Hermeneutics course 1.1

Historical Background of Interpretation

A. The Allegorical Interpretation

An “Allegory” is a symbolic representation. There were schools of interpretation that took the literal words of Scripture and assumed that they were symbolic of deeper spiritual truths. While there are some obvious symbols in the Word of God such as in Ezekiel 1, it would be a human assumption to claim that all of Scripture is symbolic and that the literal has no significant meaning.

Greek Allegorical Schools: The Greek Allegorical Schools were concerned only with their own writings, but their method of interpretation was adopted by both Jews and Christians. Their philosophical and historical traditions which were stated by Thucydides and Herodotus were always at odds with their religious traditions which were stated by Homer and Hesiod. They relieved the tension by allegorizing the religious.

Jewish Allegorical Schools: The major writers for the Jewish Allegorical School were Aristobulus (160 BC) and Philo (20 BC – 54 AD). Philo tried to reconcile the Hebrew faith with Greek philosophy. These allegorists claimed that the literal was for the immature.

The Jewish Allegorists developed Canons (a regulation or standard) for allegorical interpretation that told them when they were to interpret in this manner. If they found a statement that was “unworthy” of God, or statements that either seemed to contradict or in any way presented a difficulty, they felt free to interpret allegorically. Also, if the record itself was allegorical in nature or they ran into grammatical peculiarities or symbols they turned to allegory.

Christian and Patristic Allegorists: The Christian and Patristic Allegorists believed that the Old Testament was a Christian document but considered it to be full of parables, enigmas, and riddles. They also ignored the historical connections of scripture and believed that Greek philosophy was to be found in the Old Testament.

One of the major writers was Clement of Alexandria (c.150 A.D.) who claimed that there were five possible meanings. The Historical meaning which concerned the actual event; The Doctrinal meaning which included moral and theological teachings; The Prophetic meaning which was concerned with predictions and types; the Philosophical meaning which sees meaning in objects and historical persons; and the Mystical meaning which involved deeper moral, spiritual or religious truth found via symbols.

Origen was a student of Clement who sought to escape the crudities of lay people by taking everything symbolically. He tried to make scripture acceptable to philosophers. Origen’s approach was threefold in that the Literal meaning was the Body of Scripture, the Moral sense was the Soul of Scripture, and the Allegorical sense was the Spirit of Scripture. He believed that true exegesis was Spiritual (allegorical) exegesis.

Jerome (347-420) translated the Bible into Latin and that translation is called the Vulgate. It has been the only official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church since the Council of Trent in 1545. Jerome suggested that the Apocrypha be put in Bible.

Augustine sought to develop a theory of signs. A sign is a thing apart from the impression that it presents to the senses and which causes of itself some other thing to enter our thoughts. He based his position on 2 Cor 3:6 which says “who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter, but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Augustine’s requirements for proper interpretation were: 1) an interpreter must be a believer; 2) the literal meaning and historical setting must be held in high regard; 3) Scripture has a double meaning, therefore the Allegorical method is proper; 4) recognize that there is significance in numbers; and 5) the Old Testament was a Christian document and Christ should be sought there. Augustine believed that true exegesis had to consult the meaning of the writer, then the “analogy of faith” which is found in the true orthodox creed and add love, which is spiritual intuition.

Some of Augustine’s other teachings were: 1) that one had to pay attention to the context; 2) if the interpreter is insecure in his basic beliefs, he can’t be part of the orthodox faith; 3) that one must not try and make the Holy Spirit a substitute for the tools; 4) that the obscure passage must yield to clear; and 5) that one must also note progressive revelation within its historical context (some say that he failed to apply this point himself).

Roman Catholic School: The Allegorism of Roman Catholicism employed a “spiritual” or “mystical” interpretation of the Word. In general, the Roman Catholics combined Typology and Allegory and sought the Moral Interpretation. They believed that the literal and historical interpretation is the foundation of the study of the Bible, but that the “spiritual” or “mystical” meaning, which is beyond the literal, is what we should really seek.

The Roman Catholics use the Latin Vulgate (a Latin translation by Jerome from the Hebrew and Greek) as though it were the original text. The Catholic interpreter accepts what The Church has said about various matters as unequivocal truth. They believe that The Church is the official interpreter since The Bible is not given to the world but deposited with the Church. Also at the heart of their beliefs is that the Christian Deposit of Faith is in the Catholic Church. Therefore, no passage of Scripture can be validly interpreted in a manner that conflicts with the Roman Catholic Doctrinal system. Their view of the “analogy of faith” is to compare a particular interpretation with Church Dogma.

The Roman Catholic “Guide to Interpretation” is that interpretation:

Must be solely about faith and morals.

Is not bound by national or scientific matters.

Must bear witness to Catholic tradition.

Must have a unanimous witness by the Church Fathers.

is to be explained by unwritten tradition when the passage is obscure.

follows the “Principle of Development” meaning the doctrines of the New Testament were ‘seeds’ and not complete units in themselves.

Also follows the “Principle of Implication” which is called “Epigenesis” meaning that doctrines grow, develop and change.

B. Literalists

2 comments for “Hermeneutics course 1.1

  1. May 3, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    great post as usual!

  2. October 27, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Good write-up, I am digging your site and am adding it to my RSS aggregator. I use feedburner, is this the most effective 1 you think?

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