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We have been considering various aspects of the early church’s doctrine of Scripture and the development of its principles of Scriptural interpretation or hermeneutics. The church in these early centuries had to defend the truth of the Word of God against many different attacks upon it, both from within and without. Without a clear doctrine of Scripture the church was very vulnerable to these attacks. Various weaknesses began to creep into the church in her view of Scripture. We have briefly discussed the beginnings of an apostolic tradition standing alongside Scripture which, in the Middle Ages, would supercede Scripture’s authority. We have also spoken concerning some of the mystical tendencies which had arisen in the church. One other element which needs to be considered in the early church’s approach to Scripture is the rise of allegory and speculative philosophical approaches to the interpretation of Scripture. 

The early church lived in the midst of a gentile culture largely shaped by Greek philosophy. Indeed the mystical and speculative Gnostic heresies, with their emphasis on a secret knowledge as the pathway to salvation, were indebted to this philosophical climate. 

The Old Testament church itself had not escaped its influence, so that we find in the days of our Lord not only the legalistic Pharisees, but also those who had adopted Greek culture and philosophy. These men, Jews particularly of the dispersion outside of Palestine, lived in the midst of a gentile world dominated by Greek thought. While the common people among the pagans may have clung to a literal belief in the old pagan myths, the intellectuals among them had turned from them to philosophical speculation. The old myths were allegorized, given mystical and symbolic interpretations apart from their literal meaning. Greek philosophy reinterpreted the myths and used them as poetic symbols of philosophical ideas. The Jews of the dispersion, and particularly those who were attracted to Greek philosophy, were not immune to this speculative philosophical culture and began to apply this allegorical method to Scripture. Those elements in the Word of God which in this age of culture seemed crude or inconsistent with modern views of morality, could be explained away. The sins of the patriarchs could be glossed over in their literal meaning and explained in philosophical terms and as illustrations of great philosophical truths. Such an approach to Scripture served to feed the sinful pride of such interpreters, for they viewed the masses as being confined to the dead letter of Scripture while they, the truly enlightened, could by the allegorical method penetrate to a much deeper understanding than the mere literal sense. It served their purpose of making Scripture more acceptable, intellectually, to the world, so that it could stand on a par with sophisticated Greek thought. 

Perhaps the most notable individual to attempt a combination of Scripture and philosophy among the Jews, was Philo who was born about twenty years before Christ and lived in Alexandria, Egypt. In brief, Philo attempted to show by his writings that the Greek philosophers whom he admired had really derived much of their ideas from the Old Testament or had been anticipated by it. He proceeded to read Greek philosophy into Scripture. The literal sense of the Scriptures he acknowledged, but represented it as primarily an accommodation to weaker minds. To get at the “truth” one had to go beneath the surface, to the eternal ideas which underlay Scripture and were symbolically expressed in its history. 

It can be well understood that in such a climate the church of the new dispensation was faced with many temptations. In the first place the gentiles as they were brought into the church came from that culture. Nor was the Jewish element of the church unfamiliar with it. By such a method of symbolically explaining Scripture, virtually every reference to wood in the Old Testament could be turned into a symbol of the cross. By using this method the Gnostic sects which confronted the church and which used this method could be fought on their own ground, with the added weight of apostolic tradition. As the church had no clear understanding of the doctrine of Scripture she was vulnerable to these strange ideas of interpretation. 

Spiritually the church stood separated from worldly philosophy, for her principle of interpretation was spiritual as she was led by the Spirit of Truth Who dwelt in the church. Yet the old man of the flesh was there also. The church fathers were not always successful in shaking off their pagan cultural background. Their lack of clarity regarding Scripture made them weak in this area. 

One of the problems was that, without a clear conception of Scripture and its principles of interpretation, the church fathers had difficulty distinguishing a spiritual interpretation from an allegorical one. What is meant by this? Allegorizing and spiritualizing a passage are sometimes confused and intermixed even in our own day. So-called fundamentalists of the dispensational type often accuse Reformed people of spiritualizing Scripture while they claim to follow the literal meaning. It is well that we understand these terms, for what the dispensationalist really accuses us of is allegory. To interpret Scripture spiritually means that one seeks the meaning of a passage by determining the mind of the Holy Spirit Who is the author of the Scriptures. This is done by comparing Scripture with Scripture, so that the Holy Spirit interprets His Own Word. Thus, something is a symbol or a type in Scripture, not because one reads a symbolic interpretation into the passage, as in allegory, but because the whole of the Scriptures makes it manifestly clear that such is the meaning and intent of the Spirit. The Spirit of Truth explains the meaning of His Own Word. In allegory, however, the meaning of Scripture is hidden behind the plain Word of God and must be uncovered. The historical passages of Scripture are treated as if they were so many parables with hidden meanings of moral or mystical significance, cryptically written philosophy accommodated to weaker minds and understandings. 

The early fathers however did not make a clear distinction between the two. Furthermore, they misread certain passages in the New Testament which they did not well understand and which seemed to them to legitimize an allegorical method. For example, the analogy which the Apostle Paul draws in Galatians 4between Hagar and Sarah, and carnal and spiritual Israel, seemed to some to validate the allegorical approach. One could then read into the Old Testament similar analogies and symbols. In doing this they misunderstood the Apostle’s meaning and the historical reality of the promise underlying it. 

The tendency toward mysticism illustrated in the Montanist movement and a weak view of the organic nature of inspiration also fostered a fondness for allegory in the early church. This method of interpretation received a strong impetus in Alexandria where the legacy of Philo lingered. The church there had had a difficult struggle with the Gnostic heretics. These heretics catered particularly to those who sought a deeper spiritual knowledge and experience. The church in Alexandria countered these heresies and sects with its own brand of “biblical” Gnosticism, or deeper insight and knowledge. To do this they resorted to extensive use of allegory in their theology. In the process they incorporated many elements from Greek thought. In its essence, it was an attempt to unite faith and reason, to bring about a synthesis of philosophy and Christian theology by Christianizing the former. This movement finds its center in Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-200). He was an officebearer in the church there until A.D. 189 when he became head of the catechetical school for about twelve years until persecution of the church there forced him to flee. Although sincere in his efforts as head of the school to bring the gospel to the people and to instruct the church there, he also taught the divine origin of Greek philosophy, such as Philo had done before him. He propounded the principle that all Scripture must be interpreted allegorically. Scripture, he believed, had hidden depths and meanings which only the spiritually elite could perceive. The plain sense of Scripture he does not reject, but regards it as the milk of the gospel, sufficient only for an elementary faith. The deeper and mystical depths of Scripture were not open to all. Scripture’s history was to be conceived of as if it were so many parables. While he did not deny the history of Scripture, he proceeded to treat it like the parables of Christ, and by his allegorical method to derive from it a “deeper” understanding. 

Clement’s views were widely received in the church as they appealed to the speculative Greek mind as well as to the mystical tendency present in the church. This allegorical method gained a strong foothold in the church through Clement’s pupils, and particularly through Origen, the most brilliant of his pupils, of whom we will have more to say next time, the Lord willing.