Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation

Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation

by V. Philips Long

ISBN: 9780310208280

Publisher Zondervan

Published in Christian Books & Bibles/History, Religion & Spirituality

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Sample Chapter

Chapter Two


Before we can launch into the various disciplines outlined in the previous chapter, preliminary attention must be given to the historical roots of biblical interpretation. It must be made clear from the outset, however, that I do not intend to provide in this volume a full-blown history of biblical hermeneutics. The usual chronological approach is convenient, and for certain purposes, pedagogically effective. Unfortunately, surveys of this type lead to a somewhat atomistic, item-by-item description that fails to uncover some of the more interesting and suggestive connections.

Moreover, we need to avoid the antiquarian's approach to this history-as though the concerns of ancient and medieval interpreters were oddities to be observed and then set aside. The truth is that no aspect of the current hermeneutical crisis developed spontaneously without any prior connections. The problems we face can be dealt with satisfactorily only if we recognize that they are not altogether new, that many of the old controversies (silly though they may look to us) are not substantially different from those that divide contemporary readers of the Bible.

Of particular importance is the popular assumption that the Christian church, through most of its history, has misread the Bible. Did an invalid hermeneutics reign among interpreters while crucial theological issues were being decided? Before we can address this fundamental question, it may be useful to review briefly the common perception of the history of biblical interpretation.


A typical survey of the church's interpretation of the Bible might take this form:

The origins of biblical interpretation are to be found within Judaism, which provided the context for different approaches. First, among sectarians, such as the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, biblical interpretation had a marked eschatological note. Passage after passage in the Old Testament was understood as referring to the end times, which were in the process of being fulfilled in the context of the Qumran community.

Second, among the rabbis, whose approach developed into mainstream Judaism, exegesis consisted of mechanical and artificial rules that paid virtually no attention to the context of the biblical passages. In the more extreme cases, such as the methods of Akiba, an irrational literalism and obsession with trivial details led to wholesale distortions of the Scriptures.

Third, in the Jewish Hellenistic world, particularly Alexandria, Greek allegorical methods used in the interpretation of Homeric legends were applied to the Bible. Best known among Jewish allegorizers is Philo, who rejected literalism on the grounds that it led to blasphemous and even immoral interpretations. For him, biblical narratives, if interpreted literally, were at best irrelevant: we must discover the underlying meaning of these passages, which usually corresponds to the best in Greek philosophy.

In contrast to these approaches, the New Testament shows a remarkably balanced method of interpretation. There may be a very few examples of allegorization (perhaps Gal. 4:21-31 and Heb. 7:1-10), but even these passages are rather moderate in comparison with Philo. Again, some rabbinic rules of interpretation seem to be reflected in various New Testament passages, but apostolic exegesis shows considerable respect for the Old Testament context. And while one must recognize that the apostles, like the Qumran community, used an eschatological hermeneutics, their approach was built upon a distinctively christological foundation.

As we move to the postapostolic period, the picture changes dramatically. Since the Qumran community had been destroyed in A.D. 70, its peculiar exegesis was basically unknown in the Christian church. Moreover, rabbinic methods had little impact on the Gentile church, partly because very few Christians were familiar with Hebrew and partly because anti-Jewish feelings prevented any significant communication (there were of course some important exceptions, such as Origen and Jerome, but even they did not adopt rabbinic exegesis).

Allegorical exegesis, however, was something else. Since Philo had written in Greek, his works were accessible to the Gentile church. Moreover, Christians were faced with the need to confront Greek culture, and Philo appeared to provide a way of doing so in an intellectually responsible way. Origen in particular made the allegorical method a central feature of his exegesis and his theology, and his influence was to be felt for many centuries.

To be sure, important Christian leaders such as Tertullian rejected any attempt to mix the gospel with Greek philosophy. And in Antioch an exegetical approach was developed during the fourth century that was self-consciously opposed to Origen and that could be described as "grammatico-historical," if only in a limited way. (Important representatives of this school were John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia.) As a whole, however, the allegorical interpretation was adopted by the church and hardly anything of exegetical value was produced during the Middle Ages.

Fortunately, the Reformation came along. Thanks in part to the Renaissance, which resurrected an interest in linguistic and historical investigation, the Reformers attacked the allegorical method as a major source of the many evils that had developed in the church. Many new commentaries, particularly those of John Calvin, inaugurated a new epoch in the interpretation of Scripture.

These advances were to some extent nullified by seventeenth-century orthodox theologians who reintroduced a scholastic mentality, but the eighteenth-century Enlightenment finally brought in a truly scientific approach to the interpretation of the Bible. While some scholars took matters to an extreme and their rationalism was damaging to the Christian faith, by and large the grammatico-historical method of exegesis established itself firmly during the nineteenth century and continues to be used in our day.

So much for the usual description. Depending on the theological stance of the person reporting this history, some aspects and details may differ here and there, particularly in the evaluation of post-Enlightenment scholarship. Generally speaking, however, our brief survey reflects rather accurately the usual understanding of the church's interpretation of the Scriptures. Unfortunately, there are some serious problems with this understanding.


In the first place, our survey did not go back far enough, since it paid no attention to the earliest stage of biblical interpretation, namely, the Old Testament itself. The books of the Old Testament were written over a very long period of time, and it would be surprising if the later books made no use of the earlier ones. No one has denied that various kinds of references of this sort exist, but only recently have scholars focused on this issue with a view to drawing hermeneutical inferences.

This field of study presents us with a few problems, not the least of which is the uncertainty we face when trying to establish the relative date of some of the documents. In certain cases-particularly the date of the Pentateuch-disagreement among scholars creates a serious obstacle, but we still have a number of clear instances in which later Old Testament writers have used, expanded, or otherwise applied earlier passages.

We might take, for instance, Jacob's prophecy that the scepter would not depart from Judah before slh should come (Gen. 49:10). Is that Hebrew word the proper name Shiloh, as some translations have it? Or should we render the clause as the NIV does, "until he comes to whom it belongs"? In favor of the latter option is an apparent reference to this prophecy by Ezekiel, who predicts the removal of the crown from the prince of Israel and adds: "It will not be restored until he comes to whom it rightfully belongs; to him I will give it" (Ezek. 21:27).

One can find many other passages that almost surely depend on earlier material. An especially fruitful example is the way 1-2 Chronicles retells the historical material found in the Books of Samuel and Kings. Even in such clear instances, however, it is seldom easy to identify a particular principle or technique that we can readily apply to our own exegetical efforts. Much work remains to be done in this area.

A second problem with the usual approach to the history of interpretation is the strongly negative note with which the subject is treated. Farrar's famous History is little more than a compilation of errors. Already in the preface he warns us about "the apparently negative character of much that is here dwelt upon," and in the first chapter he states his thesis thus:

The task before us is in some respects a melancholy one. We shall pass in swift review many centuries of exegesis, and shall be compelled to see that they were, in the main, centuries during which the interpretation of Scripture has been dominated by unproven theories, and overladen by untenable results. We shall see that these theories have often been affiliated to each other, and augmented at each stage by the superaddition of fresh theories no less mistaken. Exegesis has often darkened the true meaning of Scripture, not evolved or elucidated it.

Near the end of that first chapter he tells us that "the misinterpretation of Scripture must be reckoned among the gravest calamities of Christendom." Much of the blame goes to the Septuagint, whose "intentional variations may be counted by scores, and their unintentional errors by hundreds; and alike their errors and their variations were in a multitude of instances accepted by Christian interpreters as the infallible word of God." Although Farrar has some complimentary words here and there (particularly with reference to the Antiochenes and the Reformers), one is hard-pressed to find much in that history that would help us in our exegetical work-except possibly to avoid a multitude of errors.

Apart from the general negativism of the standard approaches, it is important to point out the particular areas that come under heavy attack. One of the main objects of derision is rabbinic exegesis. Here is Farrar's opinion of the Talmud:

But it may be said, without fear of refutation, that, apart from a few moral applications and ritual inferences in matters absolutely unimportant, for every one text on which it throws the smallest glimmer of light, there are hundreds which it inexcusably perverts and misapplies.... [Hillel's rule known as Gezerah Shawa] furnished an excuse for masses of the most absurd conclusions.... Hillel was personally a noble Rabbi; yet by his seven rules he became the founder of Talmudism, with all its pettiness, its perversion of the letter of the Scripture which it professed to worship, and its ignorance of the spirit, of which no breath seemed to breathe over its valley of dry bones.

Farrar believes that Christian exegesis, fortunately, did not share the particular perversions of the rabbis, but his introduction to patristic interpretation is not encouraging either:

The history of exegesis thus far has been in great measure a history of aberrations. If we turn to the Fathers with the hope that now at last we shall enter the region of unimpeachable methods and certain applications, we shall be disappointed.... [Though admittedly one can find much that is valuable in the Fathers,] their exegesis in the proper sense of the word needs complete revision both in its principles and in its details.

The main culprit behind patristic misinterpretation is of course Origen of Alexandria, who gave respectability to Philo's allegorical method. With regard to Philo's approach, Farrar had already stated: "It must be said quite plainly and without the least circumlocution that it is absolutely baseless.... his exegesis is radically false. It darkens what is simple and fails to explain what is obscure." Origen was hardly successful in improving upon Philo. What Origen regarded as exegetical "proofs" were nothing "but the after-thoughts devised in support of an unexamined tradition. They could not have had a particle of validity for any logical or independent mind."

In addition to rabbinic exegesis and the allegorical method, a third object of Farrar's criticism is medieval scholasticism. We should note that, during the past few decades, specialists have developed a much more positive appreciation of the Middle Ages than was the case in Farrar's generation. Nowadays many scholars are ready to argue, for example, that "the medieval hermeneutical tradition ... can be characterized as an authentic attempt to establish the sensus literalis of Scripture as its principal meaning, and to give it a theologically normative role in the formation of Christian theology." In Farrar's opinion, on the other hand, the Schoolmen were "paralysed by vicious methods, traditional errors, and foregone conclusions," while their exegesis was "radically defective-defective in fundamental principles, and rife on every page of it with all sorts of erroneous details."

Behind all of this invective is Farrar's conviction that, first, many of these errors are still to be found "here and there, unexorcised, in modern commentaries," and, second, that the main cause of these old exegetical perversions is the theory of "verbal dictation." Farar's own view of inspiration, incidentally, helps explain why he does not feel threatened by the miserable failure of the church in interpreting the Bible. In his opinion, inspiration assures only that the message of salvation, broadly understood, is preserved in Scripture: "the Bible is not so much a revelation as the record of revelation, and the inmost and most essential truths which it contains have happily been placed above the reach of Exegesis to injure."


Whatever we may think of Farrar's doctrine of Scripture, it is difficult to accept the thoroughgoing negativism with which he recounts the history of interpretation. After all, the individuals he discusses were believers seeking to make sense of God's Word, with a view to obeying the divine will. Are we to suppose that their efforts were, with the rarest of exceptions, virtually fruitless? Must we really think that, prior to the development of modern exegesis, the church lacked the Spirit's guidance?

Farrar appears to suggest that only two options are available to us: Either we accept modern exegetical methods and reject a good 95 percent of pre-eighteenth-century biblical interpretation, or else we condemn ourselves to adopting countless errors.


Excerpted from "Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation" by V. Philips Long. Copyright © 1996 by V. Philips Long. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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