The Dark Age and the Medieval Period (c. 300-1517 AD)
Although literal, normal interpretation did exist during this period, the prevailing form of interpretation was that of allegorical, which was strictly employed by the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman church’s interpretive method is described well in the following:
…‘The literal sense is that which the author intends, but God being the Author, we may expect to find in Scripture a wealth of meaning.’ An example of how the fourfold sense was worked out during the Middle Ages is Gen. Gen. 1:3, ‘Let there be light.’ Medieval churchmen interpreted that sentence to mean (1) Historically and literally—An act of creation; (2) Morally—May we be mentally illumined by Christ; (3) Allegorically—Let Christ be love; and (4) Anagogically—May we be led by Christ to glory.13 (https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/revelation/introduction/the-rise-of-allegorical-interpretation.html)
Historian Earle Cairns identified Augustine’s importance to the Roman Catholic church in that “in his discussion of how man is saved, Augustine so emphasized the church as a visible institution with the true creed, sacraments, and ministry that the Roman church considers him the father of Roman ecclesiasticism.” (Christianity Through the Centuries, 142). The theology of the Roman church grew from their mishandling of Scripture, and Augustine’s theological writings.
Renald Showers has written about Augustine’s influence.
“Augustinian’s allegorical amillennialism became the official doctrine of the church. Premillennialism, or chiliasm as it was taught for the first two centuries in Antioch, went underground. Some aspects of premillennialism were even branded as heretical. The Roman Catholic Church strongly advocated and maintained Augustine’s amillennial view throughout the Middle Ages.” (Quoted by Dr. Woods, http://slbc.org/sermon/protestant-reformation-004/#transcriptlink)
In turn, this led to the adoption of what can only be called Replacement Theology, and the abandonment of Israel. Various other doctrinal errors grew from their mishandling of Scripture such as the superior position of the Pope, and the authority of the church itself. The Roman church basically became an oppressive institution that held the masses in the grip of fear while the clergy, even up to the Pope, lived morally depraved and lavish lifestyles. When Luther took his vow of poverty he shunned such a life, but seeing the abuses compared to his position helped to drive Luther’s desire to see the church reformed.
Luther, the Reformer
The purpose for Luther’s posting of his theses was not to cause a split in the Roman church, but to call the church to reform, and become more biblical. Amid his studies, Luther came to understand that Scripture must be understood in its literal sense. He wrote, “[The Scriptures] are to be retained in their simplest meaning whenever possible, and to be understood in their grammatical and literal sense unless the context plainly forbids.” [Quoted by Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation: A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 1991), 45.]
Elsewhere, Luther wrote a similar statement, “‘Each passage has one clear, definite, and true sense of its own. All others are but doubtful and uncertain opinions.’” [quoted in Frederic W. Farrar, History of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1961; reprint, 1886), 327.] Furthermore, Luther attempted to live by his own words. Luther stated, “I have grounded my preaching upon the literal word; he that pleases may follow me, he that will not may stay.’” [Quoted in George N. H. Peters, The Theocratic Kingdom, 3 vols. (New York: Funk & Wagnall’s, 1884; reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1952), 1:47]
Luther put his faith in Scripture to the point that when he was brought before the Council, the famous Diet of Worms, he refused to recant, making his most famous statement, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” (http://www.luther.de/en/worms.html)
For Luther, the necessity of not only providing the word of God to the common folk but also teaching them to interpret it led him to formulate rules for interpreting it. Another great Reformer, John Calvin, has been called the “founder of the grammatico-historical exegesis,” and was convinced that “[t]he Word of God is inexhaustible and applicable to all times, but there is a difference between explanation and application, and application must be consistent with explanation.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, II:12)
Their adherence to a literal hermeneutic led to the conclusions to which Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox arrived. Their conclusions are known as the “five solas,” which is a term used to designate five great foundational rallying cries of the Protestant reformers. They are as follows: “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone); “Sola Gratia” (Grace Alone); “Sola Fide” (Faith Alone); “Solus Christus” (Christ Alone); and Soli Deo Gloria” (To God Alone Be Glory).” (https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/qna/fivesolas.html)
The website Monergism.com explains the “five solas” very well. [They] “were developed in response to specific perversions of the truth that were taught by the corrupt Roman Catholic Church.” The Catholic Church taught that tradition, the declarations of the Pope, and the official doctrines of the Church formed the foundation for faith. The Reformers declared sola scriptura, Scripture alone. Sola gratia, grace alone, was the answer of the Reformers to the Catholic Church’s assertion that salvation was grace plus our merit, and the merits of the saints before us. The Reformers argued that faith alone saves in opposition to the Catholic Church’s teaching that salvation is by faith and works. Catholicism taught that we are saved by Christ’s merits as well as those of the saints, but the Reformers insisted that we are saved by the merits of Christ alone. Finally, the Reformers refused to allow anyone other than God alone to receive the glory through Jesus Christ. His glory will not be shared with Mary, the saints, or anyone else.
These are the great treasures recovered by the Reformers. And all of them stem from the recovery of the literal interpretation stemming back to the disciples, Apostles, and the school of Antioch. However, the story doesn’t end there because the Reformers did not consistently apply literal interpretation to the prophetic Scripture.
Dispensationalism is the product of the consistent application of the interpretive method reasserted by the Reformers. We will discuss this more fully next time.
Previous Article in the Series