P2 – An overview of 3500 years of Bible interpretation

Introduction and Review                                                                                                            Yesterday we began considering the 3500 year history of Bible interpretation by noting the following major periods: Early Jewish periods, Apostolic or New Testament eras, Patristic age, Middle Ages and the Reformation.  Today we aim to continue and conclude this thumbnail sketch so as to inform and equip the reader to understand how current interpretations being touted in the 21st century age are in many cases not new.  Furthermore, knowing the history of Bible interpretation can enable Bible students to better understand how they can exercise greater fidelity to the Lord in the study of the scriptures.

1. The post-reformation period (1650-1800 A.D). Following the Reformation, we see the increasing emphasis upon rationalism and a de-emphasis upon revelation. Protestant theologians would come to adopt reason and philosophical investigation as part and parcel of Bible intrepretation – i.e protestant scholasticism.  It was during this period that the movement called “The Enlightenment” arose in reaction to the ongoing Protestant and Catholic wars ranging over Europe. European scholarship came to embrace reason above revelation, and thus the Bible came under increasing scrutiny and came to be regarded by enlightenment thinkers and critics as a religious book of men. Roy Zuck in his book: ‘Basic Bible Interpretation”, page 51, notes regarding the enlightenment rationalism that arose: “This movement stressed that the human intellect can decide what is true and false. The Bible then, is true if it corresponds to man’s reason, and what does not correspond can be ignored or rejected.”

2. The 19th century. Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard list three main names in defining this period: Julius Welhausen who championed the radical critical theory that regarded the Pentateuch as a byproduct of several editors or redactors (called by the shorthanded title “J.E.D.P theory). The second figure, F.C Baur, was a New Testament scholar that assigned second century dates for the Gospels and claimed that the New Testament was a fragmented book that was divided between Jewish and Greek Churches. The third major name, Adolf Von Harnack, claims the the whole New Testament teaches that the central message of Jesus was about the Fatherhood of God, love of ones fellow man and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

In addition to those men, movements and other men would come to shape how the wider scholarly worlds of Europe and America would come to develop an ever increasing critical stance towards the scriptures. Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleirmacher’s epochal systematic theology: “On Religion, Speeches to its Cultural Despisers”, written in 1799, could be viewed as marking the unofficial beginning of modern liberal theology. As other Old and New Testament scholars began to apply 18th century rationalism and the then newly developed theories of evolution from Charles Darwins’ “Origin of the Species” in the 19th century, the Bible came to be increasingly viewed as a book of religion, fraught with errors, a book of men and not the Word of God. Thankfully God had men such as D.L Moody and the Old Princeton theologians B.B Warfield, Charles Hodge and Baptist Theologians such as James P. Boyce, John Broadus and John A.T Robinson to hold the line on important matters such as Biblical inerrancy and the reliability of the Biblical text. It would be these developments throughout the 19th century what would set the stage for the 20th century.

3. The 20th century. All three authoritative references cited above take the twentieth century and divide it into the following sub-divisions. We have the period leading up to World War I with the disputes between liberalism and fundamentalism. The second subdivision takes the interpreter from World War I to World War II with the rise of such figures as the New Testament critic Rudolf Bultman, Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth and German Higher Criticism.

Certainly worthy of mention is the explosive movements of Pentecostalism (1890’s-early 20th century), the Charismatic movement (1960’s, 70’s, 80’s) and Third wave movements (1980’s onward) that would influence hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide.  Regardless of what readers may think of these movements, their influence on how various groups interpret and read the scripture cannot be ignored.  Despite excesses and errors, such movements have brought into focus the Person and work of the Holy Spirit in the contemporary church, as well as the elevation of experience in the interpretation of scripture.

In considering other developments that would follow from World War II, we see a rough sketch of the third major period or Post WWII period. We discover that the Fundamentalism of the earlier part of the 20th century would undergird the rise of Evangelical scholarship in the 1950’s and 60’s.  The above mentioned Pentecostal, Charismatic and Third Wave periods would parallel the rise and growth of the Evangelical movements, at times intersecting and at other times squaring off against one another.

Certainly the rise of several other movements such as the “Death of God” movement in the 1960’s and the emergence of post-modernism in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s would see increasing attacks on the text of scripture. For centuries Bible interpreters had located the meaning of the text in identifying the intent of the author.  For radical critics, knowing how the text affects the reader is the preferred method, hence leading many times to a reading back of modern categories into the text of scripture.  Perhaps no other century in church history has witnessed as many seismic shifts and attacks on the scriptures as the 20th century.  Nevertheless, like the previous centuries, the scriptures are indeed the anvil upon which every hammer of men has been bent, broken and discarded.

4. 21st century. This writer is going to close out this section, being that it was written after the above authorities (Ramm’s book was written in 1970; Zuck’s Book in 1991 and Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard’s work in 1993).  Having graduated seminary in 2002, this author has witnessed the gradual rising of such movements as the New Perspective on Paul, that attempts to reinterpret the historic doctrine of justification by faith and suggests a new reading of Paul and 1st century, 2nd Temple Judaism. Also too we have seen increasing attempts between some Evangelical groups and Roman Catholics to merge into a consensus.  The radical critics and the New Atheism movement attempts to discredit the scriptures by old arguments dressed in new garments.  Thankfully there has been a continuing resurgence in books and articles on the need for a solidly Biblical theology that shows the unity of the scripture.  Preachers such as John MacArthur, John Piper and others have shaped an entire generation of Bible students to study the scriptures “one verse at a time”.

Conclusion                                                                                                                                     As this blogger pastors, preaches and teaches the scriptures, there is no doubt we are living in a fast paced age.  Nonetheless, it is the conviction of this writer that the scriptures interpreted in context and taken as the authoritative Word of God can offer the most up to date solutions. Only the scriptures can operate as the voice of God and the words of God to the world of men about the God/man Jesus Christ who died, was buried, raised from the dead, ascended and will soon return.


About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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