When I was in seminary, I was taught the “proper” method of interpreting the Bible. In his new book, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition (Baker Academic, 2018), Craig Carter describes this method:
“We should interpret the Bible like any other book. The sole purpose of exegesis is to try to understand what the original author meant to communicate to the original audience in the original situation. The text has only one meaning—namely, what the original, human author meant to say. Allegorical interpretation is dangerous because it allows people to read any meaning whatsoever into the text. Maintaining a commitment to the authority of the Bible depends on not departing from the single meaning of the text discovered by historical study” (ix).
Sounds great, right? But Carter continues, “In this book, I argue that every single component of the conventional wisdom described in the above paragraph is wrong or, at least, highly misleading. I argue that we must interpret the Bible in a unique manner because it is uniquely inspired” (ix).
The subtitle of his book sums up his promise, “recovering the genius of premodern exegesis.” But Carter is not alone. In at least two other books scholars attempt to restore an appreciation for premodern exegesis: Ian Christopher Levy’s Introducing Medieval Biblical Interpretation: The Senses of Scripture in Premodern Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2018) and Keith Stanglin’s Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice (Baker Academic, 2018).
Needless to say, after reading these books my hermeneutical training was shaken, and I went back to the drawing board. Allegory isn’t bad, Origen isn’t the bogeyman, the four-fold meaning of Scripture is not something to be avoided but can be embraced. If you want a solid understanding of premodern exegesis, here are three great resources to get you started. If that’s not enough, let me leave you with one more, Scripture as Real Presence: Sacramental Exegesis in the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2018) by Hans Boersma.