History of Interpretation

This is Dave Bovenmyer’s summary of Chapter two of Hermeneutics, Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation, by Henry A. Virkler

Ancient Jewish Interpretation

Peshat – Literal interpretation.  This may have been assumed by everyone and therefore not stressed.

Midrashic – tended to find hidden meanings from incidental grammatical details and contrived numerical speculations and often lost sight of the actual meaning of the text

Pesher – Everything the prophets wrote had a prophetic meaning that was coming true in the covenant communities of Qumran.  This present phenomenon is a fulfillment of that ancient prophecy.

Allegorical—employed primarily by those who were trying to synthesize the Old Testament with Greek philosophy.  The literal meaning represented an immature understanding and the stories’ real truths lay at deeper levels.

New Testament Interpretation

Jesus and the apostles interpreted the Old Testament literally.  There was no effort to find an allegorical meaning behind the stories and writings.  Old Testament stories were assumed to be historical accounts.

Interpretation of the Church Fathers (100-600)

Allegorical – This method arose from the desire to understand the Old Testament as Christian doctrine.  Each passage had multiple meanings, literal, moral, and allegorical.  Often greater stress was placed on the supposed allegorical meaning than the literal meaning.

Medieval Interpretation (600-1500)

The fourfold sense of Scripture as articulated by Augustine was the norm for biblical interpretation.  The letter shows us what God and our fathers did; The allegory shows us where our faith is hid; the moral meaning gives us rules of daily life; The anagogy shows us where we end our strife (in Christ’s return).

During this period, the principle was generally accepted that any interpretation of a biblical text must adapt itself to the tradition and doctrine of the church.  By and large, the Bible was interpreted by church tradition.

Reformation Interpretation (1500s)

The reformers rejected the deeper senses of scripture and returned to the plain, normal sense that was used by the New Testament writers.  Modern orthodox methods of interpretation are largely based on the work of the reformers.

Post Reformation Interpretation (1550-1800)

Confessionalism developed as various communities defined their doctrines through creeds, often resulting in bitter theological controversies.  Many theologians of the day interpreted the Bible through the lens of their favorite doctrine

Pietism called for an end to needless controversy, yet eventually began to depend on “inward light” for guidance rather than the scripture.

Rationalism promoted reason as the only authority for determining one’s opinions.  Reason, tended to be considered more important than revelation.

Modern Interpretation

Liberalism denied the supernatural inspiration of the scripture.  Naturalism (all that happens comes from natural causes) and evolutionary philosophy influenced the approach to interpretation.  The supernatural accounts in scripture were believed to be myths.  Study of the scripture became the study of the evolutionary development of the primitive Hebrew and then Christian religion.

Neoorthodoxy is a position mid way between the liberal and orthodox views of scripture.  The historical truthfulness of the scripture is not important, the important thing is the concepts that are behind the stories.

The New Hermeneutic teaches that the author’s original meaning is not important, but rather what the passage means to the reader.

Historical/Literal interpretation – Orthodox scholars continue to promote and defend the principle that interpretation is rooted in the original author’s intended meaning.


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