Modern biblical criticism, “liberal” or “evangelical”, likes the historical understanding of Scripture. We must read the text and see what it says to the original audience. This will help us understand what it means. The meaning of Scripture is thereby reduced to the original audience. If the original speaker meant, “Smash babies heads on rocks,” then that’s all it means. If the original speaker meant that a prophecy would be fulfilled in two days, it is unlikely to be fulfilled again in 2000 years. If the original Hebrew says “young girl,” it doesn’t mean “virgin.”
This form of interpretation only takes us so far, however. If all of Scripture is God-breathed and useful, as St. Paul contends, then we need a way of reading the Bible beyond the historical meaning. One of the joys of reading old books and discovering Christians from other ages is to see how they dealt with problems facing them. Thus, I have an idea how to deal with a verse from the BCP-appointed Psalm for today:
Let them be confounded and perish that are against my soul; let them be covered with shame and dishonour that seek to do me evil. (Ps. 71:13)
Our starting point is one of the good, readable books to come out of the Protestant paleo-orthodoxy and the Evangelical ressourcement, Christopher A. Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. This book is a brief introduction to patristic thought that requires little specialised vocabulary and no Latin or Greek (thus, those who are neither clergy nor scholars can read it). He deals with the use of Scripture by the four Doctors of the East and the four Doctors of the West, then he goes more specifically into “Alexandrian” and “Antiochene” schools of thought.
Alexandrians, typified by Origen, sought the allegorical meaning of Scripture, and the Antiochenes reacted against excessive allegorical readings, especially when considering Origen’s more heterodox teachings.* The Antiochene method sought a spiritual meaning that was not divorced from the literal meaning of the text, as seen in Diodore of Tarsus. Both schools of thought looked beyond the historical and literal meanings of Scripture, seeking higher spiritual knowledge revealed by the hard work of exegesis and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
In our old friend John Cassian, we see that as we read Scripture, our contemplation is divided into the historical and the spiritual. No doubt Cassian would agree with Diodore of Tarsus that we ought not to simply make up whatever allegories we please and that the spiritual understanding will not run counter to the historical (see Conf. 14.8).
The spiritual understanding of a text includes tropology, allegory, and anagogy (14.8.1). His definitions only make sense in the context of the example he uses, so to save time, here’s what the OED tells us:
1. ‘A speaking by tropes’ (Blount, 1656); the use of metaphor in speech or writing; figurative discourse.
2. A moral discourse; a secondary sense or interpretation of Scripture relating to morals.
1. Description of a subject under the guise of some other subject of aptly suggestive resemblance.
2. An instance of such description; a figurative sentence, discourse, or narrative, in which properties and circumstances attributed to the apparent subject really refer to the subject they are meant to suggest; an extended or continued metaphor.
3. An allegorical representation; an emblem.
1. Spiritual elevation or enlightenment, esp. to understand mysteries. Obs.
2. Mystical interpretation, hidden ‘spiritual’ sense of words.
The ancient and mediaeval interpreters of Scripture believed that the historical meaning of Scripture was true and useful. However, it is not enough. We must seek out deeper meanings that will speak to our spiritual lives, meanings that will help us grow as Christians. The Spirit will enlighten our understanding; the classic Christian methodology runs counter to Enlightenment methodology that seeks to interpret Scripture by reason alone, believing that with reason even the heathen can unlock the mysteries of God.
To close, from John Cassian, Conf. 13.17.3:
Whoever believes that he can sound the depths of that immeasurable abyss [of God’s wisdom] by human reason is trying to nullify the marvelous aspect of this knowledge, then, which struck the great teacher of the Gentiles. For the person who is sure that he can conceive in his mind or discuss at length the designs whereby God works salvation in human beings is certainly resisting the truth of the Apostle’s words and declaring with impious audacity that the judgements of God are not inscrutable and that his ways are traceable. (Trans. Boniface Ramsey)
*See also “Antiochene θεωρία in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis,” by Bradley Nassif in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, K. Tanner & C.A. Hall, eds. Downers Grove: IVP, 2002.