any passage whose literal reading implies something unworthy
of the Godhead must be interpreted only in a "spiritual" sense. Obviously,
it also means that no allegorical interpretation must imply anything unworthy
of the divine. Such "unworthiness," however, must be understood not only
in the moral sense - God can do no evil - but also in the metaphysical.
In this sense, anthropomorphisms, or any hint of change in the Godhead,
must be rejected as unworthy of God.
Finally, a most important hermeneutical principle for Origen is that the
interpreter must be subject to "the rule of faith." Scripture is to be
interpreted within the community of faith, as that community's book, and
not as a private hunting ground for the exegete. Origen's understanding
of "the rule of faith" was rather wide; therefore, he felt free to speculate
on such matters as the preexistence of souls and the existence of past
and future worlds. Even so, he considers himself subject to "the rule of
faith," and will not knowingly contradict it-on occasion he warns his readers
that a particular interpretation, while not contradicting the doctrine
of the church, goes beyond what that doctrine has established and must
be taken as his own personal speculation.
Origen's understanding of the Bible as belonging to the church, and of
his own task as an interpreter as bound by the rule of faith, is crucial.
Without such restraints, Hanson's dictum would be true, that Origen "transforms
the Bible into a divine crossword puzzle the solution to whose clues is
locked in Origen's bosom" (12).
Hanson is correct in that Origen never gives sufficient reason for coming
to such conclusions as horse means "voice," and that linen
means "chastity." In that sense, it is true that the solution to the apparent
puzzle of the meaning of Scripture is locked in Origen's bosom. What is
not true, however, is that Origen is ready to interpret Scripture according
to his own personal whim, as if he stands alone before the sacred text.
On the contrary, he makes it very clear that the text belongs to the community
and that it must be interpreted on that basis.
Even though Origen considered himself a faithful exponent of Christian
truth, many of his contemporaries disagreed and considered him a heretic.
After his death, some saw in his teachings the germ of a number of controversies
and heretical doctrines that greatly distressed the life of the church.
By the sixth century, many of his more extreme views-and some that he probably
never held, but that were generally ascribed to him - had been officially
condemned as heretical. Throughout that process, many people believed that
the source - or at least the justification - of Origen's most outlandish
views was his allegorical interpretation of Scripture, which allowed him
to pour into the biblical text whatever doctrine he later wished to extract
from it. For that reason and others, although allegorical interpretation
continued to be quite common, it was distrusted.
Compared with prophecy, allegory had the advantage of being able to find
meaning in any and all texts of Scripture, while prophecy served only to
interpret those texts that
could somehow be shown to be fulfilled in later events. On the other hand,
it had the decided disadvantage of making the interpreter master of the
text and its meaning, rather than vice versa. The methods also coincide
in that the stress is on the words of the text, rather than in the events
to which a text refers. It is important to stress this fact, for modern
readers might be inclined to think that an allegorical interpretation makes
the words of a text less important, when in fact the opposite is true.
Since the sense of a text is to be found
in the hidden meaning of its words, every word is of utmost importance.
It is for this reason that Origen devoted so much effort to establishing
the exact text of Scripture, as witnessed by his monumental Hexapla. It
is also for this reason that, when two parallel texts differ, he feels
constrained to consider them altogether different - as in the case of the
Lord's Prayer, where Origen declares that the 
two texts that appear in the Gospels refer
to two separate occasions.
The main difference is that, while prophecy takes the words quite literally,
allegory takes them as profound metaphors needing to be elucidated. Also,
while prophecy usually looks to the fulfillment of a particular prediction
in a particular event, allegory tends to relate the text not so much to
events as to eternal and moral truths.
third method of biblical interpretation that was current in the early church
is typology. This method is discussed by Justin Martyr in the same text
that has been partially quoted above, in which he compares and relates
it to prophecy: "For the Holy Spirit sometimes brought about that something,
which was the type of the future, should be done clearly; sometimes He
uttered words about what was to take place, as if it was then taking place,
or had taken place" (13).
In this brief passage, it is important to note the contrast Justin makes
between "words" (logoi) and "types" (typoi). The first refer
to what we have called prophecy; there are words in the sacred text that
refer to future events-particularly the events of the life of Christ and
the birth of the church. In the "types," by contrast, what the Holy Spirit
directs is not the actual words of the writer, but the events of which
the writer speaks. Both point to the future, but in one case what points
to the future is the text itself, and in the other it is the event of which
the text speaks.
This may be clarified by means of some examples from Justin himself:
The mystery, then,
of the lamb which God enjoined to be sacrificed as the Passover, was a
type of Christ; with whose blood, in proportion to their faith in Him,
they anoint their houses, i.e., themselves, who believe in Him (14)."
In these three quotations, Justin actually uses the word type. What
he means by this is that there are past events and commandments ordained
and ordered by God so as to point to a future event-most often to Jesus
Christ and the Christian life. To a modern reader, such interpretations
may seem as far-fetched as the most capricious of Origen's allegories.
To the ancients, however, there was an important difference: While an allegorical
interpretation does away with the historical meaning of the text, a typological
interpretation sees the meaning in the earlier event itself, whose historicity
it does not deny. Justin does not say that the Jews were not supposed to
sacrifice the paschal lamb, or that to understand the passage in the OT
as referring to an actual lamb is a misinterpretation. On the contrary,
he asserts that God commanded that the paschal lamb be sacrificed, and
that God did this in order to have that lamb point to Jesus and his sacrifice.
This was what the ancients meant by "typology," and they often insisted
that it was very different from a mere allegorical interpretation. In typology,
the stress lies on the event itself - and not on the words-prefiguring
other events. This was stated quite clearly by Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons
late in the second century: "It is not by means of visions alone which
were seen, and words which were proclaimed, but also in actual works, that
He was beheld by the prophets, in order that through them He might prefigure
and show forth future events beforehand (17)."
And the offering of fine
flour, sirs .... which was prescribed to be present on behalf of those
purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration
of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed (15)."
Hence also Jacob . .
. being himself a type of Christ, had married the two handmaids of his
two free wives, and of them begat sons, for the purpose of indicating beforehand
that Christ would receive even all those who amongst Japheth's race are
descendants of Canaan, equally with the free, and would have the children
as fellow-heirs (16).
Although some of Justin's typological interpretations of events and commandments
in the OT, as quoted above, may appear artificial and even capricious to
most modern readers, they are in fact based on a coherent view of history.
Justin does not believe that he is bringing to the text or to the biblical
narrative an element foreign to it, but rather that he is uncovering the
relationship of that narrative to the entire course of human history, ever
since creation. For Justin, as for Irenaeus and other early Christians,
the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are not merely the result of
historical circumstance. They are not even God's last-minute remedy to
the human condition. They are, rather, the very goal of history, for which
God had planned from the beginning and to which all of creation and all
of history point. According to Irenaeus, the Word incarnate in 
Jesus was the model that God used in creating Adam and Eve. And according
to Justin, all of creation is patterned after the cross, which he sees
in the shape of sails and ploughs, and even in the human body:
For consider all the
things in the world, whether without this form they could be administered
or have any community. For the sea is not traversed except that trophy
which is called a sail abide safe in the ship; and the earth is not ploughed
without it: diggers and mechanics do not do their work, except with tools
that have this shape. And the human form differs from that of the irrational
animals in nothing else than in its being erect and having the hands extended,
and having on the face extending from the forehead what is called the nose,
through which there is respiration for the living creature; and this shows
no other form than that of the cross (18).
Thus typology involves an entire view of history and of the gospel within
it - as do also prophecy and allegory (19).
Allegory tends to look for eternal, perennial meanings in a text. Its interest
lies, not in history, but in eternal truth. Therefore, it reads the text
as a shadow or a sign of changeless realities beyond - much as Platonism
looks at the physical, changing world as a shadow of the intellectual,
changeless world. It is for this reason that "very often even when Origen
defends the historical truth of a passage it appears to be quite unrelated
to what he regards as its true meaning (20)."
Prophecy focuses on the historical fulfillment of a text and in this sense
places history closer to the center, but it still sees no meaning in history
except as the occasion on which someone was guided by the Spirit to speak
words relating to the future. Typology, however, goes beyond prophecy in
that it focuses on events at both ends of the equation; it is a matter
of events pointing to events. Although past events did point to Jesus Christ
- or to the life of the church - they did have meaning in themselves, for
they were part of God's guidance of history towards its goal.
Thus a single passage from the OT might be interpreted differently by Christians,
while still relating it to their own situation. Take for instance the well-known
passage from Isaiah 53:7: "He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and
as a sheep before her shearers is silent" (NIV). Interpreted prophetically,
this passage clearly refers to Jesus and to none other. Before the time
of Jesus, it had no meaning or applicability, except in pointing to the
future. After the time of Jesus, its only significance is in confirming
that Jesus is indeed the one announced by the prophet. If one interprets
it allegorically, one tries to find hidden meanings in words like lamb
or slaughter, and one may come to the conclusion that the passage
means, for instance, that true virtue, like a sheep, does not defend itself,
but is willing to give of itself to others, as a sheep goes before the
shearer in order to give up its wool, which will warm and comfort others.
If one interprets the passage typologically, one will agree that the passage
refers to Jesus, but that this is so because God has so ordered history
that the just are repeatedly killed and persecuted for the redemption of
others. On this basis, it is quite possible that the passage, although
correctly applied to Jesus, originally referred to the prophet himself
or to Israel or to a particular leader. Also, since history continues along
the same pattern, it is also possible to apply the passage to ourselves
without thereby denying that it refers primarily to Jesus; when the church
suffers, the pattern of which the prophet spoke, and of which Jesus is
the supreme instance, appears once again.
These three methods of biblical interpretationprophecy, allegory, and typology
- were widely used in the early church. Virtually every ancient Christian
writer made use of prophecy, both because it was fairly simple and straightforward
and because there was a tradition of such interpretation. Prophecy, however,
did not apply to most of the OT; therefore, ancient Christians had recourse
in varying degrees to both allegory and typology.
Of these two, the most common in the very early church seems to have been
typology, which appears repeatedly in the NT. Paul employs it, for instance,
when he refers to "the spiritual rock that followed them [the ancestors
in the desert]" and then declares that "the rock was Christ" (1 Cor 10:4,
NRSV). He also applies the same method, although he calls it an allegory,
in Galatians 4, where he compares the son of the slave to the son of the
free; he does not mean that those events narrated in Genesis did not actually
take place or that their significance lies in some hidden meaning of the
words themselves, but that the events were a prefiguring of the present
situation of Christians. Even some passages that at first sight appear
to be cases of prophetic interpretation 
could also be typological in nature. For instance, when Matthew declares
that the flight into Egypt took place in order "to fulfill what had been
spoken by the Lord through the prophet, `Out of Egypt I have called my
son' " (Matt 2:15 NRSV), does he mean that the words were exclusively prophetic
in nature, with no reference to the Exodus, or does he mean that there
is a typological relationship between Israel's flight to and return from
Egypt, and similar events in the life of Jesus? Given the brevity of the
text, it is impossible to tell.
In any case, typology continued to be the most generally employed method
throughout the second century. The epistle of Barnabas, probably
written in the middle of that century, and often quoted as a prime example
of early allegorical interpretation, also makes ample use of typology.
Jesus "was to offer in sacrifice for our sins the vessel of the Spirit,
in order that the type established in Isaac when he was offered upon the
altar might be fully accomplished (21)."
And, "what do you suppose this to be a type of, that a command was given
to Israel, that men of the greatest wickedness, should offer a heifer,
and slay and burn it? . . . The calf is Jesus (22)."
At about the same time, bishop Melito of Sardis wrote a paschal homily
in which he declares of Jesus: "This is he who in Abel was slain, in Isaac
was bound, who in Jacob dwelt in a strange land, who in Joseph was sold,
who in Moses was cast out, in the lamb was sacrificed, and in David was
hunted, in the prophets was dishonoured (23)."
Other examples abound in the writings of other second-century writers,
such as Justin, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria.
With Clement, however, and especially with Origen, Christian allegorical
interpretation came to the foreground. It was in Alexandria that Philo
had earlier proposed and developed an allegorical reading of the Hebrew
Scriptures, which he used to show that they were compatible with the best
of the Platonic tradition. Clement and Origen followed the same path, although
now attempting to show the compatibility between Platonism and Christianity.
Since Platonism sought eternal, changeless truths, it was that sort of
truth that these Christian Platonists also sought in Scripture, and they
did so by means of allegorical interpretation.
In Origen himself, allegory showed both its versatility and its great dangers.
Therefore, while many followed Origen's method of allegorical interpretation,
others blamed Origen's "deviations" from Christian doctrine on that very
method. In fact, however, even those who criticized the allegorism of the
great Alexandrine would on occasion apply the same method. Such was the
case, for instance, with Methodius of Olympus, one of Origen's most vocal
critics late in the third century and early in the fourth, who nevertheless
wrote several treatises whose hermeneutical method is very similar to Origen's.
Others, such as Jerome and Augustine, were fascinated with the allegorical
method at an early age, but later abandoned it - or at least tried to limit
its more fanciful flights. In the preface to his Commentary on Obadiah,
Jerome tells us that in his youth he wrote a small work (now lost) on that
prophet, in which he interpreted the text allegorically. He bemoans having
done so and offers this new commentary as a corrective. Augustine followed
a similar path. He had been greatly aided by the allegorical interpretations
of Ambrose, which showed him that the Bible was not as inelegant as his
rhetorical training made it seem, nor as crude as the Manichees claimed.
One of his earliest writings, On Genesis Against the Manichees,
makes use of that insight, seeking to refute Manichean doctrine by means
of an allegorical interpretation of Genesis. This, however, did not prove
satisfactory, since the Manichees rejected all allegorical interpretation.
When, years later, Augustine took up again the task of commenting on Genesis,
he was much less inclined to interpret it allegorically. The very title
of his last commentary on that book of the Bible, De Genesi ad litteram
("On Genesis, literally") shows this trend in his thought. This evolution
in hermeneutical method was paralleled by a similar evolution in his theology.
At first, immediately after his conversion, Augustine wrote a series of
treatises in which the influence of Neoplatonism is so marked that some
interpreters have even doubted that they can truly be called Christian.
But later, particularly as his duties as a bishop and a teacher of the
church forced him to hold more closely to traditional Christian doctrine
and to avoid speculation that might lead others to err, Augustine was more
inclined to pay closer attention to the biblical narrative, and to 
the text embodying it, than to possible hidden meanings behind the text
Both Jerome and Augustine spoke Latin and were brought up in the Latin-speaking
West. Meanwhile, the leaders of the church in the Greek-speaking eastern
half of the Roman Empire continued the ancient ways of interpreting Scripture,
well aware of the differences and even tensions among various hermeneutical
approaches. Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, was very much influenced by
Origen, and repeatedly followed his lead in interpreting the Bible allegorically.
In his treatise On the Life of Moses, Gregory follows Origen's principle
of different levels of meaning in a text to the point of telling the entire
story twice - first from a literal standpoint and then interpreting the
entire life of Moses as a vast allegory referring to the mystical ascent
of the soul to God. Gregory's older brother, Basil of Caesarea - commonly
known as Basil the Great - followed a different course, pointing out the
dangers of allegory and insisting on a literal and historical interpretation
of the text. When, after Basil's death, Gregory decided to complete the
work that his older brother had been composing on the six days of creation,
he also decided quite consciously to avoid the allegorical interpretations
he so loved and to be faithful to his brother's intent by not departing
from the literal and historical meaning of the text.
The most consistent and coherent opposition to allegorical interpretation,
however, came from the school of Antioch. This was a city where Christianity
had flourished from an early date, if we are to believe the witness of
Acts. It was also, according to the same witness, the place where the followers
of Jesus were first called Christians. The church in that city had a very
clear and strong sense of history, not only because its own history went
back to NT times, but also because most of the events narrated in the Bible
were purported to have taken place nearby. Traffic between Antioch and
Palestine was constant. The Jewish population was numerous and was firmly
connected to its historical roots in Palestine. As a result, Antiochene
Christians were not as inclined as were the Alexandrines to think of "the
Holy Land" as an allegorical way to refer to heaven.
As a result, Antiochene exegesis had long been suspicious of allegory.
At least two of its earlier exponents, Paul of Samosata and Eustathius
of Antioch, had been condemned as heretics, and in both cases Origenists
played no small part. That system's last great teacher before the time
of Constantine, Lucian of Antioch, was later credited with having been
the real originator of Arianism - although that is a matter that scholars
debate. What is certain is that Lucian was one of the ablest biblical scholars
of his time, that his corrected text of the Septuagint (LXX) on the basis
of the Hebrew original gained wide acceptance, and that he was adamantly
opposed to allegorical interpretation. By the middle of the fourth century,
the leading figure of this school was Diodore of Tarsus, most of whose
works have unfortunately disappeared. We do know, however, that they consisted
mainly of Bible commentaries, and that in them he insisted on a grammatical
analysis of the text in order to reach its historical meaning, much as
Lucian had done, and to reject allegory as a means of biblical interpretation
- except in those cases in which the grammatical and literary analyses
show that the historical meaning of the text itself is allegorical. Later,
two of his disciples would become famous: the preacher John of Antioch,
whom posterity has dubbed Chrysostom (the golden mouthed) and the biblical
scholar and commentator Theodore of Mopsuestia, later known as "the Interpreter."
Although his knowledge of Hebrew appears to have been limited, Theodore
of Mopsuestia was well aware that there were disagreements between the
Hebrew text and the commonly accepted Greek translation-an awareness that
had earlier led Lucian of Antioch to work on a corrected version of the
LXX. In his writings it is clear that he is also aware that certain passages,
and even entire books of the Bible, are much easier to accept as sacred
Scripture if one is willing to allegorize them. A case in point is the
Song of Songs, which many had come to interpret as a vast allegory regarding
the love between the soul and God. Theodore read the text and came to the
conclusion that it is an erotic love poem. Rather than interpret it allegorically,
he would interpret it literally, and exclude it from the canon.
Unfortunately, Theodore's treatise On Allegory and History has been
lost. All indications are that in it he attacked allegorical interpretation
and expounded the theory behind typology. In any case, his extant works
suffice to give us a clear idea of his own exegetical method, and perhaps
even of its development during his own lifetime. In his commentary on Psalms,
which seems to be one of his 
earliest works, he takes for granted that the one who speaks in the Psalms
is always David, and that he does so as a prophet. While Theodore is aware
that a number of psalms refer to events after David's time - which shows
his historical perspicacity - this poses no major difficulty, for in such
cases David was prophesying about events to come. One notable characteristic
is that according to Theodore very few of these prophecies refer to Christ;
most refer to events in the history of Israel, such as the Babylonian captivity
or the struggles during the Maccabean period. Apparently, even at this
early stage in his career, Theodore was already looking to the historical
sense of a passage as the locus where its meaning is to be found.
This becomes even clearer in Theodore's Commentary on the Book of the
Twelve. In general, Theodore places each of the minor prophets approximately
in the historical setting in which modern scholars place them - except
that he takes the story of Jonah as a historical account and seeks to relate
it to the fall of Nineveh. Here, however, he departs from his assumption
in the commentary on Psalms, that a prophet must speak about the future.
On the contrary, most of the passages in the prophets refer to events in
the prophet's own time, or shortly thereafter. He has no use for an interpretation
that takes isolated verses or sayings from a prophet, and then decides
that these sayings relate to Jesus, while others refer to Zerubbabel or
to other events and people of the time. The prophets are speaking of their
own time and to their own time. The only passages that are given a direct
christological meaning are those that had long been defined as such by
their use in the NT, and the last two verses in Malachi, where he sees
an announcement of the coming of Elijah before the Second Coming of Jesus.
This manner of reading the prophets is grounded on Theodore's typological
understanding of the way in which the OT relates to the NT and to the life
of the church. He wishes to retain the relationship between the two testaments,
and to affirm that the OT does have a message for the Christian church.
But he is not willing to do this at the expense of the validity of OT passages
within their own historical setting. Both prophecy - which he had earlier
employed in interpreting the Psalms - and allegory which he seems to have
always rejected - fall short on this account; both make the OT relevant
for Christians at the expense of denying its historical relevance for Israel.
"He firmly believes that the Law foreshadowed Christ. But at the same time,
while he believes that all of God's revelation is summed up in Christ,
he refuses to allow that the revelation God gives of Himself in the Old
Testament is meaningless apart from Christ (24)."
This is the reason why Theodore rejects both allegory and prophecy: Both
deny ultimate revelatory significance to the historical events of which
the text speaks. He makes this point in attempting to respond to those
who argued that Paul himself had used allegorical interpretation, for in
Galatians 4 he says that the story of Sarah, Hagar, and their two sons
is an allegory. Theodore responds that in this case Paul is not using the
term allegory in the same sense in which allegorical interpreters
use it. Paul is denying neither the reality nor the significance of the
story of Hagar and Sarah; rather, he is comparing events of the past in
which God was active with events of the present in which God is similarly
active, which is the very essence of typology. Thus, although Paul calls
it an allegory, his interpretation is typological.
THE MIDDLE AGES
Jerome died in 420, Theodore in 428, Augustine in 430. Not only were the
great interpreters of Scripture dying, but so was the ancient world. Ten
years before the death of Jerome, Rome was sacked by the Goths. Soon the
entire western portion of the Roman Empire would be divided among several
Germanic kingdoms. In the centuries that ensued, when civil disorder, foreign
invasion, and economic chaos were common occurrences, most of the science
and wisdom salvaged from antiquity took refuge in the church and its institutions,
particularly monasteries. As a result, for centuries the Bible was read
through monastic eyes.
This was no longer an age of avid research. It was a time when much of
the historical and linguistic knowledge of the past was forgotten, and
when, therefore, the kind of exegetical study that Theodore of Mopsuestia
had modeled was no longer possible. The main source of philological and
historical knowledge that these centuries employed, the Etymologies
of Isidore of Seville, while compiling an 
enormous amount of material, were often more fanciful than factual.
Reading the Bible through monastic eyes meant two things. It meant first
of all that the Bible was usually interpreted as a call to monastic renunciation
and contemplation. Gregory the Great, the main authority through whom the
Middle Ages received the legacy of Christian antiquity, read the Bible
primarily as a manual on morality and asceticism. During Gregory's time,
and in the centuries immediately following, there was much less doctrinal
and theological debate than there had been at the times of Origen or Augustine.
Only in the ninth century, during the brief revival in learning brought
about under the Carolingians, was there a measure of theological debate
- and in those debates the Bible was indeed used as the main point of reference
for correct doctrine. But by and large, Gregory and his successors for
five centuries did not have to cope with significant theological dissent.
Their struggle was more against the temptations of "the world" - and it
was as an aide in that struggle that the Bible was most often read and
interpreted. This, in addition to the lack of adequate tools for historical
and linguistic research, meant that the most profitable and accessible
way to interpret Scripture was as a vast moral allegory. Not only the Song
of Songs, but also the stories of Moses, Job, and Ezekiel are in fact parables
or metaphors referring to the soul's ascent to God and the many perils
and temptations it finds along the way. Therefore, reading the Bible through
monastic eyes first meant reading it allegorically, even when-as was the
case with Gregory - one repeatedly denounced the dangers implicit in fanciful
flights of allegorical interpretation.
Reading the Bible through monastic eyes also meant reading it in the context
of prayer and worship. What one must always keep in mind is that such use
is in itself a form of interpretation. A reading of Isaiah 53 on Good Friday,
for instance, is already an interpretation of that passage, even if no
further words of explanation are added - and, as the same reading is repeated
in the same liturgical context year after year, the interpretation implied
by that setting becomes normative. Medieval monasticism, centering its
life as it usually did on communal worship, developed its own traditions
of biblical interpretation. Sometimes these traditions were expressed in
treatises on the use of the Bible in worship, such as those of Bruno of
Wurzburg in the eleventh century; but most often they were tacitly accepted
as the normative interpretation of particular texts. In any case, the influence
of these traditions can be traced far beyond the confines of monasteries,
for as theology and biblical interpretation found wider fields of activity,
they continued much of the legacy they had received from monastic liturgical
interpretation. (It has often been remarked, for instance, that Martin
Luther interpreted the psalms christologically as referring to Jesus. The
reason why he did this, even long after leaving the monastery, is that
when he was a monk he had grown accustomed to hearing and repeating particular
psalms in specific settings of the liturgical year: Advent, Christmas,
Good Friday, etc.)
The twelfth century brought about both a revival of monasticism and the
beginnings of new conditions that would eventually lead to an alternative
way of reading the Bible. The outstanding figure in the monastic revival
was Bernard of Clairvaux, who brought the tradition of monastic biblical
interpretation to its high point. Devoted as he was to the contemplation
of the humanity of Christ, Bernard paid attention to the historical, literal
meaning of the NT, particularly the Gospels. However, his main purpose
in reading Scripture was not to inquire what the sacred text says in itself,
or what it was intended to say when it was written, but to benefit the
soul in its quest for union with Christ. Read in the context of the monastic
community, the text could yield a variety of meanings, according to the
needs of each soul. Since the goal of the reading of Scripture is not knowledge,
but the love of God, every reading that leads to such love is true and
faithful. It is precisely this spiritual purpose of union with Christ that
gives Scripture its unity; therefore, Bernard and his followers felt quite
free to interpret the Bible allegorically - particularly the OT, which
must be read in such a way as to find Christ in every single page.
Thus, in spite of his deep respect for Scripture, Bernard could declare:
"I no longer wish to listen to Moses, whom I find to be no more that a
stutterer. Isaiah's lips are unclean. Jeremiah cannot speak, for he is
but a child. Actually, all the prophets are mutes. Let me rather listen
to Him of whom they speak (25)."
Schools and Medieval Universities. On the other hand, the twelfth century
saw a parallel development that would soon lead to a different way of reading
the Bible. With the growth of cities, cathedral schools began to rival
monasteries as centers of learning, and a number of them eventually developed
into universities. In these cathedral schools, and later in the universities,
one read the Bible mainly as a source of knowledge and as a means of settling
intellectual disagreements and disputes. The earlier centuries of the Middle
Ages had been remarkably free of theological controversy; those that did
arise were often mere repetition of debates that had taken place during
the patristic period and thus often could be solved on the basis of patristic
authority. The main opponents of most monastic readers of Scripture in
the early Middle Ages were the devil, the flesh, and the world. It was
as a shield against these opponents that such monks read the Bible, seeking
guidance, inspiration, and wisdom. Beginning in the twelfth century, and
flowering in the thirteenth, a new mood arose, particularly in the universities.
Although the devil, the flesh, and the world were still considered the
great enemies of the Christian life, the scholastics read the Bible as
a source of knowledge and of arguments against those who disagreed with
them. Thus once again, as had been the case during the great theological
debates of the fourth and fifth centuries, the Bible tended to become the
great arbiter in theological debate, rather than the guidebook leading
the believer in the paths of faith and righteousness. One could say that
while traditional monasticism read the Bible in quest of wisdom, the scholastics
read it in quest of knowledge - although such contrasts should not be exaggerated,
since most scholastics were also monks.
Since the cathedral schools were the forerunners of the great medieval
universities, it is to them that one must look for the historical background
of scholastic biblical interpretation. One of the main activities of such
cathedral schools was the development, compilation, and transmission of
glosses to the biblical text. The master of a cathedral school would gather
bits of information from earlier writers, which might clarify (or amplify)
the meaning of a text, and would write such bits between the lines or at
the margin of the text itself. Sometimes, although not usually, he would
also add his own views or brief comments. Copied down by students and others,
such glossae circulated widely among scholars. Since by their very nature
they were compilations of previous wisdom, they influenced each other,
so that the task of determining what comes from a particular master is
almost impossible. Until the twelfth century, these various glossae were
generally fragmentary, usually dealing with no more than a particular book
or section of Scripture. Early in the twelfth century, however, Anselm
of Laon, with the support and collaboration of several colleagues and students,
set out to compile a gloss of the entire Bible. With constant addition
and variation, this became known as the Glossa ordinaria, one of
the main tools biblical scholars and commentators employed throughout the
rest of the Middle Ages. Following its example and methodology, a number
of these scholars produced fuller glosses on parts of Scripture, and these
too became widely used. Most notable among them was the Magna glosatura
of Peter Lombard on the Pauline epistles and the Psalter, which was not
quite as influential in later scholasticism as were his four books of Sentences,
but it did influence the manner in which the rest of the Middle Ages read
Paul's works. In any case, since such glosses were mostly compilations
of earlier views, they did not add much to the interpretation of Scripture,
except by establishing standard interpretations of particular texts.
Some of the masters of cathedral schools also produced commentaries on
entire books of the Bible. By the middle of the twelfth century, there
were numerous commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, and their
number was growing rapidly. Greatly dependent on the glossae as they were,
and written at a time when individual scholarship and authorship were not
particularly prized, there is much repetition and similarity among these
various commentaries. They were generally intended as an aid to preaching
and teaching; therefore, their tone is often homiletical and hortatory.
It has been pointed out that one of the main difficulties the authors of
these commentaries found was the ancient tradition that distinguished between
a "literal" and a "spiritual" sense in Scripture (26).
By then, partly as a reaction to the excesses to which extreme allegorization
could lead, it had become generally recognized that one should pay particular
attention to the "literal" meaning of a text. This included not only grammatical
commentary but also an exposition of the meaning of the text within its
historical setting - to the degree that such was possible with the often
scant knowledge of history that the Middle Ages possessed. Such "literal"
meaning could not be bypassed in favor of the "spiritual." Nor should the
two be confused. Therefore, the master was expected to give clear indication
of when he was interpreting a text "literally" or "spiritually." The "spiritual"
interpretation provided the master opportunity to apply the text to the
religious and moral life, often by means of typology or of allegory. Most
often, such spiritual interpretation was in truth a moral exposition, exhorting
the student or the reader to greater effort in the pursuit of virtue.
The difficulty was that, while the early scholastic commentators felt compelled
to follow the traditional distinction between the literal and the spiritual,
they had no clear theological framework to guide them in the application
or evaluation of that distinction. On the one hand, the "literal" sense
must govern all interpretation and must never be ignored, while, on the
other hand, the "spiritual" was considered to be more valuable, for it
dealt with permanent truth rather than with transitory events or things.
Thus the early scholastic commentators found themselves at an impasse produced
by the unavoidable tensions between their insistence on the value of the
"literal" sense and their reliance on a Platonic metaphysics and epistemology.
To them, true knowledge must be the knowledge of eternal, changeless reality,
and such knowledge does not come through the senses. At best, sense perception
leads to a pale imitation of eternal truth. At the worst, it leads to self-deception.
How then can the "literal" meaning of Scripture lead to the "spiritual"?
It was left to Thomas Aquinas to propose a way out of this impasse-which
he conceived in terms of his own Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology.
Thomas believed that the senses played an important and necessary role
in knowledge, which vas based on the knowledge of concrete, historical
reality. He was, therefore, quite ready to admit that the author of a biblical
text could not know all that the text itself would later come to mean in
God's providence, as history unfolded. That original meaning is the "literal"
sense. It is normative and must never be abandoned or contradicted. Later
interpreters, being in a relatively privileged position because they know
later history, can and should interpret the text according to the meaning
learned from that history and from their present circumstances. This is
the "spiritual" meaning of the text. The use of a text in order to derive
such "spiritual" meanings is quite legitimate and even necessary, for without
it the text would remain in the past, and not directly apply to different
circumstances. Yet only the "literal" meaning has final authority, in the
sense that it requires acceptance by all and can thus serve as the basis
for theological argument.
The literal sense was
defined as the sacred writer's full original meaning. It included the whole
message which he meant to convey at the prompting of his inspiration for
the benefit of his public whether present or future .... The spiritual
sense was defined as the meaning which God, the chief author of Scripture
and of the events it describes, had put into sacred history. The sacred
writers, who took part in it, could not understand a significance which
had not yet been revealed. Their successors would discern it in the light
of subsequent revelation. Thomas deduced from his premise that no argument
could be drawn from the spiritual interpretation, but only from the literal.
The spiritual could be used for edification of the faithful, but not for
It was not only in commentaries, sermons, and glossae that the scholastics
used the Bible. As has been indicated above, one of the characteristics
of scholasticism was that it tended to read the Bible as a source of knowledge
and theological argument, rather than as a book of edification, as was
customary in traditional monasticism. The reading of Scripture in the context
of theological debate, and as a source of knowledge and ammunition to be
employed in such debates, was further stimulated by the scholastic method
itself. The scholastic academic exercise par excellence was the
disputatio. This usually dealt with a very specific question-for
instance, "whether, as the eternal Word of God, the knowledge of Christ
actually includes infinite objects (28)."
The Thomist definition
gained general acceptance, hesitating at first in some quarters, but later
carrying conviction. It disposed of the difficulties arising from metaphor
and prophecy and focused interest on the writer's original meaning. It
restricted the use of moralities in political propaganda, where they caused
most muddle . . . . On the other hand, lecturers made free with Thomas's
permission to use the spiritual senses for edification. What master would
have cared to deprive his pupils of instruction in the technique of preaching?
Allegories and moralities, no longer "higher" or "nobler," remained indispensable.
They would last in exegesis just as long as the medieval sermon lasted
The question itself was sometimes chosen in
advance, and sometimes at the very beginning of the "disputation," depending
on the nature of the exercise. There followed a process whereby those present
- often including the public - were allowed to list arguments both for
a positive and for a negative answer. These arguments, following the example
of the glossae, usually consisted of brief quotations from Scripture, patristic
literature, the philosophers, and other authorities. It was up to the teacher
leading the exercise to come up with a solution that included not only
his own answer, but also a response to all the objections raised in the
previous section. The result was a literary structure that became characteristic
of much scholastic theological literature: A question is posed, followed
by two lists of arguments that seem to lead in contradictory directions,
then by the author's answer to the question, and finally by a "solution"
to each argument on the other side-a solution that cannot deny the authority
of the texts quoted, but must interpret them in such a way as not to contradict
the author's answer to the question.
As a result of such methodology, not only the Bible but all ancient authorities
tended to be read and employed as sources for proof texts. There was no
room for extended exegesis of a passage, nor for its use in edification,
consolation, or moral exhortation. The quote would be brief and must be
employed to prove a point. If there is any consideration of the context
- which is seldom the case - this appears only in the author's "solution"
to the objections, in which sometimes it is argued that, in its proper
context, the text quoted has a different meaning.
Finally, in order to complete the picture of biblical interpretation during
the Middle Ages, a word must be added regarding the pursuit of what today
we would call "biblical scholarship," particularly with reference to the
study of the original languages of Scripture. The commonly held notion
that the Middle Ages had no interest in such matters must be corrected.
It is true that most medieval theologians and scholars relied exclusively
on the received text of the Vulgate (Vg), and that Hebrew and Greek were
not part of the normal theological curriculum. Yet that is not the entire
picture. Jerome was commonly regarded as a paradigm of biblical scholars,
particularly since he had produced the Vg. And Jerome himself had made
it quite clear that the task of translation always involves interpretation.
Therefore, the knowledge of the biblical languages, and of the customs
and traditions that stand before them, was a common desire among medieval
scholars, even though few attained such knowledge. Wherever anti-Semitic
prejudice and violence did not preclude it, Christian scholars sought to
learn from Jewish rabbis, not only the Hebrew language, but also the traditions
and customs that might serve to illumine the meaning of the biblical text.
This was particularly true in Spain, where centuries of social exchange
among Jews, Christians, and Moslems had produced an openness that did not
exist elsewhere in Europe-until, toward the end of the Middle Ages, Spain
became as intolerant as the rest of Western Europe.
Nor is it true that medieval scholars were unaware of variants in the text
of the Bible and in other ancient writings. In fact, there were lists of
such variants and attempts at correcting various readings What is true
is that, lacking the printing press, and therefore a means to produce texts
guaranteed to be identical, the task of spending long years of arduous
work comparing manuscripts in order to establish a text, and then to entrust
it to the same process of copying that had introduced the variants in the
first place, seemed futile.
All of these currents were present in the sixteenth century. The traditional
monastic reading of Scripture, as a source of wisdom and edification rather
than of knowledge and doctrine, was typical of the monastic revival that
centered in Spain around such figures as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John
of the Cross, Fray Luis de Leon, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Although all
of them could on occasion make use of the Bible as a tool in controversy,
their usual reading of the sacred text was as a guide for the life of monastic
renunciation, rather than as a manual of theology.
The scholastic reading of Scripture, and even much of the scholastic method
that was closely associated with it, continued in the work of a number
of Catholic theologians, much of whose work was quite independent from
anti-Protestant polemics, such as the great Dominican professor at Salamanca,
Domingo Banez (1528-1604). At the same university, another Dominican scholar,
de Vitoria (1492-1546) applied the traditional scholastic method to an
entirely new theological problem in his lectures On the Indians.
Thomas de Vio Cajetan (1468-1534), who became involved in the issues regarding
the Protestant Reformation because he was papal legate to Germany when
the Reformation erupted, developed much of his theology along traditional
lines. His Commentaries on the Summa, published from 1507 to 1522,
in general reflect the same exegetical and hermeneutical methods that Thomas
Aquinas had developed.
As anti-Protestant polemics came to the foreground in Catholic theology,
the scholastic method proved particularly useful. Here was a method whose
characteristic reading of Scripture was doctrinal and polemical. In its
traditional form, it had developed subtle distinctions and had even created
disagreement and debate where there was none, for the very sake of its
method. Now that some of the central doctrines of Christianity were debated,
most traditional theologians sought to refute the reformers by means of
a similar method. In the polemical writings of theologians like John Eck
(1486-1543), James Hochstraten (1460-1527), and James Latomus (1475-1544),
one can see the scholastic method of reading Scripture, now applied to
the task of refuting the doctrines of Protestantism.
It was the thrust of anti-Protestant polemics that led the Council of Trent
(1545-63) to its two major decisions regarding the Bible and its authority
(The Council also defined the canon of Scripture, but this was not then
at issue between Protestants and Catholics; in any case, all that it did
in this respect was to ratify the decisions of the earlier Council of Florence.)
The most momentous declaration of Trent regarding Scripture had to do with
its authority vis-a-vis the authority of tradition. In this regard, the
Council decreed that on matters of faith and morals the books of Scripture
were to be held "in equal devotion and reverence" with the tradition of
the church. Almost one fourth of those present at the Council would have
preferred the use of the word similar rather than equal,
but they were outvoted. It also appears that most of those who voted for
the final decree did not intend to say that tradition was an independent,
or even a parallel, source of Christian doctrine, but simply that Scripture
should always be interpreted in agreement with it. In any case, this decree
left its mark on Roman Catholic biblical interpretation, at least until
Vatican II reopened the issue. This, however, did not mean that all was
settled, for it is quite clear that there are many different and even contradictory
elements in Christian tradition; thus there was still ample room for argument
and disagreement. What it did mean was that the theological and hermeneutical
debate would often turn away from Scripture to the issue of what tradition
actually held - theologians who disagreed on the meaning of a biblical
text were to settle their differences, not exclusively or even primarily
by examining the text itself, but by searching the tradition. It was also
unclear how far that tradition extended. Most Protestant theologians agreed
on granting at least a measure of authority to the patristic tradition,
as illumining the meaning of the biblical text. But the Council of Trent,
and particularly its more extremist interpreters, understood by "tradition"
all the teachings and declarations of the church and its teachers, including
those of the medieval scholastics and even the present magisterium of the
The second momentous decision of the Council of Trent was its declaration
that the Vg edition of Scripture was to be "taken as authentic in public
readings, disputations, preaching, and exposition." The Council issued
this decree as a response to those reformers who based some of their arguments
on the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible, and also to the proliferation
of vernacular translations that seemed to undercut a number of doctrines
based on the Vg. The mood of the more conservative elements in the Council
was expressed by a Spanish cardinal who declared that vernacular translations
were "mothers of heresy" and should, therefore, be forbidden-or at least
limited to less dangerous books like Psalms and Acts. Although his extreme
position did not win the day at Trent, soon many among the more conservative
Catholics interpreted and applied the decrees of the Council along those
Strictly speaking, the Council left much room for maneuvering: It did not
determine which of the many variant Latin texts were to be regarded as
authentic; it reaffirmed the authority of the Hebrew and Greek texts; and
it neither precluded nor prohibited new translations. Yet, partially as
a response to the concern of those who feared that vernacular 
translations would result in heresy, the Council ordered that such vernacular
versions be published with explanatory notes. The main purpose of these
notes vas to ensure that the biblical text was interpreted according to
the teachings of the church. (As a reaction to this policy, Protestant
Bible societies developed their own policy to publish the Bible "without
notes.") In practical terms, this conciliar decision tended to limit the
freedom of biblical scholars and interpreters. As the Roman Catholic Church
became more conservative, and its translations of the Bible into the various
vernacular languages were based on the Vg instead of the original languages,
Catholic believers throughout the world were placed at a decided disadvantage
This does not mean that biblical scholarship ceased. On the contrary, the
quest for the original text and its meaning continued and even flourished
after the end of the Middle Ages. The fall of Constantinople (1453) brought
to Western Europe a flood of Greek manuscripts and scholars, which led
to a revival in Greek studies in the West. The invention of the movable-type
printing press made scholars increasingly aware of the degree to which
manuscripts had been corrupted as they were copied and recopied, and for
the first time provided the opportunity to produce multiple copies of an
identical text. The result was a veritable flood of critical editions of
The scholar whose name has become indissolubly united with this movement
is Erasmus of Rotterdam. He tended to read the Bible much as the earlier
monastic tradition had done, as a source of wisdom and moral inspiration.
Yet it was not his interpretation of the Bible, but his more scholarly
work on its actual text, that proved to be most significant. His edition
of the Greek NT, published in 1516, marked a new age in biblical scholarship.
In 1520, a group of scholars at the university of Alcala in Spain, under
the direction of Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, published the
Complutensian Polyglot Bible, which included texts in Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic,
and Latin. Ximenes himself was aware of the impact such studies could have
on theology, for on receiving the first volume of this Bible he declared
that it "opens the sacred sources of our religion, from which will flow
a theology much purer than any derived from less direct sources" (30)
- a view that, had it been professed a generation later, would have been
declared to be heretical. Even after the anti-Protestant reaction had made
statements such as Ximenes' questionable, Catholic scholars continued this
tradition of biblical scholarship. In 1568-72, Benito Arias Montano, at
the behest of Philip II, published in Antwerp a polyglot Bible that included
texts in Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac as well as a literal Latin translation.
In 1597, the sixteen volumes of Alfonso Salmeron's Commentaries on the
New Testament were published posthumously; Salmeron was one of the
original companions of Ignatius in the founding of the Jesuits. Although
the seventeenth century did not see an equal production of Catholic biblical
scholarship, the tradition continued until it once more came to the foreground
in modern times.
All of these traditions of biblical scholarship and interpretation merged
and took new forms in Martin Luther. As an Augustinian canon, he had learned
and always continued to practice the medieval monastic tradition of reading
Scripture for wisdom and edification. As a doctor and professor of Bible,
he was well aware and made use of the scholarly and philological work of
Erasmus and his medieval predecessors. As a reformer, he soon found himself
involved in controversies that forced him to read Scripture as a source
of doctrine and knowledge - although he never did this after the manner
of the scholastics.
The study and interpretation of the Bible was one of Luther's paramount
concerns even before the beginning of the Reformation. Luther's other main
concern, which soon coalesced with his biblical interpretation, was the
quest for redemption and its meaning. A modern scholar has correctly assessed
the importance of biblical interpretation for Luther in declaring that
"it was as a Biblical theologian that Luther understood himself and wanted
others, both his friends and his enemies, to understand him .... It was
as a Biblical theologian that he took up polemics. In fact, it was as a
Biblical theologian that he became the Reformer (31)."
Although Luther has become famous for his principle of sola scriptura,
it is important to note that for him the "Word of God" was much more than
Scripture. According to the Bible itself, the Word of God is none other
than God: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and
the Word was God" (John 1:1 NRSV). Furthermore, the Word is God in action.
When God speaks, God does. "God said, `Let there be . . . ' and there was"
(see Genesis I ). What this means is that God's Word, more than mere information
that can be contained in a written page, is action - creative and redemptive
action. This action comes to us primarily in Jesus Christ, and comes to
us through history. Although Christ is also the cosmic Second Person of
the Trinity, it is in his historical act of redemption, and in the community
of the faithful, that we come to know him. Thus the Word of God comes to
us primarily as an act of redemption - even though that Word has already
been active in the world since the very act of creation. For these reasons,
although Luther held great respect for the Bible, insisting on its primary
and unique authority, for him the Bible is the Word of God in a derivative
sense, because it contains the record of the actions of the Word of God
on our behalf.
This provided Luther with an argument against those who declared that,
since the church had determined the canon of Scripture, the church had
authority over the Bible. It is also the reason why many of Luther's statements
regarding Scripture prove so shocking to those who hold to biblical inerrancy.
As to the first, Luther simply declared that it was not the church, but
the gospel, that produced the Bible. All the church did was to recognize
the gospel in certain books, and not in others. Ultimately, the gospel
-t he redemptive action of God - is above bath the church and the Bible.
For the same reason, those who hold fast to the inerrancy of Scripture,
even at the expense of the gospel, are themselves in error, for they read
the Bible as a book of information about the world and about God rather
than as a book of gospel and redemption. "Luther recognized mistakes and
inconsistencies in Scripture and treated them with lofty indifference because
they did not touch the heart of the Gospel (32)."
It is for this reason that he can declare that James is "an epistle of
straw," for he cannot find the gospel in it. It is also for that reason
that he feels free to apply the methods of scholarship to the biblical
text, with no fear that it will thereby lose its authority.
When reading the Bible for edification, and even for non-polemical theological
argument, Luther's reading is often typological, and may even lapse into
allegory. Yet he also agreed with Thomas Aquinas that when it came to theological
debate only the literal meaning should be employed. Hence, "Luther's insistence
that in a theological controversy, where proof rather than mere illustration
was needed, only the precise meaning of a Scriptural text was to be used.
He did not mean that it was altogether illegitimate to use Scriptural passages
for the illustration of a point analogous to their meaning. His sermons
and commentaries abounded with instances of just such use, some of them
skillful, others humorous. But he put such use of the Scriptures into the
same category as allegory. It was legitimate for illumination, not for
Calvin also insisted on the need to ascertain the historical meaning of
a text. Given his humanistic and legal training, he did this much more
consistently, and with a more critical approach, than Luther. "Calvin like
Luther was quite ready to recognize manifest error in the New Testament,
in a citation from the Old Testament and in matters of chronology (34)."
From the humanists, he learned the need to establish the original text,
and to read it in its historical context, before seeking to apply it to
contemporary debates. From the tradition of legal scholarship, he learned
the principle of accommodation: God's revelation, like human laws, was
always given in a way suitable to its historical and human context (35).
It was the interpreter's task to clarify its meaning, both in its original
setting and in the interpreter's own setting.
Some of the lesser figures of the Reformation did insist on the absolute
inerrancy of Scripture. Andreas Osiander, for instance, sought to reconcile
the diverse accounts of particular events in the various gospels by claiming
that every account that differed from the others in any detail must refer
to a different event (36).
Since the Lord's Prayer in Matthew is different from that in Luke, Jesus
must have taught two different prayers. And, since the number of fishes,
loaves, and leftover baskets are not the same in any two Gospel accounts,
Jesus must have fed a different multitude in each of those accounts.
The literalism of the Anabaptists proved a greater challenge than that
of Osiander and others like him,  for
it had serious political and ecclesiastical implications. While the various
Anabaptist groups differed on many points of doctrine, they all tended
to agree that the practices of the church in the NT ought to be followed
to the letter. This included not only believers' baptism, which soon became
the trademark of Anabaptists, but also the relationship between the church
and society at large. In the NT, the church is a persecuted community.
Most theologians in the sixteenth century held the traditional view that
this was a matter of historical circumstance. Not so the Anabaptists, who
held that when Christians are truly faithful they will necessarily be persecuted,
because their views, values, and mores will clash with those of society
at large. The reason why believers' baptism became so important was precisely
that baptism was supposed to indicate a radical break with that society,
and infants were incapable of making that decision. Infant baptism takes
for granted that those who grow up in a Christian society will be Christians.
The Anabaptists did not believe that there was such a thing as a Christian
society. The NT speaks of a church that clashes with the world, and that
is, therefore, part of the very nature of the church. To claim otherwise
would be to declare the NT to be no longer valid for the church.
By the seventeenth century, much of the freshness of Luther and Calvin
had been lost. Given the emphasis the great reformers had placed on Scripture,
it was unavoidable that their followers would develop detailed theories
as to its inspiration and authority. The Protestant scholastics of the
seventeenth century insisted on the "full" and "verbal" inspiration of
Scripture. Full inspiration means that everything in the Bible - even those
things that the authors knew by natural means - is directly inspired by
God. Paul knew by natural means about the money sent by the Philippians.
But the Holy Spirit inspired what he wrote to them about it, just as the
Holy Spirit inspired what he had to say about the meaning of the cross.
Furthermore, the Spirit inspired the exact words the authors were to use,
and this is what is meant by "verbal" inspiration. If one notes a difference
in style between various authors, this is due to the Spirit's taking such
differences into account, and dictating to each author different words
according to what would have been the natural style of each. By the early
eighteenth century, Lutheran theologian David Hollaz claimed that
the vocalization points
in the Masoretic text of the OT were just as inspired as the Sermon on
the Mount. Similar developments took place among theologians of the Reformed
tradition, where Francois Turretin (1623-87) declared that not only was
the vocalization of the OT inspired, but also the Holy Spirit had kept
later copies safe from all error (37).
Partly as a reaction to scholasticism, a series of movements appeared,
emphasizing the need for personal piety rather than strict, cold orthodoxy.
Pietists, Moravians, Methodists, and many who participated in the Great
Awakenings in the United States were all convinced that the Bible should
be read primarily as a guide to Christian life and piety. Most of them
were orthodox in their beliefs and did accept the authority of the Bible
in doctrinal matters. For them, however, the main reason why Christians
should read the Bible was not so much to discover and clarify obscure points
of doctrine, but to illumine their own lives. In some ways, the approach
of many a Methodist to the Bible was reminiscent of the approach of a medieval
monk: The Bible should be read in a disciplined fashion, in a context of
prayer and devotion, and with the purpose of improving the quality of one's
Typical of this approach to Scripture are the words of John Wesley in the
Preface to his Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament:
If you desire to read
the Scriptures in such a manner as may most effectually answer this end
[of holiness], it would be advisable: (1) To set apart a little time, if
you can, every morning and evening for that purpose. (2) At each time,
if you have leisure, to read a chapter out of the Old, and one out of the
New, Testament .... (3) To read this with a single eye, to know the whole
will of God, and have a fixed resolution to do it. In order to do know
his will, you should, (4) Have a constant eye to the analogy of faith ....
(5) Serious and earnest prayer should be constantly used before we consult
the oracles of God .... (6) It might also be of use, if, while we read,
we were frequently to pause and examine ourselves by what we read (38).
Study. Meanwhile, an entirely different way of reading the Bible had
also been developing. Hearkening back to the time of the Renaissance, there
were those who applied to the biblical text principles of literary and
historical criticism similar to those applied to other ancient writings.
Erasmus and others sought to restore the text itself. As time passed and
the restraints of orthodoxy were removed an increasing number of scholars
urged a more rationalist approach to the sacred text. At first, their aim
was to show that the teaching of the Bible is eminently rational. Eventually,
however, many came to the conclusion that much of what the Bible says is
contradicted by science. Others applied themselves to the study of the
text itself and of its historical, literary, and cultural background. The
posthumous publication of Apology for the Rational Worshippers of God,
by H. R. Reimarus (1694-1767), shocked the intellectual world of Germany
by raising questions about the historicity of the Bible, and by explaining
away any miracles found in biblical accounts. By the nineteenth century,
such positions had become relatively common. In 1835, D. F. Strauss published
a Life of Jesus, in which he argued that what is important in the
NT is not what it says about Jesus, but the essential truth to which it
points: the ultimate oneness of God and humanity. Ernest Renan's Life
of Jesus (1863), while less scholarly than Strauss's, had a wider impact,
for "it was short, popular and sentimental (39)."
Ever since, there has been a steady stream of publications, at both academic
and scholarly levels exemplified by Strauss and at the more popular level
of Renan, that have nurtured an ongoing discussion on the historical origins
of biblical texts.
Since the early nineteenth century, much has been learned through the historical-critical
method and its various byproducts. Today we know much more than ever before
about the cultural, social, and linguistic background of the Bible. Cities
long gone have been excavated. Lost languages have been recovered and have
given us greater understanding of biblical Hebrew. Layers of composition
in the text allow us to understand its significance at various points in
its development. As part of the historicalcritical enterprise, a number
of methods were devised that have made a very significant contribution
to our understanding of biblical texts (40).
The historical-critical approach was not without its critics. In some cases,
this method led scholars to postpone or ignore all questions regarding
the use and authority of the Bible in the Christian community. In such
cases, their work falls beyond the parameters of this essay, which deals
precisely with such use and authority. On the other hand, many responded
to the challenges raised by the historicalcritical method by refusing to
allow it a place in biblical studies. The Bible, they insisted, is a divine
book, and is not subject to the scrutiny of such human methods. In response
to the new methods and their findings, the more conservative gathered around
the banner of the "fundamentals" of the Christian faith and brought the
doctrine of biblical inerrancy to the fore. Thus the very advances of the
historical-critical method evoked a reaction that tended to discount most
of the achievements of that method.
The greatest challenges to the historical-critical method, however, did
not come from its critics, but from those who employed that method in order
to critique some of its earlier findings. As time passed, it became increasingly
evident that much of what had passed for historical studies in the nineteenth
century was in fact a projection of middle-class bourgeois perspectives,
by which earlier times were judged and interpreted (41).
The most famous of the many works leading to this conclusion was Albert
Schweitzer's The Quest for the Historical Jesus, which clearly showed
that much of what supposedly objective scholars found in Jesus was a reflection
of their own values and times. Thus the stage was set for the "balanced
that has characterized biblical historical scholarship during most of the
This is not to say, however, that theologians could now ignore the findings
of the historical-critical method. The great contribution of neo-orthodoxy
in this respect, and of Karl Barth in particular, was precisely to show
that the results of historical and literary criticism of the Bible can
and should be incorporated into theology. Commenting on Barth's impact
in this regard, Alan lundensians
has suggested: 
"It is Barth's demonstration of the fact that the historical-critical method
is not necessarily bound up with the presuppositions of liberal theology
which may well turn out to have been his most significant theological discovery
Barth's work, and his recognition of the results of historical inquiry
into the Bible, gave new impetus to biblical theology. From ancient times,
and particularly after the Reformation, there had been a general consensus
that theology should be biblical. It was only as a result of the historical
studies of the last two centuries, however, that scholars had become acutely
aware of the distance between them and the biblical sources. Therefore,
those who sought to develop a "biblical theology" were now faced with an
No period of Christian
theology has been as radically exposed to a consistent attempt to relive
the theology of its first adherents. The ideal of an empathetic understanding
of the first century without borrowing categories from later times has
never been an ideal before, nor have the comparative sources for such an
adventure been as close at hand and as well analyzed. There have always
been bits and pieces of an appeal to the original meaning over against
different later dogmas and practices of the church .... But never before
was there a frontal nonpragmatic, nonapologetic attempt to describe OT
or NT faith and practice from within its original presuppositions (44).
do we bridge the acknowledged gap between the times and cultures of the
Bible and ours? Barth himself argued that the subject of the text itself,
God, bridges that gap. Barth's epochal Commentary on Romans made
the "otherness" of God the connecting point between Paul and his contemporary
readers. Others, notably Rudolf Bultmann, followed the lead of existentialism,
claiming that the bridge that allows us to appropriate the message of the
NT is self-authenticity and self-understanding - a position that tended
to dehistorize the NT. Still others sought other points of contact and
continuity, such as a particular understanding of time (O. Cullmann) or
a theological motif (the Lundensians). Quite naturally, the debate among
all these positions brought the hermeneutical question once more to the
Meanwhile, particularly during the second half of the twentieth century,
other concerns have affected the hermeneutical question. These have been
basically two: the literary and the sociopolitical.
The literary concern has given rise to what Carl Holladay calls "the literary
paradigm." Suffice it to say that in recent decades there has been a lively
discussion in the field of literary criticism regarding the meaning and
interpretation of texts, and that this discussion is being applied to the
question of biblical interpretation. Thus one finds attempts to approach
the biblical text on the basis of rhetorical criticism, narrative criticism,
reader-response criticism, deconstructionism, etc.
Finally, a word must be said about the sociopolitical concern in biblical
interpretation. In recent decades, partly as the result of the growing
dialogue with Christians in different social and political settings, we
have learned that the social and cultural location of the reader and of
the reading community have much to do with what one finds in a text. No
one who approaches a text does so as a tabula rasa. We all bring
our perspectives and presuppositions. Today, as we look back at the most
recent centuries of biblical scholarship and interpretation, we realize
the degree to which that tradition has been dominated by a particular sector
of the human race and of the Christian church. As OT scholar Norman K.
Gottwald has put it: "The massive datum is that biblical scholars of the
last two centuries have been firmly located in the middle class and have
synthesized their scholarly humanistic ideals with bourgeois capitalism
and, furthermore, have done so with surprisingly little sense of the inherent
tensions and contradictions in such a synthesis (45)."
What is true of class, as Gottwald so clearly states, is also true of gender,
race, and culture. By and large, women have been excluded from the hermeneutic
task, and biblical scholarship has been the preserve of white Western men.
For this reason, many of the most significant discoveries being made today
in the biblical text are the result, not so much of historical-critical
inquiry, as of new perspectives from which the text is being read (46).
Equipped with the tools and the results of historical and critical research,
the believing community  is
now ready to undertake the task of a new reading of Scripture-and, therefore,
a new reading of itself. This reading will take into account the contributions
of many whose voices have scarcely been heard in the past, but whose insights
are already proving to be both valuable and disturbing. The result could
well be a theological upheaval and reformation rivaling those of the sixteenth
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