A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation

A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation


Even the early church struggled with how to interpret the Bible. From as early as the second century two distinct camps arose with differing theories of interpretation. In Alexandria, interpreters such as Origen held that the Scriptures required an allegorical reading. The allegorical approach “… can provide the key which is needed to unlock the mystery hidden in the text.” (Jeanrond, p. 21) In Antioch, different interpretive views were held. Antioch’s school saw a greased pig in allegorical reading that could run anywhere it wanted without staying inside the pen of the text’s plain sense. While scholars have developed many tools to aid in exegesis, this early and fundamental tension between literal and figurative interpretations remains to this day.

After the Antioch/Alexandria polarity was established, it was acknowledged and dealt with by interpreters such as Augustine (354-430). This fourth and fifth century interpreter arrived at a set of guidelines for Scriptural interpretation that make good sense to this day, as well as a theological understanding to back them up. The theological underpinning for Augustine was the idea that Scripture was not itself the Word. Augustine avoided falling into the biblicist trap of revering the book. “… Augustine insisted that the Scriptures are human texts which refer to God. They themselves are not to be treated as a god, but instead they need to be used by the Christian reader as guides to the proper attitude towards God, towards him or herself, and towards the reader’s fellow human beings.” (Jeanrond, p. 22) Simply put, for Augustine the proper attitude needed for reading and understanding Scripture is the love of God and neighbor.

This theology is reflected in Augustine’s guidelines for interpretation. Because he knew the text to point beyond itself, he knew that a literal reading was not possible. Augustine also understood the position of the interpreters at Antioch, that allegorical reading can quickly run amuck. “Thus, he advocated a thorough linguistic analysis of a text in order to control the accompanying spiritual reading of it.” (Jeanrond, p. 22) This move held the two schools in tension.

As Augustine held that the proper posture of love toward God and fellow humans was a prerequisite for right understanding, he disclosed a fact of which he may or may not have been aware. This proper posture is not so self-evident as we would like to think. It is itself an “interpretive construction” from which we cannot break free. In other words, within a short time of the New Testament’s writing, the best minds were already using self-conscious lenses through which to read Scripture, what scholars call hermeneutics. In the Church’s history, reading Scripture has never simply been what we would call a “literal” matter.

The Middle Ages & Reformation

Through the middle ages and to the Reformation a fourfold sense of scripture (literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical) remained the dominant mode of exegesis. With a literal sense of interpretation, the mention of Jerusalem in a Psalm, for example, would be interpreted as the ancient capitol city. With allegory, the mention of Jerusalem in a Psalm might be interpreted to represent an individual’s soul. A tropological reading would yield Jerusalem as that place where the moral good is done. And an anagogical sense would lead the reader to think of Jerusalem as heaven. Nicholas Lyra (d. 1349) summed up the fourfold reading in a Latin verse, here translated:

The letter shows us what God and our fathers did;

The allegory shows us where our faith is hid;

The moral meaning gives us rules of daily life;

The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.

(Jeanrond, p. 27)

During the Reformation, the principle of sola scriptura became the highest flying banner. This principle stated that the Bible communicated all that was necessary for faith and salvation; therefore, the tradition of the church wasn’t necessary for interpretation. The Bible itself became the norm. Since the Bible communicated the Word (in the tradition of Augustine), there was a dynamic element to it as it addressed humanity and the Church. The Reformers used sola scriptura to free the Bible from predetermined uses, namely to correct church tradition.

Now Things Start to Get Complicated

We now fast forward a few centuries to Friedrich Schleirmacher (1768-1834). Schleirmacher was the first to demand a philosophical theory of understanding. By making this demand Schleirmacher made Biblical interpretation subject to general rules of interpretation. Or, in other words, one must understand the Bible the same way one might understand any text.

Schleirmacher’s method was to combine what he called the grammatical and psychological approaches. The grammatical approach is the way by which we understand the role of language in thoughts, understanding, and expression. This approach is important to Schleirmacher because he sees that all understanding is bound up in language.

The psychological approach is the way by which we understand the person and the context of a statement. One’s aim here is to discover all influencing factors, even ones of which the author was not conscious, so that we know the author and the text better than the author. One might think of this methodology as reverse engineering a text, by taking apart every piece we better understand what purpose the author had in mind, and can then even build a better linguistic mousetrap ourselves with which to trap the authors intent.

These two approaches must be used together. For Schleirmacher, a conversation can only be understood by simultaneously taking into account the grammar of the speaker, and the attitude or context of the speaker.

Being and the Bible

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) started the movement to overcome the subject/object split. Heidegger presents the idea that interpretation is not grounded in human consciousness but in the manifestness of the thing encountered. Up to this point in history, people considered reading a text as a rather straighforward event. A person would project a meaning onto a thing, a text, or an event. Heidegger said that it was possible for being to come to a person by means of the thing itself. In other words, it was possible for a text to read a person.

Think of a service of Holy Communion. Despite our feelings about such a service, despite whether or not we thought the ritual was meaningful or not, Church doctrine would say that Holy Communion could still be beneficial to us. Reality would come to us through Communion, not the other way around. Heidegger believes that hermeneutics (the principles used for interpretation) as a theory of understanding is really a theory of ontological disclosure. “… it is not we who point to things; rather, things show themselves to us.” (Palmer, p. 128) Meaning exists before the thing, and drives its way to us through the phenomena.

Implicit in these understandings of recovering the intent of the author, as in Schleirmacher, and of a phenomena disclosing meaning instead of being assigned meaning, as in Heidegger, is an understanding of the role of history and the effect of historical differences. Characteristic of current thought is the idea that history indeed has a dramatic effect on what can legitimately be understood. Schleirmacher’s attempt to understand the author is now seen as dead in the water because of all the different particularities any individual or community brings to the interpretive table. The acknowledgement of prejudices was a great step in hermeneutics.

20th Century

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) takes prejudice into account in his book, Truth and Method. Gadamer even embraces prejudice and asks what are legitimate prejudices to bring to a text. He tries to drive between the two ditches of the enlightenment, which eschewed tradition as tainted, and of romanticism, which cuddled with tradition. Gadamer wants to acknowledge the power of tradition, but not worship it. Times change, and as they do, so does meaning. A Viet Nam veteran and a World War II veteran were talking amicably one day in the church parking lot. The Viet Nam veteran says to the World War II veteran, “The America you fought for doesn’t exist anymore.” Even though this statement was made with care, with no hostile intent, the World War II veteran was floored and grieved by this statement; but, ultimately did not disagree. In this conversation the historical effect that Gadamer talks about was acknowledged.

Gadamer says that every text must be understood by every age in its own way. What Gadamer is addressing with this statement is the recent acknowledgement that everyone stands somewhere in particular when they make a statement. Language itself is culturally conditioned and therefore not objective. As was stated earlier, Augustine held that a proper posture toward God and neighbor was necessary for biblical interpretation, namely love. The question people ask now is, “Whose posture?” Additionally, Gadamer speaks of the historical effect that forces us to view events of the past differently whether we wish to or not.

Gadamer’s arguments are sophisticated and require a good amount of separation with long held beliefs in universal truths. Those who haven’t yet left the philosophical world of the 18th century still believe in eternal, universal truths. Thus, many people separate themselves from Gadamer on this point. For enlightenment minds, historical phenomena are fixed like a statue; therefore changes in interpretation are symptomatic of a flaw in the interpreter. Events should not be understood differently, but in the same way through the ages. Meaning for Gadamer, however, is fixed only in the grand scheme of things, but can never be fixed for interpreters because of their place in history.

A Quick Sidebar

Now would be a good place to talk about the idea of inerrancy. The 18th century Age of Reason brought forth the advent of modern science and empiricism. The superstition of the Middle Ages was being eagerly replaced with truth that was measureable, repeatable, and provable. The human spirit was filled with optimism at the prospect and expectation of progress through “real” discovery, and no longer being subject to the myths and legends of the Bible.

The Enlightenment did indeed shake the world of theology and Biblical interpretation. Parts of the Church found all truth to be part of a whole, and were not threatened at the prospect of reading the Genesis creation stories as being more about who God is than about how exactly the earth came to be. Other parts of the Church, however, were not able to make this interpretive shift. This threatened portion of Biblical readers thought that if Jonah was not in the actual belly of a great fish, nothing is left to believe. So they sought to keep their own interpretive framework in the divine nature of Scripture. Thus they proclaimed Scripture to be inerrant, verbally inspired, and free from error in historical fact. The fear is that if one thread of the Bible is disproven, all the Scriptures unravel. Scholar George Marsden has described fundamentalism as, “…a multi-faceted movement which at its most basic level was “organized opposition to ‘modernism.'”” (Leonard, p. 9)

The irony of fundamentalism and the belief in inerrancy is that it uses the very same Enlightenment philosophy against which it seeks to defend itself. The Enlightenment teaches us to peel back all the layers until we hit bedrock truth, then rebuild on the bedrock as undisputable, solid, measureable truth. But, now to protect itself from the attack of Enlightenment, the fundamentalists simply came up with their own bedrock, the Bible itself. Prior to this point in history, no one needed to defend the Bible’s by such measures. Thus, the Bible had always seen a variety of interpretations by a variety of means. (See the fourfold reading of Scripture from the Middle Ages.) Indeed, Augustine encouraged us to see Scripture as the means to encountering the Word, not the end in and of itself. Not only is inerrancy a fairly recent invention, Martin Marty notes that fundamentalism makes its arguments “…on grounds that would have been bewildering to anyone before the late 19th century.” (Leonard, p. 15)

Those in the Church, from Schleirmacher on, who managed to find a way to believe both science and faith did so because belief that the Bible contained truth was never an all-or-nothing proposition for them. Augustine laid the groundwork and tradition of balancing figurative and literal readings in the 3rd and 4th century. Faith in Christ can come through whatever degree of darkness in the glass we currently live in, or however the darkness shifts. (1 Cor. 13:12)

More 20th Century

Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) understands the effect of time and place on interpretation that Gadamer introduced, and picks up these themes and others in his work. The main thrust of Ricoeur’s work is studying how the meat of an experience is transferred, or made public, through language and meaning. Ricoeur benefits from current work in linguistics and employs this understanding in his work.

Ricoeur begins linguistically with the sentence. The sentence is the most basic unit of discourse because it cannot be reduced to the sum of its parts. (Ricoeur, p. 7) The sentence, because it combines subject and predicate, “goes beyond the words” and captures meaning that single words or phrases cannot contain. (Ricoeur, p. 1) The sentence makes the function of language possible because it carries meaning as this linguistic synergy is produced. “Language is itself the process by which private experience is made public.” (Ricoeur, p. 7) In fact, language doesn’t really exist in time without a meaning or a message. The langue, or the code, are the rules by which parole is produced as a message. The langue, therefore, doesn’t exist in time as a statement or sentence does once it is uttered. “Discourse is realized temporally and in a present moment, whereas the language system is virtual and outside of time.” (Ricoeur, p. 11) Thus, what one wishes to communicate will always be pinned down in time in a way that language itself is not.

From this groundwork, Ricoeur concentrates on the meaning which language carries through a sentence, or rather “the sense of experience which is shared through meaning.”  This sense of experience is what a text or discourse discloses. The sense is something separate from the language. This sense is how an idea can be restated in other words or even translated into another language. At this point, it doesn’t take a philosophy degree to intuitively agree with Ricoeur. Ideas come to mind, experiences arise, and then we go to look for the language to communicate our private theater to make it public. This is how we can know something but not be able to find the words to express it.

Since we bring experience to language, and that language is referential, the sense of what we say can be misunderstood. Ricoeur talks about our first understanding as a guess because we do not have direct access to the experience of others. From here, Ricoeur proceeds with his dialectic of explanation and understanding. The two terms, explanation and understanding, are not separate components of interpretation. Explanation and understanding in dialectic are dance partners of interpretation. We do not move simply from explanation to understanding, we move back and forth between the two like alternating current between positive and negative poles. All the while we narrow the scope of possible meaning for interpretation.

What Ricoeur does is give the church a tool to look in the right direction, to the last day, the consummation of the Kingdom of God. The sense of the Bible for Ricoeur is yet to be fully realized, as the kingdom is yet to be fully realized. The good old days are yet to come. Nostalgia doesn’t hasten the kingdom. The tradition of the church is to look for and prepare for the consummation of the kingdom, not to look back mournfully over a day that shall never be again. The Bible can help if we understand, as Ricoeur, that: “The sense of a text is not behind the text, but in front of it. It is not something hidden, but something disclosed. What has to be understood is not the initial situation of discourse, but what points towards a possible world….” (Ricoeur, p. 87) To some degree a local church can understand that to interpret something a human writes is “to follow its movement … from what it says, to what it talks about.” (Ricoeur p. 87-88) But, if one holds a doctrine of verbal inspiration, we cannot ask as Ricoeur and others ask, “Did Paul say it well enough?” The answer for the fundamentalist is always yes.

Acknowledging language’s role in understanding and interpretation has been an important development in hermeneutics. We have seen, for instance, how Ricoeur employed linguistics as a club in his bag. Consequently, when differing theories of language arise, competing theologies cannot be far behind.

21st Century

George Lindbeck has developed a cultural-linguistic approach to theology and hermeneutics. The cultural-linguistic model is in some ways the linguistic opposite of other hermeneutics. Up to now, we have tried to find ways of understanding how an idea, concept, or experience gets from one individual to another, either through speech or text. This approach has assumed that the idea, concept, or experience arises first within the individual, then language is related to that idea, concept, or experience. The cultural-linguistic model holds that languages, primarily conceived of as common practices, form experience, indeed make experience possible. “Instead of deriving external features of a religion from inner experience, it is the inner experiences which are viewed as derivative.” (Lindbeck, p. 34)

Part of this idea is intuitive, and part is not. The intuitive part is that knowledge comes through practice, not thinking. No one calls someone a plumber who only reads about pipes. No one calls a doctor someone who only thinks about medicine. It is now a welcome corrective that we cannot call someone a Christian who only thinks about God.

Where one might bristle against this model is its emphasis on community. Religion is still a highly individualized matter for many in the local church. Personal responsibility and free will to make decisions are highly revered. The subversion of the self is only tolerated in certain areas. Talk about formation within a community can often only be taken in small doses, much less an entire philosophical shift.


Interpretation in the local church is largely a patchwork quilt of various methods used to suit various situations. Local churches are theologically and hermeneutically intuitive and shun the use of a system, a hermeneutic, or a philosophy because they know that each different program has its own problems. A local church would much rather move among all these hermeneutic options than be cornered into doing something that violated common sense just to defend an ideology. At least in this way formal theologians can applaud the local church for not having an ideologic bias.

The challenge for the pastor in this situation is being able to identify the various hermeneutics at work in the local church. A pastor must identify each hermeneutical silhouette on the horizon so that as it approaches communication can be made with it, and perhaps even changes as well. When parishioners balk at frequent communion, the pastor might use Heidegger as a corrective and talk about how the Sacrament interprets us. When parishioners are leaning towards a fundamentalist reading of Scripture, Schleiermacher may be a palatable way out to talk about the intent and context of the writer. Small doses of Gadamer may be mixed in with the congregation’s regular diet to alleviate the need for all people of all times to see all things in the same way. Ricoeur might provide a way for the church stuck in its own tradition, to paradoxically turn around and see that the tradition of the church has always looked forward. Lindbeck may aid the congregation is recognizing the value of holy habits, and easing the need for every Sunday worship service to be an emotional high. But, alas, what these formal scholars desire in a unified conceptual hermeneutic system will not be found in a local church. Perhaps this fact is itself a gracious revelation of the God revealed in Scripture.


Jeanrond, Werner G. Theological Hermeneutics: Development and Significance. New York: Crossroad, 1991.

Leonard, Bill J. “The Origin And Character Of Fundamentalism.” Review & Expositor 79.1 (1982): 5-17. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 7 June 2013.

Lindbeck, George A. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984.

Palmer, Richard E. Hermeneutics. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969.

Ricoeur, Paul. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976.

One comment

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