Scripture and Its Interpretation

A Global, Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible


9. Premodern Interpretation of the Bible

Reviewing the Chapter

  1. What were some of the major methods and who were some of the significant practitioners of Jewish biblical interpretation around the start of the Common Era?
  2. What were some of the earliest approaches to biblical interpretation in the Christian church after the period of the New Testament?
  3. What is meant by “spiritual interpretation” of Scripture generally and the “fourfold sense” of Scripture specifically? Why did such approaches to biblical interpretation develop?
  4. Describe the contributions of the following individuals to Christian biblical interpretation: Origen, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine.
  5. What were some of the key features of medieval exegesis in the Christian West, in the Christian East, and in Judaism?
  6. Describe the interpretive approaches of the Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin.
  7. Looking back at the historical developments described in this chapter, how would you characterize the major issues in biblical interpretation that emerged in the premodern period?

Engaging a Central Issue

Respond to the following claim Carole Monica Burnett makes in this chapter (p. 176):

Above all, said Augustine, the ultimate criterion for accepting an interpretation must be whether it promotes the growth of charity: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them” (On Christian Teaching [Doctrine] 1.36.40).

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Allegorical exegesis depicts events, objects, animals, or human characters as symbols pointing to spiritual realities. Although ancient Christian allegory was based on Greek philosophy, which is no longer prevalent in most churches, have you ever heard an allegorical interpretation in a homily or sermon? Can it be legitimate and useful to employ allegory in biblical preaching today? If not, why not? If so, what criteria would you apply in assessing each particular use of allegory?
  2. Recall that typology involves an event, object, animal, or human character in one part of the Bible as a prefiguration of an event, object, animal, or human character in a later part. Protestant and Catholic lectionaries tend to pair an OT reading and an apparently related NT reading. Have you witnessed the typological approach at work in such pairings? (For Orthodox Christians: What instances of typology seem to you to be most striking in your hymns?)
  3. We have seen that at various times throughout history, scriptural interpretation has been shaped by philosophical frameworks or by the exigencies of contemporary controversies. What presuppositions or debates might be at work in twenty-first-century exegesis, whether in academic study, preaching, or informal Bible study?
  4. What might be the value of a multilevel approach to biblical interpretation today? Attempt a three- or four-level analysis of a text such as Joshua 6, the conquest of Jericho.