The history of biblical interpretation—a tale of two cities

Mon, 09/05/2011 - 16:20

The history of biblical interpretation is a tale of two cities—not London and Paris (Dickens), or even Jerusalem and Athens (Tertullian), but Alexandria and Antioch. In the third and fourth centuries Alexandria stood for an allegorizing approach to interpretation that sought to maximize the theological payload of a sacred text. Antioch stood for a more constrained approach that was more concerned to uncover the original historical meaning of the text than to exploit it to meet the theological needs and prejudices of the later reading community. The chart shows very roughly how this division has persisted right through the history of interpretation—indeed, it is arguably the defining feature of the history of interpretation. If anyone wants to suggest significant corrections or additions to it, please let me know.

On the left I suggest that the reliance on allegorical interpretation (green) largely gives way to a reliance on theological system (blue) around the time of the Reformation. The major breach between theology and history—Lessing’s “ugly ditch”—comes with the Enlightenment. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries only a few attempts are made to establish some sort of footbridge across the ditch. Since the Second World War, however, postmodernism has helped to relativize biblical-critical methodologies, and it is probably true to say that theology and history are closer now than they have been for 200 years. But the neo-Reformed reaction against emerging theologies and the more constructive narrative-historical approach of the New Perspective are again pulling in opposing directions. There is probably some sort of compromise dynamic emerging in the middle, though I get the impression that the various shades of post-whatever evangelicalism are more interested in their post-whatever theologies than in the historically contextualized interpretation of scripture.

What the allegorical-theological method aims at is a coherent, complete, rational understanding of scripture that meets the demands—intellectual, political, polemical, pastoral—of the reading tradition. What tends to happen, however, is that texts are made to mean either more than or other than what they actually mean. Various hermeneutical techniques have been developed to this end: the construction of allegorical, typological, anagogical layers of meaning beyond the literal has an illustrious history and remains a staple approach of preachers today; taking verses out of context is always a good way of avoiding the historical-literal meaning of the text; and if all else fails, there is the Humpty Dumpty trick—familiar to students of hermeneutics—of making a word mean “just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”.

There are a number of reasons why these misreadings happen. It may simply be because the text on the face of it appears banal or uninteresting or otherwise falls short of what is expected of the “inspired Word of God”. It may be because the text conflicts with the interpreter’s belief system or moral values. For example, Augustine argued that it was not the “children” of the Babylonians who were to be dashed against the rocks (Ps. 138:8-9) but their “vices”. It may be because scripture itself appears to demand an over-determination of a text, a sensus plenior: Isaiah 7:14 must somehow be a reference to Jesus because Matthew tells us that the circumstances of Jesus’ birth “fulfilled what the Lord had spoken by the prophet” (Matt. 1:23; cf. Is. 7:14). It is often because a theological system has taken priority over scripture in the formation of belief—I’m thinking of the neo-Reformed movement here—and must be sustained at all cost. It may simply be that pastors, teachers and writers are under constant pressure to demonstrate that scripture is always of consistent value for life, ministry and mission.

What the literal-historical method aims at is an understanding of scripture for what it is, according to the terms and conditions its original context of production and reading. (I should point out that “literal” here does not exclude the genuinely figurative aspects of a text.) What tends to happen on this side of the divide is that the reading tradition becomes alienated from the texts. Historical-literal readings may expose discrepancies and contradictions, either internal to the text or in its external relation to alternative narratives determined by historical or scientific method. Or historical-critical readings may clash with prevailing theological systems. Or, by reinforcing the antiquity and remoteness of scripture, they may simply undermine the reading tradition’s sense of being directly addressed by the text.

Both methodologies have their flaws, but I think that an evangelical theology for the age to come has to have the courage to ground itself in a narratively and critically historical hermeneutic if it is to assert a credible claim to be honestly informed by scripture. Modern evangelical theology is the product, for the most part, of an allegorical-theological tradition that has not engaged with—indeed, has been very wary of, and often for good reason—the literal-historical shadow tradition. But the Christendom worldview that sustained the allegorical-theological method for so long has collapsed. History is now the only the way forward.


Two great posts (this one and "Modern evangelicalism is the new Gnosticism... well, sort of"). You said in this post that "I think that an evangelical theology for the age to come has to have the courage to ground itself in a *narratively* and critically historical hermeneutic if it is to assert a credible claim to be honestly informed by scripture".

I was wrestling with a few things Scot McKnight was saying on a recent post about "Lessons From Love Wins Debates" and what we could learn from the Rob Bell book event. He was talking about being evangelical, and so I threw out something about new perspectives and narrative theology to which he said, "Two observations: what you are proposing is already within evangelicalism (narrative theology surely fits within the meaning of Bible, etc) but for the narrative theology to sustain the 'evangelical' label then it has to be within the four dynamic ideas". (He was referring to the 4 main beliefs of Bennington and Noll, who he seems to believe have done the most careful study of the term "evangelical"). My point is not for you to comment, I know the information is too sketchy, but I am thinking what he meant was if one's theology is within that B and N frame, narrative or otherwise, you are evangelical. Your two posts were very helpful in helping clarify...and in supporting the ideas I am so excited about and invested in. Thanks!

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