Many people feel that the Bible should interpret itself. At theological schools they teach that there are various forms of biblical interpretation. Theological schools (and their graduates) tend emphasize one or more styles of what they call biblical exegesis.
Has Christianity been unduly influenced by those that do not accept the Bible literally? How should one try to understand the Bible?
These are not simply academic questions.
Many, especially those in the evangelical and Church of God (COG) movements, are concerned about the misuse of allegory and other often used forms of interpretation. There are also those amongst other groups, including the Roman Catholics who share this concern.
The Roman Catholic writer D.A. Birch warned against some who believe that parts of the Bible have no literal message, higher critics, as he wrote:
Many higher critics claim these prophetic Scriptural books are only meant to impart a moral message. Those books are treated by most “higher critics” as mysteries wrapped in an enigma which contains no prophetic messages about the end times (Birch D.A. Trial, Tribulation & Triumph. Queenship Publishing, Goleta (CA), 1996, p. 438).
Actually, a great reason that there are many differing views of doctrine is precisely on the matter of biblical interpretation.
What Does the Bible Teach?
Perhaps this treatise should begin with a few quotes from the Bible on how it should be understood.
Notice what the prophet Isaiah taught:
Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message?...For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little"... But the word of the LORD was to them,
"Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little," (Isaiah 28:9,10, 13 NKJV).
In other words, the Bible was supposed to be understood based upon what it says in many places.
Notice what the Apostle Paul wrote:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NKJV).
In other words, scripture is given by God for doctrine and contains enough information that the man of God may be complete.
Notice what the Apostle Peter taught:
15...also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Thus, even back then people who would not learn from the apostles were twisting scriptures--claiming they meant something other than what they said.
Allegorizing May Have First Developed in Alexandria And Was Held By Followers of Simon Magus and Valentinus
Gnostic and pre-gnostic leaders took a different approach to biblical interpretation. They tended to accept allegory over what the Bible actually taught.
This practice may have first developed in Alexandria, Egypt. Here is some of what Eusebius said Philo (c. first century) taught about those who made some profession of Christ in Alexandria (any bolding mine):
3. In the work to which he gave the title, On a Contemplative Life or on Suppliants, after affirming in the first place that he will add to those things which he is about to relate nothing contrary to truth or of his own invention, he says that these men were called Therapeutæ and the women that were with them Therapeutrides. He then adds the reasons for such a name, explaining it from the fact that they applied remedies and healed the souls of those who came to them, by relieving them like physicians, of evil passions, or from the fact that they served and worshiped the Deity in purity and sincerity.
4. Whether Philo himself gave them this name, employing an epithet well suited to their mode of life, or whether the first of them really called themselves so in the beginning, since the name of Christians was not yet everywhere known, we need not discuss here...
7. Philo bears witness to facts very much like those here described and then adds the following account: "Everywhere in the world is this race found. For it was fitting that both Greek and Barbarian should share in what is perfectly good. But the race particularly abounds in Egypt, in each of its so-called nomes, and especially about Alexandria...
9. And then a little further on, after describing the kind of houses which they had, he speaks as follows concerning their churches, which were scattered about here and there: "In each house there is a sacred apartment which is called a sanctuary and monastery, where, quite alone, they perform the mysteries of the religious life. They bring nothing into it, neither drink nor food, nor any of the other things which contribute to the necessities of the body, but only the laws, and the inspired oracles of the prophets, and hymns and such other things as augment and make perfect their knowledge and piety."
10. And after some other matters he says:
"The whole interval, from morning to evening, is for them a time of exercise. For they read the holy Scriptures, and explain the philosophy of their fathers in an allegorical manner, regarding the written words as symbols of hidden truth which is communicated in obscure figures.
11. They have also writings of ancient men, who were the founders of their sect, and who left many monuments of the allegorical method. These they use as models, and imitate their principles"...
15...Philo's words are as follows:
16. "Having laid down temperance as a sort of foundation in the soul, they build upon it the other virtues. None of them may take food or drink before sunset, since they regard philosophizing as a work worthy of the light, but attention to the wants of the body as proper only in the darkness, and therefore assign the day to the former, but to the latter a small portion of the night.
17. But some, in whom a great desire for knowledge dwells, forget to take food for three days; and some are so delighted and feast so luxuriously upon wisdom, which furnishes doctrines richly and without stint, that they abstain even twice as long as this, and are accustomed, after six days, scarcely to take necessary food." These statements of Philo we regard as referring clearly and indisputably to those of our communion.
19. For they say that there were women also with those of whom we are speaking, and that the most of them were aged virgins who had preserved their chastity...by their own choice, through zeal and a desire for wisdom...
20. Then after a little he adds still more emphatically: "They expound the Sacred Scriptures figuratively by means of allegories. For the whole law seems to these men to resemble a living organism, of which the spoken words constitute the body, while the hidden sense stored up within the words constitutes the soul. This hidden meaning has first been particularly studied by this sect, which sees, revealed as in a mirror of names, the surpassing beauties of the thoughts"...
23. In addition to this Philo describes the order of dignities which exists among those who carry on the services of the church, mentioning the diaconate, and the office of bishop, which takes the precedence over all the others (Eusebius. Church History, Book II, Chapter XVII. Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. Excerpted from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series Two, Volume 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. American Edition, 1890. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).
So Eusebius claims that Philo (c. 1st century) reported that those in Alexandria were ascetic, had mysteries, seem to have been gnostics (ones who claimed to have special knowledge/wisdom was essential for salvation), had some promotion of celibacy, allegorized scripture, and had a bishop--and Eusebius seems to claim that they are part of the Catholic Church (see vs. 17 above)--even though the Roman Church did not have celibacy rules at that time (please see the article Was Celibacy Required for Early Bishops or Presbyters?). This seems to have been where a major departure from the true faith occurred.
Hippolytus, who also appeared to be a Roman supporter, in the early third century, wrote this about the heretic Simon Magus:
Now Simon, both foolishly and knavishly paraphrasing the law of Moses, makes his statements (Hippolytus. Refutation of All Heresies, Book VI, Chapter IV. Translated by J. H. Machmahon. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1886. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight).
Simon then, after inventing these (tenets), not only by evil devices interpreted the writings of Moses in whatever way he wished, but even the (works) of the poets. For also he fastens an allegorical meaning on (the story of) the wooden horse and Helen with the torch, and on very many other (accounts), which he transfers to what relates to himself and to Intelligence, and (thus) furnishes a fictitious explanation of them. (ibid Chapter XIV).
Irenaeus, another Roman supporter, in the second century, wrote this about the heretic Cerinthus:
1. Cerinthus, again, a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians, taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all. He represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation ((Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses, Book I, Chapter XXVI. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.ii.xxvii.html).
1. When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.” And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself. (Irenaeus. Adversus Haereses, Book III, Chapter II. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.iii.html).
Simon Magus and Cerinthus came on the scene about the same time Philo wrote about the Alexandrians.
Alexandria was also the original home of the heretic Valentinus (who later went to Rome), and it seems like some of the leaders in Alexandria adopted some of his traits. The historian HOJ Brown noted:
Alexandria was the home of the celebrated gnostic Valentinus. Valentinus adopted Philo's method of allegorical interpretation...For a time, Valentinus and his followers existed with the orthodox Christians of Alexandria. (Brown HOJ. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody (MA), 1988, p. 86).
Valentinus, even though condemned by Polycarp of Smyrna, when Polycarp visited Rome, ca. 155, was also tolerated by, and existed in, the Roman Church until at the 170s A.D. when he was finally put out after he had greatly influenced the church there.
Irenaeus wrote that both John and Polycarp strongly renounced the Gnostic heretics such as Valentinus, Cerinthus, and Marcion:
Valentinus came to Rome in the time of Hyginus, flourished under Pius, and remained until Anicetus. Cerdon, too…Marcion, then, succeeding him, flourished under Anicetus.
But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna…always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time -- a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics. He it was who, coming to Rome in the time of Anicetus caused many to turn away from the aforesaid heretics to the Church of God, proclaiming that he had received this one and sole truth from the apostles... John, the disciple of the Lord…exclaiming, "Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within." And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, "Dost thou know me?" "I do know thee, the first-born of Satan" (Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. Book III, Chapter 4, Verse 3 and Chapter 3, Verse 4).
What was one of the bad practices of the Gnostic Valentinians, Marcionites, and Cerinthians? They relied on tradition more than scripture:
1. Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions (Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. Book 1, Chapter 8, Verse 1).
1. When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, "But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world." And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself (Irenaeus. Adversus Haeres. Book III, Chapter 2, Verse 1).
Polycarp also met with Anicetus, who was then the Bishop of Rome and denounced some of what he was doing based on tradition.
Irenaeus once reported:
And when the blessed Polycarp was sojourning in Rome in the time of Anicetus, although a slight controversy had arisen among them as to certain other points…For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp to forego the observance [in his own way], inasmuch as these things had been always observed by John the disciple of our Lord, and by other apostles with whom he had been conversant; nor, on the other hand, could Polycarp succeed in persuading Anicetus to keep [the observance in his way], for he maintained that he was bound to adhere to the usage of the presbyters who preceded him. And in this state of affairs they held fellowship with each other; and Anicetus conceded to Polycarp in the Church the celebration of the Eucharist (FRAGMENTS FROM THE LOST WRITINGS OF IRENAEUS. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Excerpted from Volume I of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, editors); American Edition copyright © 1885. Electronic version copyright © 1997 by New Advent, Inc.).
In other words, even though Anicetus claimed to be relying on tradition ("the usage of the presbyters who preceded him"), Polycarp refused to go along. It should be noted that both Catholics and Orthodox believe that Polycarp was a saint.
Polycarp condemned those who accepted human traditions above the Bible--and sadly, he found that by his time, many had:
“For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist,” and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan. Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning (Polycarp. Letter to the Philippians, Chapter VII).
Notice the following:
Polycarp in his letter To the Philippians . . . invites his recipients to abandon the vanity of the multitude and their false doctrines (τάς ψευδιδασκαλίας), to return to the word that was transmitted from the beginning … (Monroy MS. The Church of Smyrna: History and Theology of a Primitive Christian Community. Peter Lang edition, 2015)
Sadly, many were not faithful to the scriptures and doctrines Polycarp was taught and did teach. But Polycarp was.
In his famous Letter to the Philippians Polycarp uses essentially a literal, not allegorical approach to understanding scripture. The simple truth is that the actual early (prior to the third century) leaders of the church (outside of Alexandria), that the Roman Catholics consider non-heretical, did not try to promote an allegorical method of understanding scripture. But the heretics did.
Demetrius is in the list of successors for the Orthodox Church of Alexandria from 188-231. During that time, Demetrius encouraged the heretic Clement of Alexander.
Yet Clement mixed gnosticism with his form of Christianity:
Unlike Irenaeus who detested it, Clement refers to secret tradition, and his affinities to gnosticism seems to go beyond mere borrowing of gnostic terms. (Brown HOJ. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody (MA), 1988, p. 87).
Clement, most famous of the Alexandrian college faculty and a teacher of Origen, boasted that he would not teach Christianity unless it were mixed with pagan philosophy (Wilkinson BG. Truth Triumphant, ca. 1890. Reprint: Teach Services, Brushton (NY) 1994, p. 47).
In other words, many scholars understand that Clement of Alexandria, who is often listed as a major leader in Alexandria held some gnostic views.
Here is some of what Clement wrote hinting that Greek philosophy was given to call Greeks:
Our book will not shrink from making use of what is best in philosophy and other preparatory instruction...
Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration. "For your foot," it is said, "will not stumble, if you refer what is good, whether belonging to the Greeks or to us, to Providence." For God is the cause of all good things; but of some primarily, as of the Old and the New Testament; and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring "the Hellenic mind," as the law, the Hebrews, "to Christ." Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ...
The Greek preparatory culture, therefore, with philosophy itself, is shown to have come down from God to men...
And our much-knowing gnostic can distinguish sophistry from philosophy, the art of decoration from gymnastics, cookery from physic, and rhetoric from dialectics, and the other sects which are according to the barbarian philosophy, from the truth itself. And how necessary is it for him who desires to be partaker of the power of God, to treat of intellectual subjects by philosophising! And how serviceable is it to distinguish expressions which are ambiguous, and which in the Testaments are used synonymously! (Clement of Alexander. The Stromata, Book I, Chapters 1,5,7,9)
Scripture has called the Greeks pilferers of the Barbarian philosophy...Accordingly, the Barbarian philosophy, which we follow, is in reality perfect and true...
As, then, philosophy has been brought into evil repute by pride and self-conceit, so also gnosis by false gnosis called by the same name (Clement of Alexander. The Stromata, Book II, Chapters 1,2,11)
It should be noted that Clement claimed that he only kept the true portions of philosophy of the Greek and not untrue portions--but that is essentially what all Gnostics claimed.
And Clement influenced Origen. In the early-mid second century Polycarp of Smyrna warned of the "vanity of many' (Polycarp. Letter to the Philippians, Chapter VII)and that what was developing with Marcion, Clement, and then Origen influence.
It may be of interest to note that in the second century, allegory was condemned by the Roman supporting Irenaeus (who is a Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox saint):
11 ... But if any one, "doting about questions," do imagine that what the apostles have declared about God should be allegorized, let him consider my previous statements, in which I set forth one God as the Founder and Maker of all things, and destroyed and laid bare their allegations; and he shall find them agreeable to the doctrine of the apostles, and so to maintain what they used to teach (Irenaeus. Adversus haereses, Book III, Chapter 12, Verse 11. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).
It was also opposed by Nepos of Arsinoe in the third century. Here is what The Catholic Encyclopedia reported:
An Egyptian bishop, Nepos, taught the Chiliastic error that there would be a reign of Christ upon earth for a thousand years, a period of corporal delights; he founded this doctrine upon the Apocalypse in a book entitled "Refutation of the Allegorizers" (Chapman, John. "Dionysius of Alexandria." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 14 Aug. 2008 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05011a.htm>.)
Thus, a treatise against the allegorists was written when it became apparent that allegorists were gaining influence. Here is more about that:
During his stormy episcopate, Dionysius still found time and opportunity for theology, and thus turned to account the great learning he had acquired under Origen, and developed during his headship of the School of Alexandria. This School, as I have already said,was suited rather to the intellectual elite than to ordinary minds. Even among those who read, there were many who accepted neither the profundity of Origen's Gnosticism, nor the subtleties of allegorical interpretation.Their great light was a bishop named Nepos, and his book called The Refutation of the Allegorists … Its subject was the Millennium and Nepos set himself to prove that as described in the Apocalypse it was not allegorical, but was to be an actual fact. (Duchesne L. Early History of the Christian Church: From Its Foundation to the End of the Third Century, Volume 1, 4th edition. Imprimatur Josephus Ceppetelli Longmans, Green & Co., 1912, p. 349)
Korikan, chief of the Millenarians. (Ibid, pp. 349-350)
Dionysius disagreed with Nepos. After Nepos' death, Korakion pushed for literal understanding. However, Dionysius used what has been called “higher criticism” to turn Korakion away from accepting the Book of Revelation as valid, the millennium, etc. (Chapman, J. Dionysius of Alexandria. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909). Yes, 'higher criticism' was used to say that the Book of Revelation could not be inspired, and sadly, Korakion fell for it.
Later, we see that the allegorists were also opposed by Lucian of Antioch in the third century:
Lucian of Antioch...The opposition to the allegorizing tendencies of the Alexandrines centred in him. He rejected this system entirely and propounded a system of literal interpretation ... (Healy P.J. Transcribed by Joseph P. Thomas. Lucian of Antioch. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York).
Dr. Williston Walker thus describes:
With Antioch of this period is to be associated the foundation of a school of theology by Lucian, of whom little is known of biographical detail, save that he was a presbyter, held aloof from the party in Antioch which opposed and overcame Paul of Samosata, taught there from c. 275 to 303, and died a martyr's death in 312.... Like Origen, he busied himself with textual and exegetical labors on the Scriptures, but had little liking for the allegorizing methods of the great Alexandrian. A simpler, more grammatical and historical method of treatment both of text and doctrine characterized his teaching (as quoted in Wilkinson BG. Truth Triumphant, ca. 1890. Reprint: Teach Services, Brushton (NY) 1994).
The third century scholar Origen, as much as perhaps any one individual, probably contributed to doctrinal confusion concerning his methods of biblical interpretation.
Origen was so influential that the current Pope stated (bolding mine):
In our meditations on the great figures of the ancient Church, today we will get to know one of the most outstanding. Origen of Alexandria is one of the key people for the development of Christian thought. He draws on the teachings he inherited from Clement of Alexandria, whom we reflected upon last Wednesday, and brings them forward in a totally innovative way, creating an irreversible turn in Christian thought.
He was a true teacher; this is how his students nostalgically remembered him: not only as a brilliant theologian, but as an exemplary witness of the doctrine he taught...
In substance, he grounded theology in the explanations of the Scriptures; or we could also say that his theology is the perfect symbiosis between theology and exegesis. In truth, the characterizing mark of Origen's doctrine seems to reside in his incessant invitation to pass from the letter to the spirit of the Scriptures, to progress in the knowledge of God.
And this "allegoristic" approach, wrote von Balthasar, coincides precisely "with the development of Christian dogma carried out by the teachings of the doctors of the Church," who -- in one way or another -- accepted the "lesson" of Origen. In this way, Tradition and the magisterium, foundation and guarantee of theological research, reach the point of being "Scripture in act" (cf. "Origene: il mondo, Cristo e la Chiesa," tr. it., Milano 1972, p. 43). (Benedict XVI. Homily On Origen of Alexandria. Vatican City. Zenit - April 25, 2007).
Origen was so influential that Protestant scholars have stated:
In Origen (ca. 185-253/254) we encounter one of the great minds and probably the most influential theologian of the early Christian era (Froehlich K. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church. Fortress Press, Phil, 1985, p. 16).
The problem with relying on scholars such as Origen, is not that they never understand any doctrine correctly, but that their approach to scripture is too distant to be accepted by those that believe that the Bible is normally intended to be understood literally.
For one example, the Bible many times records that God is angry (e.g. Deuteronomy 1:34,37;3:29, etc.). And while most of those of us in the “literalist” camps believe that God actually does get angry, scholars like Origen do not believe that. Origen, for example, wrote:
But when we read either in the Old Testament or in the New of the anger of God, we do not take such expressions literally, but seek in them a spiritual meaning, that we may think of God as He deserves to be thought of (Origen. De Principiis, Book II, Chapter IV, Verse 4. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 4. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight).
And while there may be a spiritual meaning, there clearly is a literal meaning. Now contrast this with what Theophilus of Antioch wrote c. 180 A.D. and it becomes clear that there were major differences in scriptural interpretation between Antioch and Alexandria (which were similar to the differences between Asia Minor and Rome):
if I call Him Fire, I but mention His anger. You will say, then, to me, “Is God angry?” Yes; He is angry with those who act wickedly, but He is good, and kind, and merciful, to those who love and fear Him (Theophilus of Antioch. To Autolycus, Book 1, Chapter III. Translated by Marcus Dods, A.M. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885, p. 90).
Origen also taught against a literal interpretation for most of the first few chapters in Genesis. Here is one such passage from him:
Who is foolish enough to believe that, like a human farmer, God planted a garden to the east in Eden and created in it a visible, physical tree of life, that tasting its fruit with bodily teeth would receive life; and that one would have a part in good and evil by eating the fruit from the appropriate tree? (Origen. On First Principles, Book III, Chapter III, Verse 1. Translated by K. Froehlich. Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church. Fortress Press, Phil, 1985, p. 63).
It is my belief that the above passage from Origen is probably why I was taught in Catholic school not to take rely on the accounts in Genesis.
Actually, Satan originated the allegorizing approach in Genesis. Satan persuaded Eve (Adam went along with Eve, though he apparently did not believe Satan; see 1 Timothy 2:14) to ignore the literal word of God for the "spiritual benefits" that she could attain. Notice:
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, "Has God indeed said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden'?" And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.' " Then the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:1-6).
Satan explained that there were spiritual benefits that were greater than the actual word of God--thus allegorizing away the literal word of God was an early teaching of Satan.
Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that Origen (who lived during the time of the Smyrna Church Era) and those like him apparently were part of the blasphemous synagogue of Satan that Jesus warned about that would become apparent during the time of the Smyrna Church Era.
Origen was different from the true Smyrnaeans as he accepted as canonical books later not accepted as part of the New Testament canon, as well as at least one book that was denounced during Origen's time by Serapion of Antioch (the falsely called "Gospel of Peter", see Origen. Commentary on Matthew, Book X, Verse 17. In Roberts and Donaldson). Origen even called the weird book The Shepherd of Hermas as "divinely inspired" (Cited in Metzger, Bruce M. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1987, p.140). Additionally, Origen referred the falsely titled Epistle of Barnabas as if it were scripture (Origen. Contra Celsus, Book I, Chapter 63). And interestingly the falsely titled Epistle of Barnabas (which originated in Alexandria probably about two decades before Origen was born) suggests an allegorical interpretation of the Bible (see Apostolic Fathers, Epistle of Barnabas, 10:1-3, 1885 translation by Charles H. Hoole).
Origen also claimed that those who take the Bible literally, fall into heresies:
Many, not understanding the Scriptures in a spiritual sense, but incorrectly, have fallen into heresies….
But not a few also of the more simple of those, who appear to be restrained within the faith of the Church, are of opinion that there is no greater God than the Creator, holding in this a correct and sound opinion; and yet they entertain regarding Him such views as would not be entertained regarding the most unjust and cruel of men.
Now the reason of the erroneous apprehension of all these points on the part of those whom we have mentioned above, is no other than this, that holy Scripture is not understood by them according to its spiritual, but according to its literal meaning (Origen. De Principiis, Book IV, Chapter I, Verses 7,8-9. Excerpted from Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 4.Edited by Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson. American Edition, 1885. Online Edition Copyright © 2005 by K. Knight).
Origen was mostly into allegory, which basically meant that he felt that he could interpret passages to mean almost anything.
Notice what he taught about those who held to a literal millennium:
Origen (PG 13, 66) who, in good faith, contented himself with deriding the simpletons “who refused to work intellectually, preferring to dream in joy and peace; interpreting Scriptures literally, after the manner of the Jews.” (Bagatti, Bellarmino. Translated by Eugene Hoade. The Church from the Circumcision. Nihil obstat: Marcus Adinolfi. Imprimi potest: Herminius Roncari. Imprimatur: +Albertus Gori, die 26 Junii 1970. Franciscan Printing Press, Jerusalem, p.90)
One is not a simpleton who believes what the Bible literally teaches. Here is an interesting admission about Origen from The Catholic Encyclopedia:
Persuasive skill rather than bare reasoning, and evident sincerity and an ardent conviction were the means Origen used to make converts...A letter of Origen...In it Origen exhorts...his pupils to bring the intellectual treasures of the Greeks to the service of Christian philosophy (Leclercq, Henri. St. Gregory of Neocaesarea. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 13 Nov. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07015a.htm>)
So, Origen basically bullied his ideas across and wanted pagan philosophy mixed with what he claimed was the Christian faith. And sadly, many of Origen's ideas have still been accepted after his death.
The Catholic Encyclopedia also noted:
Origen has recourse too easily to allegorism to explain purely apparent antilogies or antinomies. He considers that certain narratives or ordinances of the Bible would be unworthy of God if they had to be taken according to the letter, or if they were to be taken solely according to the letter. He justifies the allegorism by the fact that otherwise certain accounts or certain precepts now abrogated would be useless and profitless for the reader: a fact which appears to him contrary to the providence of the Divine inspirer and the dignity of Holy Writ. It will thus be seen that though the criticisms directed against his allegorical method by St. Epiphanius and St. Methodius were not groundless, yet many of the complaints arise from a misunderstanding (Prat F. Origen and Origenism. Transcribed by Anthony A. Killeen. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
Even though the Roman Catholic Church has major concerns about the allegorical methods that Origen and others have used, it was influenced greatly by Origen (and so were the groups that descended from it) and Origen is still praised by Catholic leaders.
The Catholic Encyclopedia noted this about Origen:
During his lifetime Origen by his writings, teaching, and intercourse exercised very great influence. St. Firmilian of Caesarea in Cappadocia, who regarded himself as his disciple, made him remain with him for a long period to profit by his learning (Eusebius, "Hist. eccl.", VI, xxvi; Palladius, "Hist. Laus.", 147). St. Alexander of Jerusalem his fellow pupil at the catechetical school was his intimate faithful friend (Eusebius, VI, xiv), as was Theoctistus of Caesarea in Palestine, who ordained him (Photius, cod. 118). Beryllus of Bostra, whom he had won back from heresy, was deeply attached to him (Eusebius, VI, xxxiii; St. Jerome, "De viris ill.", lx). St. Anatolus of Laodicea sang his praises in his "Carmen Paschale" (P. G., X, 210). The learned Julius Africanus consulted him, Origen's reply being extant (P. G., XI, 41-85). St. Hippolytus highly appreciated his talents ( St. Jerome, "De viris ill.", lxi)…After his death his reputation continued to spread (Prat F. Origen and Origenism. Transcribed by Anthony A. Killeen. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
And while he did get some doctrines correct, since he had widespread influence, he contributed to the corruption of those who claimed to follow Christ to not take the Bible literally.
And it may be because of Origen’s influence that the Catholic Church later discouraged people from reading the Bible who did not know Latin—the Roman Catholic Church has claimed that only those educated enough to understand Latin had a chance to properly understand the Bible.
Perhaps it should be mentioned here that many Protestants do understand that the Alexandrian school that was ran by Clement and later Origen was heretical. Notice what Dr. John Walvoord, who taught at the Dallas Theological Seminary for fifty years and is not part of the Church of God, wrote about it:
In the last ten years of the second century and in the third century the heretical school of theology at Alexandria, Egypt advanced the erroneous principle that the Bible should be interpreted in a nonliteral or allegorical sense. In applying this to the Scriptures, they subverted all the major doctrines of faith...the Alexandrian school of theology is labeled by all theologians as heretical...(Walvoord, John F. The Prophecy Handbook. Victor Books, Wheaton (IL), 1990, pp. 9,15).
Hence, all should realize that accepting the teachings of allegorists can lead to the acceptance of heresy in many cases.
A specific problem with allegorization is that "allows" the allegorizer to use his or her own imaginations to justify just about anything--and this is often true in the prophetic realm. The Bible warns about this:
16 Thus says the Lord of hosts:
"Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you.
They make you worthless;
They speak a vision of their own heart,
Not from the mouth of the Lord. (Jeremiah 23:16)
Allegorizers seem to most often value their opinions than the mouth (or Word) of God.
The Catholic saint and 'doctor of the church,' Jerome, blasted the allegorizers, like Origen:
"Again, [Origen] tampers with the true meaning of the narrative by a false use of allegory, multiplying words without limit; and undermines the faith of the simple by the most varied arguments." - Saint Jerome. Letter LI. 4.
"...the mist of allegory is dispelled by a clear explanation." - Saint Jerome. Letter LXXXIV. 2.
The condemnation that there were those that overly allegorized scripture is not new.
How to Understand the Bible
Origen, the higher critics, and many theologians, simply do not want people to believe that they can rely on what the Bible says.
While many others disagree with that, for this article, I thought that I would quote from the writings of the deceased Church of God leader, Herbert W. Armstrong.
He was essentially a biblical literalist.
How, then, can you understand the Bible? First, surrender to God and the authority of his Word. Forsake your ways, your thoughts and those of the society in this world. Then do as God says and begin to study the Bible.
Study to find truth and to show yourself approved unto God (II Tim. 2:15). Ask God for guidance and to reveal the true meaning. Then believe God. Believe his Word. Accept its plain and simple meaning just as you would accept any other book in which you had confidence. Be careful to prove all things (I Thess. 5:21). Be cautious. Avoid jumping to hasty conclusions or taking things carelessly for granted.
And above all, do not try to interpret the Bible. The Bible interprets itself.
Be open-minded and teachable. Read without prejudice. But be careful to prove all things. Search the Scriptures to see whether those things you read are so. Briefly about the actual method of Bible study: The right spirit, the right attitude, being willing to be corrected and reproved—that is the main thing.
Try studying the Bible on your knees. Pray as you study. Pray for guidance and for understanding. You'll be surprised at the results. If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God (Jas. 1:5).
Then remember that the verses, as we find them divided in the most-used translations, are merely for convenience. Some verses are only part of a single sentence. Be sure you get the whole thought.
It is often necessary to read the whole chapter, or even the whole book, to rightly understand any one verse in its proper setting. Be sure you get the meaning intended in that chapter and book.
And then study a subject at a time. Find every passage in the Bible relating to that subject. To do so, use a good concordance and the marginal references in your Bible. All the truth on any subject does not necessarily appear in one place or one text. But you'll get it here a little and there a little as Isaiah said (Isa. 28:9-10).
Furthermore, the Bible provides the proper approach toward the acquisition of all knowledge that is discoverable by man. No one can be properly educated except by and through it (Armstrong H.W. How to Understand the Bible. Plain Truth. November-December 1983, pp. 1-2).
Thus, Herbert Armstrong differs from Origen in that Herbert Armstrong taught that people should read the Bible, that the Bible should interpret itself, and that people would pray to God for more wisdom in understanding the Bible.
More on the Bible Says
Of course the opinions of men, are simply the opinions of men. In this section, we will primarily list what the Bible teaches about interpreting it:
2 Timothy 3:16-17:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (NKJV unless otherwise specified).
The above passage says that all scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for doctrine (teaching) so that those led by God can be complete. Thus, the Bible is to be the source of doctrine.
the Scripture cannot be broken
The above shows that scripture can be relied upon.
Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.
The above shows that those called of God are sanctified (set apart) by apparently accepting and living the by truth, which is the word of God.
But Jesus answered him, saying, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.' "
Thus Jesus is showing how important the word of God is.
"Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just drawn from the breasts? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little."
Thus, the proper way to understand and interpret the Bible is to let it interpret itself, by looking in different passages to understand, look here a little and there a little.
However, some trying to simply do that will not understand, as Isaiah also points out:
Yet they would not hear. But the word of the LORD was to them, "Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little," That they might go and fall backward, and be broken. And snared and caught.
Now, God knew that most would not fully understand, and He established a plan of salvation to take that into accout (see Universal Offer of Salvation: There Are Hundreds of Verses in the Bible Supporting the Doctrine of True Apocatastasis).
Some have claimed that Isaiah 28 does not support looking 'here a little, there a little' for establishing doctrine. Yet, that view overlooks the rest of the scriptures, which says we are to rely on God's word for truth. Those who do not believe Christians are to look 'here a little, there a little' tend to rely more on human tradition and human reasoning to establish doctrine.
But human reason is not always enough and the Bible does discuss that as well:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God
But those who wish to be led by God can have the Spirit of God, and ask God for understanding. As James 1:5 teaches:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him
The Bible encourages searching the Scriptures to verify doctrine. Look at what Luke records about those in Berea Acts 17:11:
These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.
So it is important to note that God expects His people to be fair-minded, receive the word with readiness, and to search the Scriptures daily to determine whether or not teachings are so.
Note that none of these passages state that it is necessary to understand allegory vs. typology, or that one has to be highly educated by worldly institutions to understand anything.
See also Tradition and Scripture: From the Bible and Church Writings.
Some Rules for Bible Literalists
Originally, I included seven steps of interpretation that the Jewish rabbis developed for biblical interpretation in a draft of this article. I removed them because the emphasis, while not necessarily inaccurate, simply did not seem to be helpful for most who profess Christianity.
Instead I decided to list my own set of seven simple rules. Presuming you first and always pray for understanding:
Rule one, read what a biblical passage says.
Rule two, assume it has a literal meaning.
Rule three, if the literal meaning makes no sense, presume you do not understand it or it is part of a story or has allegorical implication.
Rule four, if the passage is a story or allegory, search the rest of scripture to see if there is any indication as to what symbols in the story mean. Let the clear clarify the unclear.
Rule five, even if there is an apparent a literal or allegorical meaning, consider that there probably is a spiritual application beyond the literal.
Rule six, remember that the Bible does not contradict itself, so pray for understanding regarding difficult to understand passages.
Rule seven, since God is love, consider that somehow the passage somehow will reflect God imparting to humans knowledge of His plan and His love, even if it is not always clear.
Even though I do not often agree with the Catholic doctor Augustine, he seemed to basically agree with my approach when he wrote:
Accordingly, in regard to figurative expressions, a rule such as the following will be observed, to carefully turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love. Now, if when taken literally it at once gives a meaning of this kind, the expression is not to be considered figurative.
If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man," says Christ, "and drink His blood, ye have no life in you." This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us. Scripture says: "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink;" and this is beyond doubt a command to do a kindness. But in what follows, "for in so doing thou shall heap coals of fire on his head," one would think a deed of malevolence was enjoined. Do not doubt, then, that the expression is figurative; and, while it is possible to interpret it in two ways, one pointing to the doing of an injury, the other to a display of superiority, let charity on the contrary call you back to benevolence, and interpret the coals of fire as the burning groans of penitence by which a man's pride is cured who bewails that he has been the enemy of one who came to his assistance in distress. In the same way, when our Lord says, "He who loveth his life shall lose it," we are not to think that He forbids the prudence with which it is a man's duty to care for his life, but that He says in a figurative sense, "Let him lose his life"--that is, let him destroy and lose that perverted and unnatural use which he now makes of his life, and through which his desires are fixed on temporal things so that he gives no heed to eternal. It is written: "Give to the godly man, and help not a sinner." The latter clause of this sentence seems to forbid benevolence; for it says, "help not a sinner." Understand, therefore, that "sinner" is put figuratively for sin, so that it is his sin you are not to help (Augustine. Translated by J.F. Shaw. On Christian Doctrine, Book III, Verses 15-16. Excerpted from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series One, Volume 2. Edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D. American Edition, 1887. Online Edition Copyright © 2004 by K. Knight).
Use of Allegory Distorts God's Plan and Prophetic Understanding
However, sadly, even though Augustine claimed that using allegory lead to not understanding God's ways, he and and the Roman Catholic Church decided that allegory was the way they would look at the Book of Revelation (which they often term the Apocalypse):
St. Augustine has perhaps more than any one else helped to free the Church from all crude fancies as regards its pleasures. He explained the millennium allegorically and applied it to the Church of Christ on earth (Van Den Biesen C. Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkler. Apocalypse. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I. Copyright © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
St. Augustine was for a time, as he himself testifies (De Civitate Dei, XX, 7), a pronounced champion of millenarianism; but he places the millennium after the universal resurrection and regards it in a more spiritual light (Sermo, CCLIX). When, however, he accepted the doctrine of only one universal resurrection and a final judgment immediately following, he could no longer cling to the principal tenet of early chiliasm. St. Augustine finally held to the conviction that there will be no millennium...The struggle between Christ and His saints on the one hand and the wicked world and Satan on the other, is waged in the Church on earth; so the great Doctor describes it in his work De Civitate Dei. In the same book he gives us an allegorical explanation of Chapter 20 of the Apocalypse...at all events, the kingdom of Christ, of which the Apocalypse speaks, can only be applied to the Church (De Civitate Dei, XX 5-7). This explanation of the illustrious Doctor was adopted by succeeding Western theologians, and millenarianism in its earlier shape no longer received support (Kirsch J.P. Transcribed by Donald J. Boon. Millennium and Millenarianism. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume X. Copyright © 1911 by Robert Appleton Company. Online Edition Copyright © 2003 by K. Knight. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York).
This is sad as the early church truly taught the millennium, multiple resurrections, and the future kingdom of God, yet Augustine was now teaching directly against them in the 5th century--even though he originally held to them!
Since the time of Augustine, many of those associated with the Roman Catholic Church have done away with much of the meaning of the Book of Revelation by way of allegorizing its actual meaning.
In the second century, Irenaeus, however, condemned those who would do that:
If, however, any shall endeavour to allegorize [prophecies] of this kind, they shall not be found consistent with themselves in all points, and shall be confuted by the teaching of the very expressions [in question]. For all these and other words were unquestionably spoken in reference to the resurrection of the just, which takes place after the coming of Antichrist, and the destruction of all nations under his rule; in [the times of] which [resurrection] the righteous shall reign in the earth, waxing stronger by the sight of the Lord: and through Him they shall become accustomed to partake in the glory of God the Father ...And in the Apocalypse John saw this new [Jerusalem] descending upon the new earth. For after the times of the kingdom, he says, "I saw a great white throne, and Him who sat upon it, from whose face the earth fled away, and the heavens; and there was no more place for them." And he sets forth, too, the things connected with the general resurrection and the judgment, mentioning "the dead, great and small."(Adversus Heres. Book V, Chapter 35, Verses 1,2 ).
Since the Roman Catholic Church declares that both the second century Irenaeus and the fifth century Augustine are important saints, which one is wrong on this matter? Which holds the belief of the early church? Should you believe the Bible over traditions of men?
(An article of possible interest may be Did the Early Church Teach the Millennium?)
In modern times, many false teachers and false prophets have misled many because they have allegorized parts of the Bible that should not be "spiritualized away" (see also Why Be Concerned About False and Heretical Leaders?).
It is obvious to me that the allegorical method and other interpretations by "higher" critics leads to placing the Bible at a lower level than human reason. Since the Bible makes it clear that God ways are above ours, I cannot accept that type of interpretation is superior, or is what is intended by the God.
It is because of people like Origen (and scholars who act like him) that people believe that you can prove anything from the Bible. Well, if one discounts the literal meaning at whim, this is certainly true. Sadly, this has been done by many false and heretical leaders.
Thus, I believe that the general method of Bible literalists (such as by Herbert Armstrong) is the wisest for most people most of the time. The Bible does interpret itself, and while there is a place for allegory, most verses should be accepted at face value for their literal interpretation.
If this were the case, then there would be much more agreement amongst those that profess Christ.
Of course, having the correction understanding about the role of tradition would help that as well. An article of related interest may be Tradition and Scripture: From the Bible and Church Writings.
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