Quotations on Biblical Interpretation

“For the older the world grows, the less trust is to be given to them who bring in new interpretations; because they are farther from the means of truth than those that went before. And this may be easily observed throughout the latter ages of the world. After the destruction of the first temple, much knowledge concerning the old manner of singing and other services of God was lost among the Jews; but after the destruction of the second temple, much more. And so ignorance crept on by degrees, until the Jews grew so extremely doubtful in the manner of their own ancient rites, customs of the temple, and first institutions, that a late or modern Rabbi, speaking by tradition without the authority of scripture, or authors of credit living in the first times, is no more to be believed than a dreamer; for (as Josephus saith) ever since they lost the natural use and knowledge of their own language, most of their writings are nothing but fables and contradictions.” —George Wither, A Preparation to the Psalter (London, 1619), p. 56.

“If God has condescended to address men in the full particularity of their peculiar historical and cultured environments, then we have got to immerse ourselves fully and sympathetically in those environments, with their customs and values, ways of thinking and patterns of imagery, before we can understand either his demand or their response.” —D.E. Nineham, The Church’s Use of the Bible Past and Present (London: SPCK, 1963), p. 161.

“As a Protestant I cherish the New Testament teaching on the priesthood of believers—that each Christian has the right to his own interpretation, but also that each Christian has the responsibility to get it right. If an individual Christian wrongly interprets and then misapplies the Word, the scope of his error may not be very wide. But when the leaders of the church do this, the impact can be vast. For this reason Paul tells Timothy to ‘be zealous to show yourself approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed’; and why James declares that ‘Not many of you should become teachers.’” —Daniel Wallace, “Biblical Gynecology” (2001).

“... the main reason for studying texts, particularly old ones, is to expand the mind by introducing it to the immense possibilities in human actions and thoughts — to see and feel what other men have seen and felt, to know what they have known. Furthermore, none of these expansive benefits comes to the man who simply discovers his own meanings in someone else’s text and who, instead of encountering another person, merely encounters himself.” —E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale, 1967), pp. 25-6.

“[Dynamic equivalence] translations (again, most Bibles today) often change the language, images, and metaphors of Scripture to make understanding easier. But for serious study, readers need a translation that is more transparent to the ‘otherness’ of Scripture. We need a translation that allows the Bible to say what it says, even if that seems strange and odd to readers at first glance. If God is ‘other’ than we are, we should be willing to work at the ‘otherness’ of the Bible, in order to understand what the Lord is saying through his Word. The purpose of the Bible is not to make Jesus like us, but to make us like Christ. The Bible is designed to change us, to make us different, heirs of Abraham according to the promise fulfilled in Christ (Acts 2) ... By seeking familiar modern meanings, these newer translations make it much harder to see the deep biblical pattern of Paul’s thought. They obscure the words and metaphors by which the Spirit has woven a coherent tapestry of meaning that stretches from Genesis to Revelation. This practice removes the information we need to understand, because it hides the Bible’s dynamic unity and coherence ... Biblical metaphors drop into our hearts like a seed in soil and make us think, precisely because they are not obvious at first. The translator who removes biblical metaphors to make the text ‘easier’ for readers may defeat the purpose of the Holy Spirit, who chose a metaphor in the first place. Metaphors grab us and work on us and in us. They have the spiritual power to transform our minds. The abandonment of basic biblical metaphors in many translations follows naturally from [dynamic equivalence] theory, because the target languages may not use such expressions. But it is the foreignness of metaphors that is their virtue. Metaphors make us stop and think, Now what does that mean? ... The Bible creates a vast context of meaning through cross references and allusions, phrases and metaphors, echoes and types. For readers to discover this type of biblical meaning in their translations, translators of the Bible must be constantly aware of parallel passages, expressions, and images. Where this does not happen, much of the text’s actual meaning may be lost, often to be replaced by modern meanings.” —Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,” Christianity Today, Vol. 45, No. 13 (October 22, 2001), p. 28.

“Individualistic reading of the Bible is unbiblical.” —Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,” Christianity Today, Vol. 45, No. 13 (October 22, 2001), p. 28.

“In the holy scriptures you can make no progress unless you have a guide to show you the way ... The art of interpreting the scriptures is the only one of which all men everywhere claim to be masters ... The babbling old woman, the doting old man, and the wordy sophist, one and all take in hand the Scriptures, rend them in pieces and teach them before they have learned them. Some with brows knit and bombastic words, contrary to one another, philosophize concerning the sacred writings among weak women. Others (I blush to say it) learn from women what they are to teach men; and as if even this were not enough, they boldly explain to others what they themselves by no means understand. I say nothing of persons who, like myself have been familiar with secular literature before they have come to the study of the holy scriptures. Such men when they charm the popular ear by the finish of their style suppose every word they say to be a law of God. They do not deign to notice what Prophets and apostles have intended but they adapt the most incongruous passages to fit their own interpretation, as if it were a grand way of teaching—and not rather the faultiest of all—to misrepresent a writer’s views and to force the reluctant scriptures to do their will.” —St. Jerome, to Paulinus (Letter LIII), A.D. 394.

“Liberal preachers have tended to use Biblical texts as ornaments, attached to already arrived-at conclusions and convictions — a ‘resource’ rather than a ‘source.’ As an atheist put it: ‘You hear what the psychologist says, what the historian says, what the New York Times editorial writer says, and then the sermon concludes with, And perhaps Jesus said it best...’” —Martin Copenhaver, ‘The Making of a Postliberal,’ Christian Century, Oct. 14, 1998, p. 937.

“Since we ought to be satisfied with the Word of God alone, what purpose is served by hearing sermons every day, or even the office of pastors? Has not every person the opportunity of reading the Bible? But Paul assigns to teachers the duty of dividing or cutting, as if a father in giving food to his children, were dividing the bread and cutting it in small pieces.” —John Calvin

“I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters have declined and lain prostrate, theology, too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless he has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists... Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily. ... Therefore I beg of you that at my request (if that has any weight) you will urge your young people to be diligent in the study of poetry and rhetoric.” —Martin Luther, Letter to Eoban Hess, 29 March 1523. Werke, Weimar edition, Luthers Briefwechsel, III, 50.

“The use of the Old Testament as the Canon of the divine revelation of the old covenant presupposes a determinate apprehension and exposition of its contents. But in every exposition of a book there is not a mere passive reception of its contents; there takes place an adjustment of the spiritual ideas of the expositor with the thoughts and teaching contained in the book which he is to expound. Consequently the purport of the Old Testament assumed various forms, as this was developed by exposition: and this not only according to the greater or smaller intellectual capacity of the interpreters to penetrate into its course of thought and its peculiar contents, as these were to be believed and taught; but also according to the relations subsisting between the expositor’s principles in the views he takes, which are more or less under the dominion of the general spirit of his time and his people, and the purport of Scripture objectively set before him. The more the expositor is animated and borne along by the religious spirit which produced the Scriptures, just the more easily will he rightly understand and explain its sense and spirit. On the contrary, the more that the predominant spirit of the age, under whose influence the expositor is placed, or the chief interest of the kind of spiritual life which fills him, is removed from the spirit of Scripture, just the more difficult will it be for him to succeed in adjusting his ideas and views with the thoughts contained in Scripture, so that his exposition may develop the true sense of Scripture in a simple and natural manner.” —Karl Friedrich Keil, Manual of Historico-Critical Introduction to the Canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament, trans. by George C.M. Douglas, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1870), p. 378.

“Ironically evangelicalism, for all its pride in its orthodoxy, has seldom spent a great deal of time reflecting upon the creedal and confessional heritage of the church, and its scholarly representatives have proved no exception to this general rule, preferring the modern penchant for novelty over any notion that the church may indeed have gotten certain things basically right over the last two millennia. A little theological humility might serve us well here.” —Carl Trueman, The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historic and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Inverness, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications , 2005), p. 70

“We are met at every turn by the shallow objections of the Rationalists, who seem incapable of comprehending the principle on which the sayings of David [in the Psalms] respecting himself are referred to Christ. ... To interpret the sayings of David (or indeed those of any one else) ‘historically,’ i.e. solely as referring to the occasion which gave rise to them, and having no wider reference, would be to establish a canon of interpretation wholly counter to the common sense of mankind. Every one, placed in any given position, when speaking of himself as in that position, speaks what will refer to others similarly situated, and most pointedly to any one who shall in any especial and pre-eminent way stand in that position. Applying even this common rule to David’s sayings, the applicability of them to Christ will be legitimized:—but how much more, when we take into account the whole circumstances of David’s theocratic position, as the prophetic representative and type of Christ. Whether the Messiah were present or not to the mind of the Psalmist, is of very little import: in some cases He plainly was: in others, as here [Psalm 16:8-11], David’s words, spoken of himself and his circumstances, could only be in their highest and literal sense true of the great Son of David who was to come. David often spoke concerning himself: but THE SPIRIT WHO SPOKE IN DAVID, concerning Christ.” —Henry Alford, The New Testament for English Readers (1866), on Acts 2:25.

“To say then, that the Scriptures, and the things contained in them, can have no other or farther meaning than those persons thought or had, who first recited or wrote them, is evidently saying, that those persons were the original, proper, and sole authors of those books; i.e., that they are not inspired: which is absurd, whilst the authority of these books is under examination, i.e., till you have determined they are of no Divine authority at all.” —Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed (1736), part ii., chap. 7.