The Reformation: A Matter of Interpretation, Part 1

REFORMATION

The date was October 31, 1517.  A young Augustinian monk nailed a list of ninety-five points of disagreement with the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church.  His name, of course, was Martin Luther.  Most people in the sphere of Christendom know his name.  However, the numbers are fewer of those who know exactly what he did, and why he did it.  Today, in honor of what God did through Martin Luther and the other reformers we are going to take a brief look at what is known as the Protestant Reformation.  To do that we will need to briefly examine the history of the Church up to Luther’s time.

Most people have the mistaken view that Luther was trying to cause a schism, or damage the Roman Catholic Church.  However, Luther’s main purpose was simply to start a discussion within the leadership of the Church to cause the hierarchy to return to the truth, and ultimate authority of Scripture.  By the time Luther arrived on the scene of Church history the Church, in particular the Roman Catholic Church had fallen into a state of disrepute among the common folk as the clergy displayed shamefully immoral lifestyles, abusive practices sanctioned by the Pope that were designed to defraud the common folk out of their money under the guise of such lofty ideas as saving dead relatives from purgatory, as well as other damning practices.  However, as one writer has pointed out, and Luther’s own words confirm, it was the doctrine of the Church itself to which Luther objected so vehemently.  In that writer’s estimation, Luther did not attack “the abuses of medieval Catholicism, but Catholicism itself as an abuse of the Gospel was the object of [Luther’s] onslaught.” (Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 24)

The doctrines against which Luther argued were the result of the Church’s view of ultimate authority, which, in turn, was the result of the Church’s interpretation of Scripture.  The history of the development of their interpretive practice plays a key role in understanding what led Luther to response as he did.

A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation

It is obvious to us that the early Church understood Scripture in a normal manner.  In other words, they took Scripture at face value allowing the writer’s intended meaning to dictate how the reader understood what was written.  In doing so, the writers of the Greek Scriptures understood the prophetic passages concerning the kingdom as something yet future, and that it would be a kingdom on earth, in Israel, with the Messiah reigning on the throne of David.

Jesus presents the primary example of this.  For instance, in Matthew 19:28 Jesus, responding to Peter’s statement that the disciples had left all to follow Him, made the following proclamation:

And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (NASB95)

There is no mistaking that Jesus saw the kingdom as coming at a future time, and in a physical manner.  Jesus’ understanding of the OT prophecies is clearly a normal, literal rendering of what was written.  His reference to the “glorious throne” is a clear reference to the Davidic throne as described in 2 Samuel 7, which, by the way, is meant to be understood as the physical throne in Jerusalem.  The disciples clearly shared this type of normal, literal understanding of Scripture.  Paul carried this type of interpretation through his teaching as seen in Romans 11:25-27.  Likewise, John understood the kingdom to be a literal, physical kingdom in which believers will be “kingdom of priests,” who will “reign upon the earth” (Rev. 5:10).  It can be surmised, then, that this type of hermeneutic was what Jesus passed to His disciples, and in turn, they passed to the early Church.

As the Church progressed, two major schools arose during the early years.  Antioch holds a special place in the history of the church.  In Acts 11:22-26 we read about the founding of the church there.  Apparently, the gospel message had such an impact on the city that the news about the new converts had spread prompting the apostles in Jerusalem to send Barnabas to investigate.  In turn, he went to Tarsus, found Saul and brought him back to minister in Antioch.  It was there that the followers of “the way” were first called Christians.  It was also Paul’s launching pad for each of his missionary journeys.

Antioch picked up the torch of interpretation from the Apostles.  It was a church that had received the very best instruction, and learned how to interpret the Bible normally, in a literal manner.  Andy Woods has summed up well the importance of Antioch’s form of biblical interpretation:

… they stood for a literal interpretation of the Bible, including Bible prophecy.  And from the School of Antioch comes a theological system that we embrace here called pre-millennialism.  The word “millennium” is not found in the Scripture.  Where do we get this word “millennium” from?  It comes from Revelation 20:1-10 and what you have to understand is a lot of the terms we use today, like Trinity, millennium, they don’t come directly from the Bible; the concept is there but the term is not used in the Bible because it’s in church history Latin became the lingua franca of the day and so theologians began to develop these terms in Latin.  So mille in Latin means a thousand, and annum means years.  So the term millennium itself is Latin, it means a thousand years.

The importance of the Antiochan view of Scripture, those pertaining to the coming kingdom, has been clearly stated by one of their most prominent products, Justin Martyr.  Justin believed in the literal understanding of prophecy, and most vociferously defended its importance.  Justin said,

But I and whoever are at all points right-minded Christians know that there will be a resurrection of the dead a thousand years in Jerusalem which will then be built, adorned, enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and the others declare. And further, a certain man among us by the name of John predicted by revelation that was made to him that those who believe in our Christ would spend a thousand years in Jerusalem and thereafter the general of us. . . the eternal resurrection and judgement of all men would likewise take place. (emphasis added)

Clearly, we share the same understanding of the Scriptures that the school of Antioch had.  We take Scripture at face value without spiritualizing, or allegorizing.  However, Antioch was not the only school of thought where the interpretation of Scripture is concerned.

Alexandria, Egypt birthed the most influential school of biblical interpretation, which held sway until the time of the Reformation.  Alexandrian interpretation was developed after the pattern set by earlier Greek allegorical practices, which in turn had been passed down to Jewish interpreters the most influential of which was Philo.  Allegorical interpretation in Greece developed because their “philosophical and historical tradition could not accept much of the religious tradition as it lay in the written documents.” (Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. Rev, 25) They developed allegorical interpretation to find meaning beyond the escapades of their mythical gods, whose behavior mirrored the immorality of the mortals over which they ruled.  The Jews of Alexandria, led by Philo, believed they too needed to allegorize their Hebrew Scriptures to relieve the tension between their Scriptures and Greek philosophical tradition, and readily accepted the practice as presented by the Greeks.  (Ibid., 26)

What is allegorical interpretation?  As stated previously, it is the attempt to find a hidden meaning beyond the literal.  By way of example, Philo, the Jewish allegorist, interprets the days of creation in a very interesting way.  For instance, Philo comments on Genesis 2:1, “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts.”

[Moses] says that neither the indivisible mind nor the particular sensations received perfection, but only ideas, one the idea of the mind, the other of sensation. And, speaking symbolically, he calls the mind heaven, since the natures which can only be comprehended by the intellect are in heaven. And sensation he calls earth, because it is sensation which has obtained a corporeal and some what earthy constitution. The ornaments of the mind are all the incorporeal things, which are perceptible only by the intellect. Those of sensation are the corporeal things, and everything in short which is perceptible by the external senses. (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book2.html)

Clearly, allegorical interpretation makes a mess of Scripture.  Bernard Ramm describes the main problem with allegorical interpretation:

The curse of the allegorical method is that it obscures the true meaning of the Word of God … The Bible treated allegorically becomes putty in the hand of the exegete. … The allegorical method puts a premium on the subjective and the doleful result is the obscuration of the Word of God. (Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 3rd ed. rev., 30-31)

When the first Alexandrian church was born, the Christian community eventually accepted the same approach to biblical interpretation.  As Ramm asserts, “The allegorical method was [the Church’s] primary means of making the Old Testament a Christian document.” (Ibid., 29) Many famous names are associated with the development of allegorizing within the Church, but the most well-known, and influential is Augustine.

Augustine had begun as a chiliast, the name originally given to those who would be identified today as premillennialists.  However, because of his attraction to Neoplatonic philosophy, and what has been described as Gnostic dualism, Augustine believed the physical world to be evil, and the spiritual world to be inherently good.  This dualism is presented in his book, City of God, and formed the foundation for much of Catholic dogma.

To reconcile Scripture with such beliefs Augustine, in much the same manner as Greek philosophers and Philo, adopted the allegorical interpretation so prevalent in Alexandria.  The results have been far reaching, lasting, and somewhat devastating to the Church.  Renald Showers describes Augustine’s move from chiliast to spiritualizing the kingdom of God:

“The…factor in his change of view was the influence of Greek philosophy upon his thinking. Before his conversion Augustine was deeply immersed in the study of this philosophy, much of which asserted the inherent evil of the physical or material and the inherent goodness of the totally spiritual. This philosophy continued to leave it’s mark up on him even after his conversion. It prompted him to reject as carnal the pre-millennial idea of an earthly, political Kingdom of God with great material blessings. He believed that, in order for the Kingdom of God to be good, it must be spiritual in nature.” (John Ankerberg and Renald Showers, The Most Asked Prophecy Questions (Chattanooga, TN: ATRI, 2000), 326, quoted by Dr. Andy Woods in his sermon series “Protestant Reformation 001,” )

It should be stated again that Augustine’s influence in biblical interpretation, which resulted in his theological influence, had far reaching, lasting, and devastating results in the life of the Church.  In fact, a glaring result of his influence is seen in that period that has become known as the dark age, as well as the Middle Ages, Medieval Period.  Dr. Woods identifies the circumstances as the “Alexandrian eclipse,” meaning that Alexandrian allegorical interpretation held sway during these years.

We will continue our examination of the reformation in the next article.

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Posted in Church History, Hermeneutics (Bible Study), Uncategorized.