Ever since post-apostolic days this question has been at the heart of the Church’s life. After all, our hermeneutic to a large degree determines our belief and action.

Kevin Connor and Ken Malmin give a good outline of the history of hermeneutics in their book Interpreting The Scriptures. There they clearly and simply expound the history of the subject in a popular and easy to read manner. In a nutshell, they define six important periods in which certain fundamental principles of interpretation have ruled the roost. This may seem a pointless history lesson but I think it has something to say to our present situation. These periods are, in outline:

The Apostolic Period.

Connor and Malmin go to some lengths to expound the principles by which the New Testament writers worked because then, they believe, we will be given guidelines by which we might work today.

The Patristic Period(AD 95 – AD600)

Dominated by the emergence of two great schools of interpretation. The Alexandrian school with its emphasis on allegorical interpretation and Origen with his threefold approach to Scripture taking the model of man as spirit, soul and body as the pattern. This triune approach meant that every scripture had a threefold level of significance; literal, moral and mystical. Over against this the Antioch school with its more historical and literal approach to scripture and its emphasis on scripture as progressive revelation.

The Medieval Period(600 – 1517)

Dominated by the belief in a fourfold sense in scripture; a view which echoed the Jewish interpreters of the Mishnah, namely:

literal sense – the plain surface meaning

allegorical sense – hidden theological meaning. The words are like chaff which hide or contain the deeper spiritual wheat.

moral sense – deeper practical meaning

eschatological sense – futuristic meaning.

The Reformation Period(1517 – 1600)

The impact of Luther and Calvin and the revolution of the Scriptures being applied directly to the lives of believers. Of course, the Scriptures themselves became widely available in many European languages at this time, a fact which itself had a great bearing on the subject.

Calvin (1509 – 1564) held certain principles as important for true interpretation of scripture:

a) The illumination of the Spirit as necessary to our understanding of Scripture.

b) Scripture interprets Scripture.

c) Literal method of interpretation which necessitated textual and historical understanding.

d) Rejected multiplicity of meanings in every text.

e) Rejected tradition and Church as the master of Scripture.

Post-Reformation Period(1600 – 1800).

Marked by two main movements. One the one hand doctrinal dogmatism which led to bitter controversies and breakdown. On the other Pietism which gave a renewed emphasis to the devotional interpretation of Scripture. Connor highlights the spirit of this age when he says:

“Protestant interpreters used the anvil of Scripture to hammer out their dogmas. They studied the Bible to find proof-texts for their theology and read their creeds into Scripture..”

Modern Hermeneutics(1800 – -)

With its emphasis on rationalism and secularism. The rise of evolutionary theory applied to religion and text. The ascendancy of Liberalism with its emphasis on reason, rejection of the supernatural, theory of accommodation, and the impact of philosophy and ethical religion.

In summary – when we boil all this history down even further we can discern a tension that has reared its head time and again. This is the tension between the devotional and the exegetical approach to understanding the Scriptures. The devotional approach is connected in its history much more with those more mystical or allegorical approaches to interpretation. The exegetical much more connected with the literal and objective approach to scripture.

It seems to me that this is precisely the tension we face at the more popular end of charismatic experience. Many charismatic believe in the Bible wholeheartedly but don’t know what they believe about the Bible and sometimes just plain don’t know what they believe.

a) The charismatic believer with an emphasis on the devotional and personal aspects of Scripture sometimes seems to believe that the Bible was written for nothing but the personal edification of every believer and that its personalized meaning can only be revealed by the shining of an inner spiritual light.

b) The exegetical and literal approach might best be summed up in the words of Calvin (Inst1:14:4)

“The duty of a theologian – is not to tickle the ear, but confirm the conscience, by teaching what is true, certain and useful…Let us endeavour to ascertain from the simple doctrine of scripture what it is the Lord’s pleasure thatwe should know (concerning angels)”

My old professor F. F. Bruce of Manchester warns us that, “even the devotional application of scripture which is impatient of strict exegetical controls, must be reasonably deducible from what the scripture says, otherwise, why base a “blessed thought” on one text rather than another, or why base it on a text of scripture at all?”

%d bloggers like this: