THE IMPORTANCE OF CORRECT INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE
“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth” (2Timothy 2:15)
After Jesus rose from the dead, one of His first recorded acts was to interpret Scripture: “And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). The Greek word translated “explained” in this verse is a form of the verb diermeno from which our English word “hermeneutics” is derived. The failure to interpret Scripture properly is condemned in the New Testament: “… regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2Peter 3:15,16). Peter addresses two problems: being untaught and unstable. It is ironic that in our day many consider ignorance to be bliss when it comes to studying proper hermeneutics.
The basic idea in hermeneutics is that the author’s meaning should control our interpretation. God the Holy Spirit inspired the human writers of Scripture, who used their own languages in their historical setting to convey their meaning. The job of the interpreter is to come to a clear understanding of that meaning. This means, most importantly, that we love the truth and have a heart to learn, even if what we learn is not what we hoped for or expected. When Jesus explained the Scriptures on the road to Emmaus, he told these disciples what they had not hoped for nor expected: that it was necessary for Messiah to suffer (Luke 24:26). Yet, properly interpreted, this is what the Scriptures taught.
The Bible is history’s most published, studied, translated and quoted book, but it is also the most misused and misinterpreted book. Cults and false religions, like those who preach the prosperity gospel, use it to their own benefit. Others simply misinterpret it or choose to blindly hold onto what their church fathers and pastors taught them, without any interest to study the Bible for themselves or a willingness to even consider that what they have been taught, might actually not agree with the true Scriptural meaning. The fact that a given passage is misunderstood, purposely or otherwise, does not demonstrate that the author of the passage had no clear meaning in mind. Nor does it follow that the readers cannot discern this meaning if they are open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In this article I want to expose common errors in unbiblical allegorical interpretations of God’s Word.
THE HISTORICAL BASIS OF CHRISTIANITY
Christianity is especially notable as resting essentially on a historical basis due to the Messianic element in it. Indeed, it can be said to have claimed from the beginning, a fulfilment of history. The apostles in their earliest appeal, demanded that one “search the scriptures.” There is a vast difference, however, between studying history and studying something historically. The fact that the Christians retained the Old Testament is ample evidence. That they failed to deal with it adequately, the New Testament is also ample evidence. But since the Messiah was offered to the whole world as well as to the Jews, Christian historiography had two main tasks before it. It had to place the life of Jesus in the history of the Jews, upon the one hand, and in the general history of antiquity, upon the other. The latter problem was not forced upon the church until the pagan world began to take the new religion seriously. The relation of Christianity to Judiaism, however, was of vital importance from the beginning, for it involved the supreme question whether or not Jesus was the one in whom all of the prophecies were fulfilled.
The coming of the Messiah was the main continuation of Jewish national history. The whole sad drama of Jewish history may be said to have led one “searched the scriptures” for the evidences of the signs by which the advent could be recognized. The invitation to search the scriptures was, in appearance at least, a challenge to a scientific test of verification. If the information on of the life of Jesus corresponded with the details of the promises, there was a proof that all of the prophecies had been fulfilled. But only the Messianic prophecies were fulfilled. The rest of the prophecies had to be constructed out of fragmentary and uncertain references, and the only satisfactory way they could do it was to apply many of them was symbolism and allegory. Using non- Messianic prophecies as foretelling the life of Jesus had not been the purpose in the minds of their authors. But those who apply allegorical interpretation have held, through all the history of the church, that the texts were applicable and that the proof was thereby established in the harmony of the old and the new dispensations. The tool for the re-writing of history was the creation of what is called allegorical interpretation of texts.
WHAT IS MEANT BY ALLEGORICAL INTERPRETATION?
The word “allegory,” is derived from the Greek “alla,” meaning “other,” and “agoreuo,” meaning “proclaim.” It originally referred to a figure of speech that Cicero defined as a “continuous stream of metaphors.” According to Augustine, allegory is a mode of speech in which one thing is understood by another. Allegory differs from the parable in its more systematic presentation of the different features of the idea which it illustrates, as well as in its contents which are concerned with the exposition of theoretical truths rather than practical exhortation.
THE HERETIC HISTORY OF ALLEGORICAL (SPIRITUAL) INTERPRETATION
The use of allegory to explain, or explain away, texts was not a creation of Christian historians, for the device was not unknown to pagan literature or philosophy. As far back as the sixth century B.C., Homer was interpreted allegorically by Theagenes of Rhegium, and pagan philosophy had constant recourse to allegory to harmonize myth with reason.
Allegorism was well established in Alexandrian Judaism, especially by Philo, who made a systematic use of it to bridge the chasm between the Old Testament revelation and the Platonic philosophy. Philo compares the literal sense of Scripture to the shadow which the body casts, finding its authentic, profounder truth in the spiritual meaning which it symbolizes. He does not want to depreciate or abolish the literal or the historical meaning but looks to it as man’s body which merits the fullest respect.
The School of Alexandria adopted the allegorical interpretation of the Holy Scripture, believing that it hides the truth and at the same time reveals it. It hides the truth from the ignorant, whose eyes are blinded by sin and pride, hence they are prevented from the knowledge of the truth. At the same time, it always reveals what is new to the renewed eyes of believers. Clement of Alexandria is considered the first Christian theologian who uses allegorical interpretation, giving a cause of using it in a practical way. He says that the Bible has hidden meanings to incite us to search and discover the words of salvation, which are hidden from those who despise them. He said the truth is in the pearls which must not be offered to the swines. Other early church fathers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian also used this method of interpretation.
His disciple, Origen, adds other justifications of using allegorical interpretation to the Scriptures. Origen often denies the literal meaning. For example, he says, “Could any man of sound judgment suppose that the first, second and third days (of creation) had an evening and a morning, when there were as yet no sun or moon or stars? Could anyone be so unintelligent as to think that God made a paradise somewhere in the east and planted it with trees, like a farmer, or that in that paradise he put a tree of life, a tree you could see and know with your senses, a tree you could derive life from by eating its fruit with the teeth in your head? When the Bible says that God used to walk in paradise in the evening or that Adam hid behind a tree, no one, I think, will question that these are only fictions, stories of things that never actually happened, and that figuratively they refer to certain mysteries.” He explained away the darker happenings in the history of Israel and even in the New Testament, he treated stories such as that of the Devil taking Jesus up into a high mountain and showing him the kingdoms of the world as parables or fables. Gnosticism took hold of some of his phases and attempted to harmonize Christianity with the parallel cults of paganism. Neo-platonism was doing much the same for paganism itself. The cults of Asia and Egypt were drawn together and interpreted in the light of the worship of Demeter or Dionysus.
Celsus was a pagan Greek who wrote the most notable attack upon Christianity of which we have record from those early times. He charges the Christians with obscurantism, stating that their teachers generally tell him “Do not investigate,” while at the same time exhorting him to believe. Origen was apparently a little ashamed and he reminded Celsus that all men have not the leisure to investigate. Origin frankly admits the paucity of sources for the history of Christianity, as he allegorized most of history away. He recognized the weakness of Christian historiography but failed to see how it could be remedied. In so many words Origen admitted that since the sources for Christian history cannot be checked up “by external evidence, there is nothing left but to accept their main outlines on faith.”
Nevertheless, a vigorous reaction against the Alexandrian allegorism made itself manifest in the fourth and fifth centuries. Its center was Antioch, which concentrated on the literal sense of the holy Scriptures.
The allegorical method promoted by Origen (who taught many other errors as well) nevertheless became the basis for the Roman Catholic church’s use of Scripture. Some of these heretic teachings have unfortunately also been adopted by the Reformers, especially regarding prophecies, eschatology and often anti-Semitic approaches towards Israel and the Jews. It has also become a handy tool in the hands of other cults and false teachers, such as those who teaches the Prosperity gospel.
Christian scholars who believe the Bible, rather than the allegorical teachers, took up the task of reconciling the events of Jewish history with the annals of other histories, and worked into a convincing and definite scheme of parallel chronology the narrative from Abraham to Christ. Mathematics was applied to history – not simply to the biblical narrative but all that of the ancient world – and out of the chaos of fact and legend, of contradiction and absurdity, of fancy run riot and un-founded speculation, there was slowly hammered into shape that scheme of measured years back to the origins of Israel and then to the creation, which still largely prevails to-day. This is one of the most important things ever done by historians. Henceforth, for the next fifteen centuries and more, there was one sure path back to the origin of the world, a path along the Jewish past, and marked out by the absolute laws of mathematics and revelation.
FAILURE TO CONSIDER THE CONTEXT
Imagine that someone read you one sentence out of the middle of a novel. You would not know who any of the characters were, what had happened to them previously, or what the plot was about. Often this is how the Bible is read. Since the Bible is laid out with verse numbers (which have been added by editors, they were not in the original), it is often falsely assumed or presented as if each verse is a little literary work of its own, disconnected from anything else. Only if we have a shared body of information, study the whole of Scripture, understand the Jewish background of the Bible, and understand the setting of each book of the Bible, then a verse quoted from a given book will make sense to us. Yet many never gain this information.
The context of a verse exists at various levels – textual, literary and historical. The first is its immediate textual context. A word is found in a sentence, a sentence in a paragraph and a paragraph in a chapter, etc. Remembering that the chapter and verse designations were not in the original, one must read the entire section, preferably the whole book, before considering the meaning of a verse. This is merely treating the Bible as one would any other piece of literature.
The fact that the Bible is God’s inspired Word does not mean that it has some mystical, non-standard way of communicating. For example, “You shall not steal,” carries the same meaning if God says it as it does if said by an owner of a store. The fact that God’s inspired Word says it lends the phrase more authority and assures its validity, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the phrase. People err in assuming that because the Holy Spirit inspired the words of Scripture those words must have some hidden, secret, mystical meaning. The Bible follows the same grammatical and literary conventions as any other Jewish literature of its time. Its uniqueness is in its inerrancy and divine inspiration, not in how it is to be read and interpreted. So we must always consider a passage in its immediate grammatical context and not isolate it, looking for some obscure, cryptic meaning.
Another factor is a passage’s literary context. A verse from the Book of Proverbs should be treated as the type of literature it is, namely wisdom literature. A passage from Kings should be treated as historical narrative. The Bible is a collection of different books, written over many centuries. It contains various types of literature. Just as we would distinguish a written history of the United States from a technical journal on auto mechanics, we must treat a gospel as a different type of literature than an epistle. Common errors in interpretation result from a failure to do this. For example, when reading history, if the Bible says that so and so did this, it does not necessarily follow that it was good or bad. If the inspired account says that David arranged for Uriah to be killed, it follows that this surely happened. That the Bible tells about this action is not an endorsement of it. In this case the Bible makes it clear it was wrong. In many instances the historical narrative does not comment on the moral quality of someone’s act, but merely tells us about it. We may have to look elsewhere in the Bible, for example in didactic (teaching) sections, to find out whether such an act is good or evil.
For example, Saul consulted the witch of Endor and Samuel was summoned (1Samuel 28:7-16). It does not follow that the Bible endorses necromancy or that those who practice such things normally do contact the dead. On the contrary, the Bible forbids this practice (Deuteronomy 18:10). The passage in 1Samuel gives us the historical record of Saul’s sin. The teaching section of the Bible tells us that it is a sin. Often the historical sections do comment on the moral qualities of actions, but not always. The important issue is that we recognize the different types of literature (genré) and give this due consideration when interpreting a passage.
Another level of context is the historical context. The most blatant and common example of failing to consider the historical context is the failure to acknowledge that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is a Jewish book. It contains many Jewish idioms whose meaning was clear to the early Jewish readers but often misunderstood by contemporary readers. We need to educate ourselves about the Hebrew background to Scriptures. For example, a common Jewish idiom used throughout the Bible is the phrase “son(s) of . . .” Rather than use an adjective, as we would, the Jews would say, for example, “sons of light” (1Thessalonians 5:5). This means “characterized by.” From passages such as this: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). This is an example of the Hebrew way of speaking of being the son of what one is characterized by. It was never meant to be taken that either the Jews or people in general are literal descendants of Satan. It would be to say that when we lie we are being “devilish.” False teachers prey on ignorance and mislead the uninformed.
There are other historical matters that help us understand Scripture. These include geography, political structures of the time, customs of other peoples with whom the Jews interacted, etc.
The Bible is a unity, though written by dozens of authors over many centuries, the Holy Spirit inspired it all. The Bible has an amazingly clear and consistent message. This serves as part of the evidence for its inspiration. Therefore, when interpreting a passage, we must consider how our proposed interpretation fits with the whole counsel of God as revealed throughout the Bible. For example, there are many passages that make it clear that Jesus was human and descended from the lineage of David. Yet it does not follow from passages that teach this that Jesus was only human. Many other passages teach that He is God. The whole counsel of God on the matter is that Jesus is fully human and fully divine God. This truth must inform our interpretation of any particular verse that speaks to us about Christ.
SOME MORE ABOUT THE DANGERS OF ALLEGORIZING SCRIPTURE
As mentioned in the introduction, allegorizing Scripture has a long and destructive history. The main “benefit” of allegorizing is the ability to remove real or apparent contradictions between Scriptures and current beliefs.
The reason many have been sold on the allegorical method is the false assumption that since the Bible is a spiritual book, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that it therefore contains hidden or secret meanings. The idea is that the truly spiritual person can discern meanings to passages of the Bible that are hidden from the unenlightened. There are even passages of the Bible that can be cited to seemingly justify this idea, such as 1Corinthians 2:14. However, it should be noted that the “things of the Spirit of God” that the natural man “cannot understand” are clearly revealed in the context of this passage. They concern the fact that central to God’s plan of salvation was a crucified Messiah, foolishness to Gentiles and an offense to the Jews (1Corinthians 1:18-29). The problem was not that a person couldn’t grasp the words that Paul preached – that Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and rose from the dead. The claims of the gospel were clear enough. The problem was that the natural man refused to accept God’s wisdom. So this passage does not teach a secret meaning to Scriptures that can be extracted by a clever allegorist. If so, then why not say Jesus didn’t really die and rise again, it is just an allegory? Paul taught a literal cross with literal words.
Most Reformed and prosperity preachers are quite adept at allegorizing passages of Scripture. By following this type of interpretation, non-Reformers can just as well argue that Jesus have taught modern success theories, positive thinking, liberation theology (Marxism), Unitarianism, the New Age, or anything else. Remember that the key reason for the allegorical method’s existence was to integrate the Bible with Greek philosophy or whatever other contemporary worldly ideas that seemed popular and desirable at the time. The resurrection can be allegorized into the new hope that springs into being with the cycles of nature: bunnies, and green grass. Or it can be allegorized as something analogous to ugly larvae changing through metamorphosis into butterflies. By saying this, I do not mean to mock the resurrection, but merely use it as an example of how dangerous allegorical interpretation really is and how it opens opportunities for false teachings.
Preachers are prone to more “softer” versions of allegorizing. What this means is taking passages that are not really about what is preached on but lend themselves nicely nevertheless. For example, John 10:10 says, “I have come that you might have life, and have it to the full.” The context of this passage is that Jesus claims to be the true “Shepherd” of Israel as opposed to the false religious leaders who were motivated by self-interest and did not concern themselves with the welfare of the flock. It is quite a stretch to take this passage as meaning that we should enjoy everything life has to offer. This belittles the true claim of the passage. The claim is that Jesus Himself is God, whom the Jews knew to be the only true Shepherd (Psalm 23:1). Only God incarnate can lead us through the valley of the shadow of death into everlasting life. Modern hearers rarely find out the true impact of powerful passages like this, they are merely interested in listening to a modern man who can make their lives a little more pleasant. Allegorizing the Bible lends itself to this end.
This does not mean that the Bible never uses allegory or non-literal terminology. What I am addressing is the ignoring of the intent of the original author and using mysticism or allegory to read one’s own meaning into various passages. If the Bible uses metaphor or allegory, it still has one meaning, the meaning of the author. An author uses an allegory to make a particular point.
The same is true for parables. Parables are not allegories, but short stories that make one or more points. For example, the “parable of the prodigal son” is not an allegory about backsliding. It is a story that illustrates the hardness of heart of the Jewish leaders who were offended at the fact that unworthy sinners were coming to Jesus (Luke 15:2). The key person is the older brother, whose attitude was that of the Jewish leaders of the time. Perhaps one could argue that allegorizing this into a sermon about backsliding does no harm, people are motivated to come to Jesus. But think about this: whenever we fail to show the author’s intent when interpreting a passage, we show a lack of respect for the Bible. If the Holy Spirit inspired the human writers to convey His meaning to us, how do we improve on that by ignoring the Holy Spirit’s meaning and supplying our own? When we do, we subtly create a disrespect for the Bible in the minds of our hearers.
LOVING THE TRUTH
Sadly, many in the churches have a distaste for learning or a lack of openness to ensure that what they were taught was in fact in line with the true messages of Scripture. This was brilliantly documented in David Well’s book, No Place for Truth. There is an anti-scholastic bias that prevails, causing people to only concern themselves with what seems appealing and this can be fatal. It’s one thing to misunderstand, it is another not to care. Once some people find out some study is necessary to properly interpret Scripture or that a study might proof their “traditional” education wrong, they opt out immediately. They come up with references to books, links and YouTube videos to defend their views, rather than presenting Scriptural references. And if they do, they also add to or explain away the actual meaning of the additional Scripture they present.
The worst problem I have encounter is the “I don’t care whatever Scripture you present” attitude. You can sit down, and provide clear, incontrovertible evidence for certain Biblical truths, and some people could care less. They just want to keep their cozy unbiblical ideas and remain comfortably undisturbed. If we refuse to learn from the Scriptures, then our experiences will not lead us closer to God either. Being too proud or too lazy to learn can be spiritually fatal.
If we truly love God and His Word, then we will rejoice to learn the way of the Lord more perfectly. We will long to learn more about the whole counsel of God, the meanings of Biblical terms, the historical background of Scripture and the author’s (not the church father’s or the pastor’s) intent for the meaning of various passages.
– COMMON ERRORS IN BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION EXPOSED, by Bob DeWaay
– THE JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY PSYCHOLOGY AND SCIENTIFIC METHODS CHRISTIANITY AND HISTORY II. ALLEGORY AND THE CONTRIBUTION OF ORIGEN by James T. Shotwell. Columbia University