Understanding The Bible
Part IV - Introduction to HERMENEUTICS


Return to Syllabus

Dr. Clarence E. Mason, Jr.
Philadelphia College of Bible
Circa 1970



    1. Jewish Exegesis
      The beginning of formal exposition of the Scriptures is usually dated with Ezra.  With him the synagogue worship and reading of Moses every Sabbath Day was started.  The office and work of the scribe became more important.  He was no longer merely a recorder of past events (2 Sa. 8:17; 2 Ki. 4:3), but the copyist and authorized expounder of the Sacred Books.  For the most part, theirs was a slavishly literal translation.  At the same time, although they scrupulously guarded against interpolations and changes, by their interpretations they added to the Scriptures.

      After the time of Ezra there were two kinds of interpretation: (1) the Halachah (decision) or legal exegesis, and (2) the Hagadic (discourse) or homiletic exegesis. The former aimed, by analogy and combination of special laws, to deduce precepts and rules on subjects which had not been formally treated in the Mosaic Code. This amounted to reading into the Mosaic Code many petty laws which it did not teach. The Hagadic interpretation extended over the entire OT and intended to teach pious activity and obedience through parables, allegories, and sayings of illustrious men.

      These interpretations were first propagated by oral tradition. After the time of Christ they were reduced to writing and collected in the Mishna (learning) about AD 200-220 and the Gemara (completion) about AD 490. Together they constitute the Jewish Talmud (doctrine). Small wonder that Christ should charge the scribe of His day with making "void the Word of God, because of their tradition. " He was not alone in this attitude toward the scribes, for in the Christian era a group of rabbis arose called the Karaites (raiders or literalists) who rejected the authority of tradition.

      The name of Philo is to be noted among the Jewish exegetes. Philo (d. AD 40) was a Hellenistic Jew who, although he believed in verbal inspiration, attempted to harmonize the Scriptures with Hellenistic philosophy, particularly that of Plato. He distinguished between the literal or historical sense and the mystical or spiritual sense. The latter predominated. His method exerted great influence upon the Alexandrian School of Origen, which led to the allegorical method of interpretation.

    2. Christian Exegesis

      1. Patristic Exegesis
        There were two schools of interpretation in the early Church:

        1. The Alexandrian School
          The leading characteristic was its use of the allegorical method of interpretation. The most influential exponent of this school wag Origen. He founded a theory of interpretation based upon that of Philo and the Platonic trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit.

          Origen distinguished three senses: the literal (body), the moral (soul), and the spiritual (called mystical or allegorical). His emphasis was upon the latter. To Origen and his followers the literal sense was merely for elementary faith. "The allegorical method of interpretation is based upon a profound reverence for the Scriptures, and a desire to exhibit their manifold depths of wisdom. But it will be noticed at once that its habit is to disregard the common signification of words, and gives rise to all manner of fanciful speculation. It does not draw out the legitimate meaning of an author's language, but foists into it whatever the whim or fancy of an interpreter may desire. As a system, therefore, it puts itself beyond all well-defined principles and laws." (Terry)

        3. The Antiochian School
          The characteristic of this school was a more sober, grammatical, and historical approach. Theodore of Mopsuestia and Chrysostom were its most influential exponents. Concerning the former Terry writes, "He was an independent critic, and a straight forward, sober historical interpreter. He had no sympathy with the mystical methods of the Alexandrian School, and repudiated their extravagant notions of inspiration; but he went to the opposite extreme of denying the inspiration of many portions of the Scriptures, and furnished specimens of rationalistic exposition quite barren and unsatisfactory."

          The ablest exegete was Chrysostom (a disciple of John). Concerning him Neander writes, "Through a rich inward experience he lived into the understanding of the Holy Scriptures; and a prudent method of interpretation, on logical and grammatical principles, kept him in the right track in deriving the spirit from the letter of the sacred volume. His profound and simple, yet fruitful, homiletic method of treating the Scriptures show to what extent he was indebted to both, and how in his case, both cooperated together.

      2. Medieval Exegesis
        For the most part exegesis during this period was the slave of dogma and was utilized for the support of the Roman Church. The fourfold sense of the Bible was followed: (1) literal or historical, (2) allegorical, (3) moral, and (4) anagogical. "The literal sense teaches what has been done, the allegorical sense what you must believe, the moral sense what you must do, and the anagogical sense whither you are tending." (Weidner) Thus, according to this method, Jerusalem meant literally the city in Palestine; allegorically, the Church; morally, the believing soul; anagogically, the heavenly Jerusalem.

      3. Renaissance Exegesis
        "The Revival of Letters and Arts, which began in Italy and spread over Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries, roused the spirit of free inquiry, and promoted the cause of Biblical learning by the cultivation of the original languages." (Schaff) A reaction against the neglect of the literal sense of the Scriptures set in. Leaders in this reaction were Nicholas of Lyra, LeFevre, Reuchlin, Erasmus, and Tyndale.

      4. Reformation Exegesis
        The Reformation exercised a twofold effect upon Hermeneutics: (1) the authority of tradition was rejected; (2) the assigning of multiple senses to each passage was discouraged. The Reformers insisted that Scripture should be its own interpreter. Parallel passages and context were emphasized as of great exegetical value. Luther laid down the principle, "Every word should be allowed to stand in its own natural meaning, and that should not be abandoned unless faith forces us to it..." Also, Luther wrote, "It is the attribute of Holy Scriptures that it interprets itself by passages and places which belong together, and can only be understood by the rule of faith. " Worthy exegetes among the Reformers were Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Bucer, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, and Beza

      5. The 17th Century

        1. Quaker method of interpretation
          "The interpreter claims to be guided by an 'inner light'! The rules of grammar and the common meaning and usage of words are discarded, and the internal Light of the Spirit is held to be the abiding and infallible Revealer." (Terry) "The Quakers enlarged the function of the Spirit by the doctrine that this illuminating power is bestowed on all men, and that it is not confined to the use of truth already believed, but may communicate additional truth to the mind open to receive it. As the Bible is from God, the Bible is the umpire, so far that nothing contrary to Scripture can be accepted as coming from Him." (Fisher)

        2. Covenant Theology (Federal Theology)
          "John Coccelius, professor at Leyden (d. 1669), wrote commentaries on most of the Biblical books and founded a biblical rather than scholastic theology and exegesis, on the basis of the idea of the Covenant of God with man in gradual historical evolution:

          1. the Covenant of nature and works, made with Adam in Paradise (imaginary);

          2. the Covenant of grace and faith, after the fall, under three administrations, viz., before the law, under the law, under the gospel. " (Schaff)

          "The exegesis in its particulars was often fanciful. Although he failed to apprehend the progressive character of the Biblical revelation in this respect, that he made the system of grace pervade the OT as it pervades the NT, he yet made a fruitful beginning of Biblical theology. He promoted the study of Scriptures." (Fisher) C. F. Lincoln writes this criticism of Covenant Theology: "There is no portion of Scripture which sets forth in covenant language the so-called 'All-time Grace Covenant.' It is only by a series of deductions, based upon a Scripturally unsupported premise, put together from widely separated passages, that the idea of an 'All-time Covenant' is developed. Only confusion and evident misapplication of large portions of the Scriptures must result if the idea of a formal, all-pervading 'covenant' of grace is held to, i.e., a grace 'covenant' covering all times and all peoples since the fall, drawing into itself and absorbing all of the covenant relationships of God with different individuals, families, nations, etc., abolishing all distinctive tests and demonstrations with particular portions of the human family, and above all, contending, against the positive declarations of Scripture, that the law given to Israel at Mt. Sinai is a part of the Grace Covenant, thus hopelessly mixing two principles which Scripture tells us cannot be mixed.

        3. Swedenborgian Exegesis
          Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) brought out a new system of interpretation, although of little influence in the main historical development. He distinguishes among three senses: (1) the literal or natural, (2) the spiritual, and (3) the celestial. As he writes, "All and every part of the Scripture, even to the most minute, not excepting the smallest jot and tittle, signify and involve spiritual and celestial things." This deeper sense is in the literal as thought is in the eye, but was lost until it was revealed to Swedenborg. He goes further than Philo and Origen in their allegorical approach, but differs in their application.

      6. Rationalistic Exegesis Since the 18th Century
        "A radical revolution in theology, similar to the political and social revolution in France, threatened to undermine the very foundations of Christianity, starting at the middle of the 18th century. Its phases were Deism in England; Deism and Atheism in France; Rationalism and Pantheism in Germany.

        "Reason was raised above faith and made the judge of revelation; the Bible treated as a merely human production; its inspiration denied; its genuineness questioned; its doctrines assailed; its merits reduced and measured by the standard of utilitarian morality... Rationalistic exegesis, like Pharisaism of old, but from an opposite point of view, diligently searches the letter of the Bible, but has no sympathy with its life-giving spirit. It investigates the historical and human aspects of Christianity and ignores or denies its divine character. The mission of Rationalism is chiefly negative and destructive. It was justifiable and necessary just as far as the human authorship and literary form of the Bible were neglected by the orthodox exegesis in its zeal for the eternal truths."

        1. Accommodation Theory
          "According to this theory the Scripture teachings respecting miracles, vicarious and expiatory sacrifice, the resurrection, eternal judgment, and the existence of angels and demons, are to be regarded as an accommodation to the superstitious notions, prejudices, and ignorance of the times." (M.S.Terry)

        2. Moral Interpretation
          The leader of this school of interpretation was Immanuel Kant. Supreme position is given to reason. Scripture must be made to bend to the preconceived demands of reason. If the literal sense of a given passage yields no profitable moral lesson, we are at liberty to set it aside, and to attach to the words such a meaning as is compatible with the religion of reason. The real value of the Scriptures is to illustrate and confirm the religion of reason.

        3. Naturalistic Interpretation
          The Bible is to be explained and interpreted completely on natural grounds (as opposed to supernatural). All supernatural agency in human affairs is to be explained away and natural causes substituted.

        4.  Mythical Interpretation
          The founder of this theory of interpretation was David Frederick Strauss. It was his contention that Messianic expectation based on the OT was imposed upon Christ by His followers. The life of Christ was normal in every respect, but because of his piety and exceptional insight. His followers later clothed His memory with all the traits of the expected Messiah. Instead of Christ creating the Church, the Church created Christ.

        NOTE: The two following interpretations (7 and 8) are not dated by centuries. The Roman Catholic interpretation can be considered as beginning about AD 500 and continuing down to the present. The Grammatical-Historical interpretation could be considered as beginning about AD 375 and continuing down to the present. Philadelphia College of Bible holds to this interpretation (No. 8). View No. 9 is of fairly recent origin.

      7. Roman Catholic Interpretation
        The principal distinguishing characteristics of Roman Catholic Hermeneutics are:

        1. its appeal to the teachings of "the Church." Francis Gigot, a Roman Catholic author, writes,

        2. "A second law of interpretation. . .prescribes ready conformity to the decisions and even to the common sentiment of the Church. Whoever believes sincerely that the Church of God is 'the pillar and ground of truth' will feel no repugnance at any time to submit to the decisions of that same Church regarding the meaning of the Holy Scriptures. Most readily will he accept as the exact meaning of a passage, the sense of which he will know to have been defined by the Church, whether this definition was made positively, as when the Council of Trent declared authoritatively that the words: 'Tills is My body' mean that the body of Christ is really and substantially under the species of bread and wine; or only negatively, as when the same Council condemned as false the interpretation which sees in the words: 'Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven' a reference not to the power of remitting sins in the tribunal of penance, but only to the power of preaching the gospel. "

          "Very willingly, too, will he comply with the most wise rule of interpretation, which the same Church of God first framed in the Council of Trent, and which it solemnly repeated in the Council of the Vatican, viz., that in matters of faith and morals the Catholic interpreter shall carefully abstain from ascribing to a passage a meaning which would be opposed to the common sentiment of the Church, because the Church has authority for judging of the true meaning of Holy Writ."

        3. Together with the obligation just referred to, and incumbent on every Catholic interpreter to abide by the decisions and common sentiment of the Church, the Fathers of Trent and the Vatican enacted another rule, which may be considered as the third general principle of interpretation, although it apparently does little more than point out one of the practical manners in which the foregoing rule should be carried out. According to these two Ecumenical Councils, the Catholic interpreter is strictly bound in his interpretation of the sacred text, not to go against the unanimous consent of the Fathers of the Church in matters which appertain to the Catholic belief and practice."

        4. A further divergence in the Roman Catholic system, distinguishing it from the Protestant view, is that the former has raised the Latin Vulgate version to equal dignity with the Greek and Hebrew Bible.

      8. Grammatical-Historical Interpretation (the College holds this view)
        Tills is the system which underlies all valid, consistent Bible exegesis. "The fundamental principle is to gather from the Scriptures themselves the precise meaning which the writers intend to convey. It applies to the sacred books the same principles, the same grammatical process and exercise of common sense and reason, which we apply to other books. The grammatical-historical exegete, furnished with suitable qualifications, intellectual, educational, and moral, will accept the claims of the Bible without prejudice or adverse prepossession, and with no ambition to prove them true or false, will investigate the language and import of each book with fearless independence. He will master the language of the writer, the particular dialect which he used, and his particular style and manner of expression. He will inquire into the circumstances under which he wrote, the manners and customs of his age, and the purpose or object which he had in view. He has a right to assume that no sensible author will be knowingly inconsistent with himself, or seek to bewilder and mislead his readers." (Terry)

      9.  Neo-Orthodox Interpretation
        The movements leading up to neo-orthodoxy (sometimes called new orthodoxy) began with the Renaissance and the Reformation. The Renaissance was in the realm of the intellect, man-centered, and classical. The Reformation was in the realm of the conscience, God-centered, and biblical. In time, the humanism of the Renaissance gained dominance over the orthodoxy of the Reformation and reason began to triumph over faith.

        The first check to the rationalism and materialism of the Renaissance was the theology of Schleiermacher (1768-1834). He is called the father of modern liberalism, for he found authority, not in the Scriptures, but in the soul's experiences. For a hundred years theologians followed his lead trying to build a theology on such subjectivism, and we are still reaping what he sowed in the present-day substitution of psychology for religion.

        Shortly after Schleiermacher died, Darwin propounded his evolutionary hypothesis. Out of Darwin's so-called scientific method grew the higher criticism of the nineteenth century. This teaching of liberalism led to a high and false estimation of the ability of human nature. It promoted the illusion that the kingdom of God was capable of being fulfilled in history, for man's ability could bring this to pass. There came with it the abandonment of the distinctive and exclusive character of the message of Christianity; and secularization of life and thought can also be traced, at least in part, to the teaching of liberalism in the last century.

        The teachings of liberalism did not go unchallenged. The humanists were a reactionary group with their gospel of salvation by scientific research and cooperative effort. Actually, they were only using the principles which the liberals had proposed, but they carried them to their logical extreme. The humanists were out-liberalizing the liberals, and this caused the liberals to stop and take stock of their principles. Another challenge to liberalism was the First World War. The golden age seemed very far off then, and human nature that could invent the atrocities of such wars was hardly something in which to put one's faith. Men now began to look for authority, and that was something modernism could not provide. Into this situation came the voice of neo-orthodoxy. (Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Neo - Orthodoxy: What It Is and What It Does, pp. 17-20.)

        This new school of theology with a definite hermeneutical system is called variously, "crisis theology, " "Barthianism, " "neo-orthodoxy, " and "neo-supernaturalism. " They profess to return to the view of the Bible and interpretation that the reformers held as a corrective to what they term the two modern distortions of Christianity, namely, the "literalism of fundamentalism," and the "superficiality of liberalism." Four outstanding contemporary theologians, Brunner, Barth, Niebuhr, and Tillich, belong to this school. The movement has staunch representatives in Sweden, Germany, France, England, and America.

        The general hermeneutical system of neo-orthodoxy is as follows:

        1. It rejects an infallible Bible. Neo-orthodoxy accepts whatever scientific interpretation says about the natural origin of man. If the literal interpretation of a Bible passage conflicts with scientific interpretation, the Bible is considered wrong at that point. Similarly, neo-orthodox theologians accept the major conclusions of destructive biblical criticism. The documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch is accepted along with the most radical form of NT criticism, Formgeschichte. Thus, the destructive work of higher criticism and false scientific interpretation against the Bible's infallibility are accepted by both neo-orthodox theologians and the liberals.

        2. It rejects a plenarily (fully) inspired Bible. In opposition to a system of interpretation based on an infallible, or plenarily inspired Bible, neo-orthodox theologians offer a mythological system. By mythological is not meant the fanciful, or imaginative, but that the myth is a conveyer of theological truth in historical garb. Following the mythological system, Niebuhr says that Genesis 3 is a myth, and by this he means truth is thrown into the form of a good story. The picture in Genesis 3 is something like the picture of an Easter seal-the crippled child is stylized as are other details in the picture, but the picture represents real crippled children who do have a very real need. So Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden*are imaginary, but sin is real and true. Niebuhr is consistent with this idea when he points out that much of the rest of the Bible is cast in this same mythological form.

        3. Neo-orthodoxy follows a subjective interpretation. If defends what it calls a serious, wholesoul (existential) interpretation. The Bible contains symbols about existence, about life, about sin and forgive -ness, and about God--which unfold a religious history which is normatively true for all men who existentially interact with it. This is an intensely personal transaction which involves the most fundamental issues of life.

          Hence, the general address of the Bible, by one's existential response, suddenly becomes God's personal word to the individual. According to this method of interpretation, the Word of God is only that portion of the Bible which speaks to the individual. "God's Word is that which speaks to me with the voice of God."

        4. Finally, neo-orthodoxy takes much of the truth of the biblical witness as paradoxical, i.e., much of Christianity is not capable of satisfactory rational interpretation. For example, man is both in nature (physiologically) and out of nature (spiritually); he needs to employ reason, yet reason falls short of attaining to reality. Thus, the most basic truths of man and salvation can never be defined precisely (rationally) but are tensions between contradictory ideas not wholly in agreement with reason but adequately aiding our concept of reality. (Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, pp. 41-47.)


Return to Syllabus


"Mason's Notes"

(formerly Philadelphia Biblical University, Philadelphia College of Bible.)
Copyright 2012 to present,
All rights reserved.

Cairn University

200 Manor Avenue
Langhorne, PA 19047
United States of America
"Mason's Notes" Study materials on this website are made available here free, through the generosity of Cairn University, and may be copied for use in Bible study groups, in limited numbers, providing that no charge is made for them.  No further distribution or use of these materials is allowable under U.S. or International Copyright Law without the express permission of Cairn University.