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The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: A New Book

InterpretationWhen people have asked me what I am reading about, or which course I am teaching this fall, or what my most recent book is about, and my answer is the “history of interpretation,” I have noticed a facial expression that, as a historical theologian, I have become accustomed to seeing.  Their look, or sometimes their accompanying explanation of it, conveys the message that both history and interpretation are sufficiently boring on their own, and the combination of the two must be dreadful. 

To ask about the history of biblical interpretation, however, is to ponder very important questions for our own day.

How has the church viewed the Bible?  How have Christians interpreted Scripture for the last 2,000 years, and how have those different approaches affected us?  And, in light of the different ways that Christians have read the Bible, what is the proper method of interpreting the Bible, of “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15)?  What are our goals in biblical interpretation?  What questions do we, or should we, bring to Scripture? 

Such questions are taken up in my latest book, The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice (Baker Academic, 2018). The book is a short history of biblical interpretation.  Beginning with the second-century Greek-speaking church fathers, the book then moves to the Latin-speaking medieval West, then to early modern Protestants, then to the Enlightenment and modern eras.  It is a survey, a bird’s-eye view.  In the midst of the survey, it then zooms in on some particular figures to illustrate the principles of biblical interpretation common to each period.  In addition to the descriptive, historical survey, there is also a prescriptive element that deals explicitly with the question, What can we learn?

It is instructive, first of all, to note some key differences between modern and early Christian exegesis.  Most people aren’t even aware of the vast differences between premodern and modern approaches to Scripture.  But Christians before the year 1500 read Scripture quite differently from those after 1800.  There was a long transition that lasted several centuries, but the differences before and after that transition period are unmistakable.  And it’s more about approaches and attitudes about Scripture than it is about methods.  In short, premodern Christians, including scholars, approached Scripture as a living word, a message that is for us, for the church in every time and place. Scripture has a surface meaning, but also a deeper, fuller, spiritual meaning or sense.  Everything in it, even in the Old Testament, points to Christ.  The Bible is a book by and for the church. 

In modern times, especially among scholars, Christian and non-Christian alike, the Bible became less a living word than a dead letter.  Because it wasn’t written to us, it’s not really for us either.  Modern readers tend to associate the meaning of any passage of Scripture only with what its human author intended—Scripture means nothing other than what its author meant.  As moderns, we tend to approach Scripture with doubt.  We also tend to think that an interpreter should be completely neutral and not come to Scripture with any previous doctrinal commitments.

Much has been lost as a result of moving away from premodern habits of reading Scripture.  For example, we sometimes divide Bible reading into either a spiritual discipline or an academic discipline and fail to keep the two together.  We talk about reading the Bible for personal devotion and reading it for intellectual study, that is, as preparation for a class or sermon. They are distinct goals, for sure, but they should not be separated from each other.  Why can’t these two goals go together?  Any devotional reading without attention to literary and historical context will more likely become a means for reading our own opinion into Scripture. Conversely, any academic reading without the spiritual goal of union with God hasn’t gone far enough.  The purpose of Scripture, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us, is always to instruct us in doctrine and morals.

In exploring the history of biblical interpretation, I hope that readers will come away with a sense of balance in interpretive approaches.  When churches or individual Christians have just discovered the glories of the historical-critical method, they often go overboard and look with contempt on any sort of spiritual application, finding Christ in the Old Testament, or anything like an allegorical interpretation. They need to see the value and legitimacy of the spiritual sense.  But there are also churches or individual Christians who jump straight to Christological interpretations without bothering to understand Scripture in its original context.  They need to see the value in what historical-grammatical examination can teach us.

My intention is that this book will be beneficial in a number of settings.  As a textbook, it is meant as a main text for a course in the history of biblical interpretation.  In such a course, the primary sources are a must.  But what you get with this book is a sort of manual for how to sympathetically read premodern interaction with Scripture, whether in homilies, commentaries, or even theology. 

The book should also be useful to any church history course or exegesis course.  In church history courses, biblical interpretation should be an important component of the study.  As Gerhard Ebeling famously said, church history is the history of biblical interpretation.  In a course on exegesis or biblical interpretation, students should have a historical perspective, learning that scholarly biblical interpretation did not begin with us, and there are responsible ways to interpret the Bible besides the full-blown historical-critical method.  Besides its use as a textbook, I hope this book will be accessible to any ministers, students, and scholars—and, yes, even to the ever elusive “interested layperson.”

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