Hermeneutical Systems


Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt

I. The Allegorical Method

  • History - This method was used by many 2nd & 3rd century church fathers. It was established as the preferred method of interpretation by Augustine and was dominant in Catholicism throughout the Middle Ages. It is also used by amillenialists in interpreting unfulfilled prophecy.
  • Definition - The literal meaning of the text is either, not the true meaning, or only one of many meanings. The elements of each passage have a corresponding spiritual reality which is the "real" or ultimate meaning of the passage.
    • Origen interpreted Noah's Ark to have 3 meanings (literal, moral, and spiritual) to correspond to man's body, soul and spirit: salvation from the Flood, salvation of the believer from a specific sin and salvation of the church through Christ.
    • Popes used this method to uphold papal supremacy. Innocent III taught that the two great lights in Gen. 1 refer to the order of authority on earth. Thus, the sun symbolized spiritual authority (i.e., the pope) and the moon symbolized civil authority (the emperor). Boniface VIII referring to Luke 22:38, taught that the two swords held by the disciples meant that the apostles were authoritative in both the secular and spiritual kingdoms.
  • Why This Method Is Unacceptable
    • Since there is no objective standard to which the interpreter must bow, the final authority ceases to be the scripture and becomes the interpreter. Whose allegorical symbols are right? This question leads to the establishment of a church hierarchical authority which effectively replaces Scripture as the true locus of authority.
    • Allegorical interpretation is only rarely seen in scripture (Gal. 4:21-31; I Cor. 10:1-4). Parables are usually not allegories. When would allegorical interpretation be allowable?
    • An even more extreme example of this kind of over-interpretation is numerology. In numerology, numbers in the Bible (whether actual numbers, or the number of letters in names and passages) are seen to hold secret symbolic messages. There is no warrant in the Bible for this kind of interpretation. It should be avoided at all times.
    • Interpreters distinguish between types and allegories. Types are restricted in several ways that allegories are not. See "Elements of Biblical Typology" by the present authors for a description of types.

II. The Literalistic Method

  • History - This method was used by the Jews after the Babylonian Exile. It is also used by extreme fundamentalists and many cults (Children of God, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, etc.).
  • Definition - Every word is taken absolutely literally including figures of speech and symbolism. Historical background is considered unnecessary and ignored. Any deviation from this rule is regarded as sacrilegious.
    • Mormonism teaches that God has a body because of references to God's "eye," "hand," etc. However, see Ps. 91:1-4. Does this mean He also has feathers and wings?
    • Roman Catholic interpretation of Lk. 22:19 leads to the doctrine of transubstantiation. However, does this also mean that Christ is a door (Jn. 7)?
    • Jehovah's Witnesses use Col. 1:15 to prove that Christ was a created being. But "first- born" was also used to refer to the inheritor of the family estate (Num. 21:15-17).
  • Why This Method Is Unacceptable
    • Subscribers always use it selectively (see the above examples).
    • It makes scripture unintelligible, contradictory, and unlivable (i.e., Lk. 14:26).

III. The Naturalistic Method

  • History - This system arose during the Enlightenment (18th century). It is used by old-line liberal theology as their basic hermeneutic.
  • Definition - The naturalistic world-view (i.e. the universe is a closed system of cause and effect) is the standard by which scripture must be interpreted. Scripture becomes intelligible only as ancient man's attempt to explain nature. It also assumes that religion has evolved through several stages which can be used to date the material in the Bible.
    • Miracles are rejected as primitive explanations or myths.
    • The goal is to rediscover the "true record" (i.e., the "historical" Jesus, or the "strata" in the Pentateuch) within the legendary accounts of the Bible.
  • Why This Method Is Unacceptable
    • It makes an unproved world-view the final authority.
    • The attempt to separate the historical from the "legendary" has been proven to be impossible.

IV. Neo-Orthodox Interpretation

  • History - Neo Orthodox theology arose after World War I which shattered the optimism of liberal theologians. Its founders, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth, began a movement which dominates both Catholic and Protestant theology today.
  • Definition - Neo-orthodoxy takes an approach to theology that places the religious experience of the interpreter in the center. The Bible is important for stimulating such an experience. When it does so, it "becomes the word of God" for that reader, at that time. Neo- orthodox theologians are generally willing to accept the conclusions of the naturalistic theologians regarding errors in the Bible, but feel that these do not affect the reader's ability to encounter God through it.
    • Through seeing the wonder and rapture of the disciples as they behold the "miracles" of Christ, we can enter into the same sense of rapture. Thus, as we see the amazement of the disciples when they behold the resurrected Christ, we too are amazed to find that He has risen in our hearts. Of course, whether Christ actually did rise from the dead is not important. Thus the Neo-orthodox theologian can declare, "He is risen!"
    • Neo orthodox theologians routinely refer to miraculous events as though they were history, when they actually believe that the experience of the authors rather than the events themselves that are historical.
  • Why This Method Is Unacceptable
    • The separation of "truth" or "encounter with Jesus" from the factual content of scripture lowers the Bible to the same level as any other book about religion.
    • Unless Christ was physically raised from the dead, our experience of his "resurrection" is superfluous (I Cor. 15:12-19).
    • The criticisms of the naturalistic school also apply.

V. Devotional Interpretation

  • History - This method grew out of the post-Reformation as a reaction against sterile creedalism. This is the system unconsciously used by most Christians today.
  • Definition - The devotional method focuses almost exclusively on what is personally applicable and edifying. It tends to ignore context, historical background, and other important interpretive principles.
    • Watchman Nee uses Mk. 14:3, Jn. 12:3, Jn. 3:30 & Mk. 8:6 to support the necessity of "brokenness" in the Christian life.
    • Extremists use Col. 3:15 to support being led by the Holy Spirit on the basis of feelings.
  • Why This Method Is Unacceptable
    • Devotional interpretation can easily lead to uncontrolled allegorizing and inaccurate interpretation through eisogesis.
    • While the goals of this approach to Scripture are commendable, a critical analysis of the text has to precede the devotional question.

VI. Ideological Interpretation

  • History - The "New Criticism" advanced in the 1940's began to focus on text and reader rather than on the author. The author has no more authority over the meaning of the text than anyone else because: 1) He didn't realize his own bias at the time he wrote, and 2) We have no way to read his mind and thus know his intentions.
  • Definition - Ideological interpreters approach the Bible looking for material relevant to their ideology. They usually are open about the fact that they have an agenda, and usually claim they are correcting oversights from earlier years by focusing on their area of interest. Most ideological readers also entertain a reader-centered hermeneutic. They are skeptical about ever knowing what the author intended to say, and focus instead on how the text affects the modern reader.
    • Feminist Theology - seeks to study women in the Bible, and to demonstrate that the more enlightened speakers in Scripture were anti-patriarchy. In general, their studies are intended to explode the myth of patriarchy and to uncover cruelty to women. Some advance gender-neutral language in translation, including God as "she," sometimes based on lady wisdom Prov. 1:20ff.
    • Marxist or Liberation Theology - seeks to show that the true intent of God in the Bible is to teach that poor and oppressed classes should be liberated from their oppression by the love of God. Tends to interpret redemptive language in terms of economics and political power. They see class struggle in much of the conflict in the Bible.
    • Deconstruction - Postmodern readers see the Bible, not as teaching liberation, but as a tool used for exploitation. The Bible is propaganda intended to show why patriarchy is appropriate. The authors of Scripture sought to legitimize the status quo of society by teaching people to obey their authorities. They also sought to justify aggrandizement of the state of Israel and the subjugation of neighboring peoples.
  • Why This Method Is Unacceptable
    • Most systems seek to decrease reader bias through the application of rules. These rules introduce objectivity to the interpretive process, according to traditional methods. Ideological and reader-centered methods hold that objectivity is never possible, because the text was never objective in the first place. The first act of interpretation was the author's decision about what to include and what to exclude in his text. Also, the uncertainty of language means modern readers might as well supply their own interpretation, because we will never know what the "true" interpretation should be. To hold to such a thing as a "true" or "real" interpretation is naive, because such faith fails to take into account the arbitrary nature of language and the social forces which distort people's (both readers and author's) view of the world.
    • Consequently, reader-centered theories are openly biased, but they hold that in this they are no different than other approaches except that they are more honest and less naive.
    • The reader is not under the authority of Scripture. Scripture is pressed into the ideological mold of the reader, leaving the reader in authority.

Grammatical Historical Interpretation

This is the system we believe is used by the Bible itself, and which is internally consistent.