Origen and Augustine offered Christ-centered controlling parameters, too. Nevertheless, when they stepped away from the objectivity of the human author’s intent, it was a slow, slippery slope into subjectivism. The end-game of subjectivism nearly always leads us to the same terrible place: An inherent or outright denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. Their proposal is a dangerous one—indeed, one we cannot accept—and the record of church history is the strongest evidence of where that road leads. One can see, easily, how this interpretive laxity opens “Pandora’s Box” of pregnant meanings. We don’t need better controls on typological references; the Holy Spirit made certain, through the NT apostles, the typological references He desired us to have; rather, we need a (re)commitment to the true and principal meaning of the human author through whom God chose to speak.
For centuries, theologians have grappled with the tension between the human author(s) and the Divine Author of Scripture. Historically, this has caused the Church great turmoil, leading some to see two, three, four, or even more meanings in every text. As we near the end of our interpretive (exegetical) process, we must consider the question, “What is the relationship between the human author and Divine Author in Scripture?” Space limits a full-orbed historical survey, but perhaps the following historical sweep will put the discussion in its proper context.
Philo, a Jewish philosopher born in 20 BC, suggested every OT text had two meanings. He felt the Hebrew scriptures were too culture-specific. He attempted to make the OT more palatable to a Greco-Roman culture by broadening the meaning of passages, especially the Levitical laws. A two-meaning system developed: (1) the literal meaning and (2) a hidden one.
Origen (late 2nd century) suggested every text had three meanings. He was influenced heavily by Platonism and attempted to synthesize three streams of thought: (1) the human author; (2) Platonism thinkers; and, (3) the Divine Author. He developed a tri-partite structure: (1) the literal (human author’s meaning); (2) the ethical (moral meaning); and, (3) the heavenly (Divine meaning). Origen did apply two controlling parameters: Every interpretation must align with the analogy of Scripture and the rule of faith.
Augustine (late 4th/early 5th century) reached further, suggesting every text had up to four (or more) meanings. His words:
“When, again, not some one interpretation, but two or more interpretations are put upon the same words of Scripture, even though the meaning of the writer intended remained undiscovered, there is no danger if it can be shown from other passages of Scripture that any of the interpretations put on the words is in harmony with Scripture.”
Augustine developed a system in which a text might have as many as four meanings: (1) historical (what has been done); (2) aetiologial (why it was done); (3) analogical (consistency between OT & NT); and, (4) allegorical (Divine meaning). Augustine, too, applied two controlling parameters: Any interpretation must align with Jesus’ command to “love God and love your neighbor.”
Augustine’s influence trickled down through the medieval age. Thomas Aquinas formalized it into what became known as the Quadriga, which the Catholic church employs with some regularity even today. Aquinas posited four meanings: (1) literal (human author’s meaning); (2) tropological (moral); (3) anagogical (future fulfillment of divine promises); and, (4) allegorical (Divine meaning). Over time, the literal meaning began to be usurped by the other three. Extra-scriptural traditions began to take root from the “non-literal” meanings (indulgences, purgatory, works-salvation, etc.), resulting in a two-source authority: Scripture and tradition. Oberman and Ward, respectively, track this progression in their excellent works. What we find is the Divine Author’s “non-literal” meanings–which were subject to the interpreter–began to overshadow the human author’s meaning.
The Protestant Reformers rescued us from such polyvalent meanderings, in large part, by restoring the human author’s intent to its rightful place of objectivity. For instance, Martin Luther said of Origen:
“That is why Origen received his due reward a long time ago when his books were prohibited, for he relied too much on this same spiritual meaning, which was unnecessary, and let the necessary literal meaning go. When this happens Scripture perishes and really good theologians are no longer produced. Only the true and principal meaning which is provided in the letters can produce good theologians.” – Martin Luther, Answer to the Hyperchristian . . . 1521 AD
Their battle cry was Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), which was nothing less than a return to the authority of the human author’s intent. The human author’s intent was much easier to substantiate through (1) his grammar and (2) his historical context. The so-called Divine Author’s intent(s) had been abused and weaponized to keep people (as well as the human author) in subjection. The Reformers recognized: Only the objective truth of the human author’s intent could cut through the subjective, oftentimes fanatical, conjectures. Sadly, the revival of the human author’s meaning was short-lived.