The Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutic

Origen Teaching His Students - Jan Luyken (1700)

Communication involves at least two parties in its process: the communicator who delivers the message and the recipient. Both individuals must follow some basic principles for communication to occur: the communicator must express the message clearly, and the recipient must understand the communicator’s meaning in its context. If individuals follow these rules for communication, how much more significant is the practice of attempting to understand correctly what God has recorded for them in His Word? This attempt at accurate comprehension is the study of interpretation, also known as hermeneutics. Biblical fundamentalists should be committed to an accurate understanding of God’s Word, and this understanding begins with accurate hermeneutics. The purpose of this article is to discuss the grammatical-historical hermeneutic (1) by distinguishing it from the allegorical hermeneutic, (2) by tracing the history of those two methods up to the Reformation, and (3) by explaining the basic principles of the grammatical-historical method.

Grammatical-Historical vs. Allegorical

Throughout the history of the church, there have been primarily two competing schools of thought on the proper method of interpretation. One is the grammatical-historical or literal method, and the other is the allegorical method. A literal method seeks to understand the words of the passage in their normal, natural, and customary meaning within the context. This method searches for the intended meaning of the Biblical author. According to Rolland McCune, “In this method, interpretation consists in finding the meaning of words according to grammar, syntax, and cultural setting and in correlation with the rest of Scripture. In this normal or plain interpretation, the Bible is best allowed to speak for itself.”1 An allegorical method seeks to understand the words of the passage in a deeper, more obscure way; it searches for the spiritual meaning that is beyond the intent of the author. According to Roy Zuck, “Allegorizing is searching for a hidden or a secret meaning underlying but remote from and unrelated in reality to the more obvious meaning of a text.”2

The following two passages demonstrate the difference between these two hermeneutical systems. In Genesis 2:10–14, Moses recorded that a river left the Garden of Eden and formed four rivers, which he named and then gave additional details concerning them. A literal interpretation is that Moses described a physical garden and rivers, but an allegorical interpretation is that the river of Eden signified goodness, Eden signified wisdom, and the four rivers signified four character qualities.3 In Leviticus 11:7–15, Moses prescribed the food laws for Israel, in which he listed a number of animals that Israel could and could not eat. A literal interpretation is that Moses prescribed positive and negative food laws. Examples of animals that were not to be eaten were the swine (v. 7), the eagle (v. 13), and the raven (v. 15). An allegorical interpretation recognized this prohibition, but held that there was a “spiritual reference” as well. The “spiritual reference” to these birds of prey was that the Israelites should not unite with human thieves.4

History of the Two Methods

In the debate between these two interpretative systems, Origen (ca. 185–254) is a key figure in the history of the allegorical method. He recognized that the Bible often contained difficult or obscure passages and, therefore, sought for meaning on a secondary or lower level.5 He thought Scripture had three layers, similar to an individual’s three-part existence of body, soul, and spirit. Each of these layers demonstrated the increased maturity of the believer.6 Although he recognized the literal, moral, and allegorical meanings of Scripture, Origen believed that the allegorical was the most prominent.7

The literal method also had its adherents during this period. Interpreters from the school of Antioch of Syria championed the literal method but also employed typology, in which one component in the Old Testament foreshadowed its greater reality in the New Testament.8 Augustine (354–430) contributed to the hermeneutical debate with his fourfold method of interpretation. This process grew into the following steps:

  • the literal understanding,
  • the rationale of the passage,
  • the harmony between the Old and New Testaments, and
  • the allegorical meaning.9

John Cassian (ca. 360–435) put this fourfold approach into poetry, which can be translated as follows:

The letter teaches events [i.e., what God and our ancestors did],
What you believe is [taught] by allegory,
The moral [teaching] is what you do,
Where you are heading is [taught] by analogy.10

During the Middle Ages both schools of thought had representatives. In line with the allegorical method, Thomas Aquinas (1225–74), a prominent voice for the Roman Catholic Church, recognized meaning both in the words of Scripture but also in the objects of Scripture.11 On the other hand, Hugh of St. Victor (1097–1141) accentuated the literal hermeneutic but also stressed that interpretation should agree with the view held by the church. This practice, he asserted, would safeguard the church from error. As the Middle Ages progressed, the influence of the church on the interpretative process increased to the point where the Catholic Church became the official authority on interpretation.12

The Reformation saw the rise of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–64) and their opposition to the allegorical method. Although Luther first used the method, he later rejected it, holding that the interpreter should seek the literal meaning in the passage and should understand words within their context. Luther also believed that the spirituality of the individual and the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life played a role in interpretation. John Calvin also employed the grammatical-historical interpretation, in which he stressed searching for the author’s meaning and understanding of words in their context. He believed that interpretations must correlate with all of Scripture, that the interpreter should be godly, and that the Holy Spirit had a role in interpretation. The Roman Catholic Church countered this emphasis by condemning any understanding that was not from the church and stated that such interpreters deserved legal punishment.13 Gregg Allison correctly states, “Thus, a major point of separation between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation was the interpretation of Scripture.”14 Authoritative meaning for the Reformers rested in the text, whereas for the Catholic Church meaning rested in the text and the church’s proclamation about the text.

Basic Principles of Grammatical-Historical Hermeneutic

The grammatical-historical method comprises several aspects. In grammatical interpretation, the interpreter seeks to understand the meaning of the words, syntax, and grammar of a passage. Because the Biblical languages are Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, interpreters stress the importance of knowing these languages. The text of Scripture is composed of words, which necessitates comprehending their meaning, but this meaning is in the intention of the original author and the surrounding context. Seeking the author’s intent is a vital key to accurate understanding. This goal places a restraint on the interpreter in which he seeks to draw out (“exegete”) the author’s meaning instead of reading into the text (“eisegesis”) his or her own meaning. The interpreter will also consider broader contexts such as the surrounding chapters, the book, or related passages to gain further understanding.

The historical setting of a passage also provides assistance in the interpretative process. In this feature, the reader seeks to understand the text in its historical context or “life setting.” Topics that the student considers are the individuals in the text, their theological understanding, their culture, their geography, and the surrounding nations that relate to the particular context. Kevin Bauder gives a key principle related to this process when he states, “Historical passages tell us what happened, but by themselves they do not tell us what ought to happen. On the other hand, teaching passages are designed to instruct us in what to do.”15

Comparing Scripture with Scripture is another skill that is significant in Biblical understanding. This practice is founded on the truth that the Bible does not contradict itself because it is inspired by an all-knowing (omniscient) God (2 Tim. 3:16–17) who never makes mistakes. In light of these truths, the Bible is without error (John 17:17) in the original manuscripts and therefore never contradicts itself. The interpreter seeks to compare Scripture with Scripture in order to avoid holding a view in one passage that contradicts the teaching in another passage. This practice of comparison is often expressed as, “The best commentary on Scripture is Scripture itself.”

For example, one should not conclude from James 2:24 that salvation is by works when Ephesians 2:8–9 clearly denies that misunderstanding. The interpreter must reconcile the meaning of these two passages, which in this case is that salvation is by faith without works, but works are a demonstration of faith. This principle of correlation presupposes that the interpreter knows Bible doctrine. Another factor in this discussion is that clearer passages shed light on difficult passages. Bauder points out,

The trick is determining which passages are clear and which passages are obscure. In view of this difficulty, I would like to restate a principle: a passage that can mean only one thing should be used to interpret a passage that could possibly mean several things.16

Another guideline is that passages that specifically address the issue carry greater weight in interpretation than those passages that merely refer to the issue.17

A common objection to a literal interpretation by those opposed to it is that since the Bible uses figurative language, the literal interpreter is not consistent. For example, when John the Baptist refers to Christ as “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), no exegete thinks that John is saying that Christ is a four-footed animal. This argument against a literal interpretation demonstrates a misunderstanding of its method. When an author uses a figure of speech, he is drawing a colorful analogy between two objects or concepts; therefore, the reader must know the literal meaning of the objects or concepts and the analogy between them. In the example of John 1:29, one must have a literal understanding of Christ, a lamb, and the role of the lamb in the sacrificial system in order to grasp the analogy John is making. Zuck correctly states, “Figurative language then is not antithetical to literal interpretation; it is a part of it.”18

Choices are significant, and this fact is no less true in interpretation. The ramifications of past choices still affect theology to the present era. The hermeneutical choices that interpreters make affect their understanding of God and His will for them and have ramifications for future generations. Biblical fundamentalists of today would be wise to avoid the errors of past generations by meticulous application of the literal hermeneutic in their preaching and practice. Because of who God is and our desire to know Him deeply, the study of the Bible is a sacred trust. This study begins with hermeneutics.

Faith Pulpit, October, 2020. This article first appeared in the FrontLine magazine, January/February 2020. Used with Permission. To subscribe to FrontLine, go to https://fbfi.org/frontline.

Notes

1 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity (Allen Park, MI.: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 1:61.

2 Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton: SP Publications, 1991), 29.

3 Philo of Alexandria, The Allegories of the Sacred Laws, Book 1, 19 (Bohn’s edition) as found in Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 163. Terry does not hold to this interpretation but cites it as an example of an allegorical approach.

4 The Epistle of Barnabas, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. Ante-Nicene Fathers, rev. ed. (1885; repr., Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 1:143.

5 Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 36.

6 Greg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 164. Allison is drawing from Origen, First Principles, 4.1.11 (from the Latin ed.), in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, Philip Schaff, and Henry Wace, 10 vols. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 4:359.

7 Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 36.

8 Allison, Historical Theology, 165–67.

9 Ibid., 167–68.

10 John Cassian, “Cassian’s Conferences,” 14, chap. 8, in Nicene- and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, Philip Schaff, and Henry Wace, 2nd ser., 14 vols. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 11:437; as cited by Allison, Historical Theology, 169. See also Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 40. Robert Grant provides the following translation: “The letter shows us what God and our fathers did; The allegory shows where our faith is hid; The moral meaning gives us rules of daily life; The analogy shows us where we end our strife” (Robert M. Grant, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, rev. ed. [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963], 119).

11 Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 43.

12 Allison, Historical Theology, 169–72.

13 Ibid., 173–77.

14 Ibid., 177.

15 Kevin Bauder, Baptist Distinctives and New Testament Church Order (Schaumburg: Regular Baptist Press, 2012), 13–14.

16 Ibid., 15.

17 Ibid., 16.

18 Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation, 147.

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There are 15 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

Paul either accidentally misquoted or deliberately re-purposed Ps 68:18 when he cited it at Eph 4:8 ("gifts among/from men" vs. "to men"). What he wrote there is not from the Hebrew or LXX. Whatever he was doing, it wasn't grammatical-historical hermeneutics. This is a tricky passage to deal with!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Don Johnson's picture

Tyler, was Paul interpreting Ps 68.18? I don't think so.

Nice summary by Al Cole, who I once knew in a galaxy far far away

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It helps to think in terms of allusions/references. Eph 4.8 can be seen as nothing more than an indirect allusion to a text with some similar themes.

In Galatians 4:21ff Paul references Hagar and Sarah and their sons in speaking of the role of the law. Some have pointed to it as allegorical interp, but it may simply be what we now refer as an illustration

We tend to read back into passages our modern concepts of "quotation" and "citation for support," etc. in places where something more along the lines of allusion is going on.

There are certainly passages where OT is quoted as evidence to support a point, though.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

TylerR's picture

Editor

He clearly is citing or referring to Ps 68:18, and even goes on to re-interpret it (Eph 4:9-10) in a totally different way than David had it in Ps 68. This is not like, say, Hebrews where the author simply takes an OT citation about David, keeps the context, and says "this was really referring to Christ." No; in Psalm 68, Paul:

  1. wrenched it out of context,
  2. re-applies it to Christ,
  3. remakes the "captives" from vanquished enemies to Christians,
  4. gives gifts rather than receives them, and
  5. he also re-makes Yahweh's ascent to Mt. Zion as Christ's ascension (Eph 4:9-10), after which he distributed gifts to Christians, thus implicitly casting Ps 68 as a prophesy of inaugurated eschatology.

I'm fine with saying Paul didn't misquote, but instead re-purposed it. But, whatever Paul was doing, it certainly wasn't grammatical-historical exegesis!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Don Johnson's picture

I think Aaron is right, we are often reading our way of thinking into what the apostles were doing. They didn't think the same way we do, so I wouldn't say Paul "wrenched Ps 68 out of context"

The link to Part 20 of Vlach's series is here.

I think Carson and Beale have a book on this as well.

The subject is complicated, but very profitable to study.

Apostolic uses of the OT doesn't remove our responsibility to interpret Scriptures in as plain a sense as possible however. There is a plain sense understanding of Ps 68 and Paul's use of Ps 68 in Ephesians. 

Last point, on the Hagar/Sarah passage in Galatians, Mark Ward had Ken Casillas on the Bible Study Magazine podcast recently. Ken mentions this passage in the discussion. Well worth the listen.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

TylerR's picture

Editor

The NT use of the OT is very difficult, sometimes. I agree with "we are often reading our way of thinking into what the apostles were doing," but for different reasons. We want to advocate GH hermeneutics. That's good. But, we're kidding ourselves if we think that was what Paul was doing at Eph 4:8 with Ps 68:18. The most charitable thing we can say is that Paul just grabbed a convenient phrase, not intending to "quote" it or make any point from the context of Ps 68:18, and just used it for his own purposes. But, his brief exposition of the implications (Eph 4:9-10) seems to tip against that. He's explaining what the passage means! But, it isn't what David meant from the context of Ps 68:18 ...

The apostles do something similar in Acts with their repeated citations of Ps 16:10 as proof that David prophesied Messiah's resurrection.

It's fair to say no hermeneutics teacher who agrees with GH hermeneutics would ever recommend preachers use Ps 68:18 in the way Paul did in Eph 4:8.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

TylerR's picture

Editor

Paul is indeed explaining what Paul means, but he doesn't seem to be straightforwardly explaining what David meant!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

With respect to Eph 4:8, "given" is the reading of the Syriac Peshitta and may have been the source. O'Brien (PNTC) cites G. V. Smith (JETS 1975) as arguing that Psalm 68 is referring to Num 8 and 18 in recounting Israel’s history. He then specifically notes Numbers 18:6 —  “Behold, I Myself have taken your fellow Levites from among the sons of Israel; they are a gift to you, dedicated to the LORD, to perform the service for the tent of meeting.” Thus the receiving gifts and the giving of gifts refer to the gift of spiritual leaders (PNTC 292-93). That certainly fits into the theme of Eph 4. Does it do justice to Psalm 68? It depends on how Psalm 68 is being used? It might be as simple as Paul borrowing some language without intending to exegete the passage. It might be that Paul was drawing on a broader theme of Christ's supremacy over all things and then shows that the One who received now gives. 

I think many have oversimplified the NT use of the OT and in so doing have overcomplicated it. They have too few categories and then resort to stilted and obtuse explanations to fit a use into a category. It seems to me to have more categories and be able to give more straightforward explanations of NT uses. In other words, let the uses determine the categories, not the categories the uses.

I think there are a whole bunch of ways that the NT uses the OT and almost none of them are what we would consider exegesis. At times, they are simply borrowing language without any intent to reproduce meaning or use the OT is some sort of H-G way. It is doubtful that the NT authors would have had our hermeneutical categories in their minds.

In addition, there is the aspect of direct revelation and whether or not we can do what the apostles did. See for instance, John H. Walton, "Inspired subjectivity and hermeneutical objectivity," Master’s Seminary Journal 13, no. 1 (March 2002): 65‑77 or Richard Longenecker, "Can we reproduce the exegesis of the New Testament?" Tyndale Bulletin 21 (1970): 3‑38. Both are helpful on this topic, IMO.

Walton says,

The NT authors never claim to have engaged in a hermeneutical process [of the OT], nor do they claim that they can support their findings from the text; instead, they claim inspiration … For the NT authors, the response to the question “Why should I believe that” is that they got the information for their interpretation from God … If you have inspiration, you do not need historical-grammatical hermeneutics. If you do not have inspiration, you must proceed by the acknowledged guidelines of hermeneutics. (Walton 2002, 70)

To borrow a line from Marshall and Payne in The Trellis and the Vine regarding the distinction between "holding fast" and "holding out," "It's hard to imagine the Philippians having any patience with this distinction" (65). 

I wonder if the apostles or the first century Christians would have much patience with these kinds of discussions, as interesting as they are.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I agree the best thing to say here is, as you suggest, "It might be as simple as Paul borrowing some language without intending to exegete the passage." I also read O'Brien's remarks about Syriac, and found the idea a bit desperate. As I suggested, Paul uses Ps 68:18 but certainly not in the way David intended. He re-purposed it. He was also moved by the Spirit, and we aren't.

It doesn't matter to me whether first-century Christians would have appreciated the question. I only brought it up because the way Paul uses the OT makes an engaged reader raise an eyebrow and want to issue a caveat or two before wholeheartedly agreeing that GH hermeneutics is the "best way" for interpretation. Again, whatever Paul was doing there, it wasn't GH hermeneutics.

I shall toss out another grenade, while I'm at it. The apostles didn't do expository preaching a la lectio continua! But, I'm not them - so I do GH interpretation and expository preaching!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

I only brought it up because the way Paul uses the OT makes an engaged reader raise an eyebrow and want to issue a caveat or two before wholeheartedly agreeing that GH hermeneutics is the "best way" for interpretation.

I am not sure I can go with you here. Paul, as you say, had the Holy Spirit. We do not. Therefore, we have nothing but either exegesis of the text or imagination. As Bryan Chapell says, “A minister’s imagination is a poor place to discern what a biblical text means” (Chapell 2005, 302).

The apostles didn't do expository preaching a la lectio continua! But, I'm not them - so I do GH interpretation and expository preaching!

I completely agree with this. When people talk about models of biblical preaching, I chuckle a bit. The entire NT is essentially topical. The apostles addressed the topics of relevance to the audience that they were writing to. At times that is theological. At other times it is practical and relational. I fear that too much of modern preaching is answering the questions of the Ephesians or the Philippians or the Romans rather than the questions of the people in the pews. A lot of people are really good on either side of Stott's bridge but have a hard time cross it.

So while I think lectio continua is, by and large, the best way to preach, I would stop short of calling it "the biblical way" to preach.

pvawter's picture

Do we know how the apostles preached? Epistles aren't necessarily sermons, and the few sermons we have recorded in Acts seem more like synopses than full sermons. For instance, is there any way to know how or what exactly Paul preached/taught daily for 2 years in Ephesus in the school of Tyrranus?

TylerR's picture

Editor

These are a few examples of some sermons. Acts 13, in particular, seems pretty complete. But, if you claim you have ample evidence to discern "apostolic prescedent" for a host of other things (like ecclesiology), but not for mode of preaching, then you're being inconsistent.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

pvawter's picture

TylerR wrote:

These are a few examples of some sermons. Acts 13, in particular, seems pretty complete. But, if you claim you have ample evidence to discern "apostolic prescedent" for a host of other things (like ecclesiology), but not for mode of preaching, then you're being inconsistent.

Yeah, I'm aware of the existence of sermons in Acts, just not sure they represent typical sermons from a church gathering. The ones in Acts, while all being very brief, also appear to be evangelistic appeals to broad audiences in public forums. Not sure how we could extrapolate from that to a particular style of teaching/preaching in the weekly gathering of the body. Don't know what that has to do with other people's claims to apostolic precedent.

TylerR's picture

Editor

People look at Acts for apostolic precedent for many things. How to do evangelism. How to do church. How to baptize. How to accept new members. If you do that, but when you consider preaching you hit the brakes and claim we don't have enough info to say how the apostles preached (i.e. it certainly wasn't lectio continua) to draw implications for OUR preaching, then it seems pretty inconsistent.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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