In previous essays we have established that the primary, and most authoritative, source for doing theology is the Bible. So we have dealt with the authority and inspiration of the Bible. Now we want to turn to biblical interpretation, because if the Bible is our primary source for doing theology, we must know how to interpret it.
I want to begin with a brief survey of four types of interpretation that developed in the early centuries of Church history. By the 16th century the Church had developed all four types of interpretation: 1) the literal, 2) the allegorical, 3) the moral, and 4) what I am going to call the end time type.
Literal interpretation is easy to understand. When one is interpreting literally, one simply takes the text at face value. I will discuss the allegorical method in more detail below. The moral method is a little more complicated in that it interprets the Bible in a way that shows the reader what to do, that is, how to live. That is why it is called the moral method. And the end time type interprets everything in relation to the end times.
A simplistic, but I trust effective, way of illustrating all four types is to interpret one biblical word all four ways. Take the simple name of the city of Jerusalem. The name “Jerusalem” could be interpreted literally as a city in Palestine, allegorically as the Church, morally as the human soul, and from an end time perspective as the heavenly city of the end-times.
Turning now to a more detailed discussion of allegorical interpretation, I would define it as the arbitrary assignment of non-literal or symbolic meanings to the statements of scripture. That is, the biblical statements are given arbitrary, symbolic meanings that teach the reader spiritual truths otherwise unknown.
By the time the Church came into existence, allegory was a method already in use in Jewish circles to interpret the Old Testament. This was particularly true in first-century Judaism, where Jewish scholars were using allegory to integrate Old Testament ideas with those of Greek philosophy.
The Church Fathers borrowed the technique of allegory from the Jews for their Christian interpretation of the Old Testament in order to find Christ and the Church in the Old Testament narratives. An example is Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho.
In that early Christian writing, Justin, in order to prove to Trypho that the Old Testament taught that Christ was to die on a cross, told Trypho that ancient Israel won their famous victory over the Amalakites that is recorded in Ex. 17:8-13, because of the cross of Jesus.
In the story when Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms that day, they formed a cross. Justin concluded, “In truth, it was not because Moses prayed that his people were victorious, but because, while the name of Jesus was at the battle front [Joshua is the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus], Moses formed the sign of the cross” (Dunning, p. 603).
Notice that the text itself does not provide that meaning, Justin does. This is how allegory works. It is an arbitrary assignment of meaning by the interpreter.
Other scholars of the day were using a literal method, but the allegorical method was much more popular than the literal. At least that was the case until the sixteenth century, when Martin Luther and the other Reformers came on the scene. They were able to convince many that the literal method was a much more effective way of understanding God’s Word. Therefore the Reformers rejected the allegorical method in favor of the literal, although Luther continued to allow allegory in respect to Christ. He believed that Christ may be found anywhere in Scripture.
Luther and others began to emphasize two things. First, they taught that one should interpret the Bible by principles found in the Bible itself. And second, they insisted that scripture be interpreted by scripture. For example, they taught that obscure passages are to be interpreted by plain ones.
All right, that concludes our consideration of the four types of biblical interpretation used by the early Church. Next, I want to discuss the impact of a new emphasis on history in biblical interpretation that emerged in the 18th century. As we have seen, the allegorical method ignored history by arbitrarily assigning meanings without regard for the historical context.
Although the Reformers in the 16th century pulled the Church back towards a literal approach, it remained for 18th century scholars to take the historical context of the author and the original recipients as a major factor in their interpretations.
The 18th century scholars insisted that the biblical interpreter must recover the historical situation of the biblical books, and interpret them in light of the original reader’s context. Even the prophetic literature must be interpreted this way. That is to say, even when the prophets were predicting their future, the prophecies were intended for the prophet’s own times. In other words, the prophecies of the future had a present, historical meaning for the prophet’s contemporaries.
By the 20th century this historical type of interpretation had become the bed-rock of biblical interpretation. All interpreters, liberal and evangelical alike, interpret historically in the sense just discussed. All agree that we must begin with the historical context.
That does not mean that we interpret the same way. As we shall see next essay, liberals and evangelicals have different understandings of what interpreting historically means. But it is nevertheless true that all interpret historically. And that is the great significance of this 18th century emphasis on historical interpretation.
One last matter that I want to discuss about biblical interpretation is typology. Typology is an important factor in interpretation of the Old Testament. Some find typology a bit hard to understand, but believe me, you can do it. Typology consists of a correspondence of pattern between a person, event, or thing in the Old Testament, known as the type, and one in the New Testament, known as the antitype. Predictive prophecy is not involved in typology.
A “correspondence of pattern” means that there is a pattern in the Old Testament that is repeated in the New. That is, the pattern observed in the Old Testament is analogous to, or like, the one in the New. I will illustrate with some examples. In Mt. 2:13-15, we read the following:
Now when they had departed [they being the wise men], behold an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and he departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’
Notice that Matthew said at the end of verse 15 that this calling of Jesus, the Son of God, out of Egypt was a fulfillment of Hos. 11:1; and he quotes part of the verse: “Out of Egypt I have called my son: The full verse reads: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”
Then Hosea speaks further about Israel’s unfaithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to Israel. Thus Hos. 11:1 was a reminiscence about the calling of the nation of Israel out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus. So we have to ask the question, how can Mt 2:15 be a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1?
The answer is easy. It is a typological fulfillment, not a predictive fulfillment. That is, Matthew sees a correspondence of pattern between two instances of God’s calling a “son” out of Egypt. Under the Old Covenant, Israel was a son of God called out of Egypt. Under the New Covenant, Jesus is a son of God called out of Egypt. The sons are different, but the pattern is the same.
Another example can be seen in Mt. 12:40, where Jesus said: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Here Jesus saw a typological correspondence that is a correspondence of pattern, between the three days that Jonah spent in the belly of a “sea monster,” and the three days Jesus himself would spend in the grave. In the next essay we will take up important interpretive principles.