Posts Tagged ‘hermeneutics’

Here are some excerpts from a paper I wrote about Luther’s exegesis of Genesis 3.  In these next three posts I’ll tease out three key convictions underlying all Luther’s exegesis:

The Meaning is Literal – Rescuing the Bible from the Allegorists

The Meaning is in the Scriptures – Rescuing the Bible from the Magisterium

The Meaning is Christ – Rescuing the Bible from the Judaizers

For the footnotes, go to the original paper.


The Meaning is Literal
Rescuing the Bible from the Allegorists

In the history of exegesis, the early chapters of Genesis have often been claimed as definitive warrant for an allegorical approach to Scripture.    As far back as Philo (d. c50), it was to early Genesis that they appealed:

“We must turn to allegory, the method dear to men with their eyes opened.  Indeed the sacred oracles most evidently afford us the clues for the use of this method.  For they say that in the garden (of Eden) there are trees in no way resembling those with which we are familiar, but trees of Life, Immortality, of Knowledge, of Apprehension, of Understanding, of the conception of good and evil.”

Allegorical interpretation in the Christian tradition is largely identified with the Alexandrians.  As with so many modern interpreters, exegetes like Origen (c. 185 – c. 254) would point to features of Genesis 1-3 – the existence of light and days before the creation of the sun, the impossibility of four rivers co-existing in one garden, God ‘walking about’ – and claim that such writing demands a non-literal understanding.  The parallels with today are striking.

Clement of Alexandria (fl. c.200) took courage from these opening chapters in asserting that the Bible was written in signs and symbols. The task of the exegete was therefore to decode these signs – not to understand the letters on the page.

Clement unravelled the signs in a five-fold interpretation.  There is:

an historical sense;
a doctrinal sense;
a prophetic sense (including OT typology);
a philosophical sense and
a mystical sense.

Origen maintained a three-fold reading corresponding to a tripartite anthropology.  So there is

body (a literal sense),
soul (a moral sense) and
spirit (an allegorical/mystical sense)

The eventual heir of this school, the quadriga, gave the Church a four-fold sense.

The letter, teaches what it says, e.g. Jerusalem is the city of the Jews;
Allegory, teaches doctrine, e.g. Jerusalem means the Church;
Tropology, teaches morals, e.g. Jerusalem is the human soul;
Anagogy, teaches the Christian hope, e.g. Jerusalem is the heavenly city.

At best, these approaches give a polite ‘nod’ to the literal sense of the words, but at base is the conviction that this represents only the carnal meaning.  2 Corinthians 3:6 is a key verse for the Alexandrians. The spiritual meaning is found beyond the historical.

It fell therefore to the school of Antioch, remembered for its determination to take the flesh of Christ seriously, to take the ‘flesh’ of Scripture equally seriously.  One representative, Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), wrote Concerning Allegory and History Against Origen and argued that the spiritual meaning (theoria) is not the allegorical but simply the application of the literal.  Again, the interpretation of Genesis was at the centre – modern interpreters take note:

Theodore’s argument was that Origen denies ‘the whole biblical history of its reality.  Adam was not really Adam, paradise was not really paradise, the serpent was not a real serpent.  In that case, Theodore asks, since there are no real events, since Adam was not really disobedient, how did death enter the world, and what meaning does our salvation have?’ (Robert Grant, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, p70)

These are questions that need to be asked again today and with urgency.

In the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) took up the fight for the literal interpretation of Scripture against an allegorism that persisted through Augustine’s (354-430) legacy.  Once more, Genesis provided the battle-ground:

‘The things which are said of Paradise [i.e. Eden] in scripture are set forth by means of an historical narrative… [This historical narrative] must be taken as a foundation and upon it spiritual expositions are to be built.’ (Grant, p100)

Coming from this tradition of literal interpretation, Luther is able to call allegories ‘silly’ ‘twaddle’, and ‘absurd’ ‘pratings’. He insists that “it is the historical sense alone which supplies the true and sound doctrine.”

Hence his insistence on literal 24 hour days, a literal garden with literal rivers, a literal serpent (though dominated by a supernatural being) and thus a literal fall from which we are promised a literal Deliverer.  Such a carnal understanding proves not to be a denial of spiritual meaning unless we were to conclude that the Seed Himself was too carnal to provide spiritual hope.  Yet Luther’s commitment to the Incarnate Christ as the ground and goal of all God’s dealings with man means he could never drive such a Platonic wedge between flesh and spirit or between the literal and the mystical.  Luther continually keeps these two realms together as in the following quotation:

“For we have the Holy Spirit as our Guide.  Through Moses He does not give us foolish allegories; but He teaches us about most important events, which involve God, sinful man, and Satan, the originator of sin.” (LW1.185)

Because the Seed Who will come from the body of the woman is the hope of the ages, then we are caught up into the divine purposes of the LORD.  Thus the spiritual purpose of Moses was to ‘relate history’, and the spiritual task of the exegete is to simply ‘adhere to the historical account.’  In this history is the spiritual hope of all peoples.

Before we move on to other facets of Luther’s interpretation we must take heed for our own day.  The current vogue in dismissing Genesis chapters 1-3 (not to mention 4-11) as unhistorical can only open the door once more to Origenistic extravagence.

While those committed to an historical-grammatical hermeneutic have (by definition) ruled out an allegorical interpretation, they nonetheless pass over the literal sense in favour of a meaning grounded elsewhere.  It is essentially the error of Origen all over again even if the techniques have changed.

We would do well to get back to Luther’s hermeneutic and his rebuke:

If then we do not understand the nature of the days or have no insight into why God wanted to make use of these intervals of time, let us confess our lack of understanding rather than distort the words, contrary to their context, into a foreign meaning… If we do not comprehend the reason for this, let us remain pupils and leave the job of teacher to the Holy Spirit.  (LW 1.5)


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It’s common to see a link between christology and our approach to the bible.  There are limits to this but also benefits.  Our approach to both Christ and the bible requires us to encounter something fully human which nonetheless is the Word of God.  Christology can therefore teach us a great deal about how the bible as fully human can, nonetheless, be a fully divine revelation.

In this post I discussed an important point in christology.  Namely, the chronological and methodological priority of Nicea over Chalcedon.  What this means is that we must linger long over Nicea’s declaration that Jesus (born of a virgin, crucified under Pontius Pilate) is of one being with the Father (homoousios). The Man Jesus exists wholly within the triune relations which constitute God’s being.  Whatever else Chalcedon protects – it does not protect Christ’s humanity from that Nicene homoousios!  The fully human Jesus is a full participant in this divine nature.  In this way we protect against a Nestorianism which always threatens to divorce the humanity from the divinity.

What we can then say is this:

  1. Nestorianism is rejected: In Jesus’ humanity (and not apart from it) God is revealed.  To put it another way: As the Man Jesus (and not in some other realm of locked-off deity) He brings divine revelation and salvation.
  2. Adoptionism is rejected: It is not the case that the humanity comes first and is then taken up into deity.  The Word became flesh, not the other way around!
  3. Docetism is rejected: It is not the case that the humanity is an unreal facade which we must push beyond to get to the real (divine) Jesus.

What would this mean when applied to biblical interpretation (i.e. hermeneutics)?  Given our OT focus here – what would it mean in particular for OT interpretation?

I suggest it means this:

  1. Nestorianism is rejected: In the humanity of the OT (it’s immediate context, complete Jewish-ness, thorough Hebrew-ness) its divine Object (Christ) is revealed.  As the prophetic Israelite Scripture that it is (and not in some other locked-off realm of meaning) it is Christian, i.e. a proclamation of Christ.
  2. Adoptionism is rejected: It is not the case that a lower-level of Jewish meaning comes first and is then added to as it’s adopted as Christian Scripture (by the NT).  From the beginning, at the very roots of its being, the OT is Christian/Messianic.  It is not first Hebrew Scripture and then Christian revelation rather it is Christian revelation that presupposes and brings about the Hebrew Scriptures.
  3. Docetism is rejected:  Having said all this I’m in no way denying the distinctly Israelite/Hebrew/pre-Gentile-inclusion/Mosaic-administration ways in which the Christ is proclaimed.  In its own context and on its own terms the OT will proclaim Christ to us.  We do not ignore contemporary details – rather we take them very seriously as the concrete context in which Christ is made known.

If the christological analogy holds and if this christology is right then I think we need to rule out certain brands of hermeneutics.  In particular we should be wary of any theory of interpretation that separates out Jewish-ness and Christian-ness in the OT.

On a similar note, here’s a great short article on this hermeneutical issue by Nathan Pitchford.  His argument is that the reformers’ notion of the literal meaning of the text was not something different to its christological meaning. It was the christological meaning.  You can also check out his excellent OT series here.


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Leon Sim (sometime commenter here) has written a cracker of an essay on Irenaeus’s understanding of the Old Testament.  Of course that understanding is explicitly christocentric and Trinitarian.

Here are a couple of great quotes from the essay:

Not only does Irenaeus see Christ and the Trinitarian God to be the object of revelation, but he also sees Christ to be the subject or agent of God’s revelation. For Irenaeus, it is not merely incidental, but crucial, that it is the Word who spoke to the patriarchs and prophets, and “preach[ed] both Himself and the Father alike,” (Against Heresies 4.6.6.)…

…In one sense, Irenaeus reads the Old Testament Christologically and Trinitarianly because He sees that the Father does everything through the Son by the Holy Spirit. In another sense, he also does so because he holds creation, salvation and revelation together, that is, it is the Father’s purpose in creation to save and bring men to Himself through the revelation of His Word by the Spirit. Hence if there is to be salvation for humanity in the Old Testament, it must be through the revelation of the Spirit-anointed Son…

…According to Irenaeus, therefore, anyone who follows in the non-Christological interpretation of the Old Testament – assuming that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were unknown or unrecognisable through the Old Testament itself – have followed unbelieving Jews in departing from the true God and any knowledge of Him: “Therefore have the Jews departed from God in not receiving His Word, but imagining that they could know the Father [apart] by Himself, without the Word, that is, without the Son; they being ignorant of that God who spake in human shape to Abraham, and again to Moses.” (Against Heresies 4.7.4.)

Read the whole thing here.

Download an easier to read format here.


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A friend preached a wonderful sermon on the bible last Sunday.  He spoke, among other things, of Luther’s attitude to the bible:

The whole reformation was birthed by a tenacious asking, seeking and knocking at the door of Scripture:

I beat importunately upon Paul at that place (Rom 1:17), most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words… There I began to understand… I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open doors.

Do I beat importunately upon Scripture?  Luther spoke of treating the bible like the rock in the wilderness – smiting it with the rod until water gushes out.  Do I do that?

When he lectured on Ecclesiastes he found it tough.  He wrote to a friend “Solomon the preacher, is giving me a hard time, as though he begrudged anyone lecturing on him. But he must yield.”

Wow!  It’s been a while since I’ve wrestled with Scripture like that.  Do we really believe that there’s life-giving Waters in this book?  Well then, let’s smite it till our thirst is slaked!


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. . . There is no such thing as a non-dogmatic or non-theological engagement of the biblical text, or of any text or language for that matter. Moreover, anti-Trinitarian frames of reference lead to fundamental problems for approaching the Bible and revelation. To illustrate by way of a historical parallel, the early Socinians, whose orientation was supposedly non-dogmatic, advocated an inspired and trustworthy Scripture, yet were closed to a Trinitarian perspective. They sought to divorce Scripture from its Trinitarian frame of reference. Their Unitarian view of God had repercussions for Scripture’s authority and inspiration. Perhaps it is the case that the seed of liberalism is sown on orthodoxy’s soil. That is to say, an over-objectified view of the Bible leads ultimately to radical objections to the Bible. A Trinitarian frame of reference is important for developing a doctrine of revelation, including Scripture’s status in the revelational framework, for God reveals God by God through Scripture in the life of the church. Scripture’s content, even the means through which Scripture is mediated, is ultimately Trinitarian. Once this view is lost, the radical objectification process is bound to begin. (Paul Metzger, ed., “Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology: Chpt. 2 The Relational Dynamic of Revelation, A Trinitarian Perspective,” 23-24)

h/t Bobby

This reminded me of an old post called ‘Theology – the end of the process?’  So here it is for Thawed-out Thursday…

Is “systematic theology… the end process of exegesis and biblical theology”??  Ben Myers writes persuasively against this idea.  To imagine that a pure biblical scholar can dispassionately read off the meaning of the Bible through the use of objective interpretive tools is ludicrous.  To imagine that then the systematic theologian comes to co-ordinate these propositions into a logically cogent order is similarly misguided.  As Myers says ‘It’s theology all the way down.’  Theological pre-suppositions and commitments necessarily guide and shape all Christian activity from exegesis to exposition to pastoral work, to evangelism to hospitality to everything.

And yet the idea that the Bible can be neutrally read is so tempting.  We would love to conceive of revelation as propositions deposited in a handy compendium simply to be extracted and applied.  Yet the Word is a Person.  And His book is Personal (John 5:39).  It’s not something we judge with our double edged swords – the Word judges us. (Heb 4:12)

Now Jesus thought the Scriptures were absolutely clear.  He never made excuses for theological error.  He never gave even the slightest bit of latitude by conceding a certain obscurity to the Bible.  He never assumes that His theological opponents have just mis-applied an interpretive paradigm.  If they get it wrong He assumes they’ve never read the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 21:16,42; Mark 2:25)!  So the perspicuity of the Bible is not in dispute. 

But Jesus tells the Pharisees why they get it wrong – “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matt 22:29)  And, again, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)  They are wrongly oriented to the Power of God and the One of Whom the Scriptures testify – Jesus.  This is not simply a wrong orientation of the intepreter but of the interpretation.  Scripture reading must be oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God.  Within this paradigm – a paradigm which the Scriptures themselves give us – the Bible makes itself abundantly clear.

But this paradigm is an unashamedly and irreducibly theological one.  It is the result of exegesis (e.g. studying the verses given above) but it is also the pre-supposition of such exegesis.  Theology is not the end of the process from exegesis to biblical studies and then to the systematician! 

And yet, I have often been in discussions regarding the Old Testament where theologians will claim an obvious meaning to the OT text which is one not oriented by the Power of God to the Son of God.  They will claim that this first level meaning is the literal meaning – one that is simply read off the text by a process of sound exegesis.  And then they claim that the second meaning (it’s sensus plenior – usually the christocentric meaning) is achieved by going back to the text but this time applying some extrinsic theological commitments.

What do we say to this?  Well hopefully we see that whatever ‘level’ of meaning we assign to the biblical text it is not an obvious, literal meaning to be read off the Scriptures like a bar-code!  Whatever you think that first-level meaning to be, such a meaning is inextricably linked to a whole web of theological pre-suppositions.  The step from first level to second is not a step from exegesis to a theological re-reading.  It is to view the text first through one set of pre-suppositions and then through another.

And that changes the direction of the conversation doesn’t it?  Because then we all admit that ‘I have theological pre-suppositions at every level of my interpretation.’  And we all come clean and say ‘Even the basic, first-level meaning assigned to an OT text comes from some quite developed theological pre-commitments – pre-commitments that would never be universally endorsed by every Christian interpreter, let alone every Jewish one!’  And then we ask ‘Well why begin with pre-suppositions which you know to be inadequate?  Why begin with pre-suppositions that are anything short of ‘the Power of God’ and ‘the Son of God’?   And if this is so, then why on earth do we waste our time with a first-level paradigm that left even the post-incarnation Pharisees completely ignorant of the Word?  In short, why don’t we work out the implications of a biblical theology that is trinitarian all the way down?  Why don’t we, at all times, read the OT as inherently and irreducibly a trinitarian revelation of the Son?


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Take the Christ the Truth patented quiz:

What is your response to the following Scriptures?


Scripture 1: Josh 10:12-15 – the sun stays up for a whole extra day

A) What a rich and enigmatic text! The main thing we glean is that the LORD can be trusted in difficult circumstances.

B) [Muffled] I suppose something quite strange happened here.  Perhaps it was to do with perceptions (after all we’d have to completely rewrite the astronomy books on this one), but even if something miraculous happened here, the main thing we glean is that the LORD can be trusted in difficult circumstances.

C)  Wahey – the sun stopped in the middle of the sky!


Scripture 22 Kings 6:17 –  Elisha prays that his servant might see the angels all around

A) What a rich and enigmatic text!  The main thing we glean is that the LORD can be trusted in difficult circumstances.

B) [Muffled] I suppose there were angels in that place at that extraordinary time.

C) Wahey – angels are everywhere!


Scripture 3: Mark 15:33 – Darkness on Good Friday

A) What a rich and enigmatic text!  The main thing we glean is that something rich and enigmatic was taking place.

B) [Muffled] I suppose something was obstructing the sun and causing a localised darkness.

C) The sun stopped shining!


Scripture 4: Romans 8:19-22 – The creation waits and is groaning

A) What a rich and enigmatic text!  The main thing we learn is how the LORD can be trusted in difficult circumstances.

B) Creation is not how it was supposed to be.

C) Creation waits and is groaning.


Scripture 5: 1 Cor 11:3-16 – Head coverings etc

A) What a rich and enigmatic text!  The main thing we learn is how we should skip this chapter and head straight for 1 Cor 13.

B) [Muffled] Gender differences should be expressed in culturally appropriate ways.

C) Men, uncover those heads.  Women, cover them up.  (With hair I reckon – though some will think I should lose points for that!)


Scripture 6: 2 Cor 13:12 – Greet one another with a holy kiss.

A) What a fascinating window onto 1st century church practice!

B) Greet one another in an affectionate, culturally appropriate way.

C) Get kissing!


A = 1 point

B = 2 points

C = 3 points


Add up your score.


6-10 – bit woolly for these parts.

11-15 – could be nuttier

16-18 – you are a bible nut.  Welcome to Christ the Truth.


What did you score?


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…Are you ready?  It’s really particularly awesome.  Here it is:


How cool is that?

What do we want from our exegesis?  ExeJesus that’s what!

Nice one Dave Ingland.



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