Tuesday, October 6, 2009

CONTRAST LITERAL HERMENEUTICS WITH ALLEGORICAL SPIRITUALIZATION, AND GENRE HERMENEUTICS

CONTRAST LITERAL HERMENEUTICS WITH ALLEGORICAL
SPIRITUALIZATION, AND GENRE HERMENEUTICS
David Q. Santos

The method that is used to approach the Bible will determine the outcome of any Biblical study. “Hermeneutics is the study of the principles of interpretation. Exegesis consists of the actual interpretation of the Bible, the bringing out of its meaning, whereas hermeneutics establishes the principles by which exegesis is practiced.”[1] There are many different systems of these principles that direct the exegesis, interpretation, and conclusions of a Bible passage. Central to all debates over Biblical doctrine is this one question; which is the correct system of Biblical hermeneutic? Four of the most common systems of hermeneutics are the literal grammatical-historical, allegorical, spiritualization, and genre. This work will contrast the allegorical, spiritualization and genre hermeneutical system to the literal system.

Literal

The literal hermeneutic system is not literalistic or the application of wooden literalism as some of the system’s antagonists would argue. Rather, it is a system that merely lets Scripture says what it is meant to say in its normal plain meaning. It accepts that any given passage has only one meaning and does not have a multitude of meanings. Charles Ryrie defines the literal system writing, “A normal reading of Scripture is synonymous with a consistent literal, grammatico-historical hermeneutic. When a literal hermeneutic is applied to the interpretation of Scripture, every word written in Scripture is given the normal meaning it would have in its normal usage. This phrase, “a normal reading of Scripture,” is preferred to establish the difference between literalism and letterism, which is the straw man of those who oppose a consistent literalism.”[2] The application of this system is the only system that is able to maintain a God centered Biblical interpretation because it seeks to honor what God said rather than a human interpreter seeking to find deeper meaning. Other systems give alternate meaning to Scripture based on the interpreter’s imagination or type of literature rather than accepting God’s word for what it is. The literal system is a consistently literal system. Using the literal system consistently is the key and what sets all other systems apart from it.

Allegorical

The allegorical system began in the first century and is steeped in pagan roots and was introduced to the church by Philo. “The personality most cited for the change to allegorical interpretation is Philo (ca. 20 B.C.-A.D. 54).”[3] “This form [allegory] of interpretation arose in Alexandria late in the first century or early in the second century with a Jewish scholar, Philo as one of its major proponents.”[4] Few people if anyone would argue that Philo’s writings are based on a system of allegorization. Mal Couch notes that, “In Philo’s writings are thousands of examples of his allegorization of the Old Testament.”[5] Even Yonge who translated much of Philo’s works recognizes that, “most of his other writings are allegorical commentaries”[6]

The allegorical system of hermeneutics has been one of the most popular methods of interpreting Scripture since the end of the apostolic time. It is a system that allows the interpreter to make clear statement of Scripture into an allegory; giving the passage a second meaning. Ronald Johnson notes that, “those who interpret Scripture allegorically assign secondary meanings to the literal words in the text that are not expressly taught by the words. “Allegorical interpretation believes that beneath the letter (rhete) or the obvious (phanera) is the real meaning (hyponoia) of the passage.”[7] “The problem with an allegorical interpretation is determining whether or not the secondary, or hidden meaning was an intended meaning of the original writer or merely something imported by the interpreter.”[8]

One of the greatest mistakes made by those who use this system is to wrongly make the observation that the church was in the Old Testament and now replaces Israel. This can be seen in the writings of Thomas C. Oden who wrote, “The new Israel stands steeped in continuity with the people of Israel.” Oden goes on to write, “[9]The gradual weaning of the church from its Jewish matrix would take many decades. It would await the fall of Jerusalem and the diaspora before the new Israel would come to full self-identity and separate existence.”[10] Oden allegorically uses the phrase then the “elder serve the younger”[11] from Genesis 25:21-34. There are serious difficulties with Oden’s interpretation. He applies this passage to Israel and the Church, yet, the original context makes it clear that the statement made is speaking of Jacob and Esau. This passage does have prophetic implications, but that relates to Israel and Edom.

It is obvious to see what would happen if this system was used throughout Scripture. If any interpreter can allegorize any passage any time then man becomes the authority rather than God. Ryrie points out the danger of the allegorical system. He wrote, “If used consistently, allegorical hermeneutics would reduce the Bible to near-fiction, for the normal meaning of words would be irrelevant and would be replaced by whatever meaning the interpreter gives to the symbols. However, for the most part, allegorical hermeneutics is not practiced consistently or thoroughly. Evangelicals who use this system do so usually in the area of prophecy, while using normal or literal hermeneutics in other areas of biblical interpretation.”[12]

Spiritualization

Origen followed the influences of Philo in developing his allegorical system that sought to find deeper spiritual meanings in Scripture. This system “seeks a deeper meaning in the text, and uses allegorical method to accomplish that end.”[13] Dr. Couch summarizes the encroachment of spiritualization into Biblical theology writing;

Origen (ca. A.D. 185-254), often called “Mr. Allegorism,” followed Philo in searching both Old and New Testaments for the deep and hidden spiritual meanings. Origen’s work, On First Principles, argues that if no spiritual significance is found on the surface of a bible passage, it may be concluded that the verses are to be taken symbolically. Allegory, which was the legacy from Greece, dominated much of Origen’s biblical thought.”[14]

Origen wrote clearly that he did not feel it necessary to take Scripture in a literal fashion. In one example Origen wrote, “I do not quote these words, however, as taking them in their literal signification, but, agreeably to the title of the book (for it is inscribed “Proverbs”), I investigate them as containing a secret meaning. For it is the custom of these writers (of Scripture) to distribute into many classes those writings which express one sense when taken literally, but which convey a different signification as their hidden meaning.”[15] Origen places a higher emphasis on the so called “hidden meaning” than the literal meaning. Origen even ridiculed those that took a literal approach. This can be seen when he wrote, “although Celsus regards the books of the Jews and Christians as exceedingly simple and commonplace, and imagines that those who give them an allegorical interpretation do violence to the meaning of the writers. By what we have said, then, let it appear that Celsus calumniates us in vain.”[16]

Genre

Another hermeneutic system that is at odds with the literal system is the genre or literary form hermeneutic. “Genre, or literary form, hermeneutics sees recognition of literary form as the overriding factor in the hermeneutic process. By redefining the structure of various books, genre hermeneutics provides a means whereby the literal grammatical historical approach can be abandoned.”[17] This system places style of writing above the words themselves. This system of hermeneutics gives the interpreter the authority to essentially allegorize passages based on the type or style of literature the passage is written.

There is no question that the Bible employs many kinds of literary devices to convey its inspired message. Dr. Geisler notes these forms of writing;

The Bible not only reflects different literary styles but it also employs various human literary forms of speech. These include narrative form, as in Samuel and Kings; poetry, as in Job and Psalms; parables, as in the Synoptic Gospels; some allegory, as in Galatians 4; the use of symbols, as in the Revelation; and metaphors and similes abound in Scripture (cf. James 1–2). Even satire (Matt. 19:24) and hyperbole are found (Col. 1:23). Like other human writings, the Bible uses a wide range of literary forms to convey its meaning.[18]

Those that use the genre hermeneutic argue that the type of literature being employed leads the interpreter in a particular direction. They would say, for example, that the book of Revelation is written in an apocalyptic genre that uses symbols to convey a message. They can then jump the rail and make those symbols say anything they want them to. They fail to realize that the principals of consistent literal hermeneutics apply in all types of genre. The literal interpreter must understand what these literary devices are while honoring God’s word by taking it at its normal plain meaning and submitting to that meaning under all circumstances.

Work Cited
Christopher Cone, Prolegomena; Introductory Notes on Bible Study & Theological Method, (Ft. Worth, Tyndale Theological Press, 2007)

Cooper, Kenneth R., “A Survey of the Case for Literal Interpretation of the Scriptures,” Journal of Dispensational Theology Volume 10 (Tyndale Theological Seminary, 2006; 2007)

Couch Mal, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 2000)

Geisler, Norman L., Systematic Theology, Volume One: Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002)

Johnson Ronald M., “Systematic Theology is the Hermeneutic,” Conservative Theological Journal Volume 1 (Tyndale Theological Seminary, 1997; 2002)

Oden, Thomas C., Life in the Spirit : Systematic Theology, Vol. III. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992)

Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997)

Ryrie, Charles Caldwell, Basic Theology : A Popular Systemic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1999)

Yonge. Charles Duke, The Works of Philo : Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1993)
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[1]Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology : A Popular Systemic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1999), 125.
[2]Ronald M. Johnson, “Systematic Theology is the Hermeneutic,” Conservative Theological Journal Volume 1 (Tyndale Theological Seminary, 1997; 2002), 1:222.
[3] Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 2000), 97.
[4]Kenneth R. Cooper, “A Survey of the Case for Literal Interpretation of the Scriptures,” Journal of Dispensational Theology Volume 10 (Tyndale Theological Seminary, 2006; 2007), vnp.10.30.22.
[5] Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 2000), 97.
[6]of Alexandria Philo and Charles Duke Yonge, The Works of Philo : Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996, c1993), 4.
[7]Ronald M. Johnson, “Systematic Theology is the Hermeneutic,” Conservative Theological Journal Volume 1 (Tyndale Theological Seminary, 1997; 2002), 1:225.
[8]Ibid.
[9]Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit : Systematic Theology, Vol. III. (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 267.
[10]Ibid
[11] Ibid
[12]Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology : A Popular Systemic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1999), 126.
[13] Christopher Cone, Prolegomena; Introductory Notes on Bible Study & Theological Method, (Ft. Worth, Tyndale Theological Press, 2007), 138.
[14] Mal Couch, An Introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A Guide to the History and Practice of Biblical Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 2000), 99.
[15]Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 536.
[16]Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 536.
[17] Christopher Cone, Prolegomena; Introductory Notes on Bible Study & Theological Method, (Ft. Worth, Tyndale Theological Press, 2007), 140-41.
[18]Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume One: Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2002), 255.

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