Tag Archives: interpretation

Augustine: Allegory and the Good Samaritan

Augustine often receives a bad rap for some of his allegorical exegesis. This is especially true of his interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10.29–37)[1], which has become the whipping boy for the supposed dangers of allegory. The Samaritan is Christ, the animal of the Samaritan is the flesh of Christ, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are the Satan and his minions, the inn is the church and inn keeper is the apostle. Modern day Hermeneutics 101: do not interpret the text like Augustine[2]!

But what would Augustine have to say against the charge of his “fanciful” interpretation?

In an essay by Ronald Teske[3] he gives three responses that Augustine may have given based on other writings on hermeneutics.

From The Confessions and his discussion of the creation account he argues that one may seek to determine what the author of Genesis intended but we shouldn’t stop there but we should also determine other truths that the passage shows us. Therefore, one may try to determine what Luke was saying in the parable but Luke would also want us to find other truths within the parable even if he did not have them in mind (354–55).

Second, it is true that Augustine does seek to find the sense or intent of what the author was writing but contrary to modern day exegesis he does not stop there. Some interpretations are hidden therefore we should “choose only that interpretation which sound faith prescribes” (355)[4]. We are also allowed to seek the truth that Scripture speaks of elsewhere to help us understand a passage. Also, lest we forget the divine author of Scripture, we can also see interpretations that “the Spirit of God who produced the passage through him certainly foresaw (356).” A passage of Scripture is not limited by the human author’s intent. Teske argues, “Augustine’s christological interpretation of the parable is in full accord with the Christian faith and also makes the point most effectively which John clearly taught in his Gospel (356).” Augustine’s allegorical interpretation aligns with a canonical reading of the Gospels as well.

Finally, Scriptural interpretation should ultimately lead to the love of God and love of neighbor. One may be able to get a sense of the words and exegete that authorial intention of a passage but if that has not led the reader to a greater love for God and neighbor that interpretation is in vain. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable is indeed useful for this purpose.

On the surface it may seem that Augustine produces an interpretation that is not in accord with proper hermeneutical methods. Augustine reads the parable in multiple ways: a “literal” interpretation along with a allegorical/christological interpretation. He does not limit himself to the historic sense but opens the text up to be read canonically, christologically, and ultimately in a way that builds up love of God and love of neighbor.

The image is Vincent van Gogh’s painting of the good samaritan. Image Credit: Art and the Bible


  1. David Gowler has a helpful series of posts on Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3  ↩

  2. It should also be noted that elsewhere Augustine does interpret the parable in a similar way as modern day exegetes by explaining that the parable shows us who is truly our neighbor. See Sermo CCXCIX and Contra mendacium.  ↩

  3. Roland Teske. “The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29–37) in Augustine’s Exegesis.” In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick Van Fleteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, 2 edition., 347–57. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001.  ↩

  4. De Genesi ad litteram I,xxi,41: CSEL XXVIII,31  ↩

QOTD: Richard Hays on Interpretation

Richard Hays on interpretation,

That is a way of saying that texts can generate readings that transcend both the conscious intention of the author and all the hermeneutical strictures that we promulgate. Poets and preachers know this secret; biblical critics have sought to suppress it for heuristic purposes. At times, the texts speak through us in ways that could not have been predicted, ways that can be comprehended only by others who hear the voice of the text through us—or, if by ourselves, only retrospectively

and

To limit our interpretation of Paul’s scriptural echoes to what he intended by them is to impose a severe and arbitrary hermeneutical restriction. In the first place, what he inteded is a matter of historical speculation; in the second place, his intertextual echoes are acts of figuration. Consequently later readers will rightly grasp meanings of the figures that may have been veiled from Paul himself. Scripture generates through Paul new figurations; The Righteousness from Faith finds in Paul a new voice.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scriptture in the Letters of Paul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989, p. 33

QOTD: Vanhoozer on “Meaning”

Vanhoozer getting at the heart of interpreting and rightly understanding the Bible:

Purchase

‘What it means’ is ultimately not a matter of theory only but of practice, not a matter of sheer knowledge but of wisdom. How do we know which interpretation best grasps the significance of the text? How can we evaluate various judgments as to what the text means in today’s context? I suggest that we may find a criterion in the demonstration of wisdom, in the right use of literary knowledge. Those whose minds and visions have been shaped by the biblical story and by the other types of communicative action will develop a Christian habitus—a way of life that forms habits of the head, habits of the heart, and habits of the hand. To read with understanding is to develop a Christian worldview, a spiritual orientation, and a loving way of life. The Spirit’s power is demonstrated in wisdom. Those who rightly apply “what it meant” attest the efficacy of the Word. We can go further. I propose the following four criteria for discerning the Spirit’s “ministry of the Word” among contemporary readers. We should prefer those interpretations of the Bible’s significance that demonstrate

  1. faithfulness: interpretations that extend the meaning of the text into new situations
  2. fruitfulness: interpretations that enliven the reader and show forth the Spirit’s fruits
  3. forcefulness: interpretations that edify the community, resolve problems, foster unity
  4. fittingness: interpretations that embody the righteousness of God and contextualize Christ.

Here Vanhoozer collapses “meaning” and “application” into seemingly one category. Meaning is not something abstract that we can just do our research and come up with a single timeless meaning of the text but rather meaning and application are wrapped into one. Meaning is not truly understood until it takes root in the believers life.

This seems similar to Augustine’s view, which he says “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” – On Christian Teaching

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Landmarks in Christian Scholarship) (p. 431). Zondervan.

Thoughts and Notes on “Calvin as Bible Interpreter”

The notes and thoughts below are just from my reading of the essay. I decided to post because the article gives an insightful look to Calvin as Bible interpreter.

Notes from John Thompson’s article, “Calvin as Bible Interpreter” by McKim, Donald K (ed). John Calvin: Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Paving the Way

  1. The printing press was key in making books (and information!) more accessible for the general public.
  2. Many philological discoveries were happening that paved the way for Calvin
  3. Also, a feeling of angst with the medieval Catholic church primed the way for Calvin. He did not want to be a reformer but his position, exegesis, and importance in the community made him one.
  4. Calvin entered into the “second wave” of the Reformation.

Calvin’s Statements on the Theory and Practice of Biblical Interpretation

Calvin writes his commentary different than Bucer and Melanchthon. Melanchthon wrote a very detailed commentary that chased rabbit trails of dogmatic importance where Bucer was very overview. Calvin decided to leave dogmatic pursuits to his Institutes and stick with exposition and application in his commentary.

Two key places that Calvin’s states his hermeneutical methods are in:

  1. Preface to the 1539 edition of his commentary to Romans
  2. Preface to the Homilies of Chrysostom

Four Aspects of Calvin’s Interpretation as summarized in the preface of his Romans commentary

  1. Seeking to lay out the mind or intention of the writer (this includes both the supposed author and also the Divine author). This would be accomplished by historical context, background, and philological studies.
    1. Thompson notes that “Calvin often stresses less what the apostle intended to say than what Paul intented his words to effect in the life of the church at Rome.”
  2. Calvin wanted to plainly explain the letter to his hearers in such a way they could easily understand
  3. Calvin did not rely on Scripture alone for interpretation but used other sources, such as the early church, in his interpretations. It is not solo scriptura but sola scriptura.
    1. This understanding of the reformers is becoming more widespread but still needs to be stated. They understood the helpfulness and guidance of previous interpreters. Even when they didn not agree, as Calvin often times does, they still interact and find them useful in exegesis.
      1. “There are extant on this Epistle many Commentaries by the ancients, and many by modern writers: and truly they could have never employed their labours in a better way; for when any one understands this Epistle, he has a passage opened to him to the understanding of the whole Scripture.”[1]
  4. The two works: Institutes and his commentaries reveal his goal of differentiating himself slightly from Melanchthon and Bucer.

Three Observations from Preface to the Homilies of Chrysostom

  1. A sustained apology for the Church Fathers
    1. Thompson says, “They offer sub- stantial benefits, including guidance in the meaning of Scripture, examples of and exhortation to moral uprightness and discipline, and insight into the life and practices of the early church, which was better ordered and purer than the church of later centuries.” – p. 63
    2. The early church was to be read along side scripture to help guide interpreters.
  2. Biblical interpretation in general and more specifically his commentaries are to serve the uneducated lay person.
  3. Calvin thought highly of Chrysostom because of his literal exegesis. This term needs to be clarified:
    1. Calvin’s literal exegesis (and that other early church) should not be read through the lens of the modern historical-critical method. A stark contast exists that needs to be noted.
      1. For example in his discussion on Galatians 4 Calvin asserts that Paul’s allegorical reading is valid because “Paul can compare the fracture in Abraham’s family to the birth of the church in the New Testament because in Abraham’s own day his household was the church, literally and historically.” – p. 68 What the literal sense today means compared with Calvin is substantially different.
      2. Thompson also notes, “Thus, he generally shies away from “allegory” but will happily embrace plausible analogies, types, metaphors, and so on – as a rhetorically trained critic, his technical vocabulary is rich and precise – so long as he sees a warrant in the context of the narrative that serves as the source of the type or analogy or application. Accordingly, Calvin will dismiss out of hand any allegory that he finds utterly off the subject of the scriptural text or that wrenches words out of context while ignoring the plot. On the other hand, as we will see, he finds embedded in both the New Testament and the Old many other instances of “allegory” – defined, to be sure, as a rhetorical device or metaphor rather than as a theological discovery.”
        1. My thoughts – This is interesting because the early church would generally use an allegorical interpretation after finding the literal sense. In other words it was a four-fold sense of scripture. Doctrine can be establish from the literal but not the allegorical. It has also been noted in Peter Martens excellent book “Origin and Scripture”, which he explains that Origen’s allegorical interpretation is rooted in the historical/literal sense. Only when the historical/literal sense is understood can one interpret allegorically.

  1. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), xxiv.  ↩

QOTD: John Milton on Ignatius

Purchase

Purchase

I’m currently reading Stephen Neil and N.T. Wright’s excellent book, The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986It provides a fascinating narrative overview of the history of New Testament interpretation. One of the more interesting sections describes the history behind the use of the Apostolic Fathers, especially Ignatius, in churches. Neil says, “If you approved of episcopacy, Ignatius was just your man; if you disapproved of episcopacy, Ignatius just would not do.” Well, John Milton was one man who definitely disapproved of Ignatius and the episcopacy. He says,

Had God intended that we should have sought any part of useful instruction from Ignatius, doubtless he would have not so ill-provided our knowledge as to send him to our hands in this broken and disjointed plight; and, if he intended no such thing, we do injuriously in thinking to taste better the pure evangelic manna by seasoning our mouths with the tainted scraps and fragments of an unknown table, and searching among the verminous and polluted rags dropt overworn from the toiling shoulders of the Time, with these defomedly to quilt and interlace the entire, the spotless, and undecaying robe of truth.

— J. Milton, Of Prelactical Episcopacy (Works, vol. iii, p. 72)

It seems that Milton had a way with words and no doubt would have been a provocative blogger in our day.

Book Review: Interpreting the General Epistles: An Exegetical Handbook (Kregel)

Purchase on Amazon

Kregel Academic is continuing their helpful Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis series with Herbert W. Bateman IV’s Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook. Bateman is also the author of Jesus the MessiahCharts on the Book of Hebrews, and A Workbook for Intermediate Greek.

The book is broken down into 8 parts:

  1. The Genre of the General Letters

  2. The Background of the General Letters

  3. The Theology of the General Letters

  4. Preparing to Interpret the General Letters

  5. Interpreting Passages in the General Letters

  6. Communicating the General Letters

  7. From Exegesis to Exposition of the General Letters

  8. Selected Sources

The book’s format lends itself well to being a helpful guide for students when they begin to exegete the general letters. It contains a number of charts that allow the student to quickly summarize the content presented in the book. Following a standard hermeneutical approach Bateman guides students in the following steps of interpretation:

First, the student must identify the genre and background of the text. Next, he provides a 9-step outline from interpretation to teaching the letters:

  1. Initiate a Translation
  2. Identify Interpretive Issues
  3. Isolate Major Textual Problems
  4. Interpret the Structure
  5. Interpret the Style, Syntax, and Semantics,
  6. Interpret the Greek Words
  7. Communicate Exegetically
  8. Communicate the Central Idea
  9. Communicate Homiletically

He concludes with helpful examples from Jude 5-7 and Hebrews 10:19-25. At the close of the book the author provides students with a guide through major commentaries by giving the name of the commentary series, the stated purpose of the series, and the titles and authors of relevant volumes along with other resources for specific books.

Overall, the book is a helfpul guide for both students and pastors. The book is easy to read without simplifying the information. Coupled with the numerous charts this book provides convenient text to both read through and refer to when encountering the general letters.

A couple concerns came to mind when examining this text. First, it would have been helpful for the author to provide a brief introduction to his exegetical method before diving into the genre of the letters. When I first started the book I was left wondering what is overall purpose and goal was for interpreting the text. Is it to get to the original thought and mind of the author? Is it to provide both an individual and canonical interpretation of the text? Is there more to teaching and preaching a text than the steps outlined in the book? My general sense after reading the book is that the author’s goal in interpreting a text is to get back to the original meaning and find a relevant application for intended audience.

Also related to the previous point, no discussion of other prominent hermeneutical approaches are mentioned. Within the last 20 years there has been a push to incorporate other approaches in the interpretation process such as a canonical reading, biblical theology, history of interpretation, and more. The book employs what Jonathan Pennington in his Reading the Gospels Wisely book calls a “behind the text” and “in the text” reading1. If the author is against or for an “in front of the text” or canonical/theological approach to interpretation this would have been helpful to know in the beginning.

These concerns aside the book is still a helpful text for students and pastors. My only advice would be to supplement this book with other hermeneutical approaches that also integrate a more holistic approach to interpretation.

Many thanks to Kregel Academic for this free review copy.


  1. Pennington argues for an approach that integrates a “behind the text”, “in the text”, and “in front of the text” reading. See chapters 6-7 in Reading the Gospels Wisely ↩

Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in Matthew

Daniel Gurtner has a helpful essay in the most recent issue of Bulletin for Biblical Research (BBR)[1], titled “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in Matthew.” The goal of the essay is to outline a methodology for interpreting “apocalyptic symbolism in Matthew”[2] (I would say after reading the essay this could be applied to the other Gospels as well). After briefly summarizing the apocalyptic interpretation in Matthew he concludes that some, such as David Sim, place too much emphasis on “Matthew’s community”. While recognizing that apocalyptic literature typically arises out of an oppressed community he argues that Matthew’s gospel is not an apocalypse but rather a bios with apocalyptic imagery woven in. It is better to understand Matthew’s use of apocalyptic to “convey the meaning of history more profoundly than would be possible from a straightforward narrative” (544). Therefore, one loses sight of the reason Matthew is using apocalyptic writing when they tried to establish a community in which Matthew is writing in.

Gurtner says that the one aspect that is similar in all types of apocalyptic writing is symbolism. Since symbolism is present in post apocalypses (literary genre) and other genres that contain apocalyptic language (i.e. the Gospels) then this should be the interpreters entry into studying the apocalyptic writing of the Gospels. In order to identify and interpret these symbols he uses the interpretive methods G.K. Beale uses in understanding Revelation:

  1. When the symbol is not clearly identified by the author the interpreter must look at a “known commonplace association of a picture” (shared corpus)
  2. If the first option is not identifiable the interpreter should look at the “literal subject itself” (534). Gurtner notes that symbolic does not necessarily mean nonliteral. He gives the example of the exodus and the resurrection. Both events are highly symbolic (exodus = salvation/deliverance) but they are both understood to be literal events.

The rest of the essay provides an example using Gurtner’s interpretation of the tearing of the temple veil in Matthew. He has already done many studies ( dissertation, essay in JETS) but the purpose of this essay is to show the methodology of his interpretation rather than shed new light on the text.

Not having much history with apocalyptic writing I found this essay helpful as an entrance into the world of apocalypticism in interpreting the symbolic nature of the writing. The essay is worth a read as a helpful example of working through an apocalyptic writing within the Gospel narrative.


  1. Gurtner, Daniel. “Interpreting Apocalyptic Symbolism in the Gospel of Matthew.” Bulletin For Biblical Research 22, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 525–546.  ↩

  2. Gurtner acknowledges that the term “apocalyptic symbolism” is a “contradiction in terms. And, ironically, it is precisely this confusion in terminology that has led to confusion in interpretation” (525)  ↩