p.ost

(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The history of biblical interpretation—a tale of two cities

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.

Comments

Andrew,
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!

I’m sorry but this is utterly anachronistic and self-serving. It’s been refuted a million times over in the scholarship.
I notice the complete lack of reference to any scholarship to back this up…the silence is defining.
Check out any scholars of patristic interpretation (e.g. Frances Young, Lewis Ayres, etc. etc.) and they will immediately disavow you of your narrative construction.

What about this, exactly, has been refuted “a million times over” in “the scholarship?”

Check out almost anything in the last 25-30 years in patristic scholarship but especially Lewis Ayres, Frances Young, John O’Keefe, Michel Barnes, Donald Fairbairn, etc. and they will show that the following statements are not only false, but at times the opposite is true:

-that there are two and only two schools of interpretation, and that these schools were divided by their differences more than they were united by their commonalities.

-that the ‘schools’ of Antioch & Alexandria were interested in literal/historical interpretation and allegorical interpretation respectively. (If you actually read the exegetical disputes, Origen he supposed allegorical repeatedly gets accused by numerous Antiochene interpeters of being too literalistic and he was far more interested in the ‘historical’ work of textual criticism).

-that it is more useful to speak of ‘schools’ of Antioch & Alexandria than to try to understand specific interpreters on their own terms. Can John Chrysostom the golden-mouthed preacher really be lumped into the same school as Theodore of Mopsuestia & Nestorius (who was condemned as heretical)?

-that the ‘Antiochene’ ‘literal’ interpretation is really just proto-Enlightenment hermeneutics and that the ‘historia’ that Theodore etc. speak about is the Enlightenment idea of ‘historical’. In fact, ‘historia’ was not only a completely different concept but its motivation was also far more for an eschatological desire to cyphen off the Old Testament as belonging to an entirely different dispensation to the New Testament.

I could go on, but the supposed ‘historical’ emphasis of this blog seems to go out of the window when it comes to reconstructing history ideologically to tell a self-serving story.

Thanks for clarifying which points you disagree with, which seem largely to revolve around the diagram offering misleading divisions. Your point is that the diagram and some of the comments on it gives an impression that there are sharp, yet relatively uniform, divisions between two trains of exegetical thought, and you think actual history does not bear this out.

So, given that perhaps one can’t firmly peg a particular person or group of people firmly on one side of the diagram or the other and we could debate who belongs on which side, do you also disagree with the trajectory - that a roughly allegorical way of looking at the Scriptures tends to generate an abstract theological outlook while a more litero-historical view tends to generate a critical outlook?

Thanks for your reply Philip. “do you also disagree with the trajectory - that a roughly allegorical way of looking at the Scriptures tends to generate an abstract theological outlook while a more litero-historical view tends to generate a critical outlook?” The issue is actually more fundamental than your summary. It means that the question which you ask is itself derived from a false premise. In the words of Frances Young, “The traditional categories of ‘literal’, ‘typological’ and ‘allegorical’ are quite simply inadequate as descriptive tools, let alone analytical tools. Nor is the Antiochene reaction against Alexandrian allegory correctly described as an appeal to the ‘literal’ or ‘historical’ meaning. A more adequate approach needs to be created.” From ‘Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture’, p3. By trying to read historical interpreters as either ‘allegorical’ vs a ‘literal’, we construct history in our own image to serve our own ends instead of trying to understand these figures on their own terms. It is this anachronistic and classic Enlightenment arrogance that impoverished the academy for so long, resulting in a complete misunderstandings not only of patristic exegesis but of the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. Instead of just looking for these categories everywhere, we would do far better to seek to understand the reading strategies that any of these particular interpreters employed. You’ll find that ANtioch and Alexandria held many such reading strategies in common, and that the things that divided them were *not* to do with allegorical exegesis. It is only in recent years that we have actually tapped into the rich insights of patristic exegesis, which have yielded dividends in the realm of NT exegesis which has been uncovered as not primarily ‘literal’ or ‘typological’ interpretation, but prosopological. The outstanding up-and-coming scholars of our day, such as Matthew Bates and Wesley Hill, utilise historical theology (i.e. patristic/prosopological exegesis) and systematic theology (.e.g. Trinitarian relations which Hill has argued helps to solve the most difficult and knotty Pauline texts) as *helps* to the texts and not hindrances.

Ok, I understand your objection is that these schools don’t fit neatly into those categories, but that’s not what I asked. I asked if you thought those categories led generally to those conclusions.

So, you could say, “I do think an allegorical way of looking at Scriptures could lead to a desire to articulate and preserve truth in terms of theology, but I don’t think we can adequately describe the people in the diagram as having an allegorical interpretation.”

Or you could say, “I don’t think there’s any connection between viewing the Scriptures allegorically and the need to produce theology.”

I already know you don’t think those two schools can be described in those categories, but what I’m trying to figure out is if you have an issue with the methdological point of the article. Whether you think Antioch or Alexandria fits these streams of thought or not, do you think these ways of thinking about the Scriptures lead to the conclusions Andrew suggests and, if not, why not? Or do you agree that those ways of thinking about the Scripture can lead to those results?

Hi Philip,
THe issue is that historical scholars are saying it’s anachronistic and unhelpful to even try to apply those categories. The whole dichotomy of allegorical vs literal in the question is an alien framework and concept. So because I don’t recognise these categories of ‘literal’ and ‘historical’, I can’t possibly posit whether these things produce theology or not; I just can’t make a claim about something that doesn’t arise out of the historical investigation itself.
Let’s understand the history of interpreters on their own terms - what were the questions they were answering and why did they answer them in the way they did? What were they trying to do?
The genius of the church to come up with the term ‘homoousion’ to describe the relation of the Father to the Son was to recognise that theological *continuity* with the Bible often requires linguistic *discontinuity*.
The biblical literature itself is theological in nature, so whatever reading strategies or exegetical methods we employ, we inevitably must do theology. There is no such thing as non-theological interpretation of Scripture, and even if there was, it would be extremely undesirable!
What do you think?

The biblical writings are pretty diverse and the Bible is much more like an anthology than a book, but in broad brush strokes, I’d say the writings are primarily narrative and narrative-adjacent. In other words, they are records of experience peppered with other things (songs, etc.).

I don’t think of very much of the biblical writings as being primarily theological in nature in the sense of abstracting systematic truth statements about God. That does happen, of course, here and there, and certainly there’s a lot of commentary on events that presupposes certain understandings about God, but for the most part the Scriptures don’t provide a systematic theology. That is something readers create.

Because the Scriptures are primarily a narrative, interpreters deal with that in various ways, and we see the first flash point in the early Gentile church - what does a predominantly Jewish narrative have to do with them? What do these Scriptures mean to Greeks and Egyptians who never had any connections to the Temple or the covenant at Sinai?

I think what Andrew was trying to do was map out in broad brush strokes the main categories of how early interpreters approached that issue and what the modern inheritance of those streams looks like. Maybe, as you say, the categories are too broad or it’s misleading to try to peg this or that person or group solely in one stream or the other. But I’m not convinced it’s nonsensical to talk about those categories as they relate to the history of interpretation. It’s no more nonsensical to talk about “allegorical interpretation” than it is to talk about a “doctrine of justification.” It’s a systematic abstraction of the historical data.

Ironically, you and Andrew may have some common ground, here, because a lot of what Andrew writes about is how this systematic abstraction obscures the actual historical angle on the Scriptures. Maybe you feel the same way about abstracting over the history of biblical interpretation.

Michael, thank you for your interesting and provocative comments. I’ve tried to address the basic question in this post.

You are certainly right to point out that the Alexandria-Antioch model has been revised by patristic scholars, but I don’t think you have shown that the appearance of the model in the chart is “anachronistic and self-serving”, for two reasons: I suspect that you have misunderstood what I mean by the “narrative-historical” method, which is not the same as historical-criticism; and my reading of a small corner of the scholarship that you reference suggests to me that the distinction has been relativised but not ruled out altogether. Also I think that parts of the revisionist argument look tendentious—Fairburn seems too anxious to safeguard theological orthodoxy; and other parts work strongly in my favour, notably Young’s emphasis on the importance of “narrative logic” for Eustathius.

You are also right to say that the Antiochene method is not “proto-Enlightenment hermeneutics”. So my simple definition probably needs rewording: “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.” But I’m not sure I’ve read anything to suggest that this emphasis—or the idea that the Antiochene theologians were unhappy with the rampant allegorising of the Alexandrians—must be absolutely rejected. The fact that the Antiochene school drifted towards Arianism and the Alexandrians towards Apollinarianism must say something about their respective methods of interpretation, even if we count theology as cause rather than as effect.

You say in another comment, in reply to Phil Ledgerwood’s carefully worded question: “By trying to read historical interpreters as either ‘allegorical’ vs a ‘literal’, we construct history in our own image to serve our own ends instead of trying to understand these figures on their own terms.”

That looks as though you have set out to misrepresent the point of view that you are so upset by. We can readily admit that, historically speaking, the situation was far more complicated than the simple hermeneutical schema suggests—indeed, it would be extremely odd if that were not the case. But that does not mean that there were no discernible differences in method between the two schools. In fact, it seems to me that both Young and Fairburn recognise this. To say that “The whole dichotomy of allegorical vs literal in the question is an alien framework and concept” is true only if you absolutise it. But no one is proposing that.

Finally, in response to this:

The biblical literature itself is theological in nature, so whatever reading strategies or exegetical methods we employ, we inevitably must do theology. There is no such thing as non-theological interpretation of Scripture, and even if there was, it would be extremely undesirable!

Again, you are given to overstatement. But I would point out that historical reading is precisely a self-critical attempt to read the scriptures according to the “theological” presuppositions of the community that originally produced and read the texts. It is trying to read through someone else’s theological lenses. That does not mean that the theological presuppositions of the modern interpreter can be ignored, but the historical task is not a futile one: we are able to make more or less reliable judgments about how texts would have been understood in historical context. Whether the fathers have anything to contribute to interpretation is itself a historical judgment. To grant patristic interpretation priority on theological grounds, however, is poor historical judgment. I think that scripture is perfectly capable of standing on its own two feet.