What not to say about interpreting the Bible literally – Gregory of Nyssa

The following is taken and modified from a outline on Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses I will be presenting for a class.

In this work, Gregory of Nyssa presents a spiritual-moral-contemplative-allegorical interpretation of Moses’ life with the theme of virtue as its driving paradigm for his interpretive ‘insights.’ To say the least, most of his interpretations are rather outlandish. His goal is that “by transferring to your own life what is contemplated through spiritual interpretation of things spoken literally” (II.320) “those who have been striving toward virtue may find aid in living the virtuous life” (II.49, 148).

Below I’ll present something like a critique of his interpretive method that I’ll offer in my class presentation. My critique is stated as such: “Inappropriate use of allegorical interpretation.”


  • Allegorical interpretation of literature is legitimate if the literature is meant to be interpreted allegorically (e.g., Pilgrim’s Progress). The Pentateuch is not such literature.
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The Hermeneutical Element of Godly Character

Athanasius

At the very end of his book, On the Incarnation, Athanasius makes a very interesting comment that has always stuck out to me.

But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God….

~ Athanasius, On the Incarnation, chapter 9, section 57.

Illustration

Grant Osborne has popularized an idea known as the ‘hermeneutical spiral’ according to which various elements like exegesis of the text, biblical theology, systematic theology, historic theology, etc. create a ‘hermeneutical spiral’ something like the following admittedly simplistic explanation:

Duane Garrett on the Nature of Biblical Prophecy

The following is from an excursus entitled “The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15” by Duane Garrett. He makes some helpful observations that are too often overlooked in much contemporary discussion regarding Biblical prophecy.

To put it more pointedly, did Hosea suppose that this verse looked ahead to the Messiah? It is, of course, difficult if not impossible to show that Hosea intended readers to discern from this passage that the Messiah would come out of Egypt. This question, however, is the wrong question to ask of Hos 11:1. The real issue is not, Did Hosea intend this verse to be read messianically? but What did Hosea understand to be the nature of prophecy? In answer to this question, we must assert that Hosea, like all biblical prophets, saw prophecy not so much as the making of specific, individual predictions (which are actually quite rare among the writing prophets), but as the application of the Word of God to historical situations. In doing this the prophets brought to light certain patterns that occur repeatedly in the relationship between God and his people [typologies]. These patterns or themes have repeated fulfillments or manifestations until the arrival of the final, absolute fulfillment. Thus, for example, the conquest of the land “fulfilled” the promises to the patriarchs but did not fulfill those promises finally or in their ultimate form. The inheritance of the “new earth” is the ultimate conclusion of this prophetic theme. All of the prophets were, to some degree, “like Moses” (Deut 18:5), but the ultimate prophet like Moses can only be the Messiah. Each of the kings of the line of David was a fulfillment of the promise that God would build him a “house” (2 Sam 7), but the Messiah is again the final fulfillment of this theme. Thus prophecy gives us not so much specific predictions but types or patterns by which God works in the world. We need look no further than Hosea 11 to understand that Hosea, too, believed that God followed patterns in working with his people. Here the slavery in Egypt is the pattern for a second period of enslavement in an alien land (v. 5), and the exodus from Egypt is the type for a new exodus (vv. 10–11).

Duane A. Garrett. Hosea, Joel. The New American Commentary. Vol. 19A. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997, 221-22.

We often think of Biblical prophecy as essentially predictions of the future. But is that accurate? It would be better to understand most of Biblical prophecy as actually the application of the past to the present and future. We might think of it like this–God’s past acts serve as models, paradigms, or types for His future dealings.

If I had to summarize typology…

Typology

If I had to summarize typology simply and briefly, this is how I’d do it.

  • Typology is not…
    • Allegory.
      • Allegory is not directly concerned with the meaning of the text. It’s interested in a spiritual or moral meaning that goes beyond the text.
      • Allegory is not directly concerned with the significance of the historical realities. It’s interested in ascribing spiritual meanings to these historical realities.
    • Making connections between obscure and insignificant details.
  • Typology is best understood as a “prophetic paradigm” – A type is a historical event, person, or institution in the storyline of scripture that serves as an anticipatory (“prophetic”) model/pattern (“paradigm”) for a greater reality (antitype) in God’s story of salvation.
  • Typology is rooted in…
    • The overarching storyline of scripture – These Biblical events, persons, and institutions occur within the storyline of scripture. This story takes place within the context of the covenants, is propelled forward by covenant promises, and therefore has a built in sense of anticipation as the story heads towards fulfillment. Therefore, these Biblical persons, events, and institutions have a special significance as they occur in God’s unfolding plan of salvation with the anticipation of its climax.
    • God’s nature (e.g., His sovereignty, omniscience, etc.) and a theological understanding of history – God’s providence over and guidance of history means that history is significant. These historical events, persons, and institutions should be understood as intentionally designed and revelatory.
    • God’s unchanging character – Since God is consistently true to His character, God’s previous actions, institutions, and appointed individuals/offices reveal something of His unchanging character as it relates to God’s future actions, institutions, and individuals/offices.

Trust the New Testament; and Give It Logical Priority

I was having a conversation with some individuals yesterday regarding Old Testament hermeneutics and the relationship between the Old Testament and the New.

As we were discussing the interpretation of the Old Testament, and particularly an insistence on literal interpretation of the Old Testament, I brought up the fact that too often of this sort discussion neglects how the New Testament develops and progresses what the Old Testament said. Further, it ignores the New Testament’s very use of the Old Testament (e.g., citations, allusions, calling things “fulfilled,” etc.).

Although the New Testament doesn’t violate or contradict the Old Testament voice, it often interprets and applies the Old Testament in non-literal ways (if by “literal” we mean an exact correspondence in meaning). Again, I would argue that the New Testament doesn’t violate or contradict the Old Testament. But it does use it and relate to it in such a way that it develops it, complements it, and applies it in light of the progress and unfolding of God’s plan in Christ and the Church.

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