Ever since Christianity began, there have been three levels where Christians have tried to interpret the Bible, that is from the early days to the medieval period, to the late renaissance and reformation period down to this modern-day period.
In this article, therefore, we are going to examine all those three levels of biblical interpretation and I hope you really get to understand them all.
What are the three levels of biblical interpretation?
The three levels of biblical interpretation are:
- The early days and medieval period.
- Late renaissance and reformation period.
- Modern-day period.
1. The early days and medieval period.
Since the early days of both Judaism and Christianity, the urge to understand and interpret the bible, explain its contents, confirm its meaning, and apply its teaching has been found among the followers of both religions.
And throughout history, the methods to interpret the bible have varied extensively.
During the early and medieval period, the Christian scholars who interpreted the bible believed they were discerning God’s will as given and embodied in the texts since they held on to the belief that as the scriptures were divinely given they also need divine revelation for interpretation.
One of them Augustine (354-430 CE) talked about the figurative meaning of biblical texts referring to it as the practice of finding a hidden or secondary meaning behind statements in scriptures.
An example can be seen in the allegorical interpretation of the parable of the good samaritan below by St Augustine of Hippo.
Allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower by St Augustine.
Augustine said the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho refers to Adam.
Jerusalem is the heavenly city of peace from whose blessedness Adam fell.
The thieves who attacked Adam are the devil and his angels. They stripped him of his immortality and beat him by persuading him to sin. They left him half dead.
The priest and Levite who passed the man are the priesthood and ministry of the Old Testament; which cannot bring salvation.
The term Samaritan is taken to mean Guardian; thus it refers to Jesus Himself. The binding of the wound is the restraint of sin. Oil is the comfort of good hope, and wine is the exhortation to work with a fervent spirit. The beast on which the man was placed signifies the flesh in which Christ appeared among men. Being set on the beast means believing in the incarnation of Christ.
The inn to which the man is taken is the church; where persons are refreshed on their pilgrimage of return to the heavenly city.
The two pieces of money that the Samaritan gave to the innkeeper are the promise of this life and the life to come; or else the two main sacraments.
The innkeeper is the apostle Paul.
Another Christian scholar Origen (ca. 185-254 CE) argued that all biblical texts could have more than one meaning.
He wrote, “just as man consists of both body, soul, and spirit in the same way so does the scriptures”.
And even though everybody in the early church did not favor this idea i.e. of allegorical interpretation, in which readers look for multiple meanings in biblical texts, the standard practice throughout most of the Middle Ages was to look for four meanings in the text:
- The literal (straightforward or historical) meaning
- The allegorical (spiritualized or symbolic) meaning
- The tropological (moral or ethical) meaning and
- The anagogical (eschatological or heavenly) meaning.
We see this in a short Medieval Latin poem
The letter shows us what God and our fathers did;
The allegory shows us where our faith is hid;
The moral meaning gives us rules of daily life;
The anagogy shows us where we end our strife.
To me, this theory was the perfect way the scriptures would have been interpreted by nearly all who dared.
But since God does not want human beings to use their knowledge and wisdom to understand His acts.
Let’s move on to see what happened during the time of reformation and how it has worsened on us of this generation upon whom the end of the ages has come.
2. Late renaissance and reformation period.
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the desire for multiple interpretations of a biblical text gradually diminished.
People like the first and great reformer the Late Martin Luther (1483-1546) declared:
‘The Holy Spirit is the plainest writer and speaker in heaven and earth, and therefore His words cannot have more than one, and that the very simplest, sense, which we call the literal, ordinary, natural, sense.”
Thus, the reformers placed their emphasis on the literal contents of the text which they called ad fontes i.e. “to the sources”.
3. Modern-day period.
Today biblical interpretation is characterized by one general aim: to study and understand the biblical documents as one would any other set of documents from antiquity.
We give much attention to biblical writers and their compositions and place so much emphasis on the relationship between content and context.
And examine the messages of biblical writings in light of ancient contexts in which they were produced.
Because of this new emphasis, the bible is studied from many new perspectives and subjected to the majority of methodological approaches.
We use the bible to reconstruct the history and religion of the Israelites, and the early church and also for comparison with the literature of other early cultures.
Non-Christian interpreters are drawn to the Bible because of its aesthetic and artistic values.
Today many young promising Christian boys and girls are gaining admission into bible colleges and other institutions of higher learning.
Where they undergo the study of the Bible for its religious values and theological insights; which they learn in contexts that are strictly academic and threaten their very faith.
That is why after graduation, most of them come out thinking they know when in essence they do not.
The saddest part of the story is that; another Christian ministry built on such foundations of this modern period is about to invade our society.