How We Read the Bible: And How the Church Has Always Read It

I learned a lot about how to read the Bible in the Spring of my Senior year.

In that semester I was enrolled in Church History Seminar with three other students. On the first day of class after finding out that one of the other students had dropped and that this was the last course our professor was teaching before he retired, the two other guys and I were asked if we wanted to write one giant paper over the course of the semester or two smaller ones. We looked at each other, knowing full well we didn’t have enough context to answer this question, grunted something about “less overhead,” and decided on the one giant paper. We were assigned topics, and for the rest of the semester, the three of us sat at a small table in the library for three hours a week, researching the development of a single theme over the course of 2000 years of church history.

Graduating Harding, I knew very little about Church history—I leave most of that to friends. But I do know a fair bit about my topic from Church History Seminar: the history of Scripture, its interpretation, and its relation to Church Tradition.

What I learned about that topic is that my blog titles cannot be trusted and that the Church has not consistently read the Bible in any uniform way. Since Pentecost, there have been different interpretive methods employed by the Christian community to make sense of the Scriptures available to them.

We looked last week at the interpretive methods employed by the Apostolic Church, and saw that in their reading of Scripture, those Christians read the Bible in a variety of ways—some literal, some nonliteral, lots of allegorical, but mainly they interpreted however Jesus interpreted, generally in reference to himself (which might be considered vain if he wasn’t the Son of God).

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When reading the Bible in the Patristic Period (the time between the apostles and the fall of Rome), people fell into two main camps. On one side there was the School of Antioch, which taught that Christians must use the literal meaning of a text in order to avoid heresy. This way of thinking was championed by men like Theodore of Mopsuestia and John Chrysostom. On the other side, however, was the Alexandrian school of thought, embodied by individuals like Origen, and it taught that true interpretation sought the allegorical meaning of a text. These two schools often found themselves at odds for obvious reasons, but as the Patristic Period came to a close, the School of Alexandria gained influence and Christendom was largely seeking the “spiritual” meaning of the Scriptures.

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Largely indebted to the thoughts of the patristics, Christians of the Medieval Age expounded on the “four senses” of Scripture outlined in previous generations: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical—giving heavy preference to the allegorical/ spiritual sense of Scripture. However, this quickly began to change as priests and monks increasingly relied on Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate. Because people were able to speak Latin less and less, intense language studies were required for studying the Bible. This, together with the church’s manipulation of Scripture, forced interpreters to begin emphasizing the literal sense. As literal interpretation regained influence in church circles, the allegorical method was eclipsed and in its place, textual criticism and grammatical studies grew more popular as the modus operandi.

The overwhelming popularity of the plain sense in interpreting Scripture can be seen by the variety of groups that adopted it. For instance, the hardline and occasionally violent Dominican Order pressed literal exegesis on monasteries and exegetes all over Europe. Around the same time, Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology and animals, committed to take literally the Gospel’s call to sell all that he had.

Eventually, though, with the rediscovery of Aristotle and his work teaching the inseparability of body and soul, the church was encouraged to balance the spiritual and literal senses of Scripture—finding spiritual meaning in the literal interpretation. Thomas Aquinas, a famous example of this, endeavored to balance the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture by distinguishing them, saying that the spiritual is seeing connections (which helps us grow in holiness) and the literal is what is intended by the author (i.e. the Holy Spirit). These changing beliefs lead to radical upheaval in the centuries to come.

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Born from the ideas of the Medieval Christian scholars, Luther and Calvin’s Reformation was undoubtedly the most most pivotal period in Christian interpretation. Influenced also by the Renaissance, which valued all fields of study and emphasized the creative and logical faculties of human beings, the Reformation emphasized common sense and morality as the primary criteria by which to evaluate Scripture. Thus, reading for the “plain sense” of the text became the preferred method of exegesis, threatening to undercut the authority of Catholic leaders who commonly relied on spiritual readings. According to men like Luther, not using the literal sense of Scripture had led to various heresies in the past, and so he and the other reformers strove to stay in Aquinas’s legacy, accepting the spiritual meaning of the text only when it is clearly intended by the author. The emphasis of the Reformers on the text of Scripture lead to an unprecedented weight on the Bible by Christians for centuries to come.

(Also worth noting is that despite their focus on common sense, logic, and the literal interpretation of Scripture, they still feared private interpretation of the Bible, which the Anabaptists—the forerunners of the Churches of Christ—adopted.)

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While the Reformation has influenced Christianity the most, the Modern Era has certainly witnessed the most change. The new methods of interpretation introduced by the Reformers opened up theology to a world of possibilities, but also came with their own problems: the authority of Scripture has been challenged throughout the modern period, and many of the more spiritual, or allegorical, insights of the past have been lost. Yet, with these challenges, the Modern Era has brought its own fruitful understandings. Virtues that had not been addressed for centuries suddenly rose to the forefront of Christian thought, and new ways to interact with the Word of God were considered.

Catholic interpretation has also gone through major changes during the Modern Era. Since the Reformation, the Catholic Church has been wary of biblical studies of every sort. However, through events like the Second Vatican Council in the1960s, the historical-critical method along with other critical methods have been adopted into accepted church practice. (Quickly, though, complaints arose regarding the usefulness of these methods and the need to return to Patristic interpretation.)

Through these developments in interpretation, the Bible began to be viewed in two polarized ways. The first is a naturalization of Scripture where its authority has been demoted because authority and revelation are seen as antithetical to the critical freedom of truth. This view is directly linked to Deism, which arose in modernistic circles because of men like John Locke and Isaac Newton (despite their best intentions). Attacks by deists on the authority of Scripture led to natural law and Stoicism as the “undisputed criterion” for authority. The Bible, in turn, lost its significance in philosophy and ethics. Liberals have attempted to salvage theology by placing authority on religious experience rather than the church or Scripture. Conservatives have done something similar by trying to place authority in the historical reality of the Bible—this is the second way that Scripture is viewed in the Modern Era. For this reason, apologies (which use external warrants for truth to regain Scripture’s authority) have grown more prominent in modernity. And also as a repercussion, the hidden sin of Bibliolatry has steadily grown. What is important to note, though, is that the Enlightenment’s focus on the literal sense of Scripture led to the dichotomous response of doubting Scripture’s authority or basing its complete authority in claims of historical truth.

The Church has fluctuated and debated how the Bible should properly be read. Critiques have been made of previous generation, often leading to further insights alongside other shortcomings. The Church has experimented with a straightforward, literal, history-oriented way of reading the Bible, as well as a spiritualizing method that found Christological truths in passages clearly not concerned with Christ. Eventually, Christians adopted the historical-grammatical method that led to further insights in the text. This evolved in later centuries to historical-criticism which ushered in an even more critical and evasive way of reading Scripture. Beyond this, there have been an explosion of hermeneutical methods, relying on different critiques and the importance of different experiences.

This all leads back to our original questions: Where would the Church be on our spectrum of beliefs on Inspiration? Are Patristic approaches as valid as Medieval, or Reformed as valid as Modern? Have we gotten worse or better or peaked? Or are they simply different ways for different times? Are some Christians today too biased toward mimicking certain thinkers or prone to golden-age thinking?

These are the questions we wrestle with. And they’ll get even more difficult as we move next week away from broad historical trends and see how church leaders view these issues.

2 Comments

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  1. Thanks for the walk through history. When it comes to interpreting the Bible, and all the methods of doing it, my answer is that we should use all of them. If one would put all the methods of interpretation side by side, I believe it should be the goal of every Bible student to say, “I’m not going to pick one. I consider all of them when reading the Bible.”

    But, in these Modern times, I do believe we have gotten worse in one aspect. There is a growing number of people who just don’t believe the words on the page. They don’t follow any of the interpretations you mentioned. Maybe relying on their own experiences or culture, they dismiss passages of the Bible (essentially removing them from their Biblical canon, much like how a person rips pages from a book). I don’t know what it is called, but the best way I can describe it is an interpretation of disregard. They offer no valid meaning of the text; they just (directly or indirectly) express that the passage means nothing to them.

    Oh, and thanks muchly for the mention! 🙂

    Like

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