Two Approaches to Scripture

In my understanding, the allegorical interpretation of Scripture developed particularly in the early church. Early Christians such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Origen recognized (correctly) that the New Testament considered the Old Testament to be a foreshadowing of the person and work of Jesus Christ. They therefore desired to find Christ in the Old Testament. Their intentions appear to be sincere, although their methods are somewhat questionable. In their efforts to find Christ, they at times developed novel interpretations of parts of the Old Testament. At that time, allegorical interpretation was an accepted principle to apply to Greek sacred literature, and that helps us understand why at least some of the early Christians accepted such a practice in regard to their sacred literature.

The work of Origen is particularly important in understanding the allegorical approach to Scripture. In his view, the Bible contains hidden secrets. He also thought that Scripture should be interpreted according to its nature. He did not think that every passage has a literal meaning, but he did think that every passage has a spiritual meaning. His approach to Scripture was often a quest to determine its spiritual meaning. An example of that approach in action can be seen in Augustine’s understanding of the door of Noah’s ark being the wound in Christ’s side. That interpretation is not found in the original account or in the New Testament, and yet Augustine was led to that spiritual conclusion. My position on allegorical interpretation is that we should be quite cautious in employing this technique. Unless a passage is clearly given an allegorical interpretation in its original context or elsewhere in Scripture, I think we have no warrant to interpret it allegorically.

The grammatical-historical-theological hermeneutic adopts a completely different approach to interpretation than the allegorical method. As I understand it, the goal of this hermeneutic is not to uncover the spiritual meaning, but rather the goal is to recover the author’s original meaning, whether or not that meaning could be considered spiritual. The grammatical aspect of this approach acknowledges that words and phrases have meaning. For that reason, the meaning of individual words must be understood. Additionally, the grammatical construction of the words must be evaluated. The author communicates through his choice of words, and it is worth studying the individual words that he uses. Grammar can also carry meaning. For example, word order can be used to convey emphasis. Special forms of grammar, such as figures of speech and idioms, must also be understood by the reader if he is to understand the original meaning of the text.

The grammatical aspect of interpretation also extends to the literary context and the genre of the passage. It must be considered how an individual passage relates to the rest of the book in which it is found, and even to the Bible as a whole. Genre is of significance because different genres are to be interpreted differently. For example, it should be obvious that history and predictive prophecy are not to be read the same way. The historical aspect of this approach considers the original culture of the passage. Closely related to that is the historical context. The interpreter asks questions such as, “What was going on in world history or Biblical history at the time this passage was written? What elements of the culture at that time will help me more fully understand this passage?”

In the theological aspect of biblical interpretation, we are called to faithfully move from what the text meant to what it means today. We must consider how the text transcends the original setting. For example, the prophecies of the Old Testament may have found fulfillment in Christ. If we miss that fulfillment, we will not correctly understand the passage. The Bible must be understood as a theological unity. The overarching theme of the Bible is the redemptive work of Christ, and if that is not acknowledged then the story of Scripture will be misunderstood. God’s plan of redemption is initially revealed in Genesis 3, and the remainder of Scripture unfolds the development of that plan. Each passage of Scripture must be understood in light of where it stands in redemptive history.

I consider the grammatical-historical-theological hermeneutic to be a much safer approach to biblical interpretation than the allegorical method. If a passage is to be interpreted correctly, the grammar, history, and theology of the text should all be thoughtfully considered. My view is that each portion of the Bible should be given its most natural reading. The most natural reading may be literal, metaphorical, or some other option. Ultimately, the Bible can only be rightly understood by those who are directed by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will aid those who are truly seeking to understand his Word rightly.


Author: Daniel

I am a Christian who is seeking to build God's Kingdom.