Bible study has always been central to Jewish and Christian faith. For this reason, the study of the Scriptures has a long and fascinating history. As we learn how others have approached Bible study in the past, we can find important and practical lessons which will help us study God's word today. Since so much has been written on this subject, we will focus on study only on those past methods which still influence many people today.
The Jewish Era
The New Testament church began with the Hebrew Scriptures, and used Hebrew methods of interpreting them. It is therefore important that we survey Jewish Bible study approaches so that we can understand their influence in the church then and today.
Ezra—the beginning of hermeneutics
The science of biblical interpretation is usually traced in the Bible to Ezra. The Jews had long followed God's commandment to teach the Scriptures to their children and community (see Deut 11:18-2 0). But prior to Ezra's time Bible study had not been developed into a discipline of its own.
Ezra lived during a strategic time in Hebrew history. The Jews had returned from exile in Babylon to rebuild their city and nation in Judea. Ezra, a priest and scribe, has become their spiritual leader. After completing the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem under Nehemiah's leadership, the people asked Ezra to bring out "the Book of the Law of Moses" to read to them (Neh 8:1).
Ezra read the Law aloud from daybreak until noon, in the presence of all who could understand. Religious leaders helped Ezra to instruct the people. In summary, "They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (Neh 8:8). Since most of the Jewish people had forgotten the Hebrew language during their long exile in Babylon, Ezra and his assistants translated the Hebrew text into Aramaic, their common language.
They read the text aloud to them, and explained its meaning. With this activity, Ezra initiated the work of biblical interpretation.
Bible study in our day still follows Ezra's basic pattern. Like the Hebrews, any of us who cannot read the Bible in its original languages must use a translation. And we all benefit from the help of scholars who explain and apply the meaning of the text. In this sense, Ezra initiated the preaching and Bible study practices followed in Christian churches to this day.
The Qumran Community--text without context
From about 130 B.C. to A.D. 70, a Jewish sect withdrew from the outside world to live in a community known as Qumran, three-fourths of a mile from the northwestern edge of the Dead Sea.
Theirs was a life of strict devotion to God, and their most important activity was copying and studying God's word. The scrolls they left in their caves were discovered in 1947 and are known today as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are the most ancient Old Testament manuscripts we possess, a thousand years older than anything known prior to their discovery.
The Qumran community wrote multiple commentaries on Scripture, applying the Law to all aspects of their communal lives. However, their interpretations were often made without reference to the original context or meaning of the text. By explaining the Law only with reference to their group, they frequently misinterpreted its intended sense. Theirs was a "text without a context."
In addition, their applications usually strongly emphasized eschatology--the study of the future. The community apparently believed fervently in the coming victory of the Lord on earth and read the Bible in its light. Unfortunately, they often misapplied the text in their desire to emphasize this future hope.
The Qumran community demonstrates today the danger of applying the Bible to our needs today without first learning its original meaning. Remember, "the text can never mean what it never meant."
The Rabbinic schools--rules for Bible study
In the years immediately preceding the coming of Christ, Jewish Bible study revolved around two great teachers: Hillel and Shammai. Hillel (60 B.C.-A.D.20?) was an eminent scholar and rabbi ("teacher") in Jerusalem. He gathered a school of disciples to himself, and taught them the Scriptures in accord with set principles of interpretation and a somewhat free method of application. By contrast, Shammai (50 B.C.-A.D. 30) advocated a stricter approach to Bible study which adhered rigidly to the letter of the Law.
Hillel's interpretive principles were especially influential in Jewish and early Christian teaching methods. One of these "rules" is commonly found in the New Testament: the "qal wahomer" (literally, "the light and heavy"). This rule states that whatever applies in a lesser case will always apply in the greater case as well. This became a common rabbinic teaching method and was used often by Jesus.
For instance, consider his parable about the unjust judge whose favor was won by the persistent pleas of a widow (Lk 18:1-7). Taken at first reading, the parable seems to imply that God is unjust, and that he will only help us when we plead with Him in prayer. In fact, this is a "qal wahomer"--if an unjust judge would hear the pleas of a widow, how much more will our loving, righteous Father hear our prayers. For other examples of this teaching technique by Jesus, see Matthew 7:9-11 and Luke 11:5-13.
The contrast between Hillel and Shammai is illustrated by a Gentile who came to Shammai and challenged him to teach him the whole Law while the Gentile stood on one foot. Shammai, doubting his sincerity and realizing the impossibility of teaching the letter of the Law in such circumstances, drove the man away with a measuring stick. The Gentile then appeared before Hillel, who said, "What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it."
Perhaps the major problem with the rabbinic schools' study methods was their intense devotion to the details of the text. In pressing the rules for Bible study which they developed, the rabbis sometimes dissected the text but lost its overall sense.
For instance, they assigned numeric values to Hebrew consonants, creating interpretations which have no basis in the text. One example is Eliezer, Abraham's servant (Gen 15:2). The sum of the numbers of his name is 318, the same number as the trained fighting men in Abraham's household. On this basis, it was taught that Eliezer was worth an entire host of soldiers to Abraham, and therefore worthy of inheriting Abraham's household (Gen 15:3).
The rabbinic schools show us both positive and negative Bible study methods today. On the positive side, we can follow their example in developing and following good procedures for biblical interpretation. We will study this subject in the next chapter. On the negative side, we should beware of pressing the details of Scripture to the point that we miss its overall truths.
Rabbinic literature--interpretation by commentary
The intense interest in Bible study which the rabbis created in their followers led to massive efforts to interpret and apply the Scriptures. These efforts largely fell into four categories.
First, there was the "midrash," a kind of running commentary on the text. The three oldest are on the Pentateuch: the "Mekilta" on Exodus, "Sifra" on Leviticus, and "Sifre" on Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are comments on the text which treat it in what we would call a "verse-by-verse" format today.
Second, there was the "mishna," a commentary on the text which arranged it by topics. The six major divisions here were (1) agriculture, (2) festivals, (3) women, (4) property rights and legal proceedings, (5) the temple; and (6) laws of purity.
These were treated by compiling all the relevant texts and commenting on them together. We would call this "topical" Bible study today.
Third, there was the "halakah" and the "haggadah." The "halakah" discussed legal matters in Scripture, while the "haggadah" was more a devotional, practical application of the text. The "halakah" would be called an "exegetical" or "critical" commentary, and the "haggadah" a "devotional" commentary today.
Fourth, there was the "gemara," commentaries on the earlier "mishna." The "mishna" and the "gemara" together were compiled into the "Talmud."
Thus the rabbis created commentaries of various types, and then wrote commentaries on their commentaries. The unfortunate result was that the Jewish people often were not taught the Scripture itself. In the rabbis' focus upon their commentaries, they sometimes neglected the very text they were to interpret.
The scribes and teachers often taught the people the words of other scribes and teachers, losing the authority of God's own word. As a result, when Jesus began to teach in their synagogues, "the people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law" (Mk 1:22).
Today the rabbinic literature offers us fascinating insights into the ways first-century Jews interpreted their Scriptures. And this literature stands as a constant reminder to us: the purpose of Bible study is Bible study. We are to use commentaries, not to depend on them.
Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians as spiritual infants who depended on milk when they should have been mature believers, digesting solid food (1 Cor 3:1-2). Milk is digested food. The mother eats the solid food and digests it so her baby can consume it. In the same way, when a pastor or teacher studies the text and then comments on it for the people, this commentary is "digested" Scripture. While helpful, it is no substitute for the "meat" of the text itself.
Alexandrian Judaism--seeking the "spiritual meaning"
Alexandria, Egypt, was a leading center of Greek culture centuries before the time of Jesus. Here Greek philosophy was taught and promoted widely. A major concept in Greek thought was the separation of the "spiritual" from the "material." Plato (427-327 B.C.) believed that the "ideal" world is spiritual, while our physical world is only its imperfect "shadow" or poor reflection. Therefore, he taught that we should seek the higher "spiritual" truths and not focus on this lower world.
Taking this approach to the Bible, the Jews in Alexandria began seeking ways to discover "spiritual" truths in the "material" text. This method, called "allegory," focuses on hidden or spiritual meanings in the literal words. Philo (ca. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.) was the foremost advocate of this approach. He considered the literal meaning of the text to be helpful only for the immature. The mature disciple would want to find the "higher" spiritual truths of Scripture.
Philo advanced several rules for deciding if a text should be interpreted allegorically. If the literal says something unworthy of God in the interpreter's opinion, if it seems to contradict something else in Scripture, if it uses unneeded words or repeats something already known, or if there are any abnormalities or symbols present, then it should be treated allegorically. By applying these rules, Philo found many passages for which he used his method.
One famous example of Philo's approach is his interpretation of Abraham's journey to Palestine. According to him, Abraham symbolizes a philosopher. When he comes to Haran (the word means "holes"), he discovers the emptiness of learning by the holes, i.e., the senses. According to Philo, Abraham's journey teaches us the spiritual truth that learning cannot be gained from the physical world.
The allegorical method of Bible study is, unfortunately, still very popular today. Any time a preacher or teacher suggests a "spiritual" meaning which is not intended by the author of the text, he or she is moving toward allegory.
The point of Bible study is to learn what the Bible intends to say. God's word teaches more spiritual, life-transforming truth than we will ever understand or communicate. We need not look for spiritual lessons where they are not intended.
Jewish Bible study began with Ezra, focusing on the literal interpretation of God's word. Soon, however, some began to apply the text to their lives without considering its intended meaning.
Along the way, rules were developed to aid in the study of Scripture. Unfortunately, these rules sometimes became more the focus of study than the text they were supposed to interpret. As Greek philosophy influenced Hebrew thinking, many Jews began to depart from the literal meaning in search of higher "spiritual" truths. Each of these approaches to Bible study is still followed by some today. Popularity, however, is no guarantee that a method is right.
The Patristic Age
"Patra" is Latin for "father." The "Patristic" period is the period of the fathers of the church, approximately A.D. 100-500. Many of the most significant trends in biblical interpretation today can be traced to this era.
Finding Christ in the Old Testament
The first problem in Bible study for the early pastors and teachers was how to use the Old Testament in the church. Their typical approach was to find Christ in the Hebrew Scriptures wherever possible. To do this, they often resorted to the allegorical method, seeking spiritual truths beyond the literal meaning of the text. Let's look at some examples.
First, consider Clement of Rome (A.D. 30-100). This was probably the Clement Paul names as one of his companions at Philippi (Phil. 4:3), and was one of the early leaders of the church at Rome. In his desire to find Christ in the Old Testament, he made much use of allegory. Commenting on Rahab's scarlet rope which she hung from her window (Josh. 2:21), Clement says:
And thus they made it manifest that redemption should flow through the blood of the Lord to all them that believe and hope in God. Ye see, beloved, that there was not only faith, but prophecy, in this woman.
The Epistle of Barnabas is another example. Not written by the New Testament Barnabas, it commonly uses allegory to find Christian truths in the Old Testament. For instance, commenting on the dietary laws of the Jews, the author says,
"Thou shalt not eat the hyena." He means, "Thou shalt not be an adulterer, nor a corrupter, nor be like to them that are such." Wherefore? Because that animal annually changes its sex, and is at one time male, and at another female."
Justin Martyr (ca. 100-167) was one of the early church's greatest heroes and leaders. His defense of Christian truth against the attacks of pagan philosophers won him wide appreciation among his brethren. Unfortunately, he sometimes resorted to erroneous interpretations to find Christ in the Old Testament. For instance, he insisted that the high priest's bells on his robe (Ex 28:33-35) symbolize the twelve apostles who "ring out" the gospel of the Great High Priest.
A different approach to the Christian use of the Old Testament was that of Marcion (born ca. 100). As we saw in our discussion of the canon, Marcion was rejected by the church as a heretic. He rejected the Old Testament, and accepted only Luke and Paul's letters in the New. His method of treating the Hebrew Scriptures was basically to ignore them.
Irenaeus (born ca. 130) offered what later became the official approach of the church to the Old Testament, namely, that the church itself is the only correct medium of biblical interpretation. He insisted that both the Old and New Testaments are rightly understood only through the teachings of official church leaders.
And so in the earliest period of Christian Bible study, we encounter the spiritualizing approach of allegory, the rejection of what conflicts with our theology, and the doctrine that only the church can interpret the text. Unfortunately, all three methods are still popular in Bible study today.
The triumph of allegory
With Clement of Alexandria (150-213?), the allegorical approach to the Bible became a fully-developed system of interpretation. Clement believed that there are five senses to Scripture: the historical (the actual event), the doctrinal (its obvious teachings), the prophetic (its predictions), the philosophical (underlying meanings of the text), and the mystical (its deepest moral or spiritual truths, symbolized by the historical). He taught his students how to discover all five senses in any text.
One well-known example of Clement's approach is his interpretation of Psalm 150. Here the different musical instruments are taken to symbolize the human body, such as the lyre for the "mouth struck by the Spirit." Commenting on "Praise him with the timbrel and the dance," Clement says that this "refers to the Church meditating on the resurrection of the dead in the resounding skin."
Clement's most famous pupil was Origen (185-251?). Origen was a scholar of the first rank, a prolific author, and an interpreter committed to the allegorical approach. Interpreting Jesus' parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16), Origen taught that the laborers' day stands for the history of the world, and its hours mark the principal divisions of mankind's spiritual history.
Origen furthered the allegorical approach with the "threefold method," a model which endured for centuries. Taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:23--"May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ"--he taught that all Scripture has the same three senses. The "body" is the external event described in Scripture, the literal sense. The "soul" describes our personal relationships, the moral sense.
The "spirit" indicates our relationship with God, the mystical sense. This, he said, is the most important sense in Scripture. In interpreting Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Origen taught that Jesus' colt is the Old Testament which carries him to the cross, and the two apostles who contained the animal and brought it to Christ are the moral and spiritual senses.
Efforts to restore a literal approach
Not all scholars in this period succumbed to the spiritualizing approach of allegory. In fact, a notable attempt to return interpretation to the literal sense was made by the School of Antioch. Under Theophilus of Antioch (115-188), Diodorus of Tarsus (d. 393), Theodor of Mopsuestia (350-428) and Chrysostom (354-407), this school of scholars approached the Bible in a much more literal way than their contemporaries.
Theodor of Mopsuestia argued that an Old Testament prophecy should only be interpreted messianically if it is used in this way in the New Testament. Unfortunately, the more literal approach of Theodor and his colleagues never gained enough influence to prevent the wide use of allegory in the medieval church.
Another example of one who emphasized the literal sense is Jerome (347-420). He is most famous in church history for the "Vulgate," his translation of the Bible into Latin. However, he was also a leading advocate of the literal approach to Scripture.
So, while the allegorical method became pervasive in the early centuries of the church, the literal approach was never completely lost. It remained for Augustine to combine the two into principles of interpretation which were followed for a thousand years.
Augustine--principles of interpretation
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the leading intellectual of the Patristic Age and one of the greatest Christian scholars of all time. Augustine combined the allegorical approach of Greek philosophy with the more literal methods current in his day, developing twelve principles for Bible study. Among these, the most important for us are:
The necessity of Christian faith for interpretation.
The priority of the literal and historical senses of the text.
The importance of the original intent of the biblical author.
An emphasis on the context of the text.
The importance of using clear passages to interpret the more difficult
The necessity of education for interpretation.
Unfortunately, Augustine also accepted allegory when the text could possess more than one meaning. In addition, he found undue significance in biblical numbers and argued for the need to consult the church creeds in interpretation.
In his biblical studies, Augustine could be as allegorical as Origen. For instance, in treating the parable of the Good Samaritan he interpreted the oil and wine to be baptism, and the inn to be the Church. He took Psalm 104:19, "the sun knows when to go down," to refer to Jesus' death and burial.
Nevertheless, the principles for Bible study Augustine developed are still valid and useful today. To sum up, in the first five centuries of the church, various Bible study methods were suggested which are still in popular use. Allegorical interpretation sought spiritual truths which were beyond the literal intent of the author; more literal methods were developed and advocated; and comprehensive principles for the study of Scripture were created. Most Bible study for the next thousand years of the church stood on these foundations.
The Middle Ages
The period of church history which begins with the death of Augustine and culminates in the Reformation is usually called the "medieval" period or the "middle ages." While the trends just discussed were developed greatly during this period, not many new approaches were attempted. As regards biblical interpretation, this period was largely a time of transition. Let's look briefly at those developments which have endured in significance.
Approaches to Bible study
Four methods from the Middle Ages are still influential today. First was the "catena," a series or chain of interpretations put together on the basis of earlier commentaries by church fathers. This approach to Bible study is akin to the old Jewish approach of commenting on the commentaries, as in the Talmud. It remains a popular method of Bible study and preaching.
Second was the "gloss," a word of interpretation or comment inserted within and beside the biblical text. This kind of running commentary is a precursor to the verse-by-verse study Bibles popular today.
Third was the development of schools of Scripture study, each promoting its own approach to the Bible. These schools are precursors to the development of modern academic and vocational seminaries.
Fourth was the further development of allegorical methods. By this time every verse of Scripture was held to possess four meanings. To illustrate these, consider Galatians 4:21-31 and Paul's symbolic use of "Jerusalem." The city was interpreted in four ways: historically, as the city of the Jews; allegorically (symbolically), as the church of Christ; analogically (in terms of the future), as the heavenly city; and tropologically (morally), as the human soul. As we have already seen, this misguided search for the deeper "spiritual" meaning in every text is still popular.
Thomas of Aquinas--the priority of the literal
Without doubt the leading figure of the medieval church was Thomas of Aquinas (1224?-74). Thomas did more to develop the systematic theology of Roman Catholicism than any other person, and his thought and methods are still influential. Regarding his approach to Bible study, one major principle stands above all others: the priority of the literal sense of Scripture. As Thomas says:
Our faith rests upon the revelation made to die apostles and prophets, who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.
As the literal, intended sense of the Bible is its first meaning, other senses can only be interpreted on this basis. According to Thomas, the reader must not find other meanings which violate the stated, literal text. Again, in Thomas' words:
That first meaning whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That meaning whereby things signified by words have themselves also a meaning is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it.
Thomas does allow for allegory in interpreting the Old Testament, the "tropological" in finding moral precepts in the New Testament, and the "anagogical" in studying eternal, future topics. However, he calls for these to be grounded in the literal, intended meaning of the biblical author. In this way, he laid the foundation for interpretation methods which were to follow.
Nicholas of Lyra--a bridge to the Reformation
One other figure deserves mention in even a brief sketch of medieval Bible study--Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1340). Nicholas drew heavily upon Jewish scholarship and tended to interpret Scripture in terms of its historical, intended meaning. While he accepted the "multiple sense" approach, he argued that the other senses must be built upon the literal.
Nicholas is especially important to the history of Bible study for influencing Martin Luther and the reformers to come. Luther studied at the University of Erfurt, where Nicholas' system of interpretation prevailed, and it has been said that "if Lyra had not played, Luther would not have danced." Luther's commentary on Genesis also demonstrates dependence on Nicholas' methods. With Nicholas we can see further preparation for an emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture, one of the primary features of the Reformation.
At the dawn of the sixteenth century, biblical interpretation was still largely governed by the four-fold sense of Scripture. By the end of this century, the landscape of hermeneutics had changed dramatically and forever. Many replaced the allegorical method with a literal approach to Scripture. A movement to grant the individual freedom to study the Bible stood opposed to the centuries-old practice of interpreting by church councils and creeds.
For many believers, the Bible alone was seen as our authority under God. All this was the result of the movement we call the "Reformation."
Martin Luther--principles for Bible study
The beginning of the actual Reformation movement is usually traced to Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther's theology became foundational for the Reformation. Luther developed six principles for Bible study which are still followed by most Protestants today:
1. The "psychological" principle: the need for spiritual commitment. Luther argued that God reveals the true meaning of His word by the Spirit to His people (see 1 Cor 2:11-12).
2. The "authority" principle: the Bible stands above church authority and judges the creeds and opinions of men.
3. The "literal" principle: Bible study must emphasize the historical and grammatical meaning of the text, and reject all allegory and the "four-fold" method.
4. The "sufficiency" principle: the Bible is a clear book and can be interpreted by all Christians. Here Luther stood for the "priesthood of every believer" in opposition to interpretation by clergy alone.
5. The "Christological" principle: the purpose of all Bible study is to find and trust in Christ.
6. The "law-gospel" principle: the Old Testament law was given to judge sin, and then New Testament grace was given to atone for it. We must never de-emphasize the unlawfulness of sin, or make grace into law and human works.
These six principles were and are crucial to Protestant biblical interpretation.
John Calvin--the scientific study of Scripture
The first so-called scientific interpreter of the Bible was the reformer John Calvin (1509-64). Calvin's background was in legal studies, and he brought this systematic approach to the Scriptures. He especially insisted that "Scripture interprets Scripture," arguing that we should study the grammar, history, and context of the passage rather than reading into it our own opinions. Calvin greatly developed and advanced the Protestant method of grammatical and historical interpretation.
The Council of Trent--Roman Catholic creedalism
In response to the Protestant movements described above, the Roman Catholic church met for eighteen years in the official Council of Trent (1545-63). The result was a narrowly defined creed of orthodoxy which claimed that church teachings and creeds are the basis for all correct Bible study.
The stage was now set for two basic schools of thought: interpretation by any believer, based on the literal text; and interpretation by priest and church official, based on church teachings. These two approaches have dominated Christian theology for the last four centuries.
The Anabaptists and other reformers
Another strain in the sixteenth-century Reformation was the "Anabaptists." The movement began in Switzerland, and still influences some Protestant churches and theology today. The name is taken from the Greek word "ana," meaning "re"; an "Anabaptist" is thus a "re-baptizer." This points to an important doctrine, held by Baptists and many other Protestant denominations, that one should be baptized by immersion and only upon personal commitment to Christ.
The Anabaptists' doctrine of baptism is not, however, their only contribution to Protestant theology. Their view of the Bible and its study, held in common with many other reforming groups, has also been helpful for millions of Christians across recent centuries. This method of Bible study can be condensed into five principles:
1. "Sola scriptura"--the Bible is our sole authority in faith and practice.
2. A de-emphasis of creeds--we should emphasize the text itself.
3. A "Christological" approach--Christ fulfills and interprets the Bible.
4. The New Testament as our rule for faith and practice--the Old Testament should be interpreted in light of the New.
5. The right of the individual in interpretation--the believer is free to study the Bible apart from church authority.
In summary, we can list several Reformation Bible study principles which are still followed by most Protestants today:
the need for spiritual commitment by the reader
the literal method of Bible study (the "grammatical-historical" approach)
the authority of the Bible above church doctrines or creeds
the right of the individual to interpret the Scripture
the Christological purpose and focus for Bible study
the affirmation of the New Testament as our rule for faith and practice.
As we will see in the next chapter, these Reformation tenets still form the foundation for our Bible study today.
The Modern Era
The last four hundred years have seen remarkable interest in the subject of the Bible and hermeneutics. For our purposes, we will highlight only those movements which might influence your Bible study today.
Modern liberalism—subjective interpretation
One of these key movements is often called "liberalism." In the dictionary sense of the word, this is an intellectual method which is free from any tradition or external authority. In Bible study, liberalism basically grants one the freedom to interpret the text as he or she wishes. This is the "subjective" approach. By contrast, the "objective" method insists that the text possesses an objective, intended meaning, whether the reader interprets it correctly or not.
Two names are essential to our study: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Kant remains one of the most important thinkers in Western history. The problem he addressed is basic to life: what is the relationship of our minds to our sense impressions? Some said that all truth comes from intellectual processes; others said it comes from sense experiences. Kant wed the two approaches, teaching that the mind interprets sense data and this results in knowledge.
This seemingly simple idea led to a crucial conclusion: you and I cannot know anything as it is, only our experience of it. According to Kant, you cannot know this book, only how it looks to you. I might see its color or feel its pages differently than you would. As a result, all we can know about reality is our experience of it, not the "thing in itself."
Schleiermacher applied this idea to theology and the Bible, with this devastating result: you and I cannot know God, only our experience of Him. In this approach, the Bible becomes only a record of the religious experiences of others, not a book of objective truth. And the way you will interpret the Bible through your experience will differ from my interpretation. As a result, for those in this method there cannot be objective Bible study or theology. They consider biblical truth, like all knowledge, to be subjective. For this approach, Schleiermacher is considered today the "father of modern liberalism."
The subjective approach to Scripture, reading the Bible through our own experiences, has produced many unfortunate results for its followers. One is that if we have not experienced the supernatural, then we are free to dismiss the supernatural from Scripture. Many interpreters have thus denied the miraculous, reinterpreting it as symbols or myths. One such scholar refers repeatedly to the resurrection, Jesus' appearance on the road to Emmaus, and the stories of the empty tomb as "legends."
Another result is that the Bible is valued only for its ethical content. If we have no objective truth to preach, we are left only with ethical principles to suggest. Jesus thus becomes a teacher of morals, and Christianity only an ethical system. Of course, Jesus claims objective truth for himself (Jn 14:6). The Bible promises that we can know God with certainty (1 Jn 5:13). God's word offers us the objective experience of salvation on the basis of his objective word:
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever." And this is the word that was preached to you (1 Pt 1:23-25).
As someone has suggested, my denying the sunrise doesn't disprove the sun, it only proves my ignorance. Likewise, denying the objective truth of Scripture doesn't disprove the Bible, it only proves my misunderstanding of God and his word.
A warning: those who accept the objective authority of the Bible still must guard against the same results in study as those of modern liberalism. If you believe the Bible is objectively true, but interpret it apart from its intended meaning, you arrive at your own subjective conclusions. Thus you can unfortunately be conservative in your view of Scripture and "liberal" in interpreting it.
Princeton theology--rational, topical bible study
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) led a conservative response to the modern liberal movement. His movement centered in Princeton Seminary and is thus known as "Princeton theology."
This approach defends the Bible as rational truth. It takes Scripture to be a book of objective facts about the Christian faith and life. It then seeks to arrange these facts into a systematic unity. From this approach, one can arrange the various verses of the Bible into a unified "doctrine of God," "doctrine of man," "doctrine of the church," etc.
This approach of arranging the Scriptures into systems of doctrine remains a very influential method of Bible study and preaching today. In a more popular application, you have perhaps heard a preacher take a topic and arrange verses from many different texts on this subject into a sermon. This is often called "topical" preaching, as opposed to "expository" preaching which develops primarily a single text.
One difficulty with the topical approach is that its practitioners sometimes take the different verses out of their context and originally intended meaning, arranging them to teach something none of the individual verses was intended to say.
This clearly was not the intent or practice of Hodge and his theological school, but it is sometimes the result of misusing their methods. Misarranging verses into a meaning none of their authors intended is called "false combinationalism." For example, one could take Psalm 23:5, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies," and combine it with verse 6, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." The result might be, "my enemies are in the house of the Lord." While this may sometimes be true, it is obviously not what David intended to say.
It is clear that the Bible is true, and that it teaches truth. But we must always be careful to interpret this truth consistent with its intended meaning, or we use truth to teach falsehood.
Dispensationalism--interpreting by biblical periods
John Darby (1800-82) and his followers developed a new method of Bible study which is still tremendously popular today: "dispensationalism." A dispensation is defined as a period of time in history and the Bible. This method teaches that the different parts of the Bible must be interpreted according to their place in the overall system of dispensations. One typical organization is the dispensation of:
Civil government--Genesis 8:15-11:9
Promise [to Abraham]--Genesis 11:10-Exodus 18:27
Mosaic law--Exodus 18:28-Acts 1:26
Grace [the present dispensation]--Acts 2:1-Revelation 19:21
The millennium--Revelation 20.
This method stands on two crucial principles: the separation of Israel and the church, and a thorough-going literal approach. Dispensationalists believe that every promise to Israel not yet fulfilled will one day be fulfilled literally. Non-dispensationalists often see these promises as fulfilled in the church. And dispensationalists approach the Bible very literally, including Revelation and other parts which non-dispensationalists may see as more symbolic in nature.
Dispensationalism has been promoted especially by the Scofield Bible and the Ryrie Study Bible. It is taught at several Bible institutes in this country and is popular with many pastors and laypeople today.
The institutional model--interpreting by creeds
Another movement which still influences Bible study today can be called "institutionalism." This is Bible study by the creeds of a certain religious institution or movement. While traceable to Irenaeus and still popular with many Roman Catholics today, this approach is not confined to Catholicism. If Bible study is made subservient to man-made definitions or creeds, Scripture then serves our theological opinions.
As we saw earlier, "the priesthood of the believer" guarantees every interpreter the right to approach the Bible for himself or herself. So long as we seek the author's intended meaning and use proper methods, we do not need human institutions or dogmas to interpret the Bible for us. While the opinions of others will often be very helpful in our own Bible study, they should never substitute for it.
This principle has relevance for nearly every student of Scripture. For those in more creedally-oriented denominations, it means that their denominational statements and doctrines will not prevent their studying the Bible themselves. For those in less creedal denominations, it means they will not depend on their pastor, Sunday School teacher, or commentaries to study the Scripture for them. For all of us, it means that we will seek to encounter God personally and daily in his word.
The material we have surveyed briefly in this chapter is the subject of multi-volume scholarly studies. Our purpose has been only to highlight those trends in the history of Bible study which most affect popular study of Scripture today. We may place the methods into one of the two categories.
Approaches to Avoid
Applying the Bible to our needs without first learning its intended meaning (Qumran)
Interpreting by commentary (rabbinic literature)
Seeking an underlying "spiritual" meaning beyond the literal sense of the text (allegory)
Making the church and its officials the only proper interpreters of Scripture (Iranaeus, institutionalism
Subjective interpretation (modern "liberalism")
Approaches to follow
Sound procedures for Bible study (Rabbinic schools)
Basing interpretation on the literal sense of Scripture (Thomas, Luther and Reformation theology)
The need for spiritual commitment (Luther, the Anabaptists)
Holding the Bible above church authority (the Reformers)
The belief that all Christians can interpret God's word for themselves (the Reformers)
Centering all interpretation in Christ, leading to faith in Him (Anabaptists)
As we interpret God's word according to its intended meaning, we draw ever closer to its Author. And to his purpose for our lives and service.
Among the many good treatments of the history of biblical interpretation, the following books are especially helpful: John Rogerson, Christopher Rowland, and Barnabas Lindars, The Study and Use of the Bible: The History of Christian Theology, ed. Paul Avis, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988); Robert M. Grant with David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 2d ed. Rev. (n.p.: Fortress Press, 1984 ); A Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1963), 20-53; and Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 23-92. The classic text in the subject remains Frederic W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1961). For excellent articles, see: John P. Newport, "Representative Historical and Contemporary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation,"Faith and Mission III, 2 (Spring 1986), 32-48; and Robert M. Grant, John T. McNeil, and Samuel Terrien, "History of the Interpretation of the Bible," The Interpreter's Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1952), 1: 106-41.
The Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo'ed, Shabbath I, trans. I. Epstein (London: Sancino Press, 1938), 31 a (I: 140).
The First Epistle of Clement, 12. Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:8.
The Epistle of Barnabas, x, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:215-216.
Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 42, Ante-Nicene Fathers, I:143.
Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor II:IV (Ante-Nicene Fathers, 2:248).
Stephen L. Wailes, Medieval Allegories of Jesus' Parables (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1987), 138.
Origen's Commentary on John, Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10:396-399.
See Farrar, 213-219.
Augustine, Sermon 81, Sermons on New Testament Lessons, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, 6:503.
Augustine, On the Psalms, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, 8:515-16.
For more on the following, see Grant, 83-91.
Thomas, Summa Theologica, 1.!1.8.
The outstanding treatment of contemporary interpretive theory is Anthony C. Thiselton, New Herizons in Hermeneutics: The Theory and Practice of Transforming Biblical Reading (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992).
Rudolf Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, rev. ed., trans. John Marsh (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 284-91.