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Quotes About Scripture Interpretation

Quotes about Scripture interpretation from throughout Christian History.


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Rose Creek Village woods"This is the path. Walk in it" (Is. 30:21).

Justin Martyr, c. A.D. 150

Pray that above all things the gates of light may be opened to you because these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and his Christ have imparted wisdom. (Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew 7)

Athenagoras, A.D. 177

We are in all things always alike and the same, submitting ourselves to reason, and not ruling over it. (A Plea for the Christians 35)

Irenaeus, A.D. 183 – 186

[The gnostics] gather their views by reading from things that are not Scripture. To use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand. They attempt to adapt the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles to their own peculiar assertions with an air of probability ... 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, dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art of adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.

   Their behavior is like someone who takes a beautiful image of a king, constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, then separates this likeness of the man into pieces, rearranges the gems, and fits them together into the form of a dog or of a fox—and that but poorly executed. They then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed. They point to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but which have now been transferred by the latter artist, with bad effect, to the shape of a dog. In this way they exhibit the jewels and deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king's form was like, and they persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. (Against Heresies I:8:1)

Clement of Alexandria, c. A.D. 190

The first man … succumbed to pleasure, for the serpent allegorically signifies pleasure crawling on its belly, earthly wickedness nourished for fuel to the flames. (Exhortation to the Heathen 11)

Origen, A.D. 220 - 250

I am including sections of a long narrative by Origen on Scripture interpretation. These have to do with what he calls "incongruities," "impossibilities," and "absurdities" in Scripture.

I really don't think it's good to give explanations of those sections here, and I do think they're needed.

I have already written a page explaining his meaning and showing that Origen's understanding lines up with the rest of the early Christians both of his time and before his time. It's on my other site, and I've simply called the page Literal Bible Interpretation.

Please keep in mind that site is a defense of evolution, explaining that evolution can be believed by Christians. I feel that site is necessary because a good, deep look at evolution shows massive scientific evidence for it and almost none against it. (Obviously, I believe the claims of the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis it be false. In good conscience I can tell you that their claims are simply not intellectually honest; they're skewed.)

The last thing I want to do is stumble anyone. No, I'm sorry. The last thing I want to do is be dishonest or avoid the Truth. But I do not want to stumble anyone, so eventually I will move that Bible interpretation page to this site. Right now, though, it's only at that site.

It's encouraging and powerful, though, so it's worth reading. There is no defense of evolution on that page. I just let Origen present his case for a method of Bible interpretation that is sometimes symbolic because God wants it to be symbolic.

It is about God—of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that these men, filled with the Divine Spirit, mainly write. It next followed, necessarily, that they should instruct mortals by divine teaching … and then should tell us what this world is and why it was created, and from where the great and terrible wickedness which covers the earth had sprung.

   Since, then, it was the intention of the Holy Spirit to enlighten [only] those holy souls who had devoted themselves to the service of the truth with regard to these and similar subjects, the following purpose was kept in view. … For the sake those who either could not or would not give themselves to this labor and toil by which they would deserve to be instructed in … things of such value and importance, [God purposed] to wrap up and conceal … in ordinary language—under the covering of some history and narrative of visible things—hidden mysteries. (De Principiis IV:1:14)

Therefore, the narrative of the visible creation is introduced, along with the creation and formation of the first man, then the descendants which followed from him in succession … In addition, the description of battles is given in a wonderful manner … by which certain unexplainable mysteries are made known to those who know how to investigate statements of that kind.

   By an admirable discipline of Wisdom, the Law of truth, even the prophets, is implanted in the Scriptures of the Law … as a kind of covering and veil of spiritual truths. This is what we have called "the body of Scripture" so that in this way what we have called the "covering of the letter," woven by the art of Wisdom, might be capable of edifying and profiting many, while others derive no benefit. (De Principiis  IV:1:14)

But if in all instances of this "covering" the logical connection and order of the Law had been preserved, we would certainly not believe … that anything else was contained in it except what was indicated on the surface. So for that reason, Divine Wisdom took care that certain stumbling blocks—interruptions—to the historical meaning would take place. He did this by introducing into the middle [of the narratives] certain impossibilities and incongruities. (De Principiis IV:1:15)

In this way, the very interruption of the narrative might … present an obstacle to the reader, so that he might refuse to acknowledge the way that leads to an ordinary meaning, and—being excluded and barred from it—we might be called to the beginning of another way, so that … passing to a loftier and more sublime road, [God] might lay open the immense breadth of Divine Wisdom. (De Principiis IV:1:15)

Now all this, as we have remarked, was done by the Holy Spirit so that when we find that events lying on the surface can be neither true nor useful, we may be led to investigate the truth that is more deeply concealed and to a meaning worthy of God in the Scriptures, which we believe to be inspired by him. (De Principiis IV:1:15)

So that our meaning may be ascertained by the facts themselves, let us examine the passages of Scripture.

   Now who is there, pray, who is possessed of understanding, who will regard the statement as appropriate the first day, the second, and the third, in which both evening and morning are mentioned, happened without sun, moon, and stars? The first day was even without a sky! (De Principiis IV:1:16)

No one, I think, can doubt that the statement that God walked in the  afternoon in paradise and that Adam lay hidden under a tree is related figuratively in Scripture so that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it. The departure of Cain from the presence of the Lord will obviously cause a careful reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and how anyone can go out from it. (De Principiis IV:1:16)

It is very easy for anyone who wishes to gather out of holy Scripture what is indeed recorded as having been done, but what nevertheless cannot be believed as having reasonably and appropriately occurred according to the historical account. (De Principiis IV:1:16)

Let no one entertain the suspicion that we do not believe any history in Scripture to be real because we suspect certain events related in it not to have taken place. Nor [let him suppose] that no precepts of the law are to be taken literally, because we consider certain of them, in which either the nature or possibility of the case so requires, incapable of being observed. Nor [let him suppose] that we do not believe those predictions which were written of the Savior to have been fulfilled in a manner palpable to the senses. Nor that his commandments are not to be literally obeyed. We have to state in response, therefore, since we clearly hold such an opinion, that the truth of the history may and ought to be preserved in the majority of instances.

    For the passages which hold good when accepted historically are much more numerous than those which contain a purely spiritual meaning. (De Principiis IV:1:19)

I have no doubt that in numerous instances an attentive reader will hesitate between whether this history or that can be considered literally true or not and whether this or that precept should be obeyed according to the letter or not. Therefore, great pains and labors are to be employed until every reader reverentially understands that he is dealing with Divine and not human words inserted in the sacred books. (De Principiis IV:1:19)

Augustine, c. A.D. 400

In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according too a figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. For St. Paul says: Now all these things that happened to them were symbolic [1 Cor. 10:11]. And he explains the statement in Genesis, And they shall be two in one flesh as a great mystery in reference to Christ and to the Church [Gen. 2:24; Eph. 5:32]. (The Literal Meaning of Genesis ch. 1, as found in Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 41)

George MacDonald, 1850-1900

Knowing that you do not heed his Word, why should I heed your explanation of it? You do not his will, and so you cannot understand him. (The Truth in Jesus [Minneapolis, MN: BethanyHouse; 2007] p. 67)

Philip Schaff, A.D. 1890

[Paul] was quite familiar with the typical and allegorical methods of interpretation; and he occasionally and incidentally uses Scriptural arguments, or illustrations rather, which strike a sober scholar as far-fetched and fanciful, though they were quite conclusive to a Jewish reader. [Footnote references the seed vs. seeds argument in Gal. 3:16; allegorical interpretation of Hagar and Sarag in Gal. 4; and the rock in the wilderness in 1 Cor. 10.] (History of the Christian Church, vol. I, sec. 30)

Anonymous, 2013

It is not hasty reading, but seriously meditating upon holy and heavenly truths, that makes them prove sweet and profitable to the soul... It is not he that reads most, but he that meditates most, that will prove the choicest, sweetest, wisest, and strongest Christian. (from Revival List; used with permission)

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