The Christian leaders of the first few centuries A.D. considered practicality an important criterion for the use of Scripture. 1 They believed every part of the Bible should speak to the needs of people in their day. Some of them turned to allegorizing interpretation as helpful to that end.
Origen, an influential Christian teacher in Alexandria, Egypt, around the beginning of the third century A. D., believed that just as people comprise body, soul, and spirit, the meaning of Scripture has three corresponding divisions. He considered the spiritual of greatest significance, and the "corporeal" or "material" of least.
Origen's approach allowed him to make just about any part of Scripture speak to his audience. He was able, for example, to find spiritual lessons even in the details of Matthew's story of the Temple tax (Matt. 17:24-27). He said that the fish with the silver coin in its mouth represents the "lover of money, who has nothing in his mouth but things about silver" (Commentary on Matthew 13. 12). Peter, the fisher of men, catches such individuals in a "rational net" (apparently representing their conversion), rescuing them from the sea of the bitter affairs of life, from the waves of the cares and anxieties of avarice. When he takes the silver from the fish's mouth, this represents the removal of avarice not only from the individual's mouth and words, but from his whole character.
Those who interpret Scripture with such freedom can make every portion of it speak to the needs of their people. But such an approach poses a number of dangers. In the first place, it is extremely subjective. The message that the hearers receive depends more on the interpreter than on the Bible. It is limited by the preacher's creativity and spirituality. Not only does this mean the hearers are being fed on man's ideas; it also means they are being led away from the real message God intended that portion of Scripture to convey.
That this subjective method of interpretation reached its full flowering in the medieval church may, to a large degree, explain why that church looked to tradition rather than to Scripture as its authority. A method of interpretation that allowed Scripture to say anything anyone wanted it to opened the door for a thousand varieties of belief and practice. Accepting only what had been believed and done in the past provided stability.
Second, such interpretation tends to devalue the historicity of Scripture. The Exodus account, for example, becomes important not as a record of the character of the God who acts in history, but because of what it symbolizes in the life of the believer.
And third, this approach to Scripture tends to disparage the literal significance of the text. Origen, for instance, taught that believers could have a daily experience of the second advent of the Word in the "prophetic clouds": the writings of the prophets and apostles that reveal Christ. 2 Such an approach dilutes faith in the literal Second Advent, and could eventually overshadow it entirely.
Although the Reformers turned decisively against allegorizing interpretation, this method is not yet dead.
Adventist laypeople often depend on an unsystematic "neo-allegorical" interpretation to apply Scripture to their lives.
And I've even heard this sort of approach from Adventist pulpits.
What makes for good, relatively objective interpretation? Adventists have built on the Reformers' foundation, that of a grammatical-historical approach. I believe every good method of interpretation should contain certain basic elements. First, when we interpret the Bible, we must have the Holy Spirit's guidance. Second, we must, through studying the grammar and the literary and historical contexts of the passage, determine what it meant to those who originally received it. Third, from this we must determine the underlying spiri tual principle. And fourth, we must apply that principle to our circumstances.
The matter of the underlying principle is vital. In a dispute over how to interpret and apply an apparently straightforward directive Ellen G. White had penned some 30 years earlier, W. C. White said, with his mother's acquiescence, "Now, in my study of the Bible and in my study of your writings, I have come to believe that there is a principle underlying every precept, and that we cannot understand properly the precept without grasping the principle." 3 Granted, this method won't eliminate all subjectivity. (What constitutes a biblical principle? And how shall we apply it today?) And those interpreting may apply these elements with varying degrees of sophistication. And, certainly, the Spirit helps our weaknesses.
But if we wish to be good stewards of God's Word, our method of interpreta tion should contain these elements in some form.
Let's allow Matthew's fish to remain a fish! And disavowing all forms of allegorizing interpretation, let's teach our members and exemplify in our ministries the best methods of studying and apply ing God's Word.—D.C.J.
1 See Kenneth A. Strand and Walter B.
Douglas, "Interpretation of the Bible in the Early
and Medieval Church," in Gordon M. Hyde, ed.,
A Symposium on Biblical Hermeneutics (Washington,
D.C.: General Conference of Seventh-day
Adventists Biblical Research Committee, 1974),
pp. 28-45. This book offers a good place to start in
strengthening one's Biblical interpretation.
2 Ibid., p. 34.
3 "Counsel on Early School Attendance,"
Review and Herald, Apr. 24, 1975, p. 9.