The best way for a Christian to listen to a sermon is with both an open heart and an open mind. We want God to engage our hearts through preaching in a way that changes us, that further transforms us into His Son’s image through conviction of sin and reminding of our state of forgiveness by grace. But we also want to cognitively understand what is being said so that we can follow the preacher’s line of thought. As we comprehend the message, our minds help us know whether or not our hearts agree with the preacher’s claims. It’s then that the Holy Spirit can use those thoughts to convict and comfort.
But what’s happening on the other side of the pulpit? How a preacher decide week after week what to share with us from Scripture’s text? How does he know what a Bible passage means and, subsequently, what that means for us as believers? I think understanding this approach on a basic level will increase your appreciation of preaching and improve your listening skills.
Preachers and teachers have used many methods over the centuries to interpret the Bible. But not all of those methods are valid. Some don’t treat the Bible fairly as an historical work of literature. Others discount the Bible as a product of divine origin. Those would be what we call “liberal” – or sometimes “higher-critical” – interpretive methods.
The most common conservative method used today, one that developed during the 17th and 18th centuries following the Protestant Reformation, is known as “grammatico-historical” interpretation. That’s a big word, so it helps to break it down into its two parts.
1. Grammar – This method assumes that the original biblical manuscript languages – mostly ancient Hebrew and Greek, with a little Aramaic in the Old Testament – were real, living languages that people groups used in a period of history to communicate real, logical thought. This means that we must learn all we can about those ancient languages to understand how the Bible uses them to communicate truth.
The amount of knowledge we have about those ancient languages and how to read them is staggering – more than enough to understand Scripture. As historians discover more information about these languages, it helps us become better aware of greater nuances of textual meaning. This is one reason why some Bible translations go through updates and revisions every few years.
2. History – This method also assumes that the Bible’s authors wrote according to the cultural, political, and religious norms of their historical periods. To know what a Bible passage truly means, then, we must do all we can to gather data about the Bible authors’ ancient cultures. As with the issue of ancient languages, we learn more and more with each discovery.
When a theologian puts those two considerations together, it’s much more likely that a correct interpretation of the Bible will result. This is because the interpreter treats the text fairly as a work of linguistic, historical literature. It assumes that the authors really did mean what they wrote. There is no hidden message behind the words or between the lines. Of course, the Bible uses many literary styles to communicate its truths. And as we interpret the Bible literally, those literary styles become evident. We can tell the differences between a straightforward historical narrative (these events happened to these people in this year) and a work of poetic metaphor.
Sadly, this has not always been the case. Prior to the Reformation, the authority on Bible interpretation lay mainly in the hands of Roman Catholic monasteries and seminaries. Illiteracy across Europe and the Near East was rampant. The common person depended on the literate and educated to explain the meaning of God’s Word. Knowledge about the Bible’s ancient languages and cultures was largely forgotten.
One of the most influential Catholic theologians of this age was Thomas Aquinas. Based on the writings of others, he developed a four-fold interpretive approach that in many ways still influences Bible interpretation today. Aquinas did believe in a literal sense of the Bible’s text. But he also found meaning in figurative interpretation. He read the Bible figuratively in three ways.
1. Allegorically – Behind the literal meaning of the text there was a hidden, secondary meaning. In other words, beyond what the text says, what “else” is it also trying to tell us? Today we might rephrase this approach as: “What does this text mean to me?” The number of allegorical meanings behind any one passage is thus nearly limitless.
2. Tropolocially – A better way of understanding this term is as the “moral” meaning. How is this text teaching us how to live? The problem with this approach is that it denies there are passages that simply relate events without attempting to communicate moral truth. So a phrase such as “Jesus went up to Jerusalem” might also be trying to tell us about the “moral Jerusalems” to which we must ascend as believers.
3. Anagogically – “Ana-what?!” This interpretation relates to what the passage allegedly tells us about God’s (and thus our) eternal glory. Aquinas stated it as showing us “the end of our strife.” How does the text point us to our future, perfected life in heaven? Again, it didn’t matter whether or not the passage even attempted to explain anything about such matters.
Today we would say those three figurative approaches “over-spiritualize” the text. But wait: Isn’t the Bible a spiritual book? Of course! But that doesn’t mean we can legitimately impose a super-spiritual meaning onto a passage. So these figurative methods treat the Bible unfairly, forcing it to deliver meanings its authors did not intend.
The real danger in avoiding interpretation that uses grammar and history is that it puts the reader in the driver’s seat to determine meaning. It places us in authority over the Bible, rather than submitting ourselves to the Bible’s inherent authority.
There’s another thing about the grammatico-historical method: It takes work! We can’t simply base our interpretation on what feels right or speaks most helpfully into our particular situations. The careful interpreter wants all the available facts about a passage before arriving at the correct conclusion.
Finally, I wouldn’t want anything I’ve written here to discourage anyone from becoming more adept at Bible interpretation. If there’s one thing we must learn from the Reformation, it’s that all believers can and should understand the Bible’s true meanings. Being able to carry a Bible written in your language to church, to work, or into the marketplace is a tremendous blessing, one that our spiritual ancestors paid for with their lives. We should consider it no burden to continually improve our ability to know and believe what the Bible says – and why we can know it for certain.
Note: Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) affirms the “grammatico-historical” interpretive method – and only this method. I recommend learning about the Chicago Statement to see who was involved in its creation and publication.