Ways of Interpreting the Bible

[Articles in the Multiple Views series are intended to present various views held by Christians, in an objective and unbiased manner]

“Over the centuries, Jewish and Christian scholars have developed different ways of interpreting the Bible. Jewish rabbis living around the time of Jesus developed an elaborate set of rules to help them interpret their sacred texts. Among early Christian writers, there were two main schools of thought about biblical interpretation.

Those who studied the Bible in Egypt tended to favour more symbolic interpretations. Those who studied in what is now Turkey, however, preferred more literal, historical readings.

A monk called John Cassian (360–435 AD), took the discussion to the next level by bringing both kinds of interpretation together. He identified four ways in which the Bible could be understood: the literal, the symbolic, the ethical and the mystical. By the Middle Ages, these four methods of interpretation (or ‘senses’) had become fairly standard among Christians.” [1]

Cassian’s “explanation of the four senses of Scripture …, derived from Origen’s three senses, was the basis for the standard fourfold method of Biblical interpretation in the West until the Enlightenment.” [2]

Method, Example, and Challenges
A) Literal Interpretation – Historical-Grammatical-Literalistic Meaning  i) Method: Take every part of the text at its most literal meaning unless the immediate context makes this meaning impossible

ii) Example: “Temple” must be seen as a physical building

iii) Challenges: Sometimes the larger context of the literary genre suggests a broader range of meanings for a word or idea. Not every literary genre was intended to be taken literalistically. May lead to reading certain texts like historical narratives even when those texts were not intended as historical accounts.

B) Literal Interpretation – Historical-Grammatical-Rhetorical Meaning  i) Method: Seek the meaning intended by the original human authors in their historical contexts as conveyed through the Holy Spirit superintended their words and choice of genre. This does not exclude a later fulfillment of a text in a fuller and better way than what the original human author had in mind

ii) Example: “Temple” is seen as the physical building in historical genres and contexts; but in other genres, “temple” might, for example, symbolize the people of God as God’s dwelling place

iii) Challenges: In some cases, it can be difficult to identify the historical context correctly; in other instances, it can be a challenge to understand the nuances of a particular literary genre in its historical context, especially if a text combines different literary genres

C) Moral Interpretation – Ethical Meaning  i) Method: Seek the underlying moral in each biblical story.

“It involves reading between the lines of a Bible passage or verse to see how it applies to daily life. In Jewish circles this was (and is) known as midrash.” [1]

ii) Example: “Temple” might symbolize  the innermost part of the human soul.

In 1 Corinthians 9, the apostle Paul, “quotes a saying from the Old Testament … about oxen and then ‘explains’ what the text actually implied on an ethical level (i.e. that apostles have the right to financial support).” [1]

iii) Challenges: If historical-grammatical-rhetorical interpretation does not remain primary, can lead to reading Scripture as a series of stories to improve our morals instead of seeing that all of Scripture testifies to Jesus Christ and that human morals can never measure up to God’s perfect standard

D) Spiritual Interpretation – Tropological (Spiritual) Meaning  i) Method: Looks for ways in which parts of the story might prefigure or relate typologically to the life and ministry of Jesus

ii) Example: “Temple” might symbolize the people of God or the church, even in historical texts where this could not have fallen within the original author’s range of intent.

“The apostle Paul wrote that the story about Abraham and his two wives, Hagar and Sarah, could be read allegorically. He interpreted it to refer to the difficult relationship between Jewish people and Christians of his time (Galatians 4.22–31).

This type of interpretation was popular in the early Church. Many, for example, gave Christian meanings to details from the book of Joshua (e.g. ‘crossing the river Jordan to the Promised Land’ was about baptism, the ‘red rope of Rahab’ symbolised the blood of Christ etc.)” [1]

iii) Challenges: If historical-grammatical-rhetorical interpretation does not remain primary, can allow the interpreter to read ideas into the text completely unrelated to the original author’s intent, allowing the interpreter rather than the intent of the author to dictate the meaning of Scripture

E) Spiritual Interpretation – Anagogical (Heavenly) Meaning  i) Method: Looks for ways in which parts of the story might relate allegorically to the believers union with God

ii) Example: “Temple” might symbolize union with God in heaven.

iii) Challenges: If historical-grammatical-rhetorical interpretation does not remain primary, can allow the interpreter to read ideas into the text completely unrelated to the original author’s intent, allowing the interpreter rather than the intent of the author to dictate the meaning of Scripture

[1] https://www.biblesociety.org.uk/explore-the-bible/bible-articles/how-can-the-bible-be-interpreted/ (accessed on 15th June 2017)

[2] Richard Lischer, “The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present” (2002), p.182

Sources:

  • Rose Guide to End-Times Prophecy (2011), pp.22-23
  • Richard Lischer, “The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching, Augustine to the Present” (2002)
  • BibleSociety.Org’s “How Can The Bible Be Interpreted?”

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