Theological interpretation of Scripture

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George Clayson

Puritan Board Freshman
I am half way through a short course based on the theological interpretation of Scripture. The textbooks are The word of God for the people of God by J. Todd Billings and Interpreting Scripture with the great tradition by Craig A. Carter. I have found somethings we have covered helpful. There are other points which seem to me to be an over reaction to the historical-Critical method. It seems to be going to the other extreme and risks losing what was gained by the reformation in terms of literal interpretation of scripture. I was wondering if many others have studied this topic and what their thoughts were?
 

ArminianOnceWas

Puritan Board Freshman
I am half way through a short course based on the theological interpretation of Scripture. The textbooks are The word of God for the people of God by J. Todd Billings and Interpreting Scripture with the great tradition by Craig A. Carter. I have found somethings we have covered helpful. There are other points which seem to me to be an over reaction to the historical-Critical method. It seems to be going to the other extreme and risks losing what was gained by the reformation in terms of literal interpretation of scripture. I was wondering if many others have studied this topic and what their thoughts were?

In my doctoral program, some of the feedback I received was that my work highly resembled the theological interpretation of Scripture methodology. Really, it seems there is no methodology but it is more of a personality. I read Fowl's book as well as a few other resources, I concluded by sharing your sentiment that the movement tends to throw the historical-critical baby out with the bathwater. I'd like to think my work has blended both approaches.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
The second book seems to have much to commend it. The author, Carter, has a high view of Scripture, and wants to connect the church of the current day with the best of the past's interpretive tradition. This is a mostly positive review of the book by someone closer to the Confessional position of the PuritanBoard https://journal.rts.edu/review/inte...n-recovering-the-genius-of-premoden-exegesis/

It is the case, unfortunately, that within our friendly theological circle in reaction to the Enlightenment's hermeneutical reductionism defenders of our tradition in those days aimed to defeat that trend by using the same tools. This led, in turn, to entrenching reductionism in our own tradition when the post-Enlightenment made its subjective turn. The Reformation won for the church recovery of the sensus literalis. However, the same reformers were not reductionists, despisers of the spiritual and Christological focus of Scripture, or uninterested in theological tradition kept to its proper place.

I don't know that much of Billings' work. He's a professor at Western Seminary (RCA). He's likely to well-represent (I want to be careful) a middle-of-the-road position in a denomination that has an (accepted) liberal/progressive wing. That said, he clearly has gifts of scholarship and communication. I have read some of what he wrote about his bout with cancer, and profited.

My impression of the volume of his you are using, from reading the Introduction to his book online, is that his approach aims at drawing his students (winsomely) to a more "grounded" approach to hearing the word of God. He wants them to stand with Scripture; and he wants them to be "bound" in some sense to Scripture and to some other, acknowledged limits to their fancy, about how to hear the word of God. He sounds (unfortunately, to my ear) still fairly generous to allowing for all sorts of legitimate experiences for identifying divine revelation. I sense he just wants to temper that tendency a bit, and be affirming of his students and readers, while seeking to influence them toward his own balance-point. I would guess he is comfortable being described as neo-orthodox (but I admit we should very cautiously label people we don't know).

Overall, George, I would agree with your insight that Billings' approach has "moved beyond" the blessings of the Reformation. There are probably numerous points of wisdom and learning you can take from both textbooks and the instructor's presentation. You should exercise discernment as well, and run by your pastor (hopefully he's someone well-worthy of your trust) some of the elements that seem to deviate from a strict adherence to the pure word of God.
 

George Clayson

Puritan Board Freshman
Thanks for some of your thoughts. I have definitely enjoyed reading Carter and I have found the insights from the lectures beneficial particularly with regards to preaching Christ from the OT. One of the issues which came up was the four levels of meaning in any given text. I know that this was popular during the Middle Ages, does anyone know off hand anything the reformers wrote on the subject in order to refute its legitimacy as a hermeneutical principle?
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
You may have Luther and Calvin for representatives:
In the exposition on The Ten Commandments Luther referred to the fourfold sense of the Scriptures as a "sport for children." Henceforth the text of Scripture had but one meaning for him, even though in his practical explanations Luther often paid tribute to the allegorical sense. Thus in writing to Emser, Luther asserted: "Scripture shall not have a double meaning, but shall retain the one that accords with the meaning by the words." 21 Again he said: "The Holy Ghost is the most simple Author and Speaker in heaven or earth, therefore His words cannot have more than one, the most simple, meaning." 22 In the Christmas Pastil for 1522 Luther wrote: "If we concede that Scripture has more than one sense, it loses its fighting force."​
21. Weimar Edition of Luther's Works, 7, 650, 24-26. Also ct. M. Reu, Luther and the S C1'iptures (Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1944). 22. Weimar Edition, op. cit., 7, 650,21-23. 23. Ibid., 10, I, 169, 2-3.​

And Calvin:
“In the first place, as the other party armed themselves with the authority of the law, the apostle quotes the law on the other side. The law was the name usually given to the Five Books of Moses. Again, as the history which he quotes appeared to have no bearing on the question, he gives to it an allegorical interpretation. But as the apostle declares that these things are allegorized, (allēgoroumena) Origen, and many others along with him, have seized the occasion of torturing Scripture, in every possible manner, away from the true sense. They concluded that the literal sense is too mean and poor, and that, under the outer bark of the letter, there lurk deeper mysteries, which cannot be extracted but by beating out allegories. And this they had no difficulty in accomplishing; for speculations which appear to be ingenious have always been preferred, and always will be preferred, by the world to solid doctrine.​
“With such approbation the licentious system gradually attained such a height, that he who handled Scripture for his own amusement not only was suffered to pass unpunished, but even obtained the highest applause. For many centuries no man was considered to be ingenious, who had not the skill and daring necessary for changing into a variety of curious shapes the sacred word of God. This was undoubtedly a contrivance of Satan to undermine the authority of Scripture, and to take away from the reading of it the true advantage. God visited this profanation by a just judgment, when he suffered the pure meaning of the Scripture to be buried under false interpretations.​
“Scripture, they say, is fertile, and thus produces a variety of meanings. I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure, may assign. Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning. But what reply shall we make to Paul’s assertion, that these things are allegorical? Paul certainly does not mean that Moses wrote the history for the purpose of being turned into an allegory, but points out in what way the history may be made to answer the present subject. This is done by observing a figurative representation of the Church there delineated. And a mystical interpretation of this sort (anagōgē) was not inconsistent with the true and literal meaning, when a comparison was drawn between the Church and the family of Abraham. As the house of Abraham was then a true Church, so it is beyond all doubt that the principal and most memorable events which happened in it are so many types to us. As in circumcision, in sacrifices, in the whole Levitical priesthood, there was an allegory, as there is an allegory at the present day in our sacraments, — so was there likewise in the house of Abraham; but this does not involve a departure from the literal meaning. In a word, Paul adduces the history, as containing a figurative representation of the two covenants in the two wives of Abraham, and of the two nations in his two sons. And Chrysostom, indeed, acknowledges that the word allegory points out the present application to be (katachrēsis) different from the natural meaning; which is perfectly true.”​
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians. Translated by J. W. Pringle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948. The italics in the quote are original. I have added the bold.​


Now, consider this observation:
"Calvin ridiculed Origen and set out to extirpate allegorical interpretations of the Bible. He discovered that the nature of the book he sought to interpret did not allow the abolition of allegory but only the pruning of its excesses. Allegory and typology (or what the late medieval interpreters called the literal-prophetic sense of the Bible) found a home in Calvin’s exegesis alongside his literal-historical interpretations. In fact, even a good deal of what Calvin learned by drawing analogies could be classified as tropology. The word anagogy made a brief appearance in Calvin’s exegesis, though it is not altogether clear whether by its use Calvin meant anagogy in the strict sense or merely analogy. At any event, the literal-prophetic sense as Calvin used it embraced a good deal of what earlier interpreters had meant by anagogy. The line which Calvin drew from the kingdom of Israel to the messianic kingdom is both literal-prophetic and anagogical. When Calvin moved from a discussion of the kingdom of Israel to the church and from the church to the messianic kingdom of God, he was, from our point of view if not always from his, teaching the spiritual sense of Scripture. In short, Calvin ostentatiously pushed the quadriga out the front door of his study with harsh words of criticism for Origen only to readmit it quietly through the back. Calvin can be admired as a biblical theologian, not because he returned to the literal sense of Scripture (which, after all, had never been lost), but because he recognized that the literal sense of Scripture was, as the church had known for more than a millennium, never enough. Calvin used allegory, typology, and tropology because the nature of Scripture required it. If I listen carefully, I can hear the faint laughter of Origen." (David Steinmetz, “Calvin and the Irrepressible Spirit,” in Calvin in Context, p. 275).​

The language of our Confession reflects the conviction that "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly." (ch. 1, para. 9). The meaning of a text is single, over against the notion that the meaning is essentially unlimited by anything other than the creative power of the reader's imposition. This limit is not the same as reductionism, i.e. the denial of a "full" sense to the words taken as the Scripture and the Holy Spirit intended them. The "wooden literalism" of some schools of conservative theology is closely mirroed by the non-nuanced reading of certain atheistic scholars, whose "flat" and anti-literary reading of the text is remarkably similar to the former.
 

George Clayson

Puritan Board Freshman
You may have Luther and Calvin for representatives:
In the exposition on The Ten Commandments Luther referred to the fourfold sense of the Scriptures as a "sport for children." Henceforth the text of Scripture had but one meaning for him, even though in his practical explanations Luther often paid tribute to the allegorical sense. Thus in writing to Emser, Luther asserted: "Scripture shall not have a double meaning, but shall retain the one that accords with the meaning by the words." 21 Again he said: "The Holy Ghost is the most simple Author and Speaker in heaven or earth, therefore His words cannot have more than one, the most simple, meaning." 22 In the Christmas Pastil for 1522 Luther wrote: "If we concede that Scripture has more than one sense, it loses its fighting force."​
21. Weimar Edition of Luther's Works, 7, 650, 24-26. Also ct. M. Reu, Luther and the S C1'iptures (Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1944). 22. Weimar Edition, op. cit., 7, 650,21-23. 23. Ibid., 10, I, 169, 2-3.​

And Calvin:
“In the first place, as the other party armed themselves with the authority of the law, the apostle quotes the law on the other side. The law was the name usually given to the Five Books of Moses. Again, as the history which he quotes appeared to have no bearing on the question, he gives to it an allegorical interpretation. But as the apostle declares that these things are allegorized, (allēgoroumena) Origen, and many others along with him, have seized the occasion of torturing Scripture, in every possible manner, away from the true sense. They concluded that the literal sense is too mean and poor, and that, under the outer bark of the letter, there lurk deeper mysteries, which cannot be extracted but by beating out allegories. And this they had no difficulty in accomplishing; for speculations which appear to be ingenious have always been preferred, and always will be preferred, by the world to solid doctrine.​
“With such approbation the licentious system gradually attained such a height, that he who handled Scripture for his own amusement not only was suffered to pass unpunished, but even obtained the highest applause. For many centuries no man was considered to be ingenious, who had not the skill and daring necessary for changing into a variety of curious shapes the sacred word of God. This was undoubtedly a contrivance of Satan to undermine the authority of Scripture, and to take away from the reading of it the true advantage. God visited this profanation by a just judgment, when he suffered the pure meaning of the Scripture to be buried under false interpretations.​
“Scripture, they say, is fertile, and thus produces a variety of meanings. I acknowledge that Scripture is a most rich and inexhaustible fountain of all wisdom; but I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which any man, at his pleasure, may assign. Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and obvious meaning; and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely. Let us not only neglect as doubtful, but boldly set aside as deadly corruptions, those pretended expositions, which lead us away from the natural meaning. But what reply shall we make to Paul’s assertion, that these things are allegorical? Paul certainly does not mean that Moses wrote the history for the purpose of being turned into an allegory, but points out in what way the history may be made to answer the present subject. This is done by observing a figurative representation of the Church there delineated. And a mystical interpretation of this sort (anagōgē) was not inconsistent with the true and literal meaning, when a comparison was drawn between the Church and the family of Abraham. As the house of Abraham was then a true Church, so it is beyond all doubt that the principal and most memorable events which happened in it are so many types to us. As in circumcision, in sacrifices, in the whole Levitical priesthood, there was an allegory, as there is an allegory at the present day in our sacraments, — so was there likewise in the house of Abraham; but this does not involve a departure from the literal meaning. In a word, Paul adduces the history, as containing a figurative representation of the two covenants in the two wives of Abraham, and of the two nations in his two sons. And Chrysostom, indeed, acknowledges that the word allegory points out the present application to be (katachrēsis) different from the natural meaning; which is perfectly true.”​
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians. Translated by J. W. Pringle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948. The italics in the quote are original. I have added the bold.​


Now, consider this observation:
"Calvin ridiculed Origen and set out to extirpate allegorical interpretations of the Bible. He discovered that the nature of the book he sought to interpret did not allow the abolition of allegory but only the pruning of its excesses. Allegory and typology (or what the late medieval interpreters called the literal-prophetic sense of the Bible) found a home in Calvin’s exegesis alongside his literal-historical interpretations. In fact, even a good deal of what Calvin learned by drawing analogies could be classified as tropology. The word anagogy made a brief appearance in Calvin’s exegesis, though it is not altogether clear whether by its use Calvin meant anagogy in the strict sense or merely analogy. At any event, the literal-prophetic sense as Calvin used it embraced a good deal of what earlier interpreters had meant by anagogy. The line which Calvin drew from the kingdom of Israel to the messianic kingdom is both literal-prophetic and anagogical. When Calvin moved from a discussion of the kingdom of Israel to the church and from the church to the messianic kingdom of God, he was, from our point of view if not always from his, teaching the spiritual sense of Scripture. In short, Calvin ostentatiously pushed the quadriga out the front door of his study with harsh words of criticism for Origen only to readmit it quietly through the back. Calvin can be admired as a biblical theologian, not because he returned to the literal sense of Scripture (which, after all, had never been lost), but because he recognized that the literal sense of Scripture was, as the church had known for more than a millennium, never enough. Calvin used allegory, typology, and tropology because the nature of Scripture required it. If I listen carefully, I can hear the faint laughter of Origen." (David Steinmetz, “Calvin and the Irrepressible Spirit,” in Calvin in Context, p. 275).​

The language of our Confession reflects the conviction that "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly." (ch. 1, para. 9). The meaning of a text is single, over against the notion that the meaning is essentially unlimited by anything other than the creative power of the reader's imposition. This limit is not the same as reductionism, i.e. the denial of a "full" sense to the words taken as the Scripture and the Holy Spirit intended them. The "wooden literalism" of some schools of conservative theology is closely mirroed by the non-nuanced reading of certain atheistic scholars, whose "flat" and anti-literary reading of the text is remarkably similar to the former.
Thank you for attaching those references. They say what I always thought the reformers taught on the subject. But then you have someone say what David Steinmetz says and it all becomes quite confusing.
Would you agree or disagree with David Steinmetz's observation?
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Thank you for attaching those references. They say what I always thought the reformers taught on the subject. But then you have someone say what David Steinmetz says and it all becomes quite confusing.
Would you agree or disagree with David Steinmetz's observation?

Steinmetz is pushing back against rationalist unbelief which says the words of the text are all there is. If you hold, as I think all believers must, to at least some sort of typological element in Scripture, then you are moving towards a premodern understanding. We don't have to accept Origen's crude allegorism, though.
 

George Clayson

Puritan Board Freshman
Steinmetz is pushing back against rationalist unbelief which says the words of the text are all there is. If you hold, as I think all believers must, to at least some sort of typological element in Scripture, then you are moving towards a premodern understanding. We don't have to accept Origen's crude allegorism, though.
Yes I agree. I think that I have found during the little bit of time I have spent looking at this subject that often people are using the same terms to refer to different things. I use the term literal interpretation to refer to the reformed meaning of the term. For example, the literal sense includes Christ in the OT i.e The literal sense of Isa 53 includes the prophecy of Christ. But I have found that some, when speaking against modern historical-critical hermeneutics, tend to take the literal sense as meaning the naturalistic interpretation of a single meaning intended by the human author alone.
I think this is why Calvin can say that he disapproves of allegory, or multiple senses etc. but then be accused of it by a modern author. They are both referring to different things. Or maybe it could be said they are both reacting to different problems. Calvin is reacting to people seeing what is not there in the text, Steinmetz reacting to people refusing to see what is there in the text.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Yes I agree. I think that I have found during the little bit of time I have spent looking at this subject that often people are using the same terms to refer to different things. I use the term literal interpretation to refer to the reformed meaning of the term. For example, the literal sense includes Christ in the OT i.e The literal sense of Isa 53 includes the prophecy of Christ. But I have found that some, when speaking against modern historical-critical hermeneutics, tend to take the literal sense as meaning the naturalistic interpretation of a single meaning intended by the human author alone.
I think this is why Calvin can say that he disapproves of allegory, or multiple senses etc. but then be accused of it by a modern author. They are both referring to different things. Or maybe it could be said they are both reacting to different problems. Calvin is reacting to people seeing what is not there in the text, Steinmetz reacting to people refusing to see what is there in the text.

You used a key word: naturalistic. The modern critic is a naturalist. He only believes in the realm of cause and effect (and if he follows David Hume, he can't even believe in that). The premodern is a Platonist of sorts. The text itself participates in higher realities. See Hans Boersma's excellent Scripture as Real Presence.

Calvin isn't really a Platonist, so it kind of breaks down there.
 
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