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Questions that Sparked it All
This has been a burning question for me since I first became a believer over 30 years ago, having been barraged almost immediately within the Christian community about how we should interpret the bible one way or another, everyone with their own agendas, all convinced of their own ideas, their own theories, their own doctrines.
It took many years before I was able to put much of this distraction aside, and truly look at the question in its fundamental essence.
How should we interpret the bible?
In the Hermeneutics course at the Master’s Seminary, the question was yet raised again. Can, as many assert, a bible passage have more than one meaning simultaneously? Multiple independent meanings at that?
In the world we have today of supposed Christendom (though I doubt we can claim any who confess Christ to be anything other than the church universal, whether we would like them to be or not) there is no shortage of opinion or attack, as everyone is a heretic in someone’s eyes at some point.
But, I chose this topic because it is one I believe the professor (and many others) have gotten wrong, and mostly out of fear more than anything else.
Scripture is certainly the message from God. Few, if any, would argue against the inspiration of Scripture, unless, of course, you are not saved or you discredit the bible or God altogether.
Christ, in fact, said of the bible (or, at least of the Law and the Prophets), “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18) and elsewhere, “and the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
So, if this be the case, and, as Paul claims, the bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), do we conclude and agree with the professor, each passage of the bible can contain a single and only one meaning, or can Scripture contain more than one, sometimes (or all times) multiple meanings?
Certainly, Peter establishes for us, “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20).
This invalidates the idea that there is no supernatural authorship to the bible, that God was not involved. In fact, this pretty much rules out human interference, since there was no “private interpretation” included in the Scripture.
The professor would have us believe there is only one valid interpretation for each passage. If this be the case, then there are some problem texts we need to work through, as I will do shortly.
But, first, I want to state, this argument is really about the tension between literal and allegorical interpretation and nothing much else.
Throughout most of Church history, this fight has waged on. Because of the long abuses of allegory over the centuries, modern fundamentalist believers were compelled to argue the point, going, I believe, the opposite direction in reaction against the heretical views.
It was the over dependence and over dominance of allegory by the historical church that led to the literal insistence of modern times.
The sad truth is, both arguments are in error and forsake the truth. As I will illustrate in this paper, we should neither run rampant in fields of allegory when interpreting the Scripture, nor should we be locked in a legalistic stranglehold of literalism either.
Let’s first discuss some objections to this claim of single meaning only.
Matthew 2:15 “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” This is a very overtly a quote from the Old Testament, specifically Hosea 11:1, referencing when Israel (the nation) was young and spent time in Egypt (as slaves), only to be called out by God (the Exodus).
Obviously, this is historical reference in Hosea 11:1, and, if so, why does Matthew cite it in reference to Jesus leaving Egypt as a child after being hunted by Herod?
In the single meaning theory there can only be one meaning here and, thus, either Hosea is incorrect or Matthew is incorrect (and if either is incorrect, then Jesus is incorrect about the law being broken – if we agree he is referencing by “law” all Scripture – is the New Testament less binding than the books of Moses?).
Then again, maybe something else is going on here.
Another objection is in Galatians 4:23-24, “he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants …”
The word for symbolic is αλληγορούμενα (G238) “make into allegory.” It is literally where we derive the English word Allegorical.
So, then, under the theory of single meaning, either Moses was incorrect in his writing about Abraham’s two sons (in that they didn’t exist) or Paul was incorrect in his conclusion that, in addition to the literal meaning, there was also an allegorical meaning.
It would be difficult to argue Paul meant something else when he literally said, “this is an allegory.”
Literal two sons or allegorically two covenants?
Lastly, we have the synoptics of Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3, and Luke 3:4 all quoting from Isaiah 40:3, yet Isaiah is speaking specifically of Israel’s preparation for return to Palestine from the Babylonian captivity, while the New Testament writers have no concerns for this contextual meaning, but rather interpret it as a messianic reference.
Is the literal meaning in Isaiah 40:3 to be discarded as wholly inaccurate and in error? Are the New Testament writers, instead, to be viewed as unprofessional and crass in their hermeneutics, even to mishandling the text? If there is but one meaning of Scripture, are the gospel writers not guilty of twisting the Scriptures to their own ends?
Certainly no. Otherwise, Jesus was incorrect that the law could not be broken.
So in all the examples above, which is it? Is it Jesus or Israel being called from Egypt? Two covenants or two brothers? Make straight the path of the Israelites returning home or a prophetic reference to the coming Messiah?
Certainly, at least in the mind of the professor, it can’t be both are correct. Scripture has only one meaning, right?
Sadly, this is just a regurgitation of the Sadducean simplification. No other meanings besides the literal. No resurrection. No angels. No fun at parties.
But, why do they cling so tightly to single meaning? Out of a preponderance of fear.
There is fear believers might, as the Alexandrian school feared, might take the allegorical meanings to an extreme.
Keep in mind, this modern fear was borne on nearly 2000 years of allegorical abuse, where the Church Fathers and the Catholic Church (and then the protestants) took Scripture (just as predicted) and twisted it to their own ends, often abandoning the literal meaning entirely.
When Christianity became legal and state supported, the clergy was now being financially paid by the government. They did not want to rock the proverbial boat, and so, allegory allowed them an excuse to keep the power that be satisfied.
The Catholic Church continued this practice, inventing all sort of wild and crazy ideas over the centuries, to the point that the Christian faith became unrecognizable to its origins or its written record (the bible).
Unfortunately, this overcorrection, has trapped many into continually suckling mother’s milk, constantly learning but never coming to the full knowledge of the truth.
So, if the single meaning theory is, by Scripture alone, discredited, what does that mean? Multiple meaning theory? As many meanings as we want theory?
Are we, as believers allowed to just run rampant in the interpretive now, suggesting the Scripture means whatever we want it to mean whenever we want it to mean it?
There is reason. There is logic. There is internal consistency. There is historical, linguistic and contextual rules that must be followed as with all forms of writing and language.
But, more than anything else, and what is often forgotten or abandoned for the sake of fear or for the desire to invent fallacy is the nature and involvement of the Holy Spirit in our interpretive process.
Just as the Holy Spirit led the apostles and prophets to write down the word of God (2 Peter 1:20), so also does the Holy Spirit guide us in our learning, our understanding, our sanctification and growth in the full knowledge of Christ (John 14:26; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2; 1 Corinthians 2:14).
So, the spirit is, according to Paul, how we interpret the bible correctly. Not a proper hermeneutic. Not a literal historical process. Not by reason or logic. For unaided reason and unaided logic finds in the bible only foolishness, even when attempting to discover the literal historical interpretation. In fact, human intellect alone can do nothing, can solve nothing, can bring about no illumination (Ephesians 1:18), for it is the natural man and he has not the spirit of God (Jude 1:19; 1 Corinthians 2:14).
To what degree, then, should we prepare our study, our interpretation, and with what mechanics should we use, when interpreting?
But they all take second place to what the Bible tells us to do.
First, we know from Paul that Scripture is both “god breathed” and “profitable for doctrine” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Second, we know the Scripture cannot be broken, so what it says has to be true. It may not be true to our current science. This means our current science is somehow wrong. It may not seem or feel true to us morally or ethically. This means our own judgment is faulty. May God be true and every man a liar.
Third, we know from above there is no possibility of proper interpretation without the aid of the Spirit.
But, if we have all these, what is our next step? It is in proper foundation.
Jesus made this clear. Do not build upon the sand (Matthew 7:26). It is important to start off with a proper foundation and for proper interpretation this is the apostles and the prophets, with Christ as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).
If you build upon a foundation with just the prophets, your foundation is faulty. If just upon the New Testament writers (which many Christians do today), your foundation will be defective. If you build upon the apostles and the prophets, but leave out the chief cornerstone (that holds it all together) you have wasted all of your time and effort. You will not interpret Scripture correctly.
Part of forming a sure foundation is looking to the apostles, prophets, and Christ in the examples set down for us in the bible, to see how we should interpret the bible.
Yes, you will hear a great deal of argument against this from both academia and from the pulpit today. But, you need to realize why these groups are against this. Certainly it is no wonder why academia is against establishing hermeneutic rules based on what the apostles and Jesus did, simply because it leaves them with the undeniable reality of Christ’ divinity and the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. Those in the pulpit who voice argument against biblical interpretive rules do so out of fear – fear that they would be rousted from their comfortable diet of literal historical milk, which might challenge them on what they do in present day, organized churchianity.
But, there is no way around it. There is one way to interpret Scripture. There is only one truth to Scripture. And that truth is embodied in Jesus Christ and is illustrated in the New Testament writers.
The reality is, the bible can be interpreted any number of ways – a limitless number of ways. Most often this is found to be a twisting of Scripture. It forms what the bible calls doctrines of men, or leads to the adoption of doctrines of demons.
But, sound doctrine is derived by sound, biblical interpretation, utilizing the same methods the New Testament writers and Christ used, but also by being indwelled and led by the Spirit.
Divisions will come. Paul tells us this needs to happen (1 Corinthians 11:19) as a litmus test to determine who is truly approved by God and who is not.
And many will be led astray and will be taken captive by all kinds of strange and perverse doctrines, which is also predicted to be fulfilled (2 Thessalonians 2:3; 2 Timothy 2:26). This we simply must accept as God’s will.
A History of Hermeneutics
During the early days of the church, when the Church Fathers were writing their opus collection of documents that would solidify Catholic Church dogma for nearly a millennia and a half afterward, we see they were, much like we are today, at each other’s throats in a death match over interpretation.
The Antioch school sought the literal meaning above all else, while the Alexandria school raised the allegorical meaning to dominance.
It was Thomas Aquinas in the middle ages that brought together the two competing interpretive methods, linking literal with allegorical.
Even more so, with the quadriga, Thomas brought about a union of extremes, allowing the literal as an entry point into the spiritual mystery that is the body and Christ (5). The literal sense serves as a doorway into a more complex pattern of Scripture (3).
This allows the foundation to remain unbroken, from the earliest of times in Jewish tradition of a fourfold interpretative approach, to Christ and the New Testament writers interpreting the Old Testament, to the New Testament writers interpreting themselves, to church history with their four fold approach, to today.
This not only keeps the text alive and effective for us, preventing it (and us) from dying on the vine in a single literal historical practice, but it also guards the heart and mind and imagination from running wild into the allegorical fray.
But, this is not to say, as has already been mentioned, the church was not predominately plagued by interpretive abuse. For various reasons, the fight between the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools was eventually decided with allegory winning the day and solidifying the next several centuries into a kind of fantastical mythic, with Scripture sequestered by the Catholic Church leadership, it being replaced by ritual liturgy for the oft illiterate masses, and darkness fell and the light dimmed.
Origen, of course, is known to be a primary progenitor of this wave of fanciful interpreting. Even though he thought much of Scripture to be historical, he mostly concluded that history was unimportant to the spiritual meaning buried beneath.
And, this is where the trouble began. Supplanting the literal historical meaning of Scripture is to cut out the vital nature of reason and logic and meaning itself.
But, Origen was insistent claiming, “Scripture [was]
‘Obvious’…[that it was necessary only] so the simple man may be edified” (1).
This kind of idea we know to be heretical, gnostic in its approach, in its shunning of all things fleshly, worldly, human, despising the mortality of Christ and of ourselves, while claiming some secretive dialectic for the initiate.
Looking to Christ and the apostles, and how they handled the Prophets, we can see that you do not forsake the literal for the spiritual just like you do not forsake the spiritual and cling to only the literal.
The Fourfold Interpretation
So, if not the literal historical, single meaning interpretative approach, and not the wholly spiritualized approach, then what?
Well, we take an all-the-above approach instead.
A fourfold interpretation not only lays a clear path, but it draws out dogmatic, moral, ascetic, even mystical concepts, beyond what we could even imagine, for the willing participant, for the diligent student.
It is a walk in faith, a process of sanctification by the Holy Spirit, gold of which we are encouraged to purchase from Christ that is πεπυρωμένον (G4448) “ignited, glowing, being refined” from the fire (Revelation 1:15).
We do not isolate Scripture as a subject of specialty distinct from Christian life. It is the heart and the soul of faith, the vitality that our new self craves, as we yearn, and struggle in the walk toward the revealing of the Sons of God.
Scripture was written “that believing, [we] might have life in his name” (2).
So, we have a four fold approach to bible interpretation:
1. Literal Historical – Contextual – Rational.
2. Typological – Spiritual – Allegorical.
3. Tropological – Moral – Applicable.
4. Anagogical – Mystical – Metaphysical.
These four intersect Paul in Ephesians 3:18, “the width and length and depth and height.” The width = literal. The length = allegorical. The depth = moral. The hight = mystical.
By combining all four we venture into the mystery, become participants in it, are transformed by it every moment of our existence, and come to know and are coming to know, and will come to know that which exceeds the full knowledge of the love of Christ.
This four-fold process, as mentioned above, is very similar to and certainly borrowed from the Rabbinic exegetical practice in Peshat, Remez, Derash, and Sod.
Before this, there are hints and traces, such as in the Seven Rules of Hillel’s and elsewhere, which were certainly handed down to Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel (Paul’s teacher) (4).
We see this type of process throughout the Scripture. Jesus illustrated the mystical interpretive meaning on the road to Emmaus, as he used “Moses and all the Prophets…διηρμήνευεν (G1329) ‘interpreting, explaining in detail’ to them everything about him” (Luke 24:27).
In fact, Jesus typically taught three different levels of meaning in the Scripture: 1. For the lost world and the overtly religious, typically literal 2. For believers in the form of parables and 3. Mystical for the chosen elect.
The bible is, as Dante described his own writing, “polysemous” or having several meanings simultaneously. There is not just one meaning to a Scriptural passage, and I would venture to say any Scriptural passage. I would also argue, based entirely from intuition and the nature of God himself, there is significance to the bible that we cannot even yet comprehend. I would argue all of creation, our very existence, the existence and that we persist in that existence is all wrapped up into the word of God.
More examples we find of simultaneous allegory and literal meaning:
Genesis 2:21 – the taking of Adam’s rib and forming woman out of it. This is both a literal event and a supernatural mystery of Christ and the Church, for we are both the bride and the body of Christ.
Revelation 1-2 – The seven churches are both literal locations and bodies of believers in time, space, and history, as well as allegorically a mystical calendar of church history.
In the end, we find a near constant battle throughout the history of the church to define how we go about deriving meaning from the bible, this peculiar book handed down to us from antiquity, from long gone human individuals who were either profoundly inspired by the creator of all things or were bat crap crazy. There is no middle road. You cannot claim inspiration without inerrancy and supernatural ability. You cannot discount divinity without discounting the message and the author. There is no riding the fence. “If you are not with me you are against me” (Matthew 12:30).
Likewise, there is no effort by which you can enter the gate. There is no free will. There is no acceptance with out first the call, without first the predestination. “The Lord knows who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19).
If we are truly saved by grace, if we truly have confessed the Lord Jesus and believed God raised him from the dead, and hope in the resurrection to come, and if we are truly indwelt by the Holy Spirit as a new creation in Christ and are not fooling others or ourselves, making a mockery of the cross, then he will lead us out of harms way.
Not some things, but all things work together for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28). The good, the bad, the painful, the confusion, the enlightenment. It is all a part of the process along the journey toward the revealing to come.
We cannot limit God’s message, or make it something it is not. But, there will be those who pervert and twist the Scripture to their own ends, this the bible prophesies. We must pray continually and work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, hoping we are not vessels of wrath created for the day of destruction (Romans 9:22).
“Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching, for a time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (2 Timothy 2:2-3).
That time is already here. Until my next assignment…..
(1) Scalise, C. J. (1989). The “Sensus Literalis”: A Hermeneutical Key to Biblical Exegesis. Scottish Journal of Theology, 42(01), 45. doi:10.1017/s0036930600040527
(2) Marie, Andre. (2007). The Four Senses of Scripture. (2007, December 11). https://catholicism.org/the-four-senses-of-scripture.html
(3) Leithart, Peter. (2013). Rehabilitating the Quadriga.https://theopolisinstitute.com/rehabilitating-the-quadriga
(4) (2015). The Seven Rules of Hillel. Torah Recourse Center. http://www.yashanet.com/studies/revstudy/hillel.htm
(5) Lusk, Rich. (2000). Metaphor is the Message: Thomas Aquinas on Biblical Interpretation and Metaphor. University of Texas. https://www.trinity-pres.net/essays/metaphor-is-message_aquinas.pdf
Please consider supporting my writing, my unschooled studies, and my hermitic lifestyle by purchasing one or more of my books. I’m not supported by academia or have a lucrative corporate job – I’m just a mystical modern-day hermit trying to live out the life I believe God has called me to. So, any support you choose to provide is GREATLY appreciated.
Excerpt from Sacred the Circle:
There was a knock at the door.
Campbell got up from the chair and crossed the small distance so he could open it.
A young man stood in the doorway, probably in his early twenties.
Campbell could tell he looked a little disheveled.
He had deep rings around his eyes, as if he hadn’t been sleeping much, and he kept checking the hallway in both directions, as if half expecting someone to be stalking him.
“Hey,” Campbell said.
The kid was stumbling over his own words.
Campbell leaned out into the hallway, checking to make sure there was no one else listening.
This guy wasn’t the only one who was becoming paranoid.
There were two students hanging out at the foyer, near the stairs, but the rest of the floor was clear.
“I’m sorry,” the kid said. “Must be the wrong place. I’m mistaken.”
He started to leave.
“Wait,” Campbell said, putting a hand out. “Hold on a second.”
The kid paused.
“What’s your name?”
He fidgeted with his collar.
“I know it sounds crazy, but – ”
“You’re not crazy, Lloyd,” Campbell said, grinning.
“Did you – ? ”
The kid paused, as if unsure if he should continue.
He looked back toward the stairs, then at Campbell.
“Did you know I was coming?” he finally asked. “I mean, that’s not possible, but, were you expecting me?”
Campbell chuckled to himself.
“What’s so funny?” Lloyd asked.
“Well – ”
Campbell pushed the door open all the way so Lloyd could see inside his dorm room.
The entire room was full of them, students, non-students, ranging from what looked like eighteen to even a few middle-aged men, scattered about the room, sitting wherever they could find a comfortable spot.
Lloyd’s mouth dropped open.
“I wasn’t really expecting them, either,” Campbell said. “So, I hope you don’t hold it against me when I tell you, I had no idea you’d be showing up here. Do you care to join us, anyway?”
Buy my book Sacred the Circle to find out what these men are hearing from the supernatural realm. Will they answer the questions tugging at them? What are the visions saying? Who are the Multitude? Why are all these men being brought together? By whom? And why, above all else, are they being convicted….to pray?
But, trust me when I say, you’ll be white knuckling this one with every turn of the page!