Note to the reader: This is the fourth in a series of blogs on reading the Bible as a biblical theological unity. For context, readers should consult the prior posts.

A Practical Motive

In our last post on this topic we discovered how Origen of Alexandria rescued the third century church from its bafflement with the Bible.

Origen was hardly some ivory-tower theoretician in all this. His motives, on full display throughout his writings, were thoroughly pastoral. He was convinced that every scripture was inspired by God to bless his people. Moreover, Origen insisted that Scripture must interpret Scripture. As he put it in his Commentary on Matthew (2.18), "Every interpretation which is outside scripture is not holy.… No one can bring his own interpretations unless he shall have shown them to be holy, from that which is contained in the divine scriptures." Origen insisted that the unity of the Bible was to be found in Christ. Christ, he insisted, is "the spirit which was at work in the prophets…, who became man and said: 'It is I who speak; here am I'" (referring to Isa 52:6; PG 13:657-8  D) and Christ is "the prophesied gift toward which, in essence, all prophecy tends" (PG 13:659-60 C).

A Method Adopted

And even though parts of Origen’s theology and a large part of his interpretive approach were later questioned by some in the church (on the latter, look up “The Antiochene School” in any theological dictionary), the church in the western part of the Roman Empire followed, for the next 900 years and with minor variations, Origen’s grand solution: a strong Rule of Faith and an interpretive approach that went beyond the literal/historical meaning of Biblical texts to spiritual meanings supportive of Christian ethics and theology. Among Origen’s disciples were the great Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in the late 4thand early 5thcenturies and his contemporary, the Bible scholar and translator Jerome.

A “For Instance”

Perhaps a concise yet revealing instance of this three- or four-fold approach to biblical interpretation  is provided by Gregory the Great (540--604 CE), the last of the Latin Fathers and one of the notable popes of the Roman church. He was asked to write a commentary on the book of Job* which would, "not only shake loose from the words of the historical narrative their allegorical meaning, but … also direct the allegorical interpretation towards moral edification," all the while bringing other scriptural text to bear on his interpretations (Origen’s program precisely!). In his introduction, Gregory explains his aims and methods:

First we lay the foundations of historical fact; then we lift up the mind to the citadel of faith through allegory; finally through the exposition of the moral sense we dress the edifice in its colored raiment. The utterances of Truth are nothing but nourishment to refresh the soul. Expounding the text in various ways we offer dishes for the pallet of different kinds, so that we may banish the reader’s boredom…. Sometimes we neglect to expound the overt historical sense lest we be retarded getting to the deeper matters. Sometimes passages cannot be expounded literally because when they are taken in that superficial way they offer no instruction to the reader but only generate error. (Cited by Yarchin, p. 88; italics mine; note the practical purpose of scripture)

Gregory then proceeds to expound each section of the book of Job—sometimes verse by verse—according to the three different levels: the literal, the allegorical, and the tropological (or moral).

So Job 1:2 narrates: "Seven sons were born to him, and three daughters." Why does Scripture relate such apparently insignificant facts? How might the number of Job's offspring bear witness to Christian truth or provide moral guidance for the reader? As for the literal meaning, Gregory explains that the large number of Job's children is one measure of his true greatness: since "not even love for his many children could make him cling to his property." These facts are the first indications in the story of Job’s piety and humility.

More significant however is the allegorical meaning: Gregory notes that "holy scripture is in the habit of using the number seven as a symbol of perfection" (the Sabbath, the Jubilee year, etc.). Moreover, as a prime number, seven is comprised of the numbers four and three which, when multiplied together, equal the number twelve, a clear reference  to "the apostles going forth manfully to preach…, who were sent to preach the three persons of God to the four corners of the world." The three daughters (who cannot properly symbolize of the Trinity) either represent "the multitude of hearers" of the twelve apostles or the three different classes of believers within the church: pastors, the ascetics and celibates, and the married.

Finally, the tropological or moral meaning refers to the "seven virtues of the Holy Spirit" enumerated in Isaiah 11:2-3 coupled with the three theological virtues enumerated by the apostle Paul in 1 Cor 13, namely, hope, faith, and love. All these virtues together define the moral perfection of the number ten.

Some “Take-aways”

It will be helpful for our future posts on a Christotelic reading of scripture to underline some closing observations. This kind of manifold reading of the Bible recommended by Origen and adopted by the medieval church in the Latin West

  1. Was pursued under the conviction that every scripture is “inspired by God” (2 Tim 3:16) and therefore invested with rich divine meaning—meaning discoverable for the rest of the church by the diligent and gifted.
  2. Was done in service of actualizingthe text of the Bible, i.e., of ensuring that every passage of the Bible is indeed “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (again 2 Tim 3:16) and thus capable of being lived out (actualized).
  3. Tended to treat biblical passages atomistically: the narrative or argumentative coherence of the text itself was frequently sacrificed (or at least de-emphasized)  as verses, phrases and even words were taken out of their immediate contexts and made to point to Christian truths or maxims above the passage being interpreted.
  4. Relied on the Rule of Faith to safeguard the coherence of the biblical message and to check the arbitrariness of the interpretive method. What seemed arbitrary or even fanciful at the textual level was actually justified and legitimated at the higher level of systematic and timeless truth.  Though in theory Christ was affirmed as the theme of scripture, in actuality he became a cipher for an increasingly complex set of theological propositions. The reading of scripture became a ruled reading governed by an external rule.

All of these developments tended to yield a flat Bible who’s deepest and most vital meaning coincided with a body of timeless and universal truths and principles rather than being found in the stark particularities a story climaxing in Jesus the Messiah. Within the constraints of the Rule of Faith and the resourcefulness of the interpreter, any unit or component of the Bible could refer directly to postulates already known to be true on other grounds. The Bible came to be a book of symbols and examples rather than the surprising record of God’s redemptive triumph.

What do you think? How much is this reading strategy still with us today?

* Conveniently excerpted in William Yarchin, History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), pp. 88-92.

Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament at Biblical. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture and understanding the Bible. Steve is married to Terri, and together they have five kids. See also .



0 # Mahlon Smith 2012-03-16 08:36
Where the expositional preaching of God's word wanes, allegorization tends to increase. Though I advocate the HGR hermeneutic, and don't oppose a regulated "sensus plenior" approach, yet sustaining such as system is impossible without 3 things: a consistent literal hermeneutic, a high view of scripture and verse by verse exposition of the scriptures.

Current evangelicalism has drifted toward beginning with a version of the tropological (felt needs), ascends to the allegorical, with a brief mention of a verse. A book I reviewed for one of our church's Bible studies embodies this trend.

Sadly, the epidemic of biblical illiteracy lies at the feet of us, the preachers and teachers, who have made relevance the benchmark of successful preaching. The benchmark must be faithfulness to the text that urges faithful living by the text. Only then can the "sensus" pleniar approach work in concert with a literal hermeneutic.
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