Parables In The Gospels: History Of Interpretation And Hermeneutical Guidelines -- By: Robert L. Plummer

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 13:3 (Fall 2009)
Article: Parables In The Gospels: History Of Interpretation And Hermeneutical Guidelines
Author: Robert L. Plummer

Parables In The Gospels: History Of Interpretation And Hermeneutical Guidelines1

Robert L. Plummer

Robert L. Plummer is Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has served in missionary assignments of varying length in China, Israel, Trinidad, Ghana, Malaysia, and Turkey. Dr. Plummer’s articles have appeared in Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, New Holman Bible Dictionary, The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, and other publications. He is the author of Paul’s Understanding of the Church’s Mission: Did the Apostle Paul Expect the Early Christian Communities to Evangelize? (Paternoster Press, 2006) and 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible (Kregel, forthcoming) from which this article is taken.

About one-third of Jesus’ teaching is in parables. So influential are these parables that even people who have never read the Bible use expressions drawn from them (e.g., “the good Samaritan” or “the prodigal Son”). Though widely known, Jesus’ parables are also notorious for their frequent misinterpretation. In this article, I will begin by defining “parable” and giving a brief historical survey of how the parables have been interpreted. Then, in the second half of the article, I will offer some guidelines for properly interpreting parables.

Defining “Parable”

When asked the definition of a parable, most Christians might respond, “An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” The dictionary definition is “a short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.”2 While these definitions are correct, the most fundamental component of a parable is that there must be a comparison.3 For example, in the parable of the hidden treasure the kingdom of heaven is compared to a treasure (“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,” Matt 13:44). The Greek word parabolē which underlies our English word “parable” has a broad range of meaning. It can refer to proverbs, similes, figurative sayings, stories, etc. For our purposes, however, we will limit our discussion primarily to the story parables that are found in the Bible.

History Of Interpretation

At this point, we will briefly survey the way parables have been interpreted throughout church history. This summary will be helpful in two regards: (1) In seeing the interpretive missteps commonly taken throughout history, the reader will be f...

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