History and Rules of Biblical Interpretation

INTRODUCTION

            This research paper on the Principle of Hermeneutics gives a synopsis of the history of Biblical interpretation as history unfolded ushering in new ideas and approaches to the Holy Scripture over a very lone period of time. The history developed as God gave his word to Moses on Mount Sanai. This marked the Jewish interpretation period of the scriptures. During this era, the word of God was interpreted and explained to the children of Israel through Ezra and the Scribe after the Babylonian captivity. After this era, the apostolic era began. This period introduces the movement of the Holy Spirit wherein God used the apostles to lay down New Testament foundation. The New Testament was birthed during this era and the establishment of the churches. After this era, it was followed by the Patristic period. This was the period in which church fathers such as Augustine of Hippo, Gregory II etc made significant moves to contribute to the science of hermeneutics. During this period, most of the interpretations of the Bible were allegorical in nature. This Middle Ages followed this period. This was the time of instability in the Byzantine Empire and the birth of heresies. We see the Arian controversy during this period which was challenged by Anathanasius of Alexandria leading to the development of the doctrine of the trinity. After this period, the Protestant Reformation emerged. This was the birth of denominations and doctrines that changed the course of the history of Biblical interpretation. It was the time of Biblical application in practicality in which the Anabaptists died as the result of teaching and practicing rebaptism. They were massacred in thousands; nevertheless, they remained pacifists. After the Reformation period, the Post-Reformation began. This was the birth of new ideas called the Renaissance followed by the Modern period which has adopted the scientific method of Biblical interpretation using the Historical-Critical Method today.

THE JEWISH INTERPRETATION

            The history of Biblical interpretation can be traced back to the exile that was taken to captivity into Babylon. During this period, they read the Old Testament not with the language that it was originally written, but with the language they met in Babylon. This language was called Aramaic; as the result, it can be understood that part of the Book of Daniel was written in Aramaic instead of the Hebrews. To better understand the Hebrews texts, the Targum was used to translate the scriptures so that it could be understood by the audience. The original interpreter of the Hebrews text was the Levites who explained the scriptures to the children of Israel after Ezra had read it upon their return from exile. After the return of the children from exile, they had the aspiration to listen to the Word of God. They needed an interpreter of the Bible so that they could understand what God had said in the past to enable them apply them to their daily lives as they walk before God with sincere heart of commitment and reverence for God’s word and himself. To substantiate this claim of original Biblical interpreter in the Old Testament, the book entitled “Introduction to Bible Interpretation” states the following:

            The first known interpreters by name were Levites who assisted Ezra the scribe. When the Israelites returned from exile, they spoke the Aramaic of Babylon instead of the Hebrew of their scriptures. So, when on a solemn occasion Ezra publicly read the Mosaic Law, Levites explained to the crowd what he was reading (Neh. 8:7-8). Probably, their explanations involved both translation of the text into Aramaic and interpretation of its content. According to rabbinic tradition, this incident spawned a new Jewish institution, the Targum (i.e., translation-interpretation).[1]

            The subject on Biblical interpretation did not only originate today, but it had been in existence for a long time. The manner in which the Bible was interpreted during this time of the Babylonian captivity is quite different from what we see today. This is the result of the increase in knowledge. As knowledge develops, various methods or strategies have been adopted to enable Biblical interpreter better understand the Bible and interpret it. This explains vividly and evidentially that God is the person who wants all believers everywhere to study exegetically to enable them to interpret the Bible explicitly to its audience. God used languages in the past to help people better understand the original language (Hebrew) in which the Bible was written. He providentially provided the medium which the children of Israel could comprehend the word of God by instituting the Targum to interpret the Hebrew texts exegetically at the time based on the dispensation of learning and knowledge. The institution of the study of Biblical languages in Bible colleges or seminary today is paramount to better prepare the students of the Bible to exegetically interpret the Bible in its context taking into consideration all hermeneutical methodologies, rules and tools used to interpret the Bible in the realistic church setting. The use of literary context, historical-cultural background, word meanings and grammatical-structural relationships form part of general rules of hermeneutics to enable the Biblical interpreter to exegete the scripture taking into account contextualization of the particular books, chapters, and texts of the Bible. It is necessary to incorporate and to discuss these rules of Biblical interpretation in order to give some sense of interest and knowledge to the reading of this paper. Each of these rules is apparently delineated and discussed on the preceding pages of this document giving quotations and explanation for each rule as to disseminate information to the reader. This quotation explains the literary context: “A basic principle of biblical hermeneutics is that the intended meaning of any passage is the meaning that is consistent with the sense of the literary context in which it occurs. Hence, the first test that all proposed interpretations must pass is this: Is it consistent with literary context? In literature, the context of any specific passage is the material that comes immediately before and after it. The context of a sentence is its paragraph, the context of a paragraph is the series of paragraphs that precede and follow it, and the context of a chapter is the surrounding chapters. Ultimately, the whole book in which a passage appears is its controlling context. In interpreting the Bible, the canon of all sixty-six books provides the largest literary context in which every passage must be understood.”[2] One of the basic rules of interpreting the Bible is to take the text literary in its context before trying to examine it exegetically because the original meaning of every text is within the meaning of its literary sense; however, not every literary meaning of every text or book in the Bible is directly consistent with its literary sense. There are books of history, law, wisdom, song, prophet, letters, and revelation. These books must be interpreted based on their features. The books of Law, history etc must be interpreted according to their features. It is true that the literary sense of every text must be taken to interpret it, but not every text in all books of the Bible can be ultimately or conclusively taken literary. For instance, the book of Revelation, Daniel, Ezekiel contain imageries or symbolisms that delineate the meaning different from its originally literary meaning; therefore, an in depth study of such books is needed to fully interpret it. The historical, cultural, linguistic, word meaning, syntactical structure, grammar, and biblical languages should be implored in various approaches to exegete it comprehensively. In the interpretation of a particular text in the Bible, the meaning of the text must agree with its literary context. The literary context comprises the texts that come before and the texts that follow immediately. In simplicity, the pre-texts and post-texts must be examined exegetically to interpret the text in the Bible. The pre-texts and the post-texts constitute the literary context of a particular passage of scripture. When I speak of exegesis, I am talking about imploring every methods, rules, and tools to interpret the Bible in context. The term contextualization is embodied when the interpreter takes the entire book, chapters, paragraphs, and texts into consideration to interpret the text. One of the rules of Biblical interpretation is the understanding of the historical-cultural background of a particular book or text in the Bible. The Bible must be interpreted taking the historical-cultural method into consideration or background. This statement comments on the historical-cultural background: “Biblical passages not only express a writer’s train of thought but reflect a way of life –one that in most ways differs radically from that of present-day readers. The literature and events recorded in the Bible originated thousands of years ago. Beyond reflecting ancient languages, cultures, and lifestyles, the biblical writers wrote their messages for people different from us. Consequently, every time we study a scripture text, we must be aware of these cross-cultural and epoch-spanning dimensions. Each passage was God’s word to other people before it became God’s word to us. In a sense, the Bible always comes to us secondhand, through others who lived at different times and different places. This is the basis of an important principle of hermeneutics.”[3] The historical-cultural background is very paramount to the interpretation of the Bible. The Bible we have today was written to specific audience thousand of years ago with specific themes, messages, and the situations prevailing at the time; therefore, the understanding of such passages or texts in the Bible requires us the Bible reader to go back the situations that existed and thereby comparing them to the present situations or circumstances we face today. To give a sound hermeneutical position on passages in the Bible, the student of Biblical interpretation must go back to the origin of the scriptural texts taking the custom, language, tradition, geography, the writer’s points of arguments, etc. which resonate with God’s plan and purpose of allowing the messenger to give the message to the people who live at the time of the inspiration of the Bible in context. The correct interpretation of the Biblical passage must agree with the historical-cultural background of the passage in order to convey the principles involved in interpreting a particular passage of scriptures in a realistic setting to minister to a particular audience God intended for at the time. The principles indicate how the writer views the situation on hand through the power of the Holy Spirit, the mindset, and the context in which the speaking or writer is conveying as to fulfill God’s purpose and plan. One of the rules involved in the Biblical interpretation is the meaning of words in the text or passage being read. It is very significant to know the meaning of words being used in the Bible. This calls for the study of Biblical languages such as Hebrew and Greek because they are the original languages in which the Old and the New Testaments were written respectively. Knowing the original meanings of word used in the Bible opens the door for God to use the Bible interpreters articulately and exegetically during dissemination of Biblical teaching or preaching. The study of Biblical languages should be encouraged scholarly so that Biblical scholars can rightly divide the word of truth. Paul writes to Timothy and says, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”[4] God is admonishing us to study his word so that we can be able to explain it to others who are limited in understanding of the scripture. This call for Christian leaders who are called to the Gospel ministry to better prepare themselves to meet challenges which lie ahead of them. The church of Jesus can not continue to be novice to the word of God. God has entrusted his word to his church. The church of Jesus Christ is not the physical building, but the people. Christians are the buildings of God who should be representatives of him here on earth. As Christians give themselves to the Holy Spirit, they can be used in the areas of Biblical interpretation. The effectiveness for Biblical scholars or teachers of the word to interpret and to clearly delineate the scriptures exegetically depends on how many words or word meanings they know. Let examine the quotation below regarding word meaning: “By its very nature language communication employs words. People transmit ideas by combining words together into larger units of thought. Without words people would be limited in their ability to express their thought precisely. They would be restricted to nonverbal sounds, symbols, and pictures. The centrality of words in language communication underscores the importance of the lexical principle of hermeneutics: The correct interpretation of scripture is the meaning required by the normal meaning of the words in the context in which they occur.”[5] The tendency for every preacher or teacher of the word to articulate depends on how many words or meaning of words he or she knows. Vocabularies in the Bible should be learned during the study of God’s word. The study of the words and meanings of the word enriches the preacher or teacher’s vocabulary. People stumble on words used as the result of the limited words they know. Knowing the ideas in mind does not explore the avenue to use the word, but it is by knowing the words and their meaning coupled with the interpretation and application during the delivery of sermons or messages to a targeted audience. Lastly, the rule of grammatical-structure relationships is crucial also to the interpretation of the Bible in context. In the grammatical-structure relationships in Biblical hermeneutics, the natural divisions of the Bible should be understood, the flow of thought, verbs used, connectives, adjectives and adverbs, and pronouns. These grammatical-structure relationships are bedrock to build solid interpretations of scriptures with minimum errors or without errors of the Bible passages or scriptures. The below quotation regarding the grammatical-structural relationship substantiate it. “As important as it is to know the meanings of words, our task is not yet complete. Indeed, as we just asserted, apart from larger contexts we cannot be completely certain about what words mean. People communicate by combining words together in larger units. The grammatical and structural relationships of words and word-groups make up the final component of language communication we must assess to understand a writer’s meaning.”[6] The importance of knowing the meaning of word is vital to Biblical interpretation of scriptures. The Bible student will have upper hand on the interpretation of scriptures provided he or she knows the meaning of the word in context. The study of Biblical languages such as Hebrew or Greek is crucial to hermeneutical approach to the books, chapters, and texts in the Bible.

THE APOSTOLIC PERIOD ( A.D. 30-100)

It is important to go back in the apostolic age to see how the early Christians approach scriptures in the light of Biblical interpretation. They modeled themselves after Jesus’ way of interpreting the Bible comparing the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament as to give a balance approach to scriptural understanding in context of Biblical interpretation. Jesus had died, resurrected; and ascended into heaven in order to send the Holy Spirit to empower the apostles to preach the Gospel as to create an avenue of disciple multiplication to expand the kingdom of God on planet earth through the power of the Holy Spirit’s influence. They preached met in homes, prayed, fellowshipped, and they had everything in common. The Bible says that those who had gave to those who never had at all. Here we see the scriptures at work practically during the days of the early church as recorded in Acts. The Bible says that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42 [NIV]).[7] The Christians met in homes to study the Bible using the model of Jesus’ interpretation as a community of faith that became part of the integral of the Gospel ministry. In essence, the church is not an addition but an integral part of the Gospel. The quotation below substantiates this statement regarding the community of faith. “Thus, the church is not an addition to but an integral part of the gospel. Since the early times of Christianity there has been a community of the faithful, known sometimes in the apostolic age as those of this way (Acts 9:2),3 where the believers come to faith and are nurtured in their spiritual life in order to become witnesses of the gospel of the kingdom. In the post-apostolic period, when the Christian community needed to express the content of faith in a more articulated way, it used several formulas or symbols in which there are specific references to the church.”[8] As the early Christians expressed their faith in Jesus Christ, the apostles became more conformable to the standard and ways of how Jesus interpreted scriptures. Let’s examine the below statement: “Continuity and discontinuity mark the comparison between Jewish and early Christian interpretation. As devout Jews, the first Christian interpreters – the apostles –regarded Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah and the small religious community he left behind as the true fulfillment of Judaism’s ancient hopes. They appealed to the O.T scriptures to support their beliefs, interpreting them by many of the same principles other Jewish religious groups.”[9] The manner in which the early apostles interpreted the scriptures was based on what Jesus, the Messiah, did and followed by other religious groups that existed in Israel at the time. It can be understood that Biblical interpreters model themselves after their predecessors. Since then, knowledge has expanded; the method at which scriptures are interpreted today is more advance as compared to the days of the apostles. This is dispensational in Biblical interpretation.

THE PATRISTIC PERIOD ( A.D. 100-590)

After the death of the last Apostle, John, the revelator, a new era ushered in for the church. This patristic period lasted until Gregory I became Pope in A.D 590. During this time, there was lot of heresies existing at the time. Such as the Arian’s Controversy that became dominant during this time. The council of Nicea was called to decide what the Biblical doctrine should be because traditions and heresies matched with humanistic ideologies were taken over the Biblical doctrine according to church history. Athanasius stood against the Arian’s heresy. Arius said that Jesus was insubordinate to the Father, God, and the Holy Spirit was created as well as Jesus Christ. He denied the deity of Jesus Christ and he said that Jesus was a creature instead of being a Creator. This is the quote of Arius regarding the nature of Jesus. “We are not able to listen to these kinds of impieties, even if the heretics threaten us with ten thousand deaths. But what do we say and think and what have we previously taught and do we presently teach? — that the Son is not unbegotten, nor a part of an unbegotten entity in any way, nor from anything in existence, but that he is subsisting in will and intention before time and before the ages, full God, the only-begotten, unchangeable. Before he was begotten, or created, or defined, or established, he did not exist. For he was not unbegotten. But we are persecuted because we have said the Son has a beginning but God has no beginning. We are persecuted because of that and for saying he came from non-being. But we said this since he is not a portion of God nor of anything in existence. That is why we are persecuted; you know the rest.”[10] After the Arian’s Controversy, Arius was declared as a heretic and exiled by the council of Nicea; nevertheless, his doctrine did not cease. His supporters became dissidents called the Germanic tribes who evaded the Roman Empires. Most of them were called the Vandals at the time. It is from this term the word vandalism comes from which means demolition of property. After this controversy, the doctrine of the trinity came into existence and the church was defined ecumenically at the Council of Chalcedon. The meeting of the Council at Chalcedon influenced the Biblical interpretation, church theology, and ecclesiology. It is stated in this quotation. “The symbol of faith—commonly called the Niceno-Constantinopol-itan Creed since the time of Johann Benedict Carpzov (1607-51) who coined this term—has held a prominent position in mainstream Christianity. That document made its first official appearance at the third session of the Council of Chalcedon on 14 October 453. It was presented as “The holy faith that the 150 fathers set forth in agreement with the holy and great council [convened] at Nicea.” In this document the following statement is made about the Church: We believe “in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” It is worth noting that those four attributes are closely connected, for it would hardly be conceivable to have the Church of God devoid of any one of those marks or for any one of them to be independent from the others”[11] It is true that after the institution of the Chalcedonian and Nicean agreement, the institution of traditional practices by the Roman Catholic Church which are not in conformity with Biblically accepted standard tend to devoid sound hermeneutical principle. Such as the practices of indulgences, purgatory etc. caused problem in the Roman Catholic Church leading to the birth of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The writing of the nine five theses by Martin Luther was the result of wrong Biblical practices. Dogmas had taken precedence over Biblical doctrine at the time.

THE MIDDLE AGES ( A.D. 590-1500)

The middle Ages marked the beginning of the church fathers and councils. It is the millennium period between the Patristic period and the Middle Ages whereby Biblical interpretation was based on annotated notes, commentaries, and allegorical interpretation of the Bible. The Bible interpreters at the time based their interpretation on the church fathers. Biblical messages were disseminated through information gathered from the fathers. The Bible was interpreted through oral tradition from the fathers. “Introduction to Biblical interpretation” comments on this statement as the following. “Three approaches typify biblical interpretation in the Middle Ages. Interpreters continued to depend heavily upon traditional interpretation –the views of the fathers passed down over centuries. The primary resource for this method remained the written catena (Lat. “Chain”) or chain of interpretations, i.e., long collections of interpretative comments medieval catenas cited a variety of commentators, medieval ones featured fathers like Augustine and Jerome, who expressed the Church’s Fathers doctrinal views.”[12] Biblical interpretation in the past has been synthesized from sources of oral traditional exegesis developed based on the views of the fathers like Augustine and Jerome. Augustine has been regarded as the great theologian in the Catholic circle of Christianization; therefore, his interpretation of the Bible has imparted in the Eastern Orthodox churches or Roman Catholics in general. He is regarded as the Doctor of Grace or Augustine of Hippo. When it comes to Biblical interpretation and doctrine, he is the figure considered in the Roman Catholic Church. His influence on theology and ecclesiological doctrine even lays a foundation for non-orthodox churches like the Protestant, Pentecostals or Charismatic movement today. The preceding paragraphs talks about Augustine and Jerome in context. “According to his contemporary Jerome, Augustine “established anew the ancient Faith. In his early years he was heavily influenced by Manichaeism and afterward by the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus. After his conversion to Christianity and his baptism in 387, Augustine developed his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of methods and different perspectives. He believed that the grace of Christ was indispensable to human freedom, and he framed the concepts of original sin and just war.”[13]

THE REFORMATION PERIOD ( A.D. 1500-1650)

The birth of ideas or renaissance can be traced back to the period of the Reformation marking the emergence of humanists who tend to devoid the word of God by their philosophy of ideologies perpetrated insidiously at the time. This posed challenges for the Christian churches thereby prompting reformers to studiously study the word of God hermeneutically; unfortunately, there were no enough tools available as compared to the present modern days. Let us examine the following quotation. “Despite popular impression, the step from the Middle Ages into the Protestant Reformation was neither as radical not as obvious as is often thought. The historical forces that caused it are many, but one in particular merits mention because of its relevance to our subject. During the late Middle Ages, conflict arose between the more traditional scholastics and so-called new learning of Christian humanists like Erasmus.”[14] As stated previously, the emergence of these humanists post a challenge to traditional scholars like Augustine, Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, etc. to step out to defend the scriptures in context as to stop these allegorists who tended to devoid the word of God by humanistic approach to the Bible. Though Erasmus was a Christian humanist as he is so-called, but he made a meaningful contribution to hermeneutics. He took into consideration faith and reason.

THE POST-REFORMATION PERIOD ( A.D 1650-1800)

After the Reformation period, the interest to interpret the Bible became the topic of the time thereby igniting the aspirations of many scholars at the time to go into the subject to seek deep meaning to interpret the Bible. The subject on allegorical interpretation of the Bible is expiring at this time as new people were now allowed to read the Bible for themselves. This birthed a movement called the Renaissance. It was a period of new birth of ideas which assimilated with the ideas gained from the Protestant Reformation to reinforce and to accommodate the subject on Biblical interpretation. This Renaissance which lasted from 1300 – 1600 brought the study of classical Greek, Roman art, and philosophy at the time. According to the revised and updated, ‘Introduction to Biblical Interpretation” states this quote. “The Reformation was not the only revolutionary movement spawned by the late Middle Ages. The Renaissance (1300 -1600) featured a reborn-interest in classical Greek and Roman art and philosophy. The revived interest in Hebrew and Greek that aided the Reformation derived from the spirit of the Renaissance. If renewed Christian faith drove the Reformation, an increasing reliance on human reason spurred on the Renaissance. Consequently, important movements flowing from both the Reformation and the Renaissance influenced the interpretation of the Bible in the Post-Reformation period.”[15] Originally, most of the interpretation done by early fathers such as Origen, Augustine etc were based on the allegorical interpretation of the Bible. After the Reformation period followed by the Post-Reformation era, the aspirations to reason, grew among the people who have gone to study classical Greek, Hebrew, and combined with humanism. This influenced the subject on Biblical interpretation. The influence was caused by the synthesis of ideas gained from the Reformation and the Renaissance.

THE MODERN PERIOD ( A.D. 1800-PRESENT)

This period marked the age of scientific reasoning whereby the word of God has been studied like any other literature today. It is studied in the light of evolutionary entity incorporating the reasoning based on the sciences. This approach of reasoning to interpret the Bible is concentrated in what we call source criticism. Let us examine the below quote. “On many fronts, the nineteenth century was a revolutionary one. Latourette calls it “The Great Century” because it saw an unprecedented expansion in missions, but ironically, at the same time it witnessed a skeptical repudiation of Christianity among intellectuals. Radical advances in human science created popular confidence in the scientific method, which in turn produced a revolutionary and more scientific method for studying history.”[16]

CONCLUSION

Hermeneutics has developmentally undergone evolutionary episodes over the years up to the present as knowledge developed and increased during specific time period. The original interpreter of the Bible called the Jewish interpreter, whom God originally entrusted with the scripture lay the foundation for hermeneutics followed by the apostolic, patristic, the middle ages, the reformation, the post-reformation, and the modern period.

Bibliography

Couch, Mal. An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation (U.S.A: Grand Rapids, 2004)

Klein, William W. Craig L. Bloomberg, & Robert L. Hubbard. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004)

L’Huilier, Peter Abp. St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 48 no 1, 2004

Rodriguez, Jose David. Church in Theology and Mission (web: ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, 29 no 2, 2002)

Thomas, Robert L. Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (U.S.A: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004)

http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/godsreligion/p/aa082499.htm, Retrieved 11/10/2012

http://www.christianbooksummaries.com/library/v4/cbs0424.pdf, Retrieved 11/9/2012


.[1] William W. Klein, Craig L. Bloomberg, & Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 23.

[2]Robert L. Thomas, Evangelical Hermeneutics: The New Versus the Old (U.S.A: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004), 145.

[3]Mal Couch, an Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation (U.S.A: Grand Rapids, 2000), 290.

[4]II Timothy 2:15

[5]ibid

[6]ibid

[7]Acts 2:42

[8]Jose David Rodriguez, Church in Theology and Mission (web: ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, 29 no 2, 2002), 273.

[9]ibid

[10]http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/godsreligion/p/aa082499.htm

[11]Peter Abp L’Huillier, St Vladmir’s Theological Quarterly, 48 no 1, 2004, 21-47.

[12]ibid

[13]http://www.christianbooksummaries.com/library/v4/cbs0424.pdf , Retrieved 11/12/12

[14]ibid

[15]ibid

[16]ibid