Representative Historical And Contemporary Approaches To Biblical Interpretation -- By: John P. Newport

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 03:2 (Spring 1986)
Article: Representative Historical And Contemporary Approaches To Biblical Interpretation
Author: John P. Newport


Representative Historical And Contemporary Approaches
To Biblical Interpretation

John P. Newport

Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost,
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

For Christians, the question of biblical interpretation is of crucial importance. It should be noted, however, that the interpretation of the Bible, both historically and in contemporary life, cannot be understood in depth without reference to philosophical and literary considerations. This realization came to me in my own personal pilgrimage. I began my serious study of the Bible and its interpretation with a doctoral major in New Testament. The emphasis was on the grammatical and historical approach. Soon I saw the importance of a broader background in literary and philosophical studies. From a historical perspective, as we shall see, biblical interpretation is closely related to an understanding of the philosophical and cultural climate of both ancient and modern times.

In this study we will note first of all some representative historical developments in interpretation. However, major emphasis will be placed on contemporary approaches to biblical interpretation.1

Representative Historical Approaches To Biblical Interpretation

The Early Church

For the first several centuries of its existence in the Western world, the Christian church lived in an intellectual world which employed the categories of Platonism and Neoplatonism. Thus the church thought that it was advantageous to expound its faith by utilizing the categories of this philosophical system.

The insight that influenced biblical interpretation was the Platonic theory that the material world, the world of experience, was not the real world but merely a shadow of reality. The real world was the world of forms or the world of ideas. Applying this theory to the problem of biblical interpretation yielded the method known as allegorical or “spiritual” interpretation.2

The allegorical approach sees the literal or surface meaning of a text as too crude or vulgar to represent the true or ultimate meaning. Rather the literal is only a figure or symbol of the true word inviting the reader to ascend by means of spiritual exegesis to a higher plane of meaning. However, the literal meaning is not to be discarded, for it represents the divine word in earthly or profane dress.3

The allegorical method thus imported fanciful meanings into the text at the expense of the plain grammatical m...

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