Must Biblical Interpretation be Literal?

There have been many different ways used to interpret the holy Scriptures since they were first passed on to another generation. In the early Church, two different schools developed which saw a divide, not only of understanding, but of outcomes. Following earlier examples of biblical interpretation, the Middle Ages saw a fourfold method of biblical interpretation:

The Medieval Quadriga as quoted by Luther (as it was taught to his students)

Littera gesta docet; quid credas allegoria; Moralis quid agas; sed quid speres anagoge.

The letter lets you know what happened;
Allegory what you believe;
The moral sense what you must do;
and anagogy what you may hope for.

Luther went on to proposed an Evangelical fourfold interpretation in his commentary on Psalm 117:

1. Prophesy: interpreting the writings of the prophets concerning Christ
2. Revelation is more than allegory, it means to strike something special in the scripture that not everyone can find, who may well have some of the first three parts or even all of them.
3. Instruction is teaching knowledge. (Numbers three and four are somehow mixed together). Teaching is preaching faith and how it makes us righteous without our deserving it.
4. Admonition is how we should serve God, making a distinction of outward behavior and customs. In the Psalm 117 he gives instruction about offering or sacrifice and vows.

In the middle of the 3rd century, Origen following in the steps of Clement of Alexandria, began to heavily allegorize the intrepretation of the Scriptures. While we must take Origen as a product of his times, we note that it was not more than a century or so later in which the ecumenical councils began to anthamize him, in part because of his interpretative methods. (The damage, I believe, was already done.)

I have covered, in reading through JND Kelly’s book on Early Christian Doctrines the separation between Alexandria and Antioch. I will essentially reproduce it here:

I have found great inspiration in Chrysostom, and much more so after reading the third Chapter in Kelly’s book, Early Christian Doctrines. He is known for his liturgies, his extensive writings and his commentaries on Scripture.

As Kelly points out, Chrysostom had a ’straightforward understanding of the Scriptures (in contrast to the Alexandrian tendency towards allegorical interpretation) meant that the themes of his talks were practical, explaining the Bible’s application to everyday life. Such straightforward preaching helped Chrysostom to garner popular support.’ (wikipedia) After discussing the formation of the canon, which any serious student of Christianity knows took a century for the core books and perhaps another half century for the rest of the New Testament, Kelly turns to the methods of interpretation that existed in the ancient Church.

Kelly draws a line between the two types of interpretation methods that existed in the early church. The allegorical method, most often employed in the Alexandrian School of Clement and Origen, sought a deep meaning and more often focused on words instead of the passage. Origen, as Kelly points out, would use even the names of plants as a source of some spiritual truth. (72-74). One would have to agree with Dr. Kelly that the ‘inherent difficulties in typology…made the transition to allegorism extremely tempting, especially where the cultural environment was Hellenistic and impregnated with Platonic idealism, with its theory that the whole visible order is a symbolical reflection of invisible realities.’ It must be countered, though, that difficulties in the interpretation of Scripture, although inherent, must overcome using a method that itself is not left over to interpretation. We might also say that difficulties in translations, especially by learned and lettered individuals, more often than not arise when the passage correctly interpreted conflicted with the view and education of the individual.

To the early Father’s credit, most seem to reject this gnostic form of interpretation, except of course, for Alexandria where the allegorical method was nurtured and eventually smothered the Church in the doctrinal controversies.

Returning to Origen, Kelly draws attention to his view of Scripture in which the Alexandrian gnostic saw a vast ocean of mysteries. In Origen’s mind, ‘it was impossible to fathom, or even perceive, them all, but one could be sure that every line, even every word, the sacred authors wrote was replete with meaning.’ He would go on to establish three levels of interpretation, often times employed today, as

  1. plain, historical sense
  2. typological sense
  3. spiritual sense, ‘in which the text may be applied to the devout soul’

Origen, a mastermind of biblical interpretation, was able to draw out of Scripture almost infinite interpretations. He was able to detect symbolism in every passage, every verse, and indeed in every word of the bible. He thought this method the best ‘possible to interpret’ the Scriptures ‘in a manner worthy of the Holy Spirit, since it would not be proper to take literally a narrative or a command unworthy of God.’ We can see here a near Marcionite view of scripture which lead Marcion to ‘Christian’ Gnosticism as he rejected the Old Testament as unworthy of the God of Jesus Christ, and indeed mutilated the New Testament when it came to the Jewishness of it. Kelly goes on to remark,

Finally, not only does he (Origen) strive to find a spiritual, in addition to the obvious factual, sense in the gospels, but he is on occasion prepared to borrow the Gnostic technique of seeing in the episodes of Christ’s life an image or representation of events accomplished in the spiritual realm

It is at Alexandria that the Platonizing effect on Christianity first takes hold. Origen was not alone in his method, having learned the foundation of this from his teacher, Clement of Alexandra who ‘expounded the theory that all the loftiest truths can only communicated by symbols’. Clement thought that the perfect Christians would always be on the look out for these deep meanings, failing to recognize in himself and his doctrine the Gnosticism that had eroded away at the Christianity of the the Fathers. Both Clement and Origen were Platonic (Clement going so far to call Plato divine) and given to the Gnostic viewpoint that the hierarchy of higher beings can be reflected by the lower things.

As this mode of interpretation infected the West, the theology changed, often times casting different interpretations of the same passage. Jerome, the great bible translator and Latin exegete, seemed to ‘have held that the same passage of Scripture may have several different meanings, all of them willed by the Holy Spirit. According to Kelly (pg74-75), this tradition secured an established presence in the Church through those that followed Origen, ‘from Dionysius to Cyril’ although many would not go that far. His influence can be seen in Palestine and the Cappadocian Fathers as well as Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose.

Typology, on the other hand is ‘characteristically Christian.’ It provides for a literal interpretation of Scripture and was firmly rooted in the Biblical view of history. The adherents attempted to bring out the unity of the two Testaments. They saw types and shadows of Christianity in the personages and events of the Old Testament. This firmly rooted Christianity to Judaism, seeing Christianity as a fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. Kelly says, ‘the typologist took history seriously; it was the scene of the progressive unfolding of God’s consistent redemptive purpose.’ Looking at things this way, Christ was the climax of the Old Testament, and the Church the new Israel. Dr. Kelly points out that this was the mere invention of theologians, but found its example in the Old Testament where Isaiah used the Egyptian bondage as a type and shadow of the Babylonian captivity.

Dr. Kelly goes on to say,

But a corollary of it was that typology, unlike allegory, had no temptation to undervalue, much less dispense with, the literal sense of Scripture.

This allowed the student to see history as a linear object, replete with God’s trustworthiness in His dealings with humanity. Typology alone allows the Christian to rest firmly in the promises of God because it is through this method of interpretation wheree we can define Christ and the Church properly. It is here that we can connect our present troubles with those of the past and seek hope in a hopeless world because even now we can point to a type and shadow from both Testaments where God has brought His people safely through.

Kelly rightly notes that the different schools of interpretation, Alexandria and Antioch, can be distinguished by one’s jump to allegory and the others ‘passion for literalism’. They did have their agreement on ‘cardinal issues’ such as Adam, Moses, the pre-figurement of baptism and more, but in the end, the allegorical method separate the two and brought about two different ways of looking at Scripture. In the culmination of the doctrinal controversies, it has to be seen that the gnostic/allegorical way of interpretation created certain doctrines, including the Trinity.

In section 6 of the chapter, (pg75-79) Dr. Kelly goes into an area of history in which I wish he would have spent the remainder of the book, the Antiochene Reaction. In it he notes that the reaction against Alexandria was vigorous, and like many other controversies with Alexandra, Antioch stood up as the center of opposition (see the Quartodeciman Controversy). This time, the Church was supported by the likes of Lucian, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret and John Chrysostom. The entire school, Dr. Kelly says, was ‘united in believing that allegory was an unreliable, indeed illegitimate, instrument for interpreting Scripture.’ Instead, they used a principle of interpretation called theoria. This was typology proper, that of ‘prophecy expressed in terms of things’. Chrysostom established three criteria for use of theoria:

  1. The literal sense of the sacred narrative should bot be abolished
  2. There must be a real correspondence between the historical fact and the further spiritual object discerned
  3. The two objects should be apprehended together, though of course in different ways

Kelly sites the example of Severian of Gabbala who justified his parallel with the creatures in Genesis 1.21 and the baptismal regeneration. Severian says,

It is one thing to course allegory out of the history, and quite another thing to preserve the history intact while discerning a theoria over and above it.

Chrysostom goes on to say to divide Scriptural statements into three views:

  1. Those which allow a ‘theoretic’ in addition to the literal sense
  2. Those which are to be understood solely in the literal sense
  3. Those which admit only a meaning other than the literal

This is not the same as Origen who sough allegory is everything that the read, instead Chrysostom sought first the easiest sense possible, the most literal sense and then after exhausting his abilities, would retreat to the allegorical. Diodore would say, ‘We must, however, be on our guard against letting the theoria do away with the historical basis, for the result would then be, not theoria, but allegory.

For a moment, we will examine John Chrysostom and his view of Scripture. In his homily on Colossians, he wrote that his congregation should not seek no other teacher than the oracles of God. And in another place, he would say,

“Regarding the things I say, I should supply even the proofs, so I will not seem to rely on my own opinions, but rather, prove them with Scripture, so that the matter will remain certain and steadfast.” St. John Chrysostom (Homily 8 On Repentance and the Church, p. 118, vol. 96 TFOTC)

Kelly remarks that Chrysostom considered everything about Scripture inspired (God-breathed), even the salutations on the Epistles. He would devote homilies on Romans 16 in an effort to convince those that heard him the ‘treasures of wisdom’ that ‘lie hid in every word spoken by the Spirit.’ Chrysostom further said,

“Reading the Holy Scriptures is like a treasure. With a treasure, you see, anyone able to find a tiny nugget gains for himself great wealth; likewise in the case of Sacred Scripture, one can get from a small phrase a great wealth of thought and immense riches. The Word of God is not only like a treasure, but is also like a spring gushing with ever-flowing waters in a mighty flood.”

“For doctrine.” For thence we shall know, whether we ought to learn or to be ignorant of anything. And thence we may disprove what is false, thence we may be corrected and brought to a right mind, may be comforted and consoled, and if anything is deficient, we may have it added to us. “That the man of God may be perfect.” For this is the exhortation of the Scripture given, that the man of God may be rendered perfect by it; without this therefore he cannot be perfect. Thou hast the Scriptures, he says, in place of me. If thou wouldest learn anything, thou mayest learn it from them. And if he thus wrote to Timothy, who was filled with the Spirit, how much more to us! “Thoroughly furnished unto all good works”; not merely taking part in them, he means, but “thoroughly furnished.” (John Chrysostom, Homily 9, commentary on 2 Tim 3:16-17)

“For how is it not absurd that in respect to money, indeed, we do not trust to others, but refer this to figures and calculation; but in calculating upon facts we are lightly drawn aside by the notions of others; and that too, though we possess an exact balance, and square and rule for all things, the declaration of the divine laws? Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things; and having learnt what are the true riches, let us pursue after them that we may obtain also the eternal good things; which may we all obtain, through the grace and love towards men of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom, to the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, might, and honor, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.” (John Chrysostom, Homily 13, commentary on 2 Cor 7:1)

We must contend, however, that interpretations of Scripture can be erroneous no matter how they are made, or by whom. Great men of God have been wrong in their interpretations due to following a strict literalist method, or perhaps even the exact opposite. We can turn to great commentaries, filled with great swelling words, follow creeds and councils, or attempt a plain, cursory reading and still yet be wrong.

In a recent conversation, I mentioned the idea that we should look for literalism in context, and was quickly rebuked for it. As a rejoinder, I commented that no one really expects a seven headed sea monster during the end times. Further, we must understan that the bible is filled with parables, poetry and prophecy which demands something more than a literal reading.

Can a plain literal reading fully reveal why the Father ran in the parable of the Prodigal Son?

My methods for biblical interpretation is this:

  1. Literal Sense
  2. Literal in Context
  3. Spiritual Sense

What do I mean by Spiritual? I do not believe in the allegorical method of biblical interpretation, but our interpretation must be confirmed by the Spirit. We know that it is through the Scriptures which the Spirit of God (Hebrews 10.15) speaks, testifying to us, so it is through the Spiritual sense which we must confirm the interpretation. While this may not be the most scholarly of method, we must endeavor to discover if this is an approved method:

We start with Peter:

And remember, the Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him– speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. (2Pe 3:15-16 NLT)

The obscurity of Paul, rather the difficult passages which require more of a literal sense, was being used by the opponents of the Church to destroy people. Paul sought to guard against this by instructing Timothy to rightly divide, to study in 2nd Timothy 2.15. The NTL translates as ‘correctly explain.’ Why is this important? Because taking a purely literal approach to Scripture can lead disastrous doctrine. (For example, Origen took literal Christ’s comments in Matthew 19.12)

When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others. For, “Who can know the LORD’s thoughts? Who knows enough to teach him?” But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ. (1Co 2:13-16 NLT)

Now, I am not speaking about spiritualizing the Text, but moving beyond, or making allowance, for the context to inform us about what the author was writing. Inspiration does not change – nor meanings, or application – but the culture which receives the words do.

A plain sense of Scripture is always the starting point, but never the ending point. We can plainly read that Christ tells us to hate our parents, friends and family, and further commands us to become eunuchs, but by moving beyond the literal reading, placing it in context, we can understand what the Spirit is telling us.We must be on guard not to assume that we can discover, as Origen and others have attempted to do, some secret mystery in the word of God, but like Paul in Galatians 4, we should make allowances that deeper truths can be revealed.

(For other readings, please see here and here.)

Wilhelm Pauck, ed. Luther: Lectures on Romans, (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1961), p.xxviii.
Philip and Peter Krey, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), 146.

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18 Replies to “Must Biblical Interpretation be Literal?”

  1. Joel,
    This post has given me a lot to think about.  I am a big fan of the Alexandrian school but not a fan of Platonism.  Thanks again!

  2. Thanks for this post.  I’ll probably be referring back to it.  It’s ironic because yesterday I was reading Greer on Antioch and Alexandria.

    I wonder where Augustine fell in all this.  Greer says he used allegory, yet, when I looked at On Christian Doctrine, Augustine seemed to stress the intention of the author as a major criterion for interpretation–in the sense that “false interpretations” usually deviate from that.  But I didn’t read all of that, so I may have missed things.

    On Origen and the eunuchs, I don’t think it was that disastrous for him to interpret the Matthew passage literally, since Matthew presents being a eunuch as an option, not a command.

  3. dear Joel (Polycarp),
    Thank you for your work on the history of scriptural interpretations. I also found that Luther mixed his categories somewhat. Going by their names helps to distinguish them more clearly.
    In terms of using context, I agree with you that it needs to be considered. It is called the Sitz im Leben in German, meaning the “seat [the passage takes] in the life of those times.” To understand what the passage meant for believers in those days is a great help for translating its meaning for our days.
    But some safeguard is necessary, when that context is little known. In that case it can be used to “relativize” (if I can coin that word) the meaning of it.
    For example, in Jesus’ passages about divorce in Matthew 19:3-11, one could take these words and argue that Jesus was protecting women as a feminist would do and take away his real critique of divorce. This aspect of the text is there, because Jesus says “a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife” and not the other way around and men could write the certificate of divorce, but not women. The places where this comes up in the other gospels also need to be checked out. But the position of feminism can be taken to erase what Jesus is saying about divorce itself.
    Of course, God’s mercy and grace also cover those who are divorced. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But the damage it does to children, for example, and the basic fabric of society, should not be covered up. Christ has to do plenty of redemption forgiving it.
    Thank you for your article. I would covet an email from you.

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