Satan’s tactics change. His motive never does: To cast doubt on the sufficiency of Scripture. He might mask it through allegory (the Patristics), intellectualism (the Enlightenment), secularism (the Modernists), or the all-out onslaught of multiple meanings (Post-modernism)—now mixed with racially charged innuendos and accusations. It won’t stop there.
Do you believe in the sufficiency of Scripture? At times in history, man has held strongly to this conviction. At other times, he hasn’t. You can tell when he has or hasn’t by looking at the hermeneutics of past eras. Let’s take a brief journey to see the ebbs and flows.
Satan craftily disguised his hermeneutic. Consider his first recorded words, “Did God actually say . . .” (Gen. 3:1). He didn’t deny God had spoken. He didn’t even try to change the words. Rather, he twisted God’s meaning. In effect, Satan asked not, “What do God’s words mean?,” but “What do they mean to me?” He shrewdly sought to remove God as the Author of His meaning and replace God with himself. This strategy–offering a deeper (or different) meaning than God intended–was a direct assault on the sufficiency of Scripture. This is where the problem began. Yet, Satan cleverly masked the strategy through the ages.
The Apostles’ Hermeneutic (Authorial Intent)
Let’s fast-forward to the apostles. Hermeneutically, how did they approach OT texts? Walt Kaiser rightly maintains: “[I]n all passages where the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament to establish a fact or doctrine and use the Old Testament passage argumentatively, they have understood the passage in its natural and straightforward sense.”
This was the problem Jesus, in large part, was correcting in His Sermon on the Mount. The Pharisees had created deeper (or different) meanings for OT texts in their efforts to control people. Jesus was restoring the biblical author’s intent to its rightful place of authority. The apostles, in like fashion, preserved the OT author’s intent, and then powerfully applied it to contemporary situations. The result was a proliferation of biblical, gospel truth that changed the world.
The Patristics’ Hermeneutic (Allegory)
After the apostles died, two schools of interpretation arose: the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools. The Alexandrian school was famous for its hermeneutic called “allegory.” Allegory seeks a deeper (or different) meaning than the author’s intent. Their famous teacher, Origen, taught every Scripture text was pregnant with multiple layers of meanings. To him, every text has three meanings: (1) a literal meaning; (2) an ethical (moral) meaning, and a spiritual (heavenly) meaning. Famously, he rendered the Good Samaritan passage this way:
“The traveler (Adam) journeys from Jerusalem (heaven) to Jericho (the world) and is assaulted by robbers (the devil and his helpers). The priest (the law) and the Levite (the prophets) pass by without aiding the fallen Adam, but the Samaritan (Christ) stops to help him . . .”
The Antiochene school, by contrast, insisted allegory was illegitimate and held to the literal meaning alone. They sought to discover the single meaning of the biblical author. They vigorously challenged the Alexandrians, but the impact of the Alexandrians won the day. For centuries thereafter, most Christian preaching drifted into unrestrained allegories. With no interpretive controls in place to hold it accountable, a plethora of heresies sprang forth: works-based salvation, purgatory, indulgences, and many other false teachings.
The Reformers’ Hermeneutic (A Return to Authorial Intent)
That dark environment gave birth to the brilliant light of the Protestant Reformation. The motto of the Protestant Reformation became, “Post tenebras lux,” which means, “Out of darkness, light.” That motto even was printed on the coins in Geneva where Calvin ministered. The reformers recognized all heresies were directly connected to hermeneutical practices. For instance, William Tyndale (ca. 1494-1536) was the first to translate the Greek NT into English. Listen to the hermeneutical philosophy he personally experienced in Roman Catholic universities: “[T]hey have ordained that no man shall look in the Scripture until he be noselled [nursed] in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of Scripture” (Practice of Prelates). The reformers marched lockstep in rejecting allegory and embracing the principle of Sola Scriptura, which means, “Scripture Alone.”