How does one Interpret the Bible?
Three Forms of Hermeneutics
Please don’t be frightened by the second line of the title. Hermeneutics is simply a big word for interpretation, and it is my belief that much of the confusion and division we experience between Christian denominations and believers can be traced directly to how we interpret the Bible and the underlying assumptions governing our interpretation.
A Brief Traverse of History
There has never been a time when everyone who came into contact with Jesus’ teachings agreed wholeheartedly on their interpretation. Yes, you heard that statement correctly. Someone might try to argue that the early disciples were surely in agreement and that in the early church everyone was on the same page. I would respond to such a statement with the following: How long has it been since you have read your Bible?
If you read through the book of Acts, which is Luke’s account of the beginnings of the church, you will see quite plainly, the early church was not always in harmony. There were divisions and factions arising even then. Couple the book of Acts with the letters of Paul, and you have further evidence the early church was not of one accord. Throw in a couple of the early heresies, especially Gnosticism, represented by the Gospel of Thomas, and one quickly gets the picture of a church wrestling deeply with what it fundamentally meant to follow Jesus’ teachings.
In 325, Emperor Constantine convened a great council of the church to deal with such matters. (Some folks call this the “First Great Council.” I disagree. I think the “First Great Council” was recorded in Acts 15.) The council had many successful moments including the formulation of the Nicene Creed and the beginning of some canon law. There was a sense of unity in the Church–for a time.
But scriptural interpretation still was not a settled matter, and as time progressed four main modes of interpretation emerged and were prevalent during the Middle Ages. They were:
• The literal meaning – which was the plain and evident meaning.
• The moral meaning – instructed people on how to behave.
• The allegorical meaning – this revealed the doctrinal content
• The anagogical meaning – this expressed a future hope.
Now, there is nothing necessarily wrong with these methods of interpretation–unless you have difficulty discerning which method should be primary. Why does that make a difference? Please see Worksheet 3A from Kerygma: Parables: Stories for Life in God’s World.* Can you see the issues which can arise using such allegory to formulate the basis of doctrine?
Luther rebelled against the allegorical meaning as primary, and he argued the literal or plain reading of scripture–and as he translated the Bible into German–read in the language of the people should be the primary, authoritative reading of scripture. We know some of the results of Luther’s stand–or theoretically, we should since we are Lutheran.
But this reading also posed a set of problems for language is a bit tricky. Much of the language of scripture is metaphorical. Some of it deals with visions which obviously draw heavily on analogies. The most famous one is perhaps what began the divisions among Protestants: the definition of the word “is” as it pertains to Jesus’ words regarding the Lord’s Supper: “This is my body...This is my blood...” Is the word “is” to be taken literally, metaphorically, or somehow a combination of both?
Interestingly enough, another phenomena entered the picture at almost the same time as the Reformation–the rise of reason and the modern Enlightenment movement. Up until this moment in time, theology was considered the “Queen of the Sciences.” It carried the most authority in universities. In just a century or so, it was replaced by science and philosophy–the disciplines which were based in reason. Theology had lost its status, and so it found itself in a bit of a quandary. How should it respond?
*The man who was
going down is Adam. Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The
robbers are hostile powers. The priest is the Law, the Levite is the
prophets, and the Samaritan is Christ. The wounds are disobedience, the
beast is the Lord's body, the pandochium (that is, the stable [inn]),
which accepts all [pan-] who wish to enter, is the Church. And further,
the two denarii mean the Father and the Son. The manager of the stable
is the head of the Church, to whom its care has been entrusted. And
the fact that the Samaritan promises he will return represents the
Savior's second coming. (This is not the full text, but a portion copied from this website.)