THE INTERPRETATION OF PROPHECY
By J. Dwight Pentecost, Things To Come, 1958
THE HISTORY OF INTERPRETATION
Inasmuch as the basic dispute between the premillennialist and the amillennialist
is one of hermeneutics, it is necessary to trace the development of the
two different hermeneutical methods on which these interpretations rest,
namely, the literal and allegorical, in order that the authority of the
literal method may be established.
I. THE BEGINNING OF INTERPRETATION
It is generally agreed by all students of the history of hermeneutics
that interpretation began at the time of the return of Israel from the Babylonian
exile under Ezra as recorded in Nehemiah 8:1-8. Such interpretation was
necessary, first of all, because of the long period in Israel's history
in which the Mosaic law was forgotten and neglected. The discovery of the
forgotten "book of the law" by Hilkiah in the reign of Josiah
brought it back into a position of prominence for a brief season, only to
have it forgotten again during the years of the exile.1 It was necessary,
further, because the Jews had replaced their native tongue with Aramaic
while in exile. Upon their return the Scriptures were unintelligible to
them.2 It was necessary for Ezra to explain the forgotten and unintelligible
Scriptures to the people. It can hardly be questioned but that Ezra's interpretation
was a literal interpretation of what had been written.
II. OLD TESTAMENT JEWISH INTERPRETATION
This same literal interpretation was a marked feature of Old Testament
interpretation. Jerome, in rejecting the strict literal method of interpretation,
"calls the literal interpretation 'Jewish,' implies that it may easily
become heretical, and repeatedly says it is inferior to the 'spiritual.'"3
It would seem that the literal method and Jewish interpretation were synonymous
in Jerome's mind.
Rabbinism came to have such a hold on the Jewish nation from the union
of the authority of priest and king in one line. The method employed in
Rabbinism by the scribes was not an allegorical method, but a literal method,
which, in its literalism, circumvented all the spiritual requirements of
the law.4 Although they arrived at false conclusions, it was not the fault
of the literal method, but the misapplication of the method by the exclusion
of any more than the bare letter of what was written. Briggs, after summarizing
the thirteen rules that governed Rabbinical interpretation, says:
Some of the rules are excellent, and so far as the practical logic of
the times went, cannot be disputed. The fault of Rabbinical exegesis was
less in the rules than in their application, although latent fallacies
are not difficult to discover in them, and they do not sufficiently guard
against slips of argument [italics mine].5
It must be concluded, in spite of all the fallacies of the Rabbinism
of the Jews, that they followed a literal method of interpretation.
III. LITERALISM IN THE TIME OF CHRIST
A. Literalism among the Jews.
The prevailing method of interpretation among the Jews at the time of
Christ was certainly the literal method of interpretation. Horne presents
The allegorical interpretation of the sacred Scriptures cannot be historically
proved to have prevailed among the Jews from the time of the captivity,
or to have been common with the Jews of Palestine at the time of Christ
and his apostles.
Although the Sanhedrin and the hearers of Jesus often appealed to the
Old Testament, yet they give no indication of the allegorical interpretation;
even Josephus has nothing of it The Platonic Jews of Egypt began in the
first century, in imitation of the heathen Greeks, to interpret the Old
Testament allegorically. Philo of Alexandria was distinguished among those
Jews who practiced this method; and he defends it as something new and
before unheard of, and for that reason opposed by the other Jews. Jesus
was not, therefore, in a situation in which he was compelled to comply
with a prevailing custom of allegorical interpretation; for this method
did not prevail at the time among the Jews, certainly not in Palestine,
where Jesus taught.6
With this position present day ammennialists are in essential agreement.7
Case, an ardent advocate of amillennialism, concedes:
Undoubtedly the ancient Hebrew prophets announced the advent of a terrible
day of Jehovah when the old order of things would suddenly pass away. Later
prophets foretold a day of restoration for the exiles when all nature would
be miraculously changed and an ideal kingdom of David established. The
seers of subsequent times portrayed the coming of a truly heavenly rule
of God when the faithful would participate in millennial blessings. Early
Christians expected soon to behold Christ returning upon the clouds even
as they had seen him in their visions literally ascending into heaven.
. . . So far as the use of this type of Imagery is concerned, millenarianism
may quite properly claim to be biblical Unquestionably certain biblical
writers expected a catastrophic end of the world. They depicted the days
of sore distress immediately to precede the final catastrophe, they proclaimed
the visible return of the heavenly Christ, and they eagerly awaited the
revelation of the New Jerusalem
Any attempt to evade these literalistic features of biblical Imagery
is futile. Ever since Origen's day certain interpreters of Scripture have
sought to refute millennial expectations by affirming that even the most
striking statements about Jesus' return are to be understood figuratively.
It has also been said that Daniel and Revelation are highly mystical and
allegorical works not intended to refer to actual events, whether past,
present, or future, but have a purely spiritual significance like that
of Milton's Paradise Lost or Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. These are evasive
devices designed to bring these Scriptures into harmony with present conditions,
while ignoring the vivid expectancy of the ancients. The afflicted Jews
of Maccabean times were demanding, not a figurative, but a literal, end
of their troubles, nor did Daniel promise them anything less than the actual
establishment of a new heavenly regime. In a similarly realistic vein an
early Christian wrote, you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right
hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven [Mark 14:621,"
or again, '~here are some here of them that stand by who shall in no wise
taste of death till they see the kingdom of God come with power [Mark 9:11."
Imagine the shock to Mark had he been told that this expectation was already
realized in the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection, or in the
ecstatic experiences of the disciples at Pentecost, or in the salvation
of the individual Christians at death. And who can Imagine Mark's feeling
had he also been told, in certain modern fashion, that his prediction of
Christ's return was to be fulfilled in the Lutheran Reformation, in the
French Revolution, in the Wesleyan Revival, in the emancipation of the
slaves, in the spread of foreign missions, in the democratization of Russia,
or in the outcome of the present world-war? Premillennialists are thoroughly
justified in their protest against those opponents who allegorize or spiritualize
pertinent biblical passages, thus retaining scriptural phrases while utterly
perverting their original significance.8
No one would argue that the literalism of the Jewish interpreters was
identical with present day grammatical-historical interpretation A decadent
literalism had warped Scripture of all meaning. Ramm well observes:
... the net result of a good movement started by Ezra was a degenerative
hyper-literalistic interpretation that was current among the Jews in the
days of Jesus and Paul. The Jewish literalistic school is literalism at
its worst. It is the exaltation of the letter to the point that all true
sense is lost. It grossly exaggerates the incidental and accidental and
ignores and misses the essential.9
And yet it can not be denied that literalism was the accepted method.
Misuse of the method does not militate against the method itself. It was
not the method that was at fault, but rather the misapplication of it.
B. Literalisim among the apostles. This literal method was the method
of the apostles. Farrar says:
The better Jewish theory, purified in Christianity, takes the teachings
of the Old Dispensation literally, but sees in them, as did St. Paul, the
shadow and germ of future developments. Allegory, though once used by
St. Paul by way of passing illustration, is unknown to the other Apostles,
and is never sanctioned by Christ.10
As able a scholar as Girdlestone has written in confirmation:
We are brought to the conclusion that there was one uniform method commonly
adopted by all the New Testament writers in interpreting and applying the
Hebrew Scriptures. It is as if they had all been to one school and had
studied under one master. But was it the Rabbinical school to which they
had been? Was it to Gamaliel, or to Hillel, or to any other Rabbinical leader
that they were indebted? All attainable knowledge of the mode of teaching
current in that time gives the negative to the suggestion. The Lord Jesus
Christ, and no other, was the original source of the methoi In this sense1
as in many others, He had come a light into the world.11
Even as liberal as was Briggs, he recognized that Jesus did not use the
methods of His day, nor follow the fallacies of His generation. He says:
The apostles and their disciples in the New Testament use the methods
of the Lord Jesus rather than those of the men of their time. The New Testament
writers differed among themselves in the tendencies of their thought .
.. in them all, the methods of the Lord Jesus prevail over the other methods
and ennoble them.12
It was not necessary for the apostles to adopt another method to rightly
understand the Old Testament, but rather to purify the existing method from
Since the only citation of the allegorical use of the Old Testament by
New Testament writers is Paul's explanation of the allegory in Galatians
4:24, and since it has previously been shown that there is a difference
between explaining an allegory and the use of the allegorical method of
interpretation, it must be concluded that the New Testament writers interpreted
the Old literally.
IV. THE RISE OF ALLEGORISM
A multitude of difficulties beset the writers of the first centuries.
They were without an established canon of either the Old cr New Testaments.
They were dependent upon a faulty translation of the Scriptures. They had
known only the rules of interpretation laid down by the Rabbinical schools
and, thus, had to free themselves from the erroneous application of the
principle of interpretation. They were surrounded by paganism, Judaism,
and heresy of every kind.13 Out of this maze there arose three diverse exegetical
schools in the late Patristic period. Farrar says:
The Fathers of the third and later centuries may be divided into three
exegetical schools. Those schools are the Literal and Realistic as represented
predominantly by Tertullian; the Allegorical, of which Origen is the foremost
exponent; and the Historical and Grammatical, which flourished chiefly
in Antioch, and of which Theodore of Mopsuestia was the acknowledged chief.14
In tracing the rise of the allegorical school, Farrar goes back to
of whom he writes that his
...actual work was of very great Importance for the History of Interpretation.
He is one of the precursors whom Philo used though he did not name, and
he is the first to enunciate two theses which were destined to find wide
acceptance, and to lead to many false conclusions in the sphere of exegesis.
The first of these is the statement that Greek philosophy is borrowed
from the Old Testament, and especially from the Law of Moses; the other
that all the tenets of the Greek philosophers, and especially of Aristotle,
are to be found in Moses and the Prophets by those who use the right method
Philo adopted this concept of Aristobulus and sought to reconcile Mosaic
law and Greek philosophy so that the Mosaic law might become acceptable
to the Greek mind. Gilbert says:
[To Philo] Greek philosophy was the same as the philosophy of Moses.
. . . And the aim of Philo was to set forth and illustrate this harmony
between the Jewish religion and classic philosophy, or, ultimately, it
was to commend the Jewish religion to the educated Greek world. This was
the high mission to which he felt called, the purpose with which he expounded
the Hebrew laws in the language of the world's culture and philosophy.15
In order to effect this harmonization it was necessary for
Philo to adopt
an allegorizing method of interpreting the Scriptures.
The influence of Philo was most keenly felt in the theological school
of Alexandria. Farrar says:
It was in the great catechetical school of Alexandria, founded, as tradition
says, by St. Mark, that there sprang up the chief school of Christian Exegesis.
Its object, like that of Philo, was to unite philosophy with revelation,
and thus to use the borrowed jewels of Egypt to adorn the sanctuary of
God. Hence, Clement of Alexandria and Origen furnished the direct antithesis
of Tertullian and Irenaeus.
The first teacher of the school who rose to fame was the venerable
a converted Stoic, of whose writings only a few fragments remain. He was
succeeded by Clement of Alexandria, who, believing in the divine origin
of Greek philosophy, openly propounded the principle that all Scripture
must be allegorically understood.17
It was in this school that Origen developed the allegorical method as
it applied to the Scriptures. Schaff, an unbiased witness, summarizes Origen's
influence by saying:
Origen was the first to lay down, in connection with the allegorical
method of the Jewish Platonist, Philo, a formal theory of interpretation,
which he carried out in a long series of exegetical works remarkable for
industry and ingenuity, but meager in solid results. He considered the
Bible a living organism, consisting of three elements which answer to the
body, soul, and spirit of man, after the Platonic psychology. Accordingly,
he attributed to the Scriptures a threefold sense: (1) a somatic, literal,
or historical sense, furnished immediately by the meaning of the words,
but only serving as a veil for a higher idea; (2) a psychic or moral sense,
animating the first, and serving for general edification; (3) a pneumatic
or mystic and ideal sense, for those who stand on the high ground of philosophical
knowledge. In the application of this theory he shows the same tendency
as Philo, to spiritualize away the letter of scripture... and instead of
simply bringing out the sense of the Bible, he puts into it all sorts of
foreign ideas and irrelevant fancies. But this allegorizing suited the
taste of the age, and, with his fertile mind and imposing learning, Origen
was the exegetical oracle of the early church, till his orthodoxy fell
It was the rise of ecclesiasticism and the recognition of the authority
of the church in all doctrinal matters that gave great impetus to the adoption
of the allegorical method. Augustine, according to Farrar, was one of the
first to make Scripture conform to to the interpretation of the church.
The exegesis of St. Augustine is marked by the most glaring defects....
He laid down the rule that the Bible must be interpreted with reference
to Church Orthodoxy, and that no Scriptural expression can be out of accordance
with any other.
... Snatching up the Old Philonian and
Rabbinic rule which had been
repeated for so many generations, that everything in Scripture which appeared
to be unorthodox or immoral must be interpreted mystically, he introduced
confusion into his dogma of supernatural inspiration by admitting that
there are many passages 'written by the Holy Ghost," which are objectionable
when taken in their obvious sense. He also opened the door to arbitrary
When once the principle of allegory is admitted, when once we start
with the rule that whole passages and books of Scripture say one thing
when they mean another, the reader is delivered bound hand and foot to
the caprice of the interpreter. He can be sure of absolutely nothing except
what is dictated to him by the Church, and in all ages the authority of
"the Church" has been falsely claimed for the presumptuous tyranny
of false prevalent opinions. In the days of Justin Martyr and of Origen
Christians had been driven to allegory by an imperious necessity. It was
the only means known to them by which to meet the shock which wrenched
the Gospel free from the fetters of Judaism They used it to defeat the
crude literalism of fanatical heresies; or to reconcile the teachings of
philosophy with the truths of the Gospel. But in the days of Augustine
the method had degenerated into an artistic method of displaying ingenuity
and supporting ecclesiasticism. It had become the resource of a faithlessness
which declined to admit, of an ignorance which failed to appreciate, and
of an indolence which refused to solve the real difficulties in which the
sacred book abounds. ...
Unhappily for the Church, unhappily for any real apprehension of Scripture,
the allegorists, in spite of protest, were completely victorious.20
The previous study should make it obvious that the allegorical method
was not born out of the study of the Scriptures, but rather out of a desire
to unite Greek philosophy and the Word of God. It did not come out of a
desire to present the truths of the Word, but to pervert them. It was not
the child of orthodoxy, but of heterodoxy.
Even though Augustine was successful in injecting a new method of interpretation
into the blood stream of the church, based on Origen's method of perverting
Scripture, there were those in this era who still held to the original literal
method. In the School of Antioch there were those who did not follow the
method introduced by the School of Alexandria. Gilbert notes:
Theodore and John may be said to have gone far toward a scientific method
of exegesis inasmuch as they saw clearly the necessity of determining the
original sense of Scripture in order to make any profitable use of the
same. To have kept this end steadily in view was a great achievement It
made their work stand out in strong contrast by the side of the Alexandrian
school. Their interpretation was extremely plain and simple as compared
with that of Origen. They utterly rejected the allegorical method.21
Of the value, significance, and influence of this school, Farrar says:
. . .the School of Antioch possessed a deeper insight into the true
method of exegesis than any which preceded or succeeded it during a thousand
years . . . their system of Biblical interpretation approached more nearly
than any other to that which is now adopted by the Reformed Churches throughout
the world, and that if they had not been too uncharitably anathematized
by the angry tongue, and crushed by the iron hand of a dominant orthodoxy,
the study of their commentaries, and the adoption of their exegetic system,
might have saved Church commentaries from centuries of futility and error.
Diodorus of Tarsus must be regarded as the true founder of the School
of Antioch. He was a man of eminent learning and of undisputed piety. He
was the teacher of Chrysostom and of Theodore of Mopsuestia.... His books
were devoted to an exposition of Scripture in its literal sense, and he
wrote a treatise, now unhappily lost, "on the difference between allegory
and spiritual insight"
But the ablest, the most decided, and the most logical representative
of the School of Antioch was Theodore of Mopsuestia
(428). That clear-minded and original thinker stands out like a "rock
in the morass of ancient exegesis."
... He was a Voice not an Echo; a Voice amid thousands of echoes which
repeated only the emptiest sounds. He rejected the theories of Origen,
but he had learnt from him the indispensable importance of attention to
linguistic details especially in commenting on the New Testament. He pays
close attention to particles, moods, prepositions, and to terminology in
general He points out the idiosyncrasies. . . of St. Paul's style. . .
. He is almost the earliest writer who gives much attention to Hermeneutic
matters, as for instance in his Introductions to the Epistles to Ephesus
and Colossae. . . . His highest merit is his constant endeavor to study
each passage as a whole and not as "an isolated congeries of separate
texts.1' He first considers the sequence of thought, then examines the
phraseology and the separate clauses, and finally furnishes us with an
exegesis which is often brilliantly characteristic and profoundly suggestive.22
We would have a different history of interpretation had the method of
the Antioch School prevailed. Unfortunately for sound interpretation, the
ecclesiasticism of the established church, which depended for its position
on the allegorical method, prevailed, and the views of the Antioch School
were condemned as heretical.
V. THE DARK AGES
As one might expect from the general tenor of the period, there was no
effort made to interpret the Scriptures accurately. The inherited principles
of interpretation were unchanged. Berkhof observes:
In this period, the fourfold sense of Scripture (literal,
allegorical, and analogical) was generally accepted, and it became an established
principle that the interpretation of the Bible had to adapt itself to tradition
and to the doctrine of the Church.23
The seeds of ecclesiasticism sown by Augustine have borne fruit and the
principle of conformity to the church has become firmly entrenched. Farrar
summarizes the whole period by saying:
. . .we are compelled to say that during the Dark Ages, from the seventh
to the twelfth century, and during the scholastic epoch, from the twelfth
to the sixteenth, there are but a few of the many who toiled in this field
who add a single essential principle, or furnished a single original contribution
to the explanation of the Word of God. During these nine centuries we find
very little except the "glimmerings and decays" of patristic
exposition. Much of the learning which still continued to exist was devoted
to something which was meant for exegesis yet not one writer in hundreds
showed any true conception of what exegesis really Impiles.24
VI. THE REFORMATION PERIOD
It is not until the Reformation era that one can find again any sound
exegesis being produced. The whole Reformation movement may be said to have
been activated by a return to the literal method of interpretation of the
Scriptures. This movement began with certain precursors whose influence
turned men back to the original literal method According to Farrar:
Valla, a Canon of St. John Lateran... is one chief link between the
Renaissance and the Reformation. He had . . . learnt from the revival of
letters that Scripture must be interpreted by the laws of grammar and the
laws of language.25
Erasmus is viewed as another link in that he emphasized the study of
the original texts of Scripture and laid the foundation for the grammatical
interpretation of the Word of God. He, according to Farrar, "may be
regarded as the chief founder of modern textual and Biblical criticism.
He must always hold an honored place among the interpreters of Scripture."26
The translators, who did so much to stir up the flame of Reformation,
were motivated by the desire to understand the Bible literally. Of these
early translators Farrar writes:
Wiclif, indeed made the Important remark that "the whole error
in the knowledge of Scripture, and the source of its debasement and falsification
by incompetent persons, was the ignorance of grammar and logic."21
And of Tyndale, he says:
"We may borrow similitudes or allegories from the Scriptures,"
says the great translator Tyndale, "and apply them to our purposes,
which allegories are not sense of the Scriptures, but free things besides
the Scriptures altogether in the liberty of the Spirit. Such allegory proveth
nothing, it is a mere simile. God is a Spirit and all his words are spiritual,
and His literal sense is spiritual." "As to those three spiritual
senses," says Whitaker, the opponent of Bellarmine, "it is surely
foolish to say there are as many senses in Scripture as the words themselves
may be transferred and accommodated to bear. For although the words may
be applied and accommodated tropologically, anagogically, allegorically,
or any other way, yet there are not therefore various senses, various interpretations,
and explications of Scripture, but there is but one sense and that the
literal, which may be variously accommodated, and from which various things
may be collected."28
Briggs, certainly no friend to the literal interpretation of the Word,
quotes Tyndale himself, who says:
Thou shalt understand, therefore, that the Scripture hath but one sense,
which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground
of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou
canst never err or go out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense,
thou canst not but go out of the way. Neverthelater, the Scripture useth
proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do;
but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle, or allegory signifieth,
is over the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently.29
The foundations of the Reformation were laid in the return to the literal
method of interpretation.
In the Reformation period itself two great names stand out as exponents
of the truths of Scripture: Luther and Calvin. Both of these are marked
by their strong insistences on the literal method of interpretation.
Luther says: "Every word should be allowed to stand in its natural
meaning and that should not be abandoned unless faith forces us to it. It
is the attribute of Holy Scripture that it interprets itself by passages
and places which belong together, and can only be understood by the rule
That Luther advocated a position that today would be called the grammatical-historical
method is observed from his own writing.
Luther, in his preface to Isaiah (1528) and in other parts of his writings,
lays down what he conceives to be the true rules of Scripture interpretation.
He insists (1) on the necessity for grammatical knowledge; (2) on the importance
of taking into consideration times, circumstances, and conditions; (3) on
the observance of the context; (4) on the need of faith and spiritual illumination;
(5) on keeping what he called "the proportion of faith"; and (6)
on the reference of all Scripture to Christ.31
So great was Luther's desire, not only to give the people the Word of
God, but to teach them to interpret it, that he laid down the following
rules of interpretation:
i. First among them was the supreme and final authority of Scripture
itself, apart from all ecclesiastical authority or interference......
ii. Secondly, he asserted not only the supreme authority but the sufficiency
iii. Like all the other reformers he set aside the dreary fiction of
the fourfold sense The literal sense of Scripture alone," said Luther,
"is the whole essence of faith and of Christian theology." "
I have observed this, that all heresies and errors have originated, not
from the simple words of Scripture, as is so universally asserted, but
from neglecting the simple words of Scripture, and from the affectation
of purely subjective . . . tropes and inferences." "In the schools
of theologians it is a well-known rule that Scripture is to be understood
in four ways, literal, allegoric, moral, anagogic. But if we wish to handle
Scripture aright, our one effort will be to obtain unum, simplicem, germanum,
et certum sensum literalem." "Each passage has one clear, definite,
and true sense of its own. All others are but doubtful and uncertain opinions."
iv. It need hardly he said, therefore, that Luther, like most of the
Reformers, rejected the validity of allegory. He totally denied its claim
to be regarded as a spiritual interpretation.
v. Luther also maintained the perspicuity of Scripture. . . . He sometimes
came near to the modern remark that, "the Bible is to be interpreted
like any other book."
vi. Luther maintained with all his force, and almost for the first time
in history, the absolute indefeasible right of private judgment, which,
with the doctrine of the spiritual priesthood of ail Christians, lies at
the base of all Protestantism.52
Calvin holds a unique place in the history of interpretation. Of him
. . .For the first time in a thousand years he gave a conspicuous example
of non-allegorical exposition. One must go back to the best work of the
school of Antioch to find so complete a rejection of the method of Philo
as is furnished by Calvin. Allegorical interpretations which had been put
forth in the early Church and indorsed by illustrious expositors in all
the subsequent centuries, like the interpretation of Noah's ark and the
seamless garment of Christ, are cast aside as rubbish. This fact alone
gives an abiding and distinguished honor to Calvin's exegetical work°
What led him to reject allegorical interpretation as something peculiarly
satanic, whether it was his legal training at Orleans and Bourges or his
native judgment, is not possible to say, but the fact is clear and is the
most striklng feature of his interpretstion.33
Calvin states his own position very clearly. In the commentary to Galatians
he writes: "Let us know then, that the true meaning of Scripture ig
the natural and obvious meaning, and let us embrace and abide by it resolutely."34
In the Preface to Romans Calvin says: "It is the first business of
an interpreter to let his author say what he does say, instead of attributing
to him what we think he ought to say."35 Concerning Calvin's contribution
Calvin is the founder of the grammatico-historical exegesis. He affirmed
and carried out the sound hermeneutical principle that the Biblical authors,
like all sensible writers, wished to convey to their readers one definite
thought in words which they could understand. A passage may have a literal
or a figurative sense; but cannot have two senses at once. The Word of
God is inexhaustible and applicable to all times, but there is a difference
between explanation and application, and application must be consistent
Concerning this entire period Farrar writes:
. . .the Reformers gave a mighty impulse to the science of Scriptural
interpretation. They made the Bible accessible to all; they tore away and
scattered to the winds the dense cobwebs of arbitrary tradition which had
been spun for so many centuries over every book, and every text of it;
they put the Apocrypha on an altogether lower level than the sacred books;
they carefully studied the original languages; they developed the plain,
literal sense; they used it for the strengthening and refreshing of the
And Gilbert summarizes:
. . .It is to be said to the credit of the period under consideration
that its normal type of exegesis regards the literal sense of the text
The words of Richard Hooker (1553-1600) have a wide application throughout
the period. "I hold it," he says, "for a most infallible
rule in exposition of Sacred Scriptures that when a literal construction
will stand, the farthest from the letter is commonly the worst. There is
nothing more dangerous than this deludmg art which changeth the meaning
of words as alchymy doth or would do the substance of metals, making of
anything what it listeth, and bringing in the end of all truth to nothing."
In general, the example of Calvin in rejecting allegorical interpretation
was followed by the leading divines and scholars of the next two centuries.38
If one is to return to the Reformers for his theology, he must accept
the method of interpretation on which their theology rests.
VII. THE POST-REFORMATION PERIOD
The post-Reformation period was marked by the rise of men who followed
closely in the footsteps of the Reformers themselves in the application
of the literal or grammatical-historical method of interpretation. Farrar
... If Luther was the prophet of the Reformation MeZanchthon was the
teacher. . . . Zwingli, with absolute independence, had arrived at opinions
on this subject which in all essential particulars coincided with those
of Luther. . . . A host of Reformation expositors endeavoured to spread
the truths to which they had been led by the German and Swiss Reformers.
It will be sufficient here merely to mention the names of Oecolampadius
(1581), Bucer (1551), Brens (1570), Bugenhagen (1558). Musculus (1563),
Cameranus (1574), Bullinger (1575), Chemnitz (1586), and Beza (1605). Among
all of these there was a general agreement in principles, a rejection of
scholastic methods, a refusal to acknowledge the exclusive dominance of
patristic authority and church tradition; a repudiation of the hitherto
dominant fourfold meaning; an avoidance of allegory; a study of the original
languages; a close attention to the literal sense; a belief in the perspecuity
and sufficiency of Scripture; the study of Scripture as a whole and the
reference of its total contents to Christ. . .39
It might be expected, since the foundation has been laid for the literal
method of interpretation, that we would witness a full growth of Scriptural
exegesis based on this foundation. However, the history of interpretation
reveals such an adherence to creeds and church interpretations that there
is little progress in sound Scriptural interpretation in this period.40
Yet, out of this period did come such exegetes and scholars as John Koch,
Professor at Leyden (1669), John James Wetstein, Professor at Basle (1754),
who advocated that the same principles of interpretation apply to Scripture
as to other books, John Albert Bengel (1752), and others who were renowned
for their contribution to criticism and exposition and who laid the foundation
for such modem exegetes as Lightfoot, Westcott, Ellicott, and others.
One man of great influence in the systematization of the literal method
of interpretation was John Augustus Ernesti, of whom Terry writes:
Probably the most distinguished name in the history of exegesis in the
eighteenth century is that of John Augustus Ernesti, whose Institutio Interpretis
Nove Testamenti (Lipz. 1761), or Principles of New Testament Interpretation,
has been accepted as a standard textbook on hermeneutics by four generations
of Biblical Scholars. "He is regarded," says Hagenbach, "as
the founder of a new exegetical school, whose principle simply was that
the Bible must be rigidly explained according to its own language, and
in this explanation, it must neither be bribed by any external authority
of the Church, nor by our own feeling, nor by a sportive and allegorizing
fancy-which had frequently been the case with the mystics-nor, finally,
by any philosophical system whatever.41
The statement of Horatius Bonar is taken to be a summary of the principle
of exegesis that came to be the foundation of all real Scriptural interpretation.
. . .I feel a greater certainty as to the literal interpretation of
that whole Word of God-historical, doctrinal, prophetical. "Literal,
if possible," is, I believe, the only maxim that will carry you right
through the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation.42
In spite of the shackles which dogmatism and creedalism sought to impose
on interpretation, there did emerge from this period certain sound principles
of interpretation, which became the basis for the great exegetical works
of following centuries. These principles are summarized by Berkhof:
. . . it became an established principle that the Bible must be interpreted
like every other book. The special divine element of the Bible was generally
disparaged, and the interpreter usually limited himself to the discussion
of the historical and critical questions. The abiding fruit of this period
is the clear consciousness of the necessity of the Grarnrnatico-Historical
interpretation of the Bible....
The Grammatical School. This school was founded by
Ernesti, who wrote
an important work on the interpretation of the New Testament, in which
he laid down four principles. (a) The manifold sense of Scripture must
be rejected, and only the literal sense retained. (b) Allegorical and typological
interpretations must be disapproved, except in cases which the author indicates
that he meant to combine another sense with the literal. (c) Since the
Bible has the grammatical sense in common with other books, this should
be ascertained similarly in both cases. (d) The literal sense may not be
determined by a supposed dogmatical sense.
The Grammatical School was essentially
supernaturalistic, binding itself
to "the very words of the text as the legitimate source of authentic
interpretation and of religious truth" (Elliott) .43
As this history of interpretation is summarized, it is to be noted that
all interpretation began with the literal interpretation of Ezra. This literal
method became the basic method of Rabbinism. It was the accepted method
used by the New Testament in the interpretation of the Old and was so employed
by the Lord and His apostles. This literal method was the method of the
Church Fathers until the time of Origen when the allegorical method, which
had been devised to harmonize Platonic philosophy and Scripture, was adopted.
Augustine's influence brought this allegorizing method into the established
church and brought an end to all true exegesis. This system continued until
the Reformation. At the Reformation the literal method of interpretation
was solidly established and, in spite of the attempts of the church to bring
all interpretation into conformity to an adopted creed, literal interpretation
continued and became the basis on which all true exegesis rests.
It would be concluded, then, from the study of the history of interpretation
that the original and accepted method of interpretation was the literal
method, which was used by the Lord, the greatest interpreter, and any other
method was introduced to promote heterodoxy. Therefore, the literal method
must be accepted as the basic method for right interpretation in any field
of doctrine today.
Return to Bible Interpretation Page
Advance to Chapter 3.
1. Cf. F. W. Farrar, History of Interpretation, pp.47-48.
2. Cf. Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, p.27.
3. Farrar, op. cit., p. 232.
4. Cf. ibid., pp. 60-61.
5. Charles Augustus Briggs, General Introduction to the Study of Holy
Scripture, p. 431.
6. Thomas Hartwell Horne, An Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge
of the Holy Scriptures, I, 324.
7. Cf. Floyd Hamilton, The Basis of Millennial Faith, pp. 35-39; Oswald
T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p. 258.
8. Shirley Jackson Case, The Millennial Hope, pp.214-16.
9. Ramm, op. cit., p.28.
10. Farrar, op. cit., p.217.
11. R. B. Girdlestone, The Grammar of Prophecy, p.56.
12. Brigg, op. cit., p. 443.
13. Farrar, op. cit., pp. 164-65.
14. Ibid., p.177.
15. Ibid., p.129.
16. George Holley Gilbert, The Interpretation of the Bible, pp.37 ff.
17. Farrar, op. cit., pp.182-83.
18. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, II, 521.
19. Farrar, op. cit., pp. 236-37.
20. Ibid., p. 238
21. Gilbert, op. cit., p.137.
22. Farrar, op. cit., pp. 213-15
23. Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation, p.23.
24. Farrar, op. cit., p.245.
25. Ibid., pp. 3l2-l3.
26. Ibid., p.320.
27. mid., pp. 278-79.
28. Ibid., p.300.
29. Briggs, op. cit., pp.456-57.
31. Farrar, op. cit., pp. 331-32.
32. Ibid., pp.325.30.
33. Gilbert, op. cit., p.209.
34. John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians, p.186, cited by Gerrit H. Hospers,
The Principle of Spiritualization in Hermeneutics, p.11.
35. cited by Farrar, op. cit., p.347.
36. Philip Schaff, cited by Hospers, op. cit., p.12.
37. Farrar, op. cit., p.357.
38. Gilbert, op. cit., pp. 229-30.
39 Farrar, op. cit., p.342.
40. Cf. ibid, pp.358-59.
41. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, p.707.
42. Cited by Girdlestone, op. cit., p. 179.
43. Berkhof, op. cit., pp.32-33.